G.V. Plekhanov

Belinski and Rational Reality

(Part 1)

Lucifer: Was not thy quest for knowledge?
Cain: Yes, as being the road to happiness.
– Byron, Cain, a Mystery.

Chapter I

“THE ROOT question of Hegel’s influence upon Belinski’s world outlook has been posed by most Russian critics, but it has been analyzed by none with the necessary thoroughness ‘through a comparison of Belinski’s well-known views with their original sources,” says Mr. Volynski: “No one has analyzed attentively enough Belinski’s esthetic ideas in their original content, nor subjected them to impartial judgment on the basis of a definite theoretical criterion.” (A. Volynski, Russian Critics, p.38.)

All of this is by no means surprising because prior to Mr. Volynski’s appearance among us, there existed no “real” philosophy, nor was there any “real criticism.” If some of us did happen to know something, we knew it merely in a confused, disorderly way. By way of compensation, as of now, thanks to Mr. Volynski, we shall all rapidly set ourselves in order and enrich our meager Stock of learning. As a guide Mr. Volynski is quite reliable. Observe, for instance, how neatly he solves “the root question of Hegel’s influence upon Belinski’s world outlook.”

“Maturing and developing, in part under the influence of Stankevich’s circle, in part independently by digesting his impressions of Nadezhdin’s articles, Belinski’s thought swiftly attained its peak, and its highest pitch of enthusiasm, For Belinski, the Schelling period had already concluded by 1837; and Hegel’s philosophy, as it reached him through talks with friends, through magazine articles and translations, occupied a central place in his literary and intellectual pursuits. And so it is precisely here, and most strikingly, that there emerges Belinski’s inability to draw independent logical conclusions concerning political and civil questions in which philosophic theorems are involved; systematic thought was beyond Belinski’s powers. He was astounded by Hegel’s doctrine, but he lacked the strength to think this doctrine through, in all its several parts and several conclusions.

“Hegel charmed his imagination, but provided no impetus to Belinski’s mental creativeness. For the complete analysis of the basic propositions of idealism, one had to arm oneself with patience. It was necessary to call a halt for a while to flights of fancy and of emotion, so as to give them new wings later on. But Belinski was incapable of calmly poking and prying into the truth – and his whole Hegelianism, together with his infatuation with Schelling, as expounded by Nadezhdin, was bound in the end to degenerate into thought that was inharmonious, shot through with logical mistakes, admixed with queer dreams of a conciliationist-conservative bent.” (ibid., p.90.)

Mr. Volynski was thus greatly shocked by Belinski’s temporary conciliation with reality; and he is able to explain it in one way only, namely, Belinski grasped Hegel poorly. To tell the truth, this explanation is not exactly new. It may be found in the memoirs (My Past and Thoughts) of A.I. Herzen, as well as in the recollections of I.S. Turgenev and even in a letter by N.V. Stankevich to Neverov, written almost immediately after the publication of Belinski’s famous articles on the Battle of Borodino and on Menzel, Critic of Goethe. What is Mr. Volynski’s own is composed of snide comments concerning the ignorance of Belinski coupled with subtle hints anent the unquestionable and incomparable superiority of his own (Mr. Volynski’s) Prometheus of Our Times.

At first glance the above explanation reproduced by Mr. Volynski – and it circulates in several versions – appears quite plausible. Hegel proclaimed: Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig (what is real is rational); and on this basis Belinski rushed to proclaim as rational, and by this token, sacred and untouchable, the whole rather unpretty Russian reality of his times; and he started passionately to attack everybody who was not satisfied with it. The articles in which Belinski expressed these conciliationist views were “nasty” articles, as the liberal Granovski said moderately and accurately at the time. But Hegel bears no responsibility for them; he put a special meaning into his doctrine of rational reality and this special meaning escaped Belinski who neither knew the German language nor had the capacity for “pure thought.”

Later on, and especially under the influence of his moving to Petersburg, he saw how cruelly wrong he had been; he perceived the true attributes of our reality and cursed his fatal straying into error. What can be more simple than all of this? Sad to say, however, this explanation simply explains nothing.

Without entering into an examination of all the different variants of the foregoing explanation, let us take note here that our present-day “advanced” patriae patres (honor-laden sociologists included) look upon Belinski’s articles on Borodino and on Menzel through the same eyes as the biblical patriarch must have regarded the “youthful errors” of his prodigal son. Magnanimously forgiving the critic-genius his “metaphysical” strayings, these “advanced” persons are loath to refer to them, in accordance with the folk-saying, “Whosoever recalls the past, stands to lose an eye.” But this does not deter them from hinting, relevantly or irrelevantly, that they, the “advanced” persons, who while still virtually in diapers grasped all the philosophic and sociological truths; they hint, I say, that they understand perfectly the whole profundity of those strayings into error and the whole horror of that “fall” into which Belinski was led by his misplaced and imprudent – but happily, only temporary – passion for “metaphysics.”

