Alexander Herzen’s My Past & Thoughts

By a happy accident, I began reading a modern biography of Vladimir Lenin, architect of the Soviet Union, just as I was finishing up the memoirs of another Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, and the similarities and dissimilarities between the two seems like as good a place as any to begin. Both men were fantastically intelligent and well read (Lenin far more shallowly than Herzen, let it be said), and both, despite aristocratic backgrounds, sought to overthrow the tsarist autocracy in the name of a peasantry they had precious little contact with. Both ran afoul of government censors early in life, both were exiled to the outermost regions of Russia – where it was naively thought they could do no damage – and both spent decades in exile, living among foreigners yet permanently focused on their native land. Finally, both men left behind a prodigious literary output – journalism and social commentary and political analysis, but it is here that we glimpse the great gulf that separates them, for whereas Lenin’s writings are deeply ideological and bent towards a single aim, Herzen’s demonstrate the wide breadth of his interests, as well as an appreciation for art and literature that Lenin could not match.

Herzen’s life, in brief: he was born in Moscow, in 1812, shortly before Napoleon’s invasion, to a wealthy, serf-holding Russian landowner and his illegitimate though beloved German wife. His mother was weak-willed, delicate, and easily dominated by his father, whose descriptions do not inspire our love, let alone his son’s: “Mockery, irony, and cold, caustic, utter contempt – these were the tools he wielded like an artist, employing them equally against us and against the servants. In early youth one can bear many things better than jeers.” That last sentence, though short and undeveloped, nonetheless says everything we need to know. Herzen was instead raised by tutors, who taught him German and French (and whose progressive, Western ideals were easily smuggled into lessons), and was given free access to his father’s library, which contained a number of political and philosophical works that were either banned or difficult to find in tsarist Russia. He was 14 years old when the leaders of the failed Decembrist revolt were executed, and years later, as a university student and a budding revolutionary, he stood with a group of friends on a hill overlooking Moscow and swore an oath of allegiance to their ideals: an end to serfdom, a constitutional check on monarchical power, and some form of representative government. He fell afoul of the regime on two separate occasions, both of which demonstrate the level of repression necessary to the tsar’s rulership: the first time, his friends were arrested for attending a party where songs critical of the tsar were sung, and he too – though he was not present – was rounded up, on the basis of his association with the partygoers, and sent into exile; the second time, his private correspondence was opened, revealing a criticism of the Russian police and their callous treatment of a peasant, resulting in a second, more remote exile. Because of his father’s wealth and nobility, Herzen’s sentences were mild, particularly compared to the treatment meted out to the peasantry, but this juxtaposition served only to further enflame his sense of his nation’s radical injustice:

To know what the Russian prisons, the Russian lawcourts and the Russian police are like, one must be a peasant, a house-serf, an artisan or a town workman. Political prisoners, who for the most part belong to the upper class, are kept in close custody and punished savagely, but their fate bears no comparison with the fate of the poor. With them the police do not stand on ceremony, To whom can the peasant or the workman go afterwards to complain? Where can he find justice?

In 1847, one year after the death of his father, he left Russia for Paris, never again to set foot in his native land, but for the rest of his life his every effort was bent towards ameliorating the condition of the Russian peasantry, and awakening in the Russian youth a sense of their country’s potential.

I arrived at Herzen’s writings via Isaiah Berlin, who wrote the introduction to this edition of My Past & Thoughts and did more than perhaps any other to champion Herzen’s writings in the West. “It is strange that this remarkable writer,” Berlin tells us,

in his lifetime a celebrated European figure, the admired friend of Michelet, Mazzini, Garibaldi and Victor Hugo, long canonised in his own country not only as a revolutionary but as one of its greatest men of letters, is, even today, not much more than a name in the West. The enjoyment to be obtained from reading his prose – for the most part still untranslated – makes this a strange and gratuitous loss.

Berlin succinctly summarizes at least three reasons why Herzen should be of interest to modern readers: first, he was a successful social reformer, whose tireless campaigning and advocacy directly contributed to the emancipation of the serfs in Russia; second, he met, described and occasionally befriended some of the continent’s leading political, philosophical and artistic figures – not only Garibaldi and Hugo, but Karl Marx, Ivan Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; and finally, he was a genuine literary artist, with a style that moves effortlessly between lyrical evocations of a lost past to deft assessments of the political and cultural moment that have earned him comparison with Alexis de Tocqueville. I will offer a fourth, touched on by Berlin and exemplified by Herzen most particularly in his later years: his absolute independence of mind, preserved at great personal and social cost. Despite a lifelong opposition to tsarism, serfdom and unrestrained government power, he nonetheless maintained a healthy skepticism about the promises made by the most radical opponents of the social order. Consider the following passage, describing Herzen’s life in Paris, in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Revolution and the inauguration of the Second Republic:

The Revolution developed its own special puritanism, narrow and intolerant, its own obligatory jargon; and patriots reject everything that is not written in the official form, just as the Russian judges do. Their criticism stops short at their symbolic books, such as the Contrat Social and Declaration of the Rights of Man. Being men of faith, they hate analysis and doubt; being men of conspiracy, they do everything in common and turn everything into a party question. An independent mind is hateful to them as a disturber of discipline and they dislike original ideas even in the past.

Herzen’s skepticism about revolution extended to revolutionaries, whom he describes as having a grossly inflated sense of their own importance and a constitutional need for conflict:

A stage and spectators are as necessary to them as the air they breathe; in the public view they really are heroes and will endure the unendurable. They have to be surrounded by noise, clamour and clash, they want to male speeches, to hear their enemies’ replies, they crave the stimulus of struggle, the fever of danger, and without these tonics they are miserable, they pine, let themselves go and grow heavy, have an urge to break out, and make mistakes.

His failure to notice the failings of others in his revolutionary circles eventually earned him a reputation as being less than devoted to the cause, and among the new guard, more anxious than he for a fight, and less willing to see the cost of their revolutionary zeal, his reputation sank. This, I think, is to his credit. He points out, at one point, a contradiction that is lost on the most zealous revolutionaries, that their desire to dictate the terms of the revolution looks every bit as autocratic as tsarism:

So long as we take people for clay and ourselves as sculptors, we shall encounter nothing but stubborn resistance or offensively passive obedience. The pedagogic method of our civilizing reformers is a bad one. It starts from the fundamental principle that we know everything and the people know nothing… We cannot set them free that way.

I do not think it is an understatement to suggest that if Lenin, Stalin or Mao had the capacity for self-reflection Herzen here demonstrates, a hundred million fewer lives would have been lost in the 20th century.

The greatest pleasure, in reading Herzen, comes from inhabiting the mind of one of his generation’s most original thinkers. He was destined at birth to clash with tsarism, and equally destined to feel himself alienated from the would-be revolutionaries whose circles he travelled in. In 1852, when he begins to write his memoirs – released in increments in his periodical The Pole Star – he is just 40 years old, and yet the major events of his life are behind him. His wife had recently died in his arms, and his mother and one of his sons had drowned in a shipwreck. The memoir is then, at least in part, a retreat into the past, and a salve for his wounded political ambitions. “It was an opiate,” Berlin tells us, “against the appalling loneliness of a life lived among uninterested strangers while political reaction seemed to envelop the entire world, leaving no room for hope.” Herzen himself describes a kind of spiritual awakening in London, where his political asylum also secures him an almost total isolation from his closest friends and family:

The emptiness about me strengthened me and gave me time to collect myself; I grew unaccustomed to others: that is, I did not seek real intimacy with them: I avoided no one, but people became indifferent to me. I saw that I had no ties that rested on earnest, profound feelings. I was a stranger among outsiders; I had more sympathy for some than for others, but was in no close intimacy with any. It had been so in the past, too, but I had not noticed it, being continually carried away by my own thoughts; now the masquerade was over, the dominoes had been removed, the garlands had fallen from the heads, the masks from the faces, and I saw features different from those that i had surmised. What was I to do? I could help showing that I liked many people less, that is, I knew them better, but I could not help feeling it; and, as I have said, these discoveries did not rob me of my courage, but rather strengthened it.

From such anguish and isolation spring the inspiration for poems and novels, songs and works of art – our oldest and most reliable means of transcending our solitude – but Herzen instead gives us a memoir of comparable beauty and scope, and a monument to the value he would come to cherish above all others: absolute independence of mind. I will conclude by quoting, in full, one of my favourite passages, which functions as both a description (still relevant today) and a call to action:

From the moment when the baby opens its eyes with a smile on its mother’s breast until the time when, at peace with his conscience and his God, he shuts his eyes just as calmly, convinced that while he has a short nap he will be carried to an abode where there is neither weeping nor sighing, everything has been arranged in order that he shall not evolve a single simple conception, shall not run up against one simple, lucid thought. With his mother’s milk he sucks in stramonium; no emotion is left undistorted, undiverted from its natural course. His education at school continues what has been done at home: it crystallizes the optical illusion, consolidates it with book learning, theoretically legitimizes the traditional trash and trains the children to know without understanding and to accept denominations for definitions.

Astray in his conceptions, entangled in words, man loses the flair for truth, the taste for nature. What a powerful intellect must you possess, to be suspicious of this moral carbon monoxide and, with your head swimming already, to hurl yourself out of it and into the fresh air, with which, into the bargain, everyone round is trying to scare you!

If My Past & Thoughts remains compelling to modern readers, long after its cast of characters have died and their concerns have been forgotten, it is precisely because, on every page, we recognize ourselves as being in the company of an emancipated mind, someone who rose above the ideological currents of his age and penetrated to the fresh and rarefied air.