The Darwin of Political Theory

I stumbled across The Discovery of Chance, Aileen Kelly’s new biography of Alexander Herzen, in this NYRB article. I had only vaguely  heard of Herzen, but I like reading about Russian intellectuals. The main reason I decided to check it out, though, was the reviewer’s mention of Isaiah Berlin’s fondness for Herzen. Though Herzen was a committed reformer, Berlin praised his “deep distrust (something that most of his allies did not share) of all general formulae as such…and…of the great, official historical goals—progress, liberty, equality, national unity, historic rights, human solidarity—principles and slogans in the name of which men had been, and doubtless would soon again be, violated and slaughtered.” Such a skepticism of grand ideals and formulae has struck me as the characteristic element of Berlin’s own writing; see friend of the blog Joe Carlsmith arguing as much in this essay. It seemed that Herzen might be an important addition to my personal pantheon of pragmatic utopians.

Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) was an aristocrat, writer, exiled publisher of the “Free Russian Press” in London, supporter of serfs and of agricultural collectivism, and “the founder of Russian socialism.” He has been a tough figure to pin down because he has no single most famous book, no pithy ideology, and no clear political affiliation. In his own life, he quarreled with every other significant camp of Russian intellectuals: Westernizers who wanted to emulate European liberal democracy, Slavophiles with their mystical belief in the superiority of the Russian spirit, and radicals who wanted violent revolution. That Lenin adopted him as a forerunner of the Bolshevik Revolution further clouded his reputation in the 20th century. In this new book, Kelly argues that no one besides Isaiah Berlin has gotten Herzen right. But she also goes further and shows that Herzen’s pragmatism (I think that’s the best word for it, even though Kelly does not label Herzen, anachronistically, as a pragmatist) was indebted to his interest in natural science and the burgeoning understanding of evolution.

The central political question for most of Herzen’s life was: how should Russia become modern? He and his aristocratic friends read French, German, and English books and followed the growth of parliamentary government on the continent. Tsarism was obviously backward and autocratic by comparison, especially when the Decembrist revolt was crushed in 1825. So it was understandable that many of Herzen’s contemporaries thought Russia needed to copy Europe. Herzen disagreed. He refused to believe that there could be only one path to progress. In particular, he was wary of bourgeois property ownership and instead romanticized the communal ownership found in Russian peasant villages (I learned that not all peasants were serfs pre-abolition; some villages were entirely free). Herzen hoped that Enlightenment wisdom might meld with the unique Russian legacy of collective ownership and form a new version of modernity better than the West’s. “Socialism” was a catch-all term for him; it referred broadly to making reforms in pursuit of a more egalitarian political economy. This deliberate vagueness seems distinctive of Herzen’s approach; he was careful not to elevate any ideology to religious heights. He bemoaned our tendency to subject ourselves to moral authorities of our own creation: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well…Humans are eternally on their knees before one or the other–the golden calf or the duty imposed from outside.”

Herzen’s enduring insight is that human societies evolve, making use of whatever materials are at hand, but without any ideal end in sight. This might sound straightforward today, but it was somewhat radical in the mid-19th century. Not only was it a far more religious time, it was also high time for utopian thinking, from Saint-Simon to Robert Owen to Marx. Nonetheless, in intellectual history, no idea comes from out of the blue. Much of Kelly’s book is spent reconstructing thinkers who influenced Herzen. I think it’s difficult to get a well-rounded picture of most of these intellectuals from potted histories, especially when much of the emphasis on their contrast with Herzen, but Kelly successfully piqued my interest in learning more about several of them.

Two that stand out are Ludwig Feuerbach and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argues that the God of monotheism and several demigods of philosophy–Spinoza’s “substance”, Kant’s “reason”, Fichte’s “absolute ego”, Schelling’s “absolute identity”, and Hegel’s “absolute mind” are all “objectifications of man’s essential nature which he projects onto a transcendent Other.” This is what inspires Herzen to say that “humans are eternally on their knees” to either God or ideology.

