I was reading something last week which fitted in rather nicely with the phenomenon I described in my recent review of Joshua Yaffa’s book, namely the idea that if the authorities are flawed one should have absolutely nothing to do with them. The more I read it, the more I liked it. The problem I had, though, was that I liked it so much that as I made notes I began to realize that I was pretty much copying the entire piece. So, in the end I decided to do exactly that, and also translate it. The result is below.
The piece in question is an article written in 1862 by the Russian conservative liberal philosopher Boris Chicherin, entitled ‘Various forms of liberalism’. I’d read some Chicherin before, but not this piece, and I think it’s really great – not a deep piece of philosophy, hardly a product of thorough, empirically justified research, more of an opinionated rant, but all the more enjoyable because of it. And although I regard parts of it as somewhat over the top, the basic themes resonate. One can recognize today, 120 years later, many of the same characteristics of what Chicherin calls ‘street’ and ‘oppositional’ liberalism among liberals both in Russia and the West (indeed I even recognize some of them in myself). For this reason, a lot of this rings true even today. Chicherin’s discussion of the nature of freedom is also interesting.
The translation is far from perfect, and on occasion rather clunky. This is due to the haste with which it was done as well as my own rather limited skills as a translator. Still, I think that it gets the sense across most of the time. I apologize for any inaccuracies.
I have translated Chicherin’s phrase ‘okhranitel’nyi liberalizm‘ as ‘conservative liberalism’, as this is how it is normally done, and I can’t think of anything better. But it doesn’t really do credit to the statist nuance inherent in the word ‘okhranitel’nyi‘ (some historians after all write of okhranitel’nyi konservatizm – which following this translation would be ‘conservative conservatism’). If anybody has any suggestions for a better translation, I’d be happy to hear them.
Various forms of liberalism (Boris Chicherin, 1862)
If we listen to the social conversation which is taking place from one end of Russia to the other, both secretly and openly, in clubs, in drawing rooms, and in the press, then despite the variety of speeches and tendencies, we easily notice one thing in common, which dominates over everything else. There is no doubt that at the present time public opinion in Russia is decidedly liberal. This is not an accident but a product of necessity; it’s a result of the nature of things. The rejection of the old order is a direct consequence of its bankruptcy. It has become obvious to everybody that you can’t have a well-ordered state without also having some degree of freedom.
This phenomenon can only please those in whose hearts the feeling of freedom has been deeply engraved, who had nourished and cherished it in the quiet of their thoughts, in the secret hiding place of their souls, at the same time as it was banished from society as something subversive and criminal. Freedom is the greatest gift given to man, it raises him above the rest of creation, it turns him into something which possesses reason, it leaves a moral imprint on him. In reality, what deed do we value the most? To what action do we ascribe moral beauty? Not the deed which is carried out under external orders, out of fear and blind obedience of the ruling powers, but the deed which flows out of the unattainable depths of conscience, where man is alone with himself, independent of alien influences, where he decides, consciously and freely, what he considers good and his duty. Man’s moral greatness is measured by this unshakeable inner strength, impervious to suggestion or temptation. Through this firm decisiveness, history inexorably follows the free voice of truth, which neither the frenzied cries of the crowd, nor threats, nor force, nor even torture can budge. The Christian martyrs died for the inner freedom of man. And human thought flows from the unexplored depths of free reason, that strong, fruitful thought which is capable of influencing the will and of coming to life, which isn’t imposed or borrowed, but is recast in the furnace of consciousness and expresses a man’s free convictions. Inside the consciousness an endlessly free world is revealed, in which the universe is reflected. Here a person is his own master, here he judges both the force imposed on him and the madness which seeks to stifle the grief of separation. Here are generated the ideas which change the face of the earth and become a guiding principle for generations to come.
Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, this is the altar on which burns the flame of God which is inherent in man, this is the source of all spiritual strength, of every movement which matters, of all structures founded on reason, this is what gives man eternal significance. All human dignity, all human rights, are founded on freedom. As a free being, man proudly raises his head and demands respect. That is why, no matter how low he falls, he never loses his humanity, and moral law does not allow one to regard him from the point of view of the costs or benefits which he brings to others. A man is not a means for other ends, he is himself an absolute end. Man enters into society as a free being. Limiting his will to the combined will of others, subordinating himself to his civil duties, obeying the authorities who represent the idea of social unity and higher order, he still preserves his human dignity and his innate right to the unhindered expression of his reason. Human society is not a herd of silent animals, which trusts in the care of the shepherd until such time as it is taken off for slaughter. The purpose of human societies is the good of their members and not the good of the master. Power over free citizens gives the shepherds of nations a dignity before which others bow with respect, and there is no more beautiful, or more holy calling on earth, and nothing that can so fill the heart of man, than this feeling of pride and responsibility.
