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.
The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.
As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.
It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.
Every now and then during my wanderings through the world of Russian political philosophy, I come across something which I want to share. So it was yesterday when I read a piece entitled ‘Morality and Politics’ written in 1891 by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.
Solovyov frames his argument in the language of Christianity, but I think that even a hardened atheist could find much to agree with. Moreover, although it was written 130 years ago, there’s a lot in this piece which is relevant for current times. And while one could easily accuse Solovyov of excessive idealism, it’s nice occasionally to read something pushing us in a positive direction.
In particular, I was struck by Solovyov’s condemnation of expressions of national exceptionalism and of the self-righteous imperialist atrocities which result from them. At the same time I was also struck by his refusal to allow these atrocities to induce enmity of the Western states whom he was criticising. Instead, he finishes his piece with an appeal for reconciliation between East and West, and argues that the pursuit of such reconciliation constitutes Russia’s international duty.
My rough and ready translation of the piece is below. I have cut out quite a lot in order to make it a more appropriate length for a blog post. In particular, I’ve eliminated a lot of the material in the second half of the article, which discusses Russian-Polish relations and which strikes me as less relevant for today (though even here one might find snippets of contemporary pertinence – e.g. Solovyov’s claim that ‘‘Poland would sooner agree to drown in a German sea than sincerely reconcile with Russia … the significance of Poland becomes clear as the avant-garde of the Catholic West against Russia’.)
Here it is:
Morality and Politics (Vladimir Solovyov, 1891)
A complete separation of morality and politics is one of the predominant mistakes and evils of our time. From a Christian point of view and within the boundaries of the Christian world, these two areas – moral and political – although they cannot entirely coincide, must nonetheless be tightly bound together.
Just as Christian morality has in mind the accomplishment of the Kingdom of God within an individual person, so too should Christian politics prepare for the arrival of the Kingdom of God for all humankind as a whole and its major parts, peoples, tribes, and states.
The past and present policies of peoples in history have had very little to do with this objective, and to a large part have directly contradicted it – this is an indisputable fact. … There is a widely spread point of view that each people should have its own policy, the goal of which is to support the exclusive interests of that individual people or state. In recent times, patriotic voices have rung out ever louder among us, demanding that we not fall behind compared to other states in this regard, and also that our policies be guided exclusively by own national and state interests, and that any retreat from such ‘interest politics’ is stupid or even treasonous.
Perhaps, there is a misunderstanding in this point of view, deriving from the lack of definition of the word ‘interest’; it all depends on exactly what interests one is talking about. If, as is usually the case, one is talking about the interest of the people, its wealth and external power, then despite the fact that these interests are undoubtedly important for us, they shouldn’t constitute the highest and final goal of politics, for otherwise we would have to justify all sorts of evil deeds which we see.
Our patriots boldly point to the political misdeeds of England as an example worthy of imitation. This is a good example; nobody either in word or in deed cares so much about their national and state interests as the English. As is well known, for the sake of these interests the wealthy and powerful English starve the Irish, oppress the Indians, force opium on the Chinese, and pillage Egypt. Undoubtedly, all these deeds are inspired by a care for national interests.
There is no stupidity or treason in this, but lots of inhumanity and shamelessness. … We dare to think that true patriotism is compatible with a Christian conscience, that there is a politics other than interest politics, or, it might be better to say, that a Christian people has other interests which do not demand, and indeed do not permit, international cannibalism.
Even those who participate in it understand that international cannibalism isn’t something praiseworthy. The politics of material interest is rarely presented in its pure form. Even the English, while happily sucking the blood of the ‘lower races’ and considering themselves entitled to do this because it suits them as Englishmen, often assert that they are thereby bringing a great benefit to these lower races, accustoming them to higher civilization, which is not entirely incorrect. Here, therefore, the crude desire for one’s own advantage is turned into an elevated thought about one’s cultural vocation.
The principle of a higher cultural vocation is cruel and false. Its cruelty can be seen in the sad shades of peoples who have been subjected to spiritual slavery and have lost their living force. And its falsehood, its internal inconsistency, is clearly revealed by its inability to be put into action. In consequence of the fact that higher culture and what the cultural mission consists of are poorly defined, there isn’t a single historic nation which has not expressed pretensions to such a mission and not considered itself to have the right to assault other peoples in the name of its higher calling.
But the pretension of one people to a privileged position in humanity excludes the same pretension of other peoples. Consequently, either all these pretensions have to remain empty boasting … or they must give rise to a struggle to the death among the great peoples for the right to commit cultural violence. But the outcome of such a struggle in no way proves that the victor’s higher calling is genuine; for superiority in military power is not evidence of cultural superiority.
The idea of a cultural vocation can be productive only when this vocation is considered not as a privilege but as a real obligation, not as domination, but as service.
A people has interests, but also has a conscience. And if this conscience is weakly revealed in politics and barely restrains the manifestations of national egoism, then this is an abnormal and unhealthy thing, and everyone should admit that it is not good. International cannibalism is not good, regardless of whether it is justified or not justified by a higher vocation.
Within the confines of a given people, fellow citizens daily exploit, deceive, and sometimes even kill one another, but nobody concludes that this is how it should be; so why they do hold to this conclusion when it comes to higher politics?
Promoting one’s own interest, and one’s own self-importance as the highest principle of the nation means legalizing and perpetuating the difference and struggle which are tearing mankind apart. The common fact in all nature of the struggle for existence, has a place in natural humanity. But the entirety of humanity’s historical growth, all its successes, consist of limiting this fact, and of gradually raising mankind to a higher form of truth and love.
Does Christianity abolish nationality? No, it preserves it. It abolishes not nationality, but nationalism. … We distinguish nationality from nationalism by their fruits. We can see the fruits of English nationality in Shakespeare and Byron, in Berkeley and in Newton; the fruits of English nationalism are worldwide pillage, the deeds of Warren Hastings and Lord Seymour, destruction and murder. … Nationality is a positive force, and every people, according to its own special character, is appointed to some special service. Different nationalities are different organs in the entire body of humanity … but … the desire to separate oneself [from the body] can arise. And with such a desire, the positive force of nationality turns into the negative force of nationalism. … Taken to extremes, nationalism destroys the people who have fallen into it, making them an enemy of mankind.
One should not deceive oneself: inhumanity in international and social relations, the politics of cannibalism, in the end kill both personal and family morality, which is already partly visible in the whole Christian world. A human is a being of reason, and so cannot bear for long the miraculous division between the rules of personal and political action. … Even if at first only in theory, we must recognize that the highest guiding principle of all politics is not interest and not self-importance but moral duty.
This does not mean that nations do not have legitimate interests, nor a true calling, but on the contrary presupposes both. For if we recognize that each nation has a moral duty, then undoubtedly the fulfilment of this duty is connected to its genuine interests and its true calling. It doesn’t require a people to ignore its material interests and not think at all about its special vocation; it requires only that it doesn’t invest its soul in these, and that they do not become the ultimate goal which it serves.
To oppress and swallow up others for one’s satiation is an animal instinct, an inhuman and godless act both for an individual and for an entire people. To glory in one’s higher calling, to appropriate special rights and advantages over others is an act of pride … it is human, but also un-Christian. … Every nation should think only of its own duty, not paying any attention to other peoples, and not demanding or expecting anything of them. It is not in our power to make others fulfil their duty, but we can and must fulfil our own.
Most immediately, our historical duty appears to us in the form of the Polish question … and the Polish question is only one phase of the greater Eastern question … [and] our eastern question is a quarrel of the first, Western, Rome with the second, eastern, Rome whose representative from the 15th century onwards became the third Rome – Russia. … Should this third Rome be only a repetition of Byzantium, and fall as she did, … or should it represent a third principle reconciling the hostile forces [East and West]? … this reconciliation inevitably stands in front of Russia; without it it cannot fulfil God’s task on earth. … And so in virtue of all this, we will refrain from wilful condemnation of the West and will try instead to clear an intellectual path leading to the rapprochement of the two Christian worlds.
I was reading something last week which fitted in rather nicely with the phenomenon I described in my recent review of Joshua Yaffa’s book, namely the idea that if the authorities are flawed one should have absolutely nothing to do with them. The more I read it, the more I liked it. The problem I had, though, was that I liked it so much that as I made notes I began to realize that I was pretty much copying the entire piece. So, in the end I decided to do exactly that, and also translate it. The result is below.
