Arts - Winter 2008

On the Road to Nowhere

Tom Stoppard’s Russian intellectuals take a wrong turn with Hegel, just as Edmund Wilson once did with Marx

By John Patrick Diggins | December 1, 2007

When a playwright uses the stage to dramatize the past, the audience can only be expected to be moved more by theatrical effects than by historical depth. Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, which follows a group of Russian intellectuals through three decades of the 19th century as they contemplate overthrowing the czar, played to packed houses at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through the winter and spring of 2006–07. The theatergoers were rewarded with fine acting; crisp, witty dialogue; and stupendous staging, featuring scenic montages with rippling sheets to evoke the ocean’s moods. Each of the three plays, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, opens with the anguished Russian thinker Alexander Herzen sitting on a chair striking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, brooding about the possibilities of freedom in a 19th-century environment of oppression.

Understanding the Russian intelligentsia involves one of the great questions of history: How does freedom come into existence? German philosophy encouraged Russian thinkers to believe that human freedom is a spiritual force that strives to realize itself in and through history. But why did the message of German philosophy turn out to be so disastrous historically, ending in both communism and fascism?

Stoppard’s ambitious work, a daring attempt to dramatize political and philosophical ideas, has no conclusion. This is appropriate. Tending more toward farce than tragedy, it avoids scenes in which its characters recognize their own illusions, even if mocking those of others. Many of the play’s intellectuals blithely believe they can bypass Western liberalism, the very principles Mikhail Gorbachev would return to more than a century later in order to reform communism. In respect to the stillborn fate of liberalism in czarist Russia, the play brings to mind Edmund Wilson’s 1940 “study in the writing and acting of history,” To the Finland Station, a book that became a literary achievement and a political embarrassment.

The Russian cognoscenti, caught up in arcadian fantasies and anarchist messianism, looked to philosophy to solve the problem of history, to grasp the movement of events by turning to a thinker convinced that he knew the meaning of events. Many centuries earlier, the historian Herodotus shouted out the truth that classical philosophy and history usually evaded in silence: “Of all the sorrows that inflict mankind, the bitterest is this, that we should have consciousness of much but control over nothing.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the philosopher many 19th-century Russian intellectuals adopted, promised both consciousness and control, the knowledge of reality and of human destiny. But this man they embraced as a political sage turned out to be a prophet on a spiritual pilgrimage, offering a promise of religious salvation that could only, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr instructed us, go nowhere. Both 19th-century Russian and 20th-century American writers and intellectuals were transfixed by the mystique of Hegel’s dialectical reasoning, which promised that whatever existed would negate itself and become its opposite. With the heroin of Hegel drugging the European left, first with Karl Marx in 1848, then with V. I. Lenin in 1917, its members could confidently look forward to the end of capitalism and the inevitability of communism. Stoppard’s protagonist Her­zen was a wise exception, as was another of his characters, Mikhail Bakunin, the fiery anarchist who rejected his own earlier enthusiasm for Hegel when he realized that the philosopher’s ideas could be an apology for absolutism.

In the third play, Salvage, Herzen blurts out his reservations about revolution. “But,” he replies to Marx after hearing him exult over the coming final “titanic struggle” between capital and labor, “history has no culmination. There is always as much in front as behind. There is no libretto.” And Herzen’s last lines are prophetic. “We have to open men’s eyes, not tear them out. . . . We have to bring what’s good along with us. People won’t forgive us. I imagine myself the future custodian of a broken statue, a blank wall, a desecrated grave, telling everyone who passes by,—‘Yes, yes, all this was destroyed by the revolution.’” Bakunin, who was fond of declaring that to “destroy is to create,” replies: “At last, the happy moment.”

Russian history had its revenge upon both the profound skepticism of Herzen and the apocalyptic enthusiasm of Bakunin. One refused to force history, the other to control it, while Tolstoy instructed his readers that history has a will of its own and that men and women may play a part in its drama but never understand its significance. Why history failed their hopes goes unexplained in Stoppard’s extravagant trilogy. Yet to trace what happened to Hegelian-Marxism is to trace, in the words of the political thinker Leszek Kolokowski, “the strange fate of an idea which began in Promethian humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin.” To Herodotus and Thucydides, history can at best repeat itself since it operates in cycles, but it can tell us nothing about the future because it remains at the mercy of events it cannot control. Even though history can serve the role of philosophy by disclosing the lessons of experience and the meaning of events, history itself remains in the dark in seeking any permanent truth beyond the dizzy succession of change and contingency. With Hegelian-Marxism, however, truth resides in and reveals itself in history, and freedom is determined by nothing external to itself as it absorbs and overcomes everything, moving history along with each stage negating itself to rise to higher and higher syntheses.

