Stoppard 's fate of Russian Utopianism

By KENNETH MINOGUE  |  Dec. 6, 2002 at 11:54 AM
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LONDON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Stoppard 's fate of Russian Utopianism

I. 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 is 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."

II. The literary critic Belinsky.

With the exception of the skeptics such as Herzen and Turgenev, Stoppard's revolutionary exiles are brilliant, dynamic -- and wrong.

They are wrong, as we have seen, in their pessimism about Russian creativity. They are also wrong about what is needed to transform Russia into a free country. And a crucial figure in this exploration of what is wrong is the literary critic Belinsky, who died young but not so young that he had failed to entertain doubts about the ideas of his milieu.

His head demands social engineering, but his heart, as we learn in a flashback placed after the others have heard of his death, is with real engineering. "I'm sick of utopias," he says. "Do you know what I like to do best when I'm at home? - Watch them build the railway station in St. Petersburg. My heart lifts to see the tracks going down."

Belinsky is Stoppard's vibrating reed. Russia and common sense pull him in one direction, while the ideas of the radical intelligentsia pull him in the other, and this conflict between Russianness and enlightenment, which they all experience, is for him a kind of personal Calvary.

The conflicts of ideas that take places between other protagonists take place inside Belinsky, something dramatized in his being a shy and bumbling figure. He is in himself a complete battleground of the forces that are tearing the country apart. "For me," he remarks, "suffering and thinking are the same thing!"

The defect of Bakunin -- many people have it -- is he can only hold one idea in his head at a time, whereas with Belinsky, ideas are always rubbing against each other inside his head. When in thrall to his Germans, Bakunin sneers at "the clever fools in France" who thought reason and experiment could solve everything, but Belinsky knows that reason, like everything else, has both its importance in the world, and its limits.

Bakunin in his youth rejects French rationalism only to go overboard for German subjective idealism. Belinsky responds by making a distinction: the way clocks work is the same for everybody, while other things such as culture -- and indeed perhaps liberty itself -- are different for everybody. Hence, says Belinsky, homing in on the human essence of the matter, "the divine spark in man is not reason, after all..." The poet (he goes on) with his innerness creates the national literature that speaks the universal idea of humanity itself, but he speaks it differently at each stage of its history.

Russia's tragedy is to lack such a literature. It is like a gigantic child "with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign."

Belinsky is torn between the idea that everything has a (limited) place in the culture of a country, on the one hand, and the dominant idea of the intelligentsia that some activity - literature, philosophy, revolution -- can transform the nation.

"In Russia," he remarks, "there's no division of labor. Literature must do it all." He knows perfectly well that this cannot be, yet he cannot resist his own version of the idea. Literature, he is saying in 1835, can replace, can actually become ... Russia. Russia may be a cultural backwater, but a great artist can change all that. Art could stand for the country itself.

Here then is one more intoxicated reformer of his nation finding another of those Archimedean points, which he hopes can supply the leverage that can change the world.

But all that this conviction actually does for Belinsky is to turn his literary criticism into political righteousness. He becomes infuriated by that fact that Gogol has written in praise of Nicholas I. This righteousness is the reason why the radicals of the mid-century created what the historian Aileen Kelly describes as an enfeebling kind of self-censorship. It meant that everyone presented in art or poetry had to turn into an exemplar of something. Anything else was a betrayal of the cause. But as Belinsky knew perfectly well, an artist with a message is merely a huckster.

It is, then, the elementary fact of the division of labor that most clearly reveals how universal is the predicament of these utopian radicals. Theirs was a desperate search for any leverage that would help them transform their country for the better. They wanted to get rid of autocracy and create liberal democracy and constitutionalism. It was in pursuit of this admirable aim that they lost their grip on political reality without making any serious impact on Russia itself.

Can we pinpoint the fundamental mistake the utopians made as they found themselves helpless on the tides of history?

They certainly wanted power -- socially transforming power. And that kind of power is only to be found if society is a system. No doctrine that seeks to transform a whole society can take any other form.

The archetypal version of this mode of thought was, of course, that of Marx, who even thought of history as nothing else but a succession of systems or stages of history. A "system" here means a structure in which each of the elements (literature, enterprise, government, law etc.) plays the role assigned to it. Systems are rigid, and operate on deterministic principles.

