G.V. Plekhanov

Belinski and Rational Reality

(Part 2)

Chapter III

“The latest philosophy is the product of all the preceding philosophies; nothing has been lost; all the principles have been preserved,” said Hegel in concluding his lectures on the history of philosophy. “Before contemporary philosophy could arise, much time had to pass ... What we are able quickly to survey in our recollection, took place actually at a slow pace ... But the world-spirit does not stand still; it constantly strides forward precisely because this forward movement constitutes its nature. Sometimes it seems as if it is halted, as if it has lost its eternal urge to self-cognition. Actually, all the while, there is deep internal work taking place, not to be noticed until the results come to the surface until the shell of old outlived views falls apart into dust and the world-spirit strides ahead in seven-league boots. Hamlet, turning to the ghost of his father, exclaimed, ‘Well dug, old mole!’ The same can also be said of the world-spirit, ‘It digs well’.”

The author of My Past and Thoughts called Hegel’s philosophy the algebra of progress. The correctness of this appreciation is amply confirmed by the above-cited views of the great thinker. The idealist philosophy, which solemnly proclaimed eternal forward movement as the nature of the world-spirit, could not be a philosophy of stagnation. On occasion Hegel expressed himself even more categorically. Let us cite that section of his lectures on the history of philosophy where he discusses the trial of Socrates.

In Hegel’s opinion the spread of Socrates’ views threatened to destroy the old Athenian way of life completely. For this reason one cannot blame the Athenians for condemning to death the thinker whom they placed on trial and in whom they sensed a mortal enemy of their cherished social order. Nay more, it is necessary to say flatly that they were obliged to defend their social order. But it is likewise necessary to affirm that there was right on the side of Socrates. He was the conscious representative of a new and higher principle; he was a hero who possessed for himself the absolute right of the spirit.

“In world history we find that this is the position of the heroes through whom a new world commences, and whose principle stands in contradiction to what has gone before and disintegrates the old order: they appear to be violently destroying the old laws. Hence individually they perish, but it is only the individual, and not the principle, which is annihilated in punishment ... The principle itself will triumph toiler, if in another form.”

Historical movement offers not infrequently the drama of two opposed rights coming into collision. The one power is the divine right of the existing social order and of the established relations; the other is the equally divine right of consciousness (self-cognition), of science, of subjective freedom. The collision between the two is a tragedy in the full sense of the term – a tragedy in which there are those who perish but in which there are no guilty ones; each side being right in its own way. Thus spake Hegel.

As the reader can see, his philosophy was truly in its nature an algebra of progress, although this was not always understood by those progressives who were contemporaries of Hegel. Some were confused by his terminology, beyond laymen’s comprehension. The famous proposition: What is real is rational; what is rational is real, was taken by some as a philosophic expression of the crassest kind of conservatism. Generally speaking, this was a mistake. For, according to Hegel’s logic, far from everything that exists is real. The real stands higher than mere existence (“die Wirklichkeit steht höher als die Existent”). Accidental existence is real existence; reality is necessary: “reality unwinds as necessity.” But as we have already seen, according to Hegel, not only what already exists is necessary. By its uninterrupted mole’s work, the world-spirit undermines what exists, converts it into a mere form, void of any real meaning, and makes necessary the appearance of the new, tragically destined to collide with the old.

The nature of the world-spirit is to stride forward eternally. Hence in social life, too, what is necessary and rational, in the final analysis, is only uninterrupted progressive movement, only the constant foundering more or less rapidly, of everything old, everything outlived. This conclusion is inescapably suggested by the entire character and meaning of Hegelian philosophy as a dialectical system.