Russian history almost cries out for deliverance by this dialectic. In Stoppard’s trilogy several references are made to the December Uprising, a failed revolution forged by a Rus­sian intellectual elite in 1825. No nation in history has ever waited for its revolution longer or more self-consciously than Russia. The Decembrists had their roots in a group organized in 1816, and a century later the czar fell and the Bolsheviks came to power. But throughout the 19th century, Russia seemed inert and unshakable. How could history help Russia move beyond its political paralysis? If the Russian people had never changed, could they ever be changed?

The questions that obsessed the brilliant intellectuals in The Coast of Utopia find no ready answer in the thoughts of Marx. Marx never developed a theory of the intelligentsia, for only workers engaged in class struggle would be capable of resisting the corrupting influences of the bourgeoisie and overthrowing capitalism. But Russia had no industrial proletariat or even a rising bourgeoisie to indicate that the country was passing through the stages of historical development necessary for a revolution. Russia had a landed aristocracy and hundreds of millions of serfs—in the play the serfs stand in the background as fixed structures made of straw, unalive, passive, incapable of taking action. Marx expected revolution to happen in Germany and other economically advanced countries. Backward Russia only represented an example of the “idiocy of rural life.” Herzen, in love with his native Russia, rejected Marx’s theory that socialism could rise only from capitalism, and he and the Populists became convinced that the basis for an equal and just society existed already in the mir, a free association of peasants whose potential for communal ownership would resist capitalist development.

The genius of Stoppard’s play is to use Herzen as the intellect upon whom other minds converge with opposing perspectives and proposals. In addition to Bakunin, the bohemian anarchist, there are: Vissarion Belinski, the brilliant critic who believed that the inspiration of literary experience surpassed politics, was infuriated by the Populists and Slavophiles and their romantic cult of a reactionary peasantry, and looked to an enlightened despot to bring civilization to barbaric Russia; Nicholai Chernyshevsky, the son of a priest and educated at a seminary, author of the influential novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), regarded as the catechism of the revolution, with its portrait of a character who sleeps on a bed of nails to prepare himself for the painful struggle ahead; and Ivan Turgenev, Herzen’s childhood friend, a novelist whose mild manners concealed inner anxieties about death and nihilism, an elitist who looked to the educated classes to enlighten the masses.

In The Coast of Utopia, Hegel’s formulation, “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real,” is uttered several times, no doubt to the bewilderment of the audience. But Walt Whitman, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Hegel in Leaves of Grass, seemed to grasp that history is propelled forward by a Reason that is dialectical and self-contradictory and negates and overcomes everything in its way as it reveals the spirit of God in nature. To the poet all dualisms and oppositions dissolve like the morning dew. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman famously said, “Very well then . . . I contradict myself.”

America’s greatest contradiction was slavery, of course, a moral problem without a political solution. Russian anarchists such as Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, who had a following in America, and whose thoughts echoed in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, never believed that the ballot or liberal constitutionalism would serve to emancipate the masses, especially any movement forged by intellectuals, who would constitute a bureaucracy resulting in a new form of slavery for the working class. During the period covered by Stoppard’s play (roughly 1833 to 1868), some American intellectuals shared such doubts. Henry David Thoreau scorned property and its possessions, while Ralph Waldo Emerson ridiculed politics and advised Americans that disobedience was the supreme act of virtue. “What satire on government,” he wrote, “can equal the severity of censure conveyed in the word politic, which now for ages has signified cunning, intimating that the State is a trick?”

In the mid-19th century, a significant congruence grew between American and Russian thinkers, the voices of the New England Transcendentalists in empathy with the Russian intelligentsia in exile all across Western Europe. Critics of Stoppard’s play have roasted him for “anemic” and “undernourished” characters who espoused high principles only to lead lives that rarely rise to heroic conviction and action. Character, however, may be conditioned by circumstance. The Russian intelligentsia, existing between an order that had yet to die and a world that refused to be born, could do no more than ponder and pause, wondering whether revolution would break out in France, Germany, or Poland, and convinced that Russia must wait upon the world to act first. The Russian intellectual environment, Irving Howe said (writing about Turgenev), stood for a “politics of hesitation,” the suspension of passionate conviction by superfluous intellectuals lacking a course of action. The critic Belinski was forever protesting the failure of Russian literature to show the way out of his country’s historical impasse, just as the American critic Van Wyck Brooks protested the failure of America’s literati to “come of age” and inspire the people to rise to the promises of democracy. In America the ultimate symbol of paralysis was Henry Adams, who called himself a “conservative Christian anarchist.” The historian wanted to be a Hegelian, but when he wrote and pondered history he saw nothing but entropy and chaos, with no shining vision of a synthesis on the horizon. Adams smiled upon a Hegel who would not allow the unknowable to remain unknown, and he wondered how the miracle of unity could be derived from the clash of contradictions. Before Hegel, the historian hesitated.

