Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen, the illegitimate son of Ivan Yakovlev, a wealthy member of the nobility, was born in Moscow, Russia, on 25th March, 1812, and was the heir to a considerable fortune. According to Isaiah Berlin: "Ivan Yakovlev, a rich and well-born Russian gentleman... a morose, difficult, possessive, distinguished and civilized man, who bullied his son, loved him deeply, embittered his life, and had an enormous influence upon him both by attraction and repulsion."

As a child he had deep sympathy for the serfs under the control of his father and uncle. Herzen explains in his autobiography, My Past and Thoughts (1867)" Neither my father nor my uncle was specially tyrannical, at least in the way of corporal punishment. My uncle, being hot-tempered and impatient, was often rough and unjust... A commoner form of punishment was compulsory enlistment in the Army, which was intensely dreaded by all the young men-servants. They preferred to remain serfs, without family or kin, rather than carry the knapsack for twenty years. I was strongly affected by those horrible scenes: at the summons of the land-owner, a file of military police would appear like thieves in the night and seize their victim without warning." These experiences developed in Herzen a deep sympathy for the peasants and became an advocate of social reform.

One of his tutors, Ivan Protopopov, introduced him to the work of Alexander Pushkin and Kondraty Ryleyev (a poet who had been executed for his role in the Decembrist Revolt that attempted to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. "This man was full of that respectable indefinite liberalism, which, though it often disappears with the first grey hair, marriage, and professional success, does nevertheless raise a man's character... He began to bring me manuscript copies, in very small writing and very much frayed, of Pushkin's poems - Ode to Freedom, The Dagger, and of Ryleyev's Thoughts. These I used to copy out in secret."

In 1827 Alexander Herzen became friends with Nikolay Ogarev. Herzen commented in his autobiography: "I do not know why people dwell exclusively on recollections of first love and say nothing about memories of youthful friendship. First love is so fragrant, just because it forgets difference of sex, because it is passionate friendship. Friendship between young men has all the fervour of love and all its characteristics - the same shy reluctance to profane its feeling by speech, the same diffidence and absolute devotion, the same pangs at parting, and the same exclusive desire to stand alone without a rival."

Herzen was educated at the University of Moscow. He studied mathematics and physics: "I never had any great turn or much liking for mathematics, Nikolay and I were taught the subject by the same teacher, whom we liked because he told us stories; he was very entertaining, but I doubt if he could have developed a special passion in any pupil for his branch of science... I chose that Faculty, because it included the subject of natural science, in which I then took a specially strong interest."

While at university Herzen mixed in radical circles: "The pursuit of knowledge had not yet become divorced from realities, and did not distract our attention from the suffering humanity around us; and this sympathy heightened the social morality of the students. My friends and I said openly in the lecture-room whatever came into our heads; copies of forbidden poems were freely circulated, and forbidden books were read aloud and commented on; and yet I cannot recall a single instance of information given by a traitor to the authorities."

Afterwards he worked at a girls' school run by French Catholic priests. One of his students was the 12 year-old Tanya Passek. She later recalled how Herzen's teaching was a revelation. At her previous school her education consisted of reading "volumes of incomprehensible hieroglyphics, the coldness and severity of the teachers and the constant fear of punishment: having to wear a dunce's cap, or being led on a string around the building". Herzen introduced Passek to the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.

Herzen's outspoken views on the need to bring an end to serfdom and autocratic rule resulted in him being arrested and sent into internal exile. In 1835 he was forced to work as a government official in Vyatka (now Kirov). Later he moved to Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the city's official gazette. After criticizing the police he was sentenced to two years exile in Novogorod.

Herzen became friends with, Mikhail Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolay Ogarev. As Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976): "In the 1830s writers like Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen and Ogarev, all consumed by the desire for philosophical certainties, were tentatively exploring the ideas of socialism within a framework of romantic culture.... Herzen's quasi-religious desire for inner peace prompted him to mediate between the more extreme philosophies of his friends. On the other hand there was Bakunin, whose radical interpretation of the theories of Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen were to lead him to a more doctrinaire violence."

Another friend, Pavel Annenkov, commented: "I must own that I was puzzled and overwhelmed, when I first came to know Herzen - by this extraordinary mind which darted from one topic to another with unbelievable swiftness, with inexhaustible wit and brilliance; which could see in the turn of somebody's talk, in some simple incident, in some abstract idea, that vivid feature which gives expression and life. He had a most astonishing capacity for instantaneous, unexpected juxtaposition of quite dissimilar things, and this gift he had in a very high degree, fed as it was by the powers of the most subtle observation and a very solid fund of encyclopedic knowledge. He had it to such a degree that, in the end, his listeners were sometimes exhausted by the inextinguishable fireworks of his speech, the inexhaustible fantasy and invention, a kind of prodigal opulence of intellect which astonished his audience."

At the age of twenty-six he married his first cousin, Natalie Zakharina. In 1842 Herzen returned to Moscow and immediately joined those campaigning for reform. His wide-reading had radicalized him and he was now a supporter of the anarchist-socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Herzen believed that the peasants in Russia could become a revolutionary force and after the overthrow of the nobility would create a socialist society. This included the vision of peasants living in small village communes where the land was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines.

