The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen 
by Aileen Kelly.
Harvard, 582 pp., £31.95, May 2016, 978 0 674 73711 2
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The​ Soviet-subsidised mobile bookshops that enlivened my provincial childhood in the India of the late 1970s and early 1980s always had, in among the English translations of Marx, Lenin and various socialist realist novels, an edition of Alexander Herzen’s novel Who Is to Blame? The title was irresistible and its theme of stupor and futility in the provinces seemed both contemporary and urgent. The ‘tryst with destiny’ promised by Nehru in 1947 seemed further away than ever in an India that was failing to catch up with the West and become a modern, prosperous and equitable country.

I knew very little about Herzen’s background when I first read his work. I had no idea, for instance, that he belonged to the politically engaged generation of Turgenev, Belinsky and Bakunin that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s just as Russia’s failure to catch up with a dynamic Europe became painfully apparent. Nor did I know that this scion of a gentry family, banished by the tsarist regime for his activism, had spent much of his life in Europe, among such agitators and polemicists as Marx and Mazzini, and had suffered the usual fate of the political expatriate: betrayal by comrades, the scorn of a younger, more radical generation, isolation and heartbreak. The introductory material in the Soviet edition raised him to the pantheon of Russian radicals; he had displayed, Lenin wrote, ‘a selfless devotion’ to the cause of revolution. It was puzzling, therefore, when I encountered Herzen a few years later in Isaiah Berlin’s essays as a proto anti-communist: someone who had foreseen the dangers of utopian thinking, which can exact human sacrifices in the present for the sake of an imaginary future. In Berlin’s writings, which introduced Herzen to Anglo-American readers, he came to resemble a pragmatic Cold War liberal rather than a revolutionary socialist.

Berlin’s portrait (or self-portrait) has stood largely unaltered for more than half a century. Herzen’s work has not had consistent backing inside or outside academia, on the left or on the right, and Aileen Kelly’s new biography is unlikely to provoke a revival, or the sort of steady engagement that has continuously enlarged the reputations of Marx and Nietzsche. Unlike Marx, his acrimonious rival, Herzen did not provide a systematic diagnosis of the suffering caused by globalising capitalists, let alone a quasi-scientific plan of salvation. ‘Logical truth,’ he warned, ‘is not the same as the truth of history.’ Infatuated with Hegel, like many of his young peers in Russia, Herzen later became bluntly dismissive of rational schema in politics. History, he wrote, contains ‘a great deal that is fortuitous, stupid, unsuccessful and confused. Reason, fully developed thought, comes last.’ He anticipated Nietzsche in his suspicion that modern Western idealism was a substitute religion with very weak foundations, but was too preoccupied by his political and personal life to write extended critiques. His main works are My Past and Thoughts, a mix of memoir, essays and letters, and From the Other Shore, a confession of his loss of faith in European ideologies of progress. They offer a complex idea of just who this disillusioned child of 19th-century Europe’s failed revolutions and revolts thought was to blame. Herzen’s perspective, weirdly, still feels unfamiliar after two centuries of Russian, Asian and African journeys to the West: that of the awestruck outsider who eventually comes to question his cravings for redemption through Western modernity.

Born in 1812, the year of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, Herzen was determined to liberate his country from serfdom and enlist it in the march of progress launched by the scientific and political revolutions in Western Europe. Kelly lingers thoughtfully at the landmarks Herzen passed on his intellectual and political passage through the first half of the 19th century: Schiller, Hegel, Saint-Simon, Fourier, George Sand, Feuerbach, Louis Blanc and, crucially, Proudhon. The young Herzen, awed and fascinated by European ideas and achievements, tended to blame the tsars for his country’s pitiable backwardness. The Slavophiles and gradualists who preached caution instead of radical transformation were also responsible. But, after he left Russia for good in 1847, living mainly in London as well as in Geneva and Paris, he identified a more insidious culprit: the self-aggrandising bourgeois, who with his gunboats and equivocating ideology of liberalism was coercing and seducing the rest of the world into joining his pursuit of economic self-interest.