"Capitalism" is a system in this sense, and failing to understand what a free economy is all about because they had turned it into something called "the capitalist system" is why Marxists have so consistently misunderstood the modern world. For the Russian radicals, the "ancien regime" and "Russian autocracy" were also systems, and the trick of transforming them was to find the Archimedean point on which to base the new movement. The result would be, of course, - another system! It could be nothing else. The problem of the radicals was that they had rationalism's Midas touch.

Yet Belinsky can also cry, in another mood: "What have these theoretical models to do with us? We're so big and backward." "Big and backward" is a pretty good summary of the reasons why Bolshevism was so disastrous for Russia.

The radicals dreamed, then, of a system. In the future, literature was to serve liberty, work to supply needs, government to keep the system working, and so on. But in all versions of utopia, one activity -- we may call it "ideology" -- was to supply what one might call the "architectonics" of the business.

Ideology was the knowledge that would determine the whole process. The problem was that this guiding knowledge was no use unless it could be guaranteed to be true, but the ideas that actually took the fancy of the radicals changed from decade to decade like sartorial fashion.

It's easy to see why Belinsky had a problem with the crucial fact that the elements of a culture cannot do each other's work, because the problem is with us still. In a modern democracy, the thing called "public opinion" plays the part of "ideology" and (often in its crudest form, such as polling surveys) is taken seriously by governments. More specifically, the supremacy of opinion means that every social vocation is tempted to bid for the power of social transformation.

Many judges and lawyers today, for example, are not content with merely declaring in complex circumstances what the law is. They often want to become the fountains of social justice itself. Quite a few clergymen have lost interest in relating our lives to some transcendent realm, and taken to pontificating on public policy as if they were politicians. Schoolteachers have often lost faith in learning; they want to become the inspirers among the young of a better kind of society.

Indoctrination thus replaces scholarship. And governments themselves, not content with making the laws and public policies under which we live not infrequently give advice to individuals and institutions about what they ought to be doing.

With so much good advice and higher doctrine around, we ought to be living in -- well, in utopia -- but in fact all of these professions, in moving beyond their competence are merely amplifying insignificant noise amid the cacophony of an opinionated society.

Herzen points to this illusion as it flourished amid the exiles when he describes " who walk across London to give a piano lesson redrawing the frontiers of Europe on the oilskin table-tops of back-street restaurants, toppling emperors like so many sauce bottles ... and Marx in his proud retreat in the British Museum, anathematizing everyone else..."

Today it is clergymen without a congregation pontificating about foreign policies for the nation. This is what Hegel called abstract universality, and it means that the callings and vocations of society lose the moral and intellectual limitation that make them real, without attaining the wisdom of philosophy.

Indeed, philosophy suffers worst of all, because it turns into ideology, and here again, Belinsky utters the pure milk of Stoppardian social thought. "When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can," Belinsky cries, "chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable."

III. The philosopher Herzen.

Belinsky contains within himself all the materials needed to transcend the radical milieu, but he died young, and the synthesizing role of rising beyond the limitations of these often deranged enthusiasts goes, in the play as in the history of the period, to the irresistibly attractive figure of Alexander Herzen. In one of his more famous dicta (which Stoppard does not use) Herzen remarked: "we are not the doctors, we are the disease." It could go down as the epigraph for the whole experience.

Herzen shares the discontents of the utopians, but holds back in the face of their solutions. As Stoppard characterizes him in the list of characters -- "Herzen -- a would-be revolutionary."

Toward the end of the first play, we meet him mocking the pomposities of his circle, such as talk about the "Dialectic of History."

Hegel has become all the rage in Russia during the time Herzen was enduring internal exile, and he returns to find everybody talking Hegelian philosophy. At a fancy dress ball, Herzen encounters a 6 foot ginger cat lifting his glass to "Absolute Subjectivity." What kind of animal is the Dialectic of History? Herzen wonders, and decides that it is indeed a gigantic, and capricious, ginger cat. Against these grandiose theories, Herzen tells Belinsky that in Russia "We're not the plaything of an imaginative cosmic force, but of a Romanov with no imagination whatsoever, a mediocrity. He's the sort of person you see behind a post office counter who points to the clock at one minute past five and won't sell you a stamp ...."

Isaiah Berlin listed with admiration the qualities of the historical Herzen as admiring imagination, spontaneity, humanity, civilized feelings, natural generosity, courage, wide horizons, instinctive knowledge of what individual freedom is, and hatred of all forms of slavery or arbitrary rule ... "

It's a list impossible to cap, and one thing it made very clear: Herzen, in spite of his radicalism, was a man who detested system.