Betimes young writers are also reminded of this “fall,” particularly those who tend to be disrespectful toward the Crowned Ones of literature, those who dare doubt the correctness of our “advanced” catechism, and who turn to sources abroad in order better to clarify for themselves the problems which are agitating modern civilized humanity. These young writers are told: “Watch out! Here’s an example for you ...”

And in some instances, young writers do take fright at this example, and from being disrespectful turn into being respectful; and they mockingly pay their respects to “foreign philosopher caps” and prudently “make progress” in accordance with our home-developed “recipes of progress.” In this way, Belinski’s example serves to shore up the authority of our “honor-laden sociologists.”

According to one such sociologist, namely Mr. Mikhailovski, Belinski was nothing all his life but a martyr to the truth. As an art critic he was remarkably gifted. “Many years shall pass, many critics shall be replaced, and even methods of criticism, but certain esthetic verdicts of Belinski shall remain in full force. But in return only in the field of esthetics was Belinski able to find for himself a virtually uninterrupted sequence of delights. No sooner did an esthetic phenomenon become complicated by philosophic and politico-moral principles than his flair for truth betrayed him to a greater or lesser extent, while his thirst (for truth) remained unslaked as before, and it is just this which made of him a martyr to the truth, the martyr that emerges in his correspondence.” (See the article Proudhon and Belinski, with which Mr. Pavlenkov saw fit to adorn his edition of Belinski’s works.)

Since the flair for truth generally betrayed Belinski each time an esthetic phenomenon became complicated by philosophic and politico-moral principles, it goes without saying that the period of Belinski’s infatuation with Hegel’s philosophy falls under this same general law. This entire period in Belinski’s life obviously rouses nothing in Mr. Mikhailovski’s breast except a feeling of compassionate sympathy toward the “martyr to the truth,” coupled, perhaps, with a feeling of indignation toward “metaphysics.” Compassionate sympathy walks here arm in arm with great respect. But this respect pertains exclusively to Belinski’s truthfulness with regard to the philosophic and “politico-moral” ideas expressed by him at the time; Mr. Mikhailovski sees nothing in them except “rubbish.”

Substantially this view on Belinski’s period of temporary conciliation is identical with the view of Mr. Volynski cited previously. The difference is this, that in Mr. Mikhailovski’s opinion the conciliation “came from under the spell of Hegel,” whereas in Mr. Volynski’s opinion, borrowed by him from Stankevich, Herzen, Granovski, Turgenev and others, Hegel had nothing whatever to do with it. But both Mr. Volynski and Mr. Mikhailovski are firmly convinced that Belinski’s conciliationist views are erroneous from top to bottom.

However authoritative are the opinions of these two stout fellows – of whom the one is as potent in sociology as the other is in philosophy – I take the liberty of not agreeing with them. I think that precisely during this conciliationist period of his development, Belinski expressed many ideas which are not only fully worthy of a thinking being (as Byron once somewhere said), but which merit to this day the utmost attention of all who seek a correct standpoint in order to evaluate the reality around us. To prove this theoretical approach, I must begin from somewhat afar.

Chapter II

In 1764, in a letter to Marquis de Chauvelin, Voltaire predicted the impending downfall of the old social order in France. “It will be a beautiful tapage [a French word meaning both a show and an uproar],” he added. “The youth are lucky; good things are in store for them.” Voltaire’s prediction was fulfilled in the sense that the “tapage” really turned out a thing of beauty. But it may be said with assurance that it did not turn out to the liking of those who lived to see it and who belonged to the same tendency as did the sage of Ferney. This sage never spared the “mob”; yet, toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, it was primarily the “mob” that staged the “tapage” and carried it through.

True enough, for a while the conduct of the mob corresponded fully to the views of “respectable people,” i.e., the enlightened, liberal bourgeoisie. But little by little the mob flew into such a temper, became so disrespectful, impertinent and full of vigor that “respectable people” fell into despair. And perceiving themselves conquered by the wretched, unenlightened mob, they sincerely started to doubt the powers of reason, in whose name Voltaire and the Encyclopedists had worked; that same reason which, it seemed, ought to have placed at the head of events none but its own torch-bearers and representatives, i.e., the self-same enlightened bourgeoisie.

