G.V. Plekhanov

Belinski and Rational Reality

(Part 4)

Chapter VII

Why did Belinski pass so swiftly and resolutely from “absolute” idealist philosophy to Utopian socialism? In order to clarify this transition it is necessary once again to return to our great critic’s attitude toward Hegel.

Even after Belinski condemned his own article on Borodino as foolish and unworthy of an honest writer, he continued to consider the period of his return from, Georgia, i.e., the period of his complete infatuation with Hegelian philosophy, as the beginning of his spiritual life. To him this period seems to have been “the best, at any rate, the most remarkable period” of his life. Another article on Borodino he considered foolish only because of its conclusions and not at all because of its basic propositions. He wrote:

“The idea I tried to develop in the article about Glinka’s book, Sketches of the Battle of Borodino, is true in its essentials.” He had only failed to take full advantage, as he should have, of these true essentials. “It was likewise necessary to develop the idea of negation as a historic right no less sanctified than the other historic right and failing which, mankind would be converted into a stagnant, stinking swamp.”

The reader has perhaps not forgotten the passage which we have already cited from Hegel’s lectures on the History of Philosophy. This passage shows that to the extent that Hegel remained true to his dialectic, he fully recognized the historic right of negation. Belinski thought that by having rejected Hegel’s “absolute” conclusions, he had completely rejected Hegel’s entire philosophy. Actually, he was only passing over from Hegel, the herald of “Absolute Truth,” to Hegel, the dialectician. Despite his jibes at Hegel’s philosopher cap, Belinski still remained a pure Hegelian. His first article on Peter the Great is saturated with the spirit of Hegelian philosophy. The same spirit pervades the second article, although here Belinski tried to take a different standpoint in his judgments concerning the influence of geographic environment on the spiritual qualities of various nations. But his rather unsuccessful reasoning does not in the least change the general character of his world outlook at the time; it remained thoroughly idealist. All of his co-thinkers likewise remained idealists at the time.

His biographer has apparently failed to grasp this accurately. Mr. Pypin declares that in Herzen’s Letters on the Study of Nature – published in Otchestvennye Zapiski, 1843 – “the tasks of philosophy and science were posed in the same way that the best minds pose them today.” (Belinski by Pypin, Volume 1, page 228.) This is a major blunder. Mr. Pypin was evidently misled by the categorical statement of the author of the Letters to the effect that “Hegel had raised thinking to so high a level as to make it impossible, after Hegel, to take a single forward step without absolutely leaving idealism behind.”

But this statement in no way hindered Herzen from remaining an idealist of purest water both in his views on nature (wherein he is wholly Hegelian) as well as in his views on the philosophy of history. He thought that “in materialism there is nowhere to go beyond Hobbes.” He said that the materialists in history were those to whom “the entire world history seemed to be a matter of personal inventions and a strange confluence of accidents.” (It is an interesting sidelight to compare this view with the charges levelled nowadays, from all sides, against the economic materialists.) Up to the middle of 1844, Herzen spoke throughout as an idealist in his Diary. Only in July 1844 did he refer commendingly to an article by Jordan in Wigand’s Quarterly. But this comment, too, did not at all signify any decisive turn in Herzen’s views.

Mr. Pypin also remarks that Belinski’s “last philosophic interest” was the positivism of Auguste Comte and Maximilien Littre “as the categorical rejection of metaphysics.” Mr. Pypin has unfortunately failed to print in full the letter in which Belinski, according to Mr. Pypin, dwells at length on positivism. Judging solely by the passage cited from this letter by Mr. Pypin, our great critic’s opinion of Comte was not overly favorable, as Mr. Pypin himself concedes. “Comte is a remarkable man,” says Belinski, “but the chances are rather slim, that he shall prove to be the founder of a new philosophy. For this genius is required, and in Comte there is not a sign of it.” This leads us to conclude that Belinski would not have inclined toward positivism, if death had not carried him off so prematurely.

