Herzen, Alexander

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early life and work
herzen's break with the west
herzen as journalist and memorist

HERZEN, ALEXANDER (1812–1870), Russian writer and political thinker.

In the early 1840s Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was a leading member of the Westernizer group, which claimed, against the so-called Slavophiles, that Russia's historical evolution could not be understood apart from western European politics and culture. Among the Westernizers Herzen stood not with the moderate or reformist faction, but with the radicals—Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876)—who demanded that sweeping social as well as political changes be instituted in Russia for justice's sake. Herzen's impassioned advocacy of the peasant land commune as the foundation of the future society subsequently earned him the reputation as the "father of Russian socialism."

early life and work

Born in Moscow on 6 April (25 March, old style) 1812, the son of a wealthy and culturally sophisticated serf-owner, Herzen was the beneficiary of a superb domestic education. In his memoirs, My Past and Thoughts (1852–1868), he attributed his moral awakening at the age of fourteen to the hanging of the Decembrists, the palace conspirators who in 1825 sought to abolish serfdom and introduce Western-style government in Russia. In 1827, with his close friend Nikolai Ogarev (1813–1877), he swore an oath of faithfulness to the Decembrists' cause. By the early 1830s Herzen had become an adept of French socialism, an admirer of Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon's socialist feminism, and a believer in the imminent dawning of a new age of history, a "new Christianity." For his views Herzen was arrested in 1834. He served two years of exile in Vyatka province and three years in Vladimir province. For subversive remarks made in his correspondence he was rearrested and sent to Novgorod for 1841 and 1842. These troubles with the Russian authorities imparted to his views in the Westernizer–Slavophile controversy a certain intransigence.

In two key essays, Dilettantism in Science (1843) and Letters on the Study of Nature (1845–1846), Herzen laid out his philosophy of history. He argued that the European past may be divided into three stages: antiquity, a period during which people experienced joy and suffering directly, without the intermediacy of an intellectual system that could "explain" those sensations; Christianity, a period during which human life was experienced through the prism of religious and other idealist belief systems; and the contemporary period, during which materialist scholars had finally rejected the twin tyrannies of religion and abstract belief. In Dilettantism and Scholarship Herzen warned against the Mandarin contemplativism of Right Hegelians, who had contented themselves with the dictum: "All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real." In Letters on the Study of Nature Herzen's hero was the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who "destroyed in the eyes of thinking people the old metaphysics." Taken together, both works constituted a battle cry against the Slavophiles, who, in Herzen's opinion, wanted to freeze Russian development in the idealist (read: religious) stage. These essays were also a challenge to the moderate Westernizers: in 1846 they precipitated a personal break with the historian Timofei Granovsky (1813–1855), who could not countenance Herzen's atheism.

herzen's break with the west

In 1847 Herzen and his young family left Russia for western Europe. He would never return to his native land. Between 1847 and 1851 Herzen reevaluated his views on the relationship between western Europe and Russia; he also articulated the principles of the agrarian socialism that made his name in radical circles.

In his fourteen Letters from France and Italy (1847–1852) he attacked German mysticism, the self-satisfaction and meanness of the French bourgeoisie, the lies of French liberals, and the treachery of the French National Assembly and of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III, r. 1852–1871). He now asserted that European civilization itself was rotten, and therefore doomed to be liquidated. He predicted the destruction of the French monarchy, established religion, private property, and family codes. He identified himself not with then-fashionable political republicanism but rather with what he called "social republicanism."

Herzen's most important political book, From the Other Shore (1847–1850), developed these ideas with extraordinary force. In it he described Europe as a senile, exhausted world that cannot be saved. He advised his readers to discard all political banners, to forget about liberal promises of progress, and to trust instead the creative powers of nature to renew human life once the old order had disappeared. He excoriated liberals who, in February 1848, heralded democracy but who, in late June that year, urged the French National Guard to mow down demonstrators from the common people. Against these "liberals" whose deeds had proved them "conservatives" and "cannibals," he raised the banner of socialism, of the "new Christianity," of the "new barbarians marching to destroy the old order." He called reason an implacable "executioner," and wrote that the purpose of his generation was "not to be the harvesters but the executioners of the past." Strangely, he refused to idealize the common people on whose behalf he felt a social revolution should be inaugurated. He depicted them as unenlightened "slaves to habit," who "will die of thirst by the well, without suspecting that there is water in it, because their fathers never told them so." In the epilogue, written in December 1849, Herzen announced that his generation filled him with shame and declared: "I am truly horrified by modern man." He lamented the "misfortune" of being born when the old world was dying and depicted himself as one of a handful of isolated prophets doomed to perish in the coming age of barbarism.

