Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen books and biography


Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen in 1867
Name: Alexander Herzen
Birth: April 6, 1812 (Moscow, Russia)
Death: January 21, 1870 (Paris, France)
School/tradition: Agrarian Collectivism, Anarchism, co-operative
Main interests: Russian Politics, Economics, class struggle
Notable ideas: Agrarianism, Collectivism, Populism, Socialism
Influences: Proudhon, Hegel, Rousseau
Influenced: Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Guevara, Sartre, Frankfurt School

Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен) (April 6 [O.S. 25 March] 1812 in Moscow - January 21 [O.S. 9 January] 1870 in Paris) was a major Russian pro-Western writer and thinker known as the "father of Russian socialism". He is held responsible for creating a political climate leading to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. His autobiography My Past and Thoughts, written with grace, energy, and ease, is often considered the best specimen of that genre in Russian literature.



Herzen was an illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, by a young German Protestant woman, Henriette Wilhelmina Luisa Haag from Stuttgart, who gave her son the German surname stemming from the word Herz, i.e., heart. He was born in Moscow a very short time before Napoleon's invasion of Russia and brief occupation of the city. His father, after a personal interview with Napoleon, was allowed to leave Moscow after agreeing to bear a letter from the French to the Russian emperor in St. Petersburg. His family accompanied him to the Russian lines.

A year later the family returned to Moscow, where Herzen passed his youth, remaining there after completing his studies at Moscow University, until 1834. At that time he was arrested and tried on charges of having attended, with other youths, a festival during which verses by Sokolovsky that were uncomplimentary to the tsar, were sung. The special commission appointed to try the youthful culprits found him guilty, and in 1835 he was banished to Vyatka, now Kirov, in northeastern Russia. There he remained until the tsar's son, Alexander (later to become Alexander II)visited the city, accompanied by the poet Zhukovsky, led to his being allowed to quit Vyatka for Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the official gazette of that city.

In 1840 he returned to Moscow, where he met literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, who was strongly influenced by him. Then he obtained a post in the ministry of the interior at St Petersburg; but in consequence of having spoken too frankly about a death due to a police officer's violence, he was sent to Novgorod, where he led an official life, with the title of state councilor, till 1842. In 1846 his father died, leaving him by his will a very large property. His personal life was rather complicated, as he drifted from one uncomfortable menage a trois to another. Especially turbulent was his relationship with Natalia Tuchkova, the wife of his childhood friend and lifelong companion, Nikolay Ogarev.

Early in 1847 he left Russia, never to return. From Italy, on hearing of the revolution of 1848, he hastened to Paris, whence he afterwards went to Switzerland. He supported the revolutions of 1848, but was bitterly disillusioned about European socialist movements after its failure. In 1852 he left Geneva for London, where he settled for some years. He promoted socialism, as well as individualism, and argued that the full flowering of the individual could best be realized in a socialist order. In 1864 he returned to Geneva, and after some time went to Paris, where he died on the 21st of January 1870 of tuberculosis complications.


His literary career began in 1842 with the publication of an essay, in Russian, on Dilettantism in Science, under the pseudonym of Iskander, the Turkish form of his Christian name. His second work, also in Russian, was his Letters on the Study of Nature (1845-46). In 1847 appeared his novel Kto Vinovat? (Whose Fault?), and about the same time were published in Russian periodicals the stories which were afterwards collected and printed in London in 1854, under the title of Prervannye Razskazy (Interrupted Tales). In 1850 two works appeared, translated from the Russian manuscript, From Another Shore and Lettres de France et d'Ilalie. In French appeared also his essay Du Developpement des idées revolutionnaires en Russie, and his Memoirs, which, after being printed in Russian, were translated under the title of Le Monde russe et la Revolution (3 vols., 1860-1862), and were in part translated into English as My Exile to Siberia (2 vols., 1855).

From a literary point of view his first important work is Whose Fault?, a story describing how the domestic happiness of a young tutor, who marries the unacknowledged daughter of a Russian sensualist of the old type, dull, ignorant and genial, is troubled by a Russian sensualist of the new school, intelligent, accomplished and callous, without there being any possibility of saying who is most to be blamed for the tragic termination.

Alexander Herzen
Alexander Herzen

Free Russian Press

But it was as a political writer that Herzen gained the vast reputation which he at one time enjoyed. Having founded in London his Free Russian Press, of the fortunes of which, during ten years, he gave an interesting account in a book published (in Russian) in 1863, he issued from it a great number of Russian works, all levelled against the system of government prevailing in Russia. Some of these were essays, such as his Baptized Property, an attack on serfdom; others were periodical publications, the Polyarnaya Zvyezda (or Polar Star), the Kolokol (or Bell), and the Golosa iz Rossii (or Voices from Russia). The Kolokol soon obtained an immense circulation, and exercised an extraordinary influence.

As the first independent Russian political publicist Herzen began publishing The Polar Star, a review which appeared infrequently and was later joined by the The Bell in 1857, a frequent journal issued between 1857 and 1867 at Herzen's personal expense. Both publications acquired great influence immediately by illegally pouring into Russian territory; it was said the Emperor himself read them. Both publications extended Herzen a genuine influence in Russia by reporting from a liberal perspective about the incompetence of the Tsar and the Russian bureaucracy.

Writing in 1857 Herzen became excited by the possibility of social change under Alexander II, “A new Life is unmistakably boiling up in Russia, even the government is being carried away by it”.[1] Herzen used his skill for popular writing to expose the injustices of the ruling elite. These journals would cement Herzen's position as an Russian revolutionary thinker.

Herzen fought a propaganda war through the journals that had the constant goal of attaining individual liberty for Russians. Herzen understood the competing claims to power and was aware of the fundamental failings of the revolutionary doctrines that guided the 1848 revolutionary failures. Herzen wrote of the inhumanity of the ruling monarchies of Europe but was also aware of the excesses that were perpetrated by revolutionary governments. Herzen constantly fought for social change and felt his journals would contribute to the winds of change,

“The storm is approaching, it is impossible to be mistaken about that. Revolutionaries and Reactionaries are at one about that. All men's heads are going round; a weighty question, a question of life and death, lies heavy on men's chests”[2]

Herzen had an anarchic sense of reality whereby he could not trust any ruling government, therefore he believed in the individuals right to make his own choices, with minimal state intervention.

For three years the Russian Free Press went on printing without selling a single copy, and scarcely being able to get a single copy introduced into Russia; so when at last a bookseller bought ten shillings worth of Baptized Property, the half-sovereign was set aside by the surprised editors in a special place of honor. But the death of the emperor Nicholas in 1855 produced an entire change. Herzen's writings, and the journals he edited, were smuggled wholesale into Russia, and their words resounded throughout that country, as well as all over Europe. Their influence became overwhelming. Evil deeds long hidden, evil-doers who had long prospered, were suddenly dragged into light and disgrace. His bold and vigorous language aptly expressed the thoughts which had long been secretly stirring Russian minds, and were now beginning to find a timid utterance at home.

1855 gave Herzen reason to be optimistic; Alexander II had ascended the throne and reforms seemed possible. The Bell broke the story that the government was considering Serf emancipation in July 1857 also adding that the government lacked the ability to resolve the issue. Herzen urged the Tsarist regime 'Onward, onward' towards reform in The Polar Star in 1856, yet by 1858 full Serf emancipation had not been achieved. Herzen grew inpatient with reform and by May 1858 The Bell had restarted its campaign to comprehensively emancipate the Serfs. Once Serf emancipation was achieved in 1861 The Bell's campaign changed to 'Liberty and Land', a program that tried to rally the support gathered by the emancipation into solid political action to achieve further social change in support of Serf rights.

For some years his influence in Russia was a living force, the circulation of his writings was a vocation zealously pursued. Stories tell how on one occasion a merchant, who had bought several cases of sardines at Nizhny Novgorod, found that they contained forbidden print instead of fish, and at another time a supposititious copy of the Kolokol was printed for the emperor's special use, in which a telling attack upon a leading statesman, which had appeared in the genuine number, was omitted.

At length the sweeping changes introduced by Alexander II greatly diminished the need for and appreciation of Herzen's assistance in the work of reform. The freedom he had demanded for the serfs was granted, the law-courts he had so long denounced were remodelled, trial by jury was established, liberty was to a great extent conceded to the press. It became clear that Herzen's occupation was gone. When the Polish insurrection of 1863 broke out, and he pleaded the insurgents' cause, his reputation in Russia received its death-blow. From that time it was only with the revolutionary party that he was in full accord.

British Exile 1852 - 1864

Alexander Herzen experienced twelve years in exile. His exile writings were a product of his oppressive experiences in Russia and of the failed 1848 revolutions. Herzen had little revolutionary success prior to British exile however during this period Herzen did not become disillusioned with revolutionary social change, Herzen used exile as an opportunity to advance and refine his own understanding of Russia as he became a populist political commentator. The failed 1848 revolutions would shape and guide Herzen in exile with the effects constantly reappearing in his exile writings to form his own ideological doctrines.

In 1852 Herzen arrived in Britain where he would reside until 1864. Herzen would arrive disillusioned with the 1848 revolutions but not disillusioned with revolutionary thought. Herzen had always been a revolutionary thinker admiring the French Revolution and broadly adopting its values. Early Herzen writings viewed the French Revolution as the end of history, the final stage in social development of a society based on humanism and harmony. Through his early life Herzen saw himself as a revolutionary radical called to fight the political oppression of Nicholas I of Russia. Essentially Herzen fought against modernism's cruel inhumanity and Christian hypocrisy, fighting for individual self-expression without threat from the state. These foundations would underpin Herzen's exile writings of individual freedom in a communal setting supported by strong state.

Revolutionary failures coupled with the personal tragedies of his wife, son and mothers deaths drove Herzen to Britain for no particular reason as Herzen fell into emotional despair for several years. From London he found his despair had revived new energy for daily political adventure into Russian politics to help the Russian peasantry that he idolised. Herzen became critical of those 1848 revolutionaries that gave in, “They had gone thither, so revolted by the Reaction after 1848, so exasperated by everything European, that they hastened on to Kansas or California”.[3] Herzen found a new desire to influence and win the judgment of his countrymen as he established the Russian Printing Press. Unlike Herzen's history of political activism in continental Europe, Herzen remained a writer alone during his British exile, Herzen valued English political freedom but found it unnecessary to admire little else as they did that themselves.

In London he hired Malwida von Meysenbug to give an education to his daughters. In 1862, Malwida von Meysenbug went to Italy with Olga, his daughter. Meysenbug would later become an acquaintance of Friedrich Nietzsche, while Olga married Gabriel Monodin 1873.

Russian Radicals and Liberals view of Herzen

Herzen drew criticism from both liberals who were against violence and from radicals who thought Herzen was too soft.[4] Liberals led by Chicherin and Kavelin believed individual freedom would be achieved through the rationalisation of social relations. Their 'etatist' variety of liberalism was opposed by Herzen as it supported the existing social order, this view supposed Russian society would magically evolve to an ideal state based on a Hegelian view of reason. They believed the revolutionaries would merely postpone the establishment of the ideal state, contrary, Herzen thought they were blind to historical reality. Herzen would always reject grand narratives such as a predestined position for a society to arrive at, Herzen exile writings promoted small-scale communal living with the protection of individual liberty by a non-intervention government.

Herzen aggravated Russian radicals by appearing too moderate. Radicals such as Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov wanted more commitment towards violent revolution from Herzen, and to withdraw any hope in the reformist Tsar. Further, radicals asked Herzen to use The Bell as a mouthpiece for violent radical revolution, however Herzen rejected these requests and other requests to place himself at the head of an underground movement seeking violent revolutionary change. Herzen was still scared by the complete failures of the 1848 revolutions, and argued the Russian Radicals were not united and strong enough to seek successful political change, stating “You want happiness, I suppose? I daresay you do! Happiness has to be conquered. If you are strong, take it. If you are weak, hold your tongue”.[5] Herzen feared the new revolutionary government would merely replace the dictatorship with another dictatorship. Herzen noted the radicals proclamations showed little ideological similarity to his own ideals.

The radicals describe Herzen as a liberal for not wanting immediate change, but Herzen rejects their pleas' and argues for gradual change that involves a total change in the type of government at a rate that will ensure success. Here again Herzen is displaying his experience of the 1848 revolutions, Herzen becomes a hesitant liberal scared to make a wrong move, wanting social change that is assured not to backfire. Herzen briefly unites with other Russian liberals such as Kavelin to promote the peasant 'awakening' in Russia.[6] Herzen continues to use The Bell as an outlet to promote unity with all sections of the Russian society behind a demand for a national parliament. However his hope as acting as a uniting force were ended by the Polish revolt of 1863, when the liberals support for Tsarist revenge against the Poles ended Herzen's link with them. This breach resulted in The Bell's readership declining as sources ended, The Bell ceased publication in 1867. Herzen acknowledged the closure of The Bell symbolised the failure of the Russian revolutionary movement and by his death in 1870 Herzen was almost forgotten.

Influence in the 19th and 20th century

Herzen was a populist writer as he supported the common person's interest and fought against corrupt elites.[7] The rise in populism by 1880 led to a favorable reevaluation of the writings of Herzen, as he reappeared as the heroic creator of the movement. The rights of Serfs made popular by Herzen's exile writings would become the most important issues facing the Russian social structure, Herzen would side with the agrarian collectivist model of social structure. This choice was a direct result from Herzen's experience of the 1848 revolutions whereby he found wealth was concentrated in too few hands despite changing governments.

Alongside populism Herzen will be remembered for his rejection of corrupt government of any political persuasion, and for his support for individual rights. A Hegelian in his youth, this translated into no specific theory or single doctrine dominating his thought.[8] No single interpretation of life or schematic theory for social well-being was adopted by Herzen, who recognised these theoretical solutions had no positive real-world results. Herzen came to believe the complex questions of society could not be answered and Russians must live for the moment and not a cause, essentially life is a means in itself. Herzen found his solutions to be a dialectic compromise whereby he would remain unattached to any formal doctrine but would embrace values that are common to all. Herzen found greater understanding from not committing himself to one extreme but rather lived impartially and objectively enabling him to equally criticise competing ideologies. Herzen believed grand doctrines ultimately result in enslavement, sacrifice and tyranny.

Herzen was a hero of the 20th century philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The words of Herzen that Berlin repeated most insistently were those condemning the sacrifice of human beings on the altar of abstractions, the subordination of the realities of individual happiness or unhappiness in the present to glorious dreams of the future. Berlin, like Herzen, believed that ‘the end of life is life itself’, and that each life and each age should be regarded as its own end and not as a means to some future goal.

Tolstoy himself declared that he had never met another man "with so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth". Berlin called Herzen's autobiography "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 ..."

Russian Thinkers (The Hogarth Press, 1978) a collection of Berlin's essays in which Herzen stars was the inspiration for Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy of plays performed at London's National Theatre in 2002 and at New York's Lincoln Center in 2006-2007. Set against the background of the early development of Russian socialist thought, the Revolutions of 1848 and later exile, the plays examine the lives and intellectual development of, among other Russians, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the novelist Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen himself, whose character and humanism come to dominate the plays.


  1. ^ A. Herzen., “Another Variation on an Old Theme, A Letter to X (I.S. Turgenev”. (1857). in The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Vol IV. Chatto and Windus. London (1968). pp 1561.
  2. ^ A. Herzen., “The Russian people and Socialism. A Letter to Michelet” (1851). in The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Vol IV. Chatto and Windus. London (1968). pp 1649.
  3. ^ A, Herzen., “Ends and Beginnings: Letter to I.S. Turgenev”. (1862). in The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Vol IV. Chatto and Windus. London (1968). pp 1683.
  4. ^ Kelly, “A Glowing Footprint”: Herzen Proudon, and the role of the Intellectual Revolutionary, Modern Intellectual History. (2005), 2: 179-205.
  5. ^ A. Herzen., “Bazarov Once More. Letter I”. (1868). in The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Vol IV. Chatto and Windus. London (1968). pp 1753.
  6. ^ D. Offord., Portraits of Early Russian Liberals. (1985). Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. p. 200.
  7. ^ Venturi, F., Roots of Revolution. A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. (1960). Weidenfeld and Nicolson. London. p. 4.
  8. ^ I. Berlin., Russian Thinkers. (1979). The Hogarth Press. London. p. 189.

See also

  • Malwida von Meysenbug
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