The Discovery of Chance - The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen

In the mid-19th-century photographs of Alexander Herzen, he looks appealing: a rumpled Russian nobleman with a straggly beard streaked with gray, his watch chain and waistcoat straining against a full stomach, a look of wistful and gentle melancholy in his eyes.

Tolstoy thought Herzen (1812-70) was one of the finest prose writers of his time, and so did Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He was also an editor, a political activist and a scathing and ironical polemicist, castigating equally the Russian despots in Petersburg and his fellow socialists in exile in London, Geneva and Paris. In the years between the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and the czar’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he was one of the most provocative revolutionary minds of his time. When he was buried at Père Lachaise in Paris in 1870, a mourner exclaimed: “To the Voltaire of the 19th century!” That is not how he has been remembered.

The eclipse of his reputation is a loss, since his greatest works, “From the Other Shore” and “Letters to an Old Comrade,” struggle with an issue of enduring relevance: how to reconcile passionate political faith with unsparing lucidity about history’s cold indifference to human conviction. As someone who lived through the intoxication of the 1848 revolution, only to see his hopes crushed, and who supported the cause of Polish freedom in the uprising of 1863, only to be execrated by Russian friends who turned into anti-Polish xenophobes, he wrote with poignant insight about a perennial theme in politics: how to sustain political hope when your dreams are repeatedly shattered.

While Turgenev sank into misanthropic pessimism when his liberal dreams came to nothing and Dostoyevsky transited from revolutionary agitation to deep-dyed conservatism, Herzen remained true to the revolutionary dreams of his youth, without ever losing what Isaiah Berlin was to call his unsparing sense of reality.

After Herzen’s death, he had the misfortune to be praised by Vladimir Ilych Lenin for his “selfless devotion” in exile to the cause of revolution. Praise from that tyrannous quarter has damaged Herzen’s reputation ever since.

Berlin, who did more than anyone to resurrect Herzen, pointed out how absurd it was to see him as a Communist precursor. Herzen loathed revolutionary violence, and he rejected the argument, first articulated by Karl Marx, that Communism was “the solution of the riddle of history.” He thought this ludicrously hubristic, but Herzen’s reputation has struggled ever since to break free from the iron embrace of the very doctrine he repudiated.

Aileen M. Kelly has devoted her life to the resurrection of Herzen’s reputation, a cause bequeathed to her by Berlin, her mentor and friend. Kelly, now retired, was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge (we intersected there in the 1980s when I was a research fellow). “The Discovery of Chance” — all 592 pages of it — is her gripping biography of a tragic if courageous life. Kelly chronicles Herzen’s desperate marriage, his guilty infidelities and his grief at the frightful deaths of his children, but also widens her narrative out into a history of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia and their struggle with a question that engages us to this day: whether Russia’s future is to rejoin the river of European liberty or to follow a separate, Asiatic destiny.

In this debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Herzen took a characteristically idiosyncratic position that alienated both camps. He was a convinced Westernizer in his belief in science, knowledge and human freedom, a cluster of convictions that owed a great deal to his contemporary John Stuart Mill. Unlike many Slavophiles, he hated the Russian traditions of despotism and the Russian Orthodox worship of czar and throne. At the same time, like them he was convinced that Russia had to find its own distinctive route into the 20th century. The heart of his socialist faith was a lifelong commitment to the ideal of the Russian peasant commune. He hoped that the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 would lead to the emergence of a network of self-organizing peasant cooperatives. Contemporaries like Ivan Turgenev thought Herzen’s embrace of the peasantry was sentimental foolishness, but in hindsight, Herzen’s instincts were farsighted. He understood that the most urgent task in Russian politics was to find some alternative to capitalist wage labor as the only road into the future. In the event, of course, the road actually taken was catastrophic: forced collectivization of agriculture by the Soviet regime and the ruthless destruction of the Russian peasantry.

Herzen matters today because he thought about the cruel dialectic between hope and history in politics and because he struggled to find Russia its own way into the 20th century. He also matters, Kelly argues, because he was the 19th-century thinker who thought most deeply about the implications of Darwinism for the theories of history that the European intelligentsia inherited from the Enlightenment. Kelly pays attention, as her mentor Berlin did not, to Herzen’s lifelong fascination, begun in his university days in the 1830s, with the science of Darwin’s precursors — Buffon, Cuvier, Lamarck and now forgotten Russian popularizers like M.G. Pavlov. Thanks to his exposure to Darwin’s predecessors, Kelly argues, Herzen was the only Russian socialist who immediately grasped the implications of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” when it appeared in 1859. He realized that evolution overturned the idea of history as a purposive story of progress guided by human intention.

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