Hegel’s philosophy, however, was not just a dialectical system; it also proclaimed itself to be the system of absolute truth. But if absolute truth has already been found, then it follows that the goal of the world-spirit – self-cognition – has already been attained, and its forward movement loses all meaning. This claim of possessing the absolute truth was thus bound to bring Hegel into contradiction with his own dialectic; and put him in a posture hostile to further successes of philosophy. More than this, it was bound to make him a conservative in relation to social life as well. By his doctrine, every philosophy is ideally the expression of its times (“ihre Zeit in Gedanken erfasst”). Since Hegel had found the absolute truth, it therefore follows that he lived at a time which corresponded to the “absolute” social order, i.e., a social order expressing the absolute truth, discovered by theory. And inasmuch as absolute truth doesn’t age and thereby turn into error, it is therefore evident that every inclination to change a social order that expressed the absolute truth would be a rude sacrilege, an impertinent uprising against the world-spirit. In this “absolute” order there are, to be sure, some partial improvements to be made, removing partial imperfections inherited from the past. But on the whole this order must remain as eternal and immutable as the eternal, immutable truth of which it was the objective expression.

A profound thinker, the greatest genius-intellect of the first half of the 19th century, Hegel was still a child of his times and country. Germany’s social position was favorable for a calm, theoretical study of the march of world events; but it was quite unfavorable for the practical application of results gained by theory. As touches practice, the bold German theoreticians remained not infrequently the meekest of philistines. There was not a little philistinism in even such great men as Goethe and Hegel. In his youth Hegel sympathized warmly with the French Revolution; but with the passage of years, his love for freedom waned, while the urge waxed to live in peace with the existing order, so that the July 1830 revolution depressed Hegel very much.

One of the “left” Hegelians, the well-known Arnold Ruge, later criticized the philosophy of his teacher for always limiting itself to a contemplation of phenomena and never striving to pass over to action; for cohabiting peacefully with slavery in practice, while proclaiming freedom as the great goal of historical development. These criticism’s, one must admit, are justified; Hegel’s philosophy did suffer from the indicated shortcomings.

These shortcomings – which, by the way, were expressed in the claim to absolute truth – are to be noted in the lectures on the history of philosophy which we have already cited and which are filled with courageous and vigorous striving forward. In these same lectures Hegel tries to prove that in modern society, in contrast to the ancient, philosophic activity can and should be limited to the “inner world,” the world of ideas, because the “outer world” (social relations had arrived nowadays at a certain rational order, “has composed itself” and “has become reconciled with itself” (“ist so mit sich versöhnt worden”).

The conservative side of Hegel’s views was expressed most graphically in his Philosophy of Right. Whoever reads this work attentively will be struck by the genial profundity of many thoughts Hegel expresses. But at the same time it is readily to be noted that Hegel here, more than anything else, tries to reconcile his philosophy with Prussian conservatism. Particularly instructive in this connection is the famous introduction in which the doctrine of rational reality is given a meaning not at all the same as in the Logic.

Whatsoever exists, does so by reason of necessity. To know the necessity of a given phenomenon is to discover its rationality. The process of scientific knowledge consists in this, that the spirit striving toward self-cognition recognizes itself in what exists, recognizes its own reason. Philosophy must grasp what is. In particular the science of right must grasp the rationality of the state. Far from Hegel was any intention “to construct a state such as it ought to be.” Constructions of this sort are silly; a world “as it ought to be” does not exist; more accurately, it exists only as a particular, personal opinion, and personal opinion is a “soft element,” easily giving way to personal whim, and frequently changing under the influence of caprice or vanity.

Whoever understands reality, whoever has discovered the reason hidden in it will not rise up against it, but will reconcile himself with it and take joy in it. (We ask the reader to note that the expression, “reconciliation with reality” – “die Versöhnung mit der Wirklichkeit” – is used by Hegel himself.) Such a person doesn’t renounce his subjective freedom; but this freedom manifests itself not in discord but harmony with the existing state. In general, discord with what exists, discrepancies between cognitive reason and the reason that is embodied in reality are evoked only by an incomplete comprehension of this reality, by lapses of abstract thought. Man is a thinking being; his freedom, his right, the foundation of all his morality are lodged in his thought. Rut there are persons who regard as free only that thought which diverges from everything commonly accepted. Among such people the highest and most divine right, of thought is converted into rightlessness. These people are ready to sacrifice everything to the whim of their personal judgment. In law which subjects man to certain obligation they perceive only the dead, cold letter, only fetters placed upon subjective conviction. They pride themselves on their negative attitude to reality; but their attitude testifies only to a weakness of thought and to an utter inability to sacrifice the caprice of personal judgment for the sake of social interests. It was long ago said that while half-knowledge weakens belief in God, true knowledge, on the contrary, strengthens it. The same may also be said concerning people’s attitude to the reality about them: Half-knowledge rouses them against reality; true knowledge reconciles them with it. That’s how Hegel reasons here.

