Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’

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.

69 thoughts on “Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’”

  1. In my view, this moment of history is characterized by several major waves, namely, and the historical dialectic is driven by the tension between liberalism and traditionalism, decolonization, and climate change. Here Putin is addressing the first factor, and multilateralism addresses the second. Climate change is the elephant in the room so far in that addressing it seriously requires a level of concerted action that doesn’t see feasible in the current climate, largely because of the first two factors but also the fact that addressing climate change is wrenching economically.

    Regarding traditionalism and liberalism, I think Putin has it about right for Russia. Every culture has to address this in terms of its own traditions and political reality. It is tearing the US apart, for example, and not doing much better in the UK. China under the leadership of Xi is also taking action on this and it appear to be similar to Putin’s approach, although Confucian in China.

    It seems to me that the West has backed itself into a corner regarding all three of the above factors in overemphasizing liberalism relative to traditionalism given the political divide on this. The West is also hanging onto neoliberalism, which is joined at the hip with neo-imperialism and neocolonialism, and resisting decolonization and the attendant multilateralism that would eclipse Western dominance. Finally, The West cannot deal with climate change effectively, since this involves a reduction in the standard of living that is dependent on a huge carbon footprint.

    While I think that these three are the major factors operative, they are not the only ones. While they can be viewed independently, they cannot be viewed in isolation in complex adaptive system like modern society where everything influences everything else.

    I sense that the Russian and Chinese leadership understands this but it seems that the Western leadership doesn’t. Putin and Xi are the spokespersons of the leadership, so it would be incorrect to see their position too personally, as the West is generally wont to do.

    Good job feeling your way along on this issue. It deserves more attention by people that know what they are talking about rather than propagandizing or just gassing.

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  2. I haven’t had a chance to read all of Putin’s comments on this yet, but I think this is a very interesting and thought-provoking exploration of ideas and the historical response of Russians to the reality versus the ideal of what they hoped would come from liberalism.

    I actually see a similar crisis of liberalism in the U.S. today. Liberalism, as I understood it growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, is not what liberalism seems to be today. More young Americans today seem to be identifying as democratic socialist or independent rather than liberal, and those who do identify as liberal are some of the most intolerant of other political opinions. They do not seem to value political/ideological pluralism or free speech and debate. Liberalism today (in the U.S. anyway) seems to be largely defined by a narrow set of political dogmas along with cultural decadence – none of which seems to be helping society truly progress. It reminds me a lot of what Berdyaev and Ilyin observed about liberalism in their era degenerating into something divorced from a higher set of values. Consequently, liberalism is becoming more unattractive to more people.

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    1. I agree with the general direction of the natyliesb’s comment.

      The main theme of these times we live in seems to be a collapse of western liberalism, brought in by globalization in economics and communications. No one knows how things will go, neither Putin, nor Lavrov, nor Xi. The strategy is to survive with minimum damage, to soften the shocks of volatility.

      The rest is just words. Stable philosophical justifications and new commonly accepted dogmas will emerge when the post-crisis situation becomes clear. And yes, in this sense it’s similar to the volatile situation a hundred (or so) years ago. Politico-philosophical musings of the 1920s were pretty useless, methinks.

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  3. >> It would be a mistake to regard Putin as an intellectual…

    Sorry, Paul, but this whole paragraph is just so unbearably, painfully snobby.

    I apologize for stating the obvious, but one does not need to be an “intellectual” to develop a coherent, or even a coherent AND original, ideological outlook. Conversely, being an “intellectual” does not guarantee that one’s ideas are coherent, original, or free of gaps (let alone come with a well-thought-through plan for practical implementation!)

    And who are those “many” who make claims that Putin is a ‘fascist’, ‘far right’, etc? Aren’t some of them 100% certified, bona fide intellectuals? Timothy D. Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, clearly is one, isn’t he? Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. Those academics who are anointed as “intellectuals” are usually those who are saying what the establishment wants to hear. And, no, that doesn’t mean they are intellectual giants by any means.

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    2. Great points, Lola. I sometimes think that anybody who thinks at all about ideas and ideologies, is an intellectual. Not necessarily a good intellectual, but certainly an intellectual.
      Admittedly, that is setting the bar kind of low. On the level of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain learning that he has been speaking prose all his life!

      Maybe the criterion should be: A person who thinks about ideas, who reads and writes about various ideas and concepts, and political ideologies. So, if one has written at least a monograph… In which case, Putin qualifies as an intellectual. Maybe add a condition that people like Timonthy Snyder are NOT intellectuals because they take money to spout ideas which support the establishment. I mean, Putin supports the establishment too (obviously — he IS the establishment!), but he does his ideological opining on the side, not part of his government job.

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    3. Lola,

      I think you may be doing Paul an injustice.

      Intelligent conservatives in Britain have not uncommonly thought that ‘intellectuals’ could be a menace, to others, and indeed to themselves (‘the revolution devours its children.’)

      In 2014, an American ‘libertarian’ called George H. Smith wrote an interesting series of articles discussing Edmund Burke’s 1790 polemic ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, a particularly savage attack on the enthusiasm of French ‘intellectuals’ for precisely the kind of theories of ‘natural rights’ about which the author and so many others in the West are so enthusiastic today.

      (See https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/edmund-burke-intellectuals-french-revolution-part-1 )

      Certainly, much can be said against Burke. But reading the series, I was amazed that Smith appeared simply not to have noticed the way that, since 1989, the enthusiasm of people in the West for toppling what were indeed commonly oppressive ‘régimes’ in the name of ‘human rights’ had, time and again, made bad situations worse: often, very much worse.

      (And of course, there is also the extreme ‘selectivity’ of the way in which ‘human rights’ arguments are deployed, with the targets so commonly being people who appear to be obstacles to what people in Washington, and London, see as their ‘Machtpolitik’ interests.)

