Aileen M. Kelly. Views from the Other Shore, Essays on Herzen, Chekhov & Bakhtin. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1999. ix + 261. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-07486-4.
Reviewed by Jackson Taylor (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-Russia (June, 2000)
The Person or the People
Aileen Kelly has collected a series of essays on three quite distinct figures in Russian intellectual history: Aleksandr Herzen, the illegitimate son of a noble who is credited with the founding of Russian socialism in the 1850s; Anton Chekhov, the doctor playwright of the dawn of the twentieth century; and Mikhail Bakhtin, the gentry literary critic who suffered under Stalin's purges but who achieved popularity in the last years of his life, the 1960s and 1970s. She sees these three men as embracing a common theme, the rejection of an all encompassing, romantic, Utopian solution to the problems of mankind in favor of the development of the individual and the plurality of ideas.
Herzen is the main subject of this work. One hundred fifty pages and five of the seven essays are devoted to his thought and to an analysis of the influences upon him. It is a brave scholar who digs in such well-mined ground and expects to find undiscovered gold. Herzen did a fine job with his own autobiography. We have the monumental work of Martin Malia to tell us of the influences that shaped him. E.H. Carr has shown us his relationship with contemporary revolutionaries. Avrahm Yarmolinsky and Franco Venturi have shown his importance to the revolutionary movement. Many other works in English and in Russian detail his thought and importance.
Kelly does have a new approach to the editor of Kolokol and the spokesman of the left in the reign of Nicholas I and Alexander II. She sees Herzen as being misinterpreted by the Communists, who made him a precursor of the Communist movement, albeit as a member of the gentry acting outside his class. He was instead an independent, isolated thinker, disgusted by both the Westernizers and Slavophiles, a man who spoke for the individual development of each person in Russian society. His importance, she argues, is that he was deeply imbedded in Russian tradition but saw that tradition as being supplemented by elements of the West. He had, of course, little use for the Russia of Nicholas I, which he fled in 1847; but he had nearly as little use for the failed revolutions of 1848 or for industrial revolution in London, where he found himself in exile. He could not countenance the systems created by the revolutionaries of the first half of the nineteenth century nor the systems of politics that stifled man. As a result, she sees him as a lonely figure, rejected by both the left and the right.
In her introductory chapter, Kelly offers an interpretation of the Slavophile-Westernizer debate that informed Herzen's development and divided Russian intellectual circles for four decades. She sees much of Slavophilism as religious and messianic, qualities that caused Herzen to reject its teachings. She relates the Russian idea to the emergence of the philosophy of the Communist Nietzschean superman in the collective, the new Soviet man, who would create a new society around a different type of commune. She explores the problems in Western society of the 1850s which gave the lie to the dreams of Russian Westernizers who placed their faith in scientific progress and bourgeois democracy.
Kelly then offers chapters on various thinkers who had an influence on the thought of Aleksandr Herzen. The first one she mentions is Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan scientific philosopher. Herzen had been influenced by Bacon's description of four idols: the idol of the tribe, the idol of the cave, the idol of the marketplace, and the idol of the theater (p. 19). Herzen dedicated himself to an attack on such idols. As early as 1833, Herzen was writing on the possible fusion of the empirical and sensual approaches to knowledge. After his arrival in Western Europe, he saw the liberal Hegelians as enslaved by a philosophy that transferred "all that is most individual in a man to an impersonal, generalized sphere independent of him"(p. 33). Herzen saw Bacon as opening up a new vision of the world; he believed that the Russians, as newcomers to European thought, might not be encumbered by the idols that held back the European mind. In the end, Herzen failed. His hope for a new Europe was swept away by the destruction of the peasant commune and by the idol of the theater which Soviet Communism was to become.
Friedrich Schiller is the second philosopher whose influence upon Herzen Kelly considers. She believes that Schiller offered Herzen a view of aesthetic education which opposed "political maximalism and utopian intransigence" (p. 48). Herzen saw much of the left as retreating into a world of pure asceticism, a view reflected in the later works of Schiller. Both men saw among their fellows a fear of freedom, which they both attributed to moral laziness. Herzen contemplated the heavy responsibility involved in moral freedom. He wrote a novel that, if properly read, which it was not by contemporaries, violated the politically correct code of George Sand, heroine to the new moralists of the left. Herzen has been attacked for trying to reconcile socialist aims with the dignity of the individual. He saw clearly the dark instincts of the masses and the leftist ideal of the sovereign people as an idol demanding sacrifices (p. 74). He sought for each person to achieve aesthetic and moral freedom without falling into extremes.
