Dostoevsky’s Politico-Religious Thought and French Socialism


Two types of French socialism feature prominently in Dostoevsky’s thought: a hierarchical and authoritarian socialism, and a fraternal and popular one. Many of Dostoevsky’s writings explore the social, moral and ontological implications emerging from each of the two types. According to him, the fate of European modernity can be read as the fate of socialism and at the heart of both lie French modernity and French socialism. Besides, nineteenth-century Russian socialists are under the spell of French socialist thinkers such as Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Étienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux and George Sand. Dostoevsky identifies two diverging paths in French socialist thought. Consequently, the question he poses is what kind of socialism Europe will choose: one premised on the ideal of universal geographical unity under one power capable of feeding all at the cost of people’s freedom; or one premised on the ideal of organic voluntary unity, capable of nurturing freedom. Although both ideals exist in France, it is the former, according to Dostoevsky, that looms large. He discovers it in Cabet’s, Fourier’s and Saint-Simon’s conceptions of socialism, whereas the latter ideal is to be found in the thought of Sand, shaped by the social philosophy of Leroux.

While most experts on Dostoevsky agree that the novelist distinguished between authoritarian and fraternal socialism, no study has plunged into an in-depth exploration of how the ideas and implications of the two sorts of socialism unfold in Dostoevsky’s writings. Many have pointed out that his thought was influenced by Sand. However, the difficulty of undertaking the task of thoroughly exploring Sand’s influence on Dostoevsky comes from the scantiness of historical evidence, although, as Joseph Frank maintains, “[t]here can be no doubt […] that he read very widely in her numerous novels, and that, as with the entire generation of the 1840s, such works greatly enriched his acquaintance with progressive and revolutionary ideas”.[1] The aim of the present study is to explore the unfolding of the two antagonistic types of French socialism in Dostoevsky’s writings and to examine how his thought evolved from Sandian Romantic socialism to Christian socialism.


“Absolute socialism”

Nineteenth-century socialism was generally influenced by German Romantic philosophy that viewed alienation and division as the sickness of modernity, at the heart of which lay individualism. Frederick Beiser states that, according to German Romantic philosophy, the way in which social relationships were conceived revealed the (in)ability of a society to help individuals maintain their allegiance to living-together. According to German Romantic philosophy, modernity was characterized firstly by the individual’s growing estrangement from community and consequently by the development of the notion that social relationships should mainly fall within the scope of legal regulation. Secondly, in the capitalist system this individualist notion was translated into the historically specific form of the division of labour, meaning that people no longer participated in what Marcel Mauss called the “total social fact”. Rather, specialization and rationalism, specific to modernity, encouraged the cultivation of just one part of the soul, namely reason. In opposition to this, German Romantic philosophy pursued the ideal of a human being who equally developed her/his reason, emotion and artistic vocation by participating in the social life that the capitalist mode of organization was making impossible – an idea present also in Marx’s early writings. Thirdly, individualism and rationalism contributed to the disenchantment of nature – previously regarded as God’s work of art and as the space where the person’s spiritual and material existence unfolded – which now appeared as mere raw material, potentially productive. While holding in high estimation the significant contribution of the Enlightenment to critical thinking, Romantic philosophers decried the guardianship transferred by the Enlightenment exclusively to reason, responsible for the compartmentalization of the soul and of social life. Instead, the Romantics advanced the notion of integral reason defined as the ability to perceive and relate to reality in a manner equally rational, emotional and aesthetic. Their philosophy, then, involved an ontology of knowledge that was not Cartesian but rested on the idea that in the act of knowledge the subject and the object of knowledge were somehow one. According to the Romantics, the Enlightenment’s exclusive focus on the cultivation of analytical reasoning proved ineffective in preventing people from giving “free reign to their […] interests and passions”. Alternatively, Schiller maintained that, since that experience proved the education of the intellect alone insufficient, it was “also necessary to cultivate feelings and desires, […] to touch [people’s] hearts and to arouse their imaginations, to get them to live by higher ideals”.[2]

The first to infuse socialism with Romantic elements was Saint-Simon. Five main principles characterized Saint-Simonism, principles largely embraced also by Fourier and Cabet. Firstly, because most of those thinkers had been traumatized by the Terror, what constituted the Good for them excluded violence at whichever stage of its implementation, and instead, they set themselves the strenuous task of winning over the population. Secondly, the best way of achieving that purpose was using simplified and indefatigable propaganda. Thirdly, people’s passions had to undergo a steadfast process of education until people would eventually acknowledge the perfect model of community as the sole worthy object of their passionate love. Fourthly, those thinkers’ ideas of community were grounded in the principle of ‘scientific’ hierarchy: those who possessed a dogmatic knowledge of social laws would transfer it to those who did not. In other words, the former formed a socialist priesthood presumably capable of strengthening social relations through their pastoral activity. Lastly, since they substituted Christian theology with natural sciences, everything in their models of society was subject to geometrical rules and arithmetic precision.[3] Of these principles, only the first three are Romantic. The fifth is part of Enlightenment philosophy, while the fourth might be regarded as part of the latter – at least if we agree with Joseph de Maistre who cited Frederick II saying that the ambition of Voltaire and of other Enlightenment thinkers was to govern Europe “as the Popes” had ruled it in the past.[4] Saint-Simonism, then, was a mixture of Romantic elements and rationalist and anti-Christian elements. This explains why Leroux and Sand diverged from Saint-Simonism, as well as why the thought of the Saint-Simonians, Fourier and Cabet served as the basis for a type of socialism that Dostoevsky attacked – including from the perspective of his affinity for Sand’s philosophy. We find Saint-Simonian elements, positively appreciated, in Leroux, Sand and Dostoevsky, but we can also see there Saint-Simonian elements that all three criticized. This division will grow later into the division between Romantic and scientific socialism, depicted by Dostoevsky in his novels.

Saint-Simon claimed that God revealed to him the new, modern good life, as well as the means of its actualization, that is, science. Religion was thus transformed into science and science into religion, while Newton appeared as a modern Moses or Lycurgus. In other words, Newton was the Lawgiver of the new society and the founder of the new religion of Humanity by virtue of having discovered the law of attraction, which acted, according to Saint-Simon’s revelation, as a centripetal social force – that was, in fact, Saint-Simon’s answer to the disquieting centrifugal individualist society.[5] Religion was then reduced to the one Law capable of actualizing the perfectly just social order, as Miguel Abensour points out.[6] The new social body, as conceived by Saint-Simon, was made up of three categories: industrialists, artists and scientists, under the dogmatic authority of the “Council of Newton”, formed of twelve scientists and nine artists, a proportion indicative of the priority of scientific knowledge over imagination.[7] The members of the Council were presumably capable of guiding people’s passions towards properly desirable ends. The ultimate purpose was that people should acquire a feeling of literally belonging to the social body of Humanity, allegedly eliminating, thus, the tension between conflicting passions, the most important of which were self-love and altruism. Passions were best guided, believed Saint-Simon, by modern aesthetics – songs and dances – and by the industrial aesthetics aiming at making the world a comfortable place to live in for everybody. High-scale industrialization, Saint-Simon believed, brought people together, offering them the possibility to participate in the common exploitation of the globe, and revealed that that, and not the exploitation of one by another, was the most efficient means of satisfying both individual and collective interests. Saint-Simon could not stress enough the idea of unity, conceived not as complementary to but as the exact opposite of freedom, which he understood to mean anarchy – he believed that the desire for freedom was rooted in self-love. Therefore, he grounded his new religion in one single dogma, cementing thus the unity of the social body: “human beings should love each other like brothers”.[8] What he actually meant to say was that the new education should aim at inspiring individuals to find their subjective satisfaction in their love for others. Upon Saint-Simon’s death in 1825, the Saint-Simonian group was established under the authority of a Père suprême who ruled over his “children”; and the Saint-Simonians developed a doctrine, even more dogmatic than that of the master, centred on his unfinished Nouveau Christianisme. The group, which had a propagandistic missionary activity in France and in the surrounding countries, and an exoteric and an esoteric teaching, possessed the characteristics of the embryonic militancy of a political party combined with an extreme version of religious dogmatism.

The communist Cabet echoed, too, Saint-Simon’s Nouveau Christianisme and fused it with Gracchus Babeuf’s egalitarian ideas. His project of society, described in Voyage en Icarie, rested as well on a single dogma identical with its own end: absolute equality – an idea borrowed from Matthew 20. 1–8, the parable told by “Jesus the proletarian” about the equal wages paid to the labourers in the vineyard. Cabet put great emphasis on a notion already present in Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians: people, as they were, were incapable of voluntary social unity. Essentially self-lovers, individuals tried to secure the best for themselves and consequently were at odds with one another, any form of unity being made thus impossible. Nonetheless, people only seemed unfit for communal living. What they needed was a proper educator to transmogrify the vice of self-love into the virtue of altruism – as in Saint-Simon’s thought –, an educator embodied, in Icarie, by a dictatorial government. In Icarie every detail of life was foreordained: from courses teaching individuals “all defaults and vices that must be shunned” to preset leisure activities and to identical buildings and clothes – all meant to avert the temptation of comparison.[9] Fifty years of dictatorship would miraculously beget freedom, according to Cabet, more specifically the paradoxical freedom to make the only choice possible: the choice of the “good necessity”.[10]

Saint-Simon’s thought, in particular his notion of Newton’s law of attraction, influenced Fourier’s thought, too. Here, Newton’s law of attraction appeared under the name of “attraction passionnée”. Fourier interpreted this law differently from Saint-Simon, though. According to him, passionate attraction was the law by which those human passions bad in themselves and apparently at odds would be spontaneously harmonized, so that individuals would not have to give up their pleasures for the greater social good. For example, an individual greedy for money might be a good match for a wealthy and conceited individual, in this manner the former satisfying her/his passion, while gratifying the vanity of the latter, and, at the same time, not exploiting others. The secret, then, was to correctly identify the matching passions and Fourier insisted that passionate attraction could and had to be calculated with mathematical precision. The basis of Fourier’s idea can, in fact, be found in the Enlightenment. Hume had been a proponent of the thesis that vices could successfully counterbalance one another and stated that, although we should “never pronounce vice in itself advantageous”, we should “rest contented with asserting that two opposite vices in a state may be more advantageous than either of them alone”.[11] The explanation for the overstressed importance of passionate attraction is to be found in the fact that Fourier abhorred the French Revolution, as well as Saint-Just’s notion of Republican virtue, which he mistook for classical and Christian notions of virtue. Thus, if virtue up to his time had been “sad and blind”, according to him, his discovery of passionate attraction could change virtue into something pleasant as long as passions were given free reign “without false shame”.[12] As Jacques Viard notes, luxury – the supposed outcome of Fourier’s system – rested on the limitation of population growth, on the disappearance of the family and on “amour libre”, combined with the social engineering put into practice by “a council of géniteurs and génitrices who […] organize[d] the exchange of partners four times a month”.[13] On the grounds of the above-mentioned details, Leroux stated that Fourier’s system would change absolute freedom into absolute tyranny, as the actualization of people’s common interest of gratifying whatever desires they had needed an infallible system of mathematical calculation conceived in detail by Fourier himself in order to prevent any future deviation from the dogma – in order for the plan to work, each individual had to follow strictly the perfect mathematical scheme conceived by the planner.

Life in an Icarian commune or in a Fourierist phalanstery was that of “automatons” or “instinctive robots” whose artificial, laboratory-controlled problems were predetermined to require “the same solution”.[14] What those projects of society held in common was that they represented themselves as ideal models or as copies of the immobile Idea of the perfectly just or absolutely equal society seen as One organism. Monologism and self-sufficiency were, then, the hallmarks of the ruling bodies or of the theorizers of those projects. Totally mistrustful of individuals’ capacities to freely organize together an integral life in common, the theorizers instituted a vertical relation between the Lawgivers and those capable only of abiding by the Law in all of life’s details.


Socialism as organic living-together

Pierre Leroux

Leroux and Sand had an affinity for Saint-Simonism for a brief period, and overall, their thought owed much to the same German Romantic principles, partly present in Saint-Simonism. Both believed that society had had enough of “impotent liberalism”[15] at the heart of which, in their opinion, lay a doctrine of indifference to vulnerable individuals. Therefore, the Saint-Simonians’ concern for the proletariat, their centripetal conception of society and their emphasis on women’s emancipation could not but appeal to them. However, before having met, Leroux and Sand reached the conclusion that Saint-Simonism was offensive to human dignity because of its belief that freedom, aka anarchy, was corrupting or degrading the social body. Upon experiencing life under the authority of the Père suprême, Leroux concluded that Saint-Simonian socialism, which he defined as “absolute socialism”, conceived society as “a sort of large animal” and the individual as a limb of the latter, “a regimented public servant, with an official doctrine to believe in and the Inquisition at his door”.[16]

According to Leroux, the true meaning of freedom could be grasped insofar as it was linked to the meaning of equality and fraternity. Man’s strongest desire, according to Leroux, was to make his presence felt in the world and to transform the world around him. That was freedom, which Leroux also called sensation, since it was purely subjective. Others, then, were affected by an individual’s action in the world to different degrees. That meant that man was not only active, but also sentient, that not only his actions influenced others directly or indirectly, but he was himself influenced directly or indirectly by others. Consequently, individuals would always feel the need that others acknowledged their feelings caused by the actions of others. Being aware, thus, of the mutual impact of our actions was the backbone of fraternity. The latter involved a way of living grounded in reciprocated love or guided by the biblical command, “whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them” (Matthew 7. 12). Finally, individuals were also endowed with the ability to reason. Individuals’ actions affecting the world, on the one hand, and their feelings resulting from the actions of others, on the other hand, induced thoughtful reflection on justice, equality, suffering etc., of which, according to Leroux, all individuals were capable. So, the encounter between my sensation and the other’s feelings, or the relation between freedom and fraternity, or between subjectivity and communion, was the one that stimulated reflection. And even if not everybody evinced the same depth of reflection, everybody reflected on the world as a result of their experience as subjects who were part of the human community. That was what Leroux defined as equality or reflection. In the absence of fraternity, either freedom overrode equality – eventually justifying, Leroux claimed, that might makes right – or equality prevailed over freedom – reflection being changed into mechanical thinking.[17] Reflection, then, was something everyone was capable of, but its authenticity depended on the individual’s freedom. When individuals were not free, their reflection turned into the reproduction of a set of dogmas preached by an authority. Only the concern for simultaneously pursuing fraternity and freedom was the proper object of reflection. A person and a society were integral when each on her/his own and all together attempted to achieve the equilibrium of the triad freedom, fraternity and equality, an equilibrium that was broken whenever an individual was trampled down either because his freedom was denied or because his dignity was denied. That equilibrium represented Humanity, understood as equally the “mystical body” uniting all human persons (imitating the model of the mystical body of the Church – the difference was that, in Leroux’s thought, the mystical body was not reduced to the community of believers and was not centred around Christ who had revealed man as the “image and likeness of God” but embraced all humankind by virtue of the fact that all had a human face) and the bond between people.[18] Thus, Humanity manifested itself in the life of relation, as openness towards otherness as otherness, and could be understood by those who grasped the meaning of the fact that “we are all responsible for all”,[19] a principle that would later prove to be central in Dostoevsky’s thought.


George Sand

All these ideas were a constituent part of Sand’s thought. Her early education was heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, in particular by Voltaire and Rousseau. But the reason-centred deism infused into her during childhood had, in fact, never appealed to Sand, because she viewed it as a philosophy that orchestrated the complete separation of earth and heaven and that commended abstract, non-incarnated ideals, which, exclusively rational, could not pierce the heart. As a young woman, she received her education at the Convent of Augustinian nuns in Paris, where she discovered a world of incarnated and experiential truths – the result of the synthesis between reason and heart – and a fraternal community. That experience began with an episode related in Histoire de ma vie when, one summer evening, Sand entered the empty church, spontaneously started praying and suddenly felt that the church at twilight and nature merged into one, while she was surrounded by a mysterious all-powerful love – this recalls the episode in The Brothers Karamazov when Alyosha, after having had the vision of the Wedding at Cana, went outside in the midst of the night and, feeling the earth and the sky to be one, passionately embraced the earth. But her joyful feeling soon turned into a morbid focus on sin. The monastery priest eventually sent her into the world to love life and God by joyfully being together with her fellows and in their service – again, Alyosha had a similar experience, being joyfully sent into the world by his spiritual father, Elder Zosima. As in Dostoevsky’s case, the books that most shaped her young spirit were Enlightenment writings, the lives of saints and the Gospels. Notwithstanding her criticism of deism, by and large, Sand remained faithful to anticlerical ideas – a legacy of her grandmother – claiming that they were justified by the illegitimate positions of power held by the Catholic Church. Thus, starting from her youth, Sand’s religion was pantheistic, and, like Leroux, she was a great admirer of the man Jesus, while denying his divinity.

