On the Failings of Political Philosophy

I an article today for RT (that you can read here), I discuss Joe Biden’s claim that the leaders of China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, are “banking” on autocracy triumphing over autocracy. I point out several flaws in the argument:

1. China and Russia have very different political systems – you can’t lump them together like that, let alone divide the world neatly into two categories: democracy and autocracy.

2. One can rightly criticize Putin for non-democratic practices, but he has never said a word against democracy in principle, let alone proposed some alternative to it. He has also never sought to contrast democracy and autocracy on the international stage.

3. And this is where we get the crux of the matter as far as this post is concerned: democracy and autocracy are different categories. Democracy is about how power is distributed, autocracy is about where it is distributed. Autocracy just means rule by one person. One can have a democratic autocracy, a liberal autocracy, a limited autocracy, etc. In fact, Russia’s current autocracy, if you can call it that, was created in 1993 by liberal democrats who wanted to concentrate power in the hands of Boris Yeltsin. So, Biden is comparing things that aren’t properly comparable.

Which brings me on to the point of this post. The more I study political philosophy, first for my book on Russian conservatism, and now for my forthcoming book on Russia liberalism, the more I realize that the language of political philosophy isn’t up to task. As I say in my RT article, we bandy about words like “liberalism,” “conservatism,” and “fascism,” as if we know what they mean, but they are such loose categories as to be of decidedly limited value. Indeed, often they confuse far more than they enlighten.

Take liberalism. What counts for liberalism today is often the direct opposite of what counted for liberalism 150 years ago. But at the same time, the old definition still exists, meaning that you have “liberals” who are in direct contradiction to one another. Political philosophers try to get around this mess by looking for some “core” that unites all these different strands of liberalism, but not only is the core elusive but when somebody does claim to have found it, it’s easy enough to show that it’s hardly unique to liberalism. Liberty, equality, justice, whatever – all these alleged “cores” are just as much cores of socialism. Conservatives also often care for liberty and justice (equality less so). But just you try defining conservatism! It too is remarkably resistant to attempts to do so.

Political ideologies in other words are amorphous and often self-contradictory. They also often overlap. Fascism and liberalism – yup, you can find people combining elements of both. Conservatism and communism – why not? There are lots of conservative communists. And so on.

If the language of political ideologies doesn’t do a good job of describing reality, it’s especially problematic in the specific case of Russia. As I explain in my book, Russian conservatism is a philosophy of organic growth, which essentially means it favours development in a manner fitting Russia’s history and traditions. That in turn tends to mean rejecting the arbitrary implantation of Western models. Conservatism in a Russian context thus has a tight link to anti-Westernism (while not necessarily being anti-Western).

By contrast, Russian liberalism (like Russian socialism too) has tended towards a positivist view of historical development, which sees history as marching inexorably towards a single end – namely, Western liberalism. Thus what we call Russian liberalism is inherently Westernizing.

In short, liberalism v. conservatism probably isn’t the best way of describing the divide in Russian political thought. Organicism v. positivism, or anti-Westernism v. Westernism probably fit the bill better. Even these comparisons aren’t very adequate, as liberal positivism isn’t the same as communist positivism, and so on. But still, it seems that when we discuss Russian politics, we’re probably not using the right vocabulary.

These are just speculative musings. If I was to want to turn them into an academic piece, they would need a lot deeper analysis. But I throw them out there as a means of getting my own brain to work on the issue, as well as in the hope that somebody has some good input to add. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water and say that terms like liberalism and conservatism are meaningless. They point to something we instinctively sense – that North Korea, say, is less free than Canada, or that some people resist change whereas others don’t. Nevertheless, I am increasingly of the view that the vocabulary at our disposal for describing for political ideas isn’t very good. Perhaps this is because we are stuck with a bunch of “-isms” from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which no longer reflect the modern world. Perhaps there’s some other reason. At any rate, political philosophers have some work to do.

30 thoughts on “On the Failings of Political Philosophy”

  1. para 1 – “Vladimir Putin, are “banking” on autocracy triumphing over autocracy.” over democracy surely.

