Herzen was the love child of a German mother and a Russian noble. His father recognized and cared for him from birth. In 1827 he was sent to the University at Moscow to complete the studies he had commenced at home. Reaction was striding triumphant through Russia. The Czar and his Court were conspiring to close the universities and to replace them with organized military schools. Living a century later, we are familiar with the arguments of military despotism and entrenched bureaucracy at the war with democracy and public right. Lord Trenchard gives an excellent impersonation of the Czar’s Statesmen militarizing the universities during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when he urged to-day the military reconstruction of the London Metropolitan Police Force. The unoriginal medieval Hitler apologizes for the militarizing of the German Universities in phrases that have been plagiarized without any alteration from these pioneer Czarist despots inspired with the so-called German philosophy.
Moscow was made the center of attack. The reaction suspected the educational foundation of being a hotbed of liberal thought and intrigue. The university was ancient and possessed a real tradition for learning. Traditions are not true, necessarily. Only, they grow hoary with legend, and stubborn believers sometimes try to make such traditions come true. In this way, falsehoods have a knack of growing into truth. Respect the pretense of knowledge long enough and you will wake up one fine morning alive to genuine love of culture. Hypocrisy is the forerunner of sincerity. It is the masquerade that proceeds the reality.
Moscow had boasted its pride of study so much that it had come to demand an independent life for its students. Their thought was to be untrammeled. Its professors were actually free spirits, inspired by the dignity of their calling. They sensed its earnestness and declined to flatter, servilely, autocracy. They were not panderers, like the old-time Greeks, willing to wait in the ante-room of authority. They were men, actual living human beings, and not schoolmasters. Their function was to develop in the students’ personality and understanding responsibility. The students, on their part, responded gladly to the liberal and radical teachings of the professors. Here, in the very heart of Moscovy, Czarist barbarism notwithstanding, flourished the camaraderie of knowledge. Youth and age belonged equally to the great Commune of learning. It was the period of the Russian Renaissance.
Czarism, and its police agents, through the desolating pestilence of their authority made increasing warfare on these professors. Their devotion to education was rewarded with secret denunciation and exile without trial. Sometimes the penalty was unrecorded translation to eternity, the pet Muscovite method of governmental assassination. A teacher became suspect naturally. His book lore placed him at the mercy of ignorant inspectors and innumerable auxiliaries of the police department. Wisdom was outlawed. Learning died. Weak men bowed before the ruling system. Their genius declined. Personality extinguished, they became mere police shadows, nervous creatures of routine. Even talent disappeared into the abyss that had been prepared for genius. Lectures were merely recitals of the Czar’s standing orders. Incapable masters were kept in office for their proved incapacity by cynical police considerations. The seminary became a cemetery. And yet, where the grave is, there is always the resurrection. Knowledge banned was love barred. It was revered. The students, in their devoted quest, proved the truth of Moncure Conway’s words; “They who menace our freedom of thought and speech are tampering with something more powerful than gunpowder.” Our day has witnessed the explosion.
The French were forbidden. Voltaire, whose name is at once romance, legend, history and satire! Rousseau! There is more than one Rousseau in the book of fame as there was more than one Jesus at the time of the wanderer of Nazareth. But there is only one Rousseau who lives in the memory of mankind. The others are recorder in the very dull tone, whose pages one sometimes idly turns. This is the parish register of the dead great: great they were were but they are dead. Jean Jacques, who lived from 1712 to 1778 is the only member of the Rousseau family who, being dead, lives. He pioneered a revolution in social relations with his imaginary contract social; wrought a revolution in French prose; and released literature, what sedition, from the fetid atmosphere of the salon. Rousseau’s influence finally raised the saloon above the salon in the stormy days of revolution that he inspired but never lived to witness. Moliere, who lived from 1622 to 1673, who knew human nature so well, had employed his wide understanding and great gifts so usefully to expose hypocrisy in all its professional hideousness and habiliments! Malby, 1709–1785, who retired from statemanship to plead for simplicity and equality in society! Diderot, the Encyclopedie, giant and pioneer of revolution who shook the thrones of Europe as a terrier might shake a rat. He approached the monarchy with less charm of address than did either Voltaire or Rousseau, but he moved with a force and vigor that they might well have envied. All were denied their place in the University Library at Moscow. The pantheon of power has no place for the figure of genius.
