Apologies in advance, but this will be a long post, as I feel my way forward in an effort to fuse my recent research into the history of Russian liberalism with current affairs. If I ramble, it’s because I don’t have a clear idea where I’m heading and I’m making it up as I go along. I hope that what comes out makes sense. But in a way, it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination.
Russia’s development should be founded on a ‘conservatism for optimists’, argued the country’s president Vladimir Putin a speech to the Valdai Club in Sochi last week. This is a somewhat curious expression since conservatism is often defined as an essentially pessimistic philosophy. Whereas liberals and socialists believe that human nature can be improved by means of suitable social and economic reforms, the conservative supposedly follows Thomas Hobbes in believing that humans are basically nasty by nature and in need of the hand of the Leviathan to keep them in order. Thus in a book-length study of conservatism, my former colleague at the University of Hull, Noel O’Sullivan, described it as a ‘philosophy of imperfection’.
‘Conservatism for optimists’ was not the only phrase Putin used. He also referred to ‘sensible conservatism’, ‘healthy conservatism’, and ‘moderate conservatism,’ and declared that progress must be ‘organic’, thus neatly aligning with my own definition of conservatism as a ‘theory of organic development’. In this regard, Putin made it clear that conservatism was not about standing still or going backwards, but about going forwards, but doing so in a ‘stable’ fashion without the kind of revolutionary shocks that have done Russia so much harm in the past. He then compared this progressive, moderate, ‘optimistic’ conservatism with unhealthy ‘simple okhranitel’stvo’, a phrase that is very hard to translate but has resonances of harsh defence of state power for its own sake.
It would be a mistake to regard Putin as an intellectual. Still, his speech made it clear that his thinking has evolved over time in a philosophical direction and that he has developed a fairly coherent ideological outlook. It is perhaps not particularly original, and it contains big gaps, particularly in terms of how it is to find practical implementation, but it is, as I said, coherent. It’s also fairly moderate, and far removed from the claims made by many about him that he is a ‘fascist’, ‘far right’, ‘ultra-conservative’ or the like.
Justifying his position in the Q&A session after his speech, Putin cited the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. When asked by my Ottawa-based colleague Piotr Dutkiewicz who inspired him, he mentioned both Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, whose ‘book is on my shelf, and which from time to time I take out and read.”
This isn’t the first time that Putin has referenced Berdyaev and Ilyin, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I have discussed the issue on several occasions, especially in light of accusations that Ilyin was a fascist and that Putin’s admiration of him makes him a fascist too. But although I have gone over some of this ground before, I think it’s worth another take on the subject, as it provides a useful way of illustrating the relevance of these figures to the current day and thereby illuminating something about today as well. To do that, though, we need to go through a reasonably lengthy historical diversion.
Both Berdyaev and Ilyin could be said to have been products of the ‘idealist’ strain of Russian liberal political thought. Historians tend to divide pre-revolutionary Russian liberal thinkers into two broad categories – the positivists and the idealists. The former believed that human societies obeyed objective laws of development that ultimately caused them to converge at the same objective, normally identified with liberal democratic Western European and North American society. From this ‘is’, the positivists developed an ‘ought’ – i.e. because, in their minds, it ‘is’ a fact that liberal society is the end point of development, Russia ‘ought’ to advance in that direction.
The idealists objected to this logic. An ‘ought’ can’t be derived from an ‘is’, they said. Just because Western Europe ‘is’ more advanced that Russia, that doesn’t mean Russia ‘ought’ to try to become like it. Positivism is incapable of providing moral guidance, the idealists said; that can only come from some external, transcendental source – i.e. from God. Consequently, the idealists tended to be followers of natural law, arguing that positive law should follow natural law as closely as possible. They also complained that positivist liberalism, in promoting freedom, was unable to tell people what purpose freedom should serve. Only religion could provide an answer. In the eyes of idealists such as Berdyaev and Moscow University professor Pavel Novgorodtsev (who taught Ilyin), the positivists’ doctrines lacked grounding in higher values and consequently led them to extreme revolutionary and nihilistic positions that sought to destroy the existing order without thought of the likely consequences.
The revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war forced Russian liberals to fundamentally reassess their opinions, and to many it seemed that the warnings of the idealists had shown their validity. Liberal thinkers remained committed to basic principles such as personal freedom and the rule of law, but they developed a new-found appreciation of order and of the need for politics to be founded on higher values. They also became extremely sceptical of, if not hostile to, liberal democracy and became fervent advocates of military dictatorship. One can see this, for instance, in the statements of the leading female member of the liberal Kadet party, Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams who by 1919 was saying, “The universal hegemony of Western democracy is a fraud, which politicians have foisted upon us.” “To have calm, you need machine guns,” she declared.