      Actually, back in February 2012, in the pre-election article he devoted to ‘Democracy and the Quality of Government’, Putin produced a quotation from one of the pre-revolutionary intellectuals Paul mentioned which seemed very much to the point, not simply about the early years of the twentieth century but also its closing ones:

      ‘Russian philosopher and lawyer Pavel Novgorodtsev warned early last century: “Many people think that the proclamation of liberty and universal suffrage will magically direct society onto a new path. But in reality, the outcome of such action is usually not democracy, but oligarchy or anarchy, depending on the turn events take.”’

      (See https://russkiymir.ru/en/publications/139691/ )

      As Thomas Hobbes has also been mentioned more than once in this discussion, it may be worth recalling that he was writing in the context of our own ‘civil wars.’ His use of the ‘natural rights’ ideas which had been pioneered by the radicals in the victorious ‘New Model Army’ to reach ‘authoritarian’ conclusions, did not actually rest, as Paul seems to think, upon the premise that ‘human beings are basically nasty by nature’.

      Rather, it reflected the fact that, at the time Hobbes published his work, in 1651, what had started out as a conflict between King Charles I and what became the ‘Long Parliament’ had settled nothing, but left English society on the one hand more ‘mobilised’, but on the other in many ways more ideologically fragmented and divided, than it had been at its outset.

      So the argument that Hobbes directed, alike at the ‘Leveller’ theorists and very many of his old ‘Royalist’ associates, was that if one took the ‘right to life’ seriously, and wanted to avoid a ‘civil war without end’, one should accept the ‘legitimacy’ of whatever power was in a position to guarantee freedom from internal anarchy and external threat. It is an argument which is not obviously stupid, and has ‘echoed on’, in many other contexts.

      My own view of Putin was influenced by a – rather atypical – British analysis published by the ‘Conflict Studies Research Centre’ back in August 2002, under the title ‘Vladimir Putin & Russia’s Special Services.’ Ironically, the pseudonym used by its author – ‘Gordon Bennett’, turned out to conceal the identity of Henry Plater-Zyberk, which is the name of a great Polish-Lithuanian noble family.

      (See https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/96481/02_Aug_4.pdf )

      A central point that he was making, however, was the initials ‘KGB’ seemed to have a kind of ‘magical’ effect on people in the West, so that, as it were, they ‘switched their minds off’ when it came to trying to make sense of the new Russian leadership. Having noted a range of complexities to which a less superficial discussion than was common among Western analysts might have pointed, Plater-Zyberk went on to write, that a more ‘in-depth’ account might have suggested that:

      ‘Russia run by a group of ex-KGB officers could be much better off than Russia run by former CPSU apparatchiks or ideological free-marketers tinkering with the country’s economy, and that the KGB employed intelligent, well trained, highly motivated and competitive people, many of whom would have been successful in any political system.’

      This brings one to another category of ‘intellectuals’ who have been quite as influential over the past decades as the ‘human rights’ enthusiasts – ‘neoliberal’ economists. Actually, the process whereby disillusion with ‘statist’ solutions lead to an unquestioning faith in highly simplistic ‘rational choice’ models, which was clearly central to what happened in the former Soviet Union in the ‘Nineties, had been visible, even if in a much more muted way, in Britain.

      And having seen, at close quarters, the mayhem such people created in the British broadcasting industry, when the likes of Gaidar and Chubais ‘invited in’ people from Harvard, it seemed to me that this was virtually certain to make a bad situation materially worse.

      A relevant sense in which Putin has never been an ‘intellectual’ is that his professional background was not in dealing with theoretical ideas, but practical problems, as an ‘operative’ in East Germany, then in trying to ‘keep the show on the road’ in St. Petersburg, and lastly as head of the FSB.

      That he was a highly intelligent man was evident from the article ‘Russia at the Turn of the Millennium’ he published on 30 December 1999.

      (See https://pages.uoregon.edu/kimball/Putin.htm .)

      However, for some of us – in particular, perhaps, for those, who appear regrettably few, who can actually think in ‘realist’ terms about our own countries’ interests – it was precisely the fact that Putin is not an ’intellectual’ that gave cause for optimism. A biography co-authored in 2013 by Ms. Fiona Hill of Brookings – whether she should be classified as an ‘intellectual’ seems to me an interesting question – was entitled ‘Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.’

      To some of us, who had the wit to see that the continuation of a kind of ‘Hobbesian anarchy’ throughout the ‘Eurasian heartland’ was going to be a comprehensive disaster for almost everyone, to have an intelligent ‘operative’ running matters in Moscow seemed, to put it mildly, good news. That Vladimir Putin can listen to, learn from and employ ‘intellectuals’ seems to me a very good thing. But I have always considered the fact that he is himself one a very great advantage.

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      1. Oxford Learner’s dictionary defines intellectual (noun) as “a person possessing a highly developed intellect”. Merriam-Webster: “of a person: smart and enjoying serious study and thought”. So yeah, judging someone “not an intellectual” does sound a bit high-handed.

        But I agree that lately, the term “intellectual” became more about one’s occupation, rather than one’s abilities or inclinations. In light of this, Putin certainly isn’t one, although he clearly doesn’t lack in mental capacity.

        But if “an intellectual” is taken to mean an occupation, it makes sense that there are bad intellectuals, just like there are bad plumbers. Those people are simply abysmal at their jobs. Then it also makes sense that an intelligent amateur would be a better intellectual than a dull or dishonest professional.

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    4. In a very muted defense of Snyder, he did in fact brand banderism as purely fascist and Bandera’s intent to establish a “a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities.” (how prescient) in “A Fascist Hero in Democratic Kiev” shortly after Yanukovych’s election, so I guess you might label Snyder a sort of equal opportunity opportunist.

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  4. Paul, thank you very much for this. I have been faithfully reading every one of your blog posts and RT articles for many years already, but this is the first time I have been moved to comment.

