Category Archives: philosophy

How not to write history

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.

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Asymmetrical rules

Back in September I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order.’ In this I pointed out that both Russia and the West claimed to be in favour of a ‘rules-based order’ and that each accused the other of breaking that order. The problem, I conjectured, derives from differing understanding of what the rules are and how they should be applied. Russia believes in a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities. The rules apply equally to all of them, regardless of who they are or what they do. States may only take action against other states with the permission of a superior court, in other words the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia doesn’t 100% abide by the rules of its own model, but its preferred option remains one of legal symmetry – the same rules apply to all.

By contrast, human rights reasoning has pushed the West in an opposite direction, towards a preference for legal asymmetry. In this model, the just and the unjust, those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights, are not legally or morally equal. As I wrote in my paper, if a policeman shoots at a criminal, the criminal doesn’t then enjoy a right of self-defence and so a right to shoot at the policeman. This is because one is engaged in a just act, and the other in an unjust act. Taken to the level of international affairs, a state which is not, in the words of Canadian scholar Brian Orend, ‘minimally just’, has no right of self-defence; but a just state has a right to take action against it. Good states in this model gain rights; bad states lose them. Asymmetry is correct, and there is nothing wrong with double standards.

Having put forward this thesis in my paper, I was very interested, therefore, to see somebody apparently confirm it in today’s New York Times. In an article entitled ‘Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it, too’, Scott Shane recounts multiple incidents in which the United States has meddled in other countries’ electoral processes and cites intelligence officials as confirming that this has happened and continues to happen. In a recent example, for instance, the USA attempted (but failed) to ensure Hamid Karzai’s defeat in the 2009 election in Afghanistan. Shane quotes former CIA director Robert Gates as calling this ‘our clumsy and failed putsch.’

What is significant about this article, though, is the unrepentant tone of those interviewed. Former CIA officer Steven L. Hall, for instance, tells Shane that the United States has ‘absolutely’ interfered in other countries’ elections and ‘I hope we keep doing it.’ And then we get onto the key point. Shane writes:

Both Mr Hall and [intelligence scholar Loch] Johnson argued [that] Russia and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictatorships, or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said. Equating the two, Mr Hall says, ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns – the motivation matters.’

In the same vein, Shane cites Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Initiative as saying, ‘It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s comparing somebody who delivers lifesaving medicine to somebody who brings deadly poison.’

Putting aside the rather questionable assertion that American interventions in other countries’ affairs are ‘generally’ in support of ‘democracy’, we see here a clear example of asymmetrical thinking. In American eyes the same rules do not apply to the United States and Russia, because they are morally different. The American idea of a rules-based order is one in which the ‘good guys’ are subject to different rules to the ‘bad guys’.

One can understand the logic here. Why should the rules be written to put good and evil on an equal footing? Should they not be written to favour the former over the latter? The problem, however, is that we have no external body (barring the UN Security Council) able to determine which states are just, and so allowed to interfere in the affairs of others, and those which are unjust, and not allowed to do so (and indeed not even allowed to defend themselves). Asymmetrical rules permit anybody and everybody to declare themselves ‘just’ and their opponents ‘unjust’, and so to abrogate extra rights for themselves while denying even the most basic rights to others. Since in reality only the powerful will be able to act on this, such asymmetrical rules serve merely to enhance the power of those who already have it (which is, of course, probably why the most powerful states in the world favour them). Meanwhile, those who are at the receiving end of this logic can hardly be expected to accept it; they are likely to resist. Such an order will never be universally accepted, and so cannot be the basis for a stable international system.

Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it. But the chosen alternative is not obviously any better.

It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously. Yet it is clear that beneath present disputes lies a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order.’ Resolving it is perhaps one of the key philosophical tasks of our time.

Ethnogenesis in America

I’ve just finished reading Lev Gumilev’s Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (which, for those of you who don’t know, is an influential work in neo-Eurasianist thought). It certainly isn’t light reading, and is