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The New International, Winter 1958

Mel Stack

Books in Review

A Study of Russian Radical Thought


From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 66–68.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Studies in Rebellion
by E. Lampert
Frederick A. Praeger, New York 1957, $6.00

Studies in Rebellion is a study of 19th century Russian radical thought; or more precisely, of three of its leading representatives – Belinsky, Bakunin, and Herzen.

The author, E. Lampert, a colleague of Isaiah Berlin, approaches his subject with sophistication, although somewhat pedantically. Studies in Rebellion is not the usual Ph.D. thesis, the simple compilation of quotations, abstract and dull, never understanding the first thing about radicals or their thoughts. Rather, this author shows his awareness of the relationship between the radical’s ideas and the society in which he lives; Lampert understands and sympathizes with the radical driven by inhuman conditions. It is the mark of a first-rate study.

The sympathy and understanding is most important in a subject so remote from the modern scene as those mid-nineteenth century Russians. Their conflicts are alien to our age – even while all three touched upon the most fundamental philosophic and political problems, such as the nature of man, freedom, society and the state.

Yet Lampert’s concern is not only to bring us the background of 20th century radicalism (particularly Russian radicalism), but to show us the influences upon the present and, above all, the importance of these older radicals’ thought for today’s world and its problems.

Let us begin with the influences upon the 20th century. Lampert believes there is a direct continuity:

Their fierce revolutionary element was ordained as an investment into the process of regenerating their country’s spiritual resources ... it was increasingly and persistently incorporated into political action. The sin was not, of course, in politics itself, but in a surrender to the vampiric quality of politics ... The fate of the Russian intelligentsia was thus finally played out in the figure of Lenin, the supreme example of the zoon politikon, whose human image was more closely approximated to his superhuman political task than that of any other man in history ...

Lampert seems to draw the same causal relationship as Plekhanov (who wrote that “if speculations are in order, then we shall take the liberty to speculate that Belinsky would have become ultimately a zealous partisan of dialectical materialism ... Belinsky was precisely our Moses”) and Lenin himself (who maintained that Herzen had broken “from the illusions of ‘super-class' bourgeois ideology” and had come over to the side of “the stern, inflexible, invincible class-war of the proletariat”). The only difference between Lampert and the Russian Marxists is the obvious value judgment, upon which we will comment later.

Here, I feel, lies a simplification. That, in certain periods of their lives, one can find cause for calling Belinsky or Herzen the predecessors of Russian Marxism (or in Lampert’s peculiar expression, “vampiric politics”) is unquestionable; however, to simply leave it at that overstates and distorts the relationship.

The problem arises because of the often contradictory nature – at different periods and even in the same period of thought – of these early radicals’ ideas. But in the main, I would argue that Belinsky, Bakunin, and Herzen generally represent a different current of radical thought, one whose continuity is broken by 1870, certainly by 1890, only to be resumed in our own time by the French existentialists.

On the philosophic level, the main argument for continuity (the best expression of which is to be found in Plekhanov’s Belinsky and Rational Reality) is that in breaking from Hegelianism, they (Belinsky in particular) were merely repudiating the later, conservative Hegel, the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right where necessity has become equated with the existing order of things. They were not denying – in fact were emphatically reaffirming – the essence of revolutionary Hegelianism, the critical dialectic, where the existing forms are undermined by the contradictions within those forms, where reality and necessity stand “higher than mere existence.” Thus their revolt against Hegel in the name of all the suffering individuals was really only a revolt against a Hegel who had compromised his Hegelianism with the status quo.

This would be a completely irrefutable argument ... except that in rejecting the conservative Hegel, the three Russians went further – even if in a confused and contradictory way. They tended to throw out determinism altogether.

Lampert fully documents this thesis. On Belinsky:

“He confronted it (the objective, ‘inhuman and faceless world’ – M.S.) ... with man in the ‘mysteriousness’ and ‘immediate absoluteness’ of his personal character.”

Even more startling is Herzen:

“Every domain ... leads continuously to a painful realization that there is something elusive, irrational in Nature ... and this brings to man an awareness of Nature’s irresistible strangness.”

And further:

“All that is in time has a latent element of the fortuitous and arbitrary, which overrides necessary development and cannot be deduced from the determinate Nature of things.”

And finally:

Outside everything is changing, everything is shifting ... Twilight approaches, and there is not a lodestar anywhere on the sky. We shall find no haven except in ourselves, in the consciousness of our limitless freedom and our sovereign independence.

On the overtly political level a far stronger case can be made for the continuity between the 19th and 20th century Russian radicals. Clearly these words of Belinsky are evidence of an awakening historical approach:

Russia needs no sermons ... but an awakening among the people ... She presents the ghastly spectacle of a country where human beings are sold without even that justification of which American plantation lords cunningly avail themselves, by maintaining that a Negro is not a man ... The most vital national questions in Russia now are the abolition of serfdom, the abolition of corporal punishment, the implementation of at least those laws which already exist.

Or we can point to Herzen’s well-known estimate of the Russian mir and and his lesser known interest in the industrial working class in Western Europe.

However, even this overt political level is not overwhelming in its support for the continuity theory. For one thing, the French existentialist also often arrives at political positions indistinguishable from that of the Marxist, but no one would maintain a contiguous relationship between the two. For another, there is the complication, in the case of Bakunin and Herzen (Belinsky died in 1848, before the question was raised in the Russian circles) of their anarchism. Certainly, anarchism, politically and philosophically, does not conform to the theory.

(As an aside, it should be noted that Lampert is highly sympathetic to Herzen’s and Bakunin’s anarchistic views. But at no point does he attempt to meet the Marxist criticism, to wit, that the anarchist has placed the state as the motor force of history. All evil resides in it, not in the class relations that have produced the state. Thus the anarchist is forced to disregard the “cultural Lags,” all the psychological and social hangovers from the old society that necessitate law and thus a state (even if a “state that is not a state”) in the transition from capitalism to the free community. The anarchist is thus forced into an historical, magical, utopian politic – he must call for an impossible leap from capitalism into the classless commonwealth. It must be noted, however, that Lampert does raise one Marxist argument – that the anarchist can make no theoretical distinctions between various kinds of states, between a democracy and a monarchy. They are simply all evil. But Lampert merely states this argument and goes back to eulogizing the anarchist’s quest for freedom.

Enough has been said on the relationship between the 19th and 20th century radicals to show that if a continuity exists, it is only in the widest of possible senses. It is what binds all radicals together: the horror of man’s suffering, of inhuman societies; homme revolt. Thus, in the final analysis, Lampert’s study is of interest mostly for the light it throws on the background of 20th century Russian radicalism, for bringing us a well written account of the ideas and “anxious strivings of souls in travail” of Herzen, Bakunin, and Belinsky.

One final note on Studies in Rebellion. Lampert has a remarkable facility to combine sophistication with vulgarities. On the one hand he is capable of grasping the subtle essences of Hegelian dialectics; on the other hand, he can crudely call revolution the outbreak of madness (in the midst of a section extolling Bakunin no less!). He shows respect for Marx’s genius and crudely passes off his thought as authoritarian – or even suggesting that Marx’s later interest in Russia was caused by his increasing popularity among the younger revolutionaries.

But these blemishes occur only rarely in the volume. Overlooking them, one can gain much by reading Studies in Rebellion.

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