The Romantic Exiles

I happened to espy E.H. Carr’s book The Romantic Exiles (1933), which tells the story of the lives of certain 19thC Russian exiles, in my favourite second-hand bookshop in Gateway-of-Fleet, and was delighted to be able to buy it. My primary interest was in the private life of Alexander Herzen but the book turned out to be of much of wider interest.

There are really two subjects to discuss in relation to The Romantic Exiles: the first is the subject matter of the book itself, the second the attitudes and positions which Carr adopts, which are now as historical as the events of which he tells.

In the mid-19thC a number of prominent Russians were forced into exile because to have stayed in Russia would have meant at best banishment (internal exile), and at worst imprisonment or execution, by the autocratic government of Nicholas 1st ( Tsar 1825-1855 ‘known as one of the most reactionary of the Russian monarchs’ according to Wikipedia, which is actually a considerable claim to infamy). These exiles of the 1840’s were for the most part fundamentally democrats, although merely that placed them on the far-left in Russian terms at the time. It is difficult and often misleading to use today’s political terminology, which in any case is often so vague and wide-ranging as to be meaningless. Herzen thought of himself as a socialist and I have no problem, having read him, in agreeing with his self-definition. He was mostly definitely not a Marxist (Marx had no time whatever for Herzen – indeed if truth be told Marx’s attitude to Russians could be somewhat xenophobic). However it is not in the treatment of Herzen as a thinker, writer or political figure that Carr’s strengths lie : Carr in fact is very unsympathetic to Herzen as I will consider later. Carr is mainly interested in Herzen and his fellow exiles (the other main figures were Herzen’s great friend Ogarev and the anarchist Bakunin, but there are a host of lesser figures who flit across these pages) as Romantics, and specifically in their attempt to apply their own version of Romanticism to their private lives; an attempt which almost invariably ended in tragedy. It is this which makes the book absolutely fascinating and for me broke new ground.

Of course if ‘socialism’ is a contested word then ‘Romanticism’ is even more so. In this case though we can narrow it down to a particular application : the idealistic elevation of ‘love’ as a supreme ethical value, before which all other social and political considerations should fall. The conjunction in fact of big R and small r R/romanticism. The theoretical mainspring for this particular combination at the time was the work of George Sand, whom these exiles venerated. And especially the women. I should have said before that The Romantic Exiles is as much concerned with the women – the wives, lovers, mistresses, daughters – as it is with the men. Prior to reading this book I had absolutely no idea of Sand’s importance. It is really on  this aspect of the book that I wish to concentrate first, because I consider Carr to be generally unreliable on other aspects of Herzen (his thought etc. ; but see below for this). The first, and greatest, tragedy which befell Herzen involved his wife Natalie (Carr wryly points out that there a profusion of Natalies – Herzen’s wife, his oldest daughter and his later lover among them). Natalie Herzen embodied the R/romantic spirit and ideology. In the late 1840’s she fell deeply in love with Georg Herwegh a German poet. The Herweghs, Georg and wife Emma, were friends of the Herzens and the affair was carried out under Herzen’s nose, and with the encouragement of Emma who was perfectly prepared to ‘pimp’ , as Carr puts it, for her husband, believing this was what the good Romantic wife should do! Natalie’s letters to Herwegh are extraordinary documents and quotation can only give a flavour…

No revolutions, no republics, the world is saved if it understands us. Or even if it perishes, I do not care, you will always be for me what you are

Natalie was one of Sand’s greatest disciples: Carr writes….

Nowhere in Europe was her influence more potent and more intoxicating than in Russia; and few people were more clearly fated to succumb to it than the gentle, emotional Natalie Herzen

She called Herwegh ‘Sylvinet’ after a character from one of Sand’s novels. For Natalie ‘refused to accept, refused to face, the possibility of exclusive rights in love; for to exclude was necessarily to detract from its divine properties’. Love was everything….