It is interesting to juxtapose this view of the greatest German idealist with the views of a contemporary, the French genius Saint-Simon.

“The philosopher,” wrote the Frenchman, “is not only an observer; he is an activist of the first order in the world of morals because what govern human society are his views on what the world should become.” (Travail sur la gravitation universelle)

It is perfectly correct that the science of right need not at all occupy itself with “the state as it ought to be”; its task is to comprehend what is and what was, and to elucidate the historical development of state institutions. Hegel is fully justified in attacking those superficial liberals (today we would call them subjectivists) who, incapable of linking ‘‘ideals” with the reality about them, remain permanently in the realm of impotent and unrealizable subjective dreams. But Hegel doesn’t attack only liberalism of this sort. He rises up against every progressive tendency which does not stem from official sources.

Moreover, “what exists” by the mere fact of its existence is already recognized by him here as necessary, and hence “rational.” An uprising against what exists is proclaimed to be an uprising against reason. And all of this is bolstered by arguments as far removed as heaven is from earth from the above-adduced arguments concerning the fate of Socrates and the right of self-cognition and of subjective freedom. From a thinker who attentively probes into the social development of mankind and who arrives at the conclusion that movement forward constitutes the reason of the world-spirit, Hegel becomes converted into an irritable and suspicious custodian, ready to shout, “Help! Police!” at every new exertion of the mighty and eternal “mole” who undermines the structure of old concepts and institutions.

It follows from this that if Hegel’s doctrine that everything real is rational was understood by many in a completely wrong way, then he was himself primarily to blame for this, for he invested his doctrine with a very peculiar and not at all dialectical interpretation of the Prussian social order of his day and proclaimed it as the embodiment of reason. It may therefore seem strange that Hegel’s philosophy did not lose its influence over the thinking people of those days. But strange as it may seem, the fact is that the uprising against the conservative conclusions drawn by Hegel from his essentially wholly progressive philosophy did not come until much later. In the epoch of the publication of the Philosophy of Right, opposed to Hegel were only a few superficial liberals, while everybody who was serious, everything young and energetic followed him with enthusiasm, despite his self-contradictions, and without even noticing them. The explanation for this is, of course, to be found in the immature development of social life in Germany of that day.

But in the previous century, in Lessing’s epoch, this life was even less developed, and yet the then dominant philosophic concepts bore no resemblance whatever to those of Hegel. Had it been possible for Hegel to have appeared at the time, no one, assuredly, would have followed him. Why is this? Because “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and because only the 19th century posed before thinking; mankind the great task to which Hegel’s philosophy promised to provide the answer, namely:

The scientific study of reality, the scientific elucidation of mankind’s historical development, in social, political and intellectual relations as a necessary and therefore lawful process.

As we have already stated, only such an interpretation of history could eliminate the pessimistic outlook on history as the kingdom of blind accident. Young minds everywhere, wherever the underground work of the “world-spirit” was being accomplished even on! a tiny scale and wherever the “mole” was preparing the soil for new social movements, were bound to throw, themselves eagerly into the study of Hegelian philosophy. And the more serious the demands of theoretical thought were in the young minds, and the stronger the urge was in the young hearts to sacrifice personally for the sake of common interests, all the more complete should have been, as it actually was, the infatuation with Hegelianism.

The uprising that came later against the conservative conclusions Hegel drew was absolutely justified. But it ought not to be forgotten that in the theoretical sense it was justified only to the extent that it based itself on Hegel’s dialectic, i.e., primarily on the interpretation of history as a lawful process; and on (the understanding of freedom as the product of necessity.

Chapter IV

Let us now return to Belinski.

In approaching the history of his intellectual development, we must note first of all that in his early youth he rose up indignantly against the Russian reality of those days. As is well known, the tragedy which he wrote during his stay in the University and which caused him so much unpleasantness was a passionate, if scarcely artistic, protest against serfdoms. Belinski was wholly on the side of the serfs.

