The year 1848 was an era in the history of European Socialism. It will probably prove to be a turning point in the history of human progress. Not only did it witness the so-called French Revolution., with its marvelous February days, but it found the whole of Europe in a ferment. Radicalism now became Socialism. The political revolution now gave place to the social revolution. Although agitators and advanced thinkers quibbled as to whether the Social Revolution was a political revolution or not, and although their theories of action proved a chaos of blundering, they agreed definitely on the necessity for a social revolution as distinct from a mere political revolution. Socialism now turned its back on its Utopian pioneers and aspired to be scientific. It regarded itself as inevitable. It made its appearance in Russia. Twenty years after Herzen had been introduced by the scared police authorities of Russia to Hegel at Moscow, the theories of St. Simon, relieved of their Utopian trimming appearance s became the gospel of the Russian radicals. In its origin, Russian Socialism was closely connected with the Anarchism of Proudhon. It will be found that the Slav connection of the proletarian revolution never lost completely Proudhon’s influence. Since the war, the world socialist movement has plunged into chaos. Marxism is making its last authoritarian stand through
the medium of the utterly bankrupt Stalinist International. True in its wonderful analysis of history, Marxism has floundered terribly in its political play-acting. Its words are the words of the working-class struggle but its political practice belongs to the bureaucracy of the middle-class. Out of this chaos, the workers are turning to the policy outlined by Proudhon. We are returning to the Russian Socialism of 1848.
The Paris upheaval of 1848 was the last attempt of the French workers to entrust completely their cause to the care of middle-class politicians. Since then the workers of the world have been deceived completely and repeatedly by politicians. These worthies have usually lived and died in comfort. Their origins were plebeian enough and they entered politics as proletarian champions. The function of their career has been to repeat the lesson of 1848; the workers have nothing in common with politicians. In a word, political radicalism cannot be trusted by the masses. Is not that the lesson of MacDonalds career? Of Snowden’s? Of Ebert’s? Of Millerand’s? And Briand’s? It was the starting point of Russian Socialism. The diplomatic record of the present Soviet bureaucracy will establish its truth. Proudhon’s anarchy was a consistent influence from his excellent object lesson.
He argued that the 1848 movement failed because it was a political revolution and not a social one. He did not blame the middle class politicians. He explained them and satirized them. He asserted that every political revolution must end in debacle because it changes nothing except the holder of power; and power, whether exorcized by a democrat or a republican, must be conservative and oppressive. Power cannot challenge but must accept the prevailing economic order. Power is not a radical but a panderer. It lacks initiative, the essential feature of social change. The economic order could be abolished only when power was destroyed and the adjustments of economic interests relegated to the direct mutual consent of the producers themselves individually assembled in their various Communes. Revolution would abolish the existing economic order naturally and spontaneously. Such revolution did not need violence for its achievement; for it would be brought about first in human minds. Said Proudhon: “The means that were taken from society by an economic arrangement will be given back to society by dint of another economic arrangement.”
There is a Utopian flavor about this statement yet it helped to differentiate the economic interests of the working class from the political interests of the middle class. It did draw a definite line of demarcation between the political struggle for power and the social overthrow of usury. Herzen and Bakunin embraced this distinction with enthusiasm. In close touch with Proudhon they applauded his conclusions and enlarged its application. For a time after his association with Bakunin, Herzen returned to the service of the Russian State. His work was purely technical and he spent his spare time in writing novels, romances, and studies of manners. The meanness of his occupation, both official and spare time, outraged his self-respect. He exploded and once more took up the struggle against Czarism. Again his pen denounced despotism. He wrote boldly and bitterly and encountered persecution as a matter of course. He was compelled to abandon his office as a barrister and go into exile. In 1848, Herzen left Russia never to return. In exile he proclaimed his gospel of universal negation. His goal was the social republic.
Herzen explained why he went beyond Proudhon:
“A thinking Russian is the most independent being in world. What, indeed could stop him? Consideration for the past? But what is the starting point of modern Russian history other than the entire negation of nationalism and tradition?...On the other hand the past of the western nations may well serve us a lesson — but that is all; we do not think ourselves to be executives of their historic will. We share in your hatred, but we do not understand your attachments to the legacies of your ancestors. You are constrained by scruples, held back by lateral considerations. We have none...We are independent, because we start a new life... because we do not possess anything — nothing to be loves. All our recollections are full of rancor and bitterness...We wear too many fetters already to be willing to put on new chains... What matter for us, disinherited juniors that are, your inherited duties? Can we, in conscience, be satisfied with your worn-out morality, which is non-Christian and non-human, and is evoked only in the rhetorical exercises and judicial sentences? What respect can we cherish for your Roman-Gothic law: that huge building, lacking light and fresh air, a building repaired in the Middle Ages and painted over by a manumitted bourgeoisie?... Do not accuse us of immorality on the ground that we do not respect what is respected by you. Maybe we ask too much — and we shall not get anything... Maybe so, but still we do not despair of attaining what we are striving for.”
