Guy A. Aldred Archive

Chapter 11
The Retreat of Herzen

Written: 1940.
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source:; 2021

“The slightest concession, the smallest grace and compassion will bring us back to the past again, and leave our fetters untouched. Of two things we must choose one. Either we must justify ourselves and go on, or we must falter and beg for mercy when we have arrived half-way.”

In these terms, written in a mood of uncompromising Nihilism, Herzen condemned his later career. The condemnation applies to the world socialist movement. It is safe to say that the careerist labor leaders of European politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries flourished in retreat. The organization of the Labor Movement has been a long story of calculated anti-socialist conspiracy and intrigue. Should a future generation ever pause to tell the story it will be found that the workers never organized from the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the triumph of Fascism and the outlawry of Marxism in Germany. They were organized steadily towards the arrestment and finally, the destruction of their power of resistance. Herzen’s career symbolized this organized surrender to capitalism. Only, he retreated reluctantly. Unlike the labor politician he succumbed without enthusiasm and had the decency to acknowledge disaster. He did retreat. As he retreated, Bakunin advanced.

In 1848, it did not seem possible that the world would have to wait long for the inevitable conflagration. Although we must be nearer the revolution than our forebears of that time, the fact that they expected it should check our own absolute certitude of its realization in the immediate future. Belief that Caesarism must collapse misled the apostles and the first Christians. Karl Marx expected John Most to see it. There have been tremendous changes in the world since death of Most. The revolution, however, is still on its way. It will arrive, but no one can say when. As Jesus so wisely remarked, it is due to come like a thief in the night. The delay saddened Herzen. The downfall of all existing institutions had seemed imminent. Socialism was the gospel of youth, the hope of humanity, the goal to be attained. The youth of the world of time reveled in the thought that the spring-time was at hand. With joy and vigor he prophesied:--

“When the spring comes, a young and fresh life will show itself over the whitened sepulchers of the feeble generations which will have disappeared in the explosion. For the age of senile barbarity, there will be substituted a juvenile barbarity, full of disconnected forces. A savage and fresh vigor will invade the young breasts of new peoples. Then will commence a new cycle of events and a new volume of universal history. The future belongs to Socialist ideas.”

The 1848 upheaval failed. The crushing of the French Labor Movement angered and disheartened Herzen. Sorrow at the general check received by the revolution throughout Europe disturbed his outlook. He repented, as an illusion, his temporary affection for Western culture. He returned to Russia in thought but not in body. He felt weary and aged. “We were young two years ago; to-day we are old,” he wrote in 1850. He poured out his sense of hopelessness and despair in his work, “From The Other Shore.”

He could not give up his faith in revolution. The West had failed--but there was Russia. Why should not Russia become a Socialist Republic without passing through capitalism? Why should not Russia emancipate the world? Herzen saw no reason and so, in 1851, he penned the prophetic words: “The man of the future in Russia is the Moujik, just as in France he is the artisan.” Herzen foresaw the workers’ and peasants’ republic. He continued in this faith down to the renewal of his association with Bakunin in London. He developed his ideas in “The Old World and Russia.” The coming revolution, starting from Russia, would destroy the basis of all the States--the Roman, Christian, and feudal institutions, the parliamentary, monarchial, and republican centers. All would perish but the people of Europe would live. Faith in Russia renewed Herzen’s optimism. He opposed himself against reformism anew in the following words:--

“We can do more plastering and repairing. It has become impossible to move in the ancient forms without breaking them. Our revolutionary idea is incompatible entirely with the existing state of things.”

“A constitution is only a treaty between master and slave.” This declaration was made by Herzen also. It at once became the motto of the minority of the Russian extremists. Herzen’s desire now became the speeding up of the Russian Revolution. Disheartened by failure he turned opportunist. Intrigue replaced insurrection and finally he repudiated revolutionary measures for liberalism. He identified himself with the constitutionalists and left his colleague Bakunin to spread the flame of universal destruction. He declared that Bakunin mistook the passion for destruction for the passion for creation. For himself, he no longer wished to march ahead of the bulk of mankind. He would not remain behind but would keep in step with the needs of constitutional progress.

There was nothing wrong with Herzen’s revolutionary program. It was his impatience that drove him to reaction. The fire did not blaze quickly enough and so he denounced the dampness of the wood and declared that the burning must end in smoke. The vapor was Herzen’s impatience turned to pessimism and not his work nor yet his ideal.

Herzen retreated from Nihilism to the reform of Russian officialdom. He urged this in the Kolokol. Bakunin opposed him. He identified the Kolokol more and more with the applause of the negative principle and the denunciation of all positive institutions. This dual policy continued down to 1865. The Kolokol was transferred then from London to Geneva. In this cemetery of many hopes and many peace conferences, the paper died.