Alexander Herzen, the illegitimate son of Ivan Yakovlev, a wealthy member of the nobility, was born in Moscow, Russia, on 25th March, 1812, and was the heir to a considerable fortune. According to Isaiah Berlin: "Ivan Yakovlev, a rich and well-born Russian gentleman... a morose, difficult, possessive, distinguished and civilized man, who bullied his son, loved him deeply, embittered his life, and had an enormous influence upon him both by attraction and repulsion."
As a child he had deep sympathy for the serfs under the control of his father and uncle. Herzen explains in his autobiography, My Past and Thoughts (1867)" Neither my father nor my uncle was specially tyrannical, at least in the way of corporal punishment. My uncle, being hot-tempered and impatient, was often rough and unjust... A commoner form of punishment was compulsory enlistment in the Army, which was intensely dreaded by all the young men-servants. They preferred to remain serfs, without family or kin, rather than carry the knapsack for twenty years. I was strongly affected by those horrible scenes: at the summons of the land-owner, a file of military police would appear like thieves in the night and seize their victim without warning." These experiences developed in Herzen a deep sympathy for the peasants and became an advocate of social reform.
One of his tutors, Ivan Protopopov, introduced him to the work of Alexander Pushkin and Kondraty Ryleyev (a poet who had been executed for his role in the Decembrist Revolt that attempted to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. "This man was full of that respectable indefinite liberalism, which, though it often disappears with the first grey hair, marriage, and professional success, does nevertheless raise a man's character... He began to bring me manuscript copies, in very small writing and very much frayed, of Pushkin's poems - Ode to Freedom, The Dagger, and of Ryleyev's Thoughts. These I used to copy out in secret."
In 1827 Alexander Herzen became friends with Nikolay Ogarev. Herzen commented in his autobiography: "I do not know why people dwell exclusively on recollections of first love and say nothing about memories of youthful friendship. First love is so fragrant, just because it forgets difference of sex, because it is passionate friendship. Friendship between young men has all the fervour of love and all its characteristics - the same shy reluctance to profane its feeling by speech, the same diffidence and absolute devotion, the same pangs at parting, and the same exclusive desire to stand alone without a rival."
Herzen was educated at the University of Moscow. He studied mathematics and physics: "I never had any great turn or much liking for mathematics, Nikolay and I were taught the subject by the same teacher, whom we liked because he told us stories; he was very entertaining, but I doubt if he could have developed a special passion in any pupil for his branch of science... I chose that Faculty, because it included the subject of natural science, in which I then took a specially strong interest."
While at university Herzen mixed in radical circles: "The pursuit of knowledge had not yet become divorced from realities, and did not distract our attention from the suffering humanity around us; and this sympathy heightened the social morality of the students. My friends and I said openly in the lecture-room whatever came into our heads; copies of forbidden poems were freely circulated, and forbidden books were read aloud and commented on; and yet I cannot recall a single instance of information given by a traitor to the authorities."
Afterwards he worked at a girls' school run by French Catholic priests. One of his students was the 12 year-old Tanya Passek. She later recalled how Herzen's teaching was a revelation. At her previous school her education consisted of reading "volumes of incomprehensible hieroglyphics, the coldness and severity of the teachers and the constant fear of punishment: having to wear a dunce's cap, or being led on a string around the building". Herzen introduced Passek to the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.
Herzen's outspoken views on the need to bring an end to serfdom and autocratic rule resulted in him being arrested and sent into internal exile. In 1835 he was forced to work as a government official in Vyatka (now Kirov). Later he moved to Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the city's official gazette. After criticizing the police he was sentenced to two years exile in Novogorod.
Herzen became friends with, Mikhail Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolay Ogarev. As Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976): "In the 1830s writers like Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen and Ogarev, all consumed by the desire for philosophical certainties, were tentatively exploring the ideas of socialism within a framework of romantic culture.... Herzen's quasi-religious desire for inner peace prompted him to mediate between the more extreme philosophies of his friends. On the other hand there was Bakunin, whose radical interpretation of the theories of Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen were to lead him to a more doctrinaire violence."