The idea of freedom concentrates in itself everything which gives life value and is dear to man. This is why it exerts such a charm on ennobled souls, this is where it gets that irresistible strength with which it seizes control of young hearts in whom still burns the idealistic fire which separates man from the earth. Woe is he whose youthful heart never beat with a passion for freedom, who never felt ready to die for it with pleasure. Woe is he in whom this flame has been extinguished by the banality of everyday life, and who having grown up fails to respect the dreams of his youth.
When one matures, one’s understanding of freedom loses its flippancy, its negativity, its wilfulness, which doesn’t recognize any law, becomes more restrained through an understanding of life, and adapts to life’s conditions. But it doesn’t disappear from the heart, but rather grows deeper and deeper roots in it, becoming a firm principle which doesn’t falter and calmly directs one’s life.
As history shows, entire peoples feel the powerful influence of this idea. Freedom suddenly embraces them with its breath, as if awakening them from a sleep. A whole new life opens up to them. Casting off their fetters, they are reborn. Like a frenzied Pythian uttering prophetic words of misfortune to the strong of the earth, with insuperable strength it overcomes all barriers and carries the flame which it has lighted to every end of the world. But iron necessity soon restrains these bursts and returns freedom to the well-balanced harmony, the reasoned order, the conscious subordination to power and law, without which human life is unimaginable. Disturbed and grumbling, the flow little by little enters its course, but freedom doesn’t cease to well up and provide freshness and strength to those who come to quench their spiritual thirst from its spring.
We, longstanding liberals, fed on a love of freedom, are joyed by the liberal movement in Russia. But we are far from sympathetic to everything which is being done in the name of freedom. Often you wouldn’t recognise it among its most zealous worshippers. Too often this charming idea covers up violence, intolerance and madness, like underground forces which have dressed themselves in the armour of an Olympian goddess. Liberalism appears in a variety of forms, and he who cherishes true freedom will withdraw with fear and repulsion from these ugly manifestations which advance under its flag.
Let us identify the main forms of liberalism which are to be found in public opinion.
The lowest rung is street liberalism; this is more of a perversion than a manifestation of freedom. The street liberal isn’t interested in anything other than his own self-will. Above all, he loves noise; he needs unrest for unrest’s sake. He calls this life, and peacefulness and order seem to him like death. Where furious shouts, and undiscriminating and inexhaustible swearing are to be heard, there you’ll find street liberalism being indignant. It greedily stands watch over any riotous activity, and applauds every breach of the law, for it hates the very word ‘law’. It reaches a state of frenzied rapture whenever it learns that a liberal scandal has occurred somewhere, that there’s been a street fight in Madrid or Naples; those are our people! But you shouldn’t expect from it any tolerance of thought, or respect for others’ opinions or for human personality, or anything that constitutes the essence of true freedom and makes life beautiful. It’s willing to wipe off the face of the earth anything that doesn’t share its unbridled impulses. It won’t even consider the possibility that other peoples’ thinking can be the fruit of free thought or noble feeling. The distinguishing characteristic of street liberalism is that it considers all its opponents to be scoundrels. Base souls only understand base motives. Consequently it is unscrupulous. It fights in the name of freedom, but this isn’t the kind of thinking which speaks out in a noble battle, breaking lances for truth, for an idea. Everything revolves around escapades on the street, on curses; it uses dishonest commentary, poisonous hints, lies and slander. There’s no effort to prove, just to give people a dressing down, to wound or humiliate. Sometimes the street me pretends to be a gentleman, and puts on pale yellow gloves as if preparing for a discussion. But at the first clash, he discards these uncharacteristic thoughts and returns to his usual role. Drunken and mindless, he boasts of everything, forgetting all shame, having lost any feeling of decency. The street me can’t abide hospitable conditions; he feels at home only in a pigsty, in the dirt with which he tries to spatter everyone who’s wearing clean clothing. Everyone has to descend to the same level, equally low and base. The street liberalist feeds on irreconcilable hatred of everything that rises above the crowd, of all authority. It never occurs to him that respect of authority is respect of thought, of labour, of talent, of everything that gives mankind a higher meaning, and perhaps precisely for that reason he can’t abide the authority that sees in it those transformative forces which constitute the pride of the people and the adornment of mankind. To the street liberal, science is violence imposed on life, art the fruit of aristocratic idleness. If ever someone distinguishes himself from the crowd, flying to the summit of the realm of thought, knowledge and action, then in the liberal swamps you can hear the hissing of reptiles. The despicable reptiles raise their snaky heads, twirl their tongues, and in impotent ferocity try to spread their poison on everything that doesn’t belong to their envious family.