After receiving a large inheritance from his father, Herzen decided to leave Russia. He arrived in Paris in 1847 and witnessed the political struggles that resulted in the 1848 Revolution. His commentary on the failed European revolutions, From the Other Shore, was published in 1850. Herzen wrote: "In nature, as in the souls of men, there slumber endless possibilities and forces, and in suitable conditions... they develop, and will develop furiously. They may fill a world, or they may fall by the roadside. They may take a new direction. They may stop. They may collapse... Nature is perfectly indifferent to what happens... But then, you may ask, what is all this for?... To look at the end and not at the action itself is a cardinal error. Of what use to the flower is its bright magnificent bloom? Or this intoxicating scent, since it will only pass away?... None at all. But nature is not so miserly. She does not disdain what is transient, what is only in the present. At every point she achieves all she can achieve ... Who will find fault with nature because flowers bloom in the morning and die at night, because she has not given the rose or the lily the hardness of flint? And this miserable pedestrian principle we wish to transfer to the world of history... Life has no obligation to realise the fantasies and ideas of civilisation... Life loves novelty... History seldom repeats itself, it uses every accident, simultaneously knocks at a thousand doors... doors which may open... who knows?"

Herzen's biographer, Edward Acton, the author of Alexander Herzen and the Role of the Intellectual Revolutionary (1979) has argued: "One of the first members of the Russian intelligentsia to adopt socialism, he acknowledged a major debt to Fourier, the Saint-Simonians, Blanc and Proudhon. Initially he looked to the West to inaugurate an era of socialist justice and individual liberty. The failure of the Revolutions of 1848 affected him profoundly. His commentary on them, From the Other Shore (1850), ranks with those of Marx and Tocqueville. Its finest lines explored the tensions between an unqualified affirmation of the individual and the sacrifices demanded by the revolutionary cause."

In 1852 Herzen moved to London. The accession of Alexander II in 1855 gave Herzen hope that reform would take place in Russia and he established the Free Russian Press that published a series of journals including The Bell. Herzen predicted that because of its backward economy, socialism would be introduced into Russia before any other European country. "What can be accomplished only by a series of cataclysms in the West can develop in Russia out of existing conditions."

Herzen was joined in England by Mikhail Bakunin. The two men worked together on the journal until 1863 when Bakunin went to join the insurrection in Poland. The Bell was smuggled into Russia where it was distributed to those who favoured reform. According to Isaiah Berlin "Herzen... dealt with anything that seemed to be of topical interest. He exposed, he denounced, he derided, he preached, he became a kind of Russian Voltaire of the mid-nineteenth century. He was a journalist of genius, and his articles, written with brilliance, gaiety and passion, although, of course, officially forbidden, circulated in Russia and were read by radicals and conservatives alike."

Herzen's views expressed in the newspaper appeared fairly conservative to those embracing the ideas of revolutionary groups such as the People's Will and the Liberation of Labour. Herzen criticized the desire to impose a new system on the people arguing that the time had come to stop "taking the people for clay and ourselves for sculptors".

Herzen wrote that left-wing intellectuals should stop taking "the people for clay and ourselves for sculptors". On one occasion Louis Blanc, a committed socialist, said to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society. Herzen asked him why? Blanc replied "Surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society." Herzen retorted: "But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself."

Herzen rejected the ideas of people like Karl Marx who promoted the idea that socialism was inevitable. As Isaiah Berlin points out: "The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee - to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions - freedom, happiness, justice - fanatical generalizations, mystical sounds, idolized sets of words."

Five members of the People's Will being executed on 3rd April, 1881
Alexander Herzen

In 1865 Herzen wrote: "Social progress is possible only under complete republican freedom, under full democratic equality. A republic that would not lead to Socialism seems an absurdity to us - a transitional stage regarding itself as the goal. On the other hand, Socialism which might try to dispense with political freedom would rapidly degenerate into an autocratic Communism." In another article he claimed: "Who will finish us off? The senile barbarism of the sceptre or the wild barbarism of communism, the bloody sabre, or the red flag? Communism will sweep across the world in a violent tempest - dreadful, bloody, unjust, swift."

Isaiah Berlin has argued: "The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee - to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions - freedom, happiness, justice - fanatical generalizations, mystical sounds, idolized sets of words."

Herzen believed that any socialist revolution in Russia would have to be instigated by the peasantry. According to Edward Acton: "Nineteenth-century Russia was overwhelmingly a peasant society, and it was to the peasantry that Herzen looked for revolutionary upheaval and socialist construction. Central to his vision was the existence of the Russian peasant commune. In most parts of the empire the peasantry lived in small village communes where the land was owned by the commune and was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines. In this he saw the embryo of a socialist society. If the economic burdens of serfdom and state taxation were to be removed, and the land of the nobility made over to the communes, they would develop into flourishing socialist cells."

