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Russian thought lecture 3: The Westernizers and concepts of the self: from reconciliation to action

Readings: Vissarion Belinsky, “Society and the Individual” (1839) extracts from “Letters to Botkin” (1840-1841) and “Letter to Gogol” (1847); Alexander Herzen, extracts from “Dilettantism in Science” (1843) “From the Other Shore” (1848-9) and “Robert Owen” (1861).

Having examined the Slavophiles and the development of the idea of communality as a specifically Russian phenomenon, we now move onto their opponents, the Westernizers, who were a far less cohesive group. They didn’t share all the same ideas, and didn’t identify with a single ideology. And while it would be fair to say that the Slavophiles were proponents of all things traditionally Russian, it would be wrong to assume that the Westernizers were simply fans of all things Western – this was certainly not the case, particularly for Alexander Herzen, whose critique of the European bourgeoisie in works like From the Other Shore actually echoes some aspects of Slavophile thinking, as well as Dostoevsky’s attack on Europe after his first visit, in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. Westernism did involve a critique of the oppressive aspects of Russian life about which the Slavophiles were often equivocal: the autocracy, serfdom, and the Orthodox church as an institution of power that supported both (rather than the spiritual community the Slavophiles saw), which made them radicals in opposition to the Slavophiles’ conservatism. And the corollary of that was their emphasis on questions of freedom (which they perceived Russia as lacking) and the significance of the personality (Walicki, p. 135). But perhaps the main feature was that this involved embracing and debating European philosophy. As Isaiah Berlin states, these Russians were,

“liberated” by the great German metaphysical writers, who freed them on the one hand from the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, and on the other from the dry formulas of the eighteenth-century rationalists (Berlin 1978, p. 127).

So even when they’re discussing current events and literature, they tend to do so within a philosophical framework that can at times make it hard to see what the relevance of their writings was to their contemporary situation. Moreover, they often appear to be talking in code, in part because they were participating in debates amongst what was in fact a very small circle of friends and acquaintances who would have all known the implicit subject-matter (Malia, p. 237), but also because they were very aware of the censorship and of the need to disguise the overtly political aspects of their discussions. So the aim of this lecture is to introduce the most important figures and discuss the development of the central ideas that characterized Westernism.

Nikolai Stankevich (1813-1840)

The Westernizers were initially formed of two philosophical circles in the 1830s, who came together in the 1840s. The first was known as the Stankevich circle, after its leader Nikolai Stankevich (1813-1840), a very charismatic and much-loved figure who even while still a student at Moscow University attracted a number of followers, to whom he introduced German philosophy. Berlin describes his philosophy thus:

He taught that a proper understanding of Kant and Schelling (and later Hegel) led one to realise that beneath the apparent disorder and the cruelty, the injustice and the ugliness of daily life, it was possible to discern eternal beauty, peace and harmony. Artists and scientists were travelling their different roads to the selfsame goal […] of communion with this inner harmony. Art (and this included philosophical and scientific truth) alone was immortal, stood up unscathed against the chaos of the empirical world, against the unintelligible and shapeless flow of political, social, economic events which would soon vanish and be forgotten. […] Stankevich believed […] that in the place of social reforms, which merely affected the outer texture of life, men should seek rather to reform themselves from within […]. Study, endless study alone could afford a glimpse into th[e] Elysian world [of philosophers and artists], the sole reality in which the broken fragments came together again into their original unity.’ (Berlin 1978, p. 142).

So Stankevich saw art and philosophy almost as a substitute for religious faith (which was being questioned and to a great extent rejected by these circles). Despite their incipient atheism, there’s a reluctance to abandon the idea of a higher realm altogether, but instead of being perceived as God or spirit, it relates more to human endeavour, in the cultural, intellectual, or moral spheres, so becomes accessible through art and philosophy offering access to a higher realm – and this is one the reasons why literary criticism becomes so important to the Westernizers, in particular in the writings of Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848), who was one of the key figures in this circle (to whom I will return later); the other very significant figure here is Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who, after he left Russia in the early 1840s, became very involved in the European revolutionary movement and was one of the most prominent theoreticians of anarchism; we will be looking at one of his texts next term when we examine populism and anarchism.