Did truth despair? Not at all. So much did the authorities dread the great French thinkers, their wit, their mordant humor, their keen irony, their knowledge, that they imagined Paris to be the center of all thought. Panic made imbeciles of the Russian statesmen. It never occurred to their dull police understanding that their might be German thinkers. They assumed that Germans, like Russians, never thought. Certainly the triumph of Hitlerism after years of social democratic and communist agitation in the fatherland lends color to this assumption. Gladly did the Russian government permit German classics to enter the university from which all French thought had been banned. Hegel, being German, was deemed no thinker, and was so permitted- Hegel, whose methods had inspired more revolutionary thinking than even the satires of Voltaire. Feuerbach was allowed also- Feuerbach, who denied the existence of the soul, and repeated the Communist war-cry, heard in the streets of Paris in those days of revolution: “Property is Robbery.”
The French philosophers were neglected with enthusiasm, once the Germans had usurped their place in the affections of the students. It is proverbial that love laughs at locksmiths. Thought is no less romantic and efficient. It treats authority with the smiling disdain Venus reserves for the lock-and-key maker and penetrates bars and bolts with the most efficient ease. Thought rejoices in its address and enjoys the pompous blundering of power. Voltaire was deposed and the revolution proceeded apace. The message triumphed though the messenger was changed. Is not the word greater than its bearer?
To Herzen, the German philosophy was wonderful. It was a revelation that excited his imagination and fired his ambition. He sought to understand and to assimilate its theories. The joy of discovery possessed him and he put his thoughts into writing. His manuscripts were seized. A years imprisonment followed. On his release he attended a dinner organized by the students, who toasted Hegel and sung revolutionary songs. He was arrested again and exiled to Perm, on the very borders of Siberia. In solitude he determined to fathom Hegel. A master who had cost his disciple so much freedom ought to be understood.
Herzen was permitted to return to civilized life and to live at Vladimir. He fled from here to Moscow and carried off from one of the Imperial Ladies’ Academies, a young cousin to whom he had been engaged. The authorities smiled at his romance where they frown at his thought. He was forgiven for his escapade and even allowed to live in Moscow. Ungrateful and unrepentant he joined a study circle at which he met Bakunin.
At first, Bakunin and Herzen were in opposite camps. The circle was divided into two factions. One was Bakunin-Bielinsky-Stankevitch group. This was frankly German, authoritarian and purely speculative. It confined philosophy to the sky. The other was the group of Herzen and Ogariov. It was avowedly French, libertarian and revolutionary. It insisted that philosophy belonged to the earth. Herzen denounced Bakunin as a sentimentalist and Bakunin ridiculed Herzen as the “Russian Voltaire”. To Bakunin, throughout his career, Germany was the fatherland of authority and France the motherland of liberty. He divorced the one and espoused the other. He never varied his conception of their respective roles.
Bakunin denounced the French for being turbulent. He condemned “the furious and sanguinary scenes of” their revolution. He described the revolution itself as “this abstract and illimitable whirlwind.” It “shook France and all but destroyed her.” The French writers assumed the gaudy and unmerited title of philosophers. In their “philosophications” they made revelation an object of mockery and religion a subject for contempt. The Revolution negated the State and legal order. It sacrificed loyalty and all that was most holy and truly great in life to passing fashion. Herzen and his colleagues were suffering from this “French Malady.” They filled themselves with French phrases. Their speeches were vanities of sound, empty of meaning. Their “babbling” killed the soul in the germ. With their speeches they deprived life of the essence of beauty. Russian society in defense of “our beautiful Russian reality,” must ally itself with “the German world” and “its disciplined conscience.”
