At the Helm of the World

Pankaj Mishra

  • The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen by Aileen Kelly
    Harvard, 582 pp, £31.95, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 73711 2

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.

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