The other circle exploring similar ideas revolved around Alexander Herzen (1812-70) and his best friend, Nikolai Ogarev (1813-1877). Stankevich did see the faults of present-day reality, as the previous quotation suggested, but this group had a more overtly political perspective, embracing the politics of equality and rejecting the autocracy and the Orthodox church as a institution that supported the oppressive state, which resulted in its members being exiled for criticizing the monarchy. But there was also a strong sense amongst this group of their ability to show humanity its future, which entailed developing high moral standards (again, this is their means of accessing and even representing the higher realm) and separating themselves from what they saw as the corruption of Russian life (see Frede, pp. 54-66, for a good description of their ideas and background).

It was members of these two circles who formed the group we now call the Westernizers, and we’re going to focus on the work of two central figures, Belinsky and Herzen, whose texts we will be examining in detail after reading week.

Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848)

A little background first: Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) was an unusual figure in the philosophical discussion circles of the time as he was not from the nobility – in this sense he was ahead of his time, as it was not until the next generation that this background became common for members of the intelligentsia. His father was a provincial doctor and a drunk, and his mother was largely uneducated, and by all accounts he had a very unhappy childhood; the family was very poor, and he was rather neglected. His environment was very dull, but he went to the local gymnazium and there began to discover Russian literature and history, and, although it is something of a cliché, books became his refuge. In 1829 he entered Moscow University on a state stipend (one of the ways in which Russia was progressive at the time) but got into trouble for writing a play about the evils of serfdom. He then missed much of his second year through illness, and was expelled from the university in 1831. He was very poor, but became involved in literary and philosophical circles, and from 1833 helped run the journal Teleskop (The Telescope, where Chaadaev’s First Philosophical Letter was published, although by this time Belinsky was not working there). He joined the Stankevich circle and was introduced to German philosophy, which transformed his views – more than once. I think one of the great things about Belinsky is that he was incredibly passionate about ideas, and they meant real, personal struggles for him at times as he rejected one idea and accepted another. You can see this process in his letters to Botkin in particular, and I’ll return to the question of what that particular change involved later.

Belinsky’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1834 with a piece of literary criticism called Literary Reveries, which discussed whether Russia had its own literature, and what role literature should play in national life. As a literary critic, he was able to gain a much wider audience for the philosophical questions that were discussed in the Stankevich circle, and because of this he became extremely influential in two ways. Firstly, as Berlin affirms, Belinsky is “the father of the social criticism of literature, not only in Russia but perhaps even in Europe” (Berlin 1978, p. 152). Rejecting earlier ideas of art for art’s sake, and moving beyond the notion of art as therapeutic (Berlin 1996, 197-9), he ultimately (after various shifts of opinion) emphasized the social duty of artists to reveal the reality in which they lived:

every intelligent man has the right to demand that a poet’s poetry either give him answers to the question of the time or at least be filled with the sorrow of those weighty, indissoluble questions. (PSS, VII, 345, cited in Berlin, 1996, p. 202)

As Berlin states, this entails “a morality of art, the notion of the artist as in some sense responsible – as being on oath to tell the truth” (Berlin 1996, p. 212). It was this that led to the conception of Russian literature as being more than “just” literature. Belinsky’s idea of artistic commitment to the truth is nowhere more evident than in his famous letter to Gogol (1847) in which he condemns the author for (supposedly) betraying the social principles of his earlier work and supporting the autocracy and serfdom in his Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. This view of the writer as having a duty to social commentary and critique became a standard conception in radical and revolutionary thought, and enabled the development of the tradition of revolutionary literature from Chernyshevsky to Gorky and into the Soviet period. Therefore, “In a very real sense he was one of the founders of the movement which culminated in 1917 in the overthrow of the social order which towards the end of his life he increasingly denounced” (Berlin 1978, p. 152). But at the same time, one should not blame Belinsky for the feeble artistic ideas and achievements that movement sometimes engendered (and which will be one of the topics of the next lecture, on Nihilism); unlike some of his ideological descendants, Belinsky himself always affirmed the necessity of artistry:

