Evolution and Revolution

Kelly, Aileen M. 2016. The Discovery of Chance. The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press. 592pp.

painting by Frédéric Sorrieu

I was drawn to this book on the library shelf because I thought it was about mathematics and probability, but I took it to read because on closer examination, it was about the first thinker to connect politics and biological evolution. He was not, however, a crude social-Darwinist. In fact, Alexander Herzen was thinking about evolution and politics even before Darwin’s theory came out. Besides that, he was a fascinating individual.

This is an intellectual biography of one of the founders of Russian socialist thought. Herzen, an illegitimate son of a minor aristocrat, was born in 1812, the year Napoleon took and then retreated from Moscow. Educated at Moscow University, he was part of the intelligentsia of the 1830s, under strict czarist censorship. As a young man, Herzen experienced several periods of exile to towns in the provinces. Back in Moscow, his circle was influenced by romanticism and various versions of Hegel’s philosophy, but Herzen was distinguished by his interest in biology, especially early evolutionary thought. By the late 1840s, he was in exile in the west, eventually settling in London, where he operated a radical printing house and edited publications aimed at fellow Russian exiles and the reformers and radicals back in Russia.

He came to believe that human societies are subject to the same natural laws as the rest of the living world and do not develop along lines laid down by overarching forces of History or Reason. Kelly’s title reflects Herzen’s view that although ideas like liberty may arise and take root in societies, they are expressed in ways that depend on the individual circumstances, just as the selective value of a biological variant is determined by the environment. Thus it is impossible to predict the future form of society, and there is no final end towards which civilization develops, as Hegel and his followers believed. In Darwin’s theory, the function of a trait, or gene, may change over the course of evolution into something completely different than it had originally. The idea of individual freedom may have one manifestation in the agrarian and proto-industrial world of Jefferson and Hamilton (taking US history as a case) another in the rapidly industrializing world of Lincoln, another in the industrial world of the Roosevelts and still another in the post-industrial world of today. However much conservatives may deny it, these meanings do evolve, and forcing people to accept old understandings is no easier than forcing them to accept a radical utopia. The same is true of policies: in one situation, restriction on markets may be inimical to human welfare, in another, it may be the only way to protect it. Socialism may stifle initiative and essential development, or it may promote them.

I see a connection between Herzen’s thought and the developmental theory of Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, described in The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans (Da Capo Press, 2006). In their view, human intellect and language develop through the interactions of the infant and its caregiver. The inborn genetic potential must be realized through specific interactions to create in each individual a capacity what they call “co-regulated exchanges.” The process cannot be fully controlled or predicted in advance. Furthermore, as societies developed historically through these contingent processes, the environment that individuals encountered varied, applying selection pressure on the frequencies of genetic variations in each separate group. Learned behaviors thus fed back into innate tendencies. It seems to me that these modified Darwinian perspectives on the questions raised by social and behavioral sciences may yield useful understanding. I plan to write more about this later.

Herzen came to despise the allegiance of his fellow radical exiles to ideologies, like communism, that promised a perfect society after the revolution. He argued strongly that one must focus on the present reality and seek whatever opportunity for advancement presents itself. My reservation about this, and I think Herzen would have admitted it, is that unlike plants or animals in the struggle for existence, we humans are influenced by our imaginations, the things we hope for. Since Plato’s Republic, imaginary societies have helped us focus our attention on what we believe to be the good. The trouble comes if we expect them to be made into realities by superhuman forces.

Herzen also became skeptical of the effectiveness of violence, especially after he saw how the revolution of 1848 ended. He was convinced that the way forward in Russia in the 1860s was through the peasant communes, a rudimentary form of socialism, tied to their commitment to common ownership of land. He agitated for a constituent assembly, without distinction of classes, to begin the transition away from autocracy. It never happened. As he feared, the autocracy stood almost until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Herzen was right that the course of history did not follow a progression towards some ideal society, whatever the revolutionaries may have claimed. The outcome was a mixture of the communist idealistic view with the pure naked power of the police state, yielding Leninist and Stalinist totalitarianism. This appeared to have finally faded out under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Post-communist Russia in the 21st century seems to be a mix of elements from the past plus the globalizing ideology of neo-liberalism. But will the old way be given new life under Putin?

Looking at the American 2016 election, what elements in the current debates will be the ones that comprise the next stages in our history? It’s like trying to predict the course of evolution, or trying to see how to give one species an advantage in the struggle for existence: the problem is simply too complex. As in Darwin’s analogy between the struggle for existence and throwing up a handful of feathers, there are too many forces besides simple gravitational pull that determine the precise place each feather will land, where each species will survive or how each society will develop. This does not stop futurologists, but it ought to give the rest of us pause.

I think Bernie Sanders resembles Herzen. He is opposed to the repressive neoliberalism of the current establishment that brings growth only at the cost of rising inequality and environmental degradation. Like Herzen, he hopes for a peaceful transition to Socialism, meaning not abolition of the market and private property or government ownership of industry, but rather, a democratic government restraining the excesses of the free market and the financial system. He wants to insure that the economy benefits everyone, not just the rich owners of private capital. Like Herzen, he knows that history is contingent, not invariably progressive, not moving towards a perfect future, but sometimes presenting opportunities for progress and reform. In that understanding, he gives his support to Clinton, because she promises at least some reforms, and she will be a better guardian of the public interest than the crude nationalist, Trump. Sanders’ followers divide into those willing to go along with the compromise, who see the critical danger in an overthrow of basic values of tolerance and inclusion, etc. and those who want revolution and an ideal world now, no matter how impossible that is. It will be interesting to see which candidate they choose come November.

There are many more interesting ideas in the worthy book, which I think everyone inclined towards radical politics would do well to consider. Herzen’s major work, From the Other Shore, is available online.