    I doubt Biden has ever thought about Russia – he just does what Hunter’s mates tell him to do. Thinking would kill a political career.


    1. Not so sure about Hunter’s mates. More like the shadow government aka “deep state” and “the blob,” that maintains constant policy over time across administrations, especially with respect to foreign policy and international affairs. Of course, the shadow government changes somewhat over time, too. Presently, the liberal internationalists or Wilsonians (interventionists) are in the driver’s seat and DJT met their wrath in trying to resurrect foreign policy realism aka Jacksonianism (nationalism) and pursuit of actual national interests rather than empire — sort of. BTW, I am not a fan of DJT and would never vote for him because I don’t think his qualified to be POTUS, one one hand, and I see hum as unhinged on the other. The Democratic Party as also been out to lunch on this since Jimmie Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski and the push to control Central Asia as the heartland of the world island (Mackinder)


    2. I doubt Biden has ever thought about Russia – he just does what Hunter’s mates tell him to do. Thinking would kill a political career.

      Oh what tangled webs we weave … to paraphrase Sir Walter Scott.


      Hunter Biden’s gallerist wanted to be China’s ‘lead collector’ in 2015

      Questions over Hunter’s international business dealings have long plagued the White House.

      More recently, concerns over whether buyers of the 51-year-old’s paintings would try to use the transactions to curry favor with the Biden administration have put officials in an ethics bind.

      Considering that George Zimmerman seems to have sold at least one of his paintings on Ebay for 100.000, $ 500.000 for Hunter’s doesn’t seem to be that much. 😉


  2. I, too, have struggled with how to frame this in social and political philosophy, which Marx observed, is heavily influenced by economics and philosophy of economics. I view it as a dichotomy between traditionalism(s) and modernism(s) as the driver of the historical dialectic at this moment of history, which is basically a Hegelian way to approach it. The historical dialectic is driven by a causal logic in which one position results in a reaction to it. This dynamic can be abstracted from and the forces given labels, but they are concrete and dynamic forces that resist capture conceptually, so there are loose ends. In my view, this is the driving force of history in this century and there won’t a a “winner” but rather synthesis that transcends the current notions and calls forth its own reaction down the line. There is no end to this historical process and it is not neat since reflexivity, learning from feedback, adaption to changing circumstances and new ideas, resulting in a complex system in which emergence cannot be foreseen from the prior structure. The attempt to understand history can only be done in hindsight. “The owl of Minerva takes wing at midnight.” Realizing this Marx refrained from exploring either socialism or communism and confined himself to analyzing capitalism based on his own times and information available to him then. I am neither a Marxist, Marxian, or Hegelian, but I don’t think that one can pursue the study of social and political philosophy, which necessarily includes the economic, without taking them into account.


  3. What counts for liberalism today is what was often called ‘totalitarianism’ or ‘religious fundamentalism’ not too long ago. A decade, or a couple of decades, really. You dissent from the official dogma, and you get cancelled, fired, banned from the ‘social’ media; you become a leper, you lose your livelihood.

    I don’t know about the People’s Republic of China, but the Russian Federation seems far more liberal than the West in this respect. And is there anything more important, any other ‘freedom’ more foundational than the ‘freedom of conscience’? I doubt it.


  4. Paul Robinson questions the political terminology of “autocracy versus democracy”.

    Robinson’s point can be appreciated by remembering attorney John Yoo, who worked in the US Justice Department during the George W. Bush presidency. Yoo famously asserted “unitary executive theory”, in which the US executive branch has immense power. In this view, president Bush had the authority to order torture of Iraq battlefield detainees, and the authority to order spying on US citizens without a warrant.

    John Yoo was not arguing against democracy. Yoo meant that once the elections are over, the president gets immense power, with few constraints from the legislature or courts.

    As Robinson says, democracy specifies *how* the government acquires power. Autocracy is a choice about *where* that power sits.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “As Robinson says, democracy specifies *how* the government acquires power. Autocracy is a choice about *where* that power sits.”

      Good point, but I’m still not clear on the ‘democracy’ part.