No matter how beautiful the ideas in a poem, how powerfully it echoes the problems of the hour, if it lacks poetry, there can be no beautiful thought in it, and no problems either, and all one may say about it is that it is a fine intention badly executed. (PSS, X, 303, cited in Berlin 1996, p. 207)

Thus although he celebrated the ideas in Herzen’s 1845 social novel Who is to Blame?, he recognized the novelist (and government censor) Ivan Goncharov – with whose ideas he most definitely disagreed – as the greater artist.

And this relates to the second reason why he is so important: his critical judgement was (with a few notable lapses) very well developed, so despite his modest background, he became a figure of great authority, and almost a spokesman for Russian literature in this period; his every published word was scrutinized in educated circles, and his opinion could make or break careers (as his different responses to Dostoevsky’s first two published works, Poor Folk and The Double, showed).

Belinsky died aged 37 in 1848, having suffered from tuberculosis for many years, which makes his impact all the more remarkable.

Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), with his son Sasha (1840)

Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) also had an extraordinary impact on Russian intellectual life. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy nobleman, Ivan Yakovlev, and a German woman, Luisa Haag; his surname indicates that he was a “child of the heart.” Imbued with revolutionary ideals at an early age, and rejecting the autocracy, he was arrested and exiled (although to provincial towns in European Russia, not to Siberia) twice (in 1835 and 1841), and left Russia in 1847, never to return. He was in Europe at the time of the revolutions of 1848, but was disillusioned by their failure (this is the subject of his philosophical dialogue From the other Shore). He moved to London in 1852, and it was here, in his work as a writer and publisher, that his greatest impact came. In 1853 he set up the Free Russian Press (the first independent premises were on Judd Street in Bloomsbury, and the offices and print shop later moved to Caledonian Road – read more about this here) and from 1855 published the literary-political almanac Poliarnaia zvezda (Polar Star), most of which he wrote himself at first, and then from 1857 Kolokol (The Bell), an uncensored weekly newspaper that among other things campaigned for the emancipation of the serfs and freedom of speech in Russia. To give a flavour of his campaigning writing, this is from a pamphlet he wrote in 1853 on serfdom:

We are slaves because our forefathers sold their human dignity for inhuman rights, and we enjoy these rights. We are slaves because we are masters. We are servants because we are landowners, and landowners without faith in our rightness. We are serfs because we keep in bondage our brothers, who are like us by birth, by blood, and by language. There is no freedom for us while the curse of serfdom hangs over us, while in our midst there continue to exist the vile, shameful, completely unjustified slavery of the peasants. […] It is impossible to be a free person and have servants bought like a product and sold like a herd. It is impossible to be a free person and have the right to flog peasants and send servants to jail. It is impossible even to speak of human rights as the owner of human souls. [From ‘St George’s Day! St George’s Day!’ 1853]

Large numbers of Kolokol were smuggled back into Russia and for several years its influence was enormous. It was read by intellectuals of all persuasions, not just radicals; apparently the Tsar read it, and in his memoirs My Past and Thoughts – a wonderful depiction of Russian intellectual life – Herzen records with some glee Mikhail Katkov, a conservative journalist and publisher (and later editor of the journal in which Dostoevsky’s novels were published, Russkii vestnik), admitting Herzen’s enormous authority in Russia because of Kolokol (Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, p. 533).

So these are two very interesting figures who hold highly significant positions in the development of the Russian intelligentsia and Russian radicalism. I wanted to dwell on this context because, unlike with the Slavophiles, where it’s easy to see where they’re coming from and what their intellectual aims are, in contrast in the Westernizers’ writings it’s not always apparent how their writing relates to debates about Russia’s direction, or even what their preoccupations have to do with the development of Russian radicalism. For the rest of the lecture, I want to explore probably the most important strand in the development of the Westernizers’ philosophy, and show how it sows the seeds of revolutionary ideas.

