At our encounter with the astonishing outburst of genius in Russian novels and reminiscences of the 19th century, we come under the spell of its spontaneity and spaciousness. Free of plot-time, human beings are seen floating their lives carelessly in the moods of the hours of the day yet dramatising their relationship with Russia itself. They become gripped by nostalgia for the future, tormented by absolute ideas. Once these Russians have an idea in their heads they push it to extremes: this excites us at first; presently we feel claustrophobia. In the West, we say, we have long ago grown out of feudalism and despotism; we have had our Renaissance. On second thoughts, doubts disturb us. It strikes us that we may be slipping back into the predicaments in which a Turgenev, Herzen, a Bakunin, a Dostoevsky or Tolstoy found himself.
Of this subject, in his essays on political thought in Europe, Isaiah Berlin has a masterly grasp. He is one of the most concerned liberal minds in Europe: he can be said to have reconnected the English reader – so suspicious of abstractions — with European thought. He is a philosopher and historian who has an unmatched and intimate knowledge of the changes of the Russian experience in its relation to the West and has deeply enriched our understanding of it.
Peripatetics of rapid, encyclopedic minds, like Isaiah’s, are apt to scatter their learning in lectures and learned reviews or an occasional short book; it is therefore good to have the first of four volumes of his collected utterances and writings. Sir Isaiah is a liberal and a pluralist but a tough one: he rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and all desirable goals can be reconciled by moderation or the golden mean. Moral dilemmas may involve making ‘agonising choices’ between incompatible but equally desirable ends. The Russian writers he discusses ‘lived through’ these questions in torment and often in despair.
The startling question Turgenev’s characters put to one another the instant they meet (‘What are your convictions?’), the tendency to challenge as if to hesitate were cowardice in the pursuit of truth, are not eccentricities: they are compulsions. Are you a pluralist fox who knows many things or a monist hedgehog who knows only one? The essay on Tolstoy, ‘The Hedgehog and The Fox’, with its fascinating analysis of his underground link with another fox, Joseph de Maistre, the reactionary opposite with whom Tolstoy seems to share a common nihilism — a matter little known to the general English reader — is the most substantial and moving in the book. Tolstoy was torn between passionate desire for a monistic vision of life and the cunning resources of his realism.
The disillusion of the Russian idealists with Europe began after the failure of the revolution of 1848. The event was remote and affected Russia materially or politically scarcely at all — beyond frightening the Tsar, holding up agrarian reforms, and strengthening censorship. Only the handful of intellectuals whose minds had been formed by the Enlightenment and German Romanticism were affected. The truly indigenous invention was the word ‘intelligentsia’ which has since captivated the world. Its meaning is commonly perverted. The intelligentsia are not simply intellectuals. They were imbued with the political and social urge to drag Russia out of the middle ages. They thought of themselves as a dedicated secular brotherhood whose quarrels passed through reformist, schismatic, populist, utilitarian and finally revolutionary phases. They judged all imaginative writers by their whole social tendency both as men and as artists: the great Russian novelists were born as men with the moral obligation to speak their truth about the society they lived in and were fiercely judged by their rival ideologues.
The essays on Bakunin and Herzen are the most cogent. Bakunin, like many utopians and revolutionaries, was fundamentally destructive: he was willing to destroy the whole world for the benefit of a new one which would arise spontaneously from the ashes. He had no notion that bad means corrupt good ends. His mind is essentially frivolous, destructive in eloquence, a mixture of analytical acuteness and exhibitionism ‘carrying with superb unconcern the multicolour heritage of the 18th century’. He liked to call himself ‘the Russian Bear’: he was really the incurable, even laughing high-spirited adventurer.
The friendship between Bakunin and Herzen, a thinker of the highest order, is an example of the Russian 19th century’s liberal tolerance of reckless company. They shared the belief in liberty, but in Herzen the belief in liberty was a solid, argued conviction, not a mere banner or a barricade. He realised that general and abstract terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ unless they were ‘translated into specific terms applicable to actual situations were likely, at best, to stir the political imagination and inspire men with generous sentiments, at worst to justify stupidities and crimes’.
Herzen possessed in high degree ‘one of the elements in political genius, a sensibility to characteristics and processes in society while they are still in embryo and invisible to the naked eye’. His attitudes to revolution, to liberalism and conservatism are ambivalent but, if he switches his war against abstractions from one point to another, he is always committed. Of all the minds and temperaments discussed in these essays and lectures, Herzen is the one who comes closest to Isaiah Berlin’s imagination and to his feeling for the tough pluralism which has enabled him to bring the Russian thinkers to our door where we now face a world as exposed as theirs.