Acton goes on to argue: "The oppression of the central state could be done away with altogether and replaced by a socialist society of independent, egalitarian communes. There was no need for Russia to follow in the footsteps of the West, to pass through the purgatory of capitalist, industrial and urban development or of bourgeois constitutional government. She could benefit from her late arrival on the historical scene and avoid the mistakes of others." Herzen's ideas later inspired the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

Lenin was later to criticise the ideas of Herzen: "Herzen belonged to the generation of revolutionaries among the nobility and landlords of the first half of the last century.... His 'socialism' was one of the countless forms and varieties of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois socialism of the period of 1848, which were dealt their death-blow in the June days of that year. In point of fact, it was not socialism at all, but so many sentimental phrases, benevolent visions, which were the expression at that time of the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats, as well as of the proletariat, which had not yet freed itself from the influence of those democrats... Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep scepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen’s spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away (in Europe), while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured."

Tom Stoppard has written about Herzen's relationship with Karl Marx: "Marx distrusted Herzen, and was despised by him in return. Herzen had no time for the kind of mono-theory that bound history, progress and individual autonomy to some overarching abstraction like Marx's material dialecticism. What he did have time for - and what bound Isaiah Berlin to him - was the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical. What he detested above all was the conceit that future bliss justified present sacrifice and bloodshed. The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and wilfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind."

After the decline in popularity of The Bell, Herzen devoted his energies to My Past and Thoughts (1867). The book was a mixture of autobiography and an analysis of the social, political and ideological developments that had taken place during his life. Edward Acton has pointed out: "In its pages the pattern of his own life was skillfully woven into the fabric of political, social and ideological developments around him.... In fusing his personal experience with the history of an era, Herzen created a literary and political masterpiece which shows no signs of losing its force."

Alexander Herzen died in Paris on 9th January, 1870.

Primary Sources

(1) Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts (1867)

Neither my father nor my uncle was specially tyrannical, at least in the way of corporal punishment. My uncle, being hot-tempered and impatient, was often rough and unjust to servants; but he thought so little about them and came in contact with them so seldom, that each side knew little of the other. My father wore them out by his fads : he could never pass over a look or a word or a movement without improving the occasion; and a Russian often resents this treatment more than blows or bad language.

Corporal punishment was almost unknown with us; and the two or three cases in which it was resorted to were so exceptional, that they formed the subject of conversation for whole months downstairs; it should also be said that the offences which provoked it were serious.

A commoner form of punishment was compulsory enlistment in the Army, which was intensely dreaded by all the young men-servants. They preferred to remain serfs, without family or kin, rather than carry the knapsack for twenty years. I was strongly affected by those horrible scenes: at the summons of the landowner, a file of military police would appear like thieves in the night and seize their victim without warning; the bailiff would explain that the master had given orders the night before for the man to be sent to the recruiting office; and then the victim, through his tears, tried to strike an attitude, while the women wept, and all the people gave him presents, and I too gave what I could, very likely a sixpenny necktie.

I remember too an occasion when a village elder spent some money due from peasants to their master, and my father ordered his beard to be shaved off, by way of punishment. This form of penalty puzzled me, but I was impressed by the man's appearance: he was sixty years old, and he wept profusely, bowing to the ground and offering to repay the money and a hundred roubles more, if only he might escape the shame of losing his beard.

(2) Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore (1850)

In nature, as in the souls of men, there slumber endless possibilities and forces, and in suitable conditions... they develop, and will develop furiously. They may fill a world, or they may fall by the roadside. They may take a new direction. They may stop. They may collapse... Nature is perfectly indifferent to what happens... But then, you may ask, what is all this for? The life of people becomes a pointless game... Men build something with pebbles and sand only to see it all collapse again; and human creatures crawl out from underneath the ruins and again start clearing spaces and build huts of moss and planks and broken capitals and, after centuries of endless labour, it all collapses again. Not in vain did Shakespeare say that history was a tedious tale told by an idiot...

To this I reply that you are like... those very sensitive people who shed a tear whenever they recollect that "man is born but to die". To look at the end and not at the action itself is a cardinal error. Of what use to the flower is its bright magnificent bloom? Or this intoxicating scent, since it will only pass away?... None at all. But nature is not so miserly. She does not disdain what is transient, what is only in the present. At every point she achieves all she can achieve ... Who will find fault with nature because flowers bloom in the morning and die at night, because she has not given the rose or the lily the hardness of flint? And this miserable pedestrian principle we wish to transfer to the world of history... Life has no obligation to realise the fantasies and ideas of civilisation... Life loves novelty... History seldom repeats itself, it uses every accident, simultaneously knocks at a thousand doors... doors which may open... who knows?

(3) Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore (1850)

Human beings have an instinctive passion to preserve anything they like. Man is born and therefore wishes to live for ever. Man falls in love and wishes to be loved, and loved for ever as in the very first moment of his avowal... but life ... gives no guarantees. Life does not ensure existence, nor pleasure; she does not answer for their continuance . . . Every historical moment is full and is beautiful, is self-contained in its own fashion. Every year has its own spring and its own summer, its own winter and autumn, its own storms and fair weather. Every period is new, fresh, filled with its own hopes and carries within itself its own joys and sorrows. The present belongs to it. But human beings are not content with this, they must needs own the future too...