Another figure whom Kelly considers is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French founder of anarchism. Proudhon was not as radical as his famous line "Property is theft" would have one believe. After Herzen's departure from Russia, the two men became friends and Herzen published Proudhon's articles in his journals. The two shared a sense of irony that characterizes much of Herzen's writing. Both were dismayed by the contemporary European revolutionaries, potential Robespierres who would stifle the individual man for the good of the people. Herzen was especially dismayed by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's phrase "the cleansing power of violence." Bakunin and many of the Russian anarchists had an extraordinary faith in the Russian peasant as a force for revolutionary social change. Herzen saw the innate conservatism of the peasant as a major impediment to such change. Change would be a constant process, and even if socialism were established it would develop its absurdities, one day become like 1850's conservatism, and have to be torn down. Herzen, of course, did not live to see 1991.
Kelly's chapter on the relationship of Herzen and John Stuart Mill revolves not upon how Mill influenced Herzen, but on how Herzen used Mill to attack the Russian liberals. The liberal Westernizer movement in Russia viewed the emancipation of the serfs and the Great Reforms that followed as steps leading to their ideal, a western style bourgeois democracy. Herzen used Mill to counter the value of such a state. Seeking liberty of the individual rather than liberty of the people, he did not support the values that the Westernizers advocated. But since the Westernizers were so in awe of Western thought, Herzen could use Mill to batter them with what was wrong with the West.
The relationship of Herzen's ideas to those of Darwin constitutes the last chapter devoted exclusively to Herzen. Kelly argues that Darwin changed European thinking forever. The real conflict that existed in Darwin was not with religion but with science itself. Darwin introduced chance into science. Before The Origin of the Species, science had been based upon certainty. When experiment said that something was so, scientists were sure that it would be that way each time. Natural selection introduced randomness into the scientific process. Darwin himself could not define what was a desirable trait. Some species were selected over others in natural selection purely by chance. Herzen drew on this idea of chance in looking at the social question. The Westernizers were enamored of the progress that they saw in the West. Herzen was not sure that it was progress and suggested that progress would certainly not go in a straight line. In some instances, it would move backwards. Such a philosophy placed him in opposition to the liberal Hegelians of his day, and especially Karl Marx, who saw history as a dialectical progress toward a predetermined goal.
Kelly surprises us by including Anton Chekhov as a leading radical figure at the turn of the twentieth century. Both Chekhov's male grandparents had been serfs and his father often beat him in his youth at Taganrog. Through his own effort, he went on to become a doctor and a major writer for the Russian theater. His writings are generally looked upon as benign, although his account of his trip to Sakhalin, The Island, is an even more intense indictment of the exile system than that of George Kennan. What makes Chekhov subversive, according to Kelly, is the fact that he depicted people from all classes as being fully human. Not content with stereotypes, Chekhov gives fully rounded portraits of men and women from all classes. Chekhov's characters are often looked upon as failures. He denies that this is so. "Life 'is given only once and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty.' This [Kelly concludes] is 'what Chekhov meant'"(p. 191).
The last of the figures whom Kelly includes is Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin began to put together his credentials as a literary critic in the 1920's. He wrote a book on Dostoevsky, which was published shortly after his arrest by Stalin. A. V. Lunacharsky liked this work and perhaps saved Bakhtin from a worse fate than exile in Kazakhstan. In 1946, he submitted a doctoral dissertation on Rabelais, which was rejected for reasons of doctrine. In 1964, Moscow scholars rediscovered his book on Dostoevsky and were astonished to learn that the author was still alive. The Dostoevsky book was republished and the dissertation on Rabelais came into print for the first time. By this time, approaching seventy years of age, Bakhtin became a celebrity in literary circles of both Russia and the West.
Kelly sees Bakhtin as agreeing with Herzen in his attack on the system makers. Bakhtin, of course, had the example of a socialist system to criticize that Herzen could hardly have conceived. In the spirit of Rabelais, Bakhtin approached it through carnival, the anonymous laughter at the absurdities of life. Laughter, he felt, was a subversive force by its very nature. He agreed with Herzen in his desire not to have Russia imitate or merge with the West. He felt that there were good elements in Russian society that should be maintained. The West and Russia could profitably borrow from one another, but they should remain separate.
What do the three authors have to tell post-Soviet Russia and the twenty-first century world? Kelly suggests that they say that it is the individual, not "the people," that has real importance. No Utopian system, no matter how beautiful it appears, can solve everyone's problems because we all have different hopes and potentials. Yet we consistently turn to the system makers to solve our problems. Herzen remarked on the human fear of freedom. We can advance in any direction or stand still, and what we decide will matter, and not only for ourselves. (pp. 215-6) That is indeed an awesome responsibility for anyone to face. In bringing these three philosophers together, Kelly has offered a worthwhile service for advanced students of Russian thought.
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