Bandwagon of errors

The Ivan Ilyin bandwagon continues to gather passengers. The latest on board is historian Timothy Snyder, who delivered a lecture last week to the Watson Institute at Brown University in which he sought to explain Russian foreign policy through an analysis of the philosopher’s writings. The lecture promotes a familiar theme, namely: Vladimir Putin cites Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore Putin and the regime he leads are fascist. Needless to say, I have a few problems with this, and Snyder’s lecture forces me to return once again to the topic of ‘Putin’s philosopher’, even though it means repeating myself somewhat.

Snyder begins his talk by saying that Russia’s problem is that it isn’t a real state, in that it has not worked out a system of succession of power. Instead, its leaders have deliberately chosen to falsify elections and leave Putin in power almost indefinitely. At the same time, Snyder sees the war in Ukraine as an effort to break up the Ukrainian state and prevent the European Union from becoming a state. To explain Russian behaviour, therefore, Snyder suggests that we need to find ‘an idea which is comfortable with the lack of a state’ (11.00 minute point in speech). That idea is ‘fascism’. Thus Snyder argues that it is no coincidence that the war in Ukraine has coincided with the revival of ‘a fascist geopolitical thinker’, namely Ivan Ilyin.

Next, Snyder relates favorable comments Ilyin made about Mussolini and Hitler, and after the Second World War about Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. According to Snyder (23.50 minute point), Ilyin ‘equates Jews and Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Jews, and therefore approves of Hitler’s discrimination against Jews’. Snyder says that Ilyin was (35.50 minute point) ‘a Eurasianist who says we’re all basically fascists’. The message he sends is that ‘we [Russians] are innocent’ and anything which goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault (mainly the West’s). (42.00 minute point)

My purpose here is not to defend Ilyin. I’m personally of a liberal and democratic inclination. Instead, my concern is the overly simplistic theme espoused by Snyder and others: Ilyin = fascist, therefore Putin = fascist, therefore we all need to be very scared.

In my last post, I said that the ideas of Eurasianism and Alexander Dugin were just several among many influencing Russian policy makers, and even then in a highly bowdlerized way. The same could be said of Ilyin’s ideas. It’s highly debatable whether Ilyin is really as influential as Snyder makes him out to be. But even if I’m wrong about that, Snyder presents only a fraction of what the philosopher’s ideas are all about.

It is indeed true that Ilyin said some positive things about fascism. But he was hardly alone in a lot of this. Winston Churchill, for instance, praised Mussolini in a 1927 speech, saying that fascism ‘has rendered service to the whole world’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Italian Duce ‘that admirable Italian gentleman’. And David Lloyd George described Hitler as ‘a born leader of men, a magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’ But we don’t generally call them all fascists.

Moreover, although he supported authoritarian rule, Ilyin was simultaneously a trenchant opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, which he described as ‘godless’. And contrary to Snyder’s depiction of Ilyin as an anti-Semite, the Nazis actually dismissed him from his job teaching in Berlin for refusing to preach anti-Semitic doctrine. In the end he had to flee Germany.

If Snyder is right that fascists are happy with a lack of proper states, then Ilyin can’t possibly have been a fascist since the establishment of a strong, law-based state was one of his most strongly expressed principles. Ilyin placed an extraordinarily high importance on the law and on the development of ‘legal consciousness’ (pravosoznanie), things which are quite incompatible with fascism (which Snyder admits is associated with ‘arbitrariness’). Ilyin also repeatedly said that the state must be limited, that it must not intrude into people’s personal lives, and that the people must enjoy freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and so on. Rather than saying that everything was somebody else’s fault, in his book On Resistance to Evil by Force Ilyin emphasized that those who fight an external evil have to accept that they are themselves partially responsible for it. Bolshevism, he wrote, was merely the external manifestation of the internal spiritual failings of the Russian people. He did not, as Snyder claims, say it was something imposed on Russia by the West (although he certainly viewed Marxism as a Western, not a Russian ideology).

Next, when you look at the bits of Ilyin which Putin has quoted, they are definitely not the more authoritarian ones. In 2005, for instance, Putin cited comments by Ilyin about the need to limit state power; and in 2014 he cited a statement by Ilyin about the importance of freedom.

In an article entitled ‘The Complex Legacy of Ivan Ilyin’, American scholar Philip Grier describes the philosopher’s thought as being often ‘paradoxical’. Snyder, however, seems to prefer simplicity to complexity, and so misrepresents both Ilyin and modern Russia. Clearly, Ilyin wasn’t a pro-Western liberal democrat, and if you think that Russia ought to be a pro-Western, liberal democratic nation, then Ilyin is not the philosopher for you. But it’s a step too far to go from there to saying that current Russian foreign policy is fascist in orientation.

