Herzen and Bakunin on Liberty 

from Russian Thinkers (1955) by Isaiah Berlin


“Once the conduct of life in accordance with the moral principles that we actually live by, in the situation as we know it to be, and not as it might, or could, or should be, is abandoned, the path is open to the abolition of individual freedom and of all the values of humane culture.” (Berlin, 103)


Study Guide


Part II                    


(pp. 83-84)       What was the central notion of the eighteenth century Enlightenment?


-          optimistic naturalism: the principle cause of human misery, injustice and oppression lies in ignorance, superstition and folly.


(84)                    What were the divergent Enlightenment materialist and idealist positions on natural law?

                                (description vs. theodicy)


-          Accurate knowledge of the laws governing the physical world (necessity) enables people not only to dominate nature, but also to adjust their behavior and live as well and happily as possible (or at least better than they have).

-          Philosophers who believed in reason as theodicy believe that mankind should obey the natural plan towards which all creation strives.


(84)                                How did Locke’s theory of learning (epistemology) lend credence to the belief that the pursuit of reason might lead to a utopian society?


-          Locke integrated moral and spiritual speculation by suggesting that moral science can shape the behavior of man just as science gives man control over nature. If scientists are given charge of the world, instead of kings, priests and noblemen, then universal happiness can be achieved.


(84-85)                        What were the central principles of the Hegelian intellectual movement that arose in Germany in the aftermath of the French Revolution? Which ideas did the German Romantics retain from the French Enlightenment, and what new ideas did they develop?


-         The German Romantics agreed that the natural world obeys intelligible laws and that progress is possible according to some rational plan  identical with some spiritual force and inevitable; experts can discover these laws and teach understanding of them.

-         Men are not mere collocations of bits of matter; they possess souls obeying unique and intricate laws of their own. Human societies possess inner structures analogous to the psychical organization of individual souls.


(85)                                    Explain Hegel’s notion of historical development. How are moral choices re-defined when one commits to a belief in historical development?


-          History is proceeding along a determined pathway from which it cannot alter. The only goals attainable are those embedded in the pattern of historical development; these alone are rational. Human failure results from misunderstanding what the times demand. Values are what a rational person will strive to achieve at a specific stage of his growth as part of the rational plan. To oppose the stream would mean to commit suicide.


(86)                                      What four principles do the various historical theories developed by the German Romantics all have in common?


-          the universe obeys laws and displays a pattern, either intelligible to reason, empirically discovered or mystically revealed

-          humans are elements in wholes larger and stronger than themselves

-          answers to what should be done are deducible from knowledge of the objective laws of history

-          nothing can be vicious or cruel or stupid or ugly that is a means to fulfillment of the objectively given cosmic purpose.


(86-87)                         How did Herzen rebel against the German Romantics’ theory of history? Which ideas from the French Enlightenment did he embrace?


-          He found  the notion of historical progress morally revolting, intellectually specious, and aesthetically tawdry: an attempt to force nature into the straitjacket of the poverty stricken imagination of German philistines and pedants.

-          He believed that Nature obeys no plan, history follows no libretto; no single formula can solve the problems of individuals or societies; general solutions are no solutions; universal ends are not real ends; shortcuts are no substitute for experience

-          Every age has its own texture and its own questions and tentative answers.

-        The liberty of actual individuals in specific places and times is an absolute value. Liberty, a minimum area of free action-  is a moral necessity not to be suppressed in the name of lofty abstractions devised in the name of history, progress, the church, or the proletariat.



(87)                                      What type of citizen should society allow to develop? What role should government play in such a society?


-          Society should develop an individual who engages in the free play of his temperament and is allowed to develop his personal characteristics to the fullest possible extent.

-          No conformism, submission to tyranny or opinion, cowardice, no worship of power, reverence  for the past, for institutions, no humiliation of the weak by the strong, no tyranny of the majority should interfere with the individual's libery..

-         Government must strive to balance social justice with economic efficiency; Government should ensure political stability and defend human dignity, civilized values, and the safety of the individual’s liberty.

-          No matter the social or economic advantages offered, any government that fails to prevent invasions of personal liberty should be scorned.


Part III



(88)                                      Why did Herzen object to the principle of natural rights, which stands at the heart of enlightened, liberal political theory?