“Reconciliation with reality in all its relations and under all conditions is the great problem of our day,” he added. Real education was “that which makes a true and powerful Russian man devoted to the Czar.” Like the more modern Hitler, Bakunin, at this stage of his thought, omitted women as an individual from his scheme of things. The Russian man was to be “devoted to the Czar” of his own will. In the case of women, obedience was her natural lot. She had no initiative in the matter. Her loyalty was but the docility of the cowed domestic animal. Many Socialists and even Communists indulge this Early Church Father failing that Luther perpetuated into German life and thought. Even Free-thought has not cured the most radical manhood of the folly of striking sex out from the definition of the male human and omitting “human” from the definition of woman. In our text books, is not woman still referred to as “the sex?” Does not man regard sex as his spare time enjoyment? Consider then the actual insult to at least half the human race conveyed by the prevailing male conception.
Hegel and Goethe were, according to Bakunin, “the leaders of this movement of reconciliation, this return from death to life.” “Yes,” he added, “suffering is good; it is that purifying flame which transforms the spirit and makes it steadfast.”
Of course suffering is good, provided it serves some definite useful purpose. Otherwise suffering is merely senseless barbarism. To accept injunction of Jesus, to take up the burden or cross of the everyday useful struggle of life, to witness for Truth against Mammon and Moloch and the Kings of the Earth, is wisdom. Unhappily, Bakunin did not mean this kind of sacrifice. He meant repression and subjection. It was “sacrifice” to don a uniform and proceed to murder in the name of Glory; to enlist under the banners of Czar and Kaiser; indeed to follow any licensed murderer who termed himself a King or a General or a Statesman. Bakunin’s “sacrifice” was the quintessence of human folly. Sacrifice is without purpose unless it leads to a fuller life for the individual and for all members of the great human family. Hegel had reconciled Bakunin to Germany and the narrow circumscribed life of oppression. He wrote and spoke as the apostle of Czarism and Prussianism. He was still the homesick schoolboy who despised the students at the Artillery School.
Bakunin plunged to the very depths of the German metaphysical idealism. He hesitated before none of its logical consequences. He rejoiced that “the profound religious feeling of the German people” saved it from such experiences as those endured by France during its immortal Revolution.
No wonder, when he had passed through the violent change which transformed him into an Anarchist and enemy of Czarism, Bakunin hated everything German and adored everything French. No wonder the Germanophile became the Francophile and the Francophone became the Germanophone. Bakunin had passed through his transition before the Stankevitch circle dissolved in 1839. He embraced Herzen’s viewpoint and supported the latter’s contention with boldness and irresistible dialectic. The dawn of the hungry forties found him the champion of France and Revolution. To him, France was now the classic land of struggle and revolution.
It had enjoyed 800 years of revolution from A.D. 987 to 1789. It was home of Freedom, whereas Germany was the home of authority and reaction. Hegel had converted Bakunin to France and Liberty. Voltaire was not merely avenged. He was excelled.
The completion of Bakunin’s mental change is a matter for serious study by the apologists of power. Life is amusing as well as sad. It is never more entertaining and instructive than in its moments of great crisis, when old worlds give place to new. Then we witness the renowned struggle between Little Jack and the Mighty Giant. The Biblical variant is David and Goliath. History has many variants. Jesus against Caesarism, a struggle not yet ended. Luther against Rome. Erasmus against the Dark Ages. Voltaire against the feudal nobility of France. Servetus against Calvin. In terms of struggle and tragedy they relate and illustrate the same magnificent paradox of progress. In the battle between Power and Thought, it is Power and not Thought that is handicapped unmercifully. Yet whenever the contest is renewed sides are taken because men believe that Power is supreme and Thought a hopelessly outclassed challenger. It is as though mankind regularly at the dawn of each new epoch shuts out all knowledge of the past. Were it otherwise there would be no battle, and, perhaps, no true progress. The Apostle intended not error but truth when he defined Faith as the evidence of things unseen. Actually, Faith is the vision of things clearly seen from the beginning of time.
