THR Blog   /   July 21, 2020

Alexander Herzen and the Plural World

Why the great Russian thinker refused to pick up the axe to advance his cause.

Alan Jacobs

( Herzen and an 1865 edition of The Bell.)

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in, and admiring of, plurality. Plurality—a condition of society in which people who hold widely different beliefs and are committed to quite different values nevertheless find some way to live in relative peace with one another—is to be distinguished from pluralism, which may be described as a conviction that a society in which people pursue a great diversity of ends is intrinsically superior to a more unified society. That I don’t believe. I think that our society would be better off if we were all united by a deeply shared set of convictions—my convictions, as it happens. (Imagine that!) But I would want such singleness of vision to be freely chosen, which will obviously never happen. So in default of my ideal, I say: Better plurality than tyranny, and better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me.

From this point of view, the most zealous on the contemporary American left and the contemporary American right have something fundamental in common: They never ask the question, Am I fit to rule others?” I see this self-blindness not only in electoral politics but also in intra-religious and academic disputes. They take it for granted that the rightness of their convictions makes them fit: that the justice of a cause can make a perfectly straight thing out of the crooked timber of their humanity. To be sure, I continue to say, better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me; but I also say, better that none of those zealots ever achieve the power they lust for—because their very confidence in their right to rule is the most absolute disqualification for rule that I can imagine. This Alexander Herzen understood.

The central figure in Tom Stoppard’s great dramatic trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002) is Herzen (1812–70), the first Russian socialist. From exile in England, Herzen published The Bell, which the great American critic Dwight Macdonald, the editor of an English-language edition of Herzen’s memoirs, called perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history.” In the third play of the sequence, Stoppard imagines a meeting between Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a firebrand writer sixteen years younger than Herzen who thinks that Herzen is a superannuated figure, a weak man of half measures, and has come to London to say so. Above all, I won’t listen to babbling about reform in The Bell. Only the axe will do.” When Herzen asks what will come next, Chernyshevsky says, Organization.” To which Herzen replies:

Organization? The wolf packs will have the freedom of the streets of Saratov! Who will do the organizing? Oh, but of course!—You will! The revolutionary elite. You’ll need some help. So you have to have your own police force to organize people for their own good. Only until the enemy has been liquidated, of course! In Paris I saw enough blood running in the gutters to last me. Progress by peaceful steps. I’ll babble it as long as I’ve got breath.

Chernyshevsky walks calmly away from this, reinforced in his belief that Herzen will be of no assistance in either wielding or providing axes, or indeed in defending their use. The younger man is so calm because he is absolutely convinced that history is on his side, that the ultimate victory of his cause is inevitable.

In this, Chernyshevsky was like Karl Marx, who also appears, briefly, in The Coast of Utopia, and about whom Stoppard wrote in an essay that came out around the time of the trilogy’s first performances:

Marx distrusted Herzen, and was despised by him in return. Herzen had no time for the kind of mono-theory that bound history, progress, and individual autonomy to some overarching abstraction like Marx’s material dialecticism. What he did have time for was the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical. What he detested above all was the conceit that future bliss justified present sacrifice and bloodshed. The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and willfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind.

The revolutionary without certainty of the outcome of his efforts turns out to be reluctant to take up the axe.

In the trilogy’s last scene, Herzen has a dream in which he is accompanied by two men—two of the many figures who play a role in this immensely complex drama—Marx and Ivan Turgenev. I just cited Stoppard’s explanation of Herzen’s differences with Marx; but Herzen isn’t Turgenev either. Throughout the plays, whenever Turgenev shows up, someone is always trying to figure out where he stands on the Great Issues of the Day. At one point, when he is pressed him about his purpose” in writing Fathers and Sons, he replies, My purpose was to write a novel.” His interlocutor then demands, So you don’t take sides between the fathers and the children?” Turgenev: On the contrary, I take every possible side.” A little later, Turgenev tells an agitated Herzen that he is agreeing with him. Herzen: You agree with everyone a little.” Turgenev: Well, up to a point.”

This Turgenev resembles Tom Stoppard himself, who said, decades agoI write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.” But that’s not Herzen, who stands between Turgenev’s agile detachment and Marx’s grimly satisfied contemplation of the turning of the great iron wheels of historical materialism. Turgenev and Marx can’t understand each other at all, but Herzen understands them both—and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky—and that’s why he’s at the center of Stoppard’s trilogy. He has the mind of a pluralist but the heart of a revolutionary. This is why he won’t stop striving for social transformation with every ounce of energy he has, but also won’t pick up Chernyshevsky’s axe.

What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history. And as Isaiah Berlin, Herzen’s greatest champion and the writer who first alerted Tom Stoppard to Herzen’s importance, wrote at the outset of a famous essay about liberty:

Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. That is the meaning of Engels’s famous phrase (paraphrasing Saint-Simon) about “replacing the government of persons by the administration of things,” and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the State and the beginning of the true history of humanity.

Herzen, by contrast, didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause. 

This is Stoppard’s image of the true scholar and the true activist alike. In Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, Septimus Hodge consoles his pupil Lady Thomasina Coverly when she cries out in grief for all the lost plays of the Athenians”: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short.” And Stoppard’s Herzen, near the end of this magnificent trilogy, finds the same consolation and expresses it with some of the same words, but even more concisely and beautifully: The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”