In This Review

The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen
The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen
By Aileen M. Kelly
608 pp, Harvard University Press, 2016
Purchase

If you read only one book related to Russia this year, this should be it. Kelly’s magisterial intellectual biography of Alexander Herzen not only creates a complete image of the remarkable nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and revolutionary but also reveals the roiling intellectual currents that engulfed Russia’s intelligentsia during each stage of Herzen’s life. In many ways, he was a man of our times as much as his own. The philosophical problems that he struggled with (the essence of freedom, the role of providence in human affairs), his dramatic intellectual evolution, and his final embrace of chance and contingency as the core of his political thought: all have resonance today, when power is often wielded by people who embrace teleological certainties. Kelly masterfully traces the intellectual currents to which Herzen contributed, alongside Montesquieu, Francis Bacon, and dozens of lesser-known eighteenth-century thinkers, and reveals the influence that figures such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Saint-Simon had on Herzen. Above all, in elegant detail, Kelly establishes how central science was to Herzen’s life and thought. Herzen did more than anyone else—certainly more than the social Darwinists or the Leninists—to fuse Darwin’s insights into a philosophy of history.