Hoping for some tutor to reduce you to tears

The Doctors of Revolution
April 6, 2001

Richard Fisher is radicalised by a splendidly old-fashioned tome.

This is an extraordinary book, a colossal undertaking of perhaps three quarters of a million accurately printed words, tracing the lives, loves, duels of honour, finances and some of the thoughts of seven great radical idealists of the 19th century, collectively (and not perhaps entirely helpfully) described as "doctors of revolution". Mikhail Bakunin, Heinrich Heine, Moses Hess, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Aleksandr Herzen and Ferdinand Lasalle are the seven principal characters. Each is individually contextualised by Shlomo Barer in a heroic narrative spanning the period c.1795-1865 that has a complexity and ambition that can only fairly be called Tolstoyan. Indeed, brief biographies of what Maurice Cowling would call "The Actors" would have been helpful for inexpert readers intent on tracing their way through the labyrinth of assorted publishers, journalists, politicians, bankers, soldiers, artists, composers and poets with whose lives the seven "doctors" intersected. As would some maps, given that most readers' mental geography of pre-Bismarckian Germany will, I fear, be somewhat suspect.

I mention that inexpert reader deliberately, because one of the most remarkable features of The Doctors of Revolution is that it seems aimed, despite its great learning, not precisely at a scholarly constituency but at a much more elusive audience, the "interested general reader" (and certainly, and generously, priced with that audience in mind). Indeed, to the extent that the book, both stylistically and commercially, echoes a more expansive age when divisions between reading publics for texts about thinkers were less sharply defined than they are today, it is resolutely and splendidly old-fashioned; its natural home somehow seems on the Weidenfeld or Gollancz lists of the late 1950s, doubtless to be subjected to a high-profile but pithy review by A. J. P. Taylor in The Observer or Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Sunday Times .

This abiding sense of an old man writing about the young is echoed both in the apparatus - virtually none of the secondary sources cited is more recent than 1985, several are pre-war, and the whole conveys an attractively innocent sense of being written "from outside" (with "authorities" such as Shlomo Avineri cited rather as they might be in an undergraduate essay) - and in the subject matter itself.

Wherein lies perhaps the author's biggest unacknowledged problem. It is that the kind of received familiarity with the overall story so lovingly traced by the author can no longer be assumed, certainly among general readers, yet such a familiarity is vital to make any sense of the author's thick narrative description. The great tradition of 19th-century male radicalism as a living, ongoing thing is one that we have lost, and the notion that much, or indeed any, of what Barer describes has a continued resonance for the young of today seems, as Perry Anderson alluded to recently in the reconstituted New Left Review , simply quaint. Sadly, it is hard to see Anglophone student historians making much headway with The Doctors of Revolution , not least because it provides no ready answers to any of the questions they are usually asked. Barer is a much more sophisticated storyteller than he is an analyst of ideas, with a colourful prose style to match: it has to be said that at times the echoes of Georgette Heyer are louder than those of, say, Eric Hobsbawm. In the epilogue, Barer does attempt some speculative linkages between his story, the subsequent development of Russian Marxist-Leninism and the state system that collapsed in 1989. But this is one of the least satisfactory sections, and the writing becomes colourless and oddly disengaged.

This problem of a received meta-narrative is exacerbated by the inevitable self-indulgence of such a vast book. At climacteric points in the story (such as the winter of 1847-48), the thrust is often interrupted by intriguing but essentially secondary detail about the minutiae of newspaper publishing in 19th-century Germany, or the inheritance problems of Heinrich Heine. The author should not have been allowed to interrupt his text with the substantial "excursus" on "Marx, Prometheus and 'Moses in Search of a People'" that forms chapter 29, despite his disclaimer that this excursus is revealing of Marx's personality at a crucial point in his intellectual development. In fairness, this "excursus" does help to focus attention on another of Barer's profound concerns, the inter-relationship between Jewish faith, culture and the Jewish communities of Germany and the Rhineland, and their intellectual and personal impact on Heine, Hess and Marx, whose Jewish antecedents are carefully traced in the appendix. The towering Jewish philosophical figure of Baruch Spinoza hovers in the background, as it was to do more than a century later for perhaps the last great representative of the Marxist-Leninist intellectual tradition, Louis Althusser.

But such criticisms are secondary to what is a remarkable, if slightly quixotic historical achievement. Barer states: "Each of the 'doctors of revolution' expressed his persona in the ideas and theories he launched upon the world," and Barer is particularly good on the multifaceted personalities of Bakunin, Hess and Heine, with each of whom he seems innately much more in sympathy than with Engels, who emerges as the least attractive figure of the seven. He also wonderfully conveys the earnest, questioning, unironic quality of student life in the first half of the 19th century, and the incredibly intense, emotionally articulated nature of certain father-son relationships in both Romantic Germany and Russia (not least that between Karl Marx and his father, Heinrich). And readers of The THES will relish the voracious appetite for learning and enthusiasm for the lecture-hall manifest throughout, and best expressed by the Russian student V. S. Pecherin, describing the lectures on the philosophy of history of Eduard Gans in Berlin in 1834: "So many had come to listen that that large hall with its gilt decorations was filled to overflowing. The eloquent professor lifted the curtain for a glimpse of the future... Tears came into my eyes. The large audience sat in solemn silence, as though taking leave of the Past and hearkening in awe to the giant steps of the approaching Future, which seemed to knock on the doors of the great old hall." It may be difficult to convey the same sense of intellectual exhilaration at 9.30am on a Tuesday morning in February to 17 people in Seminar Room 101 - but as an indication of what it was once thought the pedagogic process in higher education could achieve, this (and many other similar passages quoted by Barer) is striking, to say the least.

Richard Fisher is publishing development director, Cambridge University Press, and editor, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.

The Doctors of Revolution: 19th-Century thinkers who Changed the World

Author - Shlomo Barer
ISBN - 0 500 108837
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 1,216

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