The Westernizers are frequently also called the Russian Hegelians, because it was their encounter with Hegel that was the defining and most dramatic moment in their exploration of German philosophy.

In the late 1830s, the naturally radical Westernizers were in the grip of Fichte’s notion of an all-powerful ego, which they saw as a sanction for rebellion. But in the context of the failure of the Decembrist uprising and the lack of a political outlet for educated Russians, their preoccupations with the meaning of history, Russia’s place in universal history, and the role of individuals, brought Hegel to their attention. In particular, they were interested in his philosophy of mind, which proposed 3 divisions of mind or spirit [geist] that relate to different spheres of human knowledge and indicate the three stages of the mind’s relationship to the world. The first stage is the subjective mind/spirit, which is related in terms of human scientific endeavour to the sphere of psychology; this human spirit as subjectivity, or for itself, and is seen as a potential force. The second stage is objective mind/spirit, which is related to the study of law and moral philosophy; this is human spirit as it expresses itself in the world, the human spirit in action and transforming nature or the world. Without this, the subjective spirit remains just an abstraction. The third stage is absolute mind/spirit, which is expressed in the spheres of art, religion, and philosophy; this is the structure of reflection on the spirit’s expression/action on the world.

But then they encountered Hegel’s dictum, from the introduction to his 1820 work The Philosophy of Right, that “the real is rational, and the rational is real.” For Hegel an important attribute of reality is that it is not only what is, but it is also necessary (i.e. what is real is in fact determined; it could not be any other way). Therefore not only is the real rational, but what is necessary is also rational. Perhaps the most important implication of this for the Russians is that the state in Hegel’s thinking corresponds to reason (the rational), insofar as it is necessary. As Walicki puts it:

According to this thesis, the “reason” of social reality is the law governing the movement of the Absolute, a law that is unaffected by the subjective pretensions of individuals.The individual’s revolt against historical Reason is inevitably motivated by a partial – and therefore merely apparent – understanding, by subjective and ultimately irrational notions. (Walicki, p. 122)

Considering where this leaves the philosophical commentator on human affairs, Copleston states:

The task of the philosopher is to show how the idea of the rational state is progressively exemplified in human history, and thus to illustrate the onward march of reason. If man understood the rational processes at work in history, a process lying at the heart of all contingent events, he would be at home in his world, reconciled with it, instead of being in state of revolt against reality. (Copleston, p. 79)

For Belinsky and Bakunin, as for the other Westernizers, philosophy was not simply a question of abstract ideas, but of how to live life, so this question was experienced as a huge challenge to their rebellious spirit, and they came to the conclusion that they had to submit to Hegel’s conception of the real, and accept the status quo. Thus began the period for the Hegelians known as the “reconciliation with reality.” It can be traced to Bakunin’s 1838 Foreword to Hegel’s School Addresses, in which he described separation from reality as a disease (Walicki 119). We also see it in a number of Belinsky’s articles, for example “Menzel, Critic of Goethe,” which praises Goethe as an “objective” writer who does not try to challenge reality; he states: “intelligence does not create reality but perceives it, having previously taken cognizance of the axiom that all that exists is necessary, legitimate and rational.” (Belinsky, “Menzel,” p. 122). Martin Malia describes such articles by Belinsky as being “shameless apologias for autocracy and Russian nationalism” (Malia, p. 205). Other critics suggest that the reconciliation was a welcome relief, an opportunity that was accepted eagerly:

For Belinsky this argument was a dispensation from the moral duty to protest—something that enabled him to reject the heavy burden of responsibility. (Walicki, p. 122)

Copleston’s formulation is even more telling:

[This] provided them with a way of converting a sense of isolation (from the regime on the one hand and the people on the other) and of practical ineffectiveness into a popular acceptance of the self-manifestation of Reason in the actual, including Russian actuality. (Copleston, p. 79-80).

