Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen, Herzen also spelled Hertzen, orGertsen (born April 6 [March 25, Old Style], 1812, Moscow, Russia—died Jan. 21 [Jan. 9], 1870, Paris, France), political thinker, activist, and writer who originated the theory of a unique Russian path to socialism known as peasant populism.
In 1827 Alexander Herzen became friends with Nikolay Ogarev. Herzen commented in his autobiography: “I do not know why people dwell exclusively on recollections of first love and say nothing about memories of youthful friendship.
First love is so fragrant, just because it forgets difference of sex, because it is passionate friendship. Friendship between young men has all the eagerness of love and all its characteristics – the same shy reluctance to profane its feeling by speech, the same diffidence and absolute devotion, the same pangs at parting, and the same exclusive desire to stand alone without a rival.”
Herzen was educated at the University of Moscow. He studied mathematics and physics: “I never had any great turn or much liking for mathematics, Nikolay and I were taught the subject by the same teacher, whom we liked because he told us stories; he was very entertaining, but I doubt if he could have developed a special passion in any pupil for his branch of science… I chose that Faculty, because it included the subject of natural science, in which I then took a special strong interest.”
While at university Herzen mixed in radical circles: “The pursuit of knowledge had not yet become divorced from realities, and did not distract our attention from the suffering humanity around us; and this sympathy heightened the social morality of the students.
My friends and I said openly in the lecture-room whatever came into our heads; copies of forbidden poems were freely circulated, and forbidden books were read aloud and commented on; and yet I cannot recall a single instance of information given by a traitor to the authorities.”
Eventually Herzen and Ogaryov and their circle fused the pantheistic idealism of Schelling with the utopian socialism of the French social philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon to produce a philosophy of history in which the “World Spirit” evolved ineluctably toward the realization of freedom and justice.
This metaphysical politics was sufficient, however, to lead to the arrest of the entire circle in 1834. Herzen was sent into exile for six years to work in the provincial bureaucracy in Vyatka (now Kirov) and Vladimir; then, for an indiscreet remark about the police, he spent two more years in Novgorod. The misery of this period was relieved by an extravagantly romantic courtship and an initially happy marriage with his cousin, Natalya Zakharina, in 1838.
At the age of twenty-six he married his first cousin, Natalie Zakharina. In 1842 Herzen returned to Moscow and immediately joined those campaigning for reform. His wide-reading had radicalized him and he was now a supporter of the anarchist-socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
Herzen believed that the peasants in Russia could become a revolutionary force and after the overthrow of the nobility would create a socialist society. This included the vision of peasants living in small village communes where the land was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines.