For Whom “The Bell” Tolls

One of the greats of Russian literature isn’t a novelist, poet or playwright, but rather was a publicist, editor and political philosopher. Alexander Herzen was the illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman who nonetheless received a first-class education and, upon his father’s death, used his sizable fortune to declare war on tsarism and autocracy.  He would have to do this in exile, and founded a publishing house in London, publishing such periodicals as Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star) and Kolokol (The Bell).  The latter of these became highly influential, even being read by the tsar and his inner circle.   

Why is Herzen still relevant today?  He is regarded as one of the (many) fathers of socialist thought but he rejected substituting one monist, doctrinaire theory with another.   While certainly no apologist for the established order, he rejected overarching utopian visions and radical attempts to remake society.  He surely would have rejected Vladimir Lenin’s aphorism, “In order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.”  

While not comparing myself to Herzen (OK, I will), I followed a similar intellectual path. Growing up in the 1960’s and radicalized by the Vietnam war and civil rights movement, I found revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh incredibly romantic.  I even fell in with a socialist group while still in high school.   However, after rubbing shoulders with some actual living Marxists I found their world view stifling, authoritarian and devoid of independent thought.  I see parallels of these doomed efforts to remake the world in our own time, such as the hubris and messianistic utopianism of attempting to remake the Middle East by force of arms.  This is not to be resigned to accept the world as it is, but to move forward with clear eyes as to what can be accomplished without causing more harm than good.   

Herzen was rescued from obscurity by the Russian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who popularized the aphorism “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” to illustrate his and Herzen’s pluralistic view of history.  In other words, as my mother would say to my great frustration, “you can’t change human nature.”  The British historian E. H. Carr wrote a great book about Herzen and his circle called “The Romantic Exiles,” which focused more on their personal lives, which were intertwined and messy.   More recently, the great playwright Tom Stoppard, himself of Czech descent, wrote a cycle of plays centering around Herzen called “The Coast of Utopia,” which capture the intellectual ferment of the era, and Herzen’s battles with such luminaries like Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.  These three plays, “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” even had a run on Broadway.  Herzen’s major work is his autobiographical “My Life and Thoughts.”  A humane, independent thinker such as Herzen, who threw his all against the reactionary forces of his day, should never be forgotten.  

Alexander Herzen (1812 – 1870)