Stoppard 's fate of Russian Utopianism-1

By KENNETH MINOGUE  |  Dec. 3, 2002 at 1:06 PM
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LONDON, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- A special UPI Life & Mind series -- First of three parts

(1)-- The anarchist Bakunin

The great achievement of the 19th century was to turn the human condition into a political problem. Freedom and happiness were no longer thought to be at the mercy of intractable nature. It was only necessary to get society right. And that could be done by something called a "revolution."

For about two centuries, few people were able to resist becoming intoxicated with this idea. In three plays currently at the National Theatre in London, Tom Stoppard has succeeded in capturing one of the germinating moments of this momentous change in the destiny of mankind. Revolution has for the moment lost its magic, but Stoppard's is a tale that can still tell us a lot about our own century.

We can learn, for one thing, that when an influential set of people lose their wits to some grand abstraction -- Nazism and communism are the obvious examples -- then whole nations go mad, and the death rate is likely to be horrific. Even a relatively mild disorder, such as Mussolini's fascism in the Italy of the 1920s can be fatal. A nation of clever artists, such as the Italians, should never have fallen for the idea that they were all warriors with a mission to restore the greatness of Rome. But ideas rule the world.

This is why Stoppard's trilogy about the 19th century so brilliantly illuminates the dangers of the 21st. It is a drama about the seductiveness of ideas, and how difficult it is, when we once get caught in their sticky web, to work out how abstractions betray the human world.

The leading figures in Stoppard's trilogy are all, in one way or another, men of genius: Bakunin the anarchist, Belinsky the literary critic, Turgenev the novelist, and Herzen the philosopher were all notable figures, whose social amatory and intellectual relations have already been the subjects of much historical study, and Stoppard generously acknowledges his debt to it.

Isaiah Berlin for example made these people central exhibits in his theory of freedom as cultural pluralism. For as Alexander Herzen expressed it in "From the Other Shore," "the peculiar destiny of the Russians (was) to see further than their neighbors..." Those who became what E.H. Carr called "the romantic exiles" gave the world, for better or worse, much more than merely the word "intelligentsia."

An intelligentsia is basically a set of people who had read so many books they come to hate the country they live in. Where Russia led, much of the non-Western world followed, and the condition of cultural self-hatred from which they suffered is by no means unknown among us. One question posed by these experiences is: which was more important? The books they read or the country the lived in?

No doubt autocratic Russia in the early 19th century was seriously hateful: arbitrary in its government, oppressive in its human relations and unfree. On the other hand, they soon came to know how deeply they missed the life they left behind. And brutal and arbitrary as it was, Russia did have some liberal virtues -- such as hardly ever using the death penalty except for treason.

The radicals, however, judged Russia in terms of the ideals of Enlightenment France. They were pioneers of the predominant vice of our age, namely, judging reality by the standards (and often merely the dreams) of another age. Seen through the eyes of Voltaire and Montesquieu, Russia could hardly come up smelling of roses. This gap between dream and reality was what gave the romantic exiles their mission: to bring enlightenment to the savage realms of the Tsar.

The 1830s generation of radicals imbibed a further destabilizing set of ideas when they came into contact with contemporary German thought, especially German idealism. And what finally scattered the wits of such figures as Bakunin was his intoxication with the idea of revolution.

Herzen was a much more balanced figure who stayed true to his belief that "the liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all." This principle was his sticking point. At home, he wrote back from exile to his Russian friends, "you have no soil on which a free man can stand." This was why, however deeply native song and speech called them, the romantic utopians opted for cosmopolitanism. They could not tolerate Russia. They had turned their nationality into a predicament.

Foreign ideas were nothing new, but it was the failure of the Decembrist conspiracy in 1825 to reform Russia that drove them towards the rising philosophy of German idealism. It was not France but Germany, thought Bakunin, that had discovered the meaning of life. Berlin was the navel of the universe. To see Bakunin and his circle, as we the audience do in the first of the three plays, quivering with sensitivity to every twist and turn of German idealism is to understand what happens to those who have lost their sense of reality as a result of immersion in philosophical abstractions. Repudiating Russia, they set out on the fatal voyage to Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia," which no more exists than Shakespeare's coast of Bohemia.