The references to isolation and ineffectiveness indicate the connections between this idea and the figure of the superfluous man, who is unable to act and now finds philosophical justification for his inaction. But that casts Belinsky as a superfluous man himself, whereas I would suggest that he was more active than that, and therefore the reconciliation was far more of a struggle than these views imply. He may have said in one letter to Bakunin: “a person who lives by their senses in reality is superior to one who lives by thought in illusoriness (that is, outside reality).” (12-24 October 1838, PSS, XI, p.315). But consider this characterization of reality, from another letter written shortly before, which suggests, even if there is a way out, that it is a very painful process:

reality is a monster [chudovishche] armed with iron talons and a huge mouth with iron jaws. Sooner or later she will devour anyone who does not live in harmony with her and goes against her. To free yourself from her and instead of a terrible monster to see in her the source of happiness, there’s only one way of doing that – to acknowledge her. (Belinsky, letter to Mikhail Bakunin, 10 September 1838, PSS, XI, p.288)

And if you look forward to his subsequent repudiation of the “reconciliation with reality” – it was a short phase, lasting less than a couple of years – Belinsky’s letters to Botkin (which we will examine in the next class) indicate to me not only the horror he now feels at the ideas he subscribed to in that period, but also, in the stark language he uses, and the very fact that he turns completely in the other direction, the sense of trauma he felt whilst holding those views, which were against his nature. So I see this Belinsky’s writings in this period not so much as “shameless apologias for autocracy,” but rather as shameful. Victoria Frede (pp. 74-5) discusses a sense within members of Herzen’s circle of a loss of faith in life and in the self provoked by this philosophy, and I would suggest that although because his passionate nature Belinsky proclaimed the “reconciliation with reality” more strongly than anybody else, he too was probably assailed by these sorts of doubts long before he abandoned the doctrine altogether.

So the “reconciliation with reality” was really quite a short period in the story of the Westernizers, but it was important in various ways. It had a lasting effect on Belinsky’s literary criticism, because although he soon repudiated his praise for “objective” or uncommitted writers, he retained the adherence to realism that this period prioritized. As he states in “Menzel, Critic of Goethe”:

Art is a reproduction of reality. Consequently its task is not to correct or embellish life, but to show it as it really is. Only under these conditions are poetry and morality at one…

He goes on to relate realism with reconciliation:

A truly artistic work elevates and opens the soul of man to the contemplation of the infinite; it reconciles him with reality rather than setting him against it, and it strengthens him for his unselfish struggle with the adversities and storms of life. Art achieves this only when it uses particular instances to reveal what is general and rationally necessary, and portrays them in their subjective fullness, wholeness and completeness, as something self-contained. (Belinsky, “Menzel,” p. 123)

But in his later work it is precisely the realistic depiction of the injustices and cruelty of life that makes one challenge that reality and attempt to change it. (One should note that his definition of realism, which encompasses Gogol, refers to the true – critical – essence of reality, so is already an act of interpretation and does not suggest mere verisimilitude.)

The other reason why the reconciliation with reality is important is that it is a key stage in the development of a new set of ideas, and this is where Herzen comes into it. During the period of the “reconciliation with reality” he was in exile in Viatka, and on his return to Petersburg in 1840, he discovered that the whole terms of the debate he had been involved in before his absence had transformed, and he – to his shame – knew nothing of the Hegelianism that was now being bandied around. So he set about remedying the situation and reading as much as he could on the subject, and he came to the conclusion that Belinsky and Bakunin were wrong, and that no such “reconciliation with reality” was called for. As a result, he began to develop his own philosophy of action that liberates the personality from history (as well, implicitly, as other systems and abstract forces), and in fact moves away from pure philosophy towards politics.