If speculations are in order, then we shall take the liberty to speculate that Belinski would have become ultimately a zealous partisan of dialectic materialism which, in the second half of the 19th century, came to replace outlived idealist philosophy. Historical development, which absorbed Belinski’s philosophic thought, led precisely in this direction; and it was not for nothing that he read with so much satisfaction the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in which the future founders of dialectic materialism were then writing. If Belinski found nothing objectionable in their views in 1845, then why should he have risen up against them later on, after these views had been developed and given a firm foundation?

Let us note here, by the way, that the logical affinity of philosophic ideas speaks in favor of our speculation. And against it, one may say that Belinski, removed as he was so terribly far from, the centers of West European intellectual life and loaded perpetually with pressing work, would have found it hard not to lag behind the best minds of Europe. The greatest of geniuses requires for his development, the favorable influence of the surrounding milieu upon him; in Russia this milieu was fearsomely undeveloped in every respect. Therefore it is possible that Belinski might not have been able to the end of his days to reach a full, definitive and harmonious world outlook toward which he strived passionately and constantly. It is also possible that the social ferment which began in the second half of the 1850’s would have made of him the leader of our enlighteners of those days. As we shall presently see, in the last years of his life, there were not a few elements in his views that could have made comparatively easy such a transition to the wholly justifiable views of the Russian enlighteners at the time.

But enough of speculation; let us return to the facts.

Belinski felt the need of developing the idea of negation. Following in the footsteps of the author of Sketches of the Gogolian Period of Russian Literature, Mr. Pypin thinks that Belinski was greatly aided by Herzen in this particular development. He is of course correct in the sense that discussions and debates with so dynamic, clever and many-sidedly educated a man as Herzen were not and could not have been without some influence on Belinski’s views. But we think that the meetings with Herzen while they gave a strong impulsion to Belinski’s intellectual activity, offered him little in the way of assistance toward developing dialectic views on social events. Herzen and the dialectic got along poorly. As is well known, to the end of his days he saw in Proudhon’s Contradictions economiques a most successful application of the dialectic method to economic life. Herzen saw that, correctly understood, Hegel’s philosophy could not be a philosophy of stagnation (Hegel to the contrary notwithstanding). But if there was any one in Russia who understood poorly the Hegelian affirmation of the rationality of whatever exists, then it was surely none other than the brilliant but superficial Herzen. In My Past and Thoughts he says:

“The philosophic phrase which has done the greatest harm and on the basis of which German conservatives have sought to reconcile philosophy with Germany’s political life, namely, the phrase to the effect that ‘whatever is real is rational,’ was merely another way of stating the principle of sufficient reason and of the correspondence between logic and facts.”

But such a commonplace as “the principle of sufficient reason” would have never satisfied Hegel. The 18th century philosophers likewise recognized this principle but they remained very far removed from the Hegelian view of history as a lawful process. The whole point is this: Where and how does a given theory of society seek the sufficient reason for social events? Why did the old order in France fall? Was it because Mirabeau was so eloquent? Or was it because the French custodians (of the old order) were so untalented? Or was it because the flight of the royal family failed?

The “principle” singled out by Herzen vouches only for this, that there was some reason behind the downfall of the old order, but it offers no indications whatever as to the method of investigating this reason. This is the woeful condition that Hegel’s philosophy sought to remedy. Interpreting man’s historical development as a lawful process this philosophy eliminated therewith the standpoint of accident. (To be sure, Hegel said that there is an element of accident in everything that is finite – in allem Endlichen ist ein Element des Zufälligen – but by the whole meaning of his philosophy it is only at the point where several necessary processes intersect that we meet with accident. That is why the concept of accident accepted, and quite correctly so, by Hegel does not at all obstruct a scientific examination and explanation of events. Moreover, to understand a given accident, one must be able to find a satisfactory explanation for at least two necessary processes.)

And necessity, too, was not at all understood by Hegel in the commonplace meaning of the word. If we say, for example, that the old order in France fell because of an accidental failure of the royal flight, then we immediately recognize that the moment this flight failed, the downfall of the old order became necessary. Understood in this crude and superficial manner, necessity is simply the other side of accident.