“Can it be that these humans were born into this world only to serve the whims of other humans, the same as themselves!” exclaims one of his heroes. “Who gave this fatal right to some people to enslave to their will the will of others, other beings just like them and to take away from them the sacred treasure of freedom? ... Merciful God, Father of Men, tell me, was it Your all-wise hand that created on earth these serpents, crocodiles and tigers who feed on marrow and meat of their kin and who drink like water their blood and tears?”

This tirade would have done credit, in its passion, to Karl Moor himself. And actually Bdinski was under the strongest influence of Schiller’s early works, The Robbers, Cabal and Love, Fiasco. As he put it, these dramas made him “wildly hostile to the social order, in the name of an abstract ideal of society, torn out of geographic and historical conditions of development, and erected in mid-air.” This influence, incidentally, was not exerted on him only by the works of Schiller we listed above.

Don Carlos” said Belinski, “threw me into an abstract heroism, which made me scorn everything else; and in this condition, despite my unnatural and intense ecstasy, I was quite conscious of myself as a cipher. The Maid of Orleans plunged me into the same abstract heroism, into the same social and general abstraction, empty, faceless, of the substance but with nothing individual about it.”

We ask the reader to note this interesting testimony of the famous critic about himself. His youthful infatuation with “an abstract ideal of society” is a most important page in the history of his intellectual development. Up to now the attention it merits has not been paid to it. So far as we know, no one has stressed this circumstance that a gifted and passionate youth filled with “abstract heroism” was at the same time “conscious of himself as a cipher.” Such consciousness is extremely painful. It must have evoked, on the one side, equally painful doubts over the workability of the abstract ideal; and, on the other, attempts to find a concrete soil for his social inclinations.

This tormenting cognition of oneself as a “cipher” was not peculiar at the time to Belinski alone. The aspirations of the advanced intelligentsia of the 1820’s had shortly before suffered a cruel shipwreck, and sorrow and despair reigned among the thinkers. It is customary in our country to repeat that Nadezhdin had a strong influence on the development of Belinski’s views, at all events in the first period of Belinski’s development. But was there much solace in the views of Nadezhdin himself? Early Russian life appeared to him as a “sleeping forest of faceless names colliding in a void of lifeless chaos.” He even doubted that there was any real living in the course of Russia’s thousand years of existence. Mental life started in our country only with Peter the Great; up till then everything European came to our country “by way of ricochets, through thousands of leaps and tangents and therefore reached us in weak, dying out reverberations.”

“Up to now our literature has been, if I may use the expression, a corvée of the European; it has been worked over by Russian hands but not in a Russian way; it exhausted the fresh, inexhaustible juices of the young Russian spirit in order to educate foreigners and not ourselves.” The notes to be heard here are almost those of Chaadayev. (Not having Nadezhdin’s articles at hand, we are compelled to quote from Mr. Pypin’s book, Belinski, His Life and Correspondence; vol.I, p.95. Needless to add we have borrowed from the same work most of the facts relating to Belinski’s intellectual development, but we have grouped these facts differently.)

In his famous first article, Literary Dreams, Belinski obviously expressed a rather rosy outlook about our future, if not our past or present. Pointing out that what we need is not literature, which will make its appearance in its own due time, but enlightenment, he cries out:

“And this enlightenment will not become ossified, thanks to the sleepless solicitude of the wise government. The Russian people are clever and amenable, diligent and zealous about everything that is good and beautiful, once the hand of Czar-Father points out the goal to them, once his sovereign voice summons the people to this goal!”

The single institution of domestic tutors was bound, as he put it, to perform genuine miracles in the sense of enlightenment. Besides, our nobility has finally become convinced about giving their children a solid education, while our mercantile estate “is rapidly taking shape and in this connection is not far behind the highest estates.” In a word, the cause of enlightenment prospers among us: “The seeds of the future are ripening today.”

