Romantics and revolutionaries

Issue 

The Romantic Exiles: A Nineteenth Century Portrait Gallery
By E.H. Carr 1998, Serif. 343 pp., $34.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

"He raised aloft the banner of revolution", wrote Lenin. Trotsky admired his identification with the oppressed and read his works during exile in Siberia. Victor Serge avidly read his writings whilst on sentry duty during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. Yet the writer these three Bolshevik revolutionaries were praising — the 19th century dissident aristocrat Alexander Herzen — is not one whose name comes readily to socialists today.

This should be put to rights by the welcome reissue of E.H. Carr's 1933 book on Herzen, his collaborator Nicholas Ogarev, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and other 19th century Russians who were involved in oppositional currents to autocratic rule under tsarism. Carr's book brings this world to life with colourful vignettes of the revolutionary movements and personalities of the time.

Born in 1812, the young aristocrat Herzen (and Ogarev) were inspired by the 1825 revolt of the Decembrists, noblemen who organised a brave but doomed revolt against Tsar Nicholas, a particularly reactionary example of that species.

Whilst at Moscow university, Herzen and Ogarev took part in discussions of socialism and lampoons of Nicholas, resulting in arrest and internal exile, which left both young men deeply radicalised, their "hitherto vague and undefined idealism" crystallising into a "bitter and life-long hatred of Russian autocracy".

They fled to western Europe in 1847, headlong into revolution in France but, as the French liberal bourgeoisie took fright and turned on its working-class allies, with Herzen in hearing distance of the firing squads, disillusion set in. Herzen's revolutionary hopes turned to "apathy and blank despair" as he wandered through Europe in search of greener pastures.

He found instead unwelcome diversion on the domestic front. George Herwegh, a popular democratic poet from Germany, who led a band of German émigrés on an ill-fated expedition to Baden from France to aid the German revolution in 1849, befriended the lonely Herzen back in Paris, only to fall desperately in love with Nathalie, Herzen's wife.

Despite all their commitment to the Romantic ideal of free love, Herwegh and Herzen quarrelled and split. The ensuing personal war eventually involved all the European revolutionaries (Marx and Engels siding with Herzen).

Herzen sought respite by moving to England, where, reunited with Ogarev, he founded The Bell, a free émigré Russian press, in 1857. This turn to radical political journalism lifted Herzen to "the most powerful figure in the Russian political world", says Carr.

Representing "enlightened liberal opposition" to tsarist autocracy, the journal was attacked for setting too hot a pace by moderate liberals (privileged dissidents who feared that the logic of "permanent revolution" might sweep away their wealth and power) and criticised from the left for not going fast or far enough in its political program.

The Bell was killed off, in the end, by its principled support for the Polish insurrection against Russian rule in 1863. Its liberal audience scuttled away under the influence of patriotism and war hysteria, sinking a journal that, for all its faults, had kept the lamp of dissent burning brightly — "the great service rendered by Herzen", as Lenin wrote.

The "great service" rendered by Carr is to recreate the life and achievements of Herzen. Politically, however, there are reservations.

Carr, the Cambridge and Oxford don, Foreign Office diplomat, and assistant editor of the Times, was never a socialist. Although coming as close to historical materialism as a bourgeois scholar can without actually being a Marxist, and whilst rejecting the conservative claptrap about history being the work of "great men" rather than social forces and class struggle, Carr does retain some bourgeois vices.

"Marxism", he writes, is the "grim, dogmatic science", comparing it unfavourably with the politics of "the philosopher and the poet" like Herzen. Carr, with more than a hint of self- portrayal, presents Herzen as the tragically defeated "third way" between autocracy and socialist revolution, between tsar and Bolshevik.

To justify Herzen as his anti-revolutionary model, Carr describes him as "a lifelong sceptic" of revolution whose scepticism was "intensified by old age".

This does an injustice to Herzen. Lenin gives a truer picture of Herzen's political evolution.

He was a radical democrat at the time of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but their defeat led to Herzen's "spiritual shipwreck", wrote Lenin. Herzen's's deep scepticism and profound pessimism after 1848 were a product of the passing of the "revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats whilst the revolutionary character of the proletariat had not yet matured".

Just before his death in 1870, however, Herzen moved much closer to recognising the necessity of proletarian revolution. He turned towards the International, that body of working class organisations under Marx's leadership which was "rallying the world of labour" as the social force that could carry forward the struggle for democracy and socialism.

Hence the Bolsheviks' honouring of Herzen by naming a major street after him in Moscow, an honour not accorded to Bakunin, the "father of anarchism", who loses handsomely to Herzen in the socialist democracy stakes.

Bakunin accurately summed up Herzen as "a writer of genius, a powerful journalist but not a revolutionary leader". Nor was Bakunin, it should be said, even though Carr lauds Bakunin as "the greatest leader and agitator thrown up by the revolutionary movement of the nineteenth century".

Bakunin was, in the 1840s, an anti-tsarist agitator, for which he paid with eight years in jail and four years of exile. Escaping Russia, he turned up in London in 1861, looking up his old friend Herzen.

Their "first transport of reunion", however, masked political divergences and the extent to which Bakunin had moved towards anarchism, a single-minded liberal obsession with the sovereignty of the individual and the political "evil" of all states and governments, even those based on the fullest representative and accountable democratic power of the working class.

This anarchist tyranny of the individual reached dictatorial extremes with Bakunin himself. Though Carr is silent on the issue, Bakunin would wreck any organisation where he could not get his way, plotting, for example, with his small band of followers to undermine and take personal control of the International.

Though very effective at wrecking democratic working class organisations, Bakunin was spectacularly ineffective in challenging the capitalist state. Bakunin rushed to a workers' republican uprising in Lyons in 1870, declared the state abolished outside the town hall and was carried off by the police but not before misleading and bringing undone the revolutionary government in that city.

Bakunin paid no heed to socialist principles. He formed a partnership with the sinister criminal-adventurer, Sergei Nechaev, who murdered one of his followers who had dared to challenge Nechaev's authority.

Together, Bakunin and Nechaev fleeced Herzen and Ogarev of £800 to further their wild schemes and tried to swindle Herzen's daughter of her inheritance. The inventing of imaginary political societies, and the formation of actual small bands of obedient followers for taking over mass organisations, was a constant activity of the anarchist-gangster duo.

Carr, however, regards Bakunin, not as an anarchist dictator, but as an entertaining eccentric, a "fanatic, swashbuckler and cad". Like many bourgeois historians with an anti-Marx bias, Carr sides with the "freedom-loving libertarian" Bakunin as Marx's foe in political philosophy and the International.

Carr's book can be read with enjoyment as a historical novel, and, with care, as a lesson in how Herzen, rather than Bakunin, stood for the democratisation of, rather than the pious preaching against, and individual usurpation of, authority.

Herzen fully deserved the praise of the Bolsheviks as a revolutionary who tilled the soil of democratic socialism. Lenin recognised that Herzen had "paved the way for the Russian Revolution", and that his superb radical journalism "was not wasted, even if long decades divide the sowing from the harvest".