-          People are not born with rights of life, liberty and property. The masses have seldom desired freedom; as a matter of fact, they prefer authority. They want government to rule for their benefit, but they do not want to rule themselves.

-          Herzen objects most to the verbal magic of liberal rhetoric: words are substituted for concrete things. He objects to the horrible crimes that have been condoned in the name of principles which are in reality empty abstractions: imagine the amount of blood shed in France for “freedom”.


(89)                                      Describe Herzen’s conception of ‘dualism’.  Why is this intellectual practice so dangerous?


-          Dualism, the belief in an ideal realm where perfection exists, confuses words with facts and relies on abstract values not founded in discovered real needs; political programs are deduced from abstract principles unrelated to real situations.

-         These formulae become terrible weapons in the hands of fanatical doctrinaires who seek to bind them to human beings, if need be, by violent vivisection, for the sake of some absolute ideal for which the sanction lies in some uncriticised and uncritiscisable vision.


(90)                                      What abstract notions of social good have been used to tyrannical effect in the past?


-          history, progress, the safety of the people, social equality: cruel altars upon which innocents have been offered up without a qualm.



(pp.  90-91)       What is Herzen’s sense of the rational purpose of history?


-         There is none. History is the story of hereditary, chronic madness. Blood has been shed and continues to be shed for causes justified by deranged intellect. History is the autobiography of a madman. The demands of history, of historical destiny, of national security, of the logic of the facts all have about them the strong smell of burnt bodies, blood, inquisiton and torture .


(91)                                      What is his cure for idealism of all sorts?


-          Abstractions are an attempt to evade the facts.

-          A man looks at something freely only when he does not bend it to his theory and does not himself bend before it as some kind of religious icon. The world will never know liberty until all that is religious and political is susceptible to criticism and denial and transformed into the simple and human.

-          Patriotism is noble, but it is better to survive together with one’s country than die for it.


(92)                                    How does Herzen rebut the idea that society is rationally progressing toward some identifiable future? What different types of political movements are based on this notion of progress?


-         A goal which is infinitely remote is no goal, only a deception; a goal must be closer, at the very least the laborer’s wage, or pleasure in work performed.

-         The end of each generation is itself.

-          Reason develops slowly and painfully; it does not exist in nature, nor outside nature… one has to arrange life as best one can because there is no libretto…

-          History is all improvisation, all will, all extempore.

-          History carries no moral with it.


(93)                                      According to Herzen, what moral does history teach us?


-          none


(p.93)                How does Herzen describe nature’s energies if they do not obey some utilitarian function?


-         Nature is not smooth teleological development, certainly not a development designed for human happiness nor the fulfillment of social justice. Nature is a mass of potentialities that develop in accordance with no intelligible plan.

-          Why should utility be demanded of the infinitely rich, infinitely generous cosmic process?

-          Nature is infinitely and recklessly fertile.



(p. 94)              Explain what Herzen means when he says, “The purpose of the singer is the song.”  Why is personal freedom essential to the purpose of life?


-         The purpose of life is here and now; it is to be lived, nothing else. There is no end whether social, religious or philosophical which gives your life a purpose. The purpose of life is itself, and a person needs liberty in order to have at least the opportunity to live freely.



(p. 95)             Why do most people prefer not to be free? What then is the value of education?


-          Most people would prefer to continue in ancient ruts and bear the ancient yokes rather than take the immense risks of building a new life.

-         Only civilised people prefer liberty. The desire for freedom is bound up with education and civilisation, neither of which is ‘natural’. Civilised people can realize their unique potentialities, which only occur in this particular place and moment in time.


(p. 95)              How is morality created in Herzen’s free society? What are the only absolute restraints on behavior, according to Herzen?


-          Morality cannot be derived from the laws of history nor from the objective goals of human progress. Moral ends are what people want for their own sake.

-          Morality is empirical and naturalistic (ie. practical); it recognizes certain absolute values (liberty) as well as change, it is over-awed by neither evolution nor socialism.


(p. 96)               Why would Herzen oppose rule by the majority?


-          Democracy can be a razor by which an immature people, like the French, cut their own throats.

