Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story
Almost every intellectual claims to have the welfare of humanity, and particularly the welfare of the poor, at heart: but since no mass murder takes place without its perpetrators alleging that they are acting for the good of mankind, philanthropic sentiment can plainly take a multiplicity of forms.
Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx, illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well. They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems.
The resemblances between the careers of these men begin with their attendance at Berlin University at overlapping times, where both were deeply affected—even intoxicated—by the prevailing Hegelianism. As a result, both considered careers as university teachers of philosophy, but neither ever held a university post. They had many acquaintances in common in Berlin, including Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian aristocrat who later became a revolutionary anarchist, the philosopher Bruno Bauer, and the radical poet Georg Herwegh. They shared a carelessness with money, perhaps because they were both born into easy circumstances and therefore assumed that money would never be a problem. Both started their writing careers as romantic poets, though more of Turgenev’s poetry than Marx’s was published.
Their literary influences and tastes were similar. Each read widely in the Greek and Latin classics; each could quote Shakespeare in the original. Both learned Spanish in order to read Calderón. (Turgenev, of course, also learned it to speak the native language of the great, but unsatisfactory, love of his life, the famous prima donna Pauline Viardot.) The two men were in Brussels at the outbreak of the 1848 revolution against the July monarchy in France, and both left to observe the events elsewhere. Turgenev’s closest Russian friend, Pavel Annenkov, to whom he dedicated some of his work, knew Marx well in Brussels—and left an unflattering description of him.
The secret police spied upon both men, and both lived most of their adult lives, and died, in exile. Each fathered a child by a servant: a youthful indiscretion in Turgenev’s case, a middle-aged one in Marx’s. Unlike Marx, however, Turgenev acknowledged his child and paid for her upbringing.
Both men were known for their sympathy with the downtrodden and oppressed. But for all their similarities of education and experience, the quality of each man’s compassion could not have been more different: for while one’s, rooted in the suffering of individuals, was real, the other’s, abstract and general, was not.
To see the difference, contrast Turgenev’s 1852 story "Mumu" with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, written four years earlier. Both works, almost exactly equal in length, took shape in difficult circumstances: Marx, expelled from France for revolutionary activity, was residing in Brussels, where he had no wish to be and no income, while Turgenev was under house arrest at Spasskoye, his isolated estate southwest of Moscow, for having written his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, an implicitly anti-serfdom—and therefore subversive—book. The censor who allowed it to be published was dismissed and stripped of his pension.
"Mumu" is set in Moscow in the days of serfdom. Gerasim is a deaf and dumb serf of enormous stature and strength, whose owner, an old and tyrannical feudal landowner, has had him brought to the city from the countryside. Unable to express himself in words, Gerasim clumsily woos a peasant girl called Tatyana, also owned by the landowner. On a whim, however, the landowner, a sour and embittered widow who is never named, decides to marry Tatyana off to another of her serfs, a drunken cobbler called Kapiton, thus dashing Gerasim’s hopes.
Not long after, Gerasim finds a young puppy drowning in a muddy creek. He rescues her and looks after her until she is a healthy, full-grown dog. He calls her Mumu, the nearest he can come to articulating a word, and everyone in the landowner’s Moscow establishment soon knows the dog by that name. Gerasim grows passionately fond of the dog, his only true friend, whom he allows to live with him in his little room, and who follows him everywhere. The dog adores Gerasim.
One day the landowner sees Mumu through the window and asks for the dog to be brought to her. But Mumu is afraid of the landowner and bares her teeth to her. The landowner instantly conceives a dislike of the dog and demands that she be gotten rid of. One of the landowner’s servants takes the dog away and sells it to a stranger. Gerasim searches for Mumu frantically but fails to find her. However, Mumu finds her way back to him, to his overwhelming joy.
Unfortunately, Mumu barks on the following night and wakes the landowner, who believes herself to be sorely tried by this interruption of her sleep. She demands that the dog, this time, be destroyed. Her servants go to Gerasim and, by means of signs, pass on her demand. Gerasim, recognizing the inevitable, promises to destroy the dog himself.
There follow two passages of almost unbearable pathos. In the first, Gerasim takes Mumu to the local tavern: "In the tavern they knew Gerasim and understood his sign language. He ordered cabbage soup and meat and sat down with his arms on the table. Mumu stood beside his chair, looking at him calmly with her intelligent eyes. Her coat literally shone: clearly she had only recently been combed. They brought Gerasim his cabbage soup. He broke some bread into it, cut up the meat into small pieces and set the bowl down on the floor. Mumu started eating with her customary delicacy, her muzzle hardly touching the food. Gerasim studied her for a long time; two heavy tears rolled suddenly out of his eyes: one fell on the dog’s forehead, the other into the soup. He covered his face with his hand. Mumu ate half the bowl and walked away licking herself. Gerasim stood up, paid for the soup and left."