      John Yoo may not argue against democracy, but his boss, president George W. Bush, is a son an ex-CIA chief turned president. Are we to assume that the people had spoken and George W. Bush was twice found, fair and square, the best candidate of all the willing natural-born 35+ y.o. citizens? And if not, how exactly does the government acquire power?


      1. …similarly, in Paul’s country, the current PM is a son of former PM. Is it a freak coincidence? Extraordinary genes? What will the Western reaction be if one of Mr Lukashenko’s son is elected the next Belorussian president?


  5. The USA fits the standard definition of a fascist oligarchy, because (1) there is an almost complete merger of the government/state with the major corporations (those involved in the Military-Industrial Complex, the Data giants such as Google and those who control all the news media); and (2) the police enjoy almost unlimited powers to detain and even shoot people; also part of the Police-Industrial Complex which profits off of prison labor; (3) the legislative branch of the government is completely corrupt and under the thumb of the oligarchs, due to wildly permissive campaign financing rules. etc etc

    America is NOT a free country, let alone a democracy; and most Americans even know that now. Not only is it a fascist oligarchy, there are even elements of primitive feudalism. In that many of a citizen’s basic rights (such as the right to receive health care) are determined by their employment status. Not to mention Wall Street and the banks stealthily gobbling up real estate and housing on foreclosed property, to become literal landlords.
    This creeping oligarchism and neo-feudalism are reminiscent of trends which took place in Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1600’s, as free peasants were gradually corralled into becoming serfs who had to report to their local plantation owner.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “By contrast, Russian liberalism (like Russian socialism too) has tended towards a positivist view of historical development, which sees history as marching inexorably towards a single end – namely, Western liberalism. Thus what we call Russian liberalism is inherently Westernizing.”

    This suggests that Russian liberals are cargo-cult like in their thinking and are very simplistic. Western liberalism is not static, so their definition of the single end must also constantly be changing. If this is true, then there must be plenty of people who used to be this type of ‘Russian liberal’, but who got disillusioned after living in the US, or seeing Western liberalism change into something that they couldn’t accept over the last 20 years. And it certainly changed quite a lot in that time. There is one channel that I watch sometimes on youtube, it is by a policeman who worked in the US for 20 years I think, and then retired and went back to Russia. He is quite a conservative now I believe because of what he saw on his job in California, but he must have been this classic type of Russian liberal when he first came to the US.

    Here is a link if you’re interested. I can’t really recommend a video, but last year he did some ‘America on fire’ ones where he came out as a conservative who hates the BLM riots, which is not surprising for a former cop. Maybe you could ask him if he used to be such a liberal and whether he thinks that the current liberals think like he used to? That is a lot of material to watch however. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYX7SBAXBtGonzrUUOg7ykQ


    1. Thanks for that link, blatnoi. Last summer, during the race riots, I got hooked on watching some of the youtube footage on Russian-language channels. I saw some of this guy’s videos, and also a few other of similar ilk. It was actually surprising to see so many Russians working as cops in the U.S., there were more than a few, and they all took pretty much the same kind of “law and order” stance. Nothing wrong with that per se, I mean, they are cops and it’s their job to beat rioters over the head, regardless of race or creed. Also, very few people condone the excesses committed by some members of these mobs. Some of whom were no doubt incited by FIA provocateurs.

      Still, these Russian cops ignore the larger issues about the American caste system. Some of them even seem to adopt the typical American cop attitude that blacks (and Africans in general) are not only inferior people but also dumb and criminal-minded by their very nature. In other words, they start to incorporate genetic racism into their Liberal/Conservative political ideology. Even worse, some of them act like American patriots, but to be an American patriot, one has to be either of degenerate mentality or twist oneself into pretzels of denial about the past history.


      1. “FIA provocateurs”
        FIA? Federal Intelligence Agency as acronym for all possibly being involved?

        Last summer, during the race riots, I got hooked …
        And how exactly did that relate to you inner American job experiences?

        Is there something I misunderstand?


      2. Apologize, moon, that was a typo. I meant FBI. Professor, can you fix my comment, please, since that is a fairly egregious typo?