-          The majority prefer slavery to freedom. Only when that fact changes will a revolution not result in savagery.


(pp. 96-97)        How does Herzen critique all of the major political positions (from socialist to liberal to conservative) existing in Europe in the mid-19th century?


-          Democracy led to chaos when universal suffrage was granted to the French in 1848.

-          Communism is a mere levelling movement, the despotism of frenzied mobs, invoking the security if the people, as vile as the enemy they seek to overthrow.

-          Liberals are feeble, unrealistic and cowardly and have no understanding of the needs of the poor and the weak.

-          Conservatives are brutal, mean, stupid and despotic; even so, the aristocrats and priests are often closer to the masses and understand their needs better than the bourgeoisie or abstract revolutionaries.

-          Slovophiles are escapists, condoning a bad present in the name of an imaginary past.


(p. 97)             What is his criticism of parliamentary government in England?


-          Parliamentary government merely defends the rights of property and keeps an army ready to fire instantly as soon as ordered.

-          Belief in naive utopias is as silly as belief in God and the Kingdom of Heaven.


(p. 97)              What did Herzen predict would happen if democracy spread throughout the world?


-         When the rule of the masses finally occurs, Europe will be drowned in a general cataclysm: poverty, decline in education,empty villages ,undermanned countryside .

-          People will call for military discipline and order at the expense of freedom; then the victors will begin to fight for their loot.

-          Finally, a new war will break out between the haves and the have-nots.


(pp. 97-98)        What would be the consequence of the subsequent socialist revolution?


-          Communism will sweep across the world in a violent tempest- dreadful, bloody, unjust and swift. The New Commandments will be enunciated, the new faith. Civilization will be liquidated.

-          The masses will exchange yokes for that of the new tyrants.

-          Socialism will develop in all its phases until it reaches its own extremes and absurdities, and a new revolution will come as yet invisible to us.


(p. 98)                     How would this historical process culminate?

-          The historical process is never ending.


(p. 99)               Why did Herzen have such contempt for the liberals who had provoked the revolutions throughout Europe in 1848?


-          He despises the liberals who begin revolutions and then try to extinguish their consequences, who are frightened at the emergence of the worker who demands his rights.

-          The liberals run away from revolution and then claim that it will occur eventually through historical forces too strong to resist. They have no practical answer to the problems.


(p. 100)           How could society avoid either ‘bourgeois philistinism’ or ‘communist slavery’? What does he mean when he says that humans should save themselves instead of humanity?


-          History is not determined. Life has no libretto; improvisation is always possible. It is not necessary for history to follow the predictions of the metaphysicians.  Socialism is neither impossible nor inevitable.

-          It is the responsibility of the libertarians to prevent social change from degenerating into either bourgeois philistinism or communist slavery.

-          Our ends are not made for us but by us. If only people wanted instead of saving the world, to save themselves.


(p. 100-01)      How would Herzen have responded to assertions that humans are determined by the times they live in and the circumstances of their lives? What power enables people to protect their liberties?


-          Man is dependent on his environment and his time-physiologiacally, educationally, biologically as well as at more conscious levels; men reflect their own time and are affected by the circumstances of their lives.

-          However, the possibility of opposition to the social medium and protest is just as real. Belief in determinism is an alibi for weakness. Our paths are not unalterable. They change with circumstances, with understanding and personal energy. The power of reason and understanding can make a difference.


Part IV


(pp. 101-02)    What political movements in Russian at mid-century particularly concerned Herzen? Why did he oppose them? What would be his litmus test for any political program?


-          The Russian Jacobins, the new young revolutionaries: followers of Chernyeshevsky’s rational utopianism.

-          The revolutionaries who treated honor, compassion and the scruples of civilization as mere affronts, who said the safety of the revolution is the supreme law. The inviolibility of the peerson is a luxury to be dispensed with at difficult moments.


(p. 103)           What dangerous tendencies did Herzen perceive in Bakunin’s revolutionary beliefs? Why would he describe the young as a generation of Calibans suffering from ‘the syphilis of [their fathers’] revolutionary passions.”?


-          Liberty is just a by-product of social transformation not at the center of his social and political doctrine.

-          Bakunin would sacrifice liberty to his abstract metaphysical dualistic freedom of the future for which he would willingly sacrifice lives. The slaughter of women and men for future happiness.