From the Other Shore is a brilliant, self-contradictory work. Isaiah Berlin and Aileen M. Kelly have interpreted its rejection of liberal and other political banners as a principled repudiation of all ideological verities. They have seen Herzen as a forerunner of Berlin's value pluralism. Yet From the Other Shore is also a powerful endorsement of socialism, a political order that Herzen understood to be a product of nature and that he therefore welcomed, in spite of the "barbarism" that would accompany its foundation.

In "The Russian People and Socialism" (1851) Herzen repeated his claim that European civilization was in its death throes, but he now added that the Slavic tribes were beginning to coalesce around the principle of mutual liberty. Like the anarchist Bakunin, he foresaw a multinational Slavic polity of "autonomous peoples" organized in a loose federalist structure. In Russia society itself would be based on the peasant commune. Herzen insisted that, within the commune, problems were solved without litigation, for peasants "very rarely cheat one another. An almost boundless good faith prevails amongst them." He asserted that strong fraternal ties between members of the commune had enabled Russian peasants to survive the Mongol yoke and the "German" bureaucracy imposed upon them by Peter the Great and his successors. Herzen added that Russia's future "lies with the muzhik [peasant] just as the regeneration of France lies with the worker." Although he praised Russian peasants for their resistance to St. Petersburg, he was fully cognizant of rural Russia's benighted ignorance. He therefore hastened to underscore the importance of Russian intellectuals, whom he portrayed as "the most independent creatures in the world." He uncompromisingly predicted: "Whatever happens, we shall accept nothing from the enemy camp. Russia will never be Protestant. Russia will never be juste-milieu [middle of the road]." "The Russian People and Socialism" laid the foundation for future social programs relying on the commune and the critical intelligentsia. Herzen's federalism also had a significant impact on subsequent socialist thinkers, but some, such as Peter Tkachev (1844–1886) and Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), rejected federalism in favor of a centralized dictatorship of virtue.

herzen as journalist and memorist

From the mid-1850s to his death in Paris on 21 January (9 January, old style) 1870, Herzen was undoubtedly the most important Russian journalist abroad. In The Polar Star (1855–1868) and The Bell (1857–1867) he printed exposés of the history of the Romanov dynasty, criticisms of government policies and officials, and attacks on serfdom and later on the slow pace of implementing the peasant emancipation. These publications, along with the four-volume anthology Voices from Russia (1858–1860), were read by intellectuals and occasionally even by government officials, including Tsar Alexander II himself. By virtue of this journalism, some historians have classified Herzen as a contributor to the peasant emancipation of 1861 and to the Great Reforms of the 1860s, but most scholars agree that, after Herzen announced his sympathy for Polish independence in 1863, his influence on official and liberal circles quickly diminished.

Berlin has rightly called Herzen's memoirs, My Past and Thoughts, "one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius, worthy to stand beside the great novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy" (p. 209). The book is also an idiosyncratic portrait of the Russian intelligentsia from the 1820s through the mid-1860s. Herzen's characterizations of Moscow University in the 1830s and 1840s, of the Westernizer–Slavophile debate, and of individuals such as Belinsky and Bakunin left a permanent mark on the way Russians have understood their cultural history. His stylistic innovations profoundly influenced the autobiographical genre, thereby shaping the literary forms through which the Russian past has been encoded to this day.

See alsoBakunin, Mikhail; Belinsky, Vissarion; Slavophiles; Westernizers.


Acton, Edward. Alexander Herzen and the Role of the Intellectual Revolutionary. Cambridge, U.K., 1979.

Berlin, Isaian. Russian Thinkers. New York, 1978.

Herzen, Alexander. My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Translated by Constance Garnett and Humphrey Higgens. 4 vols. New York, 1968. A revision of the translation first published 1924–1927.

——. From the Other Shore; and, "The Russian People and Socialism." Translated by Moura Budberg and Richard Wollheim. Oxford, U.K., 1979.

Kelly, Aileen M. Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers between Necessity and Chance. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

——. Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov, and Bakhtin. New Haven, Conn., 1999.

Malia, Martin E. Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812–1855. Cambridge, Mass., 1961.

G. M. Hamburg