Sand was inspired by Chateaubriand and Lamennais (it is worth emphasizing that both were Christian thinkers) but the philosopher who influenced her the most was Leroux. And starting from 1837 (they first met in 1835) her novels paid greater attention to the social question. Inspired by German Romanticism, Sand argued that art could play a most important role in society to the extent to which it remained embedded in the network of social relations. Art for its own sake could not perform that function, being, according to Sand, an inherently selfish activity. True art, in fact, expressed the anxiety of the present individualistic society and, at the same time, provided insight into the nature of future collective renaissance. Thus, it helped individuals to reflect on the common good, by rendering comprehensible the object of cognition, that is, the world as a whole. Isolated from the people, the bourgeois elite, which, as Dostoevsky and other nineteenth-century writers noted, admired virtue at the theatre, championed the disembeddedness of art, as well as of economy and of all other disciplines, from the network of social relations. Such was the case, for example, of the aristocratic family Villepreux, from Le Compagnon du Tour de France, which, in its habits, resembled the bourgeois elite, and which valued art and knowledge as forms of private delight. Sand believed that Enlightenment philosophy partly entailed that sort of knowledge. Like Leroux, she argued against the notion of state of nature and Rousseau’s concept of self-sufficient individual, contending that Enlightenment philosophy rested in particular on the idea of individual rights, at the expense of the notion of duties. That conception of art and the type of knowledge it entailed were incapable of putting forward a conception of the common good. The people, then, could expect nothing from the arid self-sufficient elite that deluded itself into thinking it was superior to the people because it possessed knowledge.

By contrast, new powerful ideas were to emerge in the bosom of the people, whose most admirable traits of character were “simplicity of heart”, humility and love,[20] lost for the higher classes that had succumbed to a conception of self-sufficiency that drained art and knowledge of their transfiguring power. The artisan (carpenter) Nantais-le-Corinthien imagined that Christ (a carpenter himself) returned to earth and looked for the company of poor simple-hearted people who “would wash his feet”’ and “search for the most pure water to appease his thirst”.[21] Sand was not the only writer to note that factory labour stifled intelligence and imagination, and ruptured the organic link between individual labour and the final product resulting from the totality of the network of social relations, as stressed later by Marx. Therefore, new powerful ideas could be conceived neither by those who, subjected to exploitation, did not have access to a comprehensive worldview. It was art that could give a good direction to history, to the extent to which it was soundly attuned to the primeval core of the people.

Factory-working proletarians could not, generally speaking, create art because, being exploited, they saw labour strictly as the means by which they met their basic needs. Neither could the bourgeois elite create art in the true sense, as seen. Only that part of the organic elite, which was somehow connected to the people and knew art, could revolutionize art that was meant, in turn, to bring a radical social change. Artisans and artists were, then, in Corinthien’s dream, those whom Christ would call to be “fisher[s] of men”.[22] The emphasis put by Sand on artisans owed to the fact that this category reproduced the common world of the people, those goods around which unfolded the daily life of the community. Unlike the proletarian, the artisan had a direct relation with the finite product, being thus spared the feeling of alienation from oneself and from society, experienced by the former. Artisanship offered the artisan the possibility to take the raw material from the world and, by transforming it in the process of creation, to reveal the full potential of beauty present in the world. On that account, when he got himself initiated into the readings of Enlightenment philosophy, in Villepreux’s library, Pierre suddenly gained access to a comprehensive knowledge by which he sorted out the vices and the virtues of Enlightenment philosophy, and reflected, through the lenses of tradition, on the Enlightenment ideals of equality, authenticity, compassion. If the Enlightenment wanted to found those ideals on the ruins of tradition that it attacked, Pierre Huguenin (and Sand) tried to re-found them on and through tradition,[23] becoming aware of his solidarity with the people – in particular with “that brutalized class treated with such contempt that it had been incapable of making progress”[24] – whom he had the duty to enlighten and to help become a politically responsible class. While Yseult Villepreux initially felt herself superior to Pierre, she gradually became aware of her lack of true knowledge, of a lapse that enfeebled her capacity to love and implicitly to have access to a deeper reality, access gained by the heart. Pierre’s moral capacity to link art and knowledge to the ideal of solidarity won Pierre respect as an equal human being, also capable of awaking the higher classes from the anaesthetizing influence of self-sufficiency and self-delusion.

As will be seen, the relation between the people and the elite is understood in a similar way by Sand and Dostoevsky, although there are some differences, partly the result of the different social organization and structure of the French and Russian societies. In Dostoevsky’s novels we see nobles and educated petty bourgeois who reached a state of alienation and then returned to the people, discovering that the latter were living instinctively, on the grounds of tradition, those Enlightenment ideals of equality, authenticity and compassion. In Sand’s novels we also see nobles, who discovered, through the people, that wholeness of being. But we also find here proletarians, absent from Dostoevsky’s novels depicting Russian society. The proletarians in her writings were also part of the people, only they had undergone a process of social transformation. We do not see here the proletariat as a revolutionary anti-traditional force, as in Marx’s understanding. We see instead proletarians depicted as former disinherited, traumatized peasants who, nevertheless, held to the values of traditional classes. In Sand, it is the traditional categories of the people – exercising their roles within a medieval type of economy, we could say, that survived in modernity – that were to enlighten both the elite and the proletariat.

The social function of art was acknowledged by most nineteenth-century socialist thinkers. But while for the representatives of “absolute socialism” art was meant to mobilize the masses through persuasion grounded on “scientific” demonstration, for Sand art was meant to show examples of personal struggles for authenticity and solidarity. The question that art was to illustrate was similar to the one presented by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his interpretation of Plato: “the question of the good in personal, as well as social, life”.[25] Like Gadamer’s Socrates, Sand knew that here there was no “specialized” authority except for the authority of traditional morality. But since traditional morality was often used in “self-justification” by those in positions of power, being changed thus into conventional morality, it needed scrutiny and justification. Those capable of doing so were recognizable by their sense of solidarity – in the absence of which traditional morality was changed into a justification for power-positions – and their willingness to dialogue with themselves and with others – that is, their possession of “the true dialectical art” that “provides practice in holding undisconcertedly to what lies before one’s eyes as right”.[26]

Sand’s Spiridion is another example that illustrates the scrutiny of “the question of the good”. Spiridion was a monk who, practicing that “true dialectical art”, turned from Judaism, which he criticized for being the religion of one people, to Catholicism, which he blamed for having a Church thirsty for authority, to Protestantism, and to Enlightenment philosophy, where he found doubt, and eventually reached the simple wisdom: “believe, have faith, love”, embodied in Jesus Christ.[27] The importance of Spiridion for the purposes of this article – Dostoevsky’s relation to French socialism – comes especially from the fact that it summarizes Sand’s religious views and, implicitly, the comparison between Spiridion and The Brothers Karmazov reveals the great divide between a religion of humanity and the Orthodox faith in the God-man.

Thus, Sand understood by faith, like Leroux, faith in humanity, that is, in the fact that all were capable of engaging on their own and as a dialogic community in the quest for the equilibrium between freedom, fraternity and equality. While, as said, she denied Christ’s divinity, she acknowledged him as a perfect instance of Humanity and as a founder. For Sand, Christ was a founder in the sense that he uniquely practiced solidarity with all humanity, even with the greatest sinners. By virtue of this, everyone was called to become an instance of Humanity and a founder. That could be accomplished, according to Sand, by accepting the irrefutable truth that “we are all responsible for all” and by taking upon oneself the responsibility of pursuing the ideals of freedom, fraternity and equality simultaneously. That was the choiceworthy religion – a sort of Christianity devoid of dogmatic authority.

