towards the republic of Cocagne

“Man is, of course, at home in history, but from your words one could infer that he is only a guest of nature’s as though there were a stone wall between nature and history. It seems to me that he is at home in both, but not dominant in either… In history man labours under the delusion that he is unhampered and free to do whatever he chooses. All this is the bitter trace of dualism which has long made us see double and waver between two optical illusions. Though dualism has long lost its crudeness, it lingers inconspicuously in our hearts. Our language, our fundamental conceptions, become natural out of habit and repetition, obstruct the truth. Had we not know, from the age of five, that history and nature are two different things, we would have no difficulty in understanding that the evolution of nature passes imperceptibly into the evolution of man, that these are two chapters of a single novel, two phases of a single process, far removed from one another at their perimeters, but very close at the centre.” (394)

Herzen was of a generation of Russian writers who all came under the influence of the romantic philosophers, Schelling and Hegel. In Herzen’s case, he undertook a long therapy after immersion in the romantics, with the goal of ridding himself of idealism of any kind. It is interesting to compare Herzen in this respect to Marx. The latter’s reading in 18th century materialism gave him the ground plan for countering idealism as a mode of historical understanding, even if Marx astutely understood that the old fashioned materialism, which had hardened in the shell of an outmoded sensualism, collapses as an explanation for society unless one can instill into it some dynamic. As all the world well knows, for this, he turned to Hegel’s dialectics. Herzen did not move towards materialism, which for him would have meant returning to the fashions of the court of Catherine the Great. Rather, he developed the idea of folding history into nature and nature into history, a thematic that has had a long life in Russian thought. Herzen was impressed by the Spinozan principle that existence was always extreme – that is, that there is no gradation in what exists, but that what exists exists on its extremest edge – and he incorporates this idea into his view of progress in history and the perfection of man. The result was that Herzen’s philosophy of nature and history contains a continual tension between the idea of the extreme – an idea that results of viewing politics in terms of the morphology of an organism, with no real normative dimension – and the organic metaphor, in which a society or movement grows old and weak, or, on the contrary, appears young and fresh. Only under the latter analogies was it possible to talk about progress and perfection. And, remember, Herzen was at the core a radical – he of course wanted to overthrow both the old order of autocracy and the new order of the bourgeoisie. Yet, here’s the rub: if we apply the rule that all that exists exists as much as it possibly can, there is, in fact, no weakness nor strength. There is, absolutely, no progress. Both the young and the old exist as much as they can exist. Only from the viewpoint of the young are the old weak, and only from the point of view of the old are the young strong.

What came of age in 1848 were the twin impulses of the French revolution, aptly summed up in one of those marvelous phrases that entered into the underhistory of Europe’s intellectual life, Danton’s statement about St. Just:
“Je n’aime pas cet extravagant. Il veut apporter à la France une république de Sparte, et c’est un république de Cocagne qu’il nous faut.”
It is a Republic of Cocagne that we need. And if, after all, material conditions make the man, why not? The task of perfection can be laid aside, indeed, as an extravagance… Fastforwarding to the Cold War era, the doctrine that perfection was pernicious became one of the ideological building blocks for anti-communism and the shadow of anti-communism, cast back all the way to 1793. For, by cleverly pretending that the old order and its atrocities never existed (and while the September massacres were trotted out by the Furet circle around Debats as often as possible, as crocodile tears were shed over the Vendee, not a peep was heard about Saint-Domingue, or about famine and massacre in the 1760s – just as the global sins of the capitalist order, the famines from Ireland to India, also disappeared at this time from the historical record, poof), one could easily pretend that virtue leads to totalitarianism. How much better to roll about in capitalist Cocagne!

ps- I ran across an anecdote in Marie d'Agoult's Histoire de la Revolution de 1848 that beautifully illustrates the contrast between Sparta and Cocagne. According to d'Agoult, when the King fled, the populace overran the palace. Later, crowds met the Royal Guard, who were confused as to what was going on. The crowd, having loosened up with wine, embraced the Guard. And amongst the crowd, there were people carrying spikes and bayonets - but unlike 1789, on these spikes and bayonets were impaled not the heads of royalist officers, but sides of ham and beef. The raid on the palace had concentrated particularly on the royal kitchens.