In the 20th century, Edmund Wilson, an Amer­ican literary giant, took up the story of Russian history to demonstrate how intellectual hesitation found dramatic expression in political action. Wilson’s bewilderment about Bolshevism represents one of the great ironies in American intellectual history. In his first major book, Axel’s Castle (1931), Wilson praised novelists whose skepticism toward knowledge reduced history either to the sweet taste of memory (Proust) or to the horror of experience, the “nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (Joyce). However, in Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, the nightmare lifts, the mind reawakens to itself, and consciousness becomes aware of history. Or does it? Wilson’s text has little to do with history in the strict sense of the term. For him, history is not about the past but about the future, not about what happened but about what could be made to happen. History is no longer an object of thought, for the future involves the possible, contingent, and indeterminate, and a future that promises to be the goal of the present, a vision of a dream that has yet to happen, cannot be known but only willed.

Wilson’s text is written with such narrative beauty that it almost seems petty to point out its philosophical shortcomings. But other matters deserve observation. Bakunin comes off differently in Wilson’s book than in Stoppard’s play, where he is hopelessly improvident, cannot stay out of jail, and is always showing up bedraggled and asking for handouts. Wilson’s Bakunin, in contrast, is a natural revolutionary, as passionate as he was persuasive, his talk flowing like “a raging storm with lightning flashes and thunderclaps,” the symbol of daring and defiance. “There is perhaps something in Ber­nard Shaw’s idea,” wrote Wilson, “that Wagner’s Siegfried, conceived after his experience of the Dresden revolution, was based on the character of Bakunin.”

None of the figures in Stoppard’s play and Wilson’s book could act upon their ideas and desires, confronting, as they did, the conditions of political despotism. But Wilson’s readers soon discover that utopian socialism had been put into practice in the United States during the same time period of Stoppard’s play. Wilson discusses the experimental communes of New Harmony, Brook Farm (the Fourierist phalanx near Red Bank, New Jersey), and the village of Modern Times on Long Island. Except for Mother Ann’s Shakers, all the social communes went to their graves on the shoals of experience—they failed after having been tried, even in democratic America. And in Europe?

In Wilson’s book the subtitle of the first of several chapters on Marx reads: “Prometheus and Lucifer.” Here, in contrast to the character in Stoppard’s play, Marx is no bumbling intellectual uncertain of the ideas he espouses. Wilson spends a good deal of time describing the sufferings that Marx witnessed, the deaths of family members and friends, and his knowledge of comrades starving, arrested, imprisoned, confined to mental institutions, or committing suicide. Full of fury, Marx could have no time for the domestic frivolities of the Herzen circle. His reading of Hegel meant he “was on his way to becoming the great secular rabbi of his century,” Wilson writes. Only he leaves Judaism behind to take on Prometheus, the legendary figure who turns pain into rightful revenge, and to think of Lucifer and the diabolic role of the rebel glorified by the poets of romanticism. Wilson’s Marx is a giant of heroic dignity.

Wilson is skeptical of Marx’s idea of the dialectic and its “mystifications,” of the proletariat as anything more than “an abstraction,” and of Das Kapital as a treatise on economics supposedly based on mathematics and logic, yet composed by an author, “the poet of commod­ities,” who writes with “the momentum of an epic.” Marxism as a theoretical proposition based on Hegel’s philosophy of history is more mythological than empirical, Wilson concluded as an afterthought, more a matter of literary style and logical inference than of history as it actually operates on its own in defiance of human mind and will. Yet when Wilson turns from Marx to Lenin, history becomes rational, as though the world had found its higher synthesis. All the doubtful reflections about the Hegelian foundations of Marxism are forgotten as Lenin arrives at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) in April 1917 and begins to move toward absolute power. Wilson’s long story comes to a glorious consummation that sees philosophical thought carried over into the world of political action and the dream of freedom and justice realized. “Lenin in 1917,” wrote Wilson, was “not so sure of the controls of society as the engineer was of the engine that was taking him to Petrograd, yet in a position to calculate the chances with closer accuracy than a hundred to one, stood on the eve of the moment when for the first time in the human exploit the key to a philosophy of history was to fit an historical lock.”

