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Monday, June 29, 2009

the revolution of the intellectuals?

Although the French revolution of 1848 was incessantly put in terms of the French revolution of 1789 by its participants, it was, in that very act, necessarily different than 1789. It is to that self-consciousness Marx alludes with the famous bon mot about farce; it was also the reason a Whig historian of the 20th century, Lewis Namier, could say that 1848 was the revolution of the intellectuals. Of course, this view is considered much too idealistic by more sociologically inclined historians. What seems true, however, is that in 1848, for reasons that remain unclear, that floating sector of intellectuals and the more easily identified sector of the working class interpenetrated for one startling moment. A wall fell, a sort of pentacost of tongues broke out in the streets. Most observers claim that, in France at least, the revolution came as a stunning surprise. Mark Traugott, who has studied the worker’s movement of 1848, wrote that “although in retrospect it was easy to appreciate how the ground had been prepared by the calamitous economic crisis that began in 1845-1846 and by the political reform movement launched in 1847, the February Revolution appeared to stun even those best apprised of the French situation” – and here he references Tocqueville. Traugott writes, further: ‘It is, in part, this contrast between the apparent unanimity of the population’s response and the failure of contemporary observers to anticipate the insurrection’s outbreak that accounts for the fascination of the February Days to students of revolutionary movements.” (1988)

Herzen’s analysis of the revolution and its failure is not couched on the level of class interest, as Marx’s analysis is. Rather, Herzen surveys the revolutionary “spirit” – the community mood – of those activists who propagandized and organized for the revolution. Herzen, who watches the revolution in both France and Italy from the standpoint of a Russian exile, correctly divines that one cannot dismiss the link between the intellectual and the people and successfully understand the events that unfolded in 1848 and 1849. The revolution of 1848 was one of those rare moment in which history as the philosopher views it and history as it is made by the people overlapped.

For this reason, I think his choice of his “spokesman” in From the Other shore is important. As I’ve mentioned, there is some controversy over what Herzen is doing in the dialogues that alternate with reports and reflections in the book. Aileen Kelly, who surely knows Herzen better than anyone writing in English, claims that we can easily see through the character of the doctor in Consolatio to the author – here Herzen is saying what he thinks. And if we identify the doctor with the radical sceptic in all the dialogues, we have this fictional character playing the traditional role, in a philosophical dialogue, of the one who expresses the author’s opinion. Morson, who is one of the American champions of Bakhtin, disagrees, and thinks that the dialogue form is evidence for the dialogic thought.

Herzen had a curious way of expressing his thoughts not in treatises or lectures – although he gave some of them – but, more commonly, in memoirs and reports on the news, in letters, in stories, and in the phantasmagoria of From the Other Shore. I think there is a reason that he chose to write in such a way as to mark the occasion of the writing – which is what a letter, a report, a conversation does. He wanted to keep a close hold on the ephemeral, to use it as a guard against the power of conceptual rapture.

If this is his point, then it is appropriate that the man who, in From the Other Shore, ‘represents’ Herzen is a doctor. There’s something teasing about that doctor, after all. Many of his traits – his radical skepticism, his disengagement from the forms of revolutionary politics and sympathies with it - fit like a glove one of the great radicals of 1848 – Francois-Vincent Raspail. Raspail was a figure after Herzen’s own liberty seeking heart. For instance, he refused to get a medical degree, even though he was generally known as a great doctor; hauled into court for practicing without a license, he still refused to get one because he refused to grant authority to the medical institutions of Louis-Philippe’s France. Norma Weiner, his biographer, points out that he became extremely wealthy by writing and printing one the Manuel annuaire de la sante. It was translated into Spanish, English, German and Italian and sold at an astonishing clip, becoming one of the century’s best sellers. (Weiner, 1959: 156) Becoming independently wealthy, he could indulge in his penchant for radical politics. Madame Agoult, who must have known him, pens a good portrait of him in her history of the 1848 revolution:

“Although his doctrines, strongly bound up in a system of pantheistic philosophy, tended to a radical communism and he considered the right of property as an illusion of amour-propre, he lifted his voice on all occasions against the thought of an immediate and violent reform: he fought against the agrarian law, that he called a chimera of restitution, an absurd idea. “Those who dream of social reform by suddenly upsetting property,” he said, “would not only be guilty; they would be insane; they would be savages who take revenge on their enemies by burning their own harvests, and who crown with their own death the success of a stupid vengeance. The equality of rights is an immoveable law, the equality of goods will not last for more than two hours.”

What he had of absolute in the expression of even his more wise ideas, his shadowy character, his austerity isolated Raspail from parties and factions. He excercized a personal ascendancy over the population of the quarters. His medical knowledge put him in the position of effectively helping, at every time of day, the injuries and sufferings that the rhetoricians of the clubs contented themselves with painting and that the ambitious were trying to exploit; but it was a moral isolated action, secretly envied and wrong footed by the chiefs of the party, and which never took the initiative in the revolutionary movement. One… never saw M. Raspail accompanied but by obscure soldiers of democracy.” The radicals of the government, MM. Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc, judged him dangerous. M. Caussidiere, to whom he went on the day he was installed to see the registers of the police and find out the names of those who had betrayed him in the secret societies, refused him. A few days afterwards, M. Raspail’s paper, L’ami du people, was taken out of the hands of its paper boys and torn up by a troupe of students to whom they had made Raspail’s name suspect. The rumor floated, nobody knew how, that Raspail preached the extermination of the rich, like Marat.” (V.2, 9-10 – my translation)

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