        It’s not an unfounded statement, either. Buzzfeed, of all things, has published a series of exposes about the Capitol Riots and the “plot to kidnap” the Michigan Governor. Turns out these were FBI provocateurs who cooked up these plots. Their purpose apparently being to discredit the rightie Trump supporters as “terrorists” in order to (1) help throw the election to Biden, and then (2) legitimize Biden’s win by staging the January 6 nonsense. I would also personally postulate a (3) to subsequently render unto Biden more extraordinary executive powers against ideological opponents of the Establishment, curb freedom of speech on the internet, time to start the Reign of Terror, etc etc…

        I got the FBI thing from watching this episode of the Jimmy Dore show, but JImmy links to the Buzzfeed sources, if anybody is interested in following the actual trail:


  7. Thank you, Mr. Robinson. I had a very reasonable chuckle at your attempt to go full Overtone Window here. Your attempts to throw some straw to soften the fall from a 9th storey window are charming and endearing for all who knows you and your political views.

    Speaking of which – it’s a good thing that you are honest with yourself and no longer identify as a liberal. I think that community here will be Understanding and Helpful, Respectful and Sympathetic to your courage and integrity. Some of them, no doubt, will even help in your further transitioning. Be yourself, Mr. Robinson! Be brave and, surely, you will Acceptance and Appreciation… out there.

    [Given your still ardent support for the capitalism and capitalists, we all know that this further transitioning will not be towards the Left]


    1. l Overtone Window … are charming and endearing for all who knows you and your political views

      Honey pie, now that I am old, I shouldn’t even dare to ask you, considering my possibly Alzheimer addled brain, but pray tell, how could I ever ignore Paul’s ill-guided political views vs yours, which to only some extents are clear to me?


  8. • Can the Chinese Communist Party Rule for Another 100 Years? – Eric Li

    I wasn’t so impressed with the interviewers but Eric used the forum very well.

    I thought Eric’s response that “democracy needs to be measured by outcome not by procedure” was the perfect response as we now know that our [‘Western’] ‘democratic elections’ are completely controlled and corrupt.


    1. Last time I looked you up, you, superficially checked had a curious “touch and feel”.

      Tell me, why I should listen to you. Put another way what basic truth on life and politcs you can pass on to me, or other observers.


  9. I thought this was of topical interest
    • (Lie of Democracy) The great falsehood of our time – Konstantin Pobedonostev (1898)

    From the book
    • “Reflections of a Russian statesman” (1898) by Konstantin Pobedonostev

    Pobedonostev is discussed here by Matthew Raphael Johnson…
    • Matthew Raphael Johnson discusses Konstantin Pobedonostsev


  10. Exactly! Political terms seem to be sellingpoints, and nothing but.

    Take the term Socialism. It was invented by the French charity organizations in the 1820s-30s, as a way of describing themselves – they were not asocial, they cared. Came then 1848, and the trade unions took over the term. They contended that they were better att taking care of poor people than were the charity organizations. For the rest of the 19th century Socialism and trade unions were almost undistinguishable.

    In early 20th century the term had a very good reputation. So politicians of any hue begun to call themselves socialist – everything between Macdonald and Lenin, everything between Briand and Nehru; even Hitler called himself socialist. Evidently, if there was any reality behind the label it may have been a certain belief that the state had a responsibility to keep up the living standard of its population. Something even the Han dynasty in China had at the beginning of our era, or for that matter Henri IV in France when he stated that it was his aim that every Frenchman should have a hen to eat at Sunday.

    Since states have very few resources to rely on except bureaucracies, Socialism in the late 20st century got the new meaning bureaucratic power, with the old meanings sliding into the background. But i doubt it will stop there. The concept will continue to be fought on, and it will take on new meanings depending on how the fight is carried out.


