Universalism and particularism

I am flying out this evening to attend a conference in Berlin, details of which you can find here.


I will be delivering a paper entitled ‘Universalism and Particularism in Russian conservatism.’ The abstract is below:

Abstract, ‘Universalism and Particularism in Russian conservatism’

This paper will examine the tension within Russian conservative thought between universalism and particularism, and how these two trends have been synthesized through the influence of German Romanticism.

The recent ‘conservative turn’ in Russian politics has led to a renewed interest in ideas of Russian universalism and messianism. Commentators have paid particular attention to the idea that Russia is promoting a type of ‘conservative internationale’. Russia is seen by some as attempting to spread universal ‘Christian values’ in contrast to the decadence of the West. According to Christopher Stroop, ‘This right-wing iteration of moral exceptionalism entails a belief that Russia was given a Providential calling to revive the Christian roots of European, or more broadly Western, civilization.’

Against this, there is another trend in Russian conservative thought which denies that universal values exist. This particularist view of the world rests in part on a form of organicism which sees nations as organic wholes which must develop in their own way, free of incompatible alien imports. Philosopher Ivan Ilyin, for instance, wrote: ‘Russia is not an empty container into which one can mechanically and arbitrarily place whatever one wants, regardless of the laws of its spiritual organism. … Every people creates what it can based on what it’s given. … There is no generally mandatory “Western culture” compared with which everything else is “darkness” or “barbarism”.’ Every people does things its own way, Ilyin said, and ‘every people is right.’

Linked to this latter view is a tradition, going back to Konstantin Leontev and Nikolai Danilevsky in the late 19th century, which sees the world as divided into distinct civilizations. This view of the world, which has gained considerable traction in modern Russia, denies the validity of such ideas as ‘universal human rights.’ Each civilization should follow its own path of development.

Russian messianism seems on the surface to be incompatible with Russian denial of universalism. This paper will demonstrate, however, that Russian conservatives have often synthesized the two by drawing upon the tradition of German Romanticism. The Romantics considered that each nation contributed to human progress by developing what was unique and best about their own culture. The universal good is thus served by the promotion of diversity. From the Slavophiles onwards, Russian conservatives have adopted this idea. As Dostoevsky put it, ‘All great nations have manifested themselves and their great powers … and have brought something, if only a single ray of light, into the world, precisely because they have remained themselves, proudly and undauntedly, always and presumptuously independent.’

Transferring this idea to the modern era, some argue that the development of a multipolar world, as nations ‘presumptuously’ pursue their independence, serves not only Russian interests, but also those of humanity. Thus Vladimir Putin has repeatedly called for the replacement of American hegemony with a multipolar system, and spoke of his preference for ‘polyculturalism.’ Similarly, in a recent article, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, citing thinkers such as Ivan Ilyin and Lev Gumilev, remarked that ‘there are many development models – which rules out the monotony of existence within the uniform, Western frame of reference,’ and that therefore ‘long-term success can only be achieved on the basis of a movement to a partnership of civilisations based on respectful interaction of diverse cultures and religions.’ In this way, diversity and particularism are seen as necessary for the universal good. Drawing on this conclusion, the paper will finish by analyzing how this mode of thinking affects the concrete realities of contemporary Russian domestic and foreign policy.


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