Alexander Herzen’s radical liberalism

image: Meissonier, Massacre during June Days, 1848, Paris

Alexander Herzen’s From the Other Shore (1850) is an exceptionally important example of an intelligent observer trying to make sense of the social, economic, and political changes of the nineteenth century. And Isaiah Berlin’s introduction is profound. (Here is an online version of the book; link.)

Herzen’s writings represented an almost unique combination of political perspectives. He was sympathetic to revolutionary activism by anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as revolutionary socialists in London and Paris and the radical workers of Paris in 1848. He was fervently opposed to the old oppressive order of Europe, whether the rule of the Czar and landed aristocracy in Russia or the dominant bourgeois order of wealth and poverty in France and Germany. And he was passionately committed to the principle of individual liberty. We might say that he was a revolutionary anti-Czarist liberal republican — which sounds like a very contradictory bundle of political ideas. But the contradiction may be only apparent; it is the contradiction between revolution and liberty. As the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have unfolded, they have generally sacrificed liberty for the collectivist goals of revolution. But is a post-authoritarian, post-bourgeois regime in Europe necessarily indifferent to individual liberties? Or is it possible to imagine a genuinely egalitarian liberal social democracy, with strong constitutional protections of individual rights and liberties? If so, that seems to be the political idea that fits best with Herzen’s political writings.

Here is Herzen’s liberal principle:

The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop. Man must respect liberty in himself, and he must esteem it in himself no less than in his neighbour, than in the entire nation. (From the Other Shore, author’s introduction, 12)

Here is his revolutionary anti-authoritarian commitment:

The state forms of France and other European countries are in their essence compatible with neither liberty, equality nor fraternity. If any of these ideas were realized, it would be the repudiation of contemporary European life; it would be its death. No constitution, no government is in a position to give feudal and monarchical countries true freedom and equality without annihilating everything feudal and monarchical in them. European life, Christian and aristocratic, has moulded our civilization, our notions, our ways of life. It cannot exist without a Christian and aristocratic environment. (From the Other Shore, Year LVII of the Republic, 62)

Here is a passage on the June days of Paris 1848 that captures his sympathy for the workers:

I listened to the thunder and the tocsin and gazed avidly at this panorama of Paris; it was as though I was taking my leave of it. At that moment I loved Paris passionately. It was my last tribute to the great town; after the June days it grew hateful to me. On the other side of the river barricades were being raised in all the streets and alleys. I can still see the gloomy faces of the men dragging stones; women and children were helping them. A young student from the Polytechnic climbed up on to an apparently completed barricade, planted the banner and started singing the Marseillaise in a soft, sad, solemn voice; all the workers joined in and the chorus of this great song, resounding from behind the stones of the barricades, gripped one’s soul. . . . The tocsin was still tolling. Meanwhile, the artillery clattered across the bridge and General Bedeau standing there raised his field-glasses to inspect the enemy positions. . . . (From the Other Shore, After the Storm, 46)

And here is an alternative vision of work without wage labor — cooperatives — based on his understanding of the peasant commune in Russia:

There are a number of such artels—builders, carpenters and other sorts of artisans—each consisting of several hundred people drawn from different communes, who come together for a given period of time, for a year for instance, and so form a group. When the year is up, the workers share out the produce on the basis of the work they have done, in each case abiding by the general decision. The police have not so far had the satisfaction of being able to interfere in these arrangements. The association, I must emphasize, generally holds itself responsible for all the workers who comprise it. (From the Other Shore, The Russian People and Socialism, 184)

Finally, Herzen has a healthy distrust of “ideology”, or purely philosophical theories of an ideal future for which all present human wellbeing must be sacrificed. Against Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao, Herzen mistrusted grand ideological goals and favored a process of social change that permitted ordinary human beings to exercise their freedoms as society changed. Berlin emphasizes this point in his introduction.

It is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself—or others—upon the altar of some great moral or political cause—some absolute principle or ‘collective noun’ capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress. For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious worship, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulae, certain symbols, render what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies—murder, torture, the humiliation of defenceless human bodies—not only permissible, but often laudable. (From the Other Shore, Berlin introduction, xv)

Here is Herzen on “progress” in “Before the Storm”:

‘You are quite right when you speak of nature, but it seems to me that you have forgotten that throughout all the changes and confusions of history there runs a single red thread binding it into one aim. This thread—is progress, or perhaps you do not acknowledge progress?’

‘Progress is the inalienable quality of uninterrupted conscious development: it consists in a retentive memory and the physiological perfection of man through social life.’

‘Is it possible that in all this you do not see a goal?’

‘Quite the opposite, I see here only a consequence. If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes, and as a consolation to the exhausted, doomed multitudes crying “morituri te salutant”, can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth. Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive to-day to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on. . . or of wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows? Those who are exhausted fall in their tracks; others, with fresh forces take up the ropes; but there remains, as you said yourself, as much ahead as there was at the beginning, because progress is infinite. This alone should serve as a warning to people: an end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer—it ought to be, at the very least, the labourer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done. (From the Other Shore, Before the Storm, 36-37)

The new society, if it is to conform to these disparate values, must accomplish several different social goods:

  • respect liberty and equal dignity of all individuals; 
  • secure the human needs of everyone — workers, engineers, poets, and owners of property; 
  • be democratic, not autocratic. 

Was there any place on the planet in 1850 that satisfied these different structural features? There certainly was not — not Britain, not Switzerland, not the United States. Is there a society on the planet today that satisfies them? Perhaps there is; it is called Finland.

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