G.V. Plekhanov

Belinski and Rational Reality

(Part 3)

Chapter V

A negative attitude toward politics, however, was no solution to the problem of why evil so often triumphs over good, force over right, lie over truth. And so long as this problem remained unsolved, the moral gains from “conciliation” were not substantial. Belinski remained, as before, beset by doubts. But he was now confident that Hegel’s system would help him get rid of doubt forever. His further acquaintance with this system was aided by the same “dilettante of philosophy” who had expounded Fichte’s doctrine to him. How powerfully Hegelianism reacted upon Belinski and exactly which of his wants it filled, is shown by the following lines from his letter to Stankevich:

“I came to Moscow from Georgia, there came B. (‘dilettante of philosophy’); we are living together. In the summer he went through Hegel’s philosophy of religion and the philosophy of right. A new world opened before us. Force is right; right is force. No, I can’t describe my feelings when I heard these words. This was emancipation. I seized the idea of the downfall of empires, the lawfulness of conquerors. I understood that there is no reign of savage material force; that there is no sway of bayonet and the sword; there is no club-law, no arbitrariness, no accident. And my guardianship over mankind terminated, and the meaning of my native land rose before me in a new cast ... Previously, K—v [Katkov], too, had passed on to me and I accepted, as best I could, a few results of [Hegel’s] esthetics. Good God! What a new, luminous, boundless universe! ... The word, ‘reality’ has become for me the synonym for the word, ‘God.’ And you needlessly advise me to look more often up into the blue sky, into the stamp of infinity, so as not to stumble into scullery reality. My friend, blessed is he who sees infinity symbolized in the stamp of sky, but, after all, the sky is frequently cast over by greyish clouds, therefore more blessed is he who is able to illuminate a scullery, too, with the idea of the infinite.”

There now followed a genuine conciliation by Belinski with reality. A man who tries to illuminate even a kitchen with the thought of infinity, will not bother, naturally, to reconstruct anything in the life about him. He will enjoy the consciousness and contemplation of life’s rationality and the more he venerates reason, all the more is he bound to be irritated by any criticism of reality. Understandably, Belinski’s passionate nature was bound to lead him far in this direction. It is hard even to believe today that he used to enjoy the contemplation of reality about him in the same way an artist enjoys looking at a great work of art.

“Such is my nature,” he said, “under stress, sorrowfully and with difficulty, my spirit accepts both love and hate, and knowledge, and every idea and feeling, but once having accepted, it becomes saturated with them down to its most secret, innermost bends and windings. Thus in my spirit’s forge has worked out independently the meaning of the great word, reality ... I look on reality so scorned by me before, and tremble with a mysterious joy, comprehending its rationality, seeing that nothing can be cast out of it, nothing sullied or rejected ... ‘Reality!’ I repeat as I arise or go to sleep, night and day; in this new mutation which becomes more and more noticeable with every passing day, reality envelops me and I feel it everywhere and in everything, even in myself.”

This “mysterious” joy face to face with rational reality resembles the joy some of us experience when communing with nature, those who are able simultaneously to enjoy nature’s beauty and the consciousness of being indivisible from nature. A man who loves nature with such a love, simultaneously philosophic and poetic, will observe all of life’s manifestations with equal satisfaction. Just so Belinski now followed everything about him with the same loving interest.

“Yes, reality ushers one into reality,” he exclaims. “Viewing everyone not from a preconceived theory, but in accordance with the facts each individual himself supplies, I am beginning to gain the ability to enter into real relations with him, and for this reason everybody is satisfied with me, and I am satisfied with everybody. I am beginning to find interests in common in discussions with people with whom I never dreamed I had anything in common.”

Accepting a post in a surveyors’ institute, he was inordinately satisfied by his activities as teacher, not high-sounding but useful.

