|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Alexander Herzen, the illegitimate son of Ivan Iakovlev, a wealthy member of the nobility, was born in Moscow, Russia, on 25th March, 1812. His father paid for him to have an expensive education. However, he did not obtain the conservative views of the ruling class and instead developed a deep sympathy for the peasants and became an advocate of social reform.
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 1834 he was forced to work as a government official in Vyatka and Vladimir. After criticizing the police he was sentenced to two years exile in Novogorod.
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.
After receiving a large inheritance from his father, Herzen decided to leave Russia. He arrived in Paris in 1846 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.
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 Polar Star, Voices from Russia and The Bell.
In 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 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.
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. However, the 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".
In 1865 he 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."
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.
Alexander Herzen died in Paris on 9th January, 1870.
(1) In 1858 Alexander Herzen was attacked by Nikolai Chernyshevsky for his failure to support acts of terrorism in Russia. He gave his reply in The Bell (1858)
We will not call for the axe as the ultima ratio so long as there remains one vestige of reasonable hope for a solution without the axe. The further I look into the western world, into the chain of events which brought Europe to us Russians, the more there arises in me a disgust for all bloody revolutions.
(2) Alexander Herzen, The Bell (1865)
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.
(3) Alexander Herzen wrote about the use of violence to obtain political reform in an article published in 1867.
Violence and terror are employed to spread religious and political creeds, to establish autocratic empires and indivisible republics. But force can merely destroy and clear the place - no more. With the methods of Peter the Great the social revolution will never attain beyond the slave-labour equality of Gracchus and Babeuf and the Communist serfdom of Cabet.