Herzen’s essay is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon, Stirner and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself – or others – upon the altar of some great moral or political cause – some absolute principle or abstract noun capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress. For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious devotion, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulae, certain symbols, renders what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies – murder, torture, the humiliation of defenceless human bodies – not only permissible, but often laudable. Against this Herzen advances his own positive beliefs: that man is, within narrow but discernible limits, free; that he is neither the impotent plaything of natural forces, nor a trivial unit in a uniform mass of historical raw material intended by some unknown deity for consumption by the great historical process…
He believed that morality was not a fixed, objective, eternal code, a set of immutable commandments which human beings were merely required to discern and obey, whether they were ordained by a personal deity or were found in ‘nature’ or ‘the logic of history’. He maintained that men create their own morality; that, animated by that egoism without which there is no vitality and no creative activity, the individual is responsible for his own choices, and cannot plead the alibi of either nature or history for failing even to try to bring about that which he considers, for whatever reason, to be good, or just, or delightful, or beautiful, or true…
The ‘nihilists’ of the ‘60s and the socialist writers of a later date who attack him for his liberal inclinations are a good deal more honest and consistent [than the Soviet State, who canonized him as a revolutionary hero]. Their suspicions turned out to be valid enough. For Herzen does like the style and colour of free human beings; best of all he likes fire, originality, aesthetic feeling, even when it is found in oligarchies and aristocracies. He has no affinity with the mass of the oppressed as such, only indignation and a desire for justice. The qualities that he loves best are those which they too seldom possess – imagination, spontaneity, humanity, civilized feelings, natural generosity, courage, wide horizons, instinctive knowledge of what individual freedom is, and hatred of all forms of slavery or arbitrary rule, or human humiliation and degradation. And he extols these virtues wherever he finds them, even in the camp of the oppressors; and rejects political formulae and generalizations however deeply sanctified by the martyrdom of fighters for a cause which he called his own. He declares over and over again that words and ideas offer no substitute for experience, that life teems with exceptions, and upsets the best made rules and systems. But in his case this attitude led not to detachment or quietism – to the tolerant conservatism of a Hume or a Bagehot – but was allied to an impatient, passionate, rebellious temperament, which made him the rarest of characters, a revolutionary without fanaticism, a man ready for violent change, never in the name of abstract principles, but only of actual misery and injustice, of concrete conditions so bad that men were morally not permitted – and knew they were not permitted – to let them exist.
Starting from this kind of clear-sighted empiricism, which was influenced by the imaginative sweep of Hegel but rejected his metaphysical dogmas, Herzen gave expression to theses original enough to be rediscovered only in our own time: that the great traditional problems which perennially agitate men’s minds have no general solutions; that all genuine questions are of necessity specific, intelligible only in specific contexts; that general problems, such as ‘What is the end (or the meaning) of life?’ or ‘What makes all events in nature occur as they do? or ‘What is the pattern of human history?’ are not answerable in principle, not because they are too difficult for our poor, finite intellects, but because the questions themselves are misconceived, because ends, patterns, meanings, causes, differ with the situation and outlook and needs of the questioner, and can be correctly and clearly formulated only if these are understood. It is Herzen’s grasp of this fact that made him the forerunner of much twentieth-century thought, and marks him as a man with a quality akin to philosophical genius.
Herzen never forgot, as some of his most inspired fellow revolutionaries often did, that actual human beings, and specific problems can be lost sight of in the midst of statistical generalizations. In his discussion of what men live by, there occurs the smallest proportion of abstraction and generalization, and the highest proportion of vivid, three-dimensional, ‘rounded’ perception of actual character, authentic human beings with real needs, seeking attainable human ends, set in circumstances which can be visualized. (Isaiah Berlin, introduction of Alexander Herzen’s From the Other Shore; & The Russian People and Socialism)
“Good, yes? You weren’t expecting it? A coincidence? Oh, a complete coincidence! Yes, I thought you’d be delighted. An old compatriot, eh? Of course of course… Yes, I read it just a few days ago. Yes. Yes! That old beast language that lives so wild and free... No. I can do better than that! It is… How shall I say… It is… It is like a great metropolis, where you live and work, and where, yes, you ride about and take you little pleasures: on the South Bank, in the West End or, yes, I know it very well my friend, in some crazy street in Hackney.