With Hegel necessity has a different meaning. When he says that a given social event was necessary, he means that this social event had been prepared by the internal development of the country where it had taken place. But even this is not all. By the meaning of his philosophy each event creates in the process of its development, from within itself, those forces which negate it later on. Applying this to social life it means that every given social order itself generates those negative elements which will destroy it and will replace it with a new order. Once you understand the process whereby these negative elements are generated, you likewise understand the process that will bring the old order to its death.

By saying that he needed “to develop the idea of negation” Belinski wanted thereby to say that he needed to negate the historical necessity of the indicated elements in every given social order. In overlooking this important side of the matter, he had committed a serious blunder at the time. But the principle of “sufficient reason” suggested by Herzen was not at all sufficient to correct Belinski’s logical error. In this respect Belinski was left completely on his own resources.

To develop the idea of negation meant, among other things, to recognize the right of the “ideal” which in the heat of his infatuation with Hegel he had sacrificed to reality. But the ideal, lawful from Belinski’s new standpoint, could not be an “abstract ideal.” Since the historical negation of reality comes as the result of its own development it therefore follows that only that ideal can be recognised as lawful which itself rests on this development. Such an ideal will not be “torn out of geographic and historical conditions of development” and it cannot be said to have been “erected in mid-air.” It only expresses in image and thought the results of the process of development already taking place in reality. And it is concrete to the same extent as the unfolding development is itself concrete.

In the first phase of his development Belinski sacrificed reality for the sake of the ideal; in the second, he sacrificed the ideal for the sake of reality and finally in the third phase he sought to reconcile the ideal with reality by means of the idea of development which would give the ideal a firm foundation and transform, it from the “abstract” into the concrete.

This was now Belinski’s task. It was a great task. So long as men remain unable to solve such tasks, they are unable to influence consciously either their own development or that of society and therefore remain playthings of accident. But in order to pose oneself this task, it was necessary to break with the abstract ideal, to understand and feel thoroughly its utter impotence. To put it differently, Belinski had to live through the phase of reconciliation with reality. That is why this phase does him the greatest honor. And that is why he himself considered it later on as the start of his spiritual life.

But to set oneself a given task is one thing; to solve it, something else again.. Whenever a dispute arose over some difficult question, among the yung people who belonged to the Stankevich-Belinski circle, after tussling with it, they sometimes came to the conclusion that “only Hegel could solve it.” This is just what Belinski might have said to himself now when it fell upon him to apply the dialectical method to the interpretation of Russian historical development. But Hegel would not have justified his confidence, either. Dialectic idealism posed correctly the great task of social science in the 19th century, but it did not solve it, although, true enough, it did prepare this solution to a considerable degree.

To study an object means to explain the development of this object by all of the forces it itself generates. Thus spake Hegel. In his philosophy of history, he indicated very accurately in isolated instances the motor forces of historical development. But generally his idealism pushed him away from the correct path of investigation. If the logical development of the “idea” supplies the basis of all other development, including historical development, then history is to be explained in the final analysis by the logical properties of the “idea” and not by the dialectic development of social relations. And Hegel actually appealed to these logical properties each time he ran up against this or another great historical question. And this meant that he explained perfectly concrete events by means of abstractions. Precisely herein lies the error of idealism. It ascribes to abstraction a creative, motive force. That is why, as so often happens with idealists, arbitrary logical constructions take the place of the study of actual causal connections of events.

A correct, a genuinely scientific theory of historic development could make its appearance only after dialectic idealism had been replaced by dialectic materialism. Belinski did not live to see this new era. True, not a little variegated material had been collected in his day for the elaboration of a correct interpretation of history. The April 1897 issue of the magazine Novoye Slovo published certain views of V.P. Botkin on the role of economic interests in the historical development of mankind. There is nothing surprising in Botkin’s having held such views. Before being attracted to Hegel’s philosophy, Botkin was a follower of Saint-Simon, and Saint-Simon explained the entire modern history of Europe by the struggle of economic interests. (See in particular his Catechisme politique des industriels, where this view is expounded with special clarity in connection with French history; see also his letter to the editor of Journal General de France, May 12, 1818 where Saint-Simon says that “The most important of laws is the law which organizes property. It is the law which serves as the foundation of the social order.”)