“With insatiable curiosity I look into the means, so crude, so tedious and prosaic on the surface, by which this lacklustre and imperceptible usefulness is created, imperceptible unless one follows its development in time, invisible, from a superficial standpoint, but great and bountiful in its consequences for society. So long as my strength endures I am determined at all cost to bring my offering to the altar of social welfare.”

Not a trace is left of “abstract heroism.” Worn out by previous mental effort, Belinski seems to have lost even theoretical interest in great social questions. He is ready to be content with an instinctive contemplation of how rational is life about him.

“Knowledge of reality consists,” he said, “of a kind of instinct, or tact by reason of which each step a man takes is a sure step, each proposition rings true, all relations with people irreproachable, unstrained. Naturally, he who through his thought adds the conscious to this penetrative mental faculty, is doubly able to possess reality; but the main thing is to know reality, no matter how.”

In the previous period of his development Belinski tried, as we have seen, to solve the contradiction that tormented him, the contradiction between abstract ideal and concrete reality, by equating to zero one side of this antinomy. He proclaimed as a phantom all reality that contradicted the ideal. Now he does just the opposite. Now he equates to zero the opposite side of the antinomy, that is, he proclaims as a phantom, as an illusion, every ideal that contradicts reality. In point of theory this new solution is, naturally, just as wrong as the first one. In the second instance, as in the first, there is no sufficient ground for reducing either side of the antinomy to zero. Nonetheless, the new phase of Belinski’s philosophic development represents a giant step forward from the prior phase.

To clarify fully the meaning of this new phase it is necessary to pause a while on his article on the battle of Borodino.

Of chief interest in this article is Belinski’s attack on the rationalistic interpretation of social life and its elucidation of relations between individuals and society as a whole. The rationalistic view with which Belinski lived in obvious harmony during the Fichtean period, now seems to him the acme of absurdity, fit only for French babblers and liberal abbots.

“From the days of old, concerning which we know only from history down to the present, there has not been and there is not a single people which was consolidated and shaped through a mutual, conscious compact of a certain number of individuals, desirous of becoming a component part of this people; nor did it take place in accordance with anyone’s idea, not even the idea of a genius. Let us take, say, the origin of monarchical power. A liberal babbler would say that it arose as a product of the depravity of the people who, upon becoming convinced of their incapacity for self-rule, found themselves in bitter need of submitting to the will of a single individual, chosen by them, and invested by them with unlimited power. For superficial attitudes and abstract minds in whose eyes ideas and events do not contain within themselves their own causality and their own necessity, but sprout like mushrooms after a rain, not only without soil and roots but suspended in mid-air – for such minds there is nothing simpler or more satisfactory than such an explanation; but to those to whom the profundity and inner essence of things lies open by virtue of the spiritual clarity of their vision there cannot be anything more foolish, laughable or senseless. Everything that lacks cause within its own self and appears only thanks to some ‘other,’ something ‘outer’ and not ‘inner’ to it, something alien to it, all such things are bereft of rationality and therefore also of sanctity. Basic state decrees are sanctified because they are the basic ideas not merely of a certain people, but of every people; and also because, by passing over into phenomenal, by becoming facts, they obtained their dialectic development through the historical movement. So that the very changes they have undergone constitute moments of their own idea. And for this reason the basic decrees are not laws promulgated by man but appear, so to speak, before their time and are simply expressed and cognized by man.”

Evident here is a certain indexterity in the use of philosophic terms. For example, from the foregoing lines it would seem that, in Belinski’s opinion, the inner essence of things may lie open to a philosopher. But what is this inner essence? As we see it, Goethe was absolutely correct when he said:

Nichts ist innen, nichts ist aussen
Was ist drinnen,, das ist draussen.

(There is nothing inner, nothing outer.
Whatever is from within, is also from without.)

But let us not dwell on details. Let us instead recall the general character of Belinski’s views at the time.

From his new standpoint, what is the role of an individual in the dialectic process of social development?

