‘The Discovery of Chance,’ by Aileen M. Kelly
By MICHAEL IGNATIEFF
THE DISCOVERY OF CHANCE
The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen
By Aileen M. Kelly
Illustrated. 592 pp. Harvard University Press
In the mid-19th-century photographs of Alexander Herzen, he looks appealing: a rumpled Russian nobleman with a straggly beard streaked with gray, his watch chain and waistcoat straining against a full stomach, a look of wistful and gentle melancholy in his eyes.
Tolstoy thought Herzen (1812-70) was one of the finest prose writers of his time, and so did Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He was also an editor, a political activist and a scathing and ironical polemicist, castigating equally the Russian despots in Petersburg and his fellow socialists in exile in London, Geneva and Paris. In the years between the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and the czar’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he was one of the most provocative revolutionary minds of his time. When he was buried at Père Lachaise in Paris in 1870, a mourner exclaimed: “To the Voltaire of the 19th century!” That is not how he has been remembered.
The eclipse of his reputation is a loss, since his greatest works, “From the Other Shore” and “Letters to an Old Comrade,” struggle with an issue of enduring relevance: how to reconcile passionate political faith with unsparing lucidity about history’s cold indifference to human conviction. As someone who lived through the intoxication of the 1848 revolution, only to see his hopes crushed, and who supported the cause of Polish freedom in the uprising of 1863, only to be execrated by Russian friends who turned into anti-Polish xenophobes, he wrote with poignant insight about a perennial theme in politics: how to sustain political hope when your dreams are repeatedly shattered.
While Turgenev sank into misanthropic pessimism when his liberal dreams came to nothing and Dostoyevsky transited from revolutionary agitation to deep-dyed conservatism, Herzen remained true to the revolutionary dreams of his youth, without ever losing what Isaiah Berlin was to call his unsparing sense of reality.
After Herzen’s death, he had the misfortune to be praised by Vladimir Ilych Lenin for his “selfless devotion” in exile to the cause of revolution. Praise from that tyrannous quarter has damaged Herzen’s reputation ever since.
Berlin, who did more than anyone to resurrect Herzen, pointed out how absurd it was to see him as a Communist precursor. Herzen loathed revolutionary violence, and he rejected the argument, first articulated by Karl Marx, that Communism was “the solution of the riddle of history.” He thought this ludicrously hubristic, but Herzen’s reputation has struggled ever since to break free from the iron embrace of the very doctrine he repudiated.
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