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Alexander Herzen


The ‘Great Debate’ of the 1840s produced many outstanding intellectuals whose opinions and theories would instruct and inspire future generations of the Russian progressives. Among them Alexander Herzen occupies a special place as a social thinker whose ideas, to a large extent, formed the ideological core of the Russian revolutionary tradition. He is often described as the founder of Russian socialism, but his views and experience strongly influenced the development of Russian liberalism as well. During the ‘Great Debate’ he rose to the position of one of the leaders of the Radical wing of the intellectual opposition. 

Alexander Herzen 

Herzen was a son of a rich landowner but early in life came to realize the inequity of serfdom. At the age of 14, during the coronation of Nicholas I that followed shortly after the execution of the Decembrists, he vowed vengeance for the executed  and pledged to devote his life to the struggle ‘against this throne, this altar, these cannons’ (meaning the cannons that fired at the mutinous regiments in the Senate Square, on Nicholas’ order, on the day of the Decembrist revolt). 

In the early 1830s Herzen became familiar with socialist theories  of the French philosophers Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837). What particularly attracted Herzen in socialism was the idea of a brotherhood of people - liberated individuals - united in a free community for the sake of lofty and noble goals of goodness and justice.

In the 1840s Herzen became a leading member of the radical wing of Westernizers. He left Russia in 1847 and spent the remainder of his life in exile in the West. There he set up Russia’s first free press by establishing a newspaper, The Bell (Kolokol), which he published in London from 1857 to 1867 and which, though forbidden, was widely read in Russia - even by the tsar. The Bell campaigned on such issues as the emancipation of the peasant with land, the abolition of corporal punishment, freedom of speech and greater public accountability, against bureaucratic arbitrariness and corruption. Herzen’s newspaper set a benchmark of  free speech for Russian progressive journalism for decades to come.

Following the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in France, Herzen came to question whether Western Europe was breaking a path which Russia should follow. The spectacle of the shooting down of the Paris workers and  the ruthless suppression of the desperate revolt of the French proletariat shocked him to his foundations. The more he saw of the West, the more critical he became of European capitalist progress and bourgeois civilization which now appeared to him as an outwardly civilized but inwardly inhumane world. He came to the conviction that personal freedom, divorced from the collectivist foundation of society, was not enough for the realization of the ideals of truth and justice. 

Under the influence of his European experience his views changed. The youthful extremism of his early Westernism began to give way to ideas more in tune with the Slavophile way of thinking, while the ideas that he had learnt from the French socialists were transformed into a Russian brand of socialism founded on the peasant commune. Through a fusion of the three elements of Westernism, Slavophilism and Socialism  Herzen founded the uniquely Russian philosophy of ‘peasant socialism’ which became known  as Narodnichestvo (sometimes translated into English as ‘Populism’). It was to provide  the ideological basis of the nineteenth century revolutionary movement in Russia until the appearance of  Karl Marx’s proletarian socialism.

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