Herzen developed this idea primarily in one of his most important early works, which we will be looking at next week, Dilettantism in Science (1843). His starting point in this set of essays is the idea of knowledge, and the way that incorrect attitudes to knowledge result in an inability or unwillingness to act. He criticizes the “Dilettantes” who never look beyond the surface, the narrow specialists who cannot see the bigger picture, and the “Romantics” who live in a fantasy version of the past (a direct swipe at the Slavophiles), but his main criticism is reserved for those he calls the “Buddhists.” He views this group as having the broad knowledge and understanding of “science” (by which he means philosophy, and in particular Hegelian philosophy) that separates them from, the other groups, but then (incorrectly) choosing quietism and a withdrawal from life as a response to that knowledge. The “Buddhists” are, of course, those who espouse the “reconciliation with reality.” For Herzen, on the contrary, the only correct response to such knowledge can be action, stating,

Only in intelligent, morally free and passionately energetic action does man attain the actuality of his personality and immortalize himself in the world of phenomena. […] Man’s vocation is not logic alone, but also the socio-historical world of moral freedom and positive activity. […] Man cannot refuse to participate in the human affairs which go on around him. He must act in his own place and time. (Herzen, Dilettantism, p. 144)

Knowledge, therefore, must be a springboard to action, rather than an end to it, and in this action the personality is fulfilled. Moreover, as Malia states,

Herzen also hints at this revolutionary message in reiterated calls to overcome philosophy by action. […] ‘Action’ which meets these standards can only be revolutionary. (Malia, p. 149; my emphasis)

Behind this emphasis on action emanating from knowledge lies a conception of history as divided into three epochs that mark the dialectical moments in the evolution of the mind: the age of natural immediacy, the age of thought and the age of action (Walicki pp. 129-30 gives a good description of this development). In the first epoch (the thesis), people cannot attain universality but remain in the realm of individual existence and particular interests; the second epoch (antithesis) negates this with advances in the sciences leading to the idea of impersonal truth that does attain the level of the universal (note the recurrence of this key term we encountered in the work of both Chaadaev and the Slavophiles); finally in the third epoch (synthesis), the emphasis on knowledge is negated by conscious action that transcends immediacy and enables realization of the self, bringing rationality and freedom into the historical process. Thus personality is the ultimate aim of historical development, and stopping before this point has been reached means withdrawing from history itself.

The freedom of the individual personality, rather than the imprisoning effect of an impersonal, deterministic historical force, therefore lies at the centre of Herzen’s thinking. A consciously acting person is not helplessly at the mercy of history forces; as the ultimate goal of all development, he or she instead has the possibility of acting upon history. History, therefore, has no plan or pattern (as we see in the essay “Robert Owen” from My Past and Thoughts), and action in the present takes over from the end-goal of history as the determining factor. As Malia states:

Subordination of the present to the future was simply another form of the subordination of man to transcendent ends outside himself – that source of all tyranny for Herzen. But since man’s end is man himself, and not some beyond, either heaven or the future, his goal must be self-realization in the here and now. (Malia, p. 244)

So Herzen’s philosophy retrieves man from the the position of being a mere historical stooge, and returns freedom and agency – the ability to act here and now – to him. If the individual personality is the ultimate source of value to Herzen, then the freedom that allows realization of the personality cannot be deferred:

The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing […] is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the face of abstractions.’ (Berlin, “Herzen and Bakunin,” p. 197; see also Kelly, Views from the Other Shore, pp. 116-29 on Herzen’s conception of liberty)

So the “reconciliation with reality” was brought to an end by this emphasis on the personality and its capacity for action in the present in the name of freedom, values that remain crucial to Herzen’s thinking throughout his career, and mark out the Westernizers from the Slavophiles with their emphasis on communality. But for Herzen, the primacy of the personality does not imply rampant individualism:

For all his emphasis on the individual, Herzen had always […] been deeply conscious of the social commitment and involvement necessary to the individual. […] the apparently self-centred, individualistic life he recommended derived its validity in his eyes primarily from its affirmation of a social principle. (Acton, pp. 56, 58)

