Berlin on Turgenev

In 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered the Romanes Lecture in Oxford under the title ‘Fathers and Children – Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament’ ; the text is contained in the 1975 Penguin edition of Fathers and Sons. It is deeply fascinating not only for the insights which it gives into Turgenev, a man whom Berlin found deeply sympathetic, but because it states as clearly as possible (and things are rarely clear with Berlin!) his own political position at that particular point in time.

Berlin’s starting-point is to rescue Turgenev from the misapprehension of many Western European critics that he was not a politically aware and committed artist; on the contrary ‘Like virtually every major Russian writer of his time he was, all his life, profoundly and painfully concerned with his country’s condition and destiny’. This has been misunderstood because unlike Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (T and D from now on to save typing!) he did not wish to preach or thunder. He was not by temperament politically minded –  ‘He loved every manifestation of art and beauty’. But, as Berlin explains, in 19thC Russia it was impossible for the artist to stand aside from the horrors and autocracy around and on the other that there is so much great 19thC Russian literature ‘ Hence the notorious fact that in Russia social and political thinkers turned into poets and novelists, while creative writers often became publicists’. Literary and aesthetic questions which in their birthplace in Germany and France were matters for small artistic coteries, became in Russia ‘personal and social problems that obsessed an entire generation of educated young Russians not primarily interested in literature or the arts as such’. The key figure in this entire movement during the first half of the 19thC was the radical critic Victor Belinsky whom Berlin labels the ‘Savonarola of his generation – a burning moralist who preached the unity of theory and practice, of literature and life’. He was above all a ‘seeker after justice and truth’, and it was this role that he urged upon his followers. Turgenev was  a life-long admirer. And after Belinsky ‘no Russian writer was wholly free from the belief that to write was, first and foremost, to bear witness to the truth; that the writer of all men had no business to avert his gaze from the central issues of his day and his society.’ (however differently they might view those issues). Berlin surmises that Turgenev must often have felt temperamentally inclined to abandon these areas but always the image of Belinsky called him back. His first great work, The Sportsman’s Sketches, was for Turgenev ‘his first great assault on the hated institution of serfdom’ – far from being the mere masterful descriptive writing which some read it to be. This hatred of autocracy also had its roots in his own childhood experience of his monstrous mother who flogged both children and serfs alike.

All of which is certainly not to argue that Turgenev was ever a committed radical, and it was relationships with radicals that formed the most troublesome part of his life. Turgenev – like of course Berlin – had no time for any ideology whether socialist, anarchist, Slavophile, materialist, collectivist etc.. The radicals – notably Bakunin and Herzen (who though he was closest to Turgenev was always far more of a committed radical) – could be close friends but Turgenev would never accept their ideologies, however fascinated he was by them.  Turgenev regarded Herzen’s post-1848 disillusion with Western European radicalism and indeed culture, and move towards belief in the Russian commune as ‘violent exaggeration, the dramatization of private despair’. For Turgenev whatever the deficiencies of Western European culture it still for him represented an ideal. So he set out to observe and record what was happening and the people that he saw and met.  This path led him to be ferociously attacked by both Left and Right; far more than the much more ideological T and D. Turgenev is ‘cautious and sceptical’ – if never, ever on the side of autocracy or cruelty, beyond that he leaves the reader in suspense. Indeed the great works of the 1850’s Rudin, Asya, On the Eve ‘are preoccupied with weakness – the failure of men of generous heart, sincerely held ideals, who remain impotent and give in without a struggle to the forces of stagnation’. (I will no doubt return to Berlin’s analysis of each of these books when I get around to reading them!).

In the 1860’s the political atmosphere changed; in 1861 the ‘terrorist’ (Berlin’s description) Land and Liberty League was formed. A new breed of activist – fanatical, hostile, confident sprung up. Turgenev was ‘intrigued, horrified and dazzled by them’; above all he wanted, as ever, to understand – ‘During the whole of the rest of his life he was obsessed by a desire to explain them to himself, and perhaps himself to them’. It is in this context that he wrote Fathers and Sons.  The central topic of the novel is, of course, the confrontation of the new, represented by the figure of Bazarov, with the old. Bazarov represents everything that both fascinated and repelled Turgenev in the new breed of activist. And if the book’s attitude to Bazarov is unclear, that is because Turgenev’s attitude is unclear. And it was exactly this lack of clarity, this ambiguity, which produced a critical storm and fury which has never been exceeded in Russia or really gone away. There is certainly some truth, Berlin suggests, in the assertion that Bazarov is the first Bolshevik. But Turgenev was attacked from both Left and Right – and also praised by them. Berlin sees five main responses – the critical Right said that Turgenev was flattering the young by presenting too positive a picture of Bazarov, where the critical Left said he was a crude caricature, the approving Right said Turgenev had exposed the Left through Bazarov, where the approving Left said he had produced a portrait of a hero for the time; finally the most perspicacious said that Turgenev was obviously ambivalent and unsure. Herzen (who wrote extensively on Bazarov and whom I need to re-read on the subject) observed that Turgenev’s original intention must have been to do something for the fathers but he ‘became carried away by Bazarov’s very extremism; with the result that instead of flogging the son, he whipped the fathers’. Turegnev himself was surprised and upset by the depth and breadth of reaction, Berlin notes that his responses to critics were malleable and placatory; thus to critics from the Left he would emphasise that he intended the reader to love Bazarov, to those from the Right he said that he had no position either positive or negative to him. However whatever he said in private his next novel, Smoke, actually poured oil on the fire as it was a biting satirical attack on both Right and Left.