    I think that this post is one of the most important that you have written, since it answers (or at least addresses) a lot of questions that many of us have been struggling with.

    I came to live in Russia in 2014, having spent the previous 5 years gravitating towards the Russian cultural centre. I suppose that this movement, in the opposite direction to that taken by Berdyaev and Ilyin, was nevertheless motivated by a very similar kind of disillusionment with liberalism, which you describe so well in this piece.

    This movement also coincided with the time when I started to identify as a Hobbesian, which is to say a realist when it comes to the possibility of negotiating a valid social contract in a given society.

    I wonder if you have seen Zvyagintsev’s film ‘Leviathan’ and if so what you think about it?

    I am also very interested to know what President Putin thinks about this film – but I suppose I will never find out.

    While it was cited by many western “liberal” commentators as a condemnation of corruption in Putin’s Russia, I read it completely the other way. On the contrary, Kolya, the film’s main protagonist and archetypal “individual”, is not only highly flawed, but he really deserves his awful fate.

    On my reading, all of the other characters – even the corrupt mayor – are trying protect him from the consequences of his actions by integrating him into the best kind of social contract available given the somewhat primitive underlying conditions. But in refusing their help, Kolya condemns himself to his fate.

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    1. I confess that I haven’t watched Leviathan. The reviews made it sound so grim and depressing that it put me off. I like cheerful stuff!

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      1. Well, in that case you should certainly avoid it! I found it “cheerful” much in the way that Brothers Karamazov is “cheerful”. In general, it reminds you how awful everything is, but it’s so on the nail, it’s almost uplifting.

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      2. @moon, reading that interview makes me think Zvyagintsev is precisely the useful idiot the western liberals take him for. On the other hand, I stick to my opinion that Leviathan is a misinterpreted masterpiece. Indeed, the more paradoxical such works are in terms of the intent of their authors, the more likely it is that genius will find a way out of them.

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      3. Leviathan was basically a Russian adaptation, consciously or not, of the original and cheesier 1973 ‘Walking Tall’.

        I suppose if one ever dared to make a Ukrainian version (or hundred), it would be as quickly suppressed in western circles as the Russian version was applauded.

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  5. As a chinese looking at liberalism in the West, I feel that there is a tendency of nihilism within liberal politics. Look at how liberal politics is dissolving traditional western christian culture and values.

    In this sense I feel that it is good that most Asian countries are not liberal countries.

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  6. “[T]hinkers like Berdyaev and Ilyin were writing once they were expelled from the Soviet Union on the famous ‘philosophers’ steamer’ in 1922.”

    Both were consistent anti-Bolsheviks living (and engaging in the anti-state propaganda) in the state where the Red side won. What you suggest should have been done to them “innocents” instead? Line against the wall and shot?

    “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.”

    And:

    “They and other like them were, in essence, lapsed liberals, or if you prefer, liberals mugged by reality.”

    Finally:

    “It was necessary ‘to fascist-ize democracy in order to overcome fascism,’ wrote Fyodor Stepun”

    🙂

    Well, ah… Really says everything you need to know about the liberals (who, naturally, came from the exploiter class) and how they behave in the natural state out of their posh “safe spaces”.

    […]

    Saaaaaay, maestro Robinson – ain’t you a “liberal mugged by reality” yourself?

    “…trying hard to reconcile basic liberal principles with the crisis liberalism was facing in their time”

    Okay, they were idealists – often subjective idealists. But you, maestro, ought to be better than them. What they had was not merely “a crisis of liberalism”. Liberalism, as any ideology, is a superstructure, built over the foundation of the economic system – capitalism in this case. Therefore, why won’t you admit, rather materialistically, that them being good weathervanes, reacted to the crisis of the capitalism?

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    1. Okay, they were idealists – often subjective idealists.

      Actually, what Paul just thaught me, is that idealist and realist may be pretty subjective terms too in politics. … 🙂

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  7. “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.”

    Well, ah, what, ghm, *high* ideals we have here! The nitty-gritty implementation, though, was rather base and profane:

    “Mussolini was far from always able to clearly formulate and substantiate his“ program ”. He is guided by a hidden, but internally burning ideal, albeit dimly tangible to him, a willful myth, which may one day become more real than reality itself. Mussolini is devoted to it – completely, religiously, to the death. Hence his sense of his own destiny, unshakable faith in his ideas and that characteristic of him, the combination of eternal inner tension with a domineering, calm endurance, which so immensely appeals to those around him.”

    […]

    “… his policy is plastic, prominent: it consists of personal actions, bright, complete, original and often unexpected from the outside; but these personal actions are always at the same time the actions of the masses led by him, and, moreover, organized, and in the course of still being organized, actions. Mussolini has the gift of a political sculptor, the original, completing daring of the Michelangelo tradition. ”
    – I.Ilyin, Letters on fascism (letter “Mussolini’s personality”)

    “An abyss of godlessness and… fierce greed has opened up in the world. Modern mankind responds to this with the revival of the chivalrous principle… The White Movement is the movement of chivalrous people united by a religious spirit, discipline and a thirst to serve the Fatherland in dangerous stages of the life of society. In times of crisis, waves of godlessness, dishonor, greed and other spiritual vices roll over countries. Which are the causes of revolutionary upheavals. The chivalrous White Movement fights these diabolical manifestations to save the Fatherland.

    …The white knightly movement first appeared in 1917 in Russia, and then spread throughout the world as a response to the threat of communist revolutions. Fascism is the Italian secular variation of the white movement. The Russian white movement is *more perfect* than fascism due to its religious component.
    – I.Ilyin,
    On Russian fascism (1928).

    “Europe does not understand the National Socialist movement. Doesn’t understand and is afraid. It is this fear that prevents it from understanding it more. And the more it does not understand, the more it believes in all negative rumors, all the tales of “eyewitnesses”, all the frightful prophets.