He takes Mumu down to the river, picking up a couple of bricks en route. At the riverbank, he gets into a boat with Mumu and rows out some distance.
"Finally Gerasim sat up straight, hurriedly, with a look of sickly bitterness on his face, tied the bricks together with string, made a noose, placed it round Mumu’s neck, lifted her over the river, looked at her for the last time. . . . Trustingly and without fear she looked at him and slightly wagged her tail. He turned away, grimaced and let go. . . . Gerasim heard nothing, neither the whining of the falling Mumu, nor the heavy splash in the water; for him the noisiest day was still and soundless, as not even the quietest night can be soundless for us; and when he again opened his eyes the little waves were as ever hurrying along the river’s surface, as if racing after each other, as ever they rippled against the sides of the boat, and only far behind one or two broad rings rippled towards the bank."
We learn that after Mumu’s death Gerasim runs away back to his village, where he works like a slave in the fields: but never again does he form a close attachment to man or dog.
When the cultivated, aristocratic, revolutionary Russian exile Alexander Herzen read the story, he trembled with rage. Thomas Carlyle said it was the most emotionally affecting story he had ever read. John Galsworthy said of it that "no more stirring protest against tyrannical cruelty was ever penned." And one of Turgenev’s relatives, to whom the author read "Mumu," wrote afterward, "What a humane and good man one must be to understand and give expression to the experience and torments of another’s heart in that way!"
The story is autobiographical, and the tyrannical, captious, arbitrary, and selfish landowner is the author’s mother, Varvara Petrovna Turgeneva. Widowed early, she was an absolute monarch on her estate. Many stories have come down to us of her cruelty, though not all have been authenticated: for example, that she had two serfs sent to Siberia for having failed to make their obeisances to her as she passed—because they did not see her. And the model for Gerasim was a deaf and dumb serf belonging to Varvara Petrovna called Andrei.
Clearly "Mumu" is an impassioned protest against the exercise of arbitrary power of one person over another, but it is not politically schematic. Though it is obviously directed against serfdom, the story does not suggest that cruelty is the prerogative of feudal landowners alone, and that if only serfdom were abolished, no vigilance against such cruelty would be necessary. If power is a permanent feature of human relationships—and surely only adolescents and certain kinds of intellectuals, Marx included, could imagine that it is not—then "Mumu" is a permanent call to compassion, restraint, and justice in its exercise. That is why "Mumu" does not lose its power to move 140 years after the abolition of serfdom in Russia; while it refers to a particular place at a particular time, it is also universal.
In making his general point, Turgenev does not suggest that his characters are anything but individuals, with their own personal characteristics. He does not see them just as members of a group or class, caused by oppression to act in predetermined ways like trams along their rails: and his careful observation of even the humblest of them is the most powerful testimony possible to his belief in their humanity. Grand aristocrat that he was, and acquainted with the greatest minds of Europe, he did not disdain to take seriously the humblest peasant, who could not hear or speak. Turgenev’s oppressed peasants were fully human beings, endowed with free will and capable of moral choice.
He contrasts Gerasim’s tenderness toward Mumu with the landowner’s selfish fractiousness. "Why should that dumb man have a dog?" she asks, without the thought entering her head for a moment that "that dumb man" might have interests and feelings of his own. "Who allowed him to keep a dog out in my yard?"
Turgenev does not suggest that the landowning widow’s quasi-absolute power is in any way enviable. Although religious in a superficial and sententious way, she regards God as a servant, not a master, and she acknowledges no limits, either God’s or the law’s, to the exercise of her will. The result for her is misery, a permanent state of irritation, dissatisfaction, and hypochondria. The satisfaction of her whims brings no pleasure, precisely because they are whims rather than true desires; and—used as she is to obedience, and deserving of it as she believes herself to be—she experiences all resistance, even that of time, as intolerable.
For example, when Mumu is brought in, the landowner talks to her in a syrupy, ingratiating manner; but when the dog fails to respond, she changes her tune. "Take her away! A disgusting little dog!" Unlike Gerasim, who has nurtured Mumu with tender devotion, the landowner wants the dog to love her immediately, just because she is who she is.
Her power renders her dishonest and incapable of introspection. When Gerasim disappears after drowning Mumu, "she flew into a temper, shed tears, ordered him to be found no matter what happened, avowed that she’d never ordered the dog to be destroyed and finally gave [her steward] a dressing down." Her denial of responsibility is breathtaking. Power corrupts, Turgenev knows; and the failure to accept any limitation to one’s thoughtless wishes makes happiness impossible. But no set of social arrangements, he understands, will eliminate these dangers altogether.