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29 thoughts on “Bandwagon of errors”

  1. Color me entirely unsurprised by this.

    Basically, Snyder is a hack. He doesnt go all out Lysenko on history like his protege Viatrovich does, but whenever something can possibly be used to tarnish Russia he will use the opportunity.

    Had I been in the audience, I would have had to constantly facepalm. Especially due to the rampant bullshit he said about fascism. Fascism wants a very strong state, sees the state as some organic super being composed of all “productive” citiens.

    And, Russia isnt a “real state”? What the flaming everloving **** is/was he smoking/injecting? What kind of “real state” definition does this guy have? I mean, why is no one telling him to his face that he is an unfunny clown?

    I mean, in Soviet times, it was usually the Soviet propaganda that was the more outrageous horse manure compared to the western propaganda, but now this has kind of reversed itself. For me as someone who lives in the west, this has some unpleaseant implications.

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  2. Very well said, Paul. I’m a great admirer of your methodical deconstructions, and this is no exception. I often wonder how much real study of history is in the background of the vaunted academics of our time, because their public performances seem to owe much more to cherry-picking than to demonstrated knowledge. Sadly, the average citizen’s knowledge is no better, or the academics could not continue to get away with their broad revisionism.

    Another very good post; thanks for it.

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  3. Thanks Paul for sitting through over 90 minutes of rubbish tedium and summarising it so we don’t have to.

    Snyder lost his way once he said the Russian Federation wasn’t a state and from then on, all you had to do was see how much further into his stomach he ruminated. Next time you attend another speech of his, or a speech of a similar Russophobe hack, take one of these with you:

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  4. Very interesting post, Paul. This simplistic “Putin=fascist, Russia=Nazi Germany” argument has been making the rounds among my fellow students and even a few faculty (!) in the Russian studies dept. at my university as well. I personally don’t agree with it. Why is this argument popular? Is it because of its simplicity, the convenience of branding a country one doesn’t like as a great threat to the Free World? (It is a surefire way to silence critics of one’s POV…) Or are there really fascist elements to the current Russian political system that one is right to be worried about?

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    1. Good question, JT. It has taken me a while to think up a decent response. The best I can come up with is the psychological phenomenon of ‘group polarization’. One might imagine that in a group discussion, people would tend to compromise towards something in the middle of their initial range of opinions. Instead, groups tend to move towards the extreme. So, if they began mostly conservative, for instance, then after discussion the group will be highly conservative. You might consider academics, journalists, politicians etc who study Russia to be a group engaged in discussion. Their initial tendency is Russophobic. After continual discussion and engagement with one another, they become even more Russophobic. Prejudices are reinforced, room for doubt is removed, prestige in the group comes from putting oneself as even harder line than everyone else, etc. The group ends up more and more Russophobic.
      That may not be all that there is to it, but I suspect it may be a significant part.

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  5. First: thanks again, Paul, for critiquing this — cleaning out the Augean stables — so the rest of us don’t have to. It makes my stomach hurt just to read your quotes from Snyder.

    When did it cease being a necessary requirement of scholarship to actually read the source material thoroughly before talking about it? Snyder needs to take a deep breath and start doing his homework.

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    1. Listening to Snyder’s lecture, he does seem to have read a reasonable amount of Ilyin – he mentions Our Tasks and the little book on proposals for the future political system of Russia, and some of the things Snyder says suggest he may have read ‘On Resistance to Evil by Force’ and some other things. But he interprets them all in the most negative possible manner. He describes ‘Our Tasks’ as a ‘fascist’ book, for instance, which is a little odd. So it’s not ignorance so much as ideological bias, I think. Of course, I may well be biased in my own way! If you get a chance to listen to the whole lecture, I’d be interested in your thoughts. (Oddly, right at the very end of his talk, around the 45 minute mark, Snyder suddenly introduces a bit of nuance indicating that he perhaps knows that it’s a bit more complex than he’s suggesting, but it seems to be just a bit of an afterthought).

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  6. Although I own Ilyin’s collected works, I have to confess I haven’t read every volume, but after a while you get the general idea. To my mind, a fair reading of Ilyin makes crystal clear that, if he believed anything, it was that the nature of a political order must be in line with the legal maturity and awareness of the public that lives in that state.

