Poland’s foremost liberal thinker Adam Michnik, has been known to quote the XIXth century Russian liberal Alexander Hercen’s attacks against Tsar Nicholas I while accusing President Vladimir Putin of the sort of despotism that Hercen saw in the Tsar. Mr. Michnik and Poland’s foremost conservative patriot, Henryk Krzeczkowski, both wrote fascinating reflections about Russian political philosopher Alexander Hercen. Naturally, since Mr. Michnik now rules a multi-million-dollar media empire lavishly supported by the West while Major Krzeczkowski spends eternity marveling at the Majesty of Christ, while his self-proclaimed intellectual heirs remain woefully ignorant of who he was, we can imagine which essay is more widely circulated here on Earth. Both Michnik and Krzeczkowski’s essays coincidentally had similar titles: Michnik’s was gushingly titled Our Friend Hercen, while Krzeczkowski’s was the more demure One of Our Friends. Mr. Michnik wrote an essay which essentially extols the liberal foresight of Alexander Hercen and praises his virtues as a socialist revolutionary who is still relevant, because Russia, in Mr. Michnik’s view, has yet to progress sufficiently forward towards a liberal utopia. Henryk Krzeczkowski, as befits a conservative, took a far more realistic view of Alexander Hercen, arguing that Hercen was a manqué, a term the French use to describe a loser, and a liberal loser at that. While Krzeczkowski does acknowledge that Hercen did much for the cause of revolutionary progressivism, he is far less interested in this cause than in demonstrating that Hercen is in fact a historical prototype for the folly of liberal idealism in political life. If, as Mr. Michnik seems to suggest, an analogy exists between Hercen and today’s lovers of a utopian Russia in contradistinction to Russia as she is, then Henryk Krzeczkowski, speaking in this essay from the grave, would suggest that it is an analogous continuation of liberal folly. Henryk Krzeczkowski’s excellent essay on this subject is published below in English. —Peter S. Rieth
“Your foreign faces have the rights of citizens in my dreams.” – Adam Mickiewicz
Alexander Hercen was one of the few friends we had who withstood the greatest of trials that confront a man who acts or who wishes to act in political life: the disapproval of his surroundings. His written work in support of persecuted Poles, his lack of hesitation in support of the national struggle and his acknowledgement of our right to independent statehood have been the subject of various opinions from various quarters. The individual voices and even the acts of suicidal heroism which, for a time, seemed to be the effective results of this voluntarily self-banished émigré’s appeals have all been long buried under a veil of antipathy. All of this was sufficient for Hercen to have acquired the rights of a citizen not only in our dreams, but even in the light of day, in our various reflections upon his works and acts. When the partisan quarrels died down, when the fires of the epoch’s battles began to coagulate (after all, the few years in which Hercen was active in Polish affairs were an entire epoch); finally, when the source of all of the conflicts, though not fully understood, was at the very least localized and described, Hercen was eventually counted amongst the defenders of our lost cause.
Nevertheless, the permanence of historical cannon is rather weak when it is not supported by solid and popular knowledge about heroes placed on the altar of national memory. Aside from the few who had ever bothered to take an interest in Russian history, few if any Poles knew about Alexander Hercen. Only after the last war (World War II) did Hercen’s beautiful Of Things Past, Reflections and two books of his collected philosophical works become available in Polish, with a beautiful forward by Andrzej Walicki. Finally, we have recently seen a new book published, lacking for so long: a biography of Hercen written by Victor and Rene Śliwowski (Hercen, by Victor and Rene Śliwowski, 1973).
This book, which is the result of several years of scholarly research and solid knowledge, is a clear and erudite portrait, shorn of all ostentation, of one of the most interesting figures in the XIXth century gallery of those whom we might call discontent with existing realities. The adventures of this bastard of a Russian magnate, who inherits a great fortune and emigrates West from where he decides to fight against Tsarist despotism, becoming a fanatical revolutionary idealist, a publisher of works which remain a permanent monument to the struggle between free thinking and tyranny, a man who experiences great romantic personal tumult as well as the banal tragedies of others; these adventures elicit a sense of amazement in the reader—the same sense of amazement that we get when reading literature which attempts to craft “memorable” characters. The Śliwowskis admire Hercen, they are in love with Hercen. Thus, naturally, they present their own vision of a “memorable” Hercen. We do not begrudge them this fact thankfully they managed to avoid writing a hagiography quite the contrary; we congratulate their courage and their success, because theirs is the first complete study of Hercen’s biography ever written in any language.