Sand manifested interest not only in the proletariat, but also in the peasantry, the largest category in France at that moment, whose most important quality was, as Jules Michelet wrote in The People, “the power of sacrifice”, “the thing which constitutes true nobility”.[28] Sand believed that contact with nature, on the one hand, and one’s growing up in the Catholic tradition and hearing folktales, on the other hand, enhanced wisdom of the heart. In her novels that addressed the issues of justice and equality, and bucolic life, like Jeanne and Nanon, Sand depicted peasants – in particular women – who intuitively had the same understanding of the sublime as the nobles who had acquired it after years of education, and that vigour of the ideal, which the peasants possessed, raised in the nobles the urge to strive for the incarnated ideal. Totally ignorant of their own virtues, Jeanne and Nanon, from the eponym novels, found comfort in serving everyone, especially those in whom they recognized nobility of character, and that self-giving helped them overcome their own griefs. Like them, Sonia Marmeladov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment suffered quietly and voluntarily assumed self-sacrifice without blaming others for her condition.

Nevertheless, Sand was too much of a progressist to not acknowledge the shortcomings of the peasantry, the most important of which, according to her, were “inurement to passive obedience”,[29] endorsed by the Catholic Church, and pagan superstition. Sand’s greatest concern, then, was how to educate the peasants, as well as the proletarians, so that they would not lose their good essence and would continue to be “peuple”. As will be seen, there is a great likeness between Sand’s and Dostoevsky’s attempts to reconcile the elites’ reason with the people’s faith. The answer to Sand’s question could be found in Nanon. Nanon married Emilien, the youngest son of an aristocratic family – which had sent him to a monastery in order to pass its entire fortune on his eldest brother –, and succeeded in withdrawing him from what she (and Sand) saw as the immobile life of the monastery, sharing with him her love of life and of joyfully being in the service of others, while he shared with Nanon his education. Here the union between peasantry, aristocracy and the clergy summarized Sand’s faith in the attainableness of a “dynamic republic” that took into account the interests of all classes.[30] The richness of Nanon also manifested itself in the reflections of a now educated peasant on the French Revolution – the very thoughts of Sand in her old age. While Nanon’s uncle saw the Revolution as “the end of ends”, reasoning that “when one is left without masters, one can no longer live”,[31] Nanon and Emilien championed the ideals of the Revolution. However, the Revolution’s unfolding changed the ideal into a dogma imposed on people, which trampled down everything “for the sake of the cause”, so much so that even otherwise decent people allowed themselves to be involved in crimes, sincerely believing those were “for the good of humanity”.[32] Without giving up their revolutionary ideals, Nanon and Emilien reached the conclusion that violence and the division of humanity into friends and enemies “murdered common sense” by making people believe that the murder of one part was necessary for the wellbeing of another part.[33] Again, we will see in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment the same distinction between two sorts of revolution: one attempting to cast out the evil present in society by employing the methods of evil – Raskolnikov’s revolution –; and one attempting to strike at the root of evil by casting out from man’s heart the all too human urge to take revenge, seen as the same with proliferating evil – Sonia’s revolution.


Dostoevsky and socialism

As a child, Dostoevsky often heard stories from the Gospels, the lives of saints and Russian folktales narrated by peasant women, from whom he learned about “the suffering of the despised and humiliated Christ”.[34] His relationship to all kinds of Russian peasants fashioned his deep interest in the reality of the “humiliated and insulted”. Against that background, his early readings of Balzac, Hugo, Scott, Sand and Dickens inspired a deep admiration for those authors. As a young man, Dostoevsky also became acquainted with Enlightenment literature and with German Romanticism. He never lost his fascination with Schelling’s view of art as the vehicle that made comprehensive knowledge possible, the outcome of the union between mind and heart. At the start of his literary activity in the 1840s, Dostoevsky became acquainted as well with French socialism.[35]

Being under the spell of French socialist thinkers, the Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s was exasperated by the political censure and, as the self-declared bearer of the Enlightenment ideals, it denounced serfdom.[36] In May 1847 Tsar Nicholas I asked the nobility’s assistance in “convert[ing] the status of the peasants from serfs to that of tenants”.[37] But the revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848, causing panic among the members of the Russian political elite, brought to nothing those intentions. Excited by the revolutionary ebullience in Europe, the Russian Westernizers could hardly put up with the political censure at home. Against that background, many literary and political circles emerged, where forbidden socialist ideas were debated. Dostoevsky frequented a few such circles, and the last one, the Petrashevsky circle, where Fourier and Cabet were read in particular, brought him his arrest in 1849. Dostoevsky mentioned a few times in his writings the names of Fourier, Cabet and Saint-Simon, but none of their works. However, we know from Konstantin Mochulsky that Dostoevsky borrowed from Mikhail Petrashevsky’s library “Saint-Simon’s Le Nouveau Christianisme, Cabet’s Le vrai Christianisme suivant Jésus-Christ, Proudhon’s De la célébration du dimanche”.[38] Dostoevsky claimed that “precisely because” he did not adhere to any one of the “thousand methods of social organization” socialism offered he was able to study and to “see the faults in every social system”.[39] He was instead charmed by the Romantic features of Sand’s socialism, which shunned methods and dogmas, and which was grounded in the people at their best, not in a fictitious people.

In 1847 the government forbade previously authorized works of Sand. The notions of equality, of abolition of privileges, of Messianic people were all considered revolutionary and subversive. Dostoevsky’s references to the French author’s novels were scarce. He mentioned L’Uscoque and Jeanne in the Diary of a Writer, and Teverino in a letter to his brother. As Genevray mentions, he most probably knew well Spiridion and Le Compagnon du Tour de France, among others, although historical evidence lacks.[40] However, the evidence recorded in his letters, in the accounts of relatives and friends and in The Diary of a Writer suggests a pervasive influence of Sand on Dostoevsky. Upon learning about her death, Dostoevsky dedicated two articles in The Diary of a Writer to her. He averred there that of all contemporary Romantic writers Sand impressed him the most. That strong and positive impression resulted from the conjunction of several attributes of her writings: her capacity to represent heroines of “elevated moral purity”; “the confession of most complete duty”; the “recognition” of both “freedom” and “responsibility”; “the extraordinary pride of the quest and of the protest”, “which was so precious because it sprang from the most sublime truth, without which mankind could never have retained its place on so lofty a moral height”.[41] By virtue of all this, Sand was unwittingly “one of the staunchest confessors of Christ” even though, he was careful to add, “she did not” actually “confess Christ” because, being a child of her (French socialist) time, she “could not consciously adhere to the idea ‘that in the whole universe there is no name other than His through which one may be saved’ – the fundamental idea of Orthodoxy”.[42] What Dostoevsky meant to say here was that Sand’s socialism was the only political doctrine that, in his view, was not anti-human but, on the contrary, was able to enliven humanity. However, it could do so only to the extent to which it allowed itself to be transfigured by Christ, the God-man, for the reasons Dostoevsky started to give gradually in his novels following his experience in the “underground” of the prison that revealed to him the “underground” of the human soul.

Dostoevsky’s first work, Poor Folk, drew on French socialism. Like Leroux and Sand, he distinguished there between bourgeois self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction, and the moral superiority of lowly, suffering people, springing from their spirit of solidarity and self-sacrifice. In depicting the poor clerk Devushkin’s feeling of injustice, Dostoevsky expressed two Saint-Simonian notions. That feeling of injustice was grounded in the character’s awareness that his appearing ridiculous in the eyes of his superiors did not result from his lesser human worth but merely from birth, and that, on the contrary, as a copying clerk, he was “more useful to society” than an “aristocratic social parasite”.[43] The gap between the luxurious bourgeois neighbourhoods and the destitute outskirts, the issue of friendship relations, which functioned outside the logic of the bourgeois capitalist world revolving around profit and “the desire of power after power”,[44] and which were nevertheless crushed by it because of the all-pervading nature of capitalism, were all part of the general Romantic socialist themes. Devushkin was frightened by how the temptation to rebel against an unjust social order, and maybe against God’s world itself, “involuntarily […] [grew] upon one’s soul”.[45] Unlike Sandian characters, Dostoevsky’s experienced a mixture of meekness, fear of being ridiculed and fear of superiors. Thus, the weak government clerk Golyadkin from The Double could easily be seen as an extension of Devushkin. He also felt crushed by the feeling of injustice, of helplessness and of being ridiculed, and he had patience until one day, when he became one with his evil double and lost his mind.