When all else failed her faith in love remained intact. ‘I want to live’ runs the pathetic peroration of one of her last letters to Herwegh, written a few months before her death ‘in order to love, to love, to love…’

[I have left the ‘pathetic peroration’ phrase in to illustrate how the book is drenched in Carr’s own prejudices: he throughly disapproves of all this loose living and talk of Love, his standpoint being a sort of Stalinist moralism – in fact there is nothing ‘pathetic’ about it and it is rather magnificent in its own way. Natalie Herzen speaks far more to us now – and would have probably spoken to us even more in the 1960’s and 1970’s  than Carr’s outdated stuffiness]. However things did turn out badly. Herzen was not prepared to share Natalie with Herwegh and gave her an ultimatum to choose between then. She chose Herzen, but at an enormous psychological cost. Herwegh then accused Herzen of having placed ‘strong moral pressure’ on Natalie: of having behaved in fact as a bourgeois husband. This for an enlightened liberal of the time was a damning indictment. Sand had written of husbands and wives who sleep together without love….

…the love of swine is less gross and beastly than the love of such men.

Herzen fell into black despair and ravings. The affair dragged on with the war between the Herzens and Herweghs becoming both more tragic and more farcical until Natalie exhausted and defeated died in childbirth in 1852.

The tragedy of the Herzens marriage was revisited in a different key in his later life. Here the main players were Herzen’s greatest friend Nicholas Ogarev and his wife Natalie. In this case it was actually Ogarev who was the great Romantic. He is also a fascinating character whom one suspects would make an interesting  book in himself. He could be ruthlessly self-analytical, writing of his younger self….

I believe that a man of pure heart should avoid every physical connection from which love is absent, even if it be to the detriment of his physical well-being. But then I fastened on to the other theory [that men are compelled to sleep with women] and abandoned myself to vice. Sometimes I was tormented by remorse but generally I lulled my conscience to sleep.

Ogarev and his wife Natalie, who was very different character from Natalie 1, arrived to join Herzen in London in 1856. It was not long before Natalie 2 had made Herzen her lover and yet another triangle had been formed. There were many more tragedies in the Herzen family circle but oddly enough Ogarev ended up in a happy relationship with Mary Sunderland, a London prostitute whom he ‘rescued’ from the streets. The lived together in great (or at least comparatively great) harmony in Switzerland, to where they all decamped when Herzen left England, until Ogarev’s death (although all these revolutionaries refused to admit Mary to their family circles!).

I have concentrated on these fascinating romantic episodes but Carr does cover the story of Herzen’s life in exile with a certain degree of thoroughness. The problem is that at base he has little sympathy with his subject. The reasons for this are fundamentally political. Carr is a Marxist and he sees Herzen as something of a wishy-washy democrat. He has no time for Herzen’s scepticism, his irony, his doubt. As I remarked early on, from our stand-point Carr now looks far more dated than Herzen; Carr’s certainties of 1933 have dissolved in the raw light of the truth about Stalinism, Herzen’s doubts and scepticism are of our time. But Carr also fails to realise and value the extent to which Herzen kept faith. Constantly disillusioned by the events of his life-time, notably the pan-European defeats and failings of 1848, Herzen still always adhered to a belief in the possibility of progress, in human potential. He is writing in, and trying to deal with, a period of what, for him, was great darkness and defeat and disillusion. In this he is of course similar to both Byron and Milton. The connection with Byron was one that Herzen recognised (and of which I have written previously – ). I think it is also part of Carr’s personal dislike – ‘There was in Herzen, despite his opinions, a good deal of the fastidious aristocrat’ [one could substitute Byron here with no difficulty]. Carr writes of the Byron/Herzen connection….

The tragedy of Byron had been ‘not that his demands were false, but that England and Byron belonged to two different ages and two different cultures’. He, Herzen, like Byron had been born out of due time.

Carr has no time for Herzen’s theatricality, his poetics. Listen to this – Herzen’s To My Son Alexander….

 We do not build, we destroy; we do not proclaim a new truth, we abolish an old lie. Contemporary man only builds the bridge; another, the yet unknown man of the future, will walk across it. Perhaps you will see it. Do not remain on this shore. Better to perish with the revolution than to be saved in holy reaction.

The religion of revolution, of great social transformation, is the only religion I bequeath to you. It is a religion without paradise, without rewards, without consciousness of itself, without a conscience. Go in your time to preach it to our people at home: there they once loved my voice and will perhaps remember me.

I give my blessing to your journey in the name of human reason, of individual liberty and of brotherly love.

Excessive? Yes. Rhetorical? Yes. Magnificent and moving? Yes. However for Carr I fancy it is all slightly embarrassing and unscientific, and he takes great delight in pointing out that young Alexander ended up as a respectable professor of physiology. Carr’s summary of Herzen’s political thought is in fact pretty worthless because it so obviously partial.

This is even more true when he comes to deal with the anarchist Bakunin, although for Bakunin personally he seems to have more time. Bakunin’s anarchism had no time for democracy or any kind of governmental organisation, believing that all state organisation should  be overthrown. For Carr this is a ‘logical reductio ad absurdum’ and ….

It only remained for Marx to initiate a new departure in political theory, and to overthrow, in the person of Bakunin, the last and most consistent exponent of political Romanticism.

Leaving on one side the fact that Carr does not seem to have read Engels or Lenin on the ‘withering away’ of the state, the truth is that Bakunin’s ideas have survived rather better and certainly with more power than Carr’s statist Marxism.

Having said all this there is no doubt that Bakunin was a complete disaster as a revolutionary organiser, despite his enormous energy and boundless enthusiasm. He invented, he lied, he fantasised. Carr has great fun with this, especially when Nechaev, a similar fantasist [although with none of Bakunin’s very real political commitment and ideological base] enters the scene….

Bakunin had never before met anyone whose talent for bluff surpassed his own. Above all, he had never met anyone who possessed his singular talent for inventing political societies of which he was commander-in-chief, and of which the rank and file scarcely existed outside his own imagination.

There is a hilarious membership card (number 2771) for one of the ‘accredited representatives of the World Revolutionary Alliance’ which Bakunin gave to Nechaev…

Thus did Nechaev, the self-styled representative of a non-existent Russian Revolutionary Committee, receive from Bakunin authority to act in Russia as the representative of a non-existent European Revolutionary Alliance. It was a delicious situation which can have few parallels in comedy or in history.

But Bakunin’s ambitions were never small. In 1870, after the fall of Napoleon III, Bakunin went to Lyon,  took command of the situation and issued a proclamation in the name of the ‘Revolutionary Federation of Communes’ in which the first declaration was…

The administrative and governmental machine of the State, having become impotent, is abolished. The French people resumes full possession of its destinies.

Sadly the Lyons uprising was short-lived but at least it ended without the mass slaughter of the Commune. Bakunin blazes across the pages of The Romantic Exiles like a fast-burning comet and the staid Carr cannot withhold some admiration almost in spite of himself.

The Romantic Exiles is a fascinating but deeply flawed book. Fascinating because the lives of these men and women, and their attempt, especially the women’s, to live by the tenets of R/romanticism is both of very considerable influence but also raises far-reaching issues about what R/romanticism meant and still means. Fascinating because the lives and thinking of Herzen and Bakunin are of interest of themselves. But deeply flawed because the ideological position from which Carr writes, of statist ‘scientific’ Marxism, now seems far more dated, not to mention immeasurably more tarnished, than either Herzen’s commitment to ‘ human reason, of individual liberty and of brotherly love’, or Bakunin’s anarchism [I do not for a minute suggest that Carr’s version of Marx is either the correct one or that it covers all of Marx’s most important theories]. When Carr writes of Marx…

…..He brought to the theory of political evolution the same element of orderly inevitability which Darwin introduced intro biology. The Darwinian and Marxist theories are strictly comparable in the ruthlessness with which they subordinate human nature and human practice to the working of a scientific principle….

and dismisses Herzen as hopelessly de jour for not being a part of this, it is one of the delightful ironies of time’s whirligig that, seventy years on, it is Carr who should seem hopelessly outdated and Jurassic. Such is the nature of history. The Romantic Exiles in its condemnation of its subjects succeeds finally in vindicating them.


One thought on “The Romantic Exiles

  1. Pingback: Byron’s Years of Fame « Moving Toyshop

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