No, we will not recognise the features of that bright goddess before which mankind bows in his best thoughts and in his idealistic aspirations, in the malicious hissing of reptiles, nor in the drunken fervour of the fist fighter. The ray of freedom has never penetrated into this dark kingdom of lies, envy, and slander. Freedom lives in the realm of truth and light, and when people chase it out of their homes, it doesn’t hide underground but withdraws into the heart of the elect who, filled with suffering and love, preserve the valuable testament for better days.
The second type of liberalism one can call oppositional liberalism. But, my God! What a mix of people! The most varied motivations, the most varied types, from Sobakevich [a character in Gogol’s novel Dead Souls], who thinks that only the prosecutor is a decent person, and he’s a swine, through the landowner who’s indignant that serfdom has been abolished, to the grandee who’s fallen into disfavour and so has joined the opposition until such time as the smile which will return him to power shines on him once again. Everyone knows this critical mood of Russian society, this surplus of oppositional effusions, which appear in so many varied forms, in the form of quarrelsome displeasure with a patriarchal and innocent character; in the form of suspicious irony and poisonous mockery, which show that the critic stands somewhere far ahead, and of course above, of the rest of the world; in the form of mockery and anecdotes which reveal the dark intrigues of bureaucrats; in the form of frenzied attacks which at one and the same time, with equal ferociousness, demand completely contradictory things; in the form of poetic love of elections, self-government, openness; in the form of rhetorical effects accompanied by magnificent poses; in the form of lyrical complaints, which cover up laziness and emptiness; in the form of an endless desire to speak and to fuss, in which you can observe a distressed pride, a desire to make oneself important; in the form of a malicious pleasure at every bad measure of the authorities, at every evil which befalls the fatherland; in the form of a love of thrills which is always prone to despotism, and a depressiveness which is always prone to grovelling and self-humiliation. You can’t count all the innumerable nuances of the opposition with which our Russian land amazes us. But I don’t want to talk about these important manifestations of mankind’s varied inclinations; what’s important is oppositional liberalism as a general principle, as a specific tendency which is rooted in the qualities of the human soul and expresses one side of freedom.
The most moderate and serious liberal tendency cannot but stand in opposition to everything that is illiberal. Every thinking person criticises those actions or measures with which he doesn’t agree. Otherwise he abandons his freedom of judgement and becomes a sworn servant of the authorities. But I don’t have in mind this type of legal criticism, which is the result of this or that fact, when I talk about oppositional liberalism, but that liberal tendency which is systematically in opposition, which doesn’t seek to achieve any political demands, but takes pleasure in the glory of the oppositional position. There’s a sort of poetry in this, a feeling of independence, a courage, and of course the possibility of having a greater influence on people than can be imagined in the tight circle inscribed by normal practice and life. All this involuntarily seduces people. I would add that this tendency is easier to master than others. It’s much easier and more comfortable to criticise than to understand. You don’t need to do the hard work of thinking, of alternative and precise study of the real, reasoned achievement of the general principles of life and the social order; you don’t even need to do anything; it’s enough to speak with passion, and pose with some effect.
Oppositional liberalism understands freedom in a purely negative way. It abdicates from the existing order and sticks with this abdication. To cancel, destroy, annihilate, this is its entire system. It won’t go any further, indeed it has no need to. It considers the summit of wellbeing to be liberation from all laws, from all restrictions. It postpones this ideal, which cannot be realized in practice, to the future or the distant past. In essence, these are one and the same, for according to this view history is not a real fact which one can study, not a living process out of which the current order arose, but an imagined world into which one can put anything one wants. Oppositional liberalism isn’t interested in genuine history. It sees in history only a game of arbitrariness, happenstance, and perhaps human madness. Added to this is a worship of unknown forces which lie in the secret depths of the soul of the people. The further a given principle is from the real order of things, the more it is general and undefined, the deeper it is hidden in the gloom of foggy ideas, the more it gives way to the arbitrariness of fantasy, the dearer it is to oppositional liberalism.