Nor does Turgenev believe that the people who are subject to the power of the landowner are, by virtue of their oppression, noble. They are scheming and conniving and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel, too. Their mockery of Gerasim is limited only by their fear of his physical strength, and they do not sympathize in the least with his predicament. When Gavrila, the landowner’s steward, goes at the head of a delegation of serfs to tell Gerasim that he must get rid of Mumu once and for all, he bangs on Gerasim’s door and shouts "’Open up!’ There came the sound of smothered barking; but no answer. ’I’m telling you to open up!’ he repeated.
"’Gavrila Andreich,’ remarked Stepan from below, ’he’s deaf, he doesn’t hear.’ Everyone burst out laughing."
There is no compassion in their laughter, not then and not at any other time in the story. Cruelty is not the province only of the landowner, and the heartlessness of the serfs toward Gerasim always reminds me of a scene from my childhood, when I was about 11 years old. I had gone to line up for tickets to a soccer match—in those days, for reasons I can no longer recapture, I was enthusiastic about the game. The line was long, and there was at least a two-hour wait. An old blind man with an accordion passed along the line, singing "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," while a companion held out a cap for alms. They passed some young working-class men who had a radio, and who turned the volume up to drown out his song. They laughed loudly at his bewilderment as his companion led him away, reduced to silence.
No one intervened or told the young men how abominably they had behaved; I was too cowardly to do so. But in that little scene, I saw man’s permanent capacity for inhumanity to man, a capacity that transcends social condition, class, or education.
An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific Ocean reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon, the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.
The victory over cruelty is never final, but, like the maintenance of freedom, requires eternal vigilance. And it requires, as in "Mumu," the exercise of the sympathetic imagination.
Turning from Turgenev to Marx (although the Manifesto appears under the names of both Marx and Engels, it was almost entirely Marx’s work), we enter a world of infinite bile—of rancor, hatred, and contempt—rather than of sorrow or compassion. It is true that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve "the system." Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.
In fact, the hecatombs his followers piled up are—to the last million victims—implicit in the Manifesto. The intolerance and totalitarianism inhere in the beliefs expressed: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole."
In other words, there is no need for other parties, let alone individuals with their own personal quirks: indeed, since the Communists so perfectly express the interests of the proletariat, anyone opposed to the Communists must, by definition, be opposed to the interests of the proletariat. Moreover, since the Communists "openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions," it follows that Lenin and Stalin were perfectly right in eliminating their opponents by force. And since, according to Marx, the ideas that people have are determined by their position in the economic structure of society, it is not even necessary for people to declare their enmity: it can be known ex officio, as it were. The killing of the kulaks was the practical application of Marxist epistemology.
As you read the Manifesto, a ghostly procession of Marxist catastrophes seems to rise up from it, as from the witches’ brew in Macbeth. Take for example points 8 and 9 of the Communist program (interestingly, as in God’s program published on Mount Sinai, there were ten in all): "8. Equal liability to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. 9. Combination of agriculture with industry, promotion of the gradual elimination of the contradictions between town and countryside." Those who experienced Pol Pot’s regime, and Ceauüsescu’s "systematization," which demolished villages and replaced them with half-completed high-rise apartments in the middle of fields, will have no difficulty in recognizing the provenance of their misfortunes.
The Manifesto makes no mention of individual human life, except to deny its possibility under present conditions. True, Marx mentions a few authors by name, but only to pour heavily Teutonic scorn and contumely upon them. For him, there are no individuals, or true humans, at all. "In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality."
It is no wonder, then, that Marx speaks only in categories: the bourgeois, the proletarian. For him, individual men are but clones, their identity with vast numbers of others being caused not by the possession of the same genes, but by that of the same relations to the economic system. Why study a man, when you know Men?
Nor is this the only generalization in the Manifesto that reduces the entire population of men to mere ciphers: "On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. . . . But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. . . . The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor. . . . The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. . . . Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women."
There is no mistaking the hatred and rage of these words; but anger, while a real and powerful emotion, is not necessarily an honest one, nor is it by any means always ungratifying. There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation. But when Marx wrote these words, he must surely have known that they were, at best, a savage caricature, at worst a deliberate distortion calculated to mislead and to destroy.
As a family man, he himself was not an unqualified success. Although he lived a bourgeois existence, it was a disorderly, bohemian one, flamboyantly squalid. Two of his daughters, Laura and Eleanor, committed suicide, partly as a result of his interference in their lives. But not even his worst enemy could claim that he saw in his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, "a mere instrument of production," a spinning jenny, so to speak. Half his youthful poems were addressed to her in the most passionate and romantic terms only a few years before he wrote the Manifesto; and though their relations had later cooled, he was nevertheless deeply affected by her death and did not long survive her. Even he, whose information about people came mainly from books, must have known that the Manifesto’s depiction of the relations between men and women was grossly distorted. His rage was therefore—as is so much modern rage—entirely synthetic, perhaps an attempt to assume a generosity of spirit, or love of mankind, that he knew he did not have but felt he ought to have.