    It is absolutely apparent that Ilyin expected the political maturity of post-Stalinist Russia to be in a dismal state. He also expected it to be in a fragile state, and prone to being beset by internal fragmentation and outsiders hoping to encourage that fragmentation (much as has been the case with, say, Syria: see for example Jonathan Marshall’s piece on this subject in the May 10, 2016 ConsortiumNews). It was precisely for this reason that Ilyin thought that the best temporary arrangement for a post-Stalinist Russia was authoritarian. It is true that there are authoritarian aspects of Putin, and in this respect one can say that there are some analogies. And of course, for liberals today, there is no need for making fine distinctions: any appeal to authority is ‘fascist,’ and therefore there is only liberal democracy on the one hand, and then ‘fascism’ on the other. Poor Hannah Arendt is rolling in her grave.

    But I digress. Ilyin ALSO makes clear in his writings that he is an admirer of American and Swiss democracy. He felt that the maturity, legal consciousness, and ethical habits of the citizens of both countries made them well adapted to democracy. (I wonder how he would respond to American ‘maturity’ today?). He also hoped for the day when Russians would be ready to adapt more democratic ways. I do very much doubt that his ideal state would have the institutional or ethical groundings of the Lockean/Hobbesian type, which is (cf. Leo Strauss’s sharp criticisms of it in his What is Political Philosophy?) of a rather low type, in the ethical and spiritual sense — at least, from the perspective of someone like Ilyin, who takes Christianity very seriously, as, it should be added, America once did as well. Ilyin’s democratic and law-based state would be very different from a liberal state. It would have an aristocratic principle. To reduce all this merely to fascism, as Snyder has done, does a real disservice to everyone interested in trying to respond to the real challenges of political philosophy, which confront not only Russia. What Snyder has done, given his stature at a place like Yale, is almost tragic in its waste of an intellectual opportunity.

    Off soap box. Back to you .

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  7. Timothy Snyder had long ago established his bona fides as the howling, carpet-chewing Russophobe (aka the “Russian History Expert”) with his most (in)famous work of fiction – The Bloodlands (2010). Naturally, much of praise have been heaped both upon him and his works (e.g. see the panegyric penned by Anne “NeoCons Uber Alles” Appelbaum herself!) since, for his hard efforts to prove that “Stalin = Hitler”, “USSR = Nazi Germany” and, ipso facto, “Putin’s Russia – NeoCommieNazies Hellhole”. All done using virtually no material from Russian archives.

    Beware, Mr. Robinson. You are daring to raise your doubting voice against the modern mainstream author, bellowed by the powers that be and Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite & Punditocracy (AFPE&P).

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    1. “for his hard efforts to prove that “Stalin = Hitler”, “USSR = Nazi Germany””

      Actually, I have the impression that this is not the concept he’s trying to instill in the public. His idea is that Nazism was merely an understandable reaction to the (greater) evils of Bolshevism. That Nazism was, sort of, a natural defense against Bolshevism…

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      1. In that case I’m surprised why he didn’t bring up (as one of the dreaded “Eurasianism” Founding Fathers) baron von Ungern“:

        “Ungern-Sternberg inverted Western fears of the “Yellow Peril”, arguing that the West was morally corrupt and degenerate with the forces of “mad revolution” controlled by the Jews were running amok while the East had mostly maintained its moral purity, and he would lead a pan-Asian army to cleanse the West of its sickness via a bloodbath”

        See? Makes perfect equal sense!

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  8. Thomas Jefferson was a racist and white supremacist (see Notes on the State of Virginia). Every single US politician quoted Thomas Jefferson (and repeatedly, I’m sure). QED.

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      1. Wow, you really do know your Putin… 😉

        But seriously, why so much interest in an individual? Shouldn’t we talk about objective historical processes and conditions instead? The Great Man of History is an old, long discredited theory… I’m afraid we’re just submitting to the framing imposed by a propaganda machine – for pure propaganda purposes… But okay, I already tried this line here… Never mind…