The piece in question is an article written in 1862 by the Russian conservative liberal philosopher Boris Chicherin, entitled ‘Various forms of liberalism’. I’d read some Chicherin before, but not this piece, and I think it’s really great – not a deep piece of philosophy, hardly a product of thorough, empirically justified research, more of an opinionated rant, but all the more enjoyable because of it. And although I regard parts of it as somewhat over the top, the basic themes resonate. One can recognize today, 120 years later, many of the same characteristics of what Chicherin calls ‘street’ and ‘oppositional’ liberalism among liberals both in Russia and the West (indeed I even recognize some of them in myself). For this reason, a lot of this rings true even today. Chicherin’s discussion of the nature of freedom is also interesting.
The translation is far from perfect, and on occasion rather clunky. This is due to the haste with which it was done as well as my own rather limited skills as a translator. Still, I think that it gets the sense across most of the time. I apologize for any inaccuracies.
I have translated Chicherin’s phrase ‘okhranitel’nyi liberalizm‘ as ‘conservative liberalism’, as this is how it is normally done, and I can’t think of anything better. But it doesn’t really do credit to the statist nuance inherent in the word ‘okhranitel’nyi‘ (some historians after all write of okhranitel’nyi konservatizm – which following this translation would be ‘conservative conservatism’). If anybody has any suggestions for a better translation, I’d be happy to hear them.
Various forms of liberalism (Boris Chicherin, 1862)
If we listen to the social conversation which is taking place from one end of Russia to the other, both secretly and openly, in clubs, in drawing rooms, and in the press, then despite the variety of speeches and tendencies, we easily notice one thing in common, which dominates over everything else. There is no doubt that at the present time public opinion in Russia is decidedly liberal. This is not an accident but a product of necessity; it’s a result of the nature of things. The rejection of the old order is a direct consequence of its bankruptcy. It has become obvious to everybody that you can’t have a well-ordered state without also having some degree of freedom.
We live in an era in which political slander appears to be a common tactic. American politics seems especially toxic, with Donald Trump and his detractors trading insults on an almost daily basis. But the problem spreads far beyond the USA. An example is the ongoing campaign in the United Kingdom to undermine Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by labelling him as ‘Anti-Semitic’. And as everybody who follows Russia studies will know, if you dare to contradict the prevailing narrative which depicts Russia as the source of all evil, you are only too likely to find yourself denounced as a Russian ‘Trojan Horse’, ‘Putin proxy’, or ‘Kremlin agent’. Following on from my last post, therefore, I thought it worth translating another piece out of the latest volume of Ivan Ilyin’s works, namely an August 1939 article entitled ‘Against Political Slander’, which you can find below.
Originally published in German in the Neues Winterhurer Tagblatt in Switzerland, where Ilyin was living after having fled Nazi Germany, it’s notable for a couple of reason: first, for the manner in which the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ilyin passionately defends Swiss democracy and describes himself as a ‘democrat’; and second for its subject matter – political slander – which he depicts as dangerous for any democratic system. ‘If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander’, writes Ilyin. It’s a message which is remarkably relevant for our times, and one which our modern ‘defenders of democracy’ would do well to heed.
Ivan Ilyin, ‘Against Political Slander’ (Switzerland, 29 August 1939)
Yes, the contemporary world engages in slander! That’s not to say that slander was unknown in former times. Humans have always been only too human. But still, slander didn’t become a method, or more precisely it wasn’t raised to the status of a political method in the way that it has been in the past decade. It’s impossible to remain silent about the great dangers involved.
Wherever slander appears, it exerts a harmful and destructive influence all around. For it consists of hate and envy; it is the product of these baneful passions. It’s the lie that passes off as truth. It consciously insults and yet demands revenge. In short, it’s the direct enemy of peace, equilibrium, and mutual trust.
Precisely for this reason slander has a very harmful influence on democratic society. No democratic order can exist in the spirit of slander; it is imperceptibly undermined, it is castrated over and over again, rots and comes closer and closer to death. Anybody who doesn’t understand this or disputes it, really knows nothing about the essence of democracy.