All this was, of course, written in perfect sincerity. At the time Belinski wrote this article he wanted to believe, and carried away by enthusiasm while writing, he did believe that enlightenment would swiftly engulf Old Mother Russia. But in calmer moments, when the flame of enthusiasm had cooled, he could not fail to see that the foundations on which his faith rested in a swift growth of enlightenment in Russia were somewhat shaky. Besides, could even the successes of enlightment – however “swift” they might be – satisfy a man “hostile to the social order” in the name of an ideal, and permeated with “abstract heroism”? Such perspectives were not needed by such a man. In brief, the rapturous tone of Literary Dreams was the product of a momentary flash-fire and did not at all exclude a depressed mood on the author’s part, a mood resulting from the touchy recognition of himself as a cipher, and from the unresolved contradiction between the abstract ideal, on the one side, and the concrete Russian reality on the other.

In July 1836 Belinski journeyed to the village of B—kh in Tversk province, and there with the aid of a hospitable host, a well-known “dilettante of philosophy” or “friend of philosophy,” M.B. (Bakunin) became acquainted with the philosophy of Fichte, for the first time if we are not mistaken. “I seized hold of the Fichtean outlook with vigor and fanaticism,” he says. And this is understandable. As Belinski put it, his eyes always saw double: there was life ideal and there was life real. Fichte convinced him that “life ideal was nothing else but life real, positive and concrete, whereas the so-called real life is a negation, a phantom, a nullity, a void.” In this way the vexing contradiction between the abstract ideal and concrete reality found the sought-for philosophic solution. It was solved by reducing to zero one of the sides of the antinomy.

Having proclaimed reality a phantom, Belinski was able to wage war against it all the more vigorously in the name of the ideal which now turned out to be the only reality worthy of the name. In this “Fichtean” period, Belinski sympathized strongly with the French. “We know of an episode in Belinski’s life at the time,” says Mr. Pypin. “At a big gathering, completely unfamiliar to him, in talking about the French events of the 18th century, he expressed an opinion which embarrassed his host by its extreme bluntness.” (loc. cit., vol.I, p.175). Later on, recalling this episode in a letter to an intimate friend, Belinski added:

“I do not at all repent of this phrase, and I am not at all embarrassed by it. It expressed, in good conscience and with the fullness of my violent nature, the state of my mind at the time. Yes, that is how my thoughts ran then ... Sincerely and in good conscience I expressed in this phrase the tense condition of my spirit through which of necessity I had to pass.”

It would seem that Belinski could now rest from the doubts that tormented him. Actually he now suffered almost more than before.

In the first place he came to doubt his own capacity for philosophic thought. “And I learned about the existence of this concrete life only to come to know my impotence, to familiarize myself with it. I came to know paradise only to become convinced that the only possible life for me was an approach to its gates, not the delights of its harmony and scents, but only pre-perceptions.” Secondly, the denial of reality, as is evident, did not long rid him of old theoretical doubts, either. Real life was proclaimed a phantom, a nullity and a void. But there are phantoms and phantoms. From Belinski’s new standpoint, French reality was no less a phantom than any either, including the Russian. Yet there were manifestations in French social life with which he warmly sympathized, as we know, while in Russia there was nothing of the sort. Why then were the French “phantoms” so unlike our native ones?

“Fichteanism” had no answer to this question. And yet it was a simple variant of the old vexing question: Why did concrete reality contradict the abstract ideal? and how to remove this contradiction? It turned out that proclaiming reality a phantom availed in essence exactly nothing; and, as a consequence, the new philosophic outlook proved dubious, if not altogether a “phantom.” After all, Belinski had cherished it precisely to the extent to which it apparently promised to supply simple and convincing answers to the questions that beleaguered him.

Later, in one of his letters (June 20, 1838) Belinski expressed a conviction that he “hated thought.” “Yes, I hate it as an abstraction,” he wrote. “But can thought then be acquired without being an abstraction? Should one always think only in moments of candor, and the rest of the time think nothing at all? I understand how silly such a proposition is, but I am by nature an enemy of thought.” These simple-hearted and touching lines characterize best of all Belinski’s attitude to philosophy. He could not rest content with “abstractions.” He could be satisfied only with a system, which itself stemming from social life and explainable by this life, would, in its turn, explain life and offer the possibility for broad and fruitful action upon life. His supposed hatred of thought consisted precisely of this. He hated, understandably enough, not philosophic thought in generail, but only such thought as, contented with philosophic “contemplation,” turned its back upon life.