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  9. It seems to me that Snyder was once a generally solid historian, but has been seduced by the easy popularity of peddling half-baked analysis of contemporary events. Bloodlands isn’t a perfect book, but it doesn’t deserve some of the more hysterical reactions it’s received, many of which seem to come from people who haven’t actually read the book. When I read the hostile review of the book in Jacobin, I barely recognized the book I had read in the review. In talking about fascism as a political ideology that is “comfortable with the lack of a state”, it seems that Snyder is drawing on his own study of Nazism in the book “Black Earth”.
    This is a good example of how Snyder is going downhill. “Black Earth” is a generally solid book, and makes some good observations on the topic of how Hitler’s ideology differs from those of other contemporary authoritarians in that most authoritarian ideologies seek to strengthen the state, whereas the ideas expressed in Mein Kampf are centred on the destruction of the state, at least in any recognizable form. The problem for how Snyder is trying to use the idea now is that he fails to notice that, on this basis, Mussolini, Salazar, Franco, etc. all fall on the “authoritarian” side of this distinction, rather than the “Hitlerist” side. If Snyder were a better analyst than he is, he would note that this is one reason (among many) why “fascist” is a pretty useless political label, in that it seeks to encompass ideologies that actually had relatively little in common. From what I’ve seen of Ilyin, he’s not completely lacking in agreement with certain aspects of Mussolini’s thought, although even these tend to reflect Mussolini in his more liberal moods. But to use the elastic term “fascist” to try to suggest that this means Ilyin had sympathy with Hitler’s anti-statism is downright childish.

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  10. Dear Paul, thank you for your excellent comments of hopelessly inaccurate Snyder’s lecture concerning Ivan Ilyin. If this very lecturer knows about all other things like his knowledge about Ilyn, then I feel sorry and pity the audience who wasted their time to listen to such a man. You write me: «it would be good to get your reaction to Snyder’s lecture if you have time to listen to it». I will not do it because it is useless. «Mission does not need polemics!» I mean my enthusiasm to present Ilyin’s doctrine in different branches of legal and political science as well as on religious philosophy. I have spent more than 30 years for it and say with modest results. And it concerns a philosopher who was a post graduate student and a friend of Edmund Hussell and that one famous phenomenologist was a professor of Martin Heidegger. Only these historical events of Ilyn’s education could draw people attention but all this vain hopes. I wrote you at once in 2005 when I read your extremely good and brave paper: «On Resistance to Evil by Force: Ivan Ilyin and the Necessity of War» (2003), when you raise a serious question on the war theories and reference to Ilyin book. Unfortunately, now the problem is more complicated and the contemporary situation is much more awful than at that time (13 year have already passed!) I stopped to explain people what a great philosopher Ilyin was because people remind me now-day students who cannot answer any simple question (usually I ask them to sat thee! correct words concerning from my lectures) on exams like this: «Give, please, three at least names of Russian philosophers of the Silver Century». The answer: «As I know they are René Descartes, Nikolay Berdyaev and Sergei Esenin». (Later I understood that this answer was not the worst.) Maybe, Snyder was a student of such education, why not? Another version he is a man-project.

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  11. The only halfway decent definition of fascism that I know of is “an authoritarian police state based on a nationalist identity.”
    In other words, souped-up nationalism.
    I can’t really think of any counter-examples.
    Every fascist state (Italy, Spain, Germany — with Nazism as a species of fascism) bases itself on an ethnic-defined “titular” nationalism.
    Other nationalities are not necessarily exterminated or repressed, but they are definitely sidelined from power.
    I think the nationalist factor is more important in the definition even than the authoritarian factor.

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    1. “bases itself on an ethnic-defined “titular” nationalism”

      Interesting question. Does fascism necessarily require ethnocentric commitment (is fascism possible in the US, then?), or just commitment to the nation-state? What about ‘civilizational’ commitment, a-la Dugin (he definitely opposes the ethnocentric view, regards it as an extremely dangerous heresy)?

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      1. Dear Mao:
        These are interesting questions.
        I do believe that it is very important to define political movements and ideologies as accurately as possible. (A political dictionary, so to speak.) A precise definition of “fascism”, for example, would be a worthy goal. I don’t have one myself, but then I am not a political scientist.

        It is an interesting hypothetical if, say, the U.S. could be defined as a fascist state, even with official (racial and ethnic) tolerance defined in the constitution.
        Not really sure.
        That is to say, living in the U.S. myself I am 95% sure that I live in a police state where corporations make all the laws. But I don’t know if it could be defined as actually fascist, given the fact that all citizens regardless of ethnicity are equal (on paper at least), and there is no such thing as a “titular” nationality.

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      2. “even with official (racial and ethnic) tolerance defined in the constitution”

        I didn’t mean the constitution. I meant the absence of “titular ethnicity”.

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    2. An American nationalist identity can be rooted in identifying with and being loyal to American goals, objectives and values (as determined by US political, economic and cultural elites) and need not be based on ethnicity.