There was not a little in this connection that Botkin could have borrowed from other Utopian socialists, for instance, Victor Considerant and even Louis Blanc (especially Blanc’s Histoire de dix ans). Finally there is a good deal he might have obtained, from the French historians, Guizot, Mignet, de Tocqueville. It is difficult to assume that Botkin remained ignorant of Tocqueville’s famous book, De la democratie en Amerique, the first volume of which was already out by 1836.

The dependence of social development on economic relations, more accurately, on property relations, is accepted as an incontestable truth in this book. According to Tocqueville, once property relations are given they “may be regarded as the first cause for laws, customs and ideas which determine the activities of the people.” Even that which these relations do not engender, at any rate changes correspondingly with them. In order to understand the laws and morals of a given people it is therefore necessary to study the property relations dominant among them. (See, in particular, Tocqueville’s Destinée sociale.) The last two volumes of Tocqueville’s first work are wholly devoted to the. study of how the existing property relations in the United States influence the intellectual and esthetic habits and needs of the Americans. As a consequence of all this Botkin could have arrived without too much difficulty at the conviction that spiritual development is determined by the course of social development. This conviction of Botkin’s was assuredly known to Belinski. It was expressed, for example, in Belinski’s views on the historical significance of Pushkin’s poetry. But it could not serve him as a reliable guiding line in the elaboration of a concrete ideal. The point is this, that Saint-Simon as well as Considerant and other Utopian socialists, along with the historians who discerned in property relations the most important basis of the social structure, remained nevertheless idealists with regard to the evolution of these relations, i.e., with regard to the main cause of social movement. They understood the social significance of economics; what they failed to see was the root cause upon the action of which depends the economic order of every given society. In their eyes the cause was in part accident, fortunate or unfortunate, (for example, advantageous geographic position, conquest, and so forth) and in part human nature. That is why all of them appealed chiefly to human nature in support of social institutions or plans they cherished. But to appeal to human nature means to take your stand on the side of the abstract ideal, and not on the vantage point of the dialectic development of social relations. Precisely therein lies the essence of the Utopian outlook on society.

Prior to the appearance of the historical theory of the author of Capital, all socially minded public figures who were not completely carefree about theory, from the extreme left to the extreme right, were Utopians to one degree or another. It is therefore understandable why Belinski, too, on concluding his truce with reality, had to take the Utopian standpoint, contrary to his own striving toward the concrete ideal. This striving could leave its stamp only on a few of his isolated views, considerations and judgments.

Chapter VIII

“In Moscow,” Kavelin notes in his memoirs, “Belinski put forward, during a conversation with Granovski ... the Slavophile idea that Russia would perhaps be better able than Europe to solve the social question and put an end to the hostility between capital, property and labor.” This is indeed a pure Slavophile point of view, later adopted by Russian populists and subjectivists. Belinski, the irreconcilable enemy of the Slavophiles, could have entertained, such an idea only by dint of his attraction to Utopian socialism.

We have already observed that in his sympathy for the oppressed, Belinski regarded them not as beings living and working under specific historical conditions but as a sum total of “personalities” unjustly deprived of rights which are the natural rights of human individuals.

From this abstract viewpoint the future development of social negations was bound to appear not so much dependent on an inner logic of their own as, on the contrary, on the personal traits of a people, oppressed in one way or another by these relations. The dialectic was bound to cede place to utopia.

Betimes Belinski also approached the future destiny of Russia from the standpoint of the traits of the Russian “personality.” In the article, A Glance at Russian Literature of 1846, he says: “Yes, through us there pulses national life; we are called upon to speak our word to the world, to utter our thought.” What is this word? Belinski refuses to engage in speculations and guesses on this score, “for fear most of all of conclusions that are arbitrary and merely subjective in their import.” (His attitude toward subjectivism, as we see, remained unchanged from the time he wrote the article on the anniversary of Borodino.)

