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Liberalism's Lost Libretto | The Nation

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Liberalism's Lost Libretto

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The significance of the Lincoln Center Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's three-part, nearly eight-hour The Coast of Utopia lies in its status as a cultural rather than a literary event. As a dramatic work the play, which follows the lives of a series of Russian intellectuals and would-be revolutionaries across Europe between 1833 and 1866, suffers from all kinds of insoluble problems. For starters, even if you've done all your homework--including the extra credit--it's damn near impossible to remember who everybody is, what they thought and with whom they slept, and why it might matter seven hours (and possibly months) later. But as an occasion for serious political and philosophical argument in a culture bereft of both, Stoppard's magnum opus is cause for celebration.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Utopia resists simple summary. It begins in the years following the crushing of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, as Stoppard's young idealists muse about the backward nature of their nation and the beautiful future they would create if only they weren't saddled with institutions like the czar, serfdom, censorship and the Third Section, the KGB's pre-Revolution precursor. In doing so, they use and abuse the arguments of various German Romanticists, French proto-socialists and even the odd novelist. An enormous Ginger Cat, representing the dialectic of history passing from Hegel to Marx to Engels, has a walk-on, too.

Eventually, as the action moves from the splendor of the Bakunin family estate in Premukhino with its "500 souls" to Moscow to Paris to Rome to Nice to London and, finally, to Geneva, the arguments focus on the various disagreements between Michael Bakunin--known to most of us as one of the philosophical fathers of anarchism but who here spouts an extremely confused and romantic Hegelianism--and Alexander Herzen, who remains today the hero of Russian constitutional liberals and who ought to be a hero to liberals everywhere.

Stoppard naturally spends a lot of time on Herzen's many personal tribulations--the illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat, he spent most of his life in extremely comfortable exile, writing and publishing up a storm while being visited by countless personal tragedies and romantic complications.

In a recent public conversation I attended, Stoppard allowed that Ethan Hawke, who plays Bakunin, complained to the playwright that it would be pleasant if, just once, his character could win an argument with Herzen. Stoppard gave in, but not, I think, for sound political or philosophical reasons. As he noted in the discussion, "There is no cohesion, no structure to Bakunin's various positions." Bakunin himself wrote in his 1851 Confession, a "radical defect in my nature" has always been "a love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of adventures which open up vast horizons and the end of which cannot be foreseen." This makes for an exciting character--with which Hawke does wonders--but it is rather an unfortunate quality in a revolutionary leader predisposed to violent changes of mind.

Bakunin was certainly an entertaining fellow, and his writings derive great power from their deceptive clarity. But as the great Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin's "path was strewn with victims, casualties, and faithful, idealistic converts. He himself remained a gay, easygoing, mendacious, irresistibly agreeable, calmly and coldly destructive, fascinating, generous, undisciplined, eccentric Russian landowner to the end."

Herzen's primary contributions to history are two. First, ironically, was his work as a journalist: During his years in London, he and Nicholas Ogarev published The Bell, a newspaper for the Russian intelligentsia. In addition to its exile readership, it was smuggled into Russia, where it was read by friend and foe alike and is credited by many historians with playing a role in convincing Czar Alexander II to free the serfs in 1861. Dwight Macdonald called The Bell "perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history."

Second, and no less significant, Herzen held open the possibility of a liberal evolution rather than a violent revolution for Russia and for all the world's downtrodden. Stoppard's Herzen calls the Communist and nihilist "new men" of Russia "the syphilis of our revolutionary lust," and a better metaphor for Bolshevism would be hard even to imagine. Herzen put his finger on something profound and wonderful when, observing how respectfully British policemen treated the indigent--while allowing them to remain absolutely destitute--he mused of his English hosts, "They invented personal liberty and did it without having any theories about it."

Ultimately, what I found most admirable about Stoppard's Herzen was his consistent commitment to moderation while surrounded by revolutionary hotheads. For all his intellectual arrogance, he knew how much he didn't know; how much was, indeed, unknowable. "History has no libretto," Stoppard said when I asked him about the relationship between his politics and his plays. "The only gatekeeper is chance."

Sitting in the theater over those eight hours, I could not help thinking about the arrogance of our own punditocracy and particularly the liberal hawks, who were so sure of themselves as they predicted the outcome of the American invasion of Iraq. Like Bakunin, they lurched from theory to theory to justify their desire, the only consistency being that each new idea relied on what they imagined to be the cleansing effect of massive violence.

Iraq was not "liberated" or "democratized." The Arab world was not "moderated." Israel was not made more "secure." Utopia, in other words, is a state that exists only in the minds of romantic intellectuals with little or no knowledge of the cultures they expect to transform. Better to keep them onstage in Stoppard's brilliant, if flawed, production than on the stage of history, helping politicians justify the destruction of functioning societies on behalf of theories that would require another century in the oven merely to reach the status of half-baked.

Herzen would likely have warned us of their folly; Bakunin would have led the charge.

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