    …I categorically refuse to assess the events of the last three months in Germany from the point of view of the German Jews, who have been curtailed in their public legal capacity, who have suffered financially or even left the country as a result. I understand their state of mind; but I cannot turn it into a criterion of good and evil, especially when evaluating and studying such phenomena of world significance as German National Socialism.

    I refuse to judge the movement of German National Socialism by those excesses of the struggle, individual clashes or temporary exaggerations that are put forward and emphasized by its enemies.. We advise you not to believe the propaganda trumpeting about the atrocities here.

    […]

    The leading layer is being renewed consistently and radically. Everything related to Marxism, social democracy and communism is removed. All internationalists and bolsheviezers are being removed. Many Jews are being removed. Those who are clearly find the new spirit unacceptable are removed.

    […]

    What did Hitler do? He stopped the process of Bolshevization in Germany and thereby rendered the greatest service to all of Europe.

    As long as Mussolini leads Italy and Hitler leads Germany – European culture is given a respite.

    […]

    The spirit of the National Socialism is not limited to “racism”. It does not boil down to denial either. It puts forward positive and creative challenges. And these creative tasks are facing all peoples. Finding ways to solve these problems is imperative for all of us. It is unwise and ignoble to heckle other people’s attempts and gloat over their anticipated failure in advance. And did they not slander the White Movement? Wasn’t it accused of “pogroms”? Weren’t they slandering Mussolini? And what, did Wrangel and Mussolini become less from this? Or, perhaps, European public opinion feels called upon to interfere with any real struggle against communism, both purifying and creative, and is looking for only a convenient pretext for this? But then we need to keep this in mind…”
    – I.Ilyin, National-socialism. The new spirit. (Paris, 1933)

    “Fighting against the leftist totalitarianism, fascism was, furthermore, correct, since it was looking for the just socio-political reforms. These searches could be successful or unsuccessful: solving such problems is difficult, and the first attempts may not be successful. But it was necessary to meet the wave of socialist psychosis with social and, therefore, anti-socialist measures.
    – I.Ilyin, On fascism (Switzerland, 1948)

    Wages of shy and conscientious liberalism in several quotes!

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    1. I had read his Paris paper on National Socialism too. The Nazis only gave him one more year in Berlin, before they forced him out of his job. Maybe they didn’t like that he wrote they were revolutionaries too. Whatya think?

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  8. Professor, I think that your post is a good one and raises many interesting ideas. I don’t even think it “rambles”, I like that you made an artistic decision to show your process. Something Zen about that.

    Speaking of Zen, I have been reading about that a little, and here is my concise view of the human predicament: We humans are material beings, animals basically, dwelling in a 3-dimensional universe that operates by certain physical rules, to which we are condemned to follow.
    According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, not to mention the mathematical theories of Alan Turing and many others: A machine at a certain level is not able to define its own rules. The rules must come from a higher level, say, a 4-dimensional universe.
    Based on that, the political “idealists” are superficially correct when they maintain that only a higher power, such as God, can define Natural Law that humans must follow.

    Problem: Gödel and Turing and other geniuses already proved mathematically that it is not possible for beings on a lower level of existence to know the rules, or divine the intentions, of those on a higher plane. Therefore, ALL RELIGION IS BOGUS. People claiming to know God’s will or the like, are all fakes and charlatans. This includes Christianity. There is no such thing as “divine revelation”, “miracles”, any of that B.S. If a god existed on a higher plane, humans on the lower plane do have the sensory inputs to detect it.

    Therefore, humans must operate as if we are simply alone in our own universe, like scorpions trapped together in a jar, and try to figure out our own rules. And this is where the “positivists” are more correct, IMHO.

    In conclusion: I read Putin’s remarks at Valdai, and I take umbrage to his sneering dismissal of “revolutionary vocabulary” and his comparison of trite wokeisms to the new vocabulary invented by actual revolutionaries. Putin takes every opportunity to make a sneering jab at Leninism. I think he is just jealous of Lenin’s true genius. I mean, every revolution has to invent new ways of speaking, and new words to describe the new political and social realities. For example, French revolutionaries even changed the names of the months, although that was probably one bridge too far.

    In summary: Putin is so damned reactionary, maybe he even thinks ordinary working-class terms like “trade union” is a crime against the Russian language. Oh, and he quite right about the woke excesses, but he needs to realize that, when he takes the side of “rights of majorities” against “right of minorities”, this may be a correct position, but it’s not 100% compatible with his other statement: “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“.
    Which “person” is he talking about?

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    1. It’s interesting how people can read the same speech and the q and a responses and have a completely different response to what was said by Putin.

      I did not read anything revelatory in the speech – he has said similar things before.

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      1. You are right that there’s nothing particularly new in the speech, but I don’t think that I said that there was. I find it interesting nonetheless, as it came across as a more personal speech than many, and definitely an ideological statement.

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    2. There can be no divine revelation because the divine shines through evidence-less existence, or to put it concisely – where is the beef?

      After following the anti apologetics on John Loftus excellent site (https://www.debunking-christianity.com/ ) even the demand to not mock religion or the religious is nothing but a fear reaction of those that have nothing left to defend their bogus holy books with but mouthing empty phrase and demanding respect for a load of BS.

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  9. 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.

    The best of the old with the best of the new.

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  10. Hi Paul: I thought the historical context of the 1920s and 1930s that you provided was extremely helpful. Without that context, it is easy to completely misinterpret what these philosophers were saying, and, which is also crucial, what they symbolize still today. Where, it seems to me, Putin is particularly weak, it is in transforming these values statements into something programmatic and concrete. A very small example. At the very center of Berdyaev’s philosophy is a Christian personalist anthropology, which states that to be human simply means to be in relationship with others: it means fellowship, friendship, face-to-face being together, conversation, dialogue, all of it oriented to creativity and, ultimately, to praise (liturgy). I don’t see how an interest in Berdyaev is compatible with the repeated, and now just renewed, closing of Russian schools, and businesses, so that the laptop class can again edge out the reality of human togetherness with the virtual substitute for it advocated by the technocracy. At some point you have to choose: Technocracy or Christian Personalism. You can’t be both.