Two spectres – rather vague in utopian socialism – haunted Dostoevsky’s early writings and became clear following his experience in prison. One was that human beings were both good and evil, and therefore were threatened with loss of wholeness, while at the same time aimed at unity and sometimes even attempted to unite, as René Girard argues, what from a human perspective could not be united, their good and their bad halves, finally arriving not at unity but at monstrosity.[46] The other spectre, directly linked to the former, was that evil was real. In The Double it turned out that evil had an almost touchable presence and not anywhere but in man’s heart. In The Humiliated and Insulted, one single evil person could mock all other good persons. A combination of Max Stirner and Marquis de Sade, Prince Volkovsky upheld that strong characters, aware of the foolishness of the civic virtue of amassing a fortune, revealed that true human virtue resided in fact in “Love thy own self” and in the capacity to delight in that. Enlivened by the craving for self-sacrifice – a Sandian theme – Natasha, the heroine of the novel, attempted to help Prince Alexey, Volkovsky’s son, who was the antipode of his father, well-intended and weak, become someone in whom the good would triumph. But her attempts were a failure both due to Volkovsky’s intrusions and Alexey’s weakness – the powerful evil and the impotent good seeming again to act together as a “double”.

The reality of evil was fully revealed to Dostoevsky in prison, where he was faced with the fact that evil could actually envelop man’s whole heart. The epitome of that was the convict Orlov, “capable of assassinating in cold blood old men and children”, possessing “an indomitable force of will”, and being “fully conscious of his power”,[47] showing by this that evil, in its extreme form, was not the by-product of an unwittingly fallacious channelling of passions but an actual demoniac force. In prison, Dostoevsky fully grasped that the commune or the phalanstery were foolish ideals merely because they were grounded in a simplistic understanding of human nature that blamed the evil present in society exclusively on the environment, claiming that scientific demonstration or the seductive power of pleasure were means of accomplishing socialism. He also revisited his own socialism inspired by Sand. Leroux and Sand were aware of the tension between good and evil in the human heart but saw evil as weakness of will, which could be overcome by imitating Jesus. They viewed the doctrine of original sin as an intrinsic condemnation of human nature and, implicitly, of this world – that was their understanding of Catholicism and that was why they rejected it. When he was confronted with the brutality of the people, Dostoevsky was confronted in fact with the dark side of human nature, an encounter that could have directed his path – through the notion that, given the amount of evil present in the world, man could hardly be seen as the “image and likeness of God” – to an extreme Augustinian view – reducing almost to nothing the value of this world – or to a Hobbesian view – requiring an absolute authority responsible with peaceful relations between individuals who were “wolves” to one another. But Dostoevsky did see in those criminals the “image and likeness of God” and understood then that Sandian socialism was only immature. He reached the conclusion that evil could not be defeated merely by imitating a paragon of virtue, but could be conquered only by Christ, the God-man, who would raise man from the death of sin and transform him inwardly through grace. Dostoevsky’s experience in prison inaugurated, thus, a different phase in his relation to socialism. It established the mature intellectual context in which, far from being dropped, Sandian socialism was subjected to reinterpretation. Dostoevsky continued to believe that the other world could be mirrored in this world, avoiding both the Pelagian view, embraced by Sand, according to which this world was fundamentally good and completely included the other world, and the extreme Augustinian view, according to which this world was evil and excluded the other world.

The critical question for Dostoevsky now was how to convince people that Sandian socialism could be an insurance against dark paths. That was the challenge raised by the underground man, who, like Rousseau in his Confessions, exposed his moral baseness, combined with impulses to do good, in order to show that he was truly human. The underground man averred that he enjoyed dominating and being dominated, humiliating and being humiliated, and yet he did not like how he was. So, how could someone like him be integrated in the phalanstery? Notes from Underground was a response to a type of Russian socialism rooted in French “absolute” socialism, which was largely rationalist and anti-Christian, but scattered with Romantic elements. While in the Russian socialist circles of the 1840s the rift between “absolute” and Sandian socialism had only started to take shape, in the 1860s, when he returned from Siberia, Dostoevsky noted the progress of the rationalist and anti-Christian socialism. Drawing on Bentham’s utilitarianism and Comte’s positivism, Russian socialism of the 1860s had a militant character, its best expression being the leaflet Young Russia, written by a student, Zaichnevsky, committed to revolutionary radicalism that was meant to outdo French “terrorism” of the 1790s.[48] Those socialists, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky who distinguished himself, evacuated Romantic elements from French “absolute” socialism and emphasized its rationalist, anti-Christian and utilitarian dimension, gradually injecting into it the idea of revolutionary violence, which fully marked its break with Romantic socialism and became clear in Nechayev’s thought and was portrayed by Dostoevsky in The Possessed.

Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, particularly drawing on Fourier, tried to prove that rational self-interest could smoothly blend with collective interest, depicting the easiness, or rather the automatism, with which the characters gave up their desires and ambitions for the collective good. What Is to Be Done?, the most influential book in nineteenth-century Russia, according to Joseph Frank,[49] argued for “individual self-realization, sexual liberation, and an economy that combined prosperity with social justice”, which “could be achieved only through the reorganization of the family, society, and means of production in accordance with cooperative principles”.[50] Chernyshevsky’s vision of the Crystal Palace rested on Fourier’s law of passionate attraction that would presumably harmonize human passions to such a degree that, as mentioned in Notes from Underground, man would “cease to make mistakes voluntarily”, after having imbibed the scientific tenet that his actions were not the result of his will but followed “the laws of nature”.[51] In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky reacted against utopias that condemned the human species to happiness. The confessions of the underground man showed that he was human not because he properly understood his self-interest but because he was torn between passions pitted against one another: between pride and self-loathing, between the need to be in the presence of others and admired by them and the spite he felt towards others and towards himself when that need was not gratified.[52] What matching passions could, then, the Fourierists discover for those irrational urges, which dismantled every rational project of unity, precisely because the underground type of man was torn between two halves that, despite all efforts, would simply not match? Starting with Notes from Underground, it emerges clearly that it was not socialism in general that was under fire in Dostoevsky’s novels, but representatives of “absolute” socialism: Fourier and Cabet, Chernyshevsky, all Russian socialists who built on their ideas and a good part of Saint-Simon’s thought.

In his ensuing novels, Dostoevsky portrayed people and systems the plans of which the underground man had promised to undermine. Lebeziatnikov from Crime and Punishment was such a man, a Fourierist who blamed all individual vices on the environment, justifying, for instance, the fact that he beat Marmeladov’s wife by pointing to the symptoms of the dysfunctional society. In the future society, organized on Fourierist principles, there would be “nothing to protest against and all men [would] become righteous in one instant”.[53] The same applied, in his view, to Sonia Marmeladov who was exploited, by virtue of her “profession”, only because she lived in the existing society, which oppressed individuals economically, morally and socially. Dostoevsky, like all Romantic socialists, particularly attacked the capitalist exploitation of women, a process that could be traced back to the eighteenth century, when production was moved “outside the household”, as Alasdair MacIntyre writes. The main outcome of that move was that women were either forced into profitable marriages – which were given moral justification to disguise the brutal social structures of exploitation – or “condemned to the drudgery of domestic service or to that of the mill or factory or to prostitution”.[54] Some socialists – the Saint-Simonians, Cabet and Fourier in France, or Chernyshevsky in Russia – claimed that individuals were governed by the objective laws of the environment, and that the substitution of a “bad”, individualistic society with a “good”, collectivist one necessitated the change of that environment. It was necessary, thus, to give up not only that dysfunctional economic organization but also the morality it rested on. Unlike Sand, Leroux and Dostoevsky, the above-mentioned socialists did not distinguish between false morality, which was hiding self-interest behind some theory of virtue, and authentic Christian morality, the essence of which was being driven by one’s love for others. Those socialists believed that the acknowledgement of an objective law, such as passionate attraction, which governed society just as it governed nature, was enough to liberate human beings from both “false shame” and the economic oppression linked to it. That was the meaning of Lebeziatnikov’s assertion, concerning Sonia, that in the future society “such a role [of a prostitute] is essentially transformed and what is stupid here is sensible there, what, under present conditions, is unnatural becomes perfectly natural in the community”.[55]