“With regard to individuality, a human being is partictular and accidental, but with regard to the spirit, to which this individual gives expression, he is general and necessary,” says Belinski. “Hence flows the duality of his position and of his strivings; the duality of the struggle between the I and whatever lies beyond the I, and constitutes the not-I ... To be real and not illusory, a human being must be a particular expression of the general, or a finite manifestation of the infinite. He must therefore renounce his subjective individuality, recognizing it as a lie and a phantom; he must submit to the world, to the general, recognizing it as truth and reality. But since the world, or the general, is located not within him but in the objective world outside, he must grow akin to it, merge with it, in order anew to become a subjective individuality but, this time, already real, already expressing not some accidental particular, but the general, the universal, in a word, become spirit in the flesh.”

To avoid remaining just an illusion, a human being must strive to become a particular expression of the general. The most progressive world outlook is compatible with this view of individuality. When Socrates attacked the outmoded conceptions of the Athenians, he was serving nothing else but “the general, the universal”; his philosophic doctrine was ideally the expression of a new step forward by the Athenians in their historical development. That’s why Socrates was a hero as Hegel called him. In this way, discord between an individual and the reality about him is wholly valid whenever the individual, as a particular expression of the general, prepares by his negation the historical soil for the new reality, the reality of tomorrow.

But that is not how Belinski reasons. He preaches “submission” to the existing order of things. In the article on Borodino and especially in the article on Menzel, Belinski falls with indignation upon the “little, great men,” for whom history is an incoherent fairy tale, full of accidental and contradictory collisions of circumstances. According to Belinski, such an interpretation of history is the sorry product of the human understanding. Human understanding invariably grasps only one side of an object, whereas reason surveys the object from all sides, even if these sides seemingly contradict one another. And on this account, reason does not create reality but cognizes it, taking in advance as its dictum that “whatever is, is necessary, lawful and rational.”

“Reality constitutes the positive in life,” says Belinski in another article, “illusion is its negative.” If we grant this, then his attacks on the “little, great men” who deny reality become perfectly comprehensible. Personalities who deny reality are sheer phantoms. It is likewise comprehensible why Belinski should fall into an extreme optimism. If every denial of reality is illusory then reality is faultless. It is instructive to follow Belinski’s attempts to prove by historical examples that the “destinies of the earthborn” are not left to blind accident.

“Omar burned down the Alexandria library. Cursed be Omar, for he wrecked enlightenment in the ancient world for ages to come! Pause, gentlemen, before you curse Omar! Enlightenment is a wonder-working thing. Were it an ocean and some Omar dried it up, there would still remain beneath the earth an unseen and secret spring of living water that would not long tarry before breaking out in clear fountains and become converted into an ocean ...”

Naturally, this argument is quite strange. From the fact that the “Omars” cannot succeed in drying up all the sources of enlightenment, it by no means follows that their activities are harmless and that we should pause “before cursing them.” On his optimism Belinski reaches the extreme of naivete. But we have seen that this optimism stems ineluctably from his new outlook on reality. Arid this new outlook owed its origin not to the fact that Belinski had understood Hegel poorly, but rather to this, that he had fully assimilated, the spirit of Hegelian philosophy, a spirit which found its expression in the introduction to the Philosophy of Right.

The views Hegel set down in this introduction have already been dealt with in detail. Let the reader compare them with Belinski’s “conciliationist views,” and he will be struck by the virtually complete identity. The sole difference is this, that “furious Vissarion” became much more heated than the calm German thinker and therefore went to extremes Hegel avoided.

Belinski said that Voltaire

“resembles a Satan, freed by the Highest Will from adamantine chains by which he had been held in the’fiery habitation in eternal darkness and who used his brief span of freedom to the ruination of mankind.”

Hegel said nothing of the kind and would have never said it. Not a few similar examples could be adduced, but all of these are details which do not alter the gist of the matter which is this, that in expressing his views Belinski remained wholly, true to the spirit of Hegel’s absolute philosophy.