The memorable Hercen as presented by the Śliwowskis is, above all, a writer whose work is still vibrant with life, which, as they make clear in their introduction, is “rarely the fate of a publisher, and Hercen was foremost a publisher. Independent of whether or not we agree with Hercen, the problems which he brings up still torment us today, we cannot be apathetic about them even for a moment. We catch ourselves from time to time, realizing that we seem to be reading Hercen as though he were our contemporary; we feel the urge to grab a pen and write a polemic directed at his thought. We feel the urge to thank him for his excellence in expressing our own thoughts.”
This confession on the part of the authors largely sums up their approach to their subject and opens the path for readers to seek out their own interpretations of the facts presented in the biography. Yet the question of just how contemporary a historical figure is can be understood in various ways. It all depends on the level to which we attach a sense of “contemporariness” to the times in which the hero of the biography lived, to the issues which commanded his attention and engagement, as well as the philosophical, political and other motivations which justify the comportment of said historical actor.
When I attempt to answer the question of what it is in Hercen that makes him memorable and timely for my own use, I confess that I conclude that his written work is, to my mind, contemporary only in the most miniscule of senses. The problems which Hercen tried to solve, the causes for which he fought, the conditions against which he railed, are “despite some surface similarities” actually not at all comparable to the matters with which we struggle today. The relevance of historical events to present concerns is rarely ever authentic. More often than not, analogies between history and contemporary times are merely comfortable illusions. The order of political life does not admit of permanent situations, and Hercen’s situational struggles were part and parcel of a particular moment in political life.
To my mind, Hercen is memorable not so much for being the inventor of observations which retain some permanent relevance, nor as a herald of solutions for future times, but above all as a type of manqué**. Hercen’s great service to the contemporary world is that his actions serve to remind the entire world of the valors of nonconformism and being true to yourself, understood as a philosophy that is constantly in the process of being effected; a type of nonconformism which is not merely the random result of egocentrism. He is also memorable as one of the prototypes of the tragic type of Men of Action who clearly see the twilight of an epoch and therefore fill themselves with catastrophic premonitions and set themselves the goal of saving humanity, but end up building castles on sand because they remain closed in a three-dimensional vision of modern history, convinced that they are laying the foundation for a better future.
I therefore am not in the business of polemicizing with Hercen about contemporary times. I do, however, wish to observe him very carefully as a human being. I reflect upon his life and works, I wish to understand the human type and the comportment of this man who seems to eternally return in our world in newer forms. I want to understand him.
On the third anniversary of Hercen’s death, when it was legal to publicly utter his name (though his books were still banned), Dostoyevsky published the next installment in his Writer’s Journal titled “Old Men.” There, Dostoyevsky writes:
Hercen was a product of our aristocratic mannerisms, gentilehomme russe et citoyen du monde of the premiere sort. He was the type of man who could only exist in Russia, who could never have been born anywhere but in Russia. Hercen did not emigrate, he did not pioneer the Russian emigre movement: no, no! He was born an émigré! Everyone who thought as he did was also born here in Russia already an émigré, even though most of them never emigrated from Russia. In the last 150 years of the existence of the Russian nobility, with a few exceptions, the roots connecting the Nobles to the soil of mother Russia dried up, their connection to the truths of Russia were severed. It was as though history itself had created a mission for Hercen: to be the prototype for the human type that so often flies into our faces and proclaims itself as living evidence that the great majority of our enlightened class has broken with the people. This is the historical type that Hercen represents. Naturally, because they have broken with the people, they have also lost sight of God. They are no longer at peace; they have become atheists. Then, when they find peace, it is the peace of laziness, of apathy. They hate the common man in Russia while at the same time they also convince themselves that in point of fact they are lovers of the people who wish the people all the best. They love the Russian people in the negative; that is to say, they love an imaginary Russian people; a Russian people that they conceive of as an ideal; they love the Russian people not as real humans, but only as the people ought to be.