Herzen wrote to Turgenev in 1862 that all those who had grown up lamenting Russian barbarousness and idealising the West had ‘to recognise with all calm and meekness that the bourgeoisie is the final form of Western European civilisation’. The pursuit of liberty and equality was imperative, and emancipation from the feudal, monarchical and religious world ‘essential’, but the petite bourgeoisie had shown ‘themselves emancipated, not only from monarchs and slavery but from all social obligations, except that of contributing to the hire of government who guarded their security’. The civilisation he admired had turned out to be enjoyed by a ‘minority’ and ‘made possible only by the existence of a majority of proletarians’.

Europhile Russians like himself, he wrote, had been naively trying to replicate in their own country a ‘one-sided development, a monstrosity’, a heartless way of life, ‘which has developed consistently on the basis of a landless proletariat and the unconditional right of the owner over his property’. ‘As the knight was the prototype of the feudal world,’ he wrote, ‘so the merchant has become the prototype of the new world.’ Consequently, ‘life has been reduced to a perpetual struggle for money … everything that is European in the modern sense has two characteristics that clearly stem from this trading mentality: on the one hand, hypocrisy and underhandedness; on the other, exhibitionism and window-dressing.’

His disillusion made Herzen retreat into romantic visions of his ancestral land. He claimed to prefer the Russian ‘commune’, since it had remained impervious to the lure of private wealth creation. The Russian peasant, untainted by bourgeois self-seeking, seemed to him better equipped to achieve the golden mean between social cohesion and individual freedom. Herzen also came to have a fresh regard for posh Russians like himself: even if they were idle and aimless their ‘malady’ did not have ‘the deeply penetrating, deeply rooted, subtle, nervous, intelligent, fatal depravity from which the educated classes of Western Europe are decaying, suffering and dying’.

Herzen’s broadsides ring as true as anything in The Eighteenth Brumaire, especially his mockery of British parliamentary debates for their empty ritual and mere ‘appearance of doing something’. But his political judgments are not easily separated from his aesthetic and moral ones. Reading John Stuart Mill made him think about the ‘conglomerated mediocrity’ that surrounded him in Britain: ‘the narrowing of men’s minds and energies’, ‘the constant increasing superficiality of life’, and of ‘general human interests’ being ‘reduced to the interests of the counting-house and bourgeois prosperity’. Rather than Tocqueville’s laboratory of democracy, America seemed to him a ‘cold, calculating country’. As for the French, they are ‘the most abstract and the most religious people in the world’, who ‘turn everything into an idol, and woe to him who will not bow before the idol of the day’.

The time he spent in France before and after the failed revolution of 1848 introduced him to a resourceful bourgeoisie that had long ago subverted the ideals of 1789. But unlike Marx, who devised ever more ambitious schemes for supplanting the bourgeoisie with the working class, Herzen came to conclude that the ‘prevailing tone’ could not be altered, though political agitators would continue to disrupt it. ‘Emancipation,’ he concluded, ‘has finally proved to be as insolvent as redemption.’ The revolutions ‘have lit new desires in the hearts of men, but they have not provided ways of satisfying them.’ And so ‘the yearning peoples appear, wearied with struggle and way-worn: “I have no liberty, I have no equality, I have no fraternity.”’ But the bourgeois ‘goes on muttering incoherent phrases about progress and liberty’. Herzen recognised, as Marx never could, that demagogues would routinely emerge to offer the exhausted and cheated masses the opiate of nationalism: ‘The classification of men by nationalities,’ he wrote in the 1840s, ‘becomes more and more the wretched ideal of the world which has buried the revolution.’ He would have immediately recognised the line that leads from the undermining of socialism and social democracy to white nationalism.

Kelly’s tour d’horizon of 19th-century thought describes how Herzen came to attack the notions of human agency implicit in teleological programmes of progress. It is good to see the visionary Proudhon, the pioneering theorist of anarchist socialism, rescued from his dismal intellectual fate as just another of Marx’s many targets. And Kelly writes in interesting detail about the influence on Herzen of Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin. But the passion – and torment – that drove Herzen flashes only intermittently in her book. Kelly quotes Tolstoy saying that ‘Herzen awaits his readers in the future. Far above the heads of the present crowd, he transmits his thoughts to those who will be able to comprehend them.’ Her own attempt to present Herzen as an intellectual hero of our time doesn’t always break free of the oppositions of Cold War liberalism: his work, she writes, ‘can now be seen as a uniquely prescient indictment of the political messianism that attained its evil maturity only in the next century and marked that century for all time with its imprint’.