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    1. “I don’t see how an interest in Berdyaev is compatible with the repeated, and now just renewed, closing of Russian schools, and businesses, so that the laptop class can again edge out the reality of human togetherness with the virtual substitute for it advocated by the technocracy.”

      Care to elaborate here? Especially the “closing of Russian schools, and businesses” part.

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      1. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-22/moscow-closing-schools-businesses-as-russia-covid-19-deaths-soar/100559080

        I guess he propagandizes the temporary closing for the sake of preventing the spread of a “deadly” virus (that kills about the same amount of folks as a good flue pandemic who we have survived in the past without those panicking politicians and other assorted idiots, about 0.2% of infected (Ioannides et al) with a somewhat higher case fatality rate skewed by the fact of 90%+ of those killed are over 65 as in any good infection that kills the health compromised and elderly) as a sign of neo liberalism pursued by Putin to favour the laptop crowd..

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    2. Oh, and one more thing:

      “I thought the historical context of the 1920s and 1930s that you provided was extremely helpful. Without that context, it is easy to completely misinterpret what these philosophers were saying, and, which is also crucial, what they symbolize still today.”

      Upthread, I provided a comment containin quotes from Ivan Ilyin’s writings of said period. Tell me, Paul Grenier, did P. Robinson’s context provided context been extremley helpful for you? What do you think about the content of said quotes?

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  11. “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”

    It’s such a perfect setup for that old joke from the Soviet times, you know? “When I was in Moscow, I saw the motto “Everything for the good of the man!” on the wall. I also saw that very man, too.” So yeah, seeing all the resources of society and the state being concentrated around the interests of the person is very, very nice when you are that person. Otherwise, not at all.

    Plus, here’s still something disingenious about Putin’s criticism of Bolsheviks. There is no way he honestly believes that they wanted to “communalise the women” — that’s has been the strawman depicture of Communists since the middle of the XIX century; Marx himself explicitely refutes it, and so do Engels and Lenin in their works, just as pretty much every other Marxist writer does. And Putin no doubt had been studying all that in his youth, and still thinks of pushing this myth forward even though he knows it to be complete bullshit.

    And for anyone who thinks that I am talking from my arse, here’s an excerpt from some obscure, middle of the XIX century’s Marxist leaflet:

    “But you Communists would introduce community of women”, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus.

    The bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

    He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

    For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.

    Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.

    Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalised community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.

    Communists were smashing Patriarchy™ before it was cool. Then again, a lot of stuff that became mainstream in sociology and history (and even philosophy, to an extent) by the second half of the XX centure have already been argued for by Marx and Engels in their criticism of contemporary philosophy and sociology; but it had to have been painstakingly rediscovered and reinvented because why would anyone read those stupid inventors of Communism? Those guys surely could not have been right about anything.

    And the same thing goes with уравниловка — again, Marx himself stated that this is bullshit, a stupid idea, the strawman that the opponents invented, that it should never even be attempted, and Engels, Lenin, and Stalin all repeated that; and if you look at actions, not words, well, the “tariff grid” was a thing since at least 1925 (and most likely from even earlier) and it had lots of pay coefficients depending on all kinds of stuff and was constantly updated exactly to prevent uravnilovka and ensure fair compensation of labour.

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    1. Thanks for your excellent comment, Joker. One has to keep refuting these ridiculous lies and strawmen about Marxism. And you’re right that Putin knows better when he pulls out that old chestnut about collectiving women. He is relying on philistine ignorance when he makes these silly statements. Or perhaps he reads too much the op-eds in Simonyan’s RT. We know exactly who the desired audience is for that sort of bourgeois nonsense.

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      1. “There is a reason why some conservative critics call identity politics ‘cultural Marxism’.”

        No, maestro. They do it, because western propaganda spent literally decades conditioning their populace in taking for “holy” truth, that “marxism/commies BAD!”.

        Now, by framing something that has BAD connotations by default, they hope to win back… something.

        In fact, they are wrong – identity politics as they exist in the modern West are very liberal, capitalist thingy, that talks not about elimination of privileges, but of their redistribution. It’s like a repeat of the “national independence” movements. Yes, they might be right in desiring independence from the outdated, repressive even reactionary empires. But, in the end of the day, they are still nationalist, often – rabidly so.

        Oh, and one more thing. That “conservative critics” you mention. No, they are not really “conservative” – they are former liberals “mugged by reality” and threatened by said redistribution of the privileges. They are reactionaries, pure and simple.

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      2. Oh, and one more thing. That “conservative critics” you mention. No, they are not really “conservative” – they are former liberals “mugged by reality” and threatened by said redistribution of the privileges.

        You should pay closer attention. … For conservatives the downfall of the west started with 1968. Some ‘mugged by reality’ liberals much later joined their camp.

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      1. Interesting reference, Patrick. If I may babble subjectively? In Berlin in the earliest ’70s I once stumbled into a shared flat apparently only occupied by young men. They had put up a room offer for a female co-inhabitant on a FU (Free University) board. They apparently were interested in a privately shared female flat whore, No joke.

        The Marxist Leninist I knew then, had all pretty patriachal orientations. Which in turn led to the most diverse feminist Initiatives in Berlin … within whatever field of study. E.g. in medicine a perspective on the female body and the then still male dominated gynecology. … The founding institution still exists.

        I never asked the guys, mentioned above, they may have been members of a group following Wilhelm Reich. They were around like Maoists et al. The supporters of the Green Bible may have only surfaced later. 😉

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  12. “Post-liberal” vs “post-ideological”
    __________________________________

    Having re-read this post a couple of times, I actually liked it quite a lot; definitely thought-provoking. But as it is, I am unconvinced that drawing parallels between emigre idealists and Putin&Co really contributes to a better understanding of either.

