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“We Must Open Men’s Eyes, Not Tear Them Out”

It's a bad sign that Anthony Grafton mistakenly refers to Tom Stoppard's brilliant drama about the life and thwarted love of A.E. Housman as The Pursuit of Love. The title of the play was The Invention of Love. Still, as … Read More

By / May 21, 2007

It's a bad sign that Anthony Grafton mistakenly refers to Tom Stoppard's brilliant drama about the life and thwarted love of A.E. Housman as The Pursuit of Love. The title of the play was The Invention of Love. Still, as the main endeavor of this review is to show that minor shortcomings don't distract from a major achievement, and I think Grafton does an admirable job of conveying the intellectual and moral exigency of The Coast of Utopia. Why care about 19th century intelligents (the term "intellectuals" doesn't apply to the Russians) when their castles in the air crash-landed as the Lubyankas on the ground a hundred years later? 

For all the tyranny or blood-brutal philosophizing of many pre-Communist radicals (Bakunin, for instance, was a schoolboy revolutionist, an early Che, who contributed not a single worthwhile idea to radical theory), there was the humane rationalism of Alexander Herzen, an aberration not just in the Russian revolutionary tradition but in European one as well:

Horrified and enraged, Herzen denounced all philosophies of history that claimed to provide absolute truths and the political programs that admitted no dissent. Individuals, he argued, made history, to the modest extent that anyone could. But they did so not by embodying the spirit of their age but by doing their best as individual moral actors in the world, and they struggled like all of their human brothers in the stream of history that shaped and limited their chances of realizing their aspirations. This Herzen—humane, reflective, deeply conscious that a new democratic age must destroy the old European civilization to which he himself belonged—the Herzen who read John Stuart Mill's book On Liberty with a shock of recognition— speaks at the end of the second and again at the end of the third play. His speeches shade their panoramas of revolutionary action against one of history's great tyrannies into an argument that history sets limits to all aspirations and a plea for moderation in all efforts for change.

Adios to Hegel. History, said Herzen, follows no libretto — and anyone agitating for the end of despotism had better not think himself an agent of inexorable forces of history, lest the freedom he establishes be just another shade of slavery.

Isaiah Berlin in Russian Thinkers — the book that, along with E.H. Carr's Romantic Exiles, gave Stoppard the idea for his utopia trilogy — rightly points out that Herzen's circumspect libertarianism has no place in the Soviet pantheon of revolutionary fathers:

It is a singular irony of history that Herzen, who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency, or justice, who denounced organized planning, economic centralization, governmental authority, because it might curtail the individual’s capacity for the free play of fantasy, for unlimited depth and variety of personal life within a wide, rich, ‘open’ social milieu, who hated the Germans (and in particular the ‘Russian Germans and German Russians’) of St Petersburg because their slavery was not (as in Russia or Italy) ‘arithmetical,’ that is, reluctant submission to the numerically superior forces of reaction, but ‘algebraical,’ that is, part of their ‘inner formula’—the essence of their very being—that Herzen, in virtue of a casual phrase patronizingly dropped by Lenin, should today find himself in the holy of holies of the Soviet pantheon, placed there by a government the genesis of which he understood better and feared more deeply than Dostoevsky, and whose words and acts are a continuous insult to all that he believed and was. 

 

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