But then the political mood changed again with the Polish rebellion of 1863 and three years later an assassination attempt on the Emperor. Turgenev, expatriate cosmopolitan, was written off as unpatriotic and denounced as a renegade by Dostoyevsky. Strangely it was this which laid the foundation for his cautiously rebuilding his relationships with the Left in the 1870’s. Virgin Soil (1876) was intended as part of this process. But it was personal charm, his ‘truthfulness as a writer’, and above all his interest in the Leftist exiles as individuals which won them over, even as they were aware that politically he was poles apart from them. In the end it was his ‘irony, his tolerant scepticism’ which alienated him from both sides. He seemed not only to doubt, but to enjoy his doubts. This became increasingly intolerable to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, secure in their moral certainties. Even to Herzen he was ‘a reed that bent too easily before every storm, an inveterate compromiser’.  Turgenev was never thick-skinned about all this criticism; it hurt and wounded him. But he would not retreat from his core principles which were above all about no issue ever being closed, that systems and idolatries were dangerous and that, as Berlin writes, ‘above all, one must never go to war unless and until all that one believes is at stake and there is literally no other way out.’

In the third and final part of his lecture Berlin turns his attention to Turgenev’s real political position, and in so doing, I believe, reveals much about his own, so clearly is he in sympathy. He cites a letter from 1880 in which Turgenev summed up his politics as follows “I am, and have always been, a ‘gradualist’, an old-fashioned liberal in the English dynastic sense, a man expecting reform only from above. I oppose revolution in principle…” : Turgenev here lays out in a wonderfully concise way the difference between reformists and revolutionaries, and how crucial to this difference is the question of agency – will the agents of change come from below or above? Berlin then goes on to describe the situation at historical ‘turning-points…..when a form of life and its institutions are increasingly felt to cramp and obstruct the most vigorous productive forces alive in a society – economic or social, artistic or intellectual – and it has not the strength to resist them’ (Berlin is of course very careful to avoid any solely materialist definitions here). In such a social order many people join together to oppose the old order; there is an unpheaval – a revolution – which achieves a limited success. Some of the interests of the original opposition are satisfied and the alliance disintegrates. The revolutionaries press on, but the ‘sated’ or ‘less visionary’ group hang back and are assailed on both sides – by the revolutionaries for pusillanimity, by the old order as traitors. For Berlin, those left in this situation, with whom he clearly identifies, need ‘a good deal of courage’ to avoid being drawn to either ‘polarity’, to continue to see both sides, to defend liberty. Some accuse such people of trimming and opportunism but he believes that they are the opposite. He specifies as examples, and these are clearly heroes,  Erasmus, Montaigne, Spinoza, the best of the Gironde, some of the defeated liberals of 1848, those in the European Left who did not side with the Paris Commune in 1870, the Mensheviks in 1917, and the German socialists who refused to join the Communists in 1932 (just to be clear – should it be necessary – there are some here who I most definitely would regard as traitors – notably those who did not side with the Paris Commune and the German socialists, if not in 1932 then most definitely in 1914 and again in 1918-22). However Berlin emphasises the natural inclination of such people is always to the Left; ‘Even after the inevitable split they tend to be deeply reluctant to believe that there can be real enemies on the Left.’ When the crises are passed new alliances are formed and ‘ordinary political warfare’ (of Left and Right) resumed. In the Russia of 1860-1917 such a position was impossible however due to the chronic condition of that society ‘ a long, unceasing malaise of the entire enlightened section of society’. The liberals dilemma was ‘insoluble’. On the one hand ‘They wished to destroy the regime which seemed to them wholly evil’; on the other they were ‘horrified by the fanaticism and barbarism of the extreme Left’. They themselves believed ‘in European civilisation as converts believe in a newly acquired faith’ and could not countenance its destruction. Caught between the two-sides ‘they remained obstinately reformist and non-revolutionary’. Even Herzen – far more radical than Turgenev – was utterly opposed to the idea of total destruction in order to build a new society: he wrote ‘I do not believe in the seriousness of men who prefer crude force and destruction to development and arriving at settlements…..One must open men’s eyes not tear them out’. 

