Riding the Revolutionary Wave

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Review of 'The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage' by Tom Stoppard, National Theatre, London

This is a monumental work on a monumental theme. Three plays, each three hours long, about the lives and ideas that shaped the 19th century revolutionary movement in Russia. Among the individuals that walk the stage are Louis Blanc, Bakunin, Mazzini, Turgenev, Kossuth, Ogarev, Herwegh, Marx, and above all, Alexander Herzen.

Alexander Herzen was, in Lenin's words, the man who 'launched revolutionary agitation' in Russia. In exile after imprisonment, he was a witness to the 1848 revolution in Paris--the event that dominates the second of these plays--and its subsequent betrayal and defeat. Victim of a family tragedy that would have broken most people, he spent most of the rest of his life in London where he founded the first Russian socialist newspaper--'The Bell'. But his principled support for the Polish uprising against Russian rule alienated the 'moderates' while his gradualist approach to change alienated the radicals and he ended his days in a political wilderness.

Herzen is the main protagonist of these plays, and evidently the 'hero', although the playwright Turgenev (whose volume of essays 'From the Other Shore' inspired the title) and the critic Belinsky are also treated with great sympathy. The radicals receive rather less understanding--notably the anarchist Bakunin, who is essentially a figure of fun, forever fomenting desperate uprisings and sponging off his comrades. He was indeed almost a childlike character--and a menace to serious revolutionary organisation. ('On the first day of a revolution,' someone said of him in 1848, 'he is worth his weight in gold; on the second day, he ought to be shot.') But you would not guess from Stoppard's plays that Bakunin spent years rotting in prison in the Russian Peter Paul fortress and the prisons of the Austrian Empire.

This is symptomatic of a problem with the whole work. In his largely successful effort to dramatise complex ideas and historical episodes--and particularly Herzen's life and philosophy--Stoppard sometimes stumbles into shorthand when he comes to other ideas and movements. Occasionally this leads to caricature, as in his treatment of Marx. This makes for huge distortions when it comes to the real history of those times and the real ideas of those involved, as well as their subsequent influence.

Take the 1848 revolution: is it really honest to depict Marx's role without mentioning the fact that he wrote one of the most important and influential political pamphlets of all time about it ('The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte')? The omission seems more than accidental. The climax of the whole work is a dream in which Herzen's vision of history as uncertain and man-made are contrasted with Marx's supposedly abstract views on the inevitable march of progress and a bloody vision of the Bolshevik revolution. 'History has no culmination!' proclaims Herzen against Marx. 'There is no libretto. We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us.'

Yet far from Marx believing in history as some sort of mechanical process--stage followed by stage--he understood very early on that human action, chance and the actions of individuals could change the balance of forces.

Unlike Herzen and his followers he devoted his life to understanding the mechanics as well, which is why his legacy proved vastly more important, both in Russia and elsewhere. What Marx actually concluded--in the second paragraph of that pamphlet on 1848--was: 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.'

This distortion damages the plays, but should not put people off seeing them. There is some dazzling writing (as you would expect from Stoppard), superb acting, and they are stunningly produced. Above all there is real drama, despite Stoppard's espousal of some sort of political 'middle way'. Of the three works, 'Voyage' is more or less self contained and is probably the most convincing, depicting the gradual evolution of the Russian intelligentsia from philosophical contemplation to political action. The other two make less sense seen on their own (it is also possible to see all three on one day) but have some powerful episodes, notably the crisis in Herzen's private life, movingly portrayed in 'Shipwreck', and the confrontation, in 'Salvage', between Herzen and Chernyshevsky, arguing the revolutionary case. It is in this scene that Stoppard comes closest to the truth, with both men yearning for change and instinctively drawn to each other, yet unable to bridge a political divide. History eventually left Herzen high and dry on the beach, but for all that he played a key role in the development of socialist ideas in Russia and to the end of his days remained committed to his ideals.