And if these conciliationist views appear “strange” to Mr. Volynski, then it shows how poorly acquainted he is with the works of “a man who thought eternity,” i.e., Hegel. True enough, Mr. Volynski happens to be repeating on this occasion only what had been previously said by N. Stankevich, by Herzen, Turgenev and others. But he had promised to review the question of Hegel’s influence on Belinski’s world outlook “with the necessary thoroughness” and “through a comparison of Belinski’s well-known views with their original sources.” Why then did Mr. Volynski confine himself to repeating the errors of others? Could it be; perhaps, that the “original source” is rather poorly known by him?

More fully than any of his friends, say, M.B. or N. Stankevich, Belinski had assimilated the conservative spirit of the Hegelian philosophy which claimed to be absolute, truth. The likelihood is that he felt this himself because friendly admonitions designed to cool his “conciliationist” ardor did not sit well with him at all. After all, these friends held the same standpoint of alleged absolute truth which Belinski was now, in Hegel’s footsteps, advocating, and from this standpoint any concession to, “liberal babblers” was only a sad inconsistency. (In a letter to L.M. Neverov, Granovski says that Bakunin was the first to rise up against Belinski’s articles on Borodino, etc. It is unfortunately unclear from Granovski’s letter just what Bakunin’s uprising consisted of. Anyhow, it could not have been based on an understanding of the progressive side of Hegel’s philosophy to which M.B. was to arrive much later.)

Of course, it may be argued that while Hegel in the days of the publication of the Philosophy of Right did make his peace with Prussian reality, it doesn’t therefore follow that Hegel would have conciliated with Russian reality. That is so. But there are negations and negations. Hegel would have pronounced Russian reality to be semi-Asiatic; he generally held that the Slav world constituted an entity midway between Europe and Asia. But Asian reality is likewise “reason embodied” and Hegel – not Hegel, the dialectician, but Hegel, the herald of “absolute truth” – would have scarcely approved of an uprising against reality tin the part of finite reason of individuals.

Chapter VI

Let us now approach Belinski’s conciliationist views from another side.

Social theories of “liberal babblers” kindled his ire by their superficial, anti-scientific character. “Babblers” imagine that social relations can be changed by popular whims, whereas, actually, social life and development are regulated by “immutable laws, lodged in the essence of society.” Babblers see arbitrariness and accident there where in reality an ineluctable process of development is taking place. Social phenomena unwind dialectically, from within themselves, by inner necessity. Whatever bears no cause within itself but appears on account of something alien to it, something from “without,” is devoid of rationality, and whatever is irrational is nothing more than an illusion, a phantom. Such are the views Belinski counterposes to the rationalist outlook on social life, inherited from the 18th century. And his views are incomparably more profound and more serious than the rationalistic outlook, which leaves no room for a scientific explanation of social events. One has to be very much an honor-laden Russian sociologist to be able to discern nothing except philosophic “rubbish” in Belinski’s conciliationist views. Similarly, only a very honor-laden Russian sociologist could, in view of Belinski’s foregoing outlook on life and the evolution of human society, make the remarkable discovery that his “flair for truth” more or less betrayed our genius-critic each time an “esthetic phenomenon became complicated by philosophic and politico-moral principles.” If by flair for truth is meant an instinct for theoretical truth – and in questions of this sort there cannot be talk of anything else – then it is necessary to admit that Belinski disclosed a highly developed instinct for truth when he hastened with enthusiasm to acquire and with heat to propagate the interpretation of history as a necessary and therefore a lawful process. In this instance, Russian social thought in the person of Belinski grappled, for the first time and with the boldness of genius, with the solution of the very same great problem which absorbed, as we have seen, the best minds of the 19th century.

Why is the position of the working class so bad? Because the modern economic order in Europe began to take shape at a time when the science “in charge of” this cycle of events “didn’t as yet exist.” That is how Mr. Mikhailoysky philosophizes. Belinski would have recognized in this ratiocination the rationalistic outlook he despised so much and he would have likened it – by its inner worth – to the light-minded pronouncements of liberal abbots.