Adhering to a negative line, oppositional liberalism is satisfied with a very limited arsenal of weapons. It selects a few categories which it uses to judge everything, it composes a few labels which it sticks onto everything, marking them with praise or censure. All social life is divided into two contradictory poles, between whom there is an impassable and unchangeable line. Labels of praise are: commune, people, electoral principle, self-government, openness, public opinion, and so on. God only knows what positive facts and institutions they have in mind by these, but that’s not important. Everyone knows that everything will turn out much much better once people do everything themselves. Only an unnatural historical development, as well as aristocratic prejudices which we have to get rid of, are to blame for the fact that we don’t sew our own clothing, cook our own supper, or repair our own carriages. Only a return to the original economy, to original self-government can restore prosperity on earth. These holy principles, the realm of Ormuzd [the Zoroastrian embodiment of good], are opposed by the spirit of darkness, the realm of Ariman. These dark demons are called: centralization, regulation, bureaucracy, the state. Terror embraces the oppositional liberal at the sound of these words, which are the source of all mankind’s grief. Again, we don’t need to work out what they mean by this, what’s the point? It’s enough just to stick on the label, to say that this is centralization or regulation, and the matter has been irredeemably condemned. This game of labels uses up all the intellectual reserves of most of our oppositional liberals.
Oppositional liberalism adheres to the same negative rules in practical life. The first and necessary condition is to have no contact with the authorities, to stay as far away from them as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one should avoid taking a salaried position. That would be too hard for the Russian’s nature. Many, many oppositional liberals sit on warm seats, wear a court uniform, pursue an outstanding career, and nevertheless consider it their duty, at every convenient opportunity, to curse the government they serve and the order which they enjoy. But God forbid that an independent person should say a word in favour of the authorities. Then there’ll be such an uproar that you won’t able to recognize yourself.
That [to speak in favour of the authorities] would be servility, ambition, venality. Everyone knows that every decent person must without fail stand in opposition and use bad language.
The plan of opposition action follows from this. The aim is not to resist a positive evil in order to correct it in a practical way, having considered what is possible. Opposition doesn’t need content. The entire purpose of the engines of opposition is to agitate, to lead the opposition, to carry out demonstrations, to play liberal tricks, to play a joke to spite someone, to select an article of the law code having appropriated for oneself the right to interpret it as one wishes, to establish the policeman’s guilt for beating the cab driver, to get around censorship by means of a little article with hidden hints and liberal effects, or even better, to print some abuse abroad, to collect around oneself all sorts of dissatisfied people, of the most contradictory camps, and to unburden one’s heart in innocent rage, and especially to protest for the slightest reason, or even for no reason at all. We are great lovers of protests. True, they’re completely useless, even harmful, but they express our noble indignation and have a pleasing impact on the distressed heart of the public.
A more serious opposition than the sort that we have here often falls into a routine of oppositional acts and in so doing undermines its credibility and limits its ability to influence social issues. The government is always deaf to demands which treat it in a purely negative way, ignoring its situation and the surrounding conditions. This is almost always the case in countries where the opposition party has no chance of becoming the government and of acquiring practical knowledge of the conditions of power. Continual opposition inevitably makes people narrow and limited. Therefore, when at last an opportunity for action opens up, the leaders of the opposition very often turn out to be incapable of governing, and the liberal party, in accordance with its habit, starts opposing its own leaders as soon as they become ministers.
If the liberal tendency doesn’t wish to limit itself to empty words, if it desires to have real influence on social affairs, it must start from different principles, creative principles, positive ones, it must adjust to life, and draw lessons from history; it must act, understanding the conditions of power, without being perpetually hostile to it, not making irrational demands, but preserving a dispassionate independence, prompting and restraining, where necessary, and trying to discover the truth by means of a cold-blooded discussion of issues. This is conservative liberalism.
Freedom doesn’t consist just of acquiring and spreading rights. A person only has rights because he has obligations, and conversely, you can only demand that he fulfill his obligations because he has rights. These two principles are inseparable. The entire significance of the human person and the rights which derive from it are found on the facts that humans are beings that are free and capable of reason and bear in themselves a consciousness of the supreme moral law and that on the strength of their free will they are capable of acting in accordance with their duty. Remove this consciousness and man becomes no different than animals, who follow their bent and have no rights. One can feel affection or sympathy for them, but not respect, because they lack the eternal elements which give mankind dignity.