But Lenin was acting on his own, forcing history to take a turn for which there was no philosophical justification. In taking power, Lenin denied the dialectic of Hegel, the doctrine of Marx, and the dream of Bakunin. Hegel saw history as the embodiment of reason driven by logical necessity; Marx believed that history must proceed through stages of development and pass beyond capitalism; Bakunin insisted that the workers carry socialism almost as a genetic endowment and that they can act spontaneously without having political consciousness instilled from above by a party vanguard. But Lenin played hopscotch with history, skipping over its stages, convinced that the dictatorship of the proletariat will save workers from their “instinctive trade union aspirations.” In casting aside Hegel, Marx, and Bakunin, Lenin all but admits that workers desire and emulate bourgeois comforts, that freedom, in short, will lead not to socialism but to capitalism.

In his 1971 edition of To the Finland Station, Wilson acknowledged his earlier misjudgments, and while he likened his infatuation to William Wordsworth idealizing the French Revolution, he was too honest to let himself off the hook. When he wrote the book in the late 1930s, he recalled, “I had no premonition that the Soviet Union was to become one of the most hideous tyrannies that the world has ever known, and Stalin the most cruel and unscrupulous of merciless Russian tsars.” He also came to see, through the subsequent research of others, that Lenin turned out to be far more ruthless and murderous than he had first imagined. Yet the larger issue is not the character of the Soviet leaders but the philosophy that Wilson invoked to legitimate their actions.

In a preface to a 2003 edition of To the Finland Station, the literary scholar Louis Menand agreed that philosophy was the issue, but he charged Wilson with not taking Hegel seriously enough. “The dialectic was just the sort of high-theory concept that Wilson reflexively avoided. At the same time, he was never a man quick to concede his ignorance of anything, and he devoted a chapter of To the Finland Station to explaining that the dialectic is basically a religious myth (a characteristic exercise in journalistic debunking). Wilson had no idea of what he was talking about,” scolded Menand.

Many thinkers, including Nietzsche, agreed with the idea that the dialectic is “basically a religious myth.” Nietzsche accused Hegel of fusing philosophy with religious dogma and treating history as though it were “God’s sojourn on earth.” Hegel himself saw Christ’s death and transfiguration as the very symbol of history. Rather than having “no idea of what he was talking about,” Wilson knew so well what he was up against that he could not have finished his book if he had accepted the validity of the dialectic. Lenin had no business seizing power in a backward Russia that had yet to experience the “forces of production,” including the modernizing liberal stage of history. For Hegel the actual world embodies Spirit that is forever unfolding, and while human effort is part of the process and human action can help overcome alienation and estrangement, no specific individual or organization is assigned such a task, especially a party vanguard. Wilson could believe in either Hegel or Lenin, the dialectic or the deed, but not in both. Wilson acknowledged indebtedness to Max Eastman, who claimed that Lenin broke the spell of Hegel by showing how “the engineer of the revolution” approached history not philosophically but scientifically, as an experiment to be realized in practice. But German philosophy was useless in the making of history. “Hegelianism is like a mental disease,” observed Eastman. “You do not know what it is until you get it, and then you do not know because you’ve got it.”

The years 1940 and 1941, tragic politically, were rich intellectually. Besides Wilson’s To the Finland Station, there appeared Eastman’s Marxism: Is It Science?, Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, Sidney Hook’s The Hero in History, and the germinal essays later published in Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Each book dealt with Hegel, the hovering spirit in Stoppard’s play. Significantly, all these works had been started in the late 1930s as World War II was about to break out. It seemed to some that Hegel’s philosophy had to be rescued from the terrors of totalitarianism. During that same period, Reinhold Niebuhr was working on the Gifford Lectures, which would be published in two volumes titled The Nature and Destiny of Man. Marcuse and company sought to save Hegel from Hitler; Niebuhr sought to save history from Hegel.