What is the purpose of the song the singer sings?... If you look beyond your pleasure in it for something else, for some other goal, the moment will come when the singer stops and then you will only have memories and vain regrets... because, instead of listening, you were waiting for something else... You are confused by categories that are not fitted to catch the flow of life. What is this goal for which you [he means Mazzini and the liberals and the socialists are seeking - is it a programme? An order? Who conceived it? To whom was the order given? Is it something inevitable? or not? If it is, are we simply puppets?... Are we morally free or are we wheels within a machine? I would rather think of life, and therefore of history, as a goal attained, not as a means to something else...

We think that the purpose of the child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If we merely look to the end of the process, the purpose of all life is death.

(4) Pavel Annenkov, The Extraordinary Decade (1880)

I must own that I was puzzled and overwhelmed, when I first came to know Herzen - by this extraordinary mind which darted from one topic to another with unbelievable swiftness, with inexhaustible wit and brilliance; which could see in the turn of somebody's talk, in some simple incident, in some abstract idea, that vivid feature which gives expression and life. He had a most astonishing capacity for instantaneous, unexpected juxtaposition of quite dissimilar things, and this gift he had in a very high degree, fed as it was by the powers of the most subtle observation and a very solid fund of encyclopedic knowledge. He had it to such a degree that, in the end, his listeners were sometimes exhausted by the inextinguishable fireworks of his speech, the inexhaustible fantasy and invention, a kind of prodigal opulence of intellect which astonished his audience.

After the always ardent but remorselessly severe Belinsky, the glancing, gleaming, perpetually changing and often paradoxical and irritating, always wonderfully clever, talk of Herzen demanded of those who were with him not only intense concentration, but also perpetual alertness, because you had always to be prepared to respond instantly. On the other hand, nothing cheap or tawdry could stand even half an hour of contact with him. All pretentiousness, all pompousness, all pedantic self-importance, simply fled from him or melted like wax before a fire. I knew people, many of them what are called serious and practical men, who could not bear Herzen's presence. On the other hand, there were others ... who gave him the most blind and passionate adoration...

He had a natural gift for criticism - a capacity for exposing and denouncing the dark sides of life. And he showed this trait very early, during the Moscow period of his life of which I am speaking. Even then Herzen's mind was in the highest degree rebellious and unmanageable, with a kind of innate, organic detestation of anything which seemed to him to be an accepted opinion sanctified by general silence about some unverified fact. In such cases the predatory powers of his intellect would rise up in force and come into the open, sharp, cunning, resourceful.

He lived in Moscow... still unknown to the public, but in his own familiar circle he was already known as a witty and a dangerous observer of his friends. Of course, he could not altogether conceal the fact that he kept secret dossiers, secret protocols of his own, about his dearest friends and distant acquaintances within the privacy of his own thoughts. People who stood by his side, all innocence and trustfulness, were invariably amazed, and sometimes extremely annoyed, when they suddenly came on one or other side of this involuntary activity of his mind. Strangely enough, Herzen combined with this the tenderest, most loving relations with his chosen intimates, although even they could never escape his pungent analyses. This is explained by another side of his character. As if to restore the equilibrium of his moral organism, nature took care to place in his soul one unshakeable belief, one unconquerable inclination. Herzen believed in the noble instincts of the human heart. His analysis grew silent and reverent before the instinctive impulses of the moral organism as the sole, indubitable truth of existence. He admired anything which he thought to be a noble or passionate impulse, however mistaken; and he never amused himself at its expense.

This ambivalent, contradictory play of his nature - suspicion and denial on the one hand and blind faith on the other - often led to perplexity and misunderstandings between him and his friends, and sometimes to quarrels and scenes. But it is precisely in this crucible of argument, in its flames, that up to the very day of his departure for Europe, people's devotion to him used to be tested and strengthened instead of disintegrating. And this is perfectly intelligible. In all that Herzen did and all that Herzen thought at this time there never was the slightest trace of anything false, no malignant feeling nourished in darkness, no calculation, no treachery. On the contrary, the whole of him was always there, in every one of his words and deeds. And there was another reason which made one sometimes forgive him even insults, a reason which may seem implausible to people who did not know him.

With all this proud, strong, energetic intellect, Herzen had a wholly gentle, amiable, almost feminine character. Beneath the stern outward aspect of the sceptic, the satirist, under the cover of a most unceremonious, and exceedingly unreticent humour, there dwelt the heart of a child. He had a curious, angular kind of charm, an angular kind of delicacy... but it was given particularly to those who were beginning, who were seeking after something, people who were trying out their powers. They found a source of strength and confidence in his advice. He took them into the most intimate communion with himself and with his ideas - which, nevertheless, did not stop him, at times, from using his full destructive, analytic powers, from performing exceedingly painful, psychological experiments on these very same people at the very same time.