    Those who run the Russian state today are essentially down-to-earth, practical techocrats, who are often criticized for their failure to provide Russia with a strong ideology. That’s not to say that they deem moral/spiritual values unimportant – quite on the contrary, they realize that moral ideals must necessarily be communicated; Russia cannot be run otherwise.

    However, instead of trying to come up with something original, binding, or definitive, the state has essentially assumed the position of minimal interference. Again and again, it emphasized the virtues of not straying from the existing common ground, and it kept reassuring people that there will be no state-backed revolutions in the moral/spiritual realm. Fittingly, the passages Putin cited from Ilyin are exactly to that effect, e.g. “Государственная власть имеет свои пределы…” and “Государство не может требовать от граждан веры…”

    And Putin’s most recent pronouncements about “progressive/moderate/optimistic conservatism”, rather than reflecting an ideological choice, actually underline his refusal to be bound by any ideology, except sticking to common sense and doing what works.

    You could, in principle, see this position in light of idealists’ influence – “follow natural law” and all that – but barely. It seems more like Putin is cherry-picking their ideas to suit his own thinking, rather than actively using them in his ideological evolution.

    So while the term “post-liberal” really suits Ilyin, a better term for Putin’s creed would be “post-ideological”. Perhaps I am projecting, but I like to think of Putin’s team as hands-on empiricists. As for the goals, he was quite clear on that in his recent interview: «Для нас самая главная проблема и самая главная задача, которую мы должны решить, — это подъем доходов граждан страны». As post-ideological as it gets, no?

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    1. As for promoting “moral/spiritual” values:
      The Russian government government (any government) might consider prison reforms and the basic idea that a person who is in prison, even a convicted criminal, has the right to serve out his sentence without being raped by a broomstick.
      I mean, I personally am an atheist, I don’t believe in god or religion, and yet even I know that such behavior is morally and spiritually wrong. How so then, people who go to the church and light candles and pray, and even cover their hair, and think they are so morally superior because they do this?

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      1. Hey Yalensis, I totally share your indignation over the prison torture scandals, however, I am not sure what exactly you are getting at in your comment. Has anyone from ROC/religious community, or from the gov’t, imply that prison torture is ok? If so, I missed it. Issuing a warrant for the whistle-blower was a shame, and every comment I read on the Russian internet was indignant. Literally no one thinks it’s ok.

        As for the prison reform, it is sorely needed. I even remember reading Simonyan’s comment to that effect. The problem is money – as per usual.

        PS I am not religious, either, and I don’t believe one’s sense of right and wrong has much to do with religion. I’ve met quite a few religious people whose morals were not up to scratch, and plenty of non-believers who were great people, kind and generous and non-judgmental.

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      2. You might want to read Vladimir Solovyov’s writings on penal policy (I mean the 19th century philosopher not the TV host). There you get religious grounding for a concept of prisoners’ rights. It’s amazingly progressive and would no doubt nowadays get Solovyov denounced as a dangerous soft on crime ultra-liberal.

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      3. Hey, Lola, No I wasn’t implying that anybody from the Church or government condoned this. But they do imply sometimes that you have to be religious to have a moral compass; or that if you aren’t Orthodox then you’re not a real Russian. To which I object!

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  13. “The problem is money – as per usual.”

    I didn’t realize that sadistic behaviour by some staff has anything to do with money. Unless you think the wages are so low that only folks with a particular interest in torturing others forego good income for the pleasure to live out their fantasies…
    maybe that is why many priests forgo the pleasure of a good income and possible family life because the possibility of long time undetected or even protected child abuse makes joining the clergy attractive to them. Fringe job benefits?

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    1. Money is needed to install smart cameras that would stream to remote servers, the output stored and analyzed by an independent entity.

      There is no over-the-counter test for decency, and prison guard job is bound to attract a certain percentage of people with unhealthy inclination. So independent control is the only way to effectively prevent abuse.

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      1. But don’t they have cameras already? I mean, these files were out there on their computer network, which is how the hacker/whistleblower was able to get them. In fact, from what I read, he was able to get files from other facilities besides the one he was incarcerated in.
        It still boggles my mind that the perps record their own crimes and apparently upload them to their network. For what purpose? To entertain their friends? Ugh!

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  14. PS – of course morality has nothing to do with belief in a higher power.

    As the saying goes: good people do good things, and bad people do bad. But it takes religion (or ideology) to make good people do bad things. (Steve Weinberg)

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    1. But what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and how do you know? And why do you even think that there are such things as good and bad? If you’re a positivist, then good and bad are no more than human constructs, and thus lacking in any objective grounding. Same for law – it’s law because somebody in authority has said it’s law and has the power to enforce it – no more. This is, incidentally, a subject that Ilyin tackled in his book ‘On the essence of legal consciousness.’ In a positivist world, there’s no reason for anybody to obey the law if they think they won’t be caught and punished. It is after all just an external imposition. Consequently, such a view leads to a weakly developed legal consciousness in the people. A stable society, and more to the point a rule-based-state in which people can act freely without excessive state imposition, depends on people accepting the law, understanding its value, viewing it as something more than a set of rules forced on them by others. For that, it has to align with more than just their personal interests (because then it won’t suit other people’s interests and they won’t obey it) but has to fit with some transcendental understanding of good and bad, in short on natural law, which requires one to accept that there is a natural law and consider where it comes from and what it consists of and then seek to bring positive law in line with natural law as much as is practicable. If that is done, you should be able to develop an advanced legal consciousness, which will induce people to respect the law and each others’ natural rights without the need for excessive external enforcement, and thereby build what some might call a ‘liberal’ society. Thus the objectives of liberalism cannot be achieved without appeal to the higher values embodied in natural law. Get rid of these higher values and freedom ‘svoboda’ becomes licence ‘volya’ and society collapses.