Hercen of course just had to become a socialist, because that is what is expected of a Russian Noble. By this I mean that although there was no good reason for it, no aim in it, Hercen became a socialist because it was the result of “the logical development of the Idea” and on account of a great void in our fatherland. Hercen tossed away all principles that were the bedrock of earlier society; he rejected the family although he was apparently a good father and a good husband. He rejected private property, though naturally he was quite capable of tending to his business interests and was quite satisfied to proclaim that his financial interests in foreign countries was safe. He stirred up revolutions, he agitated in favor of revolutions, but in his personal life he enjoyed the quiet calm and comfort of domestic life. He was an artist, a thinker, an excellent writer, a well-read man of good humor, a man who spoke even better than he wrote, and an excellent debater. It goes without saying that he was an extraordinary man; but in all of his functions, whether he was writing his memoirs or publishing a newspaper along with Proudhon, or when he took to the barricades in Paris (an event he so comically recounted in his memoirs), when he suffered, rejoiced and doubted, when in the 1860s he favored the Poles and appealed to Russians to rise up in a revolution even though he knew that the Poles had lied to him, even though he himself did not believe the Poles everywhere and always, throughout his entire life, he remained above all a Russian gentleman and a Global Citizen, a simple product of the old caste system, of Noble traditions the very system he hated and to which he belonged not only on account of his father, but precisely on account of the manner in which he betrayed his fatherland and its ideals.
Dostoyevsky’s introspective genius, which allowed him to see the kernel of nihilism and radicalism he described so well in his Demons made it possible for the Russian writer to get to the very essence of Hercen. In Dostoyevsky’s words about his contemporary, we do not find hatred towards a political opponent, nor animosity towards a man who thinks differently. We find that Dostoyevsky pities Hercen because so much good will, so much ability and energy were consumed on account of unfortunate circumstances and due to historical actions which in the best case deserve to be called Quixotic. Dostoyevsky does not develop this thought here; but we can find its development on several other pages of his Literary Journals. What is of chief interest to us, however, is Dostoyevsky’s brilliant understanding of Hercen’s sense of resentment. Dostoyevsky is quite right when he takes aim at the indomitable tendency amongst Russian intellectuals of the Landed Aristocracy to alienate themselves from their own country. The domination of the French language in the royal court and the salons of St. Petersburg, the domination of the German language in government administration all of this created internal divisions that ran deeper than in any European country. Yet even these divisions were varied in their depths. The intellectuals at least until the mid 1850s until the appearance of the “raznoczyniec” *** were all recruited from amongst the Nobles and found their material support in the Noble class. The intellectuals were never capable of finding a common language with any other social class. The short-lived popularity of Hercen mainly amongst his fellow aristocrats which saw its peak when Russians would undertake pilgrimages to his flat in London evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared when Hercen came into conflict with the national interest of Russia. The only reason why Hercen regained popularity was due to a wave of historical interest that was the natural onset of the close of the epoch; a sign of respect for a chapter of Russian national history.