  11. True political concepts can be slippery. As a political science major with a love of history I can say though that we can distinguish between different types of political philosophy. They are not meaningless or unhelpful. In the end what determines what a person thinks or believes, at a point in time, is what – at the end of it all – they DO in the process of striving for what they SAY they believe in and what the end of all the various means are. For example many Russian liberals showed they were committed to economic liberalism in 1993, free markets and the like, but certainly not to political liberalism. This has been something that has always been a tension in liberalism. Some liberals have – when faced with the choice of economic liberalism or political liberalism – decided that political liberalism is ultimately more important than economic liberalism as having civic freedoms as an individual and protection from the state in a more political sense is a better guarantee of freedom than the state being less involved in the economy. These liberals will tend to agree with Socialists that a hungry man is not a free man. They will differ in socialists on the extent to which the state should help that hungry man but they will agree that the hungry should have the right to protest his hunger without being arrested. Liberals more committed to economic liberalism – not so much. This is what that sort of liberal can back Yeltsin using tanks on Parliament, von Mises backing Italian Fascism or Hayek supporting Pinochet. In other words, what are the ENDS people are striving for.


  12. Nice discussion, but not obvious that “Democracy is about how power is distributed, autocracy is about where it is distributed.”

    As I understand it, democracy is governing/government by the people; how that is implemented is not specified. Autocracy is governing/government by one person – and again, how it is implemented is not specified.

    Basing a distinction on the fact that autocracy points more precisely to the holder of governance power than does democracy seems to me to be missing the central conceptual difference: that democracy is about such power widely dispersed (“the people”) while autocracy is about power narrowly concentrated “the one”).

    All this is idealized and cartoon-like, of course. Power as it plays out in actual practice is doubtlessly much more complicated than these simplifications – precisely your point, I believe.


    1. seems to me to be missing the central conceptual difference: that democracy is about such power widely dispersed (“the people”) while autocracy is about power narrowly concentrated “the one”)

      First of all, pleased you are still around. I seem to recall you gave up blogging on your own site to some extent? Although in hindsight that might have been a wrong impression.

      Power is an interesting but more difficult issue. Democracy to some extent is about the power of people. Maybe? Equal rights? But mostly it seems about the power of delegating (gonna use slang here) the right type into power. The one that you trust will initialize or at least support the right type of rules you as voter have to live with.


  13. That cop guy I linked to earlier is not really a political thinker, though neither am I. But there is something that is really disturbing to me if the goal of the Russian liberal is to make a Western liberal society. And I really do think that might be their goal because I talked to one of them in 2019 for a few hours. He was a theater director in a major Russian city and basically parroted the BBC and RFE talking points on Russia. Thinking about it over the last two days, I think what I find disturbing is how they have no idea how absolutely hated and despised the Western left has become from the point of view of the Western right over the last six years. I don’t think this visceral hatred was there, and over the last few years, I can even get behind quite a few of the points of why I should dislike Western liberalism.

    I’ve increasingly been reading authors who would for sure be cancelled if they were mainstream. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I would be slowly cancelled in my very technical job if my peers knew who I was reading in my spare time. Maybe because I’m attracted to things that I shouldn’t be reading. Our professional twitter community is very liberal and cancel happy. This is a pretty sad state of affairs for a ‘Western’ country.

    Yesterday I was reading something by who I would completely ignore as a right-wing lunatic ten years ago (and probably a racist), but I sadly agreed with him on the absolute state of Western liberalism today and how it’s poisoning society by making people compete in insincere status games. There is also lots of talk there of the crisis in Western liberalism today being a direct result of elite overproduction, but I don’t know if I agree with that. These people are not elite, but are pushed by society to think they are, whereas in Russia they would be happy as plumbers. If Russian liberals want something like this, they need to be crushed and kept out of power for the good of the country. Preferably gently.



  14. Good day, Paul. This article from the Financial Times regarding how the US views Global Britain might be relevant for you:

    “US defence secretary questions Britain’s pivot to Asia
    Lloyd Austin doubts use of limited UK military assets as new carrier arrives in region

    Austin is the first US official to openly address doubts whether deployments to Asia-Pacific are the most efficient use of British military assets.

    The Royal Navy was unable to provide enough warships to escort the carrier, which is also carrying more US F-35B warplanes than British ones as the UK does not yet have enough of the jets. The Royal Navy originally dispatched four warships and a submarine but had to turn to the US and Dutch navies, who augmented the carrier strike group with a warship each.

