Alexander Herzen

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Herzen, Alexander Ivanovich


(pseudonym, Iskander). Born Mar. 25 (Apr. 6), 1812, in Moscow; died Jan. 9 (21), 1870, in Paris. Russian revolutionary, writer, philosopher, and publicist. His father was the wealthy Russian landlord I. A. Iakovlev, and his mother a German by the name of Louise Haag. Their marriage was not legalized, and Herzen was given a name invented by his father from the German word for “heart,” Herz.

In 1833, Herzen graduated from the division of physics and mathematics at Moscow University. His spiritual development took shape under the influence of such social events as the Decembrist uprising, the July Revolution of 1830 in France, and the Polish uprising of 1830-31. Other influences were the verse of Pushkin and Ryleev, Schiller’s dramas, and the writings of the French thinkers of the late 18th century. His writings of the 1830’s, such as On the Place of Man in Nature (1832), revealed his familiarity with questions of natural science and contemporary social and philosophical teachings (for example, those of Saint-Simon, Schelling, and Victor Cousin). There is a manifest desire in these writings to conceive of the unity of nature and humanity, of matter and consciousness, of empirical experience and rational thought.

At the university a revolutionary-minded circle gathered around Herzen and his friend N. P. Ogarev. It included such figures as N. I. Sazonov, A. N. Savich, N. M. Satin, and V. V. Passek. In July 1834, Herzen was arrested along with several other members of the circle. In April 1835 he was exiled to Perm’ and from there to Viatka, where he served in the provincial chancellory. In late 1837 he was allowed to move to Vladimir. In May 1838 he married N. A. Zakhar’ina. Early in 1840 he returned to Moscow and in May moved to St. Petersburg, where at his father’s insistence he entered government service in the general department of the ministry of domestic affairs. In July 1841 he was exiled to Novgorod because of harsh comments he had made about the police in a private letter. In Novgorod he served in the provincial administration. His theoretical and philosophical explorations during the years of exile took a socioreligious turn that was expressed not only in his correspondence but also in his literary-philosophical works of that time, such as Scenes From Rome (1838) and William Penn (1839). But at the same time, his realistic views about the world around him continued to develop.

Returning from exile in July 1842 and taking up residence in Moscow, Herzen actively participated in the struggle between the main tendencies in social thought of the time: Slavophilism versus Westernism. He shared the views of the Westernizers until the mid-1840’s. His brilliant talents as a polemicist, enormous erudition, and ability as a thinker and artist made it possible for Herzen to become one of the central figures in Russian public life in that period. During the first half of the 1840’s, Herzen published works of belles lettres that placed him among the ranks of the great Russian writers. He also wrote philosophical works of great profundity. “He rose to a height that placed him on a level with the greatest thinkers of his time” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 21, p. 256).

In a series of articles entitled Dilettantism in Science (1842-43), Herzen went further in his attempts to grasp the unity of man and nature, matter and consciousness. He regarded Hegel’s dialectics as the “algebra of revolution,” and he tried to show that there were laws of development leading humanity to a society free of antagonisms. In his view, this world of the future, where reason would reign, would realize the rational potentials of history: realism and a respect for nature, the principles of individual autonomy, and spiritual freedom, characteristic of antiquity. Herzen equated such a future with the socialist ideal. He felt that the movement toward this new world would take the form of the unification of philosophy with real life and of science with the masses, who embodied the material basis of history. When this merging of spirit and matter took place, the time of “conscious action” would begin. The concept of action was used by Herzen to denote the essence of true human activity, which rises equally above mere meaningless existence and the indifferent preoccupation with science typical of the scholarly profession.

In his basic philosophical work Letters on the Study of Nature (1844-45), Herzen developed the idea of the unity of opposites, primarily in its methodological aspect. The central idea of this work was the urgent necessity for ending the antagonism that existed between natural science and philosophy or, as Herzen wrote, between empiricism and idealism. Speaking along these lines, he advocated transcending the old contemplative, metaphysical materialism and rethinking, in terms of natural science, the principles of active cognition and dialectical thought as developed in an idealist and speculative form by Hegel. Herzen termed Hegel’s development of the scientific method a heroic feat and called upon empirical scientists to use it. At the same time, contrary to Hegel, Herzen tried to conceive of nature as primary, as a living process, as “substance in ferment,” and he regarded logic and the dialectic of thought as the continuation and reflection of nature. However, even though he professed to see the genealogy of thought in nature, he was unable to completely resolve the problem of rethinking Hegel’s dialectics along materialist lines, the problem of creating a new philosophy that would proceed from materialist premises and be dialectical in method. As Lenin said, Herzen “went further than Hegel, following Feuerbach to materialism … Herzen came right up to dialectical materialism and halted—before historical materialism” (ibid.). Herzen sought for the laws of historical development in the objective conditions of life in human society. According to him, the contradictions at the heart of social development included the internal conflict between the privileged and oppressed classes and the contradictions between individuals and their surroundings. However, he did not define classes in terms of their relation to the means of production, but simply in terms of their wealth or lack of it. He regarded the people as the moving force in history. Herzen used the term “realism” for the view of the world he held in the 1840’s, which he arrived at by way of the idealism and romanticism of the 1830’s. Realism as he understood it embraced various spheres of existence: an affirmation of materialist philosophy, democratic and revolutionary ideals, and the new morality of the new human being. The main purpose of education in his view was to develop a free and humane personality that sought to transform society along rational lines.

Herzen regarded literature as the reflection of social life and at the same time as an active means of struggling against existence under the autocracy. “For a people,” he wrote, “who are deprived of civic freedom, literature is the only rostrum from whose heights they can make their cries of rage and conscience heard” (Sobr. soch., vol. 7, 1956, p. 198). The spirit of opposition to serfdom fills his short novels Doctor Krupov (1847) and The Thieving Magpie (1848) and his novel Who Is to Blame? (1841—46), one of the first Russian sociopsychological novels. The central feature of this novel is a passionate protest against serfdom, which suppresses the human personality. Only a decade later, in 1856, Turgenev was to create the figure of Rudin, a direct descendant of Herzen’s Bel’tov. Herzen’s philosophical ideas were reflected in the relations between the superfluous man Bel’tov and the other characters in the novel. The contradiction between a phantasmagoric idealism and empirical knowledge, which was hinted at in the articles Dilettantism in Science and developed further in the Letters on the Study of Nature, is personified in the major characters Krutsiferskii in Who Is to Blame? and Krupov in Doctor Krupov. Herzen’s philosophical, journalistic, and literary works are bound together not only by a common network of ideas but also by the unity of language and artistic style. Verbal richness and color and the blending of conversational language with the terminology of natural science are typical of Herzen’s style.

In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s a lyrical style of journalism became predominant in Herzen’s works. In assessing social and political events of the time, he simultaneously revealed his own personality, writing about himself and his spiritual development in a lyrical and direct way.

In 1847, Herzen went abroad with his family. During the first months of his life in Paris he wrote a criticism of the bourgeois world called Letters From Avenue Marigny (1847). The defeat of the revolution of 1848 in France, in which he was a participant and observer, led him to revise certain basic philosophical conceptions of the 1840’s. He rejected the idea that history is rational and human progress inevitable, ideas he had held previously, and he sharply criticized the various types of social utopias and romantic illusions (for example, From the Other Shore, 1847-50). In his criticisms Herzen succumbed to skepticism and pessimism, questioning the ability of human consciousness and science to accurately reflect and forecast a direction for historical development. Having incorrectly judged the 1848 revolution as an unsuccessful struggle for socialism, Herzen felt disenchanted about revolutionary possibilities in the West and saw the only prospect for social development in Russia. In Lenin’s words, “Herzen’s spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away (in Europe), while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 21, p. 256). This was the collapse of the “bourgeois illusions about socialism” (ibid.).

In 1849, Herzen published an article called “Russia,” in which he first formulated his views about the Russian peasant commune. In the following years he developed his theory of “Russian socialism” and became one of the founders of Populism. At the heart of his theory lay the idea of the socialist transformation of society basing itself on the peasant commune, thereby avoiding the stage of capitalist development. Herzen believed that “the man of the future in Russia is the muzhik, just as in France it is the workman” (Sobr. soch., vol. 7, 1956, p. 326). This doctrine of so-called Russian socialism actually did not contain, as Lenin put it, “even a grain of socialism” (Poln. sobr., soch., 5th ed., vol. 21, p. 258). However, in its own way this theory expressed the revolutionary aspirations of the Russian peasantry and their demand for the complete abolition of landlord property rights. By the early 1850’s, Herzen’s views on the historical process in Russia were basically formed. They were expressed most completely in his book On the Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia (1850), which explained Russian history and the history of the development of the Russian liberation movement.

In 1849, Herzen moved to Geneva, Switzerland. He collaborated with Proudhon in publishing the newspaper The People’s Voice. In 1850 he took up residence in Nice, where he developed close ties with activists in the Italian liberation movement. The same year he refused to comply with a demand by the tsarist government that he return to Russia. In May 1852, Herzen’s wife died. In August of that year he moved to London, where in 1853 he founded the Free Russian Press as a means of struggling against serfdom and tsarism. During the first two years he did not receive material from Russia, so he published his own works, such as St. George’s Day! St. George’s Day!, The Poles Forgive Us!, and Baptized Property. In the early 1850’s, Herzen began work on his autobiographical My Past and Thoughts (1852-68; first complete edition, 1919-20), which constituted the culmination of his artistic creativity. This book stands out among the autobiographical works in world literature for its perfection of artistic form, depth of thought, revolutionary content, and broad grasp of reality. My Past and Thoughts is an epic and confession that juxtaposes Russia and the West, the ideological-political struggles of the 1830’s through the 1860’s, philosophical thought and everyday life, the history of social thought, and the intimate spiritual world of the individual. The work marked the culmination in the development of Herzen’s style; in it he uses metaphors that in just a few lines achieve an enormous concentration of social, political, and philosophical content.