But just the same it seems to him that the many-sidedness with which Russians understand other foreign nationalities, permits of certain judgments concerning Russia’s future cultural mission.

“We do not affirm it as ineluctable that the Russian people are destined to express through their nationality the richest and most many-sided content; and that this is why a Russian has a remarkable capacity for assimilating and adapting everything foreign to himself,” says Belinski. “But we are so bold as to think that a kindred idea expressed as a supposition, without boastfulness and fanaticism, would not be found lacking in justification.”

He expressed himself quite sharply in the same vein in his March 8, 1847 letter to Botkin:

“Russian personality is still only an embryo; but what breadth and strength there is in the nature of this embryo! How stifling and repulsive to it are all limitations and narrowness! It fears them and most of all it is intolerant of them; and in my opinion it does well to be meanwhile satisfied with nothing rather than become enslaved by some shabby one-sidedness. The contention that we Russians are all-embracing because there is actually nothing we can do – is a lie, the more I think of it all the more convinced am I that it is a lie ... Don’t think I am an enthusiast on this question. No, I came to solve it (for myself) along the hard road of doubts and negation.”

A similar “solution” opened wide the doors for the Slavophile view on the social question in Russia. It is commonly known that this view was based on a completely false conception of the historical development of the Russian obshchina. Incidentally, the sort of conception held by the most advanced thinkers at the time is graphically shown by the following comment Herzen made in his Diary: “The model of the highest development of the Slav obshchina is the Montenegrin.”

But the Montenegrin obshchina is a consanguine community completely unlike the Russian village obshchina which has been created by the Czarist government for the better securement of its fiscal interests, long after the consanguine tribal community disintegrated among us. In any case, our village obshchina could never evolve along the lines of the Montenegrin. But at the time our Westerners regarded the obshchina as abstractly as did the Slavophiles. And if among them a conviction occasionally arose that there was a brilliant future for the obshchina, then this came about as a mere act of faith, the product of a pressing moral need for an escape, even if through fiction, from the onerous impressions of surrounding reality. Herzen says flatly in his Diary:

“Chaadayev once made the splendid remark that one of Christianity’s greatest traits is to raise the hope in virtue and place it alongside of faith and love. I agree completely with him. This side of putting trust in sorrow, of firm faith in an apparently hopeless situation must be realized primarily by us.”

Why did men like Herzen feel themselves in a hopeless situation? Because they were unable to work out for themselves any kind of concrete ideal, i.e., an ideal indicated by the historical development of a reality they found so unpleasant; and failing to attain such an ideal they underwent the same moods of oppression through which Belinski had passed in the days of his youthful infatuation with the abstract ideal. They felt themselves completely impotent. “We fall outside the needs of the people,” complained Herzen.

He would not have said this had he seen that the “idea of negation,” he had allegedly made his own, was the result of the inner development of a people’s life. He would not have then felt himself outside of the needs of the people. Just like Herzen, Belinski exclaims:

“We are the unhappy anchorites of a new Scythia; we are men without a country, nay, we are worse off than men without a country; we are men whose country is a phantom and is it surprising that we ourselves are phantoms? that our friendships, our love, our strivings, our activities are phantoms, too?”

Owing to such moods, a temporary inclination toward Slavophile fantasies is quite understandable even in a thinker so strong in logic as Belinski.

It was a temporary inclination, we just said. From all indications with Belinski, in contrast to Herzen, it was not only temporary but brief. Not in vain did Herzen say of Belinski that he “cannot live in expectations of the life of a future age.” What the Germans call jenseits (the beyond) exerted little attraction on Belinski. He needed the firm soil of reality. In the article, A Glance at Russian Literature of 1846, from which we have extracted some dubious hypotheses about the future of Russian civilization, he refutes the attacks of Slavophiles on the reforms of Peter the Great and notes:

“Such events in the life of a people are far too great to be accidental and the life of a people is not a flimsy little boat to which anyone may impart an arbitrary direction by a slight movement of an oar. Instead of pondering the impossible and making oneself a laughing stock by intervening with so much conceit in historical destiny, it is much preferable, recognizing the existence of irresistible and unalterable reality, to act upon the foundations of this reality, guiding oneself with reason and ordinary sense, and not with Manilovist fantasies.”

In another passage, recognizing that a certain reform had exerted some unfavorable influence on the Russian national character, he adds the following important qualification:

“But it is impermissible to stop with the recognition of the validity of any fact whatsoever; it is necessary in addition to investigate its causes, in the hopes of finding in the evil itself the means for a way out of this evil.”

The means of struggle against the unfavorable consequences of Peter the Great’s reform must be sought within the reform, itself, within the new elements it introduced into Russian life. This is a wholly dialectical view on the question; and to the extent that Belinski upholds it in the dispute with the Slavophiles, to that extent his thoughts are alien to all utopianism; to that extent his thoughts are concrete.

lie feels this himself and deals in passing several blows to his old, ever-present enemy – the abstract ideal. “The unconditional or absolute method of thinking is the easiest one,” he says. “But, in return, it is the most unreliable; today it is called abstract thinking.” In his opinion the main source of Slavophile errors is “that they arbitrarily anticipate time; they take the results independently of the process of development; they demand to see the fruit before the blossoms, and finding the leaves tasteless, they pronounce the fruit to be rotten; and they propose to transplant a great and vast forest to a different location and to take care of it in a different way. In their opinion this is not easy but it can be done.” These lines contain so profound and serious a view of social life that we warmly recommend it to the study of our present-day Slavophiles, i.e., populists, subjectivists, Mr. N—on and other “enemies of capitalism.” Whoever assimilates this viewpoint will not venture, like Mr. N—on, to try to impose on “society” a remarkable task which society is not only incapable of carrying out but is not even in a condition to understand; nor will he think, like Mr. Mikhailovski, that to follow in “Peter the Great’s footsteps” is to nurse Utopias; in brief, he will never reconcile himself with an “abstract ideal.”

Three months before his death on February 15, 1848, Belinski, then cruelly ravaged by illness, dictated a letter to Annenkov in Paris. It contains many interesting ideas which have only recently begun to attract the attention of thinking Russians.

“Whenever I called you a conservative during our debates over the bourgeoisie,” he said, “I was foolish and you were wise. The whole future of France is in the hands of the bourgeoisie; all progress depends exclusively upon it and the people here can only play a passive, auxiliary role from time to time. When I remarked in the presence of my ‘believing friend’ that Russia now needed another Peter the Great he attacked my idea as a heresy. He claimed that the people ought to do everything for itself. What a naive, Arcadian notion! Furthermore, my ‘believing friend’ expounded to me why God was obliged to save Russia from the bourgeoisie while today it is clearly evident that the inner process of civil development in Russia will not begin before the Russian nobility becomes transformed into a bourgeoisie ... What a strange fellow I am! Each time a mystical absurdity falls into my head, those who are capable of rational thought rarely succeed in knocking it out by arguments; for this to happen I must congregate with mystics, pietists and screwballs who have gone mad on the same idea – and then I shy away. My ‘believing friend’ and the Slavophiles have done me a great service. Do not be surprised by the juxtaposition; the best of the Slavophiles take the same attitude toward the people as my ‘believing friend’ does; they have imbibed these concepts from the socialists ...”