Unsurprisingly, the Kadets were for the most part strong supporters of the White armies in the Civil War of 1918-1921, and took leading roles in the political administrations of Admiral Kolchak and Generals Denikin and Iudenich. They also adopted a firmly nationalistic line, being largely responsible for Denikin’s famous slogan, ‘Russia – One and Indivisible’.
This historical digression is necessary to illustrate the context in which thinkers like Berdyaev and Ilyin were writing once they were expelled from the Soviet Union on the famous ‘philosophers’ steamer’ in 1922. They and others like them were, in essence, lapsed liberals, or if you prefer, liberals mugged by reality. They retained their belief in the importance of personal freedom as well as other liberal values such as the rule of law, but their experiences had taught them that liberalism in the form that then existed did a very bad job of defending those values. What they saw in exile in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as one democracy after another collapsed into civil war or fascism, then confirmed this conclusion. If liberal values were to be protected, something other than liberalism would have to be found to do so.
Given this, émigré Russian philosophers in the 1920s and 1930s were not at all keen on Western-style liberal democracy. They adopted a mystical outlook that reinforced the idealist views discussed above, inducing them to conclude that the fundamental problem was spiritual. Liberalism had become divorced from any higher values. Liberty had become an end in itself, leading to licence, leading in turn to revolution, social chaos, and then the reaction of totalitarianism. A beneficent dictatorship, rooted in religious values and the spirit of the nation, but dedicated to the gradual inculcation of a new legal and political consciousness, was the only route to the resurrection of the state and the restoration of lost liberties.
Berdyaev and Ilyin differed sharply on many issues. Berdyaev felt that some good might come out of Bolshevism. Ilyin thought the Bolsheviks were pure evil. Berdyaev despised capitalism. Ilyin did not. Still, they and others shared this general disillusionment with the path taken by contemporary liberalism. Freedom needed to be reconnected with Christian values and protected by the state from the forces of chaos. This was pretty much the consensus. ‘Democracy is too good for our cruel times,’ wrote another émigré, the ‘Christian liberal’ Georgy Fedotov, ‘democracy is possible now in Russia only through the methods of dictatorship.’ It was necessary ‘to fascist-ize democracy in order to overcome fascism,’ wrote Fyodor Stepun. And so on.
I say all this to point out that what some modern-day liberal commentators see as émigré fascism was in reality an offshoot of liberalism – you might say it was a sort of post-liberal authoritarianism, resting on the belief that liberalism had failed to protect liberty.
Which is where I begin to think that I should reconnect with Putin and present day politics.
As I said at the start, I’m feeling my way as I go forward, but I think that slowly some sort of thesis is emerging out of this. Basically, you can look at people like Berdyaev and Ilyin as the post-liberals of their day, trying hard to reconcile basic liberal principles with the crisis liberalism was facing in their time. Their issue was how to hold fast to those principles when liberalism appeared to have become largely detached from them.
In this way, they are perhaps quite suitable for the current day, in which liberalism is once again thought by many to be in crisis. It’s not surprising that they and other Russian idealists are now much more likely to be cited in support of conservatism than liberalism, but at the same time one needs to recognize that they retained a liberal core. And I think that what happened to them is sort of what is going on in terms of the ideological direction taken by Putin.
For when you look at what Putin and others close to him say, they reject liberalism while not actually rejecting what one might call classical liberal principles. I mentioned this before in a post about an article by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who vehemently criticized Western liberalism but did so largely from the vantage point of liberal ideas: essentially he criticized liberals for not being liberal. A same pattern emerges in Putin’s speech and Q&A. At one point, for instance, he spoke of Berdyaev and of how the philosopher stressed the central importance of the person. Berdyaev, said Putin, ‘spoke of how the person must be at the centre of development. The person is more important than society and the state. I would very much like that in the future all the resources of society and the state were concentrated around the interests of the person.’
This is, of course, a classically liberal position. Putin’s gripe with liberalism, it seems to me, is that it has ceased to be liberal as previously understood. This comes out loud and clear in his denunciations of modern-day Western woke-ism, which he complains is destroying personal freedom.
In her book Is Russia Fascist?, Marlene Laruelle argues that modern Russia is not the fascist state some people like to say it is. Rather it is ‘post-liberal’. I think that this is a good description, although one could argue that it is modern liberalism that is post-liberal, whereas the post-liberals want a return to what they viewed as the liberalism of old. Whichever way around it is, though, the result is most definitely not fascism. Rather, like the philosophies of Berdyaev and Ilyin, it is post-liberal in the sense of having arisen out of liberalism and having amended it to try to root it in a combination of a strong state and Christian values. In short, it is a ‘moderate’ conservatism, mixing liberal, theocratic, and authoritarian elements
I’m still feeling my way forward on this, and in many ways this post is just a way of putting some ideas down on paper and seeing if I can make sense of it all. Does it make sense? Or have I rambled to no good effect? As always, I’d value your opinion.