“Reality as the manifestation of embodied reason,” he wrote, “always comes prior to cognition, because it is necessary to have the object for cognition, before the act of cognition can take place.”

For this reason, a science “in charge of” a given economic order could make its appearance only after such an order had taken shape; but to elucidate by its later appearance one or another positive or negative quality of this economy is as full of wisdom as it would be to ascribe the existence of contagious diseases to the circumstance that when the world was created there were no physicians from whom nature could have acquired the concept of hygiene. Needless to add, Belinski would be perfectly right, from the standpoint, that is, of modern objective science. And it therefore follows that as far back as the end of the 1830’s Belinski’s instinct for theoretical truth was more highly developed than it is today in Mr. Mikhailovsky and other honor-laden sociologists like him. It cannot be said that this is a consoling conclusion for all the friends of Russian progress, but the truth must be served above everything else and so we shan’t suppress it.

Take another example. The Populists have written a lot in Russia about the agrarian commune, the obshchina. They were often wrong – erring more or less sincerely – in talking about its history, or its present-day conditions. But let us grant that they didn’t make a single mistake and pose a simple question: Weren’t they wrong to clamor that it was necessary to “strengthen” the obshchina at all cost? What were they guided by? They were guided by a conviction that the present day obshchina is capable of growing over into the highest economic form. But what are the existing economic relations within the obshchina? Can their evolution lead to the transition of a modified, present-day obshchina, to the highest form of communal life? No. Because their evolution leads, on the contrary; to the triumph of individualism. The Populists themselves agreed more than once on this; anyhow, the more sensible among them did. But in that case what did they count on? They counted on this, that the external influence exercised on the obshchina by the intelligentsia and the government would overcome the inner logic of its development.

Belinski would have dismissed such hopes with scorn. He would have correctly noted in them a residue of the rationalistic outlook on social life. He would have rejected them as illusory and abstract, since everything is illusory which bears no cause within its own self and appears because of something else alien to it, something from “without” and not from “within.” Again, this would be perfectly correct. And again it is necessary to draw the conclusion, unflattering for Russian progress, that toward the close of the 1830’s Belinski had already drawn closer to a scientific understanding of social phenomena than have bur present-day champions of old principles and institutions.

(It is worth noting, however, that only a few Populists continue nowadays to dream about the transition of the obshchina into the highest form of communal life. The majority of these worthy people, turning their backs on all “nonsensical” ideas, are “concerned” only about the prosperity of the business-like little mouzhik in whose hands the obshchina has become a fearsome weapon for exploiting the rural proletariat. It is undeniable that “concerns” of this sort have nothing “illusory” about them nor have anything in common with the “abstract ideal”)

Basic state decrees “are not laws promulgated by man but they appear, so to speak, before their time and are only expressed by man.” Is this so, or not? Belinski’s reasoning on this subject is considerably obscured by his custodial ardor at the time, owing to which he sometimes expressed himself with foggy pomposity. However, in these reasonings, too, it is not hard to find a perfectly healthy kernel. From the standpoint of modern social science [Marxism] there is no doubt whatever that not only basic state decrees but juridical institutions generally are an expression of actual relations into which people enter, not arbitrarily but by dint of necessity In this sense all legal institutions in general are only “expressed by man.” And to the extent that Belinski’s words carry this meaning they must be recognized as absolutely correct.

It wouild not hurt to recall them repeatedly even now to those bearers of the “abstract ideal” among us who imagine that juridical norms are created by popular crotchets and that a people can make of their legal institutions any eclectic hash they please. (Thus, for example, there are many among us who believe, on the one side, that Russia could with comfort “strengthen the obshchina” and, on the other, transplant on this “strengthened” soil, that is, on the soil of Asian landownership, certain institutions of West European social law.)

