Revolutionaries readily sacrifice living people to achieve the glorious future. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, they tell us, but while the eggs are surely broken, the omelet is never made. If people are sacrificed for an ever-receding goal, Herzen argues, then sacrifice is all there will ever be. The greatest tyranny results from the attempt to abolish it altogether. In the book’s most quoted passage, the skeptic asks:

If progress is the end, for whom are we working?… Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive today to the sad role of … wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows?… This alone should serve as a warning to people: An end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer — it ought to be, at the very least, the laborer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done.

Each present moment, and each human life, is precious in itself, not just as a means to some exalted goal. This is a lesson revolutionaries never seem to learn.