      Take it or leave it, that’s the argument, very roughly speaking. But saying that there are good and bad people and good and bad deeds opens up a whole series of questions.

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      1. “But what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and how do you know?”

        That is of course a larger philosophical discussion that of also touches on theodicy, and maybe too much for this forum here.

        To my simple mind to inflict pain to someone for pains sake or for the perpetrators pleasure, furthering the goals of an ideology or religion is wrong = bad or evil, especially when said religion is based on claims of instructions by an unevidenced divine entity.

        This criteria that interfering with someone else well being – except for a very circumscribed set of rules, i.e. punishment, or medical intervention to in the end prevent further suffering – is generally bad is one criteria which applies in the case of prison torture or roasting someone alive at the stake or chopping the heads of those not in accord with your religious ideas I am satisfied to live by.
        I do not need a transcendental natural law to abide by that rule, but maybe it is different for you.

        “then good and bad are no more than human constructs, and thus lacking in any objective grounding.”
        which of course is correct, as there are no other available objective sources or wellsprings of morality and god(s) do not exist, as evidence for them does not exist.
        Following no absolut definition of good and bad can exist and we have to make the rules we agree upon.

        “but has to fit with some transcendental understanding of good and bad, in short on natural law, which requires one to accept that there is a natural law and consider where it comes from and what it consists of and then seek to bring positive law in line with natural law as much as is practicable.”
        That very much is the same argument I heard from a variety of religious persons I have encountered who stated to me that if they did not believe in the moral rules proscribed by a divine entity they would not hesitate to break the laws that are based on those rules and steal and eventually even stoop to murder.
        However, that does not happen often (except in cases where the divine rules are bent to accommodate some perceived or interpreted divine command on how to deal with apostates or perceived enemies of religion = good pople doing bad things) because it seems we have inherited genetically a set of rules of fairness that apply without them being taught, as even animals show similar behaviour within a group, and we seem to often shun actions that could harm someone because we feel that it is wrong to treat someone else in a way we would not like to be treated.

        There is no evidence that besides those feelings there is a “natural law” based on something transcendental, the best I can hope is that we all can agree of some set of rules that prevent harm to the other and ourselves and inflict no more damage as is sometimes unavoidable for a the good of the majority, i.e. incarcerating those that harm others and preventing them from continuing to inflict harm.

        Maybe rather simple, but I believe “try not to do harm” is all we can expect from each other considering the non existence of the divine.

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      2. Hey Paul, thanks for this comment!

        It is a familiar line of moral reasoning, and it makes sense to a lot of people. But it’s important to note that this argument is based on an incomplete picture of the world and human nature. Our understanding of human morality – e.g. the nature of empathy and the psychology of altruism – is now light-years ahead of the 19th/early 20th century, when people such as Solovyov (whom I admire) and Ilyin lived and wrote.

        There are academic fields studying social and moral behavior (e.g. sociobiology and evolutionary psychology), and it’s very clear now that there is a biological basis to our morality and even spiritualty. I feel that anyone thinking about those issues today should be at least aware of the recent research (which you probably are).

        In case there’s anyone reading this who isn’t: Harvard professor E.O. Wilson wrote a number of great popular books, and coined the phrase “scientific humanism” (as “the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature”). Steven Pinker, another Harvard professor, cites a lot of relevant research in his recent book “Better Angels of Our Nature”. There are several recent articles in Scientific American Mind (though they seem rather superficial and simplistic).

        What I’m NOT trying to say here is that the 19th/early 20th century moral philosophy is now irrelevant. There are hard problems to be solved and questions to be answered, and science alone can’t do that. But today, it is as important for the moral philosophers to be aware of the science as it is for scientists to be aware of the philosophical arguments! In the modern world, ethics, policy and law can NOT be rooted in philosophy alone.

        So no, good and bad are not just human “constructs” lacking in objective grounding, and much of the fittingly named “natural law” is rooted in our very nature: that’s why it is so intuitive and so shared across ages and cultures. It is not “transcendental” in a sense of being non-physical, but it is bigger than us, older than us, and it has shaped us in ways we don’t fully understand. Still,we now understand it better than ever before, and it would be a shame not to use this knowledge to improve our laws, our policies and our lives.

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      3. Thanks, Lola. Certainly this has stuff has to be considered, and I’ve talked about it in some of what I’ve written, especially on the issue of honour, but biological/genetic explanations are a) not universally accepted, and b) don’t explain why these instincts you mention are ‘moral’ categories – good, bad, etc. Natural law remains a slippery thing.

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  15. Excellent food for thought, many thanks.

    As I read the article I, like yourself it seems, found myself imagining where I would place myself in this liberal – conservative, classical vs evolutionary, historical vs current context spectrum.

    My own inclinations seem to be to avoid reading too many historical authors’ political treatises (at least initially) simply to avoid latching on to any particular variant in shaping my own thinking. Conditions change, environments change, threats and alliances change yet there always seems to be some natural (universal?) thread of coalescing forces that drive those changes, probably buried somewhere in the human communal psyche.

    I prefer instead, mostly unconsciously I suppose, to try to identify that thread in I guess I could say an ‘organic’ manner, in other words – allow my politics to emerge ‘organically’ re: current events and then allow myself to be open to how that corresponds or conflicts with historical movements, authors’ writings etc.

    Anyway, excuse my clumsiness above in trying to grasp a very slippery fish. Many thanks again for the article.

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  16. One of Putin’s phrases many years back has stuck with me ever since: ‘evolution vs revolution’, which to me was a perfectly reasonable and coherent position.

    Which sort of leads to the current perfect storm brewing in US-RF relations, as well as with US domestic ones.

    Putin’s preference domestically and I assume internationally is a natural evolution. Democrats are engaged in ‘revolution’, and to extend things a bit: Republicans are engaged in maintaining the ‘status quo’, as it favors American notions of hegemony. Democrats favor hegemony as well but with more ideological overtones of societal ‘revolution’ driving it.

