Hollow People: Russian Literature and Liberal Humanism

by tigermanifesto


Intro: This is an essay on Russian literature written for a class, and so I avoid many of the references to Lenin and Mao that I would normally rely upon in discussing these issues. 

Authors from Russia’s literary Golden Age––roughly spanning the nineteenth century––wrestled over the meaning of the social upheavals that wracked the country throughout its transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy. Liberalism, favoured ideology of Westernizers, naturally found its way into the pages of Russia’s best regarded novels. Turgenev and especially Dostoevsky, by dramatizing the struggles and successes of a newly ascendant middle class, captured and illuminated a historical process that, while retrospectively obvious, seemed quite uncertain at the time. Comparable to a particularly thorny adolescence, Russia’s difficult development produced brilliance and recklessness alike, and hindsight enables the sorting and evaluation of this period’s strengths and weaknesses. Liberal humanist ideology, as exemplified in Fathers and Sons, ultimately comes to grief on its abstract conception of human beings. Dostoevsky in particular noted this, and through his work developed a criticism of this ideology based on his Orthodox Christian convictions. While Dostoevsky correctly identifies the problem, his analysis does not provide a concrete or radical criticism of humanist abstraction or capitalism. In order to deepen and correct Dostoevsky’s protest, I turn to Marx, after which I consider renewed humanist objections taken up in Zamyatin’s modernist anti-utopian novel We.

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons dramatizes the gap between two generations of liberal humanists, its characters embodying liberal ideology at its most idealist. Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov, “Man of the Forties” and the protagonist’s father, laments his obsolescence: “I have done well by the peasants, set up a model farm, so that all over the province I am known as a radical. I read, I study, I try in every way to keep abreast with the requirements of the age,” (Turgenev 119). Nikolai here summarizes liberal humanist tenets: emphasizing a progressive view of history, a focus on individual improvement through intellectual development, technical solutions to problems, and a view of every person, even serfs, as equally sharing in a universal human nature. Nikolai emancipates his serfs, turns them into employees of his farm (73), and replaces much of their labour with hired help, a sure sign of the old land bondage system’s mortality and the ascent of capitalism. However, this “emancipation” does not improve the peasantry’s conditions, given that it has only replaced feudal bondage with waged labour, both of which produce profits appropriated by the landlord. This is not even taking Nikolai’s demonstrable incompetence under consideration. Arkady, on returning from university, sees Nikolai’s “model farm” overrun with indolence and decay: “there is no prosperity here, no sign of contentment or hard work. It just can’t go on like this: this must all be transformed…but how are we to do it?” (83). Arkady shares his father’s essential optimism, untempered in his youth, and belief in the use of rational, technical solutions to problems.

For his part, his friend Bazarov suffers from none of his pupil’s tentativeness, as seen in this fiery speech he makes later in the book:

“Our so-called progressives and reformers never accomplished anything…while all the time the real question was getting daily bread to eat, when the most vulgar superstitions are stifling us, when our industrial enterprises come to grief solely for want of honest men at the top, when even the emancipation of the serfs…is not likely to be to our advantage, since those peasants of ours are only too glad to rob even themselves to drink themselves silly at the gin-shop” (126).

His liberalism is even more concentrated on material issues. After all, in his words, “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it” (116). His intense pragmatism betrays an almost absolute faith in rationality, to the point where he is willing to dispense with all abstract universals except the truth of empirical observation and experimentation. Human beings should treat nature, and their own societies like Bazarov’s frogs, using reason’s surgical tools to dissect and understand everything so that it can be rationally ordered for the solution of material problems. Liberal humanism in this form, therefore, places reason above all else and conceives of humanity as a herd of equal, rational individuals who only need proper scientific education to diagnose and cure social as well as biological diseases. No qualitative distinction is made between human beings as individual animals and humans as social creatures, which is crucial in Marxist thought.

