From Socialist Review, No.223, October 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Romantic Exiles
It is said that bistro, the French word for a type of small café comes from the Allied occupation of France after the defeat of Napoleon. Russian officers would shout in their own language ‘Bistra! Bistra!, ‘(Faster! Faster!) to chivvy the waiters of Paris. Whether this was the distinctively Russian contribution to the fast food culture of the early 19th century remains uncertain. One thing is sure: the Parisian waiters had the last laugh. For among the Russian officers who returned home there were those who took with them the ideas of the French Revolution. The Decembrist revolt of 1825 was inspired by such ideas. It was an ill conceived, clumsily executed attempt at an officer led mutiny against Tsar Nicholas I, easily suppressed and brutally repressed with hangings and exile. But it marked the beginning of the revolutionary movement in Russia and electrified a generation of idealistic young aristocrats. Among them was a 13 year old boy called Alexander Herzen, who swore a secret oath with a friend to dedicate his life to the ideals for which the Decembrists had suffered. This book, written by one of the most eminent historians of modern Russia and first published in 1933, is about Herzen and his friends and the ideals they tried to live by.
Herzen was a contemporary of Karl Marx and drew on similar sources of inspiration. The rising waves of revolutionary struggle in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s held out the promise of a glittering new world which seemed almost within reach. The ideas of the German philosopher Hegel, in which the statics of appearance are belied by the dialectics of change, were taken by both men to constitute, in Herzen’s useful phrase, ‘the algebra of revolution’. Both men spent much of their lives in exile, Marx in grinding poverty, Herzen flitting restlessly with his entourage around the cultural and leisure centres of Europe. Unlike Marx, Herzen proved incapable of progressing beyond the romantic idealism of youth. Romanticism in those days was closely bound up with the ideological legacy of the French Revolution: the essential nobility of the human spirit and the freeing from the shackles of tradition of its highest emotions – passion for justice, sympathy with the oppressed, altruism in love. Noble sentiments, but vague and impractical. Expectations were disappointed. The revolutions of 1848 did not usher in the promised land (though defeated, they nevertheless prompted a renewed surge of capitalist development). The religion of love foundered on the rocks of petty self interest, dishonesty, unfaithfulness and egotistical self indulgence. The young romantic went to his grave an embittered sceptic. Only one material achievement remained to Herzen at the end: the enhancement of the considerable fortune he had inherited from his father.
Herzen’s own legacy to the Russian revolutionary movement was the idealisation of the peasantry as a force which could bring about a uniquely Russian kind of socialism without having to suffer the trials of industrialisation. This became known as Russian Populism or Narodnikism, from the word narod – the people—a term which could be used in a mystical or semi-mystical way. Apart from a brief period during the 1917 revolution, Narodnikism was never as popular among the peasants it espoused as it was among the middle classes, including the lesser gentry landowners. This might seem strange to us now. But it must be remembered that a working class only began to take shape in Russia towards the end of the 19th century and that it was still a minority of the population when it took power in October 1917 at the head of the insurgent peasantry. The middle classes had their own grievances against tsarism but they were too small and insignificant to be able to apply much pressure on their own. As Trotsky put it so graphically in the case of the writer Tolstoy: ‘From the landlord’s manor there runs a short and narrow path straight to the hut of the peasant.’ The aristocratic Tolstoy saw the peasant as the agent of spiritual salvation, the aristocratic Herzen as the raw material of political change.
Built into Narodnikism was the wavering uncertainty of the middle class psyche, resentful of its masters, yet dependent on them for its relative privilege, and not averse to posing as the champion of the dark masses which it nevertheless feared enough to seek the protection of the local barracks commander. Herzen himself had something of a predisposition to throwing himself at the feet of the commander of all the barracks in Russia. What E.H. Carr calls the culminating point of Herzen’s public career came in 1861, when one of the key reforms for which he had been struggling, the emancipation of the serfs, was enacted by the new tsar, Alexander II (serfdom was a kind of rural slavery in which the peasants were tied to the land and could be sold with it; emancipation came at the cost of huge redemption payments which were only cancelled more than 40 years later as a result of the 1905 Revolution). Carr continues the story:
‘Alexander II had nobly justified the hopes which they had rested on him. Herzen was filled with joy and pride; and when, after some delay, the text of the proclamation reached London, he was determined to hold a monster fête, at Orsett House, to celebrate this cardinal event in the history of his country ... Herzen had nourished the secret intention of drinking to the health of the tsar at the dinner – a gesture of reconciliation which would, he felt, make a sensation throughout the Russian world. A few minutes before the guests arrived, tragic news was brought in. A riot had broken out in Warsaw, and the Russian troops were firing on the Polish mob ... an atmosphere of gloom descended on the festival ... the occasion remained in Herzen’s memory as an embarrassing blend of jollification and mourning.’
This is, in fact, one of the relatively few occasions on which Carr releases the reader from a claustrophobically minute examination of the personal lives of Herzen and his circle. We get a blow by blow account of how Herzen’s wife deceived him – and herself – with the poet Georg Herwegh. Of Herzen’s political ideas, career as a publicist, activities as the editor of the influential paper The Bell, there are only glimpses.
It is not Herzen’s human failings which make him so attractive to Carr. It is his political frailty. Herzen ultimately gave way to the prevailing mood of demoralisation and pessimism, surrendered himself, gave in, gave up. Isaiah Berlin, who, like Carr, was an admirer of Herzen and an unsympathetic biographer of Marx (Carr’s own work is subtitled A ‘Study in Fanaticism’) remarked on Marx’s unusual ability to keep going in the face of triumphant reaction throughout Europe. Berlin makes it clear that this was due to Marx’s narrow mindedness and emotional insensitivity.
So Herzen, the tasteful, stylish failure, makes a more interesting historical subject for Carr than Marx, with his political stamina.
Last updated: 29.3.2008