Herzen, however, pioneered much more fruitful modes of intellectual and moral analysis than anti-totalitarianism. He argued with Westernising liberals in Russia who saw a strong state as the engine of secular modernity. Herzen feared that these partisans of ‘reasonable freedom and moderate progress’, steeped in political economy and legal theory, would ‘reconcile us with all that we despise and hate’ by strengthening the centralised bureaucracy. By destroying their traditional forms of organisation, they would expose peasants to violence and famine. At best, he wrote, ‘in a century and a half their improvements will lead to the state from which Prussia is seeking to escape.’ This is an eerily precise indictment of the self-proclaimed liberals of post-colonial Asia and Africa whose efforts at top-down modernisation ended up reinforcing the repressive colonial state.

He also rose above an intellectual parochialism to which the Eurocentric Marx was not immune: ‘Europe,’ Herzen pointed out, ‘resolves everything in the world by analogy with itself.’ He rejected its notionally universal path of progress, arguing that countries needed to find their own way, which was always contingent on local circumstances. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘should a nation that has developed in its own way, under completely different conditions from those of the West European states, with different elements in its life, live through the European past, and that, too, when it knows perfectly well what that past leads to?’

His criticism of the narcissism of Western ideologues and Westernised policymakers anticipated that of many disenchanted close observers of the West from the keenly imitative East. Dostoevsky was among the unlikely figures who borrowed from the incendiary anti-Westernism of From the Other Shore. Many travellers from the East, such as the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Chinese thinker Liang Qichao and the Islamist agitator Sayyid Qutb, would have found little to disagree with. Deploring the bourgeoisie’s homogenous culture of acquisition and consumption, Herzen came to respect human diversity not just as an abstract value but as a prerequisite for intellectual and aesthetic originality. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who defended premodern societies against accusations of backwardness, would have endorsed his view that ‘each phase of historical development has had its end in itself, and hence its own reward and satisfaction.’ Most important, those appalled by the undermining of political life by global commercial, ideological and financial nexuses would recognise Herzen’s insight into the early stages of this process. The ‘consequences of the supremacy of trade and industry’, he wrote, are that the shopkeeper is at the ‘helm of the world’, forcing the government to become his ‘shop assistant’. It is certainly clearer today, with the revolving doors between business, politics and the media spinning ever faster, that ‘everything – the publication of newspapers, the elections, the legislative chambers – all have become moneychangers’ shops and markets.’

Herzen objected most vigorously not to communism but the ‘final religion’, as he termed the faith of liberals – the defiant italics are his – whose ‘church is not of the other world but of this’ and whose ‘theology is political theory’, the ‘last word of civilisation founded on the absolute despotism of property’. He saw through the self-image of a philosophy and politics that claimed to oppose the state on behalf of individual freedom, but imposed its principles with the help of the state’s tools of violence and coercion, as in the imperialist wars waged on behalf of free trade. ‘Liberalism,’ he wrote, ‘has learned ever more artfully to unite a constant protest against the government with a constant submission to it.’ It’s not hard to guess what he would have made of neoliberals, who constantly protest against government while depending on it to extend the market’s coldly evaluative assessments to all aspects of human life (and to lock up the unproductive and the superfluous in ever expanding prisons).

Herzen’s great achievement was to identify the power that cannily assigns inescapable destinies to individuals in line with their capacity to be competitive and profitable while at the same time paying lip service to universal progress, equality and liberty. ‘Petite bourgeoisie,’ he lamented, ‘is the idea to which Europe is striving, and rising from every point on the ground.’ He failed to anticipate that all human societies would one day be organised around the bleak project of competitive self-aggrandisement, and that all those trying to catch up with the modern West would reproduce the dialectic of bourgeois ‘miserliness’ and plebeian ‘envy’ and the grim synthesis of ethnic-racial nationalism. But our demagogic present nevertheless vindicates the warnings of this Russian latecomer to modernity that ‘race hatreds and bloody collisions’ would result from the general ‘ignorance’ about the ‘final religion’ and its zealots.

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