(5) Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen (1850)

Herzen is revolted by the central substance of what was being preached by some of the best and purest-hearted men of his time, particularly by socialists and utilitarians, namely, that vast suffering in the present must be undergone for the sake of an ineffable felicity in the future, that thousands of innocent men may be forced to die that millions might be happy - battle cries that were common even in those days, and of which a great deal more has been heard since. The notion that there is a splendid future in store for humanity, that it is guaranteed by history, and that it justifies the most appalling cruelties in the present - this familiar piece of political eschatology, based on belief in inevitable progress, seemed to him a fatal doctrine directed against human life.

The profoundest and most sustained - and the most brilliantly written - of all Herzen's statements on this topic is to be found in the volume of essays which he called From the Other Shore, and wrote as a memorial to his disillusionment with the European revolutions of 1848 and 1849. This great polemical masterpiece is Herzen's profession of faith and his political testament. Its tone and content are well conveyed in the characteristic (and celebrated) passage in which he declares that one generation must not be condemned to the role of being a mere means to the welfare of its remote descendants, which is in any case none too certain. A distant goal is a cheat and a deception. Real goals must be closer than that - "at the very least the labourer's wage or pleasure in work performed". The end of each generation is itself - each life has its own unique experience; the fulfillment of its wants creates new needs, claims, new forms of life. Nature, he declares (perhaps under the influence of Schiller), is careless of human beings and their needs, and crushes them heedlessly. Has history a plan, a libretto? If it did "it would lose all interest, become... boring, ludicrous". There are no timetables, no cosmic patterns; there is only the "flow of life", passion, will, improvisation; sometimes roads exist, sometimes not; where there is no road "genius will blast a path".

But what if someone were to ask, "Supposing all this is suddenly brought to an end? Supposing a comet strikes us and brings to an end life on earth? Will history not be meaningless? Will all this talk suddenly end in nothing? Will it not be a cruel mockery of all our efforts, all our blood and sweat and tears, if it all ends in some sudden, unexplained brute fashion with some mysterious, totally unexplained event?" Herzen replies that to think in these terms
is a great vulgarity, the vulgarity of mere numbers. The death of a single human being is no less absurd and unintelligible than the death of the entire human race; it is a mystery we accept; merely to multiply it enormously and ask "Supposing millions of human beings die?" does not make it more mysterious or more frightening.

(6) Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore (1850)

Who will finish us off? The senile barbarism of the sceptre or the wild barbarism of communism, the bloody sabre, or the red flag? Communism will sweep across the world in a violent tempest - dreadful, bloody, unjust, swift... Our institutions ... will, as Proudhon politely puts it, be liquidated ... I am sorry for the death of civilisation. But the masses will not regret it; the masses to whom it gave nothing but tears, want, ignorance and humiliation.

(7) Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen (1850)

This is Herzen's central political and social thesis, and it enters henceforth into the stream of Russian radical thought as an antidote to the exaggerated utilitarianism of which its adversaries have so often accused it. The purpose of the singer is the song, and the purpose of life is to be lived. Everything passes, but what passes may sometimes reward the pilgrim for all his sufferings. Goethe has told us that there can be no guarantee, no security. Man could be content with the present. But he is not. He rejects beauty, he rejects fulfillment today, because he must own the future also. That is Herzen's answer to all those who, like Mazzini, or the socialists of his time, called for supreme sacrifices and sufferings for the sake of nationality, or human civilisation,or socialism, or justice, or humanity - if not in the present, then in the future.

Herzen rejects this violently. The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee - to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions - freedom, happiness, justice - fanatical generalizations, mystical sounds, idolized sets of words. "Why is liberty valuable?" Because it is an end in itself, because it is what it is. To bring it as a sacrifice to something else is simply to perform an act of human sacrifice.

This is Herzen's ultimate sermon, and from this he develops the corollary that one of the deepest of modern disasters is to be caught up in abstractions instead of realities. And this he maintains not merely against the Western socialists and liberals among whom he lived (let alone the enemy - priests or conservatives) but even more again his own close friend Bakunin who persisted in trying to stir up violent rebellion, involving torture and martyrdom, for the sake of dim, confused and distant goals. For Herzen, one of the greatest of sins that any human being can perpetrate is to seek to transfer moral responsibility from his own shoulders to those of an unpredictable future order, and, in the name of something which may never happen, perpetrate crimes today which no one would deny to be monstrous if they were performed for some egoistic purpose, and do not seem so only because they are sanctified by faith in some remote and intangible Utopia.