The great advantage of historical drama it that it can play with irony; we know what came next. History is hindsight, and as we watch these utopians agonizing about Russian cultural nullity in their time, we have the advantages of knowing that the Tolstoys, Dosteoevkys, Tchaikovskys and the other stars of the coming cultural efflorescence were already emerging from the womb of time. And as they turn from philosophy to politics, we cannot watch their yearning for a perfect society without remembering the Soviet nightmare in which those revolutionary dreams were to culminate.

The emblematic figure dominating Stoppard's first play is Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist of whom it was said that he was indispensable on the first day of the revolution, but had to be shot on the second. From the point of view of his sisters whose lives he effortlessly destroyed, he might better have been shot earlier.

We first meet the Bakunin family in 1833 when Mikhail's sister Liubov is engaged to an artillery officer, a match pleasing to the whole family -- except Michael, who has higher thoughts. Nothing will please him but a communion of beautiful souls, and poor Liubov is merely the first sacrifice on the altar of his philosophical daydreaming.

The tribulations of the sisters, and indeed of most of the women throughout the trilogy are a vivid illustration of what happens when the personal actually does become the political. Philosophy had taught Bakunin to give himself utterly to loving humanity, to loving one's neighbor, and one's neighbor's wife, releasing (as he thought) the passion in the human soul.

The essence of Bakunin is his passion to sacrifice his individuality for a great cause. In his youth, he and his young friend Stankevich blunder their way around bits of Schelling, Fichte and Hegel. Bakunin is already discovering that his mission: it is to be the vibrating reed of his own time and he will sacrifice everything to be able to say: "What I want, that's what God wants." When we meet him for the last time towards the end of the trilogy, it is 1862 and the young "Michael" has turned into the mature "Bakunin." He now knows "what God wants." It is revolution.

"To be answerable to authority is demeaning to man's spiritual essence. All discipline is vicious. Our first task will be to destroy authority. There is no second task."

Bakunin is thus an extreme illustration of a common modern vice: the conviction, especially common among those that have been touched by some form of higher education, that they know how other people ought to conduct their lives. Like other such spiritual despots, he is alert to the same vice in other people. This was the reason he especially hated Karl Marx.

Freedom for Marx, he observes, is not spontaneity but merely "regimentation by a workers' dictatorship." Hence Bakunin ends up in Stoppard's trilogy as what the Elizabethans called a "humor."

He is so completely identified with his dominating passion for revolution that he hardly exists as an individual any more. He belongs to the genre of farce rather than to the actuality of real life. He is the foolish plots, the coded letters, the conspiratorial fantasies with tentacles stretching all over Europe to which he devoted his life, and his passion for sacrifice is of quite religious intensity. He can sponge off others with the innocence of a child, and the unreflective spontaneity of his ideological obsessions makes him an irresistible personality to have around. He lives in the moment, for nothing else is real to him. "At last" he says as he abandons Schelling in favor of Fichte (but there are endless more revelations to come): "At last - a philosophy that makes sense!"

And as he sponges on people, it is always "the last thing he'll ever ask of them," for his future exists as little as his past.

"The Coast of Utopia" is a play of ideas in which the jokes actually illuminate character. When for example an excited Bakunin meets Marx by the Place de la Concorde in Paris in March 1848 he is ecstatic at this conjunction of revolution and history. "You won't believe this," he says, "but it's the first time I've ever met anyone from the working class."

"Really" replies Marx, already clutching a copy of "The Communist Manifesto, "What are they like?"

I've never come across such nobility, Bakunin replies, but Marx is already back to composing his theories: Can it be, he wonders, that Europe is being haunted by "the ghost of communism." But that image suggests that communism is already dead. Maybe communism is (as Turgenev suggests) a "phantom." But Stoppard is merely teasing his audience, most of whom will remember that Marx finally settled on Europe being haunted by the "specter of communism."

(This is the first of a three-part UPI Life & Mind special. Part two will move on Dec. 4 and part three on Dec. 5. UPI will then move the entire review on Dec.6.)

(Kenneth Minogue is Emeritus Professor of political science at the University of London and author or "A Very Short Introduction to Politics.")

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