This was one of the results of Belinski’s trip abroad. In Paris social life and thought were very vigorous at the time and the socialists of various schools had acquired a considerable, although unstable, influence on the world outlook of the French intelligentsia. In Paris there then lived not a few Russians who were passionately interested in social questions, as is evident from Annenkov’s memoirs. Strongly stimulated by the social milieu, our fellow Russians became apparently bent on speculating even more eagerly and vehemently than they did at home on the theme of Russia’s future role in the solution of the social question. Clashing with extreme views of this sort, thanks to his powerful instinct for theoretical truth, Belinski instantly took note of their weak side: complete abstraction, complete absence of any rational, conscious connection with the historical course of Russia’s development. The old Hegelian must have felt again the long familiar and long vexing need to tie: up the ideal with life, to gain from dialectic the explanation of today’s reality. And so he made Russia’s future destiny dependent on its economic development; Russia’s internal process of civil development would not start until the Russian nobility had turned into a bourgeoisie. Therewith the historical conditions for such a transformation remained unclear to him. He failed to see that the economic consequences of Peter the Great’s reforms are quite adequate for the development of capitalism in Russia.

Likewise unclear to him is the historic relation between the bourgeoisie and the people of Western Europe. The people appear to him to be condemned to a “passive, auxiliary role.” This is, of course, an error. But all of the socialist Utopias assigned to the people a perfectly passive role; with this difference that the people, in accordance with Utopian views, were bound to play a “passive, auxiliary role” not in the process of the further development of the already existing social order, but in respect to social reform. Here the initiative and the leading role belonged of necessity to the well-meaning and honorable intelligentsia, that is, essentially the offspring of the self-same bourgeoisie.

Belinski was contemptuous of the socialists and was evidently ready to denounce them, too, as pietists and mystics. He was by and large correct; in their views there actually was a lot that was completely fantastic and unscientific. And their chief error, just as in the case of the Slavophiles, was – as Belinski noted – that they saw nothing but evil in evil and failed to note the other side of this evil, namely the drastic alteration effected by it in society’s foundations. (Belinski, by the way, expressed a negative attitude toward the socialists even before his trip abroad. He approved of the French philosopher Littre, for example, because Littre did not adhere to the Utopian socialists. See his letter to Botkin, January 29, 1847.)

Belinski unsuccessfully tried to correct the error of the Utopian socialists by condemning the “people” to an eternal, passive role. But his correct understanding of the error is proved precisely by his extolling the significance of the bourgeoisie, i.e., of capitalism. In his eyes capitalism now represented the idea of development which had failed to find a sufficient place in the teachings of the socialists.

This attitude toward the Utopians involuntarily recalls Belinski’s contemptuous attitude toward the “little, great people,” whom he had so savagely lashed in the days of his conciliationist moods. His ire was aroused against the “little, great people” who approached social life from a rationalist standpoint, without even suspecting the existence of the inner dialectic peculiar to this social life. Belinski’s attitude toward the Utopians was much milder, although he did call them mystics. He understood that their enthusiasms were not guided by caprice or vanity but by a striving toward the social good, whereas the “little, great people” seemed to him vainglorious phrasemongers, and nothing more. But his dissatisfaction with the Utopians stemmed from the very same reasons that had previously led him to scorn the “little, great people,” namely: the abstract character of their ideal.

I.S. Turgenev designated Belinski as a central figure. Our designation is the same, but in a different sense. In our view Belinski is the central figure in the whole course of development of Russian social thought. He posed to himself, and therefore to others as well, the great problem, failing whose solution we can never know what the ways are civilized mankind must travel to attain happiness and the triumph of reason over the blind, elemental force of necessity; failing whose solution we would have forever remained in the sterile domain of “Manilovist” fantasies, the domain of the ideal “torn out of geographic and historical conditions of development and erected in mid-air.” A more or less correct solution of this problem must serve as the criterion for evaluating the entire future development of our social concepts. Of his co-thinkers Belinski said: “Our generation are Israelites, a tribe wandering in the desert and not destined to see the promised land. And all of the leaders are Moseses and not Joshuas.” Belinski was precisely our Moses, who, even though he failed to rid himself of the Egyptian yoke of the abstract ideal, nevertheless tried with all his might to free himself and those near him from it. This is the great, inestimable merit of Belinski. And this is why the history of his intellectual development should have been long ago analyzed from the standpoint of the concrete views of our time. The more attentively we study this history, all the more deeply are we convinced that Belinski was the most remarkable philosophic organism that ever came forth in Russian literature.


Last updated on 20.2.2005