For all his hatred of despotism, and in particular of the Russian regime, Herzen was all his life convinced that equally fatal dangers threatened from his own socialist and revolutionary allies. He believed this because there was a time when, with his friend, the critic Belinsky, he too had believed that a simple solution was feasible; that some great system - a world adumbrated by Saint-Simon or by Proudhon - did provide it: that if one regulated social life rationally and put it in order, and created a clear and tidy organization, human problems could be finally resolved. Dostoevsky once said of Belinsky that his socialism was nothing but a simple belief in a marvellous life of "unheard-of splendour, on new and... adamantine foundations". Because Herzen had himself once believed in these foundations (although never with simple and absolute faith) and because this belief came toppling down and was utterly destroyed in the fearful cataclysms of 1848 and 1849 in which almost every one of his idols proved to have feet of clay, he denounces his own past with peculiarly intense indignation : we call upon the masses, he writes, to rise and crush the tyrants. But the masses are indifferent to individual freedom and independence, and suspicious of talent: "they want a... government to rule for their benefit, and not... against it. But to govern themselves doesn't enter their heads.' `It is not enough to despise the Crown; one must not be filled with awe before the Phrygian Cap. . . '. He speaks with bitter scorn about monolithic oppressive communist idylls, about the barbarous `equality of penal servitude', about the `forced labour' of socialists like Cabet, about barbarians marching to destroy...

He is terrified of the oppressors, but he is terrified of the liberators too. He is terrified of them because for him they are the secular heirs of the religious bigots of the ages of faith; because anybody who has a cut and dried scheme, a straitjacket which he wishes to impose on humanity as the sole possible remedy for all human ills, is ultimately bound to create a situation intolerable for free human beings, for men like himself who want to express themselves, who want to have some area in which to develop their own resources, and are prepared to respect the originality, the spontaneity, the natural impulse towards self-expression on the part of other human beings too. He calls this Petrograndism - the methods of Peter the Great. He admires Peter the Great. He admires him because he did at least overthrow the feudal rigidity, the dark night, as he thinks of it, of medieval Russia. He admires the Jacobins because the Jacobins dared to do something instead of nothing. Yet he is clearly aware, and became more and more so the longer he lived (he says all this with arresting clarity in his open letters To an Old Comrade - Bakunin - written in the late 1860s), that Petrograndism, the behaviour of Attila, the behaviour of the Committee of Public Safety in 1792 - the use of methods which presuppose the possibility of simple and radical solutions - always in the end lead to oppression, bloodshed and collapse. He declares that whatever the justification in earlier and more innocent ages of acts inspired by fanatical faith, nobody has any right to act in this fashion who has lived through the nineteenth century and has seen what human beings are really made of - the complex, crooked texture of men and institutions. Progress must adjust itself to the actual pace of historical change, to the actual economic and social needs of society, because to suppress the bourgeoisie by violent revolution - and there was nothing he despised more than the bourgeoisie, and the mean, grasping, philistine financial bourgeoisie of Paris most of all - before its historical role has been played out, would merely mean that the bourgeois spirit and bourgeois forms would persist into the new social order. "They want, without altering the walls of the prison, to give them a new function, as if a plan for a jail could be used for a free existence." Houses for free men cannot be built by specialists in prison architecture. And who shall say that history has proved that Herzen was mistaken?

(8) In 1858 Alexander Herzen was attacked by Nikolai Chernyshevsky for his failure to support acts of terrorism in Russia. He gave his reply in The Bell (1858)

We will not call for the axe as the ultima ratio so long as there remains one vestige of reasonable hope for a solution without the axe. The further I look into the western world, into the chain of events which brought Europe to us Russians, the more there arises in me a disgust for all bloody revolutions.

(9) Alexander Herzen, The Bell (12th April, 1861)

If only my words could reach you, toiler and sufferer of the land of Russia!... How well I would teach you to despise your spiritual shepherds, placed over you by the St. Petersburg Synod and a German tsar.... You hate the landlord, you hate the official, you fear them, and rightly so; but you still believe in the tsar and the bishop... do not believe them. The tsar is with them, and they are his men. It is him you now see - you, the father of a youth murdered in Bezdna, and you, the son of a father murdered in Penza.... Your shepherds are as ignorant as you, and as poor.... Such was another Anthony (not Bishop Anthony, but Anton of Bezdna) who suffered for you in Kazan.... The dead bodies of your martyrs will not per form forty-eight miracles, and praying to them will not cure a tooth ache; but their living memory may produce one miracle - your emancipation.

(10) Alexander Herzen, The Bell (1865)

Social progress is possible only under complete republican freedom, under full democratic equality. A republic that would not lead to Socialism seems an absurdity to us - a transitional stage regarding itself as the goal. On the other hand, Socialism which might try to dispense with political freedom would rapidly degenerate into an autocratic Communism.

(11) Alexander Herzen wrote about the use of violence to obtain political reform in an article published in 1867.

Violence and terror are employed to spread religious and political creeds, to establish autocratic empires and indivisible republics. But force can merely destroy and clear the place - no more. With the methods of Peter the Great the social revolution will never attain beyond the slave-labour equality of Gracchus and Babeuf and the Communist serfdom of Cabet.

(12) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976)

In the 1830s writers like Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen and Ogarev, all consumed by the desire for philosophical certainties, were tentatively exploring the ideas of socialism within a framework of romantic culture.... Herzen's quasi-religious desire for inner peace prompted him to mediate between the more extreme philosophies of his friends. On the other hand there was Bakunin, whose radical interpretation of the theories of Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen were to lead him to a more doctrinaire violence.