Following the line of thought of Fourier, Lebeziatnikov considered that the actual society appeared to start welcoming those radical ideas – that the future society would be organized on scientific criteria and not on compassion – “compassion [being] forbidden nowadays by science itself”, as it is “done now in England”.[56] Lebeziatnikov’s thought appears then to be actually close to that of Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin, an incarnation of the notion that marriage was a business and a capitalist engaged to Raskolnikov’s sister, who always reminded her that he saved her from the “drudgery”. In portraying those two characters, Dostoevsky showed the ideological proximity between a type of socialism and capitalism. Fourier, and Marx later, claimed that compassion was not the solution to social problems but rather a bourgeois hypocritical substitute for that solution, which required in fact the reorganization of society. Luzhin, an exponent of liberal economic philosophy that began with Adam Smith and continued with David Ricardo and Malthus, thought that the solution to the problem of poverty was not compassion but the free market, where following individual interests would result in collective wellbeing. Thus, while in the former case, compassion was a false solution to the problem of capitalism, in the latter case, compassion was a barrier to the success of capitalism. But what that type of socialism and capitalism, as seen by Dostoevsky, held in common was that both excluded compassion and generally any feeling linked to individuals’ moral action, and tried instead to invent laws supposed to harmonize passions and interests.

Dostoevsky’s response to “the doctrine of the environment” came in his Diary of a Writer, where he argued that, by contrast, Christianity “fully recogniz[ed] the pressure of the milieu” and “proclaimed mercy for him who has sinned”, while at the same time recognized the human person’s freedom and made “it a moral duty for man to struggle against environment”.[57] Dostoevsky saw the environment not as the sum of abstract social laws but rather as the outcome of everyone’s actions. Although man, according to Dostoevsky’s Christian thought, always had the choice to be good or bad independently of the environment, to deny its influence meant, as in Leroux’s philosophy, to ignore feelings provoked in others by one’s actions, feelings which could engender a strong temptation to commit criminal actions. To recognize exclusively the influence of the environment meant, on the other hand, to deny the criminal’s freedom and to encourage him to “[kill] conscience in himself”.[58] Dostoevsky noted in prison that many criminals actually felt comforted when simple Russian people recognized their freedom and, implicitly, their responsibility for their crimes, while intuitively understanding that, since all people were free, all influenced one another, and therefore that responsibility was always co-responsibility. In the absence of that understanding, according to Dostoevsky, and put in the crime-free environment of the Crystal Palace, the criminal – and the human being in general – would still manifest his freedom, but as “exaggerated individualism, self-isolation and rebellion”[59] against the imposed scientific harmony of society. Like Leroux and Sand, Dostoevsky believed that only solidarity – understood both as collective responsibility for evil and as collective action for collective wellbeing – could give freedom its positive meaning. Dostoevsky’s conception of the relation between individual and environment, as well as of the re-integration of the repentant criminal in and through the people, can be found in a part of Romantic socialist literature, including in Sand’s novels. What was new in Dostoevsky’s thought was the emphasis on divine grace, the action of which was powerfully described in Crime and Punishment.

In Raskolnikov were gathered all the feeble fists of the “humiliated and insulted”, helplessly raised against an unjust social environment. Raskolnikov empowered them and so Devushkin’s feeble rebellion turned into the bold action of the “overman” that Raskolnikov was. He thought that characters like Sonia, sacrificed by the capitalist society, were making society the gift of not protesting against it, allowing it to see to its profit-making, a gift that society was not even able to understand as such. Raskolnikov noted, thus, that society, in general, was based on the sacrifice of some by others and that humankind was divided into two categories: “inferior (ordinary)”, “law-abiding” people who “live[d] under control” and “men who ha[d] the gift” to “transgress the” inferior “law” and to give a new, superior Law.[60] Thus, if society anyway rested on sacrifice, sacrifice should at least be more justly made, that is, with the purpose of social justice, even though it couldn’t be helped that in that process innocent people would be sacrificed too. And Raskolnikov, as one belonging to the superior category, thought of beginning with the sacrifice of “a stupid, […] worthless, spiteful” pawnbroker, with whose money “a hundred thousand good deeds could be done”,[61] also sacrificing unintentionally the innocent Lizaveta.

In Crime and Punishment and elsewhere, we see the unfolding of the socialist principle that opposed persuasion to external force, as a means of achieving unity. But the analogy between Dostoevsky, on one side, and Saint-Simon, Cabet, and Fourier, on the other side, stops here for in the latter case persuasion was synonymous with the enticement of masses, the aim being that no one would eventually be at odds with the dogma. This rightfully makes one worry about the fate of those who would not adhere to the principles of the Law, even though in those socialists’ thought freedom and “good necessity” coincided. But, as Dostoevsky showed in his works, according to Berdyaev, a “good necessity” would automatically turn into a “bad necessity” merely because “goodness resides in freedom from necessity”.[62] The analogy between Dostoevsky and Sand, instead, was much closer. As said, Sand and Dostoevsky shared the belief that there were two types of revolution: an illegitimate one setting an impersonal good as the end, and sacrificing in its name the “negative” elements of society, and together with them, collateral victims; and a legitimate one made by those who were aware they lacked society’s recognition as equal human beings and who, at the same time, incarnated the ideal of freedom-equality-fraternity, engendering a change of heart on the part of those with whom they came into contact. The former was the Jacobins’ and Raskolnikov’s revolution. The latter was Nanon’s and Sonia’s revolution.

Unlike Nanon, Sonia was not merely a poor peasant, but a person touched by the evil of the unjust bourgeois society, who, loving her drunkard father, her half-insane step-mother and her siblings, earned money for them through prostitution. Yet Sonia refrained from resentment and from selfishly focusing on her own suffering, because she knew that resentment divided people into absolute victims and absolute persecutors, while she believed in co-responsibility for evil and in Christ’s promise of the afterlife. That force within her was the one that persuaded Raskolnikov. In her presence, he confessed before himself – and was ready to “bow down” and confess before “all the world” – that he had not “murder[ed] either to gain wealth or to become a benefactor of mankind”, but to test whether he was “a trembling creature or whether [he] ha[d] the right”.[63] Raskolnikov was not a mere Sandian Romantic intellectual, like Versilov, from A Raw Youth, or Stepan Trofimovitch, from The Possessed, who felt inspired by Jesus, the moral paragon. He was a murderer, whose resentment against the unjust social order, which had led him to murder, was healed only by the presence of Christ, the God-man, which made him understand that it was equally unpardonable to remain indifferent to the ideal of a just society for all and to accomplish that ideal through murder.

Socialism, believed Dostoevsky now, was indeed possible, but not in a bourgeois society where each citizen weighed the costs and the benefits of the social contract. Before Crime and Punishment, he argued in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions that socialism was “possible anywhere but in France”, the bourgeois country par excellence. Seeing the French socialist desperately crying out “Égalité, Liberté, Bonheur commun ou la mort”,[64] Dostoevsky inferred that in such a socialist society the relationship between the individual and the community would turn into that between the victim and the persecutor. The West, according to Dostoevsky, was torn between unity without freedom and freedom without unity, and, thus, the one thing it could not do was to force people to be brothers. True socialism was built instead on the triad freedom-equality-fraternity, each individual giving himself willingly to the community, while the latter, “not demand[ing] too great a sacrifice” of individuals, would guarantee their safety.[65] Dostoevsky shared with Sand the Romantic ideal of fraternal community. For both, true socialism was that where “both the I and the all [were] mutually annihilated for each other”, while “at the same time each apart attain[ed] the highest goal of his individual development”,[66] as Dostoevsky wrote upon the death of his first wife in 1864. What clearly separated him from Sand, after his return from Siberia, was his conviction that, given the evil human nature was capable of, the Romantic ideal could become reality only when human beings cooperated with the grace of God.