Russian social thought, in the person of our genius-critic, let us repeat, for the first time and audaciously, undertook the solution of that great task which the 19th century had posed before all the thinking minds of Europe. Comprehending the colossal importance of this task Belinski suddenly felt firm, soil beneath his feet; and, enthused by the boundless horizons opened before him, he, as we saw, surveyed for a while the reality about him through the eyes of an Epicurean, anticipating the bliss of philosophic cognition. And, after all, how could one not get angry at the “small, great people” who with their idle talk – and it is time to recognise this – their absolutely groundless talk in point of theory, hindered the tranquil and happy enjoyment of the unexpectedly discovered treasure-trove of truth? How not attack the bearers of the “abstract ideal,” how not heap ridicule upon them when Belinski, from his own experience, knew its utter practical worthlessness; when he still remembered that grievous cognition of self as a ‘‘cipher” which constantly accompanied the intense joy this ideal had aroused? How not despise those who, although they wanted happiness for their near and dear ones, nevertheless, out of myopia, considered harmful the only philosophy which Belinski was convinced could make mankind happy?

But this mood did not last long; conciliation with reality proved shaky. By October 1839, departing for Petersburg and carrying with him the still unpublished article on The Sketches of the Battle of Borodino, Belinski was already far removed from the radiant and cheerful view of everything about him, which came upon him in the first period of his infatuation with Hegelian philosophy.

“My inner sufferings have burned into a sort of dry embitterment,” he said. “For me no one existed, because I myself was dead.”

True enough, this new oppressive mood was conditioned to a considerable degree by lack of personal happiness, but knowing Belinski’s character it can be said with certainty that he would not even have noticed this lack had Hegel’s philosophy given him so much as a fraction of what it had promised.

“How laughable it is and how exasperating,” he exclaims in a long letter to Botkin, written from December 16, 1839 to early February 1840. “The love of Romeo and Juliet is love in general; but the need of love, or the reader’s love is an illusion, a particular love. Life in books, that there is; but in life itself there is nothing.”

Note these words. They show that Belinski was already cohabiting poorly with Hegel’s “absolute” conclusions. In fact, if the task of a thinking man is limited to cognition of reality about him; if every attempt on his part toward a “creative” attitude to reality is “illusory,” and condemned to failure in advance, then for him nothing really remains except “life in books.”

Furthermore, a thinking man is under obligation to reconcile himself with whatever is. But living is not “whatever is.” Whatever is, has already ossified, the breath of life has already sped from it. That lives which is in the process Of becoming (wird), which is being worked out by the process of development. What is ‘life if not development? And in the process of development the element of negation is indispensable. Whoever in his outlook fails to assign adequate room for this necessary element, for that individual life does actually turn into “nothingness,” because in his conciliation with “whatever is” he engages in transactions not with life but with what used to be life, but had ceased living in the interim.

Hegel’s absolute philosophy, by proclaiming contemporary reality to be immune from negation, thereby also proclaimed that life can exist only in books, but outside of books there was to be no life. It correctly taught that an individual ought not place his personal crotchets and even his vital personal interests above the interests of the “general.” But to this philosophy of the general, the interests were the interests of stagnation.

Belinski sensed this instinctively much earlier than he was able to become cognizant of it through reason. He expected philosophy to point out the road to human happiness. The general question of the triumph of accident over human reason often appeared to him in the shape of a particular question of why does force triumph over right? What was Hegel’s answer? We saw what it was: “There is no reign of savage material force; there is no sway of bayonet and the sword; right is force and force is right.” Leaving aside the somewhat paradoxical manner of this answer (the formulation is not Hegel’s but Belinski’s), it is necessary to admit that it encloses a profound truth, the sole prop for the hopes of the partisans of gradual progress. It is strange, but it is so. Here is a graphic example. “Our feudal rights are based on conquests,” shouted the defenders of the old order in France to Sieyes. “Is that all?” he replied. “Very well, it’s now our turn to become conquerors.”