(13) Lenin, Sotsial-Demokrat (8th May, 1912)

One hundred years have elapsed since Herzen’s birth. The whole of liberal Russia is paying homage to him, studiously evading, however, the serious questions of socialism, and taking pains to conceal that which distinguished Herzen the revolutionary from a liberal. The Right-wing press, too, is commemorating the Herzen centenary, falsely asserting that in his last years Herzen renounced revolution. And in the orations on Herzen that are made by the liberals and Narodniks abroad, phrase-mongering reigns supreme.

The working-class party should commemorate the Herzen centenary, not for the sake of philistine glorification, but for the purpose of making clear its own tasks and ascertaining the place actually held in history by this writer who played a great part in paving the way for the Russian revolution.

Herzen belonged to the generation of revolutionaries among the nobility and landlords of the first half of the last century. The nobility gave Russia the Birons and Arakcheyevs, innumerable “drunken officers, bullies, gamblers, heroes of fairs, masters of hounds, roisterers, floggers, pimps”, as well as amiable Manilovs. “But,” wrote Herzen, “among them developed the men of December 14, a phalanx of heroes reared, like Romulus and Remus, on the milk of a wild beast.... They were veritable titans, hammered out of pure steel from head to foot, comrades-in-arms who deliberately went to certain death in order to awaken the young generation to a new life and to purify the children born in an environment of tyranny and servility.”

Herzen was one of those children. The uprising of the Decembrists awakened and “purified” him. In the feudal Russia of the forties of the nineteenth century, he rose to a height which placed him on a level with the greatest thinkers of his time. He assimilated Hegel’s dialectics. He realised that it was “the algebra of revolution”. He went further than Hegel, following Feuerbach to materialism. The first of his Letters on the Study of Nature, “Empiricism and Idealism”, written in 1844, reveals to us a thinker who even now stands head and shoulders above the multitude of modern empiricist natural scientists and the host of present-day idealist and semi-idealist philosophers. Herzen came right up to dialectical materialism, and halted - before historical materialism.

It was this “halt” that caused Herzen’s spiritual ship wreck after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. Herzen had left Russia, and observed this revolution at close range. He was at that time a democrat, a revolutionary, a socialist. But his “socialism” was one of the countless forms and varieties of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois socialism of the period of 1848, which were dealt their death-blow in the June days of that year. In point of fact, it was not socialism at all, but so many sentimental phrases, benevolent visions, which were the expression at that time of the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats, as well as of the proletariat, which had not yet freed itself from the influence of those democrats.

Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep scepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen’s spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away (in Europe), while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured. This is something the Russian knights of liberal verbiage, who are now covering up their counter-revolutionary nature by florid phrases about Herzen’s scepticism, did not and could not understand. With these knights, who betrayed the Russian revolution of 1905, and have even forgotten to think of the great name of revolutionary, scepticism is a form of transition from democracy to liberalism, to that toadying, vile, foul and brutal liberalism which shot down the workers in 1848, restored the shattered thrones and applauded Napoleon III, and which Herzen cursed, unable to understand its class nature.

With Herzen, scepticism was a form of transition from the illusion of a bourgeois democracy that is “above classes” to the grim, inexorable and invincible class struggle of the proletariat. The proof: the Letters to an Old Comrade - to Bakunin - written by Herzen in 1869, a year before his death. In them Herzen breaks with the anarchist Bakunin. True, Herzen still sees this break as a mere disagreement on tactics and not as a gulf between the world outlook of the proletarian who is confident of the victory of his class and that of the petty bourgeois who has despaired of his salvation. True enough, in these letters as well, Herzen repeats the old bourgeois-democratic phrases to the effect that socialism must preach “a sermon addressed equally to workman and master, to farmer and townsman”. Nevertheless, in breaking with Bakunin, Herzen turned his gaze, not to liberalism, but to the International - to the international led by Marx, to the International which had begun to “rally the legions” of the proletariat, to unite “the world of labour”, which is “abandoning the world of those who enjoy without working”.

Failing as he did to understand the bourgeois-democratic character of the entire movement of 1848 and of all the forms of pre-Marxian socialism, Herzen was still less able to understand the bourgeois nature of the Russian revolution. Herzen is the founder of “Russian” socialism, of “Narodism”. He saw “socialism” in the emancipation of the peasants with land, in community land tenure and in the peasant idea of “the right to land”. He set forth his pet ideas on this subject an untold number of times.

Actually, there is not a grain of socialism in this doctrine of Herzen’s, as, indeed, in the whole of Russian. Narodism, including the faded Narodism of the present-day Socialist-Revolutionaries. Like the various forms of “the socialism of 1848” in the West, this is the same sort of sentimental phrases, of benevolent visions, in which is expressed the revolutionism of the bourgeois peasant democracy in Russia. The more land the peasants would have received in 1861 and the less they would have had to pay for it, the more would the power of the feudal landlords have been undermined and the more rapidly, freely and widely would capitalism have developed in Russia. The idea of the “right to land” and of “equalised division of the land” is nothing but a formulation of the revolutionary aspiration for equality cherished by the peasants who are fighting for the complete overthrow of the power of the landlords, for the complete abolition of landlordism.

