“The whole bourgeois world blown up by gunpowder, when the smoke disperses and reveals the ruins, will start again with different variations—another bourgeois world.” It was these words of Alexander Herzen that occurred to me when I recently finished reading Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw, that tenth-rate echo of Arnold Bennett. In Ehrenburg’s petty world of essentially middle-class relation. ships, of intrigues and ambitions and half-hearted rebellions hardly distinguishable from those of Levittown and Tooting, Herzen would certainly have detected the new bourgeois world which he prophesied as the result of a revolution misconceived and misapplied; he would have seen here, as he saw in Western Europe during the mid-nineteenth century, facile materialism spreading like “a syphilitic growth infecting the blood and bone of society.”
My first impulse, on comparing the shallow and timid perception which Ehrenburg directed upon his environment with the penetrating irony that characterized Herzen’s criticisms of the nineteenth-century world, was to draw the comparison between the vigor of the generation of Russian intellectuals that arose in defiance of Nicholas I, and the melancholy flutters of quasi-independence on the part of presentday Russian writers, to which western liberals are inclined to attach such exaggerated importance. The comparison is instructive, but it merely deepens what we already know in general terms: that the autocrats of the nineteenth century were not so acutely conscious as modern totalitarians of the need to prevent the emergence of any kind of genuine intellectual liberty. The climate of free thought in the Russian universities that bred Herzen and Belinsky and Bakunin has long been extinct, and even if in some way a critical mentality like theirs were to emerge it would find no vehicle of expression in the controlled Russian press. Ehrenburg is tolerated precisely because his meager shows of rebellion are harmless to the existing regime and have their uses as external propaganda.
But having realized that a direct comparison between Ehrenburg and any nineteenth century Russian writer was perhaps superfluous, I was brought back to the ironic figure of Herzen himself, that ancestor in disillusioned radicalism, and to the realization that, as a critic of revolutionary attitudes and as an observer of the nineteenth century world, Herzen has an interest for us today which could hardly be brought out by a routine comparison with a contemporary Stalinist hack. And so this essay has become rather a re-examination of Herzen in his own right, with the original point of comparison fading into an initial and discarded excuse.