In this proud answer was expressed the cognition that the Third Estate had already matured for rulership. And when it became truly a “conqueror,” its rule was not exclusively the rule of material force; its force was likewise its right, and its right was validated by the historical needs of France’s development. Everything that does not correspond to the needs of society, has behind it no right whatever; but, contrariwise, whatever has behind it corresponding right will, sooner or later, have force behind it as well. What can be more gratifying than such assurance to all the true friends of progress?

And such assurance is ineluctably instilled by Hegel’s attitude on the interrelation of right and force, provided it is correctly understood. But in order to understand it correctly, it was necessary to regard both history and present-day reality from the standpoint of dialectic development and not that of “absolute truth,” which signifies a cessation of all movement.

From the standpoint of absolute truth, the right of historical movement became converted into the sanctified and immutable right of the Prussian Junkerdom to exploit the peasantry dependent on them; and all of the oppressed were condemned to eternal servitude solely because “absolute truth,” on making its appearance in the realm of cognition, found the peasants weak and hence without any rights as well. C’etait un peu fort, as the French say. And Belinski was bound to notice it, too, as soon as he started to take stock of his new world outlook.

From his correspondence it is evident that his so-called break with Hegel, mentioned so often in our literature, was provoked by the inability of Hegel’s “absolute” philosophy to answer social and political questions which tormented Belinski.

“I am told: Unfold all the treasures of your spirit for the freest enjoyment thereof; weep so that you may be consoled; grieve so that you may be joyful; strive toward perfection, scramble up to the top rung of the ladder of development, and should you stumble, then down you go, and the Devil take you ... Thank you obediently, Yegor Fedorovich. I bow to your philosophical conical hat; but with all due respect to your philosophic philistinism, I have the honor to inform you that even if I did succeed to climb the topmost rung of the ladder of development, from there, too, I would ask you to give an accounting for all the victims of life and history, for all the victims of accident, superstition, Inquisition, Phillip II, and so on. Or else I would jump head first from the ladder’s topmost rung. I don’t want happiness even for free, unless I can rest tranquil about every one of my brothers in flesh, and blood ... It is said that discord is the premise for harmony. Maybe so. This is quite advantageous and delightful for music lovers, but, after all, it is not so for those whose lives are destined to ex-press the idea of discord ...”

What does it mean to get an accounting for the victims of accident, superstition, Inquisition, etc? In the opinion of Mr. Volynski it means exactly nothing.

“To these perplexities,” he says, “which Beliniski set down, for wit’s sake, in the form of a departmental report, with a malicious questionnaire of a compromising nature attached, Hegel, with a condescending smile, would have cut his excited opponent short and would have said: ‘Development demands sacrifices of man, the onerous exploit of self-renunciation, a mighty grieving over the welfare of the people, failing which there can be no individual welfare, but the philosophy of idealism does not hallow accidental victims, nor does it reconcile itself with superstition, with Inquisition. The dialectic process of development contains a mighty weapon – negation, which leads people out of the caves of inquisitorial casemates, out into the free air, into freedom. Accident is an anomaly and that alone is rational which beans the stamp of divine justice and wisdom ...’” (Russian Critics, page 102.)

In these eloquent lines there is, as usual, a lamentable lumping of undigested concepts, peculiar to the philosophic talent of Mr. Volynski. To begin with, Hegel would have said exactly nothing to Belinski anent the sacrifices and self-renunciation that are demanded of an individual by his own intellectual and moral development. That’s for sure. Hegel would have understood that Belinski is not talking about sacrifices of this sort at all.

To be sure, the German idealist would have thereby let slip a precious opportunity to coin eloquent phrases in the rhetorical style of Mr. Volynski but by way of compensation he would have come sooner to the point. And the point here touches precisely the following question: Wasn’t the element of negation, this truly “mighty weapon,” reduced to zero by the “absolute” conclusions which Hegel drew and by the conciliation with reality which he preached in the introduction to his Philosophy of Right? We have already seen that the answer is – yes; that such a contradiction did actually exist and that it flowed from the root contradiction, inherent in Hegel’s philosophy generally, i.e., the contradiction between the dialectic nature of this philosophy and its pretensions to the title of “absolute truth.” Mr. Volynski apparently doesn’t even suspect the existence of this contradiction. This does his “philosophic talent” no honor. Belinski, in contrast, already sensed as early as the end of the 1830’s that this contradiction existed.