It is at this point that Berlin, in a somewhat surprising development, turns to the political situation of the day (1970 just to remind everyone). He begins…

‘This painful conflict, which became the permanent predicament of the Russian liberals for half a century, has now grown world-wide. We must be clear: it is not the Bazarovs who are the champions of rebellion today. In a sense, the Bazarovs have won. The victorious advance of quantitative methods, belief in the organisation of human lives by technological organization, reliance on nothing but calculation of utilitarian consequences in evaluating policies that affect vast numbers of human beings, this is Bazarov, not the Kirasovs.’

Berlin sees this as being opposed by both ‘the anti-rationalist Right’ and the ‘irrationalist Left’. Both want to see the complete destruction of the present system and this is their similarity to Bazarov. Frankly I have very little idea whom Berlin is talking about – I would guess that when he talks of the irrationalist Left he is referring in some vague way to an ill-defined hippy/Anarchist movement, and when the anti-rationalist Right to the racist Powellite movement – but these are mere guesses. However the crux is with Berlin’s obvious personal identification with ‘the small, hesitant, self-critical, not always very brave band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of centre, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left. Like their forefathers and biographer Turgenev they are both horrified and fascinated………..This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition’. It is because of this that Turgenev’s work and the political situation, which he agonised over in novel after novel, retain its ideological relevance (as well as its obvious artistic merit) – ‘The dilemma of the morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at a time of acute polarization of opinion has, since his time, grown acute and world-wide.’

As I say quite apart from the brilliant explanation of and insight into Turgenev which this essay gives, it is fascinating for revealing Berlin’s own political position with much greater clarity than I have often found in his writing. He offers a wonderful description of the times and tribulations of the reformist. My own observation on this is that one always comes back to a question of agency. In fact I have no more time for Bazarov’s politics than I do for the reformists – indeed less because they are even more arrogant and self-serving (which is not to deny his fascination as a fictional character). They certainly have nothing to do with Marxism because they are not rooted in the self-activity of the working-class. Indeed Bazarov constantly expresses his contempt for that class (and all other classes in fairness). Berlin, like Turgenev, is a top-down reformist because he distrusts, and perhaps dislikes, the working-class – he certainly does not believe that they are capable of leading the change to a better and fairer society; but it is precisely the contention of the Marxist revolutionary that it is only the working-class who can do this. I am of course acutely aware that this begs all sorts of questions, not least what various parties mean by the working-class, and whether the whole or only the most advanced sections of the class need be involved; but the assertion that without the involvement of the working class successful revolution is impossible remains. Having said which when revolution is off the cards then the values of the liberal reformist – in particular the essential attachment to liberty which is so threatened today – are not a bad fall back.

2 thoughts on “Berlin on Turgenev

  1. bob

    Thank you for this, Nick. What you’ve done here is incisive, wonderfully written, and stirring. I question only the last two words, as I’m not sure even a reformist position will be there to fall back on without the support of the truly discontented.

  2. nick2209

    Very many thanks for your kind words Bob.

    I suppose that really my final words are in some ways a personal reflection. But I hope they also might reflect the differences between 1970 and 2009 – and I talk of course of conditions in the UK as that is all I can speak of with conifdence, though I believe what I say could probably apply to some degree to the US and Western Europe. In the UK anyway we have seen the deliberate smashing of the organisations of the working class following the defeat of the Miner’s Strike in 1984. This is of course by no means some final development, nor the first time it has happened – I could instantly name the 1650/60’s, 1790’s, 1830/40’s, 1926 and its outcome as other periods and times when similar processes have occurred (these are all UK dates!). The movements and struggles which replace those which have been defeated often bear no resemblance to their forerunners, and I would never try and guess in what shape the struggle will return.

    But the other movement in the UK (and elswewhere) has been the extraordinary attack on liberty. This I never foresaw or imagined (not that there is any reason why I – or indeed much brighter and more insightful minds than mine – should have). The reasons and explanations for this process are complex and will need the historians of the future to unravel. I am clear that to some extent the Left has been guilty – no doubt for good reasons – of collusion in this process. In the current situation however I think the point I am trying to make is that the defense of ‘liberal’ values (and that is a complex word because of the well-known difference in its usage on either side of the Atlantic) of liberty and Free Speech has become very significantly more important than it was in 1970.

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