This is the statement of Nihilism. It is the Russian application of St. Simon and Feuerbach. The new order is to be brought into existence by burying existing society under its own ruins. Once abolished, the old society can never reconstitute itself. Another society must emerge inevitably, because man must live in society whatever states and political orders he destroyed. The new society will be a better and truer society without doubt. Certainly, it would be no likeness to bourgeois republicanism, no matter what means were employed to substitute such a republic era of feudalism. Herzen could not see beyond the first principles of the new society. He did not know what was to develop under it, not yet what was to follow it. He knew it could not be the end. The old society was a regime of death. The new must be the beginning of life. Change must follow even that change. Without persecuting the future with his doubts Herzen saluted the coming revolution with the words: “Death to the old world! Long live chaos and destruction! Long live death! Place for the future! Out of the chaos, Socialism was to be born.
Herzen’s Socialism embodied the current European doctrines of his time. He grafted these on to his early Moscow studies. The result was that he confused nationalist ideals with radical universal ones. Down to the storm period of 1848, these two Russian movements were inspired with the same idea: the glorious destiny of the people. They separated and became irreconcilably opposed because the one movement conceived of the greatness of Russia and the other desired the greatness of the people themselves within and without Russia. This conflict finds an echo in the struggle that exists to-day between Trotskyism and Stalinism. The permanent revolution is European and cosmic. Socialism in one country is nationalistic and reactionary. Herzen states the difference very well in his “Memoirs.”
“We and the Slavophils represented a kind of two faced Janus; only they looked backward and we look forward. At heart we were one; and our heart throbbed equally for our minor brother, the peasant — with whom our mother-country was pregnant. But what for them was the recollection of the past was taken by us as the prophecy of the future.”
Herzen is here explaining that he and his Slavophiles were agreed that the foundations of the Russian peoples’ emancipation was the Mir or rural Commune. The Slavophiles considered the Commune the historic national expression of Christian living — the economic organization of love and humility. Herzen had not time for Christianity and theology. He wanted man, not god. To him, the Russian Commune was prophetic. It symbolized in germ the socialist society of the future. His Slavophile prejudices have been justified in two directions. The industrial expression of the Mir is the Soviet or Council. Without question, the Council is the unit of organization and of franchise in industrial society as opposed to the territorial constituency of useless political or consuming society. Consumption has no right to be enfranchised. Production must be enfranchised if society is not to degenerate into chaos. Believing this, Herzen maintained that European civilization must die a natural death of exhaustion. This world revolution would begin in Moscow and not in Paris or Berlin or even London. Herzen loved to compare the arrogant civilization of the eternal city and the triumph of Christianity with the arrogant civilization of Western Europe and the dawn of Socialism. He saw Russia playing the part of Savior. He wanted a New Russia even as we want a New Britain.
Herzen developed his theories in a series of articles written during the first two years after he left Russia. He had approached them at the beginning of his exile in his famous work, published in Rome, “Before the Storm.” The storm of 1848 left power in the hands of the heated bourgoisie whose politicians Herzen call “the prize beasts.” He develops his theory with greater force in “After the Storm.”
“We are not called upon to gather the fruits of the past, but to be its torturers and persecutors. We must Judge it, and learn to recognize it under every disguise, and immolate it for the sake of the future.”
Herzen thus challenged the theory now known as the inevitability of gradualism. He denied the constitutional social democratic idea that the proletariat should conquer political power under Capitalism. Radically at one with Marx in his analysis of capitalism and his theory of the class struggle. He was opposed to both Marx and Engels wherever they diluted the revolutionary theory with a suggestion of parliamentary programs. Herzen denied that the possible triumph of social democratic politicians was a triumph of socialism. He denied that Jesus had conquered Cesar when Constantine established the Church of the Capitol. He saw throughout the ages the original plan of tyranny being developed and improved in detail, re-named, and re-decorated from time to time, but never abandoned nor destroyed so long as leaders pursued personal power and the masses remained in subjection. The Reformation, headed by Luther, did not emancipate the people. It averted revolution and saved clericalism. Did not Luther compromise his opposition to the superstition of the physical real presence in disgust at the peasants’ rebellion and to express his opposition to the communism of the Anabaptists? The French Revolution, Herzen argued, finally did not destroy authority. It conserved authority, but the coming social revolution would uproot and destroy. It would put an end to the ages of cant. It would not widen the power of States but destroy their entire political structure.
As one follows Herzen in the development of this theory, one may not endorse all the details of his approach. The present writer, for example, considers that the French Revolution did not destroy authority, but that it was arrested in its expression. There can be no doubt, however, that, fundamentally, the message of Herzen is the message of working-class emancipation. It defines the chaos and points the way out. It is a revolutionary negation of parliamentarism. Would that the workers of Europe had hearkened to it. It spells the establishment of Soviet responsibility. In the last analysis, that is the social revolution and the sole foundation of proletarian freedom.