    Therefore, republicans and democrats at the core level both share an enmity toward any notions of gradual evolution esp. with respect to the RF, while still at fundamental odds with each other in respective meanings of America’s exceptionalism as a driver of hegemony.

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  17. I have actually forgotten that there are several “Natural Laws”. One is Darwins survival of the fittest whereby this often misinterpreted in the Spencarian sense of the most powerful actively fighting for survival.

    Following from that is the law of natural selection acting on each individual and in time species. However, that law in the meantime has been amended to include natural drift, gene flow and even horizontal gene transfer.
    And there is the natural law of kill or be killed and eat or be eaten, which usually determines the interspecies actions while there are some mechanism in intra species interaction that prevent often the more violent interactions, but cannibalism is still possible.
    Or the destruction of a set of offspring to further the survival of the set of genes of another animal’s of the same species, see grizzly and polar bears.
    You are welcome to construct an ought from that is, based not on transcendent laws pulled out of someone’s behind but observable rules that are established in the natural world.
    There is no universal morality except the one we create to regulate our own conduct and determine the structure of society we want to exist in.

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    1. “Likening it to what he claimed were broken promises made in 1989 about NATO infrastructure never moving to the eastern part of Germany and beyond, he claimed that NATO infrastructure was moving closer to Russia and threatening its security.”

      She really doubts the veracity of the facts? Of course, nothing was written down and signed, it was a verbal “gentleman’s” agreement. The Russians just forgot the term gentleman and US politician don’t mix, and in general (see our various soft lumber agreements broken time and again) are not agreement or treaty capable.

      Consider this:

      https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2021/10/27/nato-sliding-towards-war-against-russia-in-ukraine/

      “Russia is investigating reports of Turkish attack drones being deployed for the first time in Ukraine’s eight-year civil war. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) under the command of the Kiev regime claimed that the drones were used earlier this week in combat against ethnic Russian rebels.

      This is a potentially dramatic escalation in the smoldering war. For it marks the direct involvement of NATO member Turkey in the conflict. Up to now, the United States and other NATO states have been supplying lethal weaponry to the Kiev regime to prosecute its war against the breakaway self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.”

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  18. Bit late on commenting on this article, but what the heck…

    I liked the article. Was particularly interested in the discussion about what constitutes “liberal” and “liberalism”. My readings over the years indicate that there are multiple meanings at play. I’ve found the two most useful distinctions to be between “technocrat” and “classical liberal” (the first, the prevalent meaning of “liberal” in the USA, the second, roughly equivalent to “libertarian”). Unfortunately, I’ve found it’s difficult to talk about “liberalism” and that much talk that appeared to be prima facie meaningful was in fact parties with different conceptions talking past each other.

    I was also interested in the discussion of the implicit belief that “liberalism” doesn’t provide adequate protections for what I think of as “basic minimums” (or against “basic forms of harm”), and that idea that a slide into chaos is likely to result from this lacuna. In fact, I’d argue that the preservation of some sort of basic protections are what “optimistic conservatism” is getting at. Without such basic protections, things fall apart.

    What these basic forms of harm and protection are is disputable, of course, but only, I think, to a degree: does anyone really dispute the harmfulness of basic forms of non-consensual interpersonal physical harm (or, more generally, many of the core protections of criminal law)? Or of the harm done by starvation, by lack of medical care, shelter, etc – the latter being more controversial because they involve transfers from some to others (and hence, some getting better off while others are made worse off)?

    A core issue, I think, is how to implement these basic minimums. Do we really need dictatorship? Probably not. How about police and military functions? Probably (though these are in some sense fighting fire with fire: using (the threat of) violence as a defence against (the threat of) violence. Do we need a belief in super-human divinities? Or, more generally, must we have a belief in the (functional equivalent of) the sacredness of human life?

    A further issue, not raised by your article, is the question of asymmetry: can liberalism survive if people operationalize it asymmetrically – that is, if they have a governing belief in Us vs Them and that what applies to Us need not apply to Them? It’s sometimes presupposed that “common humanity” beliefs are operative, that everyone will and should be treated as generic humanity, at least for fundamental forms of normativity (I’m thinking moral and legal) – but in my experience, this is more often than not, not the case. Advocates of the Rule of Law ideal often presuppose such generic legal personhood, but the actual practice of law is another matter (as is the actual practice of policing) – and I believe it’s because asymmetry/an us vs them hierarchy creeps into – or more accurately, dominates – liberal principles, ensuring one practice of law and policing for some and another practice for others.

    I’ll stop there because I am rambling. But as you say, it’s the journey that can be of value.

    In any event, thanks for your article. A useful read, triggering many useful thoughts.

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  19. Several years ago, Putin answered a question by Western media regarding what candidate he favors in the American presidential elections. The answer was that who gets elected doesn’t matter much, as the ” people in the back with dark suits ” are really in control… was an euphemism for the Deep State ?

    At least in America, the classic notion of liberalism and conservatism seems to have no projection in reality, the system is replaced by the financial-corporate-military-intelligence-media complex, with the masses instigated upon each other…No more old Marxist fight between rich and poor, now we are divided by the masters based on race, biological sex and sexual orientation, with most people believing they live in a democracy…

    This hydra is quite intolerant of dissidents, internal and abroad, the utterly existence of Russia as it is not acceptable, so the not so cold war goes on..

    How can Putin deal with this fundamental threat level, in the form of impending color revolution ( tried a few times already) , by being naive and believing in the shinny principles of western democracy ? Is Russia politically mature enough to resist highjacking of the electoral process by alien entities with virtual unlimited resources ? As an old Kgb fox he seems to understand how the game is played, that the foreign Ngos are not there for the sake of Russian folks, the professional agitators are targeting rebellious youth through social media etc…So,what degree of authoritarianism is needed to stop the hydra without aborting the true democratic process? Maybe we can call that optimistic conservatism …

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