His lack of interest in the individual lives and fates of real human beings—what Mikhail Bakunin once called his lack of sympathy with the human race—shines out in his failure to recognize the often noble attempts by workingmen to maintain a respectable family life in the face of the greatest difficulties. Was it really true that they had no family ties, and that their children were mere articles of commerce? For whom were they mere articles of commerce? It is typical of Marx’s unrigorous mind that he should leave the answer ambiguous, as if commerce could exist independently of the people carrying it on. Only his outrage, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, is clear.
Marx’s firm grasp of unreality is also evident in his failure to imagine what would happen when, through the implementation of the ideas of radical intellectuals influenced by his mode of thinking, the bourgeois family really would break down, when "the practical absence of the family" really would become an undeniable social fact. Surely the increased sexual jealousy, the widespread child neglect and abuse, and the increase in the interpersonal violence (all in conditions of unprecedented material prosperity) should have been utterly predictable to anybody with a deeper knowledge than his of the human heart.
Compare Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety, alluded to by Henry James, who knew Turgenev in Paris and wrote an essay about him a year after his death: "Like all men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different pieces; and what was always striking in him was the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most various observation. . . . I had [once] been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic temperament: a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed singularly inane. He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say that he was democratic would be (though his political ideal was democracy) to give an equally superficial account of him. He felt and understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative, anything but literal. . . . Our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him, and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I found a perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and right, were the foundation of his nature; but half the charm of his conversation was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous."
I don’t think anyone could have said this of Marx. When he wrote that "the workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got," he wrote as a man who, as far as is known, had never taken the trouble to canvass the living views of anyone but himself. His pronouncement of the death of nationalist feeling was premature, to say the least. And when he wrote that the bourgeois would lament the cultural loss that the proletarian revolution inevitably entailed, but that "that culture . . . is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine," he failed to acknowledge the profoundly moving attempts of workingmen in Britain to acquire that very culture as a liberating and ennobling agency. It needs very little effort of the imagination to understand what fortitude it took to work in a Victorian factory by day and read Ruskin and Carlyle, Hume and Adam Smith by night, as so many workingmen did (volumes from their lending libraries and institutes are still to be found in British secondhand bookshops); but it was an effort that Marx was never prepared to make, because he did not consider it worthwhile to make it. One might ask whether he has not set a pattern for hordes of cultivated brutes in the academy, who have destroyed for others what they themselves have benefited from.
Very different from all this, the sympathy that Turgenev expressed for the downtrodden was for living, breathing human beings. Because he understood what Henry James called "the opposite sides of life," he understood that there was no denouement to history, no inevitable apocalypse, after which all contradictions would be resolved, all conflicts cease, when men would be good because arrangements were perfect, and when political and economic control would turn into mere administration for the benefit of everyone without distinction. Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people around him. Of course, Turgenev knew the value of generalizations and could criticize institutions such as serfdom, but without any silly utopian illusions: for he knew that Man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection. There would therefore be no hecatombs associated with Turgenev’s name.
Marx claimed to know Man, but as for men other than his enemies—he knew them not. Despite being a Hegelian dialectician, he was not interested in the opposite sides of life. Neither kindness nor cruelty moved him: men were simply the eggs from which a glorious omelette would one day be made. And he would be instrumental in making it.
When we look at our social reformers—their language, their concerns, their style, the categories in which they think—do they resemble Marx or Turgenev more? Turgenev—who wrote a wonderful essay entitled "Hamlet and Don Quixote," a title that speaks for itself—would not have been surprised to discover that the Marxist style had triumphed.
By a curious twist of fate, the coldhearted Marxist utopians in Russia found a cynical use for Turgenev’s story "Mumu," which they printed in tens of millions of copies, to justify their own murderous ruthlessness in destroying every trace of the former society. Could any more terrible and preposterous fate have befallen Turgenev’s tale than that it should have been used to justify mass murder? Could there be any more eloquent example of the ability of intellectual abstraction to empty men’s hearts and minds of a sense of shame and of true feeling for humanity?
Let us recall, however, one detail of Turgenev’s and Marx’s biographical trajectory in which they differed. When Marx was buried, hardly anyone came to his funeral (in poetic revenge, perhaps, for his failure to attend the funeral of his father, who adored and sacrificed much for him). When the remains of Turgenev returned to St. Petersburg from France, scores of thousands of people, including the humblest of the humble, turned out to pay their respects—and with very good reason.