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground reflects at length on how such an instrumental view of human society destroys any notion of human freedom. In its pursuit of a perfectly rational society, the civilizers and reformers trample over the very people they want to rescue. “Have you noticed that the most refined blood-shedders have almost all been the most civilized gentlemen,” the Underground Man asks, and continues to make his point: “laws of nature need only be discovered, and then man will not be answerable for his actions…Then the crystal palace will get built” (Dostoevsky 23-25). The Underground Man throws rhetorical stones at the crystal palace, condemning it as an impossible dream, the abstract yearning of humanists who do not understand concrete human beings. Later in the book, the Underground Man himself plays the part of such a foolish dreamer, conjuring the romantic notion that he should embrace all of humanity at once. Unfortunately, his social life is rather truncated and he only has the option of embracing a single person who is rather inconveniently only available for embracing on Tuesdays (59). His aspirations are frustrated, revealing the rift between liberal humanism’s theoretical reasonableness and its inability to offer any practical help. Modernity, rather than offering a rational solution, has only used rationality to intensify human suffering and suppress human freedom. This is the essence of the Underground Man’s criticism of “Enlightened” modern society, which is not coherently “right” or “left” but merely anti-liberal and by extension anti-modern.

Dostoevsky’s characters endure modern life as a burden, and conclude that the origin of their suffering lies in modernity and reason per se rather than its subjugation to bourgeois ideology. Radical theorist Samir Amin argues that Enlightenment rationalism’s emancipation is “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows,” since the latter developed along with and limited the former (Amin 14). Because the Enlightenment premised its liberation on the existence of transhistorical, rational individuals who shared in an abstract “human nature,” it necessarily opposed the collective attempts of the working class to liberate itself as limiting the “rights” of the bourgeoisie (i.e. life, liberty, and property). After all, seizing capitalist property and redistributing it violates the sacred right of private property. Though the liberal humanist Enlightenment imagines itself capable of liberating all of humanity, it is based in private property and therefore protects it from the possibility of real emancipation. Marxism, a “modernity critical of modernity,” liberates reason from the fetters of capitalist ideology to fulfill its universal promise of human liberation (Eurocentrism 17).

For Dostoevsky, by contrast, human beings can only cope with suffering and deprivation charitable acts, accepting the absurdity of their situation as a consequence of human freedom in a fallen world. Critic Anatoly Lunacharsky notes that this is convenient for the ruling powers since it does not disturb the concrete structures of power that created suffering in the first place (“Dostoevsky’s Plurality of Voice”). Marxism, as it has developed since its first articulation by Marx and Engels, is a concrete political program that unleashes forces immanent in modern society to revolutionize it. Its method of analysis proceeds from “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity” (“The German Ideology”). A Marxist criticism of liberal humanism can, therefore, not only identify the contradictions inherent in a capitalist society––as Dostoevsky masterfully does––but understand their origin. It overcomes the gap between the promise of reason and its result under capitalism, which is ever-intensifying exploitation of the vast majority.

Marx rejects the idea of a static human “essence” shared by individual subjects. To suppose an abstract human essence is a mistake, since, in reality, the only human essence is “the ensemble of the social relations” (“Theses on Feuerbach”). Since people cannot live without relating to others, to separate them from society is to make a false distinction. Later Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser expands this criticism of liberal humanism’s abstraction by noting that it implies two things: empirical individuals and an abstract essence that is carried in each individual. Thus, for a humanist, individual human beings make history through a pure exercise of will. However, for Marx, “the ‘subjects’ of history are given human societies, [which] present themselves as totalities” (Althusser 1964). Therefore, Marxism replaces the abstract individual subject with a social totality that develops through historical struggles.