Detesting system is what made Herzen admire England. That was not at all the same thing as loving it: Russia and England are from the utopian point of view polar opposites. One was free, the other enslaved to a master. Yet both were in their different ways a contrast to France and Germany, which feature here as forms of system. Theirs is the corporate promise of a possibly satisfying system, but Herzen finds such a promise in the end unnerving. What he yearns for is the absence of system he finds in England. As Herzen puts it in the third play:

([To the English) "We're amusing when we wear a hat we brought from home, and even funnier when we put on a hat we bought in St. James's....

But their coarseness is the sinew of some kind of brute confidence which is the reason England is home to every shade of political exile. They don't give us asylum out of respect for the asylum-seekers but out of respect for themselves. They invented personal liberty, and they know it, and they did it without having any theories about it. They value liberty because it's liberty..."

So too did Herzen. This was the conviction that led him to repudiate the program of trying to solve political problems by utopian schemes (and also, though it is not treated in the Stoppard play, away from the pessimism and melancholy of pessimistic philosophers such as Schopenhauer).

Those who put their faith in structures lose heart when they decide, as many did in the 19th century, that structures would fail them. Herzen gave up hope that any system could be found and implemented that would reliably create a society of good human beings, but he did not, unlike many of his contemporaries, fall into despair. He found the human essence in the living experience of people responding to accident and chance. "People don't storm the Bastille because history proceeds by zigzags," he tells Belinsky. "History zigzags because when people have had enough they storm the Bastille."

The basis of systems is necessity, but the world (as he learned from Darwin among others) is governed by chance. He sometimes called it "contingency", though he does not seem to have meant by that term what a modern historian would mean.

His contrast was between cause on the one hand and chance on the other. Freedom was thus the irruption of the uncaused into a structured framework of order, rather than the kind of coherence - neither necessary nor fortuitous - of the events of a story or the exchanges in a conversation. Rather, as the Stoppardian Herzen puts it: "History knocks on a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance."

He had read Darwin, and been impressed by those chance mutations that happened to suit the environment and had led on to mankind. He appreciated the marvelous Englishness of Darwin's remark that the question of whether God exists is perhaps too large for the human intellect, "but we can all do our duty."

For Herzen, the business of life was to value human things and enjoy them. One of the most moving moments in the second of the three plays is when Herzen, talking to Bakunin, remembers the death of his mother and his son Kolya. Bakunin in sympathy, exclaims "Little Kolya, his life cut so short? Who is this Moloch ....?

"No, no, not at all" Herzen responds. "His life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment...Where is the song when it's been sung?.. It's only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination..."

It is wisdom hard won, but it is what allows Herzen to rise above the level of his fellow radicals -- even the Turgenev. The skeptical side of Turgenev might be thought entirely in sympathy with Herzen, and indeed they are friends, but in Herzen's view, he has only understood the half of it. As Turgenev tells Herzen:

"To value what is relative to your circumstances, and let others value what's relative to theirs -- you agree with me. That's why despite everything we're on the same side."

But Herzen won't have it: "But I fought my way here with loss of blood, because it matters to me and you're in my ditch, reposing with your hat over your face, because nothing matters to you very much -- which is why despite everything we'll never be on the same side."

There are many points at which Herzen also speaks for Stoppard, but my guess is that this is a crucial one.

Herzen died in 1870, already something of a relic in the rapidly changing revolutionary scene. Bakunin lived on till 1876, having been anathematized by Marx at the First International in 1872.

In Turgenev's novel Rudin, however, the Bakunin figure dies (in an epilogue to the third edition) on the barricades of 1848, representing (as Aileen Kelly remarks) "a type only beginning to emerge among the intelligentsia ...: the Hamlet who seeks to resolve his inner divisions by assuming the role of a revolutionary Don Quixote."

The "superfluous men" of the time hesitated between a Hamlet-like temporizing with the old order, and a ruthless irrational thirst for action at any price. But this was where Herzen's repudiation of abstraction led him to avoid both horns of this dilemma. He valued Russian culture. He came to inspire many of the Slavophils of the coming generation.

In the end humanism was to fail. But for Herzen, the judgment of "failure" is abstract, and certainly does not cancel out the human qualities that went into the experience of living while the living of it was sweetened by hope. It was in disdaining mere human experiences that the radicals revealed themselves as the citizens of utopia - or "nowhere". This was a much more important kind of failure than merely suffering the disappointments of hope.

(This is the complete three-part UPI Life & Mind special, which moved separately earlier this week.

(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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