“You’re travelling on the Tube; the sentences entering and leaving the carriage at every stop; the nouns squeezing up tight, the verbs all silent and repressed, thinking only of the next station; although those vagabonds pinch, sneeze and leer are having a fine time amongst the hapless passengers. It is the rush hour, and how they crunch and press and spill all over you. Your eyes walking along Lanark’s sentences they pass, “An owl was hooting…” when, “Milly painted her kitchen purple and lilac” sticks its fingers into your ears. How annoying! But I know you my friend, you won’t give in, and you struggle through, “Suddenly I found her and…” until you drift off into revelry; imagining Milly talking about peach blossom bowls and yellow cutlery, “and of course Eric doesn’t like them, though he won’t admit it, he is phobic, you know, about convention”. A jolt, and your mind returns to where it “wrapped my arms around her big stomach and she was kind to me.” Language is everywhere. It is the atmosphere we live in. It is like... Stockhausen? Oh, yes. Yes! It is like radio waves. We are the receivers. And, yes, of course, of course my friend, we transmit too.”
Though notice Berlin’s curious omission: he excludes his own ideology from the list of generalizations that he has Herzen attack. Indeed, he labels his hero a liberal and defines him as having just those attributes (doubting, experimental, empirical) that he associates with his own ideological brand, itself a well-established myth – liberalism has often been a fanatic and evangelist creed. How odd! But how indicative. For Liberalism is that most interesting and perplexing of ideologies – the one that denies its own existence.i
Herzen will not be so easily caught. Dazzling his companions with liberal paradoxes in a London pub in one week; the next he is walking the mountains with Nietzsche; whom he leaves to collect the chairs and tables he will use to build the Parisian barricades. A policeman stops him. They talk for a while. They are friendly and full of wit. Then an old man in a long grey coat wanders up to them and whispers into the officer’s ear. “A revolutionary! An anarchist! What! A communist!” “But my good man, I am also a liberal. Have you not read Professor Berlin’s views on me? If not, here is a copy.” The policeman takes it, looks quickly through its pages, smiles, and slips the handcuffs back into his pocket; and he walks into the nearest café, after a few angry words with the old man.
We all need labels. We are all labelled. Herzen was a socialist, of a very special kind – values were more important than ideas whose content, he knew, he had to create for himself; Socialism not some doctrinal catechism to be learnt by heart and repeated ad infinitum amongst friends and foes. Although Berlin recognises this and celebrates it, he is of a very different intellectual stamp. He believes in ideas and thinks in terms of them.ii And in typical liberal style they come to have a life of their own which is independent of the person who conceives them; the result is inevitable: they are turned into a set of notions which can be sold like ready-made suits – “negative liberty”, a very fashionable cut in the 1970s and 80s.iii Herzen, however, is more interested in the creation of ideas than their promulgation; he was an artist who fused his thought with his politics and set them aflame with his art; giving it a spontaneous and unpredictable quality, closer to literature than philosophy. This conjures up all sorts of images. One is of Isaiah Berlin wearing 19th century garb, and acting the role of the professor who tries to domesticate that wild genius: Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser.
Believing that everything must be decided on the level of the specific individual case is itself a generalization. As such it is apt to lead us astray, particularly when it comes to our understanding of modes of thought that are collectivist – think of the local council promoting tolerance for the individual which at the same time undercuts that individual’s own community.iv For Berlin plurality of views is an ideology; it therefore necessarily discriminates against particular modes of thought, especially those that argue that a group ethos should predominate over individual freedom. For Herzen mental non-conformity was a way of life, his ideas liable to constant reformation; his thought full of shifts of political and philosophical perspective, as his feelings and instincts react to new stimuli. This is the distinction between them, and it is a huge one; at base it is the difference between knowledge and experience, the latter full of life and spontaneity, and liable to be transformed at any moment; the former, particularly amongst the intellectually unsophisticated, tending towards stability and certainty. It is the difference between participating in a revolution and writing about it; a century after it has ended. Berlin the historian, Herzen the revolutionary hero he writes about.