This was fully proved by the revolution of 1905: on the one hand, the proletariat came out quite independently at the head of the revolutionary struggle, having founded the Social-Democratic Labour Party; on the other band, the revolutionary peasants (the Trudoviks and the Peasant Union), who fought for every form of the abolition of landlordism even to “the abolition of private landownership”, fought precisely as proprietors, as small entrepreneurs.

Today, the controversy over the “socialist nature” of the right to land, and so on, serves only to obscure and cover up the really important and serious historical question concerning the difference of interests of the liberal bourgeoisie and the revolutionary peasantry in the Russian bourgeois revolution;, in other words, the question of the liberal and the democratic, the “compromising” (monarchist) and the republican trends manifested in that revolution. This is exactly the question posed by Herzen’s Kolokol, if we turn our attention to the essence of the matter and not to the words, if we investigate the class struggle as the basis of “theories” and doctrines and not vice versa... The storm is the movement of the masses themselves. The proletariat, the only class that is thoroughly revolutionary, rose at the head of the masses and for the first time aroused millions of peasants to open revolutionary struggle. The first onslaught in this storm took place in 1905. The next is beginning to develop under our very eyes.

In commemorating Herzen, the proletariat is learning from his example to appreciate the great importance of revolutionary theory. It is learning that selfless devotion to the revolution and revolutionary propaganda among the people are not wasted even if long decades divide the sowing from the harvest. It is learning to ascertain the role of the various classes in the Russian and in the international revolution. Enriched by these lessons, the proletariat will fight its way to a free alliance with the socialist workers of all lands, having crushed that loathsome monster, the tsarist monarchy, against which Herzen was the first to raise the great banner of struggle by addressing his free Russian word to the masses.

(14) Tom Stoppard, The Observer (2nd June, 2002)

Orsett House is still there, amazingly, standing like a giant chunk of yellowing wedding cake on a left-hand corner in Westbourne Terrace, Paddington, before you reach the Westway flyover. Now converted into flats, it is almost the last of the detached rich man's houses that must have given the terrace an extra cachet as a street address in Victorian London.

On the evening of 10 April, 1861, Orsett House was ablaze with light from thousands of gas-jets, and crammed with celebrating Russians, Poles and other émigrés from the Slav nations, as well as a few English radicals and distinguished sympathisers-in-exile such as Guiseppe Mazzini, the Italian nationalist, and the French socialist Louis Blanc. An orchestra played from eight to 11pm, at a cost of £4. 'In the street outside,' writes the historian EH Carr in The Romantic Exiles, 'the crowd of curious spectators was so great that special police were called in to control it.'

Over the portico floated two home-made banners which, if the crowd could have deciphered them, would have told it what was being celebrated that evening. "The Free Russian Press" was on one banner, and on the other, "Freedom of the Russian Peasant". The emancipation of the serfs had lately been proclaimed by Alexander II, henceforth "the Tsar Liberator". After some delay, the text reached London, and it was decided to hold "a monster fete" to celebrate the great event. Every Russian in London, "of whatever party", was promised a fraternal welcome by the wealthy tenant of Orsett House.

The host was Alexander Herzen, son of a Russian nobleman, founder of the Free Russian Press, editor of Kolokol (The Bell), author of a memoir-in-progress, My Past and Thoughts, and the first self-proclaimed socialist in Russian history. Orsett House is one of a dozen addresses Herzen occupied in London, where he lived continuously between 1852 and 1864. He was the best-known Russian exile anywhere. When he lived in Putney (at Laurel House, 'Mr Tinkler's', in the High Street), Herzen was in the Putney guidebook.

Herzen gave due credit for freeing the serfs to Tsar Alexander, and if he saved some of it for himself, this would not have been absurd. The American liberal critic Dwight Macdonald called The Bell "perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history". Isaiah Berlin, Herzen's most distinguished and most committed cheerleader in modern times, called him a writer and thinker of genius. Herzen was seldom modest about himself, for that matter. "Copperfield", he remarked in a letter about this time, "is Dickens's Past and Thoughts". The timing of the "monster fete", five weeks after the emancipation, may not have been unconnected with the fact that it was the week of his forty-ninth birthday....

Herzen had "invented" Russian populism in reaction to the failure of Western socialist democracy in the European revolutions of 1848. By the end of the 1870s, Herzen was being re-read at home by the generation which 'went to the people'. In the course of time, he received a casual endorsement from Lenin, and that made him a sacred figure in Soviet Russia. In Moscow, a boulevard was named after him. Lenin's imprimatur was to cause some difficulty to Herzen's Soviet editors, for the best-known absentee at Orsett House - best-known to us, unknown to London at large - was Karl Marx.

Marx distrusted Herzen, and was despised by him in return. Herzen had no time for the kind of mono-theory that bound history, progress and individual autonomy to some overarching abstraction like Marx's material dialecticism. What he did have time for - and what bound Isaiah Berlin to him - was the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical. What he detested above all was the conceit that future bliss justified present sacrifice and bloodshed. The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and wilfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind.