Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen

The Russian author and political agitator Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) developed a socialist philosophy that was the ideological basis for much of the revolutionary activity in Russia.

Aleksandr Herzen, whose real surname was Yakovlev, was born on March 25, 1812, in Moscow. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Moscow aristocrat, Ivan Alexeevich Yakovlev, and a German woman of humble birth. Herzen was 13 when the Decembrist rising took place, and he was present at the thanksgiving service in the Kremlin after the hangings. The scene made a lasting impression on him. His foreign tutors exposed him to radical ideas, and in his early teens he dedicated himself to the fight for freedom. In 1829 Herzen entered the University of Moscow to study natural sciences and became the leader of a small group of like-minded students. The news of the fighting on the barricades in Paris in July 1830 and the November rebellion in Warsaw profoundly moved them.


Influence of Saint-Simon

During his university years Herzen and his friends discovered the writings of the Comte de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. Socialist teachings were just beginning to take root in Russia. What impressed Herzen most was Saint-Simon's vision of mankind totally regenerated by a new Christianity, a faith that exalted both the individual and the community. He was fascinated by Saint-Simon's doctrines that denounced the failings of the existing order and promised to stop the exploitation of man by man. He was somewhat repelled by Saint-Simon's emphasis on the role of government and was inclined to accept Fourier's plan for phalansteries that relied on private initiative and the free cooperation of the workers. The French Revolution, the Polish uprising, and the teachings of Saint-Simon made him feel that the time was ripe for change.


Arrest and Deportation

Herzen completed his studies in 1833, and his circle broke up the following year, when he and his lifelong friend Nikolai Ogarev were arrested. The charge against them was that they sang songs containing "vile and ill-intentioned expressions against the oath of allegiance to the monarch." The official investigators considered Herzen to be "a bold free thinker, very dangerous to society." Herzen and Ogarev were suspected of having founded a secret organization aiming to overthrow the existing order through the propagation of revolutionary ideas permeated with Saint-Simon's pernicious doctrine. The two friends were deported to the provinces, where Herzen remained until 1842.

Toward the end of his confinement and afterward Herzen studied the works of G. W. F. Hegel. He perceived in the Hegelian dialectical conception of history a sanction for political and social change. If, as Hegal maintained, everything real is rational, Herzen then thought that rebellion against the order of things grown oppressive is also justified by reason. Herzen concluded that the "philosophy of Hegel is the algebra of revolution."


Protagonist of Westernism

Moscow was the Slavophile center, and Herzen participated in the endless disputations that raged in the literary salons there. He found Slavophile theories extremely dangerous, seeing in them "fresh oil for anointing the Czar, new claims laid upon thought." By 1845 the relations between the Slavophiles and the Westerners were severed. Nevertheless, Herzen retained a certain predilection for some ideas of the Slavophiles. He shared the Slavophiles' partiality for everything Russian and their faith in the common people, and he was impressed by the Slavophile emphasis on the collectivist spirit of the Russian folk, as it was embodied in the obshchina (village commune).

Travel Abroad

Herzen went abroad with his family in 1847 to escape the suffocating atmosphere of despotism of Nicholas I. He never returned to Russia. His first experience with life in western Europe was disheartening. Herzen discovered that France was dominated by the bourgeoisie, the segment of the population that had appropriated all the gains of the Revolution. He thought the bourgeoisie had all the vices of the nobleman and the plebeian and none of the virtues, and he rarely wavered in his dislike of the European middle class.

As Herzen's disillusionment with the West deepened, his country appeared to him in a different light. He came to believe that the Slavophiles were right: unlike effete Europe, Russia was full of vigor, self-confidence, and courage. Like most Slavs, Russians "belonged to geography, rather than to history." Above all, Russia possessed the village commune, "the life-giving principle of the Russian people." Herzen argued that the commune was in effect the seed of a socialist society because of its tradition of equality, collective ownership of land, and communal self-government. The Russian muzhik (peasant) was the man of destiny. Since the Russian muzhik's whole existence was keyed to a collective way of life, Russia, or rather Slavdom, was in a position to assure the triumph of socialism. Taking advantage of Russian backwardness and European experience, Russia might indeed bypass capitalism and middle-class culture on its way to socialism.

In 1852 Herzen arrived in London. He was a bereaved and heartbroken man; one of his small sons and his mother had been drowned, and his wife had died in childbirth afterward. He desperately needed work in which he could submerge himself, and he used a portion of his considerable inheritance to set up the Free Russian Press in 1853.

The first pages produced were an appeal to the gentry to take the initiative in liberating the serfs. Otherwise, Herzen held that the serfs would be emancipated by the Czar, strengthening his despotism, or else abolition would come as the result of the popular uprising. He went on to tell the landlords that Russia was on the eve of an overturn, which would be close to the heart of the people living out their lives within the commune. Herzen concluded, "Russia will have its rendezvous with revolution in socialism."


The "Bell"

On July 1, 1857, Herzen with Ogarev's help launched Kolokol (the Bell), first as a monthly, then as a biweekly. The Bell summoned the living to bury the past and work for the glorious future. It spoke for freedom and against oppression, for reason and against prejudice, for science and against fanaticism, for progressive peoples and against backward governments. Specifically, the Bell was dedicated to the "liberation of Russia."

Since Herzen had the privilege of freedom from censorship, his office at the Bell was flooded with communications from Russia, and there was a constant stream of Russian visitors. With their help and that of scores of correspondents scattered through Russia, the Bell conducted a most successful muckraking campaign. It cited particulars and named names. Minutes of secret sessions of the highest bodies appeared in its columns. The journal was read by all literate Russia. Fear of exposure in the Bell became a deterrent to administrative corruption, and there was talk in high government places of buying Herzen off, perhaps with an important post.

After the failure of the Polish rebellion of 1863 Herzen continued to berate the administration and to preach "Russian socialism," stemming from the muzhik's way of life and reaching out for that "economic justice" which is a universal goal sanctioned by science. But the Bell was now reduced in readership and influence. Herzen antagonized the many who had drifted to the right, as well as the few who had moved to the left. In 1868 the Bell was silenced for good, and on Jan. 9, 1870, Aleksandr Herzen, a crusading journalist possessed of a powerful pen, died in Paris.


Further Reading on Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen

Herzen's My Past and Thoughts (trans., 6 vols., 1924-1927), is a classic autobiography and an unsurpassed source of information and insight into the life of the Russian intelligentsia in the reign of Nicholas I. Martin E. Malia, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812-1855 (1961), is a biographical study and an examination of the western European intellectual sources of Herzen's thought. Recommended for general historical background is Thomas G. Masaryk, The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy, translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul (2 vols., 1919; 2d ed. 1955), a comprehensive survey of Russian spiritual culture that is significant for exploration of values of Russian culture. Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia, introduction by Isaiah Berlin (trans. 1960), is focused upon a single aspect of the development of 19th-century Russian thought. The treatment begins with Herzen and ends with the assassination of Alexander II.

Additional Biography Sources

Acton, Edward, Alexander Herzen and the role of the intellectual revolutionary, Cambridge Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Carr, Edward Hallett, The romantic exiles: a nineteenth-century portrait gallery, New York: Octagon Books, 1975; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Herzen, Alexander, Childhood, youth, and exile: parts I and II of My past and thoughts, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Herzen, Alexander, Letters from France and Italy, 1847-1851, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

Herzen, Alexander, The memoirs of Alexander Herzen, parts I and I, New York: Russell & Russell, 1967; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Herzen, Alexander, My past and thoughts: the memoirs of Alexander Herzen, New York: Knopf; distributed by Random House, 1973; New York, Vintage Books 1974, 1973.

Partridge, Monica, Alexander Herzen, 1812-1870, Paris: Unesco, 1984.

Zimmerman, Judith E., Midpassage: Alexander Herzen and European revolution, 1847-1852, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.