Another friend, Pavel Annenkov, commented: "I must own that I was puzzled and overwhelmed, when I first came to know Herzen - by this extraordinary mind which darted from one topic to another with unbelievable swiftness, with inexhaustible wit and brilliance; which could see in the turn of somebody's talk, in some simple incident, in some abstract idea, that vivid feature which gives expression and life. He had a most astonishing capacity for instantaneous, unexpected juxtaposition of quite dissimilar things, and this gift he had in a very high degree, fed as it was by the powers of the most subtle observation and a very solid fund of encyclopedic knowledge. He had it to such a degree that, in the end, his listeners were sometimes exhausted by the inextinguishable fireworks of his speech, the inexhaustible fantasy and invention, a kind of prodigal opulence of intellect which astonished his audience."
At the age of twenty-six he married his first cousin, Natalie Zakharina. In 1842 Herzen returned to Moscow and immediately joined those campaigning for reform. His wide-reading had radicalized him and he was now a supporter of the anarchist-socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Herzen believed that the peasants in Russia could become a revolutionary force and after the overthrow of the nobility would create a socialist society. This included the vision of peasants living in small village communes where the land was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines.
After receiving a large inheritance from his father, Herzen decided to leave Russia. He arrived in Paris in 1847 and witnessed the political struggles that resulted in the 1848 Revolution. His commentary on the failed European revolutions, From the Other Shore, was published in 1850. Herzen wrote: "In nature, as in the souls of men, there slumber endless possibilities and forces, and in suitable conditions... they develop, and will develop furiously. They may fill a world, or they may fall by the roadside. They may take a new direction. They may stop. They may collapse... Nature is perfectly indifferent to what happens... But then, you may ask, what is all this for?... To look at the end and not at the action itself is a cardinal error. Of what use to the flower is its bright magnificent bloom? Or this intoxicating scent, since it will only pass away?... None at all. But nature is not so miserly. She does not disdain what is transient, what is only in the present. At every point she achieves all she can achieve ... Who will find fault with nature because flowers bloom in the morning and die at night, because she has not given the rose or the lily the hardness of flint? And this miserable pedestrian principle we wish to transfer to the world of history... Life has no obligation to realise the fantasies and ideas of civilisation... Life loves novelty... History seldom repeats itself, it uses every accident, simultaneously knocks at a thousand doors... doors which may open... who knows?"
Herzen's biographer, Edward Acton, the author of Alexander Herzen and the Role of the Intellectual Revolutionary (1979) has argued: "One of the first members of the Russian intelligentsia to adopt socialism, he acknowledged a major debt to Fourier, the Saint-Simonians, Blanc and Proudhon. Initially he looked to the West to inaugurate an era of socialist justice and individual liberty. The failure of the Revolutions of 1848 affected him profoundly. His commentary on them, From the Other Shore (1850), ranks with those of Marx and Tocqueville. Its finest lines explored the tensions between an unqualified affirmation of the individual and the sacrifices demanded by the revolutionary cause."
In 1852 Herzen moved to London. The accession of Alexander II in 1855 gave Herzen hope that reform would take place in Russia and he established the Free Russian Press that published a series of journals including The Bell. Herzen predicted that because of its backward economy, socialism would be introduced into Russia before any other European country. "What can be accomplished only by a series of cataclysms in the West can develop in Russia out of existing conditions."
Herzen was joined in England by Mikhail Bakunin. The two men worked together on the journal until 1863 when Bakunin went to join the insurrection in Poland. The Bell was smuggled into Russia where it was distributed to those who favoured reform. According to Isaiah Berlin "Herzen... dealt with anything that seemed to be of topical interest. He exposed, he denounced, he derided, he preached, he became a kind of Russian Voltaire of the mid-nineteenth century. He was a journalist of genius, and his articles, written with brilliance, gaiety and passion, although, of course, officially forbidden, circulated in Russia and were read by radicals and conservatives alike."
Herzen's views expressed in the newspaper appeared fairly conservative to those embracing the ideas of revolutionary groups such as the People's Will and the Liberation of Labour. Herzen criticized the desire to impose a new system on the people arguing that the time had come to stop "taking the people for clay and ourselves for sculptors".
Herzen wrote that left-wing intellectuals should stop taking "the people for clay and ourselves for sculptors". On one occasion Louis Blanc, a committed socialist, said to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society. Herzen asked him why? Blanc replied "Surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society." Herzen retorted: "But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself."
Herzen rejected the ideas of people like Karl Marx who promoted the idea that socialism was inevitable. As Isaiah Berlin points out: "The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee - to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions - freedom, happiness, justice - fanatical generalizations, mystical sounds, idolized sets of words."
In 1865 Herzen wrote: "Social progress is possible only under complete republican freedom, under full democratic equality. A republic that would not lead to Socialism seems an absurdity to us - a transitional stage regarding itself as the goal. On the other hand, Socialism which might try to dispense with political freedom would rapidly degenerate into an autocratic Communism." In another article he claimed: "Who will finish us off? The senile barbarism of the sceptre or the wild barbarism of communism, the bloody sabre, or the red flag? Communism will sweep across the world in a violent tempest - dreadful, bloody, unjust, swift."
Isaiah Berlin has argued: "The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends, the ends for which they move and fight and perhaps die, ends which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee - to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions - freedom, happiness, justice - fanatical generalizations, mystical sounds, idolized sets of words."
Herzen believed that any socialist revolution in Russia would have to be instigated by the peasantry. According to Edward Acton: "Nineteenth-century Russia was overwhelmingly a peasant society, and it was to the peasantry that Herzen looked for revolutionary upheaval and socialist construction. Central to his vision was the existence of the Russian peasant commune. In most parts of the empire the peasantry lived in small village communes where the land was owned by the commune and was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines. In this he saw the embryo of a socialist society. If the economic burdens of serfdom and state taxation were to be removed, and the land of the nobility made over to the communes, they would develop into flourishing socialist cells."
Acton goes on to argue: "The oppression of the central state could be done away with altogether and replaced by a socialist society of independent, egalitarian communes. There was no need for Russia to follow in the footsteps of the West, to pass through the purgatory of capitalist, industrial and urban development or of bourgeois constitutional government. She could benefit from her late arrival on the historical scene and avoid the mistakes of others." Herzen's ideas later inspired the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.
Lenin was later to criticise the ideas of Herzen: "Herzen belonged to the generation of revolutionaries among the nobility and landlords of the first half of the last century.... His 'socialism' was one of the countless forms and varieties of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois socialism of the period of 1848, which were dealt their death-blow in the June days of that year. In point of fact, it was not socialism at all, but so many sentimental phrases, benevolent visions, which were the expression at that time of the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats, as well as of the proletariat, which had not yet freed itself from the influence of those democrats... Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep scepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen’s spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away (in Europe), while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured."
Tom Stoppard has written about Herzen's relationship with Karl Marx: "Marx distrusted Herzen, and was despised by him in return. Herzen had no time for the kind of mono-theory that bound history, progress and individual autonomy to some overarching abstraction like Marx's material dialecticism. What he did have time for - and what bound Isaiah Berlin to him - was the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical. What he detested above all was the conceit that future bliss justified present sacrifice and bloodshed. The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and wilfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind."
After the decline in popularity of The Bell, Herzen devoted his energies to My Past and Thoughts (1867). The book was a mixture of autobiography and an analysis of the social, political and ideological developments that had taken place during his life. Edward Acton has pointed out: "In its pages the pattern of his own life was skillfully woven into the fabric of political, social and ideological developments around him.... In fusing his personal experience with the history of an era, Herzen created a literary and political masterpiece which shows no signs of losing its force."
Alexander Herzen died in Paris on 9th January, 1870.