So he saw the realization of the individual as a driver of social change, which he viewed as necessary, but this also explains his change of heart about revolutionary action in the face of the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. This is the subject of one of our set texts, From the Other Shore,which can be quite confusing, as it is constructed as “a dialogue opposing a believer in humanity and progress to a skeptic and iconoclast” (Malia, p. 376), the latter voice roughly corresponding to Herzen’s point of view (Kelly, “Irony and Utopia,” p. 309). But it is important as an affirmation of the personality, as here “Herzen set out the condemnation of centralised government which his emphasis on the nonsubordination of the individual had always implied” (Acton, p. 42). He sees that revolutions that begin with notions of liberating people achieve the absolute opposite and end up worse than the systems they have replaced:

Democracy for Herzen no longer meant something so simple as a centralized republic based on universal suffrage; this was no better than the most absolute of monarchies. In such a state the people in their ignorance and slavery to past prejudices delegated their power – that is, surrendered their liberty – to an absolute assembly, which then assumed all the sovereign rights of the old monarchy. The new republic, like the monarchy, represented a body of law, a system of property rights, and a power of coercion above and outside the individual. Indeed, the political republic must be considered worse than a monarchy, because it masks its authority with such slogans as universal suffrage, liberty, equality, and fraternity. A monarchy frankly proclaims it is an authority over and above individuals; the centralized republic, with its pseudo-democratic trappings, dupes the people, and thus retards their real liberation. (Malia, p. 372)

When faced with the incompatible claims of the individual and society, the individual always comes first for Herzen, and he was quite unusual in maintaining this emphasis over and above his desire to change society. It’s not a tension he’s ever fully able to resolve, but he is consistent in expressing the profound nature of the dilemma of the individual and society. In personal terms this meant disillusionment, and abandoning revolutionary action. He continued to fulfil (and express) his sense of social commitment in his writing and publishing activities – perhaps this can be seen as returning to the primary stage of knowledge as a necessary forerunner to revolutionary action, the correct form of which (to maintain the integrity of the personality) society has not yet discovered.

In the next seminar (after reading week), we’ll discuss the different elements I’ve mentioned today, looking in particular at evidence for Belinsky’s “reconciliation with reality,” how he repudiates that and the notion of the individual he replaces it with; Herzen’s conception of history, the interaction of these key terms of knowledge and action, and how he characterizes the significance of the individual.


Acton, Edward, Alexander Herzen and the Role of the Intellectual Revolutionary (Cambridge University Press, 1979)

Belinsky, Vissarion, “Menzel, Critic of Goethe,” [extracts] in A Documentary History of Russian Thought From the Enlightenment to Marxism, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow and D. C. Offord (Ardis, 1987), 117-23 | Belinsky’s works in Russian

Berlin, Isaiah, Russian Thinkers, ed. Henry Hardy (Penguin 1978)

Berlin, Isaiah, “Artistic Commitment: A Russian Legacy,” in The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History (Chatto & Windus, 1996), 194-231

Copleston, Frederick, Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev (Search Press, 1986)

Frede, Victoria, Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011)

Gertsen, A. I., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Nauka, 1954-65)

Herzen, Alexander, From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism, trans. Moura Budberg and Richard Wollheim (Oxford University Press, 1979)

Herzen, Alexander, My Past and Thoughts, trans. Constance Garnett (University of California Press, 1982)

Herzen, Alexander, “Dilettantism in Science” [extracts], in A Documentary History of Russian Thought From the Enlightenment to Marxism, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow and D. C. Offord (Ardis, 1987), 136-46

Kelly, Aileen, Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov, and Bakhtin (Yale University Press, 1999)

Kelly, Aileen, ‘Irony and Utopia in Herzen and Dostoevsky’, in Towards Another Shore: Russian Thinkers between Necessity and Chance (Yale University Press, 1998), 307-25

Malia, Martin, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812-1855 (Harvard University Press, 1961)

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1980)

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