Alexander Herzen: War and “international law”
From My Past and Thoughts
Letter 4 (1862)
Translated by Constance Garnett
Napoleon waged this war as a remedial measure to pacify the French by the gymnastics of liberation and the galvanic shocks of victory…How was it possible to avert a war which was essential for domestic interests? If it had not been Austria the French would have had to beat somebody else.
Proudhon was perfectly right. There are two or three ideas which are particularly precious to me; I have been repeating them for about fifteen years; fact upon fact confirms them with unnecessary abundance. Part of what I anticipated has come to pass, the other part is coming to pass before our eyes, yet these ideas seem as wild, as unaccepted, as they were.
And what is most mortifying, people seem to understand you; they agree, but your ideas remain like aliens in their heads, always irrelevant, never passing into that integral part of consciousness and the moral being, which as a rule forms the undisputed foundation of our acts and opinions.
It is owing to this inconsistency that people apparently highly cultured are continually being startled by the unexpected, caught unawares, indignant with the inevitable, struggle with the insurmountable, pass by what is springing into life, and apply all sorts of remedies to those who are at their last gasp…
Pedantry and scholasticism prevent men from grasping things with simple lively understanding more than do superstition and ignorance. With the latter the instincts are left, hardly conscious, but trustworthy; moreover, ignorance does not exclude passionate enthusiasm, and superstition does not exclude inconsistency, while pedantry is always true to itself.
At the time of the Italian war a simple-hearted, worthy professor lectured on the great triumphs of ‘international law,’ describing how the principles of Hugo Grotius had developed and entered into the conscience of nations and governments, how questions which had in old times been decided by rivers of blood and the miseries of entire provinces, of whole generations, were now settled, like civil disputes between private persons, on the principles of national right.
Who, apart from some old professional condottiere, would not agree with the professor that this is one of the greater victories of humanity and culture over brute violence? The trouble is not that the lecturer’s judgment is wrong, but that humanity is very far from having gained this victory.
While the professor in eloquent words was inspiring his young audience to the contemplation of these triumphs of peace, very different commentaries on international law were taking place on the fields of Magenta and Solferino. It would not have easy for any international court to avert the Italian war, since there was no international cause for it, for there was no subject to dispute. Napoleon waged this war as a remedial measure to pacify the French by the gymnastics of liberation and the galvanic shocks of victory. What Grotius or Vattel could have solved such a problem? How was it possible to avert a war which was essential for domestic interests? If it had not been Austria the French would have had to beat somebody else. One can only rejoice that the Austrians presented themselves.
Then India, Pekin – war waged by democrats to maintain the slavery of the blacks, wars waged by republicans to obtain the slavery of political unity. And the professor goes on lecturing; his audience is touched; they fancy that they have heard the last creak of the gates of the temple of Janus, that the warriors have laid down their weapons, put on crowns of myrtle and taken up the distaff, that the demobilized armies are tilling the fields…And all this at the very moment when England is covered with volunteers, when at every step you meet a uniform, when every shopkeeper has a gun, when the French and Austrian armies stand with lighted matches, and even a prince – I think it was of Hesse Cassel – put on a military footing and armed with revolvers the two hussars who had from the time of the Congress of Vienna ridden peacefully without weapons behind his carriage.
If war breaks out again – and that depends on thousands of chances, on one casual shot – in Rome or on the borders of Lombardy, a sea of blood would flow from Warsaw to London. The professor would be surprised, the professor would be pained…
To complete the absurdity we ought not to lose sight of the fact that in abstract logic the professor is right, and that if not a hundred but a hundred million men had grasped the principles of Grotius and Vattel, they would not slaughter each other for the sake of exercise or for the sake of a bit of land. But the misfortune is that under the present political regime only a hundred and not a hundred million men can understand the principles of Grotius and Vattel.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865): French political philosopher
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645): Dutch legal philosopher, author of De Jure Belli ac Pacis (Law of War and Peace)
Emerich de Vattel (1714-1767): Swiss legal philosopher, author of Droit des gens; ou, Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains (The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns)
Italian war: Napoleon III’s war with Austria over Italy in 1859, whose major battles were at Magenta and Solferino
“England is covered with volunteers”: Herzen lived in exile in London at the time he wrote the above