-          He hated oppression in the abstract, not the real suffering of real people.

-          He would abandon the values of humane culture and individual liberty in pursuit of revolutionary change.



(p. 104)          What did the younger revolutionaries think of Herzen?

-          The revolutionaries thought he was a ‘soft’ aristocratic dilettante, a feeble liberal trimmer, a traitor to the revolution, a superfluous survivor of an obsolete past. Herzen responded by calling the generation of sons cynical (vs. hypocritical), scoundrels (not moralists), rude to everyone, violent not respectful.


(p. 105)            Why did Herzen believe that Russia represented the best place for establishing a society based on his perception of liberty?


-          The Russian national character had survived Byzantine stagnation, the Tartar yoke, the German truncheon and its own officials, and through it all had preserved the inner soul of the people intact: the village communes, the free artels, the workers. They were not cynical despite their sadness, skepticism and irony.


(p. 105)            What contradictory ideals, according to Herzen, would prevent the realization of a utopia from ever occurring?


-          The incompatibility of unlimited personal liberty with either social equality or the minimum of social organisation with authority.

-          Finding the delicate balance between individual atomization and collectivist oppression.

-          The conflict between mercy and justice, knowledge and happiness.

-          The non existence of objective moral standards around which either coercion can be organized or resisted.



(p. 105)            How does Bakunin avoid these logical problems?


                                - He ignores them; he concentrates on fine sounding rhetoric instead.



Part V


(p. 106)           What is the difference between Bakunin’s anarchy and Herzen’s liberty?


-          ceaseless rebellion against all authority, ceaseless protest in the name of the impoverished, ceaseless attack against Western Christian tradition- social, political and moral, onslaught against tyranny whether of states or classes

-          His doctrines turn out to be strings of ringing commonplaces linked together by vague emotional relevance or rhetorical afflatus rather than a coherent structure of genuine ideas.




(pp. 106-08)    What flaws exist in Bakunin’s optimistic belief in the value of revolution? List some of the beliefs to which Herzen would have objected.


-          Bakunin believed that the revolution would result in a society where all virtues could co-exist harmoniously: justice, humanity, goodness, freedom, equality, science, reason, good sense, etc.

-          “I am not free if you are not free; my liberty must be reflected in the freedom of others.”

-          The liberty of one man can never clash with that of another.

-          Unlimited liberty is compatible with unlimited equality

-          Only avoidable human folly and wickedness are responsible for preventing the natural goodness and wisdom of man from making a paradise upon earth almost instantaneously.

-          Hegelian claptrap


(p. 108)            What made Bakunin such an effective pamphleteer?


-          Bakunin’s thought is at all times simple shallow and clear; the language is passionate, direct and imprecise, riding from climax to climax of rhetorical evidence; sparkling, gay, entertaining, readable, seldom related to the facts of experience.


(p. 110)             What did Bakunin believe would happen if all artificial constraints imposed upon man could be lifted?


                                - Destroy the old world, and a new harmonious one will rise spontaneously form the ashes.


(p. 111)             What is Berlin’s final judgment of Bakunin’s writing?


-          fantastic, overheated, perpetual movement; all show, no substance.

-          He is opposed to restraints of any kind whatsoever. He used words primarily for inflammatory, not descriptive purposes.

Part VI


(p.111)               What similarities existed between Bakunin's anarchism and Herzen's’ libertarianism?


-          Both hated the Russian regime, believed in the Russian peasantry, hated bourgeois society hated middle class virtues, were anti-liberal, atheist.


(pp. 111-12)      List the ideas which demonstrate Herzen’s originality and significance as a political philosopher?


-          At a time when vast systems and simple solutions were in the air, Herzen retained his incorruptible sense of reality.

-          Unless general terms like liberty and equality are translated into specific terms applicable to actual situations, they were likely to take on a dangerous and purely rhetorical value.

-          He saw that there was something absurd in the very asking of general questions.

-          All that is ultimately valuable are the particular purposes of particular people and to trample on these is a crime because there can be no value higher than the ends of the individual.

-          Unless a minimum area is guaranteed to all men within which they can act as they wish, then the pursuit of individual happiness is impossible.