Soviet communism, it turned out, had less to do with what Marx wrote than with what Lenin did, with practice rather than theory. Yet Lenin would legitimize his political maneuvers in philosophical terms by identifying the dialectic with the logic of history. “Here we find in Lenin,” wrote Gustav Wetter in Dialectical Materialism, “the same motive by which so many other Russian philosophers before him had already been drawn, with irresistible force, toward Hegel: the vision of the world as a universal web of connections and of a continuous process of development shaping its course through a clash of warring opposites.” Hegel’s vision of history could be used by Lenin to give a philosophical gloss to the Bolshevik Revolution, and it would be used later by the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile to justify Mussolini’s fascist corporate state and by the German Alfred Rosenberg to hail Hitler’s Third Reich.

Niebuhr’s quarrel was with those thinkers who denied the Fall, rejected the idea of original sin, dismissed the reality of evil, and, following Hegel, looked to history as the secular drama of human redemp­­tion. Many American intel­lectuals saw Hegel as incorporating religious categories into his vision of history, which Wilson, Hook, and Eastman regarded as a “disguised theology”—some even likened the dialectic scheme of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But Nie­buhr saw Hegel and his followers engaging in an act of self-deception. The Christian dualism of spirit and flesh need not be seen as real if history moves in ways that absorb all such conflicts. In religious terms, sin is the temptation of desire and passion, but for Hegel passion is healthy since it moves reason to act as the world progressively becomes more rational. What Hegel called “the cunning of reason” resembles the theological view of the Middle Ages, where the events of history are the purposes of God acting independently of human intentions. But such providential fatalism jeopardizes human responsibility, and Niebuhr, like Abraham Lincoln, warned that to claim to know the will of God is to commit the sin of pride.

As a theologian, Niebuhr taught that history may show the religious significance of life as a trial of sin and tragedy. But seen “through a glass darkly,” history could only disclose the meaning of history and yet not fulfill it. “All modern efforts to explicate the unity of history,” he wrote in Faith and History (1949), offer a “too simple rational continuum,” as though one can see “the drama of history in some fancied culmination” that resolves everything.

Hegel significantly regarded his attempt at universal unity as a rationalized version of the Biblical idea of historical unity through divine providence. “Our mode of treating the subject is,” he writes, “a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to man . . . so that the ills which may be found in the world may be comprehended and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil.” Evil that had to be reconciled was “the discord between the inner life of the heart and the actual world.” This is to say, in Niebuhr’s judgment, that the real problem of the drama of history is misapprehended. It consists not in the discord between man’s free spirit and the necessities of the “actual” world. It is rather the evil that men bring upon themselves and each other in their freedom.

The characters in Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia feel deeply “the discord between the inner life of the heart and the actual world.” Had the historical figures on whom the characters are based understood that Hegel was offering “a justification of the ways of God to man,” could their discord have had a political solution? In the 20th century, millions of people became the victims of terror that concealed itself behind the slogans of philosophy. With Lenin, Hegel’s “existence of evil” was to be mercilessly extirpated in politics, in a “clashing war of opposites” made in the name of the proletariat. In Stoppard’s play, only the liberal Alexander Herzen has the wisdom to sense the deity within the dialectic and to grasp that “history has no culmination,” no final number before the curtain falls. Niebuhr also warned against the illusion of a “fancied culmination” that could give history a happy ending. The vision of such a triumphant consummation could be used by the left as the grounds for claiming class infallibility and by the right as heralding the cult of state idolatry. The communist war against class and the fascist against race took inspiration from a philosophical mentality that saw democracy as posing opposition and factions that need to be overcome. Both the left and the right have little patience with liberal pluralism.

Since the United States lacks a viable left and right, one might think that our country is free from the philosophical conceits of European history. Yet in one important respect, the United States partakes of a historical outlook that functions as a “disguised theology.” Asked during the election of 2000 who his favorite philosopher is, George W. Bush named Jesus.

Like the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th century, the Bush administration believes that realizing freedom is not a matter of building upon institutions but starting anew and bringing into existence what had no foundations or traditions. In the 20th century, Leon Trotsky formulated “the law of combined development,” convinced that Russia could leap from feudalism to freedom in one stride. “We have no democratic institutions,” he instructed. “These have to be created. Only revolution can do that.” Trotsky assumed that Western capitalism was spent and that history awaited its deliverance by revolution. A century later the Bush “Vulcans” assumed that Islamic fundamentalism was spent and awaited its deliverance by invasion.

The theologian warned us that history is inscrutable; our contemporary foreign policy advisers assume that history is a sure thing, that the information on which to act is a slam dunk and the time period for victory a cakewalk. Against the axis of evil, nothing can prevent history from fulfilling its spiritual purposes. Bush may think he is listening to Jesus, but the voice in the White House is that of Hegel, not the American senator but the German philosopher.

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