“I have long suspected,” he says in the above-cited letter,” that Hegel’s philosophy is only a moment, even though a great one, but that the absoluteness of his results isn’t worth anything*; that it is better to die than reconcile oneself with it.”
(* A footnote of Mr. Pypin accompanies this phrase; it reads: “A sharp expression used in the text of the letter has been altered by us.”)

A Russian who “suspected” such things, and this, moreover, toward the end of the 1830’s had truly to possess a high “philosophic organism.” And feeble indeed are “philosophic organisms” who to this day fail to understand Belinski. What they deserve is not a “condescending” but the most scathing smile that can be smiled.

Belinski, naturally, doesn’t hold Hegel responsible for the exploits of the Inquisition, for the cruelty of Phillip II, and so on. When he asks Hegel for an accounting of all the victims of mankind’s historical movement, he charges Hegel with not remaining true to his own philosophy. And this charge is as valid as any charge could be. According to Hegel freedom is the goal of historical development and necessity is the means leading toward this goal. A philosophy, which interprets history from this elevated standpoint, cannot of course be held responsible for what has happened, independently of its will and influence. But one may justifiably demand from it that it point out the means wherewith reason shall triumph over blind accident. And these means can be supplied only by the process of development. By proclaiming himself as the possessor of absolute truth and by reconciling himself with the existing conditions, Hegel turned his back on all development and recognized as reason that necessity from which mankind of his day suffered. This was tantamount to proclaiming oneself a philosophic bankrupt. And it is exactly this act of bankruptcy that aroused Belinski. He was vexed that he, following in Hegel’s footsteps, had been able to perceive “a most perfect state” in the Russia of his day.

This most perfect state rested on the exploitation (through extremely antiquated methods) of the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. Rising up against Hegel’s “absolute” philosophy, Belinski understood this perfectly. He went over wholly to the side of the oppressed. But these oppressed did not appear in his eyes as producers, living under given historical conditions. He regarded them as people in general, as oppressed human individuals. For this reason he protested in the name of individuality.

“It is high time,” he exclaims, “for human individuality, unfortunate enough as it is, to free itself from the ignoble shackles of irrational reality, from the opinions of the mob and from traditions bequeathed by barbarous times.”

On this account there are some who would not be averse to picture Belinski as something akin to a liberal individualist. But this is absolutely groundless. Belinski himself clarifies his state of mind at the time quite excellently.

“Within me has grown a sort of fantastic love for freedom and independence of the human individuality, which is attainable only in a society based on truth and courage ... Human individuality has become a focal point on which I am fearful of losing my sanity. I am beginning to love humanity in Marat’s way: to make a tiniest fraction of it happy, I would, it seems, destroy the rest with fire and the sword.”

Liberal individualism this does not represent in any case. Nor has the following categorical declaration anything in common with it:

“I have now fallen into a new extreme – it is the idea of socialism which has became for me the idea of ideas ... the alpha and omega of faith and knowledge ... For me, it has swallowed up history and religion and philosophy. And therefore I now explain by it my life, your life and the lives of all those whom I have met on life’s highroad” (letter to Botkin, September 8, 1840).

Mr. Pypin hastens to assure us that Belinski’s socialism was at bottom perfectly harmless. The honor-laden scholar, in this case, labors in vain. Who doesn’t know that the socialism of Belinski’s day generally contained nothing dangerous to the social order of the time? But Belinski’s infatuation with socialism, while containing nothing dangerous, happens to have been a very important event in his mental life. And for this reason it ought not be left in the shadows but must be brought out into the clearest possible light.


Last updated on 20.2.2005