      A lot of countries actually celebrate ethnic diversity as a value and still have a strong nationalist identity based on this diversity. Indonesia is a good example of this and for years under Suharto the country was a police state with strong fascist characteristics.
      http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/11/indonesia-a-proudly-nazi-nation/

      At the other extreme, a nationalist identity can be built up by denying people’s original ethnic backgrounds and considering them all belonging to the same artificial national group if they share something else in common (like religion). Turkey is a good example of this type of nationalism: most Turkish people have mixed ethnic backgrounds and even the President himself has part-Georgian ancestry.

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      1. Well, the latter example is typical: a commitment to a specific (Turk, in this case) ethnicity.

        It’s case where there is no dominant ethnicity to glorify, that I’m interested in. Can you declare “America above all” or “America first” (non-ethnocentric nationalism) and build a fascist society on that, or will the internal contradictions (you Anglo-Americans are oppressing us African-Americans!) cause a swift collapse…

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      2. @ Mao Cheng Ji: Before 1861, Italy was not yet a nation and before 1871, Germany was not yet a nation. In their places were a number of kingdoms, principalities and other political entities, all of which had their own languages, cultures and histories, and in some cases their own ethnic and religious minorities. The Kingdom of Prussia (the state that more or less created Germany) alone had a large Polish population and minorities of Lithuanians, Sorbs and Kashubians.

        Yet during the 1920s, Italy had become a fascist state and after 1933 Germany had become a fascist state. So these two countries had to work at unifying very different groups of people with their own identities under new national identities. Denying separate local and historical identities and replacing these with one over-arching artificial national identity may be one way these countries did it; but it’s also possible that encouraging regional identities and then subsuming those within an over-arching national identity (as Indonesia’s “Unity in Diversity” schtick) can have the same result. Italian and German national identities have not existed forever: they had to be created.

        Incidentally although Prussia created the Germany that is familiar to us and supplied its pre-1918 royal family and government, Hitler and several of his senior people were from Austrian or Bavarian backgrounds and Bavaria was the most loyal support for the Nazis.

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  12. I have recently started reading Ilyin’s Our Tasks. Only 10% of the way through but its already absolutely clear to me that he has absolutely nothing to do with Nazism or even fascism.

    * He repeatedly condemns totalitarianism of both the Left and the Right (of which he considers Nazism to be an example of).

    * He is highly vitriolic towards socialism in general but that puts him completely within the dominant strands of right-wing conservatism of the time.

    * He makes the rather obvious (one might think) point that if the Stalinist system were to collapse a democracy would be impossible in practice. Instead, you would get either chaos, renewed totalitarianism, or a rightwing strongman. That is not a statement of principle or prescription but of common sense, which moreover happens to have been more or less exactly what eventually happened.

    * Frankly he is much more of an anti-Communist ideologue than a Russian nationalist. He condemns in no uncertain terms those members of the White movement who were drawn towards the late Stalinist USSR by its adoption of quasi-nationalist rhetoric and is generally sanguine about Western (though not German) intentions towards Russia, casually discussing even the prospect of the atomic bombing of his country. That is decidedly strange for a nationalist, even a highly anti-Communist one.

    * He even condemns the “oppression” of ethnic minorities in the USSR, whereas a staple of traditional Russian nationalist narratives on the USSR is the disproportional influence of ethnic minorities (especially the Jews) for its “anti-Russian” nature. So far he has been rather vague on the “who to blame” question as regards the Bolshevik Revolution, not going much further than “spiritual sickness.” Again, that is very milquetoast stuff, for a purported nationalist.

    * That said, I don’t mean to imply some kind of radical revision in which Ilyin is no longer even a Russian nationalist. Numerous other passages confirm that he is. But so far as nationalists go he is a very moderate and “politically correct” one. Of course even that goes way too far for the small country Eastern European nationalists and neocons (who are ultimately also nationalists of a certain ethnic group) who call him a fascist because for them the presence of any national Russian feeling is the worst thing since the Third Partition of Poland.

    * Of course I might revise some of the above assessments once I get further into the book.

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  13. I have come to the part where Ilyin expounds at length on fascism.

    Essentially, he views it as an overreaction to Communism, which ironically assumes many of its same flaws. He criticizes it for its tendency to drift towards totalitarianism, racism (!), military aggression and imperialism, Caesarism, and suppression of plurality.

    He obviously views it as a preferable alternative to Communism and gives qualified approval to moderate fascist regimes such as those of Franco and Salazar, as reliable bulwarks against the Red Menace. Once again, in this respect, he is a typical European conservative of that era.

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