Merely trying to follow Jesus, Versilov and Stepan Trofimovitch, representations of the Russian Westernizers of the 1840s, remained divided between their Rousseauian love of humanity and their incapacity to love their neighbour. However, Dostoevsky was rather partial to those socialists. In his view, the chance of their salvation, as well as of the transformation of Russian society into one embodying the ideals of freedom-equality-fraternity, rested on their return to the people. There is a close parallel here between Dostoevsky and Sand. Intellectuals alienated from the people, Versilov, Stepan Trofimovitch and Raskolnikov, like some of the Sandian characters mentioned, were attracted by the positive force that emanated from the people, seeing that the latter’s best representatives instinctively lived the Enlightenment ideals that the intellectuals preached. The two authors suggested that the fusion between those intellectuals and the people, or between reason and heart, would result in the conscious living of the ideals. However, while in both cases the return to the people was the return from individualism to an organic community, in Dostoevsky’s writings the people were one with the Church, or in other words, the Christocentric community – the Church – was God’s people. Not receiving the grace, the Romantic socialists Versilov and Stepan Trofimovitch could not accomplish their ideals that were ridiculed by revolutionary socialists.

Dostoevsky depicted Russian revolutionary socialism, inspired by Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet and Babeuf, in The Possessed, and named the doctrine “Shigalovism”. Shigalov, a member of the secret society established by the radical revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky – a representation of the socialists of the late 1860s –, was puzzled by the fact that, having started from Fourier’s notion of unlimited freedom, he arrived “at unlimited despotism”,[67] as Fourier himself did, according to Leroux. Shigalov gave the answer to his own puzzle: in the state of absolute freedom people manifested all their passions, but because the latter would not be spontaneously harmonized, an absolute authority was needed to harmonize them. Shigalov and his radical revolutionary fellows attacked (economic) liberalism, maintaining that it liberated the passions – that was in fact the aim of their doctrine too – but did not see that, left to the “invisible hand” of the market, people would end up devouring one another. The absolute authority of the social engineer was then necessary, according to Shigalov. Leroux and Dostoevsky contended that, by contrast, harmony could be achieved by sacrificing self-love out of love for others. In their opinion then, freedom reduced to sensation, as freedom was understood by both utilitarian liberalism and absolute and revolutionary socialism, inevitably led to tyranny, while sensation and feeling generated together freedom in solidarity. Like the underground man, Shigalov affirmed the incompatibility between freedom and unity, and like Raskolnikov, he divided humanity into two categories: “one-tenth” of men of genius capable of dominating and “the other nine-tenths” capable of being dominated. The latter would be required to “give up all individuality” in order to reach the state of “primeval innocence”, where “everyone belong[ed] to all and all to everyone”.[68] Following Babeuf, Shigalov conjectured that unity was premised on material and intellectual equality. Because “the thirst for culture” was nothing else but the desire to dominate, which precluded unity, it followed that complete equality required a state where the “nine-tenths” would have no more desires. Verkhovensky’s theory built on Shigalov’s project, claiming that, for the “nine-tenths” to reach the blissful Edenic state, the rulers had to stimulate the former’s basest passions, draining their desires of any positive meaning and inducing them, thus, to want the only thing they were capable of: “primeval innocence”. Saint-Simon’s notion of the need of a hierarchical social organization, Cabet’s idea of the benefits of a dictatorial government, Saint-Simon’s, Cabet’s and Fourier’s optimistic belief in the potential of progress are all here, in “Shigalovism”. However, Shigalov boasted that Russian socialists would go further than the French dreamers, the limitations of the latter’s thought resulting from the Romantic influence. The most important flaw in the French socialists’ thought was their claim that persuasion could determine the participation of all classes in the creation of the good society. According to Russian revolutionary socialists, that purpose could be accomplished only through a violent revolution that would purge society of all reactionary forces clinging to supposed universal and timeless truths, which were nothing else but justifications for the oppression of some classes by others.

Dostoevsky believed that Sand’s socialism, the best expression of socialism without Christ, the God-man, could not withstand what he saw as the demoniac destructive forces of revolutionary socialism. For the later Dostoevsky, Sandian socialism was childlike – as Prince Myshkin seemed to be too –, an object of contemplation as a pure human expression of beauty, goodness, sincerity, but unable to fight evil, just like a child.



I tried to show in this article Dostoevsky’s complex relation to French socialism, where he distinguished two main types of socialism, an “absolute” one and a fraternal one, which held in common some Romantic elements, the refutation of revolutionary violence and a commitment to centripetal ideals of social organization. What mainly distinguished them was their different understanding of freedom and unity. Dostoevsky always attacked the former type because, in his view, it mistook freedom for anarchy, and regarded the defective social environment as the single cause of individual and collective evil. As a result, it maintained the sharp separation between the masses and the new Lawgivers, who would sacrifice freedom for forced unity. He saw the ideas of French “absolute” socialism spread among a part of the Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s and also noted their conversion from a Romantic utopia into Russian revolutionary socialism in the 1860s. By contrast, Dostoevsky was always attracted by Sandian fraternal socialism, which shunned the dogmatic and hierarchical organization of society and affirmed instead human beings’ ability, as a community, to be committed to the ideal of freedom-equality-fraternity. My argument has been that Dostoevsky did not attack socialism in general, but a specific type, and that, rather than rejecting Sandian socialism, he sought to transcend it in a way that would lead to the fulfilment of its highest aspirations. To the question he raised following his experience in prison, if Sandian socialism was accomplishable at all, he gradually answered that it was merely incomplete, for it saw Jesus as a seraphic moral paragon that people should imitate, and that it could be accomplished if it accepted Christ as the God-man who could transfigure social relations and thus actualize transcendence within immanence.

A question finally arises here. Isn’t this talk about fraternity, so prominent in the Romantic nineteenth century, merely a subject of intellectual archaeology? Or isn’t it somewhat ridiculous to be discussed as a relevant object of contemporary political analysis? In answering this, I will draw on Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers. Brotherly relations are par excellence marked by rivalrous claims over the same goods, of which each brother “want[s] more than” the other – claims that can be seen in society at large.[69] According to Allen, what society – one that values democratic citizenship – can learn from the example of brotherly relations is that brothers “can remain brothers only if they overcome” “rivalrous self-interest”, through “voluntary” “reciprocal sacrifice”.[70] Dostoevsky argued that society could overcome “rivalrous self-interest” only through brotherly love – the manifestation of which was “reciprocal sacrifice” – which, while natural in natural brotherhood, was rather unnatural in relations between strangers, remaining, in most cases, an ideal appearing as abstract love of humanity rather than as concrete love of one’s neighbour. For Dostoyevsky, in relations between strangers, brotherly love was made possible by Christ’s incarnation, which had revealed human beings as sons and daughters of God, and, implicitly, as brothers and sisters. Only the grace of God, offered within the Church, could grant people the gift of seeing one another as brothers and sisters, and, consequently, of overcoming self-interest. That experience, Dostoevsky showed in The Brothers Karamazov, was lived by the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, who represented the incarnate ideal that the people followed. The Russian people, according to Dostoevsky, were aware of their sinfulness, yet their ideal was neither to harmonize their passions nor to justify them. Instead, the people knew that only in and through Christ they could overcome their passions and attain their inner transformation. Zosima stressed that the people, being sinful, were aware that one’s sin affected the entire community and the entire universe, arriving at the belief, as in Leroux’s and Sand’s thought, that we are all responsible “before all for everyone and everything”.[71] So, just as evil actions turned earth into hell, good actions could turn society and the universe into paradise.[72] If Leroux and Sand claimed that Catholicism was an other-worldly religion that despised this world, and embraced instead Pelagian Christianity, Dostoevsky affirmed that Christ’s incarnation offered the possibility of an active transformation of this world, of the fusion between heaven and earth. Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christianity, then, seemed to incarnate the ideal to which Sand had aspired and which she had sought outside the Church – she viewed that experience as being Romantic, extra-ecclesial, while Dostoevsky considered it to be crucial for the Church, that is, defined it as ecclesial because it was Christocentric.



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[1] Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 129.