Towards the end of his life, Hercen was well aware of how life had let him down: “I do not understand what sins I have committed to deserve to see my correct desires, my dreams all explode into nothingness one after the other like bursting bubbles. I have created a work which ought to be continued after I die,” he wrote to his son one year prior to his passing. Hercen was not a man capable of introspection, so he looked for fault in others, but never in himself. Is it even possible to speak of fault here? His noble nature simply would not allow him to sit idly by while injustice, cruelty and pain were present in the world. He desired to act, he wanted to fight against evil. Yet when he chose his path of action, he found that a conflict of competing passions erupted within him and he was incapable of tempering them. His early dreams of political activity were brought to ruin by his light-hearted attitudes as a young man, his notion that he could do anything he wanted without fear of consequence. Rather than bow to necessity and embark upon a realistic political analysis of Russia, he instead sought discourse and discussion amongst friends as well as burying himself in theoretical books. Rather than being systematic in the implementation of some political strategy or program he allowed himself to improvise and was able to get away with it only due to his great wealth. Hercen’s material wealth and his social status, which Dostoyevsky describes so well, made of Hercen a man wholly independent of the political realities surrounding him. Ergo, Hercen was able to construct imagined realities to his liking. In my opinion, Hercen was possessed of a certain trait, a kind of voluntarism in both thought and action, which allowed him to ignore facts, particularly facts which were not to his liking, and bend reality to his conceptions; whatever they happened to be at the moment. Hercen never did, in the end, manage to figure out just who it was that he was trying to make happy or why. Perhaps this explains his passion for crafting the fiction of the Russian peasant who was burdened by the moral duty of saving the entire world, even though Hercen knew full well the nature of this fiction. Ivan Turgeniev would write to him in 1863: “Either/or: Either you serve the revolution and the European ideals in the old way, or, if you have finally realized their nihilistic content, then at least have the courage to look the Devil straight in the eye and pronounce yourself guilty and do not make overt or subtle exceptions for the ‘Russian messiah’ whose coming you anticipate even though you fundamentally have as little faith in the Russian messiah as you have little faith in the Jewish Messiah.”
Hercen’s peculiar lack of realism cannot but strike us in particular when we consider his view of the Polish question. No one can doubt his commitment and sacrifice, but everyone must surely see that he was not capable of recognizing the principal aspects of the Polish question.
When we explore the humble attempts Hercen made at developing realistic cooperation with the Hotel Lambert, which was, in the eyes of the great majority of the Polish nation and in the eyes of the great majority of European capitals, the center of the representatives of the conquered Polish nation, one gets the impression that Hercen treated Hotel Lambert as though it were merely one of many émigré groups, and that Hercen has the right to judge the politics of this émigré group towards their own country even from the point of view of the nation represented by the émigrés. This is because for Hercen, the dominating vision of Polish-Russia relations that he held fast to was a Slavic federation built on the foundations of the existing system. Hercen claimed that this federation would be voluntary, nevertheless he considered it the only worthwhile political goal possible. Ergo anyone who refused to participate in this federation, Hercen felt, would be politically blind. Yet perhaps Poland does indeed belong more to the old Western world and desires to take the path of a Knight, who will die with the West? Hercen wrote, “Let the Holy Will of Poland be done.” Perhaps even Hercen himself, though he authored these words, was deaf to the level of sarcasm they echo.
When Hercen is finally invited to take part in a demonstration organized by the Hotel Lambert aimed at acquiring British allegiance for the Polish cause, Hercen refuses. The Śliwowskis note: “judging from his response in a letter sent to Władysław Czartoryjski, one infers that he insisted that he could not, under any circumstance, allow for his moral authority to be utilized in support of the Polish aristocracy.” Hercen did ask, however, for Czartoryski to convey to the demonstrators Hercen’s deepest regrets on account of the biezdnen peasants who had been murdered in Russia abreast other victims of the Tsar in Warsaw. Hercen believed these matters to have been intricately tied to one another. Hercen did not understand that it was precisely against this tendency to tie the fate of Russian victims of the Tsar to Polish victims of the Tsar that the entire demonstration in London was convened by Poles. The whole point of the demonstration was precisely the opposite: to make world opinion conscious that it was wrong to treat the affairs of Poland as if they were the internal affairs of Russia.
As usual, Hercen paid dearly for his mistake. His doubts, his hesitancy, all considerations of doctrine all of this ceased to matter when war broke out between Poland and Russia. He took the side of Poland, thereby risking his entire reputation in his own country. He belonged to those Russians whom he described as “sober, honest, and left to protest in isolation.” He paid a very high price for his beliefs, but he also laid the foundation for the pedestal upon which posterity would elevate him.
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* See Mr. Michnik’s essay (in Polish) here.
** French term for political loser
*** The Raznoczyncy were usually former landed aristocrats and those who lost their status and rank in Russian hierarchy, as well as former liberals, socialists or revolutionaries who had reverted to conservative and slavophile tendencies. Dostoyevsky is a principle example.
The featured image is from the office of the President of Russia and is in the public domain.