“I don’t pity them. For, I confess it madam, I differ of little from your taste in political colors; I find pink (rose) charming, when it is transformed into a proper name; I find it infinitely lovable to perceive it on a pretty face like yours; but in opinions, I confess, I find it repulsive (je le repousse). Continue, then, madame, I pray you, to be pink in complexion and name, but not in politics.” – Alexander Tocqueville, letter to Rose Margaret Phillimore, 30 December, 1848.
It is interesting, ghoulishly interesting, to be writing about Herzen’s reaction to the collapse of the revolution of 1848 on the day that the Iranian military disperses protests in Teheran. From the Other Shore strikes deep chords – and one of them is surely about the meaning of oligarchic reaction. In many ways, Ahmadinejad’s Republic resembles that of Louis Phillipe - vast fortunes are made by shady men, sieved off the public and become part of the structure of rot. At a certain point, hazard, in the form of an election, cannot be tolerated. And it isn’t. The people wake up to the fact that the rules of the game changed when they were asleep.
Herzen, of course, throbbed with the revolution that seemed to promise so much when it took Paris and crumbled all the old structures in February, 1848. By the end of the year, the new structures – especially the attempt by the state to simply employ people in the ateliers nationales, which was the breaking point for the liberals – had been in turn smashed. Tocqueville was, as in that rather disgusting letter to his friend, happy about the smashing, and had some hand in putting General Cavaignac in charge of the worker massacres.
Herzen does not sketch the details of the fight – rather, his point is to give an impression of Paris and himself during this time. Here is how he describes what happened:
The liberals dallied and jested with the idea of revolution until they joked themselves into February 24. The popular hurricane carried them to the top of the belfry, whence they could see where they were going and leading others. And the chasm they saw before them made them blanch for they saw that not only that wh8ich they had regarded as prejudice was tumbling but all the rest as well, the things they had regarded as true and eternal. So frightened were they that some of them clutched at the tumbling walls while others halted midway, remorsefully assuring all passers-by that this was not at all what they had wanted. And thus the very people who proclaimed the republic came to be the hangmen of freedom.”
When the liberals in the government gave untrammeled reign to the White terror in order to uproot the Parisian proletariat, Herzen was a witness. His account of this is not famous in the English speaking world, so I will quote some of it. But I want to end this post – on this dark day – with this:
“On the evening of June 26, after the victory of the National over Paris, we heard salvoes with brief, regular intervals between them… We glanced at each other; everybody was green in the face. “These are executions,” we said in unison and looked away. I pressed my forehead to the window-pane. Such moments kindle hatred for a dozen of years, call for life-long vengeance. Woe betide those who forgive such moments!”
A cry that has been uttered millions of times since.