A democracy is not only a ‘multiplicity of independent people’, but much more, it’s a unity of many and independent co-citizens, a unity despite their numbers, a unity which derives from plurality. Try to forget about this unity or to neglect it, and democracy falls apart, like an armful of brushwood which has fallen out of your arms. Democracy does not mean ‘every man for himself’, but ‘all together’; it rests not on centrifugal forces striving to distance themselves from the centre, but on the force of mutual attraction. The people in authoritarian states are united by the corresponding state. We, democrats of the Swiss Confederation, must unite on the basis of voluntary self-discipline, and on the principle of belonging to the Confederation we must unite in a communion of free men who trust one another. If we let this slip, we will turn into dust and worthless garbage. And so we must take care of everything which eases our national – and I mean national, not counterfeit international! – cohesion, and must avoid everything which unjustly and incompetently divides us. Throughout our history this has always been the primary requirement of the state, and now more than ever before. The general situation in the world and in particular its anti-democratic essence requires us Swiss to withstand this experience and present to the world an example of true national community.
A honourable democrat should display respect, justice, and correctness in all his relations with loyal co-citizens who truly and unconditionally stand on the side of the people and the country, and who in good conscience obey the country’s democratic constitution. This is the first manifestation of a healthy democratic spirit. By contrast, all shaming, all unobjective backbiting, and all slander, break and crush these principles of our existence. Hatred – including class hatred – is blind and unjust. We must not profess it; otherwise the demon of ‘alienation’ will triumph. From the earliest times envy has been the father of every hatred and civil war. We must pacify it. We don’t have to respond every time we’re contradicted, to every honest criticism, to every patriotic-democratic word which has been properly expressed, to the commentary which contradicts the truth, to crude blackening or vilification. What are most reprehensible are premeditated efforts to bespatter the pure convictions of inconvenient third parties with caustic remarks designed to sow suspicion, in the hope that ‘some mud always sticks’. This is the method of the imperialist, the ill-intentioned destroyer of peace.
Slander is unjustified suspicion; suspicion incites mutual distrust – distrust at first of the unjustly slandered, then of the lying slanderer, and finally of public speech and of politics in general. For every individual citizen of the country ceases to be able to distinguish truth from lies, honest criticism from slander, and so becomes disinclined to believe anybody or to participate in anything. Who benefits? Only our enemies: the open and secret enemies of democracy, opponents of the Swiss character and independence, enemies of peace and humanity!
We mustn’t beat about the bush: the use of political slander to undermine political opponents and people who defend an alternative political point of view by means of unfounded suspicions, is impermissible, anti-democratic and fatal. Anybody who makes use of it can in no way pretend to the honourable title of true and reasonable democrat.
If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander. But if a democrat who is loyal to his Fatherland points out to the worker the incontrovertible fact that the ‘United Front’ – or as it’s also called, the ‘Popular Front’ – was dreamt up by the Third International to dissolve and destroy all democracies, and one hears the objection that the person pointing this out is a ‘brownshirt’, i.e. someone who rejects and secretly despises our country, then is political slander, which has been consciously and deliberately turned into a method, and must be stigmatized. Or if the Bundesrat, whose name enjoys respect not only in Switzerland but in all Europe, of if an officer of high rank is daily called a ‘disguised fascist’ because he faithfully and obediently supports the 300-year tradition of our country’s neutrality, then this is base slander, serving only one goal – systematically castrating the Swiss way of life and the needs of the state. It is a conscious lack of objectivity, an intentional dissolution of the trust which needs to exist in a genuine democracy, not only between citizen and citizen, but also between citizens and institutions, and vice versa. It is false, poisonous and fatal. It must stop.
For me, the honourable name of co-citizen is inviolable. It is a treasure which I must preserve. It is a pure voice in the political choir of my people. We democrats are not allowed to act like evil little children who run around in the night defiling decent citizens’ doors or smashing their windows.
We have a responsibility to be pure and dedicated to our Motherland. The politics of slander and suspicion are not Swiss politics. And our politics do not need imports.
Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has been making mild waves again this week with an interview in which he pontificated about linguistic policy in Ukraine. On the one hand, Snyder argued in favour of increased Ukrainization; on the other hand he proposed that instead of just repressing the Russian language the Ukrainian authorities should standardize a Ukrainian version of it, in order to distinguish Ukrainian-Russian from Russian-Russian. Personally, as someone who lives and works in a bilingual environment, I can’t quite see why we can’t just let live and let live, and why it wouldn’t be better if people could live, work, and publish in whatever language suits them, especially in a country in which the population speaks (more or less equally) two languages. It’s amazing how self-proclaimed liberals and democrats seem so keen on measures which seem so obviously illiberal and undemocratic.
In Snyder’s case, however, it’s not altogether surprising. Readers may recall that he has been actively promoting the thesis that contemporary Russia is a fascist state which poses a deadly threat to the entire world. His logic is that the Kremlin has adopted as its unofficial ideology the writings of émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that since Ilyin was a ‘fascist’, that makes the Russian state fascist too. Several other authors have made similar claims. As I’ve explained on several occasions, it’s all nonsense. But there’s something about my character which always makes me doubt myself, even when I’m sure I’m right. Maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something. You never know. And so, despite the fact that I’ve read a fair amount of Ilyin and yet to come to the conclusion that he’s a fascist, there’s a little voice which pops up and says, ‘Maybe you’re wrong; find more evidence.’
Fortunately, I’ve now had the chance to dig a little deeper. In Moscow a few weeks ago, I met up with Iury Lisitsa, who has edited 30 volumes of Ilyin’s collected works, and he kindly gave me a copy of the newly published volume no. 31 fresh off the printing press. It consists of op-eds written by Ilyin for émigré and Swiss newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, and as such provides a good tool for analyzing the philosopher’s political thought and for testing the ‘Ilyin = fascist, ergo Putin = fascist, ergo Russia = fascist’ thesis a bit further. So far, I’ve yet to read all 900 pages, but I’ve skimmed through most of it, and read some parts of it in detail. It’s interesting stuff.
I’ve just finished doing the index for my book on Russian conservatism, and in the process I noticed that I had mentioned some names and terms much more often than I thought I had. Peter the Great, for instance, is the second most mentioned person in the book (Nicholas I is the most), and that’s odd because I don’t discuss him or his reign at all. In fact the book starts in the early 1800s, about 100 years after Peter. But it seems that the shadow he cast had such a powerful effect on nineteenth century Russian conservatives (who to a large degree were reacting against the process of Westernization that Peter set in motion) that his name kept cropping up regardless.
That got me thinking. It turns out that the index provides quite a useful tool in determining what persons and subjects my book addresses, and thus determining who and what are really important. So, with that thought in mind, I set about quantifying Russian conservatism by totalling the number of mentions people and ideas get in the book, and then producing some word clouds. The results provide a visual rendition of Russian conservatism past and present.
The first world cloud shows the persons and institutions which were most often mentioned in the book. The first thing which strikes one is the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, though, this word cloud is perhaps rather misleading as the most prominent names aren’t those of conservative philosophers but of Russian tsars, e.g. Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander I, I, and III, and of the Communist Party and Vladimir Putin. In short, the dominant figures are Russia’s rulers. Yet, except for Nicholas I and Putin, I say very little about any of them. They get a lot of mentions, but they’re mostly in passing, as a way of providing context.
But that itself reveals something. An ideology like liberalism can be seen as abstract and absolute, that is to say that it embodies certain absolute, abstract ideas which are considered valid regardless of time and place. Conservatism by contrast is relative; it is what is called a ‘positional’ or ‘situational’ ideology – i.e. it depends on the given situation. Another way of looking at it is as a ‘reactive’ ideology – i.e. it’s a reaction to whatever is happening in the time in question. In short, with conservatism, context matters.
In the comments section of my last post, I was asked what other Russian ideologies might be, and how they contrast with conservatism. So here’s a brief stab at an answer:
From the time that the Slavophiles split with the ‘Westernizers’ in the 1840s, there has been a sharp divide between those who think that Russia is distinct from the West and should follow its own separate path of development, and those who believe that Russia should integrate itself more fully with the West so as ultimately to merge with it. It is worth noting, however, that the term ‘West’ is rather ill-defined. There isn’t, and never has been, a single model of economic, social, and political development which one call definitively ‘Western’. Russian ‘Westernizers’ haven’t so much wanted Russia to copy ‘the West’ as wanted Russia to copy one particular version of the West, namely whatever version has been considered the most ‘progressive’ at the time. In the mid-nineteenth century, this meant liberalism; later, it meant socialism; nowadays, it means liberalism again, or perhaps even neo-liberalism. In geopolitical terms, this today means accepting US hegemony. In domestic political terms, it means supporting liberal democracy (though just what that means is not often well explained). In philosophical/moral terms, it means advocating the most ‘progressive’ interpretations of human rights. And in economic terms it means free trade, free market economics, and deepening the process of globalization by furthering Russia’s integration into the global economy.