Herzen began to publish the almanac The Polar Star in 1855, and it began to be widely circulated in Russia. In 1856, Ogarev arrived in London. The next year Herzen and Ogarev began to publish Kolokol (The Bell), the first Russian revolutionary newspaper. “Herzen,” Lenin wrote, “founded the free Russian press abroad, and that is the great service rendered by him. The Polar Star followed the tradition of the Decembrists. Kolokol (1857-67) championed the emancipation of the peasants. The slavish silence was broken” (ibid., pp. 258-59). The program of Kolokol in its first phase (1857-61) consisted of general democratic demands: emancipation of the peasants with land, communal ownership of the land, and abolition of censorship and corporal punishment. The liberal illusions that Herzen held for several years were reflected in the pages of Kolokol. After the reform of 1861, Herzen sharply attacked liberalism and published in Kolokol articles that exposed the reform and proclamations and other documents of the revolutionary underground. Kolokol’s wide distribution in Russia helped to unite the democratic and revolutionary forces and create a revolutionary organization there, Land and Freedom.

During the Polish uprising of 1863-64, even though he understood the hopelessness and certainty of defeat for this movement, Herzen considered it necessary to come out in defense of Poland. “We have saved the honor of the Russian name,” he wrote, “and for doing so we have suffered at the hands of the slavish majority” (Sobr. soch., vol. 27, book 2, p. 455). Herzen’s liberal readership turned its back on Kolokol and scurried away. The press run of the paper was greatly reduced. Moving the publication from London to Geneva did not help matters, for the active Russian émigré circles concentrated there did not have the same outlook as Herzen. In 1867, Kolokol ceased publication. During the 1850’s and 1860’s, Herzen continued to develop his materialist viewpoint. He paid special attention to the problem of the individual and society during this period and sharply criticized both bourgeois individualists and Utopian advocates of leveling, such as Babeuf and Cabet. The desire to avoid the two extremes of fatalism and voluntarism is expressed in Herzen’s profound thinking on the problem of the laws of social development. Trying to develop the concept of history as “the free and necessary act” of humanity (ibid., vol. 20, book 1, 1960, p. 442), Herzen presented the idea of the unity between the individual and the environment and between historical circumstances and individual will. He revised his former conception of perspectives for European historical development. In the concluding chapters of My Past and Thoughts, in the series of essays entitled Just to Kill the Boredom (1868-69), and in the short novel The Doctor, the Dying Man, and the Dead (1869) he raised the question of the “present-day struggle between capital and labor.” Herzen’s skepticism was a way of seeking a correct sociological theory. The culmination of his search and his theoretical testament are outlined in his last work, the Letters to an Old Comrade (1869). They are addressed to M. A. Bakunin and are aimed at his revolutionary extremism: at his calls for the destruction of the state, an immediate social revolution, and total freedom and his demand not to teach the people but to summon them to revolt. Herzen argued that the masses must not be summoned to such a social revolution because force and terror alone can only clear the ground; they can build nothing. In order to create, “constructive ideas,” strength, and public consciousness are necessary; but they do not exist because the people are still conservative in their inner thinking. “People can be freed in their external lives no more than they have been freed internally” (ibid., book 2, 1960, p. 590). It is first necessary to emerge from the world of moral bondage into the “broad expanse of understanding, the world of freedom in reason.” The process of gaining understanding can no more be avoided than the question of strength, but for a social revolution “nothing is needed other than understanding and strength, knowledge and the means” (ibid., p. 580). As long as these do not exist, propaganda is necessary. “Our strength,” wrote Herzen, “is in the power of thought, in the power of truth, in the power of the word, and in being in step with history” (ibid., p. 588). Herzen also recognized the strength of propaganda and organizations in the international congresses of labor.

The place that Herzen occupies in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement was defined by Lenin in his article “In Memory of Herzen.” “In commemorating Herzen, we clearly see the three generations, the three classes, that were active in the Russian revolution. At first it was nobles and landlords, the Decembrists and Herzen. These revolutionaries formed but a narrow group. They were very far removed from the people. But their effort was not in vain. The Decembrists awakened Herzen. Herzen began the work of revolutionary agitation” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 21, p. 261).

In the last years of his life Herzen lived in a number of different cities in Europe, including Geneva, Cannes, Nice, Florence, Lausanne, and Brussels. He died in Paris and was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery. Later his remains were transferred to Nice.


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Sobr. soch., vols. 1-30. Moscow, 1954-66.
Soch., vols. 1-9. Moscow, 1955-58.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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