[2] Frederick Beiser, The romantic imperative: the concept of early German romanticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 94.

[3] See Sarane Alexandrian, Le Socialisme Romantique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979), pp. 28-34, 144-151, 307.

[4] Joseph de Maistre, Quatre chapitres sur la Russie (Paris: Librairie d’Aug. Vaton, 1859), p. 121. My translation. (Unless otherwise specified, the translation of all quotations from French works, used in this article, belongs to me.)

[5] See Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Lettres d’un habitant de Genève à ses contemporaines (1803), p. 4.’un +habitant.langEN   

[6] Miguel Abensour, “L’utopie socialiste: une nouvelle alliance de la politique et de la religion”,  Le Temps de la réflexion, II (1981), pp. 61-112, p. 82.

[7] Saint-Simon, Lettres, p. 4.

[8] Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Le Nouveau Christianisme (Paris: Éditions du Seuil (1825), 1969), p. 149.

[9] Étienne Cabet, Voyage en Icarie (Paris: Hippolyte Souverain, Éditeur, 1840), p. 154.

[10] The phrase belongs to Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, trans. Donald Attwater (New York: New York American Library, 1974), p. 70.

[11] David Hume, Political Discourses (Edinburgh: Printed by R. Fleming, 1752), Discourse II, p. 39.

[12] Maxime Leroy, Histoire des idées sociales en France, 3ème édition (Paris: Gallimard, 1950), p. 259.

[13] Jacques Viard, “Pierre Leroux contre les Utopistes” (Association des amis de Pierre Leroux, 2003).

[14] Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, trans. R.F.C Hull (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 11.

[15] The title of an article by Leroux: “Plus de libéralisme impuissant”, in À la source perdue du socialisme français. Anthologie de l’œuvre de Pierre Leroux, ed. Bruno Viard (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1997), p. 99.

[16] Pierre Leroux, “Économie politique”, Revue encyclopédique (Paris: Imprimerie de Bourgogne et Martinet, octobre-décembre 1833) p. 107.

[17] See Pierre Leroux, De l’Égalité (Boussac: Imprimerie de Pierre Leroux, 1848), pp. 2-3.’egalite&hl=fr&ei=a78VTp3HGoa58gPN3cUF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false; Aux philosophes, aux artistes, aux politiques: Trois discours et autres textes, ed. Jean-Pierre Lacassagne (Paris: Payot, 1994), pp. 121-122; De l’Humanité (Paris: Perrotin, 1845), vol.1, pp. 7, 19-21, 127; Lettre au docteur Deville, in Miguel Abensour, Le procès des maîtres rêveurs (Paris: Sulliver, 2000), p. 145. See also several articles gathered in the anthology À la source perdue du socialisme français, such as: “Analyse des fonctions pour servir à l’intelligence du principe d’organisation appelé triade”, p. 419; “États-Unis. Écoles libres de la Nouvelle Angleterre”, p. 71.

[18] Leroux, De l’Humanité, vol. 1, p. 198 ; vol. 2, pp. 35, 55-56.

[19] Leroux, “Éonomie politique”, p. 112.

[20] George Sand, Le Compagnon du Tour de France (Paris: Garnier Frères, Libraires, 1847), p. 97 (Chapter IX).

[21] Ibid., pp. 132-133 (Chapter XII).

[22] Ibid., p. 133.

[23] This perspective on the relation between tradition and progress present in Leroux and Sand can be found in the thought of the contemporary philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa.

[24] Bernard Hamon, George Sand et la politique (Paris: Harmattan, 2001), p. 26.

[25] Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, trans. Christopher Smith (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 41.

[26] Ibid.

[27] George Sand, Spiridion (Bruxelles: Meline, Cans et Compagnie, 1839), pp. 302. See Françoise Genevray, George Sand et ses contemporains russes: Audience, échos, réécritures (Paris: Harmattan, 2000), p. 311, and Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp.399-400, for an overview of the similarities between Sand’s Spiridion and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

[28] Jules Michelet, The People, trans. C. Cocks (London: Printed for Longman, Brwon, Green and Longmans, 1846), p. 90.

[29] George Sand, Jeanne (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1886), p. 88 (Chapter III).

[30] Hamon, George Sand et la politique, p. 365.

[31] George Sand, Nanon, Édition établie par Nicole Savy (Arles: Babel, 2005), p. 71 (Chapter IV).

[32] Ibid., p. 134 (Chapter X).

[33] Ibid., p. 225 (Vhapter XVII).

[34] Frank, The Seeds of Revolt, p. 48.

[35] Ibid., pp. 63-64, 147, 182-184.

[36] The Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s was divided between Westernizers and Slavophiles. While the Westernizers claimed that Russia should embrace the cultural values and the material civilization of the West, the Slavophiles contended that Russia could take on only the exterior material-technological civilization of the West but should, nonetheless, hold onto her own cultural values. Those, in their view, were superior to the Western ones because they provided a sounder basis for the Enlightenment values. Therefore, it was not only the Westernizers but also the Slavophiles who supported the emancipation of peasants and fought against the censure that was affecting them all. Dostoevsky’s view on how Russia should relate to modernity generally followed the Slavophile view.

[37] Frank, The Seeds of Revolt, p. 247.

[38] Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 115.

[39] Belchikov, Dostoevsky v protsesse, 146, quoted in Frank, The Seeds of Revolt, p. 252.

[40] Genevray, George Sand et ses contemporains russes, pp. 242-243.

[41] Feodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, trans. Boris Brasol (New York: Octagon Books, 1973) 2 Vols, Vol. I, pp. 347, 349 (June 1876).

[42] Ibid., p. 349.

[43] Frank, The Seeds of Revolt, p. 145.

[44] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1994), Part I, Chapter XI, para. 2.

[45] Feodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk, trans. Robert Dessaix (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982), p. 114 (September 5).

[46] See René Girard, Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, trans. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad Pub., 1997), pp. 34-37.

[47] Feodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. H.S. Edwards (London: J.M. Dent, 1911), p. 65 (Part I, Chapter V).

[48] Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Stir of Liberation. 1860 – 1865 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 147.

[49] Joseph Frank, Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 187.

[50] Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner, “Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? and the Russian Intelligentsia”, in Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, trans. Michael R. Katz (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989) pp. 1-36, p. 2.

[51] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Hugh Alpin (London: Hesperus Classics, 2006), p. 28 (Part I, Chapter VII).

[52] See in this sense Girard, Resurrection from the underground, pp. 54-57.

[53] Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Grolier, 1973), p. 355 (Part III, Chapter V).

[54] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 239-240.

[55] Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, p. 508 (Part V, Chapter I).

[56] Ibid., p. 19 (Part I, Chapter II).

[57] Dostoevsky, Diary of a Writer, Vol. I, p. 13 (The Citizen, 1873, No.2).

[58] Ibid., p. 16.

[59] Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, p. 51.

[60] Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, pp. 360-361 (Part III, Chapter V).

[61] Ibid., pp. 93-94 (Part I, Chapter VI).

[62] Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, p. 70.

[63] Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, pp. 577, 576 (Part V, Chapter IV).

[64] Feodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, trans. Kyril FitzLyon (London: Quartet Books, 1985), p. 65 (Chapter 7).

[65] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[66] Feodor Dostoevsky, “Will I meet again with Masha?”, in The Unpublished Dostoevsky. Diaries and Notebooks (1860-81), trans. T.S. Berczynsky, Barbara Heldt Monter, Arline Boyer, and Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976) 3 Vols,Vol. I, Notebook II, p. 39 (16 April 1864).

[67] Feodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed, trans. Constance Garnett (London: Heinemann, 1965), p. 365 (Part II, Chapter VII).

[68] Ibid., p. 379 (Part II, Chapter VIII).

[69] The topic of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry was developed at length by René Girard.

[70] Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers. Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 126, 119.

[71] Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 374 (Part I, Book VI, 2).

[72] Ibid., p. 388.

Despre Alexandru Racu

Născut în Bucureşti pe 4 Martie 1982. Absolvent al Facultăţii de Ştiinţe Politice din cadrul Universităţii Bucureşti, Master în Studii Sud-Est Europene la Univeristatea din Atena şi doctor în filozofie politică al Universităţii din Ottawa.
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