“At that time we sought in philosophy everything in the universe, except pure thought,” says Turgenev. This is absolutely correct, especially in relation to Belinski. He sought in philosophy the way to happiness, “the road to happiness,” as Byron’s Cain put it. Not to personal happiness, of course, but the happiness of his near and dear ones, the weal of his native land. Because of this many have imagined that Belinski did indeed lack “philosophic talent,” and it became customary to look down upon him with a certain patronizing air by people who, so far as ability for philosophic thought is concerned, are not fit to untie his shoelaces. These smug fellows forgot or never knew that in Belinski’s day the road to social happiness was sought in philosophy by virtually all of the intellectuals in Europe. That is why philosophy then had such enormous social significance.

Today when the road to happiness is no longer pointed out by philosophy, its progressive meaning has been reduced to zero; and nowadays the lovers of “pure thought” can tranquilly occupy themselves with it. We wish them success with all our heart, but this does not prevent us from having our own opinion concerning Belinski’s “philosophic talent.” We think that he had an extraordinary instinct for theoretical truth, left unfortunately undeveloped by systematic philosophic education, but an instinct which, nonetheless, indicated to him quite correctly the most important tasks of social science of his day. “Belinski was one of the highest philosophic organisms I ever met in my life,” said one of the best educated Russians of that era, Prince Odoyevski. Our conclusion is that Belinski was one of the highest “philosophic organisms” ever to appear on our literary scene.

For better or for worse, the vexing questions gave Belinski no rest throughout the “Fichte period.” These questions were exactly the ones to which the German poet demands an answer in his beautiful poem where he asks:

“Why is the just man forever doomed to bear the cross? And why is the rich man everywhere met with honor and acclaim? Who is responsible? Or is it that the power of truth cannot attain everything on earth? Or are we just its playthings?”

Modern social science has definitely solved these questions. It recognized that “not everything as yet is attainable to the power of truth,” and it explained why “truth” still weighs so little when it comes to social relations, especially the relations between classes. From the standpoint of modern social science the questions that excited and tormented Belinski may seem quite naive.

But for his times they were not at all naive; the best minds of his day were occupied with them. These questions flow logically from the root question of why accident proves so often stronger than reason. And it is not hard to understand that Belinski could be satisfied only with a philosophy that would give him plain and firm answers to precisely these questions.

Why can crude physical force mock with impunity the finest, the noblest aspirations of human beings? Why do some nations flourish, while others perish, falling under the rule of harsh conquerors? Is it because the conquerors are always better than and superior to the conquered? Hardly so. Often this happens for the sole reason that the conquerors possess more troops than the conquered. But in that case by what is the triumph of force justified? And what meaning can “ideals” have, which never leave their supra-galactic province while leaving our poor, practical life a prey to all sorts of horrors?

Call these ideals abstract, and reality concrete, or vice versa, proclaim reality an abstraction, and ideals the reality – you will in either case be compelled to grapple with these questions, provided, of course, you are not gifted with Wagner’s “philosophic talent,” i.e., are not bathed in “pure thought,” and provided you do not belong to a coterie of decadents capable of amusing themselves with wretched “formulas of progress” which solve nothing and disturb nobody. As is well known, Belinski was neither a Wagner nor a decadent. And this, of course, does him great honor; but for this honor he paid dearly. The “Fichtean period” he afterwards called the period of “disintegration.” Understandably, he had to strive to free himself from this onerous condition; and it is equally understandable that this struggle had to lead to a break with Fichte’s philosophy.

For lack of data, the history of this break unfortunately remains little known. But it is known that by the middle of 1838 Belinski was already strongly under the influence of Hegel, although he had as yet become acquainted only with certain parts of Hegel’s system. It is also known that during this period he was already conciliating with that reality against, which he had warred so resolutely before. His mood at the time is illuminated quite clearly by a letter from Piatigorsk he wrote on August 7, 1837 to one of his young friends. He hotly urges his friend to take up philosophy.

