Alexander Herzen

“No one is to blame. It is neither their fault nor ours. It is the misfortune of being born when a whole world is dying.”

— Alexander Herzen, Russian journalist, born April 6, 1812

Herzen (April 6, 1812-January 20, 1870) was one of the greatest of 19th century liberals. Born in Russia, the illegimate son of a wealthy aristrocrat, he was an untiring opponent of the Tsarist regime, all oppressive governments and the hypocrisy of organized religions. He was a writer, editor, and publisher who supported reform and revolution all over Europe, especially in Russia from his self-exile in Western Europe.

Herzen was a convinced socialist, whose preferred vision of a socialist future was one of small, self-governing communities. He supported the Russian revolutionaries of his time, but told them they were neither ready to overthrow the Tsarist government nor strong enough to replace it. He also feared, prophetically, that they would merely replace one dictatorship with another (the dreadful history of the Soviet Union bore him out). But while he preached the importance of moderation and even praised the Tsar’s government for the reforms of the 1860s (abolition of serfdom, establishment of law courts), he also warned about the danger of  a reinvigorated, more competent conservative regime. He feared a Tsar transformed into “Genghis Khan with a telegraph” (which more or less describes President Putin’s odious regime: powerful, anti-democratic, illiberal, and mired in corruption and underdevelopment).

I find Herzen’s modesty, his almost Burkean scepticism about the desirability of radical change, and his insistence on his principles, shown in his break with the Liberals in 1860s Russia who supported the Tsarist regime against the revolt of the Poles (1863–1864), very attractive and congenial.

His autobiography, My Past and Thoughts (1870) was described by Sir Isaiah Berlin, for whom he was a personal and intellectual hero, as “one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius… a literary masterpiece to be placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky …”. I am learning to read Russian (Spring 2020) & My Past and Thoughts has just gone on my reading list.