The supreme moral law, the idea of good, is an indispensable condition of freedom, not an abstract principle, which acts on the conscience and which a person can obey according to his own judgement. The idea of good is accomplished in the external world; it unites people into social unions in which people are joined by a continuous connection, subordinating themselves to positive law and the instructions of the authorities. Everyone is born as a member of such a union. In it, he receives positive law, which he must respect, and positive obligations, the breaking of which leads to punishment. His personal freedom, being inextricably linked with the freedom of others, can exist only under the canopy of civil law, obeying the authorities which protect him. Power and freedom are thus also indivisible, just like freedom and the moral law. And therefore every citizen, without unconditionally worshipping power, in whatever form it takes, is obliged in the name of his own freedom to respect the essence of power itself.
‘A little philosophy’, said Francis Bacon, ‘inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion’. These words can be applied to the principle of power. A purely negative attitude to government, systematic opposition, is a sign of childish political thinking. It is its first awakening. Torn from an unreasoning immersion in the surrounding milieu, feeling independent for the first time, a person rejoices with an immense joy. He guards this greedily, as a recently acquired treasure, fearing to lose even the smallest part of it. External conditions and limitations have no meaning for him. Historical development, the established order, all these are rejected antiques, a dream which preceded the awakening. The man sees himself as the centre of the universe and is filled with a limitless faith in his own strength. But when the sense of freedom has matured and become deeply rooted in his heart, man doesn’t have to fear for his independence. He doesn’t guard it in a timid way, because it is nothing new, not something acquired from outside, but the very life of his soul, the brain of his bones. Only then is the relationship of this inner centre to the surrounding world revealed to him. He doesn’t cut himself off from the latter in a wilfull fit, but, preserving his endless freedom of thought and unshakable firmness of conscience, he recognizes the connection between his own internal world and that without; he grasps that his own external freedom is dependent on the freedom of others, on this historical order, on positive law, on the established government. History and life today don’t seem to him to be the products of endless arbitrariness and chance, to be hated and rejected. Respecting the freedom of others, he also respects the general order, which arose out of the freedom of the national spirit, out of the development of human life. In the place of denial comes reconciliation, instead of abdication from the principles which govern the world comes a return to them, but not a unconscious return, like before, but a reasoned one, based on the achievements of their true essence and the possibility of further advances. A reasoned attitude towards the surrounding world produces positive fruit and a higher manifestation of human freedom. This is a necessary condition for its establishment in society. There is no freedom among people who use it as a pretext to make a lot of noise and as a weapon of intrigue. Frenzied cries chase it away, opposition without content isn’t capable of summoning it. Freedom builds its home only where people are able to value its gifts, where tolerance, respect for humanity and worship of the higher forces in which the free creativity of the human soul are expressed, have been established.
The essence of conservative liberalism consists of reconciling the principle of freedom with the principles of power and law. In political life its slogan is ‘liberal measures and strong government’, liberal measures, which enable society to act independently, which guarantee the rights and personhood of citizens, which protect freedom of thought and conscience, which allow one to express all lawful desires; and strong government, the guardian of state unity, which connects and restrains society, preserves order, severely ensures obedience of the law, punishing any breaches of it, and instills in citizens confidence that there are strong hands on which one can rely at the head of the state, as well as reasoned force, which can defend social interests and protect against anarchic elements as well as the howls of reactionary parties.
In reality, a well-built state holds onto strong power precisely for those moments when it is inclined to collapse or is subject to temporary disorder. But a temporary weakening of the government leads to a more energetic restoration. Bitter experience teaches peoples that they can’t manage without strong government, and then they are prepared to throw themselves into the hands of the first despot who comes around. They expose oppositional liberalism’s bankruptcy. Thus it is a common occurrence that the very liberals who in opposition inveighed against government, become conservatives once they’ve got power in their own hands. This is considered a sign of a duplicity, servility, and ambition, of renunciation of their convictions, and without doubt that’s often the case, but there are deeper reasons which make the most honest liberal contradict himself. The need to govern brings to light all the conditions of power which can’t be seen in opposition. In power it’s not enough to agitate; you need to do something constructive; you can’t just destroy, you have to build; you can’t oppose, you have to bind things together; and for that you need a positive viewpoint and positive strength. The liberal, invested with power, is forced to do all the things he protested against when in opposition. I once heard the famous Bunsen give a characteristic anecdote which shows how statesmen view this in free countries: when [Daniel] O’Connell was elected mayor of Dublin, Bunsen, who was then the Prussian ambassador in London, asked Sir Robert Peel, during his first ministry, whether he was worried by this election. ‘On the contrary’, said Sir Robert, ‘There’s no better way of humbling a demagogue than putting power in his hands, as he will of necessity become its defender.’