“Very good, my friend. So you’re against all generalizations? But then you’ve just made one, haven’t you?”
We are generalizing animals. We cannot help but make general statements; they are rooted in our very modes of thought, in our language.v However, there are those generalizations that derive from personal experience, and those that are imposed upon experience through education and propaganda.
“Can you give me examples?”
Berlin gives a few. Here are some more: Individualism. The Free Market. Libertarianism. These are intellectually dangerous because of their compelling power; so many people have believed in them, so many have argued for their truth and desirability; even though their socially empirical content will be radically different from their intellectual and rhetorical articulation, a distinction of which many are completely unaware…
“Hold on my friend. Can you be a little clearer?”
The abstract formulation of an idea and its practical application are distinct species. Experience is different from knowledge. And tyranny is the refusal to accept that difference and the attempt to reduce the former to the latter, to make life fit into an idea.
The generalizations that derive from personal experience are intellectually dangerous because they are so limiting - they can stifle our curiosity because they can too easily satisfy our own too narrow realm of existence.
In ordinary (and creative) life the concept is too revolutionary (and too abstract), the homely truism too reactionary (and too stale) to be just (or productive); neither is sufficient by itself for us to grasp and successfully navigate (and even improve) our immediate environment. The trick is to use both kinds of generalization to acquire a sound understanding, one that is wide enough to give us some new knowledge (to show us some stable pattern to events) but is flexible enough to recognise contingency and the uniquely particular. Each moment of concentrated thought should be akin to a jazz improvisation, where new musical patterns are found by exploiting old conventions and the happy accident; and which are then worked over again and again and again until they feel just right; Joyce Cary used the word “polish” (although of course he is talking about literature not abstract thought).vi
“A static rock and a flowing river. But how do you reconcile these two?”
Ultimately, you don’t. You just play your trumpet, and hope for the best. It’s an instinct and a craft. And if you’re lucky, one day you may write a book like From the Other Shore or direct a film such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
“And science, my friend, you have not talked about that.”
“It is a world in itself. I won’t speak about it today, although I will caution you: science is full of many different kinds of thought, from the simple administration skills of a clerk to the supreme creativity of an Einstein or Newton. Our mistake to is reify it into a single monolithic idea.”
“There is hope, then, for us all?”
[i] For a recent example see Jonathan Raban’s pieces on Obama (in Driving Home). His assumption is that the Bush regime is ideological, while his liberalism is rational and empirical. He doesn’t notice that the refusal to understand the institutional framework that governs policy in the United States and which severely limits a president’s actions is itself ideological – in his view emphasising the individual qualities of the occupant of the White House counts as a non-ideological position.
The ideas of individualism and empiricism are two powerful ideological forces that shape and constrain liberal thought. Thus compare Raban’s surprisingly naïve political endorsement (usually he is so sharp and well-informed) with those of Noam Chomsky, who had no illusions about Obama and correctly predicted the general orientation of his policy – a continuation of Bush’s second term (a retreat to the Washington mainstream after his disastrous first). To understand a society, as in other contexts Raban is well aware, you have to understand both its history and its institutional structure; both of which contain forces that limit and even negate an individual’s (and especially a president’s) power.
[ii] Which are a little curious: big ideas that are opposed to big ideas. Thus his theories about liberty, which, to put it mildly, are both limiting and paradoxical – arguing for a small state to protect civil liberties he necessarily accepts the (soft) totalitarianism of the multi-national corporation. (For acute commentary see the third episode of Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary, The Trap.)
[iv] For a scintillating case study about just this kind of “quiet” authoritarianism, see Bharati Mukherjee’s The Management of Grief. For a sociological study of the same process see Olivier Roy’s Holy Ignorance. In this book Roy makes the crucial distinction between knowledge and information, and argues, and I think correctly, that today the latter is increasingly mistaken for the former.
[vi] The eighteenth century painter Alexander Cozens had a similar idea:
“Accidental blots and stains, he found, as Leonardo had done long before, could suggest all sorts of images. His plan was to make such blots in quick succession, though having at the same time some general idea in mind, so that chance and design operated together.” (William Gaunt, A Concise History of English Painting).