Statists believe that a strong state is a prerequisite for a stable, powerful, and prosperous Russia. Statism is not incompatible with Westernism/liberalism, and many (though far from all) Statists would in principle agree with Western liberal ideas such as democracy, free markets, and the like. But whereas the Westernizers/liberals give their ideological commitments top priority, the Statists put the interests of the state first and are therefore willing to sacrifice so-called ‘Western values’ if state interests demand it. Statists thus reject the Westernizers’ universalism, and are pragmatists rather than ideologues. In terms of foreign policy this makes them Realists – i.e. they determine policy according to material interests not abstract values. On the whole, Statists/Realists consider Russia to be a European country, historically, culturally, and politically. They dismiss the idea that Russia is a distinct civilization. Instead, they recognize that Russia’s primary interests lie in having good ties with Europe. But that does not mean that they believe that Russia should subordinate itself to other European states. Rather, the Statists’/Realists’ objective is for Russia to be recognized as an equal in a European concert of powers, thereby enabling it to live in peace with its neighbours while enjoying international respect and an ability to promote and protect its interests. In the late Soviet era, this idea took the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal for a Europe stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. While many Statists/ Realists are coming round to the belief that such a Europe is not in practice possible, it remains the ideal which I think most of them would like to see.
In the struggle for the title ‘most eccentric Russian philosopher’, there is no shortage of competition, but in my view the certain winner is the founder of Cosmism, Nikolai Fyodorov, an impoverished late-Imperial librarian who gave away all his money, lived off tea and bread, and slept on a wooden chest. Fyodorov proposed that the ‘common task’ of mankind was to physically resurrect the dead – all of them, every last man or woman who had ever lived – a task which would require the development of advanced technology to colonize the stars while searching for the cosmic dust into which our ancestors had dissolved. Despite his extreme eccentricity, Fyodorov had a surprising influence on great Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Vladimir Vernadskii, and has enjoyed something of a revival in post-Soviet Russia. Modern cosmists don’t believe in scouring space for the cosmic dust of our ancestors (though some are into ideas such transhumanism), but they share the belief that mankind has a ‘common task’. Cosmism thus lends itself to a certain form of cosmopolitanism. Technology is assigned an important role as the tool which will enable mankind to turn swords into ploughshares and to unite in a peaceful, common future. Cosmism fits well with Soviet concepts of internationalism as well as with memories of the ‘great leaps forward’ in Soviet technology, and thus with views that Russia must once again become the centre of technological progress and through that lead humanity forward to a radiant future.
Of all these –isms, Statism/Realism is the one which, in my opinion, most accurately describes that pursued by Russia’s rulers, both in the past and today. Conservatism, Westernism/liberalism, and Cosmism all influence public and elite opinion to some degree (Cosmism least of all), but ultimately, I think, the Russian state bases its policies primarily on determinations of interests rather than ideology. In some respects, such as their recognition of Russia as a European state, the Statists/Realists are closer to the Westernizers/liberals than to the conservatives, but in other respects – namely, their pragmatic rejection of universal values, and consequent insistence that Russia has a right to independent development – they are closer to the conservatives. The policies adopted by the Russian state may therefore be seen as essentially centrist in terms of the Russian political spectrum. Analysts who insist of portraying the ‘Putin regime’ as in some way ‘extremist’ are, therefore, very much wide of the mark.
UPDATE: As if on cue, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared today, ‘Russia, of course, can never allow itself the luxury of turning its face to Europe and its back to Asia, or vice versa. Culturally speaking, of course, Russia is part of European civilization.’ This confirms, I think, what I said about the Statists above.
Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.
Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.
It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.
One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.
Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?
First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.
It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.
I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.