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Alexander Herzen: Despotism means military discipline, empires mean war


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Alexander Herzen: Selections on the military and war

Russian writers on war


Alexander Herzen
From My Past and Thoughts
Translated by Constance Garnett


We are present now at an amazing spectacle; even those lands in which free institutions have survived are striving for despotism. Humanity has seen nothing like it since the days of Constantine when free Romans sought to become slaves to escape civic burdens.

Despotism or socialism – there is no other alternative…

Europe has chosen despotism, has preferred Imperialism. Despotism means military discipline, Empires mean war, the Emperor is the commander-in-chief. Every one is under arms, there will be war, but where is the real enemy?…

The war now beginning [the Crimean War] may have intervals of truce but will not end before the beginning of the general revolution which will shuffle all the cards and begin a new game. It is impossible that the two great historical powers [Britain and France], the two veteran champions of all West European history, representatives of two worlds, two traditions, tow principles – of state and personal freedom – should not crush the third [Russia], which, dumb, nameless, and bannerless, comes forward so opportunely with the rope of slavery on its neck and rudely knocks at the doors of Europe and the doors of history, with an insolent claim to Constantinople, with one foot on Germany and the other on the Pacific Ocean.

Whether these three will try their strength and crush each other in the trying; whether Russia breaks up into pieces or Europe, enfeebled, sinks into Byzantine decay; whether they are reconciled and go hand in hand forward or slaughter each other endlessly – one thing we have discovered for certain and it will not be rooted out of the consciousness of the coming generations; that is: that the free and rational development of Russian national existence is at one with the ideas of Western Socialism.


The idea of nationality is in itself a conservative idea – the demarcation of one’s rights, the opposition of self to another: it includes both the Judaic conception of superiority of race, and the aristocratic claim to purity of blood, and right to ascendancy. Nationalism as a standard, as a war-cry, is only surrounded with the halo of revolution when a people is fighting for its independence, when it is throwing off a foreign yoke. That is why national feeling with all its exaggerations is full of poetry in Italy and in Poland, while it is vulgar in Germany.

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