Power moves along the ages heavily, weighed down with its own authority, and armed always with its unwieldy bludgeon. It has no elan. It was wealth and pomp and numbers; perfect machinery, much surrounding circumstances, but withal, no life. Thought is without numbers. Thinkers rarely command a majority. The grave can boast a more compact majority. Thought has no machinery of action. Like Shakespeare’s conspirators, thought is lean and dangerous. But it is destiny and ever survives. It dies only when it has ascended from the gutter to the palace and has assumed the rank of fashion. It then returns to the gutter and makes war on its shadow. Hans Andersen has told the story of the man and his shadow in one of his immortal fairy tales. In his story, the shadow, which is Power, triumphs. In our record the man, being Thought, lasts the distance.
Power lumbers awkwardly to its doom, whilst Thought moves gracefully and bravely through suffering, from the gibbet to the throne. This is the great message of Christianity as yet unrevealed to theologians but obvious to the poor. The sword must perish and the world must triumph. This fact explains why Achilles and Hector, old-time deities, are now forgotten. Hector, of course, is remembered in the word “hectoring.” It means that humanity reveres him no longer as a god but recalls his memory as that of a braggard and bully. The growth of this idea registered the distance that separates Shakespeare’s story of the gods in his little appreciated
“Troilus and Cressida” from the same theme as developed at an earlier epoch of English literature by Chaucer. Jesus based his entire ethic on the simple truth that the gods of power and violence must pass away. Every martyr since has expressed the same conception. Holy Synods and Czarist police knew nothing about such subtleties. By destroying bodies and burning books they expected to perish thought. To the contrary, by destroying mere messengers, they gave body to thought itself. Men die only that that thought may be resurrected in a new body unto triumph and glory. In Russia, Bakunin became that new body. He was the word incarnate, a most brilliant member of a brilliant group of thinkers and disputants.
Herzen”s contention, at first challenged and then accepted by Bakunin, was that Hegel’s system was nothing less than the algebra of the Revolution. It set men free in a sense that no other philosophy had done or could do. It liberated the world from obsolete restrictions. It left no authority secure in Christendom. It proclaimed the idea that nothing was immutable and asserted that every social condition contained the germ of its own destruction. This idea, a platitude of all modern socialist argument, belongs, not to De Leon or even Marx, but to Hegel. The idea led Herzen to the study of the French Revolution. He went further back. The revolution led to the philosophers who had foreseen and inspired it. They became the divinities of his thought like so many stars in the firmament. Hegel had proven Herzen’s direct path to the study of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and d’Alembert. In his turn, Herzen had brought Bakunin to worship at the same altar.
Bakunin’s changed attitude made his writings radical and his outlook on theology very clear. From this time on he was not merely an Atheist but an anti-theist. Voltaire needed God to explain the universe and to restrain the wildness of democracy in riotous mood. Freethinkers have complained that Bakunin was not too much concerned with disputing the validity of Voltaire’s deistic explanation. That is true. Bakunin’s concern was to remove once and for all, the authority of the idea of god in order that man might breathe freely. Bakunin assumed what most freethinkers were not prepared to accept: not only did god not exist, but even if he could or did man had rights against god. In a word, Bakunin set his cause on liberty.
Herzen was impressed with Bakunin’s incomparable “revolutionary tact.” At least he was awake. He personified tireless energy. Days of reaction had made him thoroughly at home with the German language and the German philosophy. He employed its forceful concentration to express French libertarian ideas. Proudhon noted the effect of his German studies on his thought and style. The great French Anarchist regarded Bakunin as a monstrosity in his terse dialectic and his luminous perception of ideas in their essence.
Monstrosity! Perhaps that word will serve as well as any other to explain the shadow that Bakunin cast across the field of the nineteenth century European politics. It is a worthy portrait of, and a fitting epitaph for, the man who was, throughout his life, the victim of his own thoroughness.