“Only in it will you find answers to the questions of your soul; only philosophy will bring peace and harmony to your soul and make you a gift of happiness beyond anything the mob suspects; a happiness which external life can neither give you nor deprive you of.”

Politics has no meaning in Russia because “Russia is destined to a fate entirely different from that of France, where the political bent of the sciences and of the arts, as well as the character of the citizens has its meaning, its lawfulness and its good side.” Russia’s entire hope lies in the spread of enlightenment and in the moral self-perfection of her citizens. “If each of the individuals who make up Russia were to attain perfection by way of love, then Russia would, without any politics, become the happiest country in the world.” This view is, of course, perfectly non-Hegelian, but, as we have already said, Belinski’s acquaintance with Hegel was quite incomplete at the time. What is important to us is this, that Belinski came to conciliate with Russian reality by way of elucidating her historical development, even if he did so incorrectly, and, in general, very superficially.

Why does our social life bear no resemblance to that of France? Because Russia’s historical destiny bears no resemblance to France’s historical destiny. Such an answer made impossible any parallels whatever between Russia and France. And yet these parallels, only a short while before, were bound to bring Belinski to depressing and almost hopeless conclusions. At the same time, such an answer made possible conciliation not only with Russia’s social life but also that of France, for instance, those events toward the end of the 18th century which Belinski quite recently had regarded with such passionate sympathy. Everything is good in its place. And as we saw, he justified the “political bent” of the French. Incidentally, his infatuation with the “absolute” truth of German philosophy causes him no longer to respect this bent. The French possess “no eternal truths, but daily truths, i.e., new truths for each day. They want to derive everything not from the eternal laws of human reason, but from experiment, from history.” This made Belinski so indignant that he sent the French to “the devil.” French influence, according to him, never brought anything but harm; and he proclaimed Germany as the New Jerusalem of contemporary mankind, urging the thinking Russian youth to turn their eyes to Germany with hope and trust.

But it would be a gross mistake to present as a custodian the Belinski who had “conciliated” with Russian reality. At that time, too, he was far removed from conservatism. He likes Pester the Great precisely because of his resolute break with the state of affairs that existed in his day. “The emperors of all nations developed their people by resting on the past, on tradition; Peter tore Russia loose from the past, destroying her tradition.” Let us agree that such talk would sound strange on the lips of a custodian of the old order. Neither was Belinski at all inclined to idealize contemporary Russian life; he finds many imperfections in it, but he explains these imperfections by the youth of Russia.

“Russia is still an infant, who still needs a nurse whose heart is filled with love for her foster-child and whose hands hold a rod, ready to punish pranks.” He now conciliates even with serfdom; but does so only up to a given point. He conciliates only because he considers the Russian people not mature enough as yet for freedom. As he wrote, “the government is emancipating little by little.” And this circumstance gladdens him as much as the fact that owing to the absence of primogeniture in our country, our nobility ‘‘is dying out by itself, without any revolutions, without domestic convulsions.”

Genuine custodians of the old order viewed matters through entirely different eyes; and had one of them read the foregoing letter of Belinski, he would have found it full of the most “nonsensical ideas,” Belinski’s negative attitude to politics notwithstanding. And this would be entirely correct from the “custodial” point of view. Belinski made peace not with reality but with the sorry destiny of his abstract ideal.

Only a short while before he was tormented by the realization that this ideal could find no application to life. Now he renounces it, convinced that it can lead to nothing except “abstract heroism,” a barren hostility toward reality. But this doesn’t mean that Belinski turned his back on progress. Not at all. It simply means that he was now prepared to serve progress in a different way from that in which he had prepared to serve before.

“Let us emulate the apostles of Christ,” he exclaims. “They entered into no conspiracies, and founded no open or clandestine political societies in spreading the teachings of their Divine Teacher. But they refused to renounce Him before czars and judges; and feared neither fire nor the sword. Meddle not in things that do not concern you, but remain true to your cause; and your cause is – the love of truth ... To hell with politics, long live science!”


Last updated on 20.2.2005