This totality is not uniform but complex and stratified, composed of different economic classes and especially of those who live from the labor of others (e.g. the bourgeoisie) and those who live to labor for others (e.g. the proletariat or, in feudal times, the peasantry). History unfolds through the struggle between these classes, and as long as these classes continue to exist modernity and reason cannot fulfill their promise. Marx proposed not the temporary alleviation of exploitation but the complete reorientation of society around the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (“Critique of the Gotha Programme”). The Marxist criticism of liberal humanism thus extends beyond Dostoevsky’s, not merely pointing out the hypocrisy of “civilization” under capitalism but working for revolution in order to create a society where reason and technology are instruments for the people rather than weights that press on them.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We essentially restates the humanist case against any form of social control. The protagonist, D-503, is an aerospace engineer who joins the ranks of an anti-government revolutionary group through his relationship with a woman named I-330. D-503 collaborates in the destruction of the Green Wall that separates a primitive group of “Ancients” from the civilized utopia within the border. Immediately after the explosion, he recalls, “I…ran to her. Why? I don’t know. I stumbled: empty streets; a foreign, wild city; the incessant celebrating of the avian uproar; doomsday…I saw…female and male ciphers shamelessly copulating, without even lowering the blinds” (We 192). Though D-503 at first refers to his burgeoning sexual desires for freedom as a sickness, he eventually celebrates the downfall of the great wall and wildness’ intrusion into civilization. This scene merely consummates book’s sexual theme, which is intimately connected to Zamyatin’s conception of “revolution.”

Critics have noted that his conception of revolution prizes spontaneity and irrational enthusiasm (Hoisington and Imbery 167). D-503 and his lover I-330’s revolution is not one stage in a linear historical process but a necessary explosion––here identified with desires, spiritual longing, and ecstasy––and destruction of false happiness. Revolution is always necessary because, in the words of I-330: “We know…that there is no final number. Though we might forget that too…And then, unavoidably down we will go like autumn leaves” (We 154). Revolution is a burst of springtime, a necessary defibrillation that prevents life from ossifying into numbing, mechanical sameness. As the author writes in another work, “errors are more valuable than truths” (“On Literature, Revolution, and Entropy”). Like Dostoevsky, Zamyatin upholds absolute human freedom as a necessity, and condemns rational social policy as inherently restrictive. Unlike Dostoevsky, an anti-liberal who sees that humans are not inherently rational creatures but calls for repentance and service in organic community, I-330 celebrates id-driven irrationality as humanity’s crowning attribute. Like Bazarov, she defines human beings by the measure of an abstract “nature,” with the only difference being that she emphasizes irrationality rather than reason. Zamyatin’s individualistic heroes bring about a Bazarovian negation, but neglect to notice that in doing so they discard the very technology and organization that enables human beings to fulfill their needs. Their anticipated Eden will likely involve much more grueling subsistence labor than they envision.

Russian novelists recognized the immense social changes that swept throughout the country in the nineteenth century, culminating in the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Each author offered a trenchant protest against the excesses they perceived. These voices were largely conservative, cautioning against the transgressions of Bazarov, rational egoists, romantic liberals, and the Bolshevik Party. Turgenev’s characters debate over the liberating potential of a nascent Russian liberalism. The Underground Man reacts with horror at the suffering capitalism unleashed through its instrumentalization of human life. Similarly, although We cunningly satirizes contemporary Futurist rhetoric, its alternative vision is ultimately an impossible return to paradise and innocence. Human beings are social creatures whose essence is determined not by an abstract essence––rational or irrational–– but by their relations with others in society. Without fundamental changes to economic and social organization, without abolishing class society, the justice these writers clearly crave will never be.

Works Cited

1. Althusser, Louis. “Marxism and Humanism.” Cahiers de l’I.S.E.A May 1964. Web. 16 May             2014. <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1964/marxism-humanism.htm&gt;.

2. Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. 4-7.

3. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993. 25-59.

4. Hoisington, Sona S., and Lynn Imbery. “Zamjatin’s Modernist Palette: Colors and Their Function in We.” The Slavic and East European Journal 36.2 (1992): 159-71. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2014.

5. Lunacharsky, Anatoly. “Dostoevsky’s Plurality of Voice.” 1929. Web. 16 May 2014.


6. Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Programme.” 1875. Web 12 May 2014.


7. Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” 1845. Web. 12 May 2014.


8. Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” 1845. Web 12 May 2014.


9. Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Trans. Rosemary Edmonds. New York: Penguin                         Books, 1965. 73-126.

10. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters.” A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Ed. Mirra Ginsberg. N.p.: Chicago University Press, 1970.

11. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Natasha Randall. New York: Modern Library, 2006. 154-192.