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Arc of Utopia

The Beautiful Story of the Russian Revolution

Although Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries never called themselves Utopians—believing strictly in a science of revolution, they considered Utopians to be merely dreamers—they were enormously inspired by the grand humanitarian aims of the French Revolution of 1789. Taking up this French revolutionary agenda and reinforcing it with German philosophy, Russians formed a beautiful vision in which an imaginary theology blended with a premier role for art.

Arc of Utopia offers a fresh look at these German philosophical origins of the Russian Revolution. In the book, Lesley Chamberlain explains how influential German philosophers like Kant, Schiller, and Hegel were dazzled by contemporary events in Paris, and how this led a century later to an explosion of art and philosophy in the Russian streets, with a long-repressed people reinventing liberty, equality, and fraternity in their own cultural image. Chamberlain examines how some of the greatest Russian names of the nineteenth-century—from Alexander Herzen to Mikhail Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev to Fyodor Dostoevsky—defined their visions for Russia in relationship to their views on German enthusiasm for revolutionary France.

With the centenary of the Russian Revolution approaching, Arc of Utopia is an important and timely revisioning of this tumultuous moment in history.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: European History

Philosophy: Political Philosophy

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“As we mark the hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s triumph, Chamberlain’s book broadens our understanding of the roots of the Bolshevik Revolution, describing how German Idealism, which first emerged from Immanuel Kant’s reaction to the French Revolution, came to inspire philosophers and cultural figures throughout nineteenth-century Europe and Russia.”

Joshua Rubenstein | New York Times Book Review

"Chamberlain charts the 127-year-long intellectual and philosophical history of the Russian revolution in this brief, heady volume. She situates the revolution’s origins in the moral imagination born of the French Revolution, which influenced German philosophers Kant, Hegel, and Schiller. They in turn inspired major Russian thinkers such as Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin. Chamberlain argues that Russian revolutionaries, in addition to planning to abolish inequality, also sought to capture what Bakunin referred to as 'our beautiful Russian life'—an ambitious vision that fused politics and aesthetics. Chamberlain impresses with her innovative approach to this much-covered topic."

Publishers Weekly

"So what does Arc of Utopia bring, besides its timeliness, to last year’s centenary party? Lenin was the first to emphasize the importance of interpreting Marx through the lenses of Hegel’s and Kant’s political thought; Chamberlain’s excellent grasp of German Idealism makes this relationship appear self-evident. Chapters with titles like 'Good Men, Drama and Dialectic' and 'Excitement in the Seminary' competently and entertainingly explain the march of dia­lectical thought from Hegel to the exiled Russian revolutionary Georgy Plekhanov, who 'read Marx and knew what to do' (even if Lenin, as Chamberlain admits, chose to selectively dis­regard Plekhanov’s advice). Writers and thinkers, and their texts, are reevaluated ima­ginatively and often innovatively."

Times Literary Supplement

"Chamberlain’s latest book provides a series of fascinating reflections on how German Idealism influenced a range of Russian writers and artists from the 1830s to the early twentieth century. . . . An important theme in Russian cultural discourse that echoed German Idealism was the transformative power of art. Since art encouraged people to see the world differently, it was central to the pursuit of progress, an idea that, for instance, underpinned the Wanderers movement in painting and influenced much of the creativity of the Silver Age. This was not simply a matter of advocating a particular cause. German Idealism offered ‘a more subtly negotiated relationship between the human mind and the external world’ and ‘invited speculation as to a truly perfectible human existence.’. This meant that Western empirical science, on its own, was an insufficient tool for progress. A new theory of knowledge was required, and Chamberlain suggests that: ‘The great revolutionary art of 1895–1922, the work of Malevich and Tatlin, and the Symbolist poetry of Blok, and of Velemir Khlebnikov’s reinvention . . . of language and landscape, was great because it hungered after this radical regeneration of knowledge.’ In the hands of Marxism-Leninism, art was conceived as a political instrument, but, as Chamberlain shows, the blending of art and politics in Russian thinking had deeper and complex intellectual roots. . . . Chamberlain provides a great deal of food for thought about how the ideologies and cultural projects that burst forth in the revolution were shaped by longer-term philosophical concerns."

Journal of European Studies

“This book is, in the author’s words, about ‘the Russian revolution as rooted in a vision of moral beauty.’ It is this dichotomy that attracts us and repels us in Russian history: on the one hand, the uncompromising search for beauty and the extraordinary art in which it resulted; on the other, the police state which was the outcome of the political realisation of an idea that aspired to cover all aspects of life. No one is more qualified to discuss these questions than Lesley Chamberlain. The result is an ingenious, eye-opening, superbly told story.”

Bengt Jangfeldt, author of "Mayakovsky: A Biography"

"Chamberlain covers the German antecedents of the Russian revolution in such an engaging and interesting way. This is a very well written and much needed book that analyzes the Romantic input so well. She brings the complexity of that input very much to the fore. This is a real contribution to the history of ideas, like her book on Nietzsche in Turin."

Roger Scruton, author of "Art and Imagination: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind"

“Chamberlain’s articulation of the crucial role played by German philosophers in inspiring Russian minds with the ideals of the French Revolution is both imaginative and original. She succeeds brilliantly in her goal of restoring beauty and morality to Russia’s revolutionary dreams.”

Rosamund Bartlett, author of "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

Table of Contents

Author’s Note
Glossary of Names
Introduction: The Arc of Utopia
1 The Wisest Man
2 Good Men, Drama and Dialectic
3 Excitement in the Seminary
4 Reason, Fashion and Romance among the Russians
5 Philosophy as Dream-history
6 Bakunin on Fire
7 A Land of Hamlets and Don Quixotes
8 The Chattering Classes and the Moment of Grace
9 ‘The Triumph of the Movement which is Dear to Me’
10 ‘We Want All to be Fulfilled at Once’: The Great Uprising of Art and Creativity
Afterword: ‘The Unity of Great Ideas and Strong Feelings’
A Note on Further Reading

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