Proudhon seems to have been the thinker most similar to Herzen in the way he viewed socialism. He famously said that “Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong; Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak.” His proposed third way–“mutualism”–would entail cooperative associations somewhat similar to Herzen’s peasant communes. In some circles, Proudhon is best known as the target of Marx’s polemic The Poverty of Philosophy. But from what I’ve seen, Proudhon came out on top in many of their exchanges. In a letter to Marx he wrote: “For God’s sake, when we have demolished all a priori dogmas, do not let us think of indoctrinating the people in our turn…Let us not set ourselves up as apostles of a new religion.” Kelly praises Proudhon for “facing up to the contingency of his own most central beliefs and desires” and in this light dubs him “a liberal ironist” in Richard Rorty’s mold. This was, as far as I could tell, the closest Kelly comes to an explicit recognition of the link between her subject and pragmatism.

Kelly’s greatest contribution is in pointing to an unappreciated influence on Herzen, perhaps the most important of all: the brand new science of evolutionary biology. Herzen’s previous biographers had mostly skipped over his university years, when he studied biology, thinking it irrelevant to his political efforts. Herzen was an avid student of biodiversity, especially the work of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who argued against Carl Linneaus’s view of an orderly taxonomy in favor of a more chaotic view of the similarities and differences between species. Herzen also admired the naturalist Georges Cuvier, known as the father of paleontology, who figured out the historical fact of animal extinction and argued that there is no pattern of increasing perfection within the taxonomy of species. These views were radical relative to religious dogma of the time, but even Cuvier could not bring himself to acknowledge that one species might transform into another.

Herzen’s first serious essays, during university and after, were about the relationship between natural and human history. Well before the publication of The Origin of Species, Herzen was committed to the idea that social evolution is the nearly random product of countless tiny influences, that there is no grand design. Here is one remarkable passage in full, from his book of essays From The Other Shore (1847-1851):

In nature, as in the souls of men, there slumber countless forces and possibilities, under suitable conditions they develop…or they may fall by the wayside, take a new direction, stop, collapse. The death of one man is no less absurd than the end of the whole human race. Who guaranteed the immortality of a planet? It will be as little able to survive a revolution in the solar system as the genius of Socrates could the hemlock…On the whole, nature is perfectly indifferent to the result. She, having buried the whole human race, will lovingly begin all over again, with monstrous ferns and reptiles half a league long, probably with certain improvements suggested by new surroundings, new conditions.

Not until 1871 in The Descent of Man would Darwin spell out the most heretical implication of his work, that humans descended from apes. But there twenty years earlier Herzen confidently states that the human race is not cosmically special and its future is not guaranteed. But this is hardly a pessimistic philosophy. For Herzen, the opposite of predestination is opportunity. He later wrote,”Both nature and history are going nowhere, and therefore they are ready to go anywhere they are directed, if this is possible – that is, if nothing obstructs them.” The political opportunities of his own lifetime did not turn out as he hoped; he was burned by the violent failure of revolutions in 1848 and of the Polish uprising, which he reluctantly supported, in 1863. Writing from exile in London, Herzen and his newspaper The Bell were instrumental in pressuring the tsar to free the serfs, but he grew disappointed that the now-free peasants seemed less interested in politics than he had hoped.

I hope it’s clear from this brief portrait how misleading it was for Lenin to claim Herzen as the father of Russian socialism, especially in any way that drew equivalence between the 1840s and 1917. Herzen is important not for any specific political institution he invented, supported, or opposed, but rather for his general worldview on history and progress themselves. I wonder if John Dewey or other American pragmatists were aware of Herzen. Also, the connection between biological and social evolution in Herzen’s thought makes me think of the under-explored similarities between pragmatism and transhumanism. Nick Bostrom uses the word “pragmatism” in its colloquial sense in this piece on transhumanist values, but I think there’s a deeper historical connection to draw out. Perhaps you did not know that (arguably) the first transhumanists were Russian cosmists, only one degree of separation away from Herzen via Tolstoy…

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