    En route to Asia, one of the British warships, HMS Diamond, was forced to divert to an Italian shipyard for repairs after encountering engine problems. The vessel was just one of two operational Type 45 destroyers, which were designed to protect the carriers from air attacks. The other four are all undergoing various types of maintenance.”


      1. Британцы подняли на смех парад в честь дня ВМФ. А пока они шутят, Дефендер остался единственным современным эсминцем Royal Navy

        The British made fun of the Navy Day parade, but while they are joking, HMS Defender is the only modern destroyer in the Royal Navy.

        “It looks like these guys are still using coal for their propulsion systems. I saw ships like this back when I served as a cabin boy in the Royal Navy. I’m retired now, but these cast iron tubs are still afloat.”

        British readers joked like this after the traditional Navy Day parade held on the last Sunday of July in St. Petersburg. Experienced in defamation of all things foreign, British commentators literally did not like anything, from the shape of the warships to the bearing of the sailors. And, horror of horrors — the lack of racial diversity! As regards this matter, it is not really clear how our fleet could please the British. Well, we did not have colonies in Africa. And we did not transport slaves from the Old World to the New, where we sold them, so what can we do about this? Ethnic diversity is fine in Russia, where we live with it, but as regards racial diversity, in so far as this concerns the presence of Afro-Russians, there isnt any.

        “Whilst Russians are living from hand to mouth (Oh really! — ed.), their leaders parade Cold War era tubs, taking the risk that their sailors will be drowned right there in the St. Petersburg roadstead. Now that would be a meme for all time! Why is it necessary to arrange such staged shows while many people simply have nothing to eat? These are all pitiful phantoms of imperial thinking.”

        We shall return to those rust tubs later, but for now let’s consider what the author of the article could have written, had he been a critical British person. If he had been, he would have probably written the following: “While British leaders, obsessed with their former imperial power, build useless and massive aircraft carriers and sail them around the world in order to “demonstrate their presence”, their country lives in debt, ordinary Britons barely making ends meet, and the[former — ME] mining towns of the UK are now completely on the verge of being poverty stricken”. But the author is not British, and one can only marvel at the level of brainwashing of the commentators there and their obvious desire not to see further than their noses.

        “Putin seems to have assembled every ship that the Russians had serviceable for this parade. Maybe not all of them even made it there, ha ha. While all this pile of scrap metal is piled up in St. Petersburg, we have a great opportunity to sail along the Crimea coast one more time.”

        But with this, dear British comrade, you have made a small mistake, which is a bit of a bummer. The other day, the head of the House of Commons Defence Committee Tobias Elwood made an insidious revelation, which the British leadership, out of age-old habit, quickly tried to “sweep under the carpet”. Dear British commentator, that very HMS Defender, now heading for the shores of China, is practically alone. Of the six modern British “Type 45” missile defence destroyers, only one is capable of defending the honour of the British flag; two more are under repair: one is being upgraded, and one, HMS Defender’s sister ship in an aircraft carrier strike force, the destroyer HMS Diamond, has broken down and gone back to a port in order to have emergency repairs done to her gas turbine.

        That dastardly Tobias also let slip that the heirs of the Grand Fleet had only eighteen warships in service, and that HMS Defender’s power plant, which is as problematic as the rest of her sister ships, could die at any moment. So, dear British readers, I don’t even know how to answer you correctly: either with the classic phrase: “Who shall be the judge?” or in our own turn of phrase, as used by the workers and peasants, “Whose cow is lowing?” [Who is calling the shots —ME] You might just as well have HMS Queen Elizabeth II all to yourselves: she’s just some big barge with useless F-35s (not my words: the British write this themselves). And how are you going to scare the Chinese, who have more modern strike destroyers in one formation than the total number of warships of the former “Mistress of the Seas” Great Britain?


  15. I wished to paste the link to the above article that appeared in Yandex “Zen”, but I do not think posting links is allowed here: I pasted it, but it has not appeared


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