Beginning with 1793 faith in the powers of reason declined noticeably among all those who felt themselves driven from their positions and overwhelmed by the unexpected and fearsome triumph of the “mob.” The ensuing events brought a train of interminable wars and overturns, wherein naked military force triumphed .more than once over what all enlightened people had held the most indisputable of rights. This could only feed the disillusionment that had set in. It was as if the events were mocking the demands of reason.

And so we observe, toward the close of the Eighteenth Century, that faith in reason falls away completely; and although in the days of the Consulate and the Directory, the so-called ideologists continue, out of habit, to extol reason and truth (la raison and la verité), they no longer do so with the same verve as before; the former enthusiasm is gone, and so is their influence. The public refuses to listen to them. The public, like Pontius Pilate, smiling skeptically, now wants to know, “And what is truth?”

Madame de Stael, who knew intimately the French intelligentsia of that era, states that the majority (la plupart des hommes), taking fright at the terrible march of events, lost all inclination toward self-perfection and “overwhelmed by the might of the accidental, ceased to believe altogether in (the power of human capabilities.” (De la Litterature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales, 1800, Intro, p.xviii.) (On page iv of the same introduction she expresses herself even more categorically: “The contemporaries of a revolution,” she says, “frequently lose all interest in the search for truth. So many events are decided by force, so many crimes are absolved by success, so many virtues stigmatized with obloquy, so many unfortunates abused by those in power, so many generous sentiments subjected to mockery, so many swinish acts of selfishness philosophically glossed over, that all of this drains away the hopes and confidence of people who remained most loyal to the cult of reason.”)

This disillusion with the powers of reason, far from confining itself within France’s borders, found its expression elsewhere as well. In Byron, for instance. Byron’s Manfred thus declares philosophy:

To be of all our vanities the motliest,
The merest word that ever fool’d the ear
From out the schoolman’s jargon ...

Byron regards contemporary socio-political events as the senseless and cruel whims of “Nemesis,” a goddess inimical to humans. “Nemesis” is just another name for accident. But at the same time Byron’s pride is roused against the sway of this blind force. The pathos of Manfred, as Belinski would have phrased it, consists precisely of the mutiny of a proud human spirit against blind “fate,” of his urge to bring under his control the blind forces of nature and history. Manfred solves this task in part by means of magic. Obviously such a solution is attainable only in the realm of poetic fancy.

The Third Estate’s reason, or more accurately the bourgeoisie’s level of understanding – a bourgeoisie that was striving to free itself from, the yoke of the old order – failed to pass the harsh historical test that fell to its lot. It proved bankrupt. The bourgeoisie itself became disillusioned in reason.

But while individuals, even though in considerable numbers, could rest content with such disillusionment and even flaunt it, such a state of mind was absolutely ruled out for the class as a whole, for the entire ci-devant Third Estate, in the historical situation at the time.

By their swiftness, by the large-scale and capricious changes they wrought, the political events impelled the social activists at the close of the Eighteenth and the start of the Nineteenth centuries to doubt the powers of reason. These same events, in their subsequent movement, were bound to give a new impulse to the growth of social thought, bound to evoke new attempts by thinking people to discover the hidden fountainheads of social phenomena.

In France, during the period of the Restoration, the age-long tug of war between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy (lay and clerical) was resumed with new vigor and under new socio-political conditions. In this struggle each side found itself in need of at least some ability to foresee events. And although the huge majority of the combatants pinned their trust, as is the custom, on their “good horse sense,” and “the school of hard knocks,” nevertheless, among the bourgeoisie, then still full of youthful vigor, there appeared, already at the beginning of the 1820’s, not a few gifted individuals who sought by means of scientific foresight to triumph over the blind forces of accident.

These attempts evoked debates over the need to create social sciences. Likewise these attempts gave rise to many remarkable figures in the field of historical science. But a scientific investigation of phenomena is the province of nothing else but – reason. In this way, the very course of social evolution acted to resurrect the faith in reason, even if it did pose new tasks before reason, tasks unknown, or at any rate, little known to the “philosophers” of the Eighteenth Century. That century’s reason was the reason of the “Enlighteners.”

The historical tasks of the Enlighteners consisted in evaluating the given, then existing, historically inherited set of social relations, institutions, and concepts. This evaluation had to be made from the standpoint of those new ideas to which the new social needs and social relations had given birth. The urgent need at the time was to separate as quickly as possible the sheep from the goats, “truth” from “error.” Therewith it Was immaterial to learn whence a given “error” came, or how it originated and grew in history. The important thing was to prove it was an “error,” and nothing more.

Under the heading of error everything was included that contradicted the new ideas, just as everything that corresponded to the new ideas was acknowledged to be the truth, eternal, immutable truth.

Civilized mankind has already traversed more than one epoch of enlightenment. Each epoch possesses, of course, its own specific peculiarities, but they all have one family trait in common, namely: An intensified struggle against old concepts in the name of new ideas, which are held to be eternal truths, independent of any “accidental” historical conditions whatsoever. The reason of the Enlighteners is nothing else but the level of understanding of an innovator who shuts his eyes to the historical course of mankind’s evolution, and who proclaims his own nature to be human nature generally; and his own philosophy – the one and only true philosophy for all times and all peoples.

It was just this abstract understanding that suffered shipwreck thanks to the “tapage” at the close of the Eighteenth Century. This “tapage” disclosed that in its historical movement mankind obeys, without comprehending, the irresistible action of some sort of hidden forces which ruthlessly crush the powers of “reason” (i.e., the powers of abstract understanding) each time “reason” runs counter to these hidden forces.

The study of these hidden forces – which first appear in the guise of blind forces of “accident” – henceforth became a more or less conscious aim of every scholar and thinker who was occupied with the so-called moral and political sciences. Saint-Simon gave this the clearest expression. “The science of man, to the present day, has never been more than a conjectural science,” he says. “The aim I have set myself in this memoir is to affix to this science the seal of the science of observation.” (Memoire sur la science de l’homme).

The Eighteenth Century ignored history. Henceforth everybody is seized with history. But to study a phenomenon historically means to study it in its evolution. The standpoint of evolution becomes gradually dominant in philosophy and in the social sciences of the Nineteenth Century.

As is well-known, the evolutionary viewpoint produced especially rich fruits in German philosophy, that is, in the philosophy of a country which was a contemporary of the advanced European states only in point of theory (in the person of its thinkers). Germany was therefore then able, free from the distractions of practical struggle, to assimilate in tranquility all of the acquisitions of scientific thought, and painstakingly to investigate the causes and consequences of social movements taking place in the West. (In den Westlichen Ländern, as Germans often used to say in those days.)

The events that occurred in Prance toward the end of the Eighteenth Century met with strong sympathy on the part of advanced Germans right up to the year 1793. That year scared out of their wits the overwhelming majority of these people and drove them into doubts about the powers of reason, just as was the case with the enlightened French bourgeoisie. But German philosophy, then flowering luxuriantly, was quick to see the ways in which it was possible to gain victory over the blind forces of accident.

“In freedom there must be necessity,” wrote Schelling in his System des Transcendetalen Idealismus. Schelling’s book was published exactly at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century (in the year 1800). Schelling’s formula means that freedom can manifest itself only. as the product of a certain, necessary, i.e., lawful, historical development; and it therefore follows that the study of the course of this lawful development must become the first duty of all true friends of freedom. The Nineteenth Century is rich in all sorts of discoveries. Among the greatest is this view on freedom as the product of necessity.

What Schelling started, Hegel finished, doing it in his system wherein German idealist philosophy found its most brilliant consummation. For Hegel world history was the progress of the consciousness of freedom, but a progress that must be understood in all of its necessity. To those who held this point of view

“the history of mankind no longer appeared as a confused whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable before the judgment seat of the now matured philosophic reason, and best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of development of humanity itself. It now became the task of thought to follow the gradual stages of this process through all its devious ways and to trace out the inner regularities running through all its apparent accidents.” (Engels.)

To discover the laws governing mankind’s historical development means to assure oneself the possibility of consciously intervening in this process of development; and from being a powerless plaything of “accident,” becoming its master. In this way German idealism opened up for thinking people exceptionally broad, and in the highest degree pleasant, horizons. The power of accident was bound to be supplanted by the triumph of reason; necessity was bound to become the firmest foundation of freedom.

It is not hard to imagine how enthusiastically these pleasant horizons were greeted by all those laden down by sterile disillusion, and who down deep in their tormented hearts pro-served an interest in both social life and in “the striving toward self-perfection.” Hegel’s philosophy revived them to new mental activity and in the transports of initial infatuation it seemed to them that this philosophy would swiftly supply answers to every single great question of knowledge and of life; would provide solutions to all contradictions, and inaugurate a new era of conscious life for humanity.

Carried away by this philosophy was everything youthful and fresh, all who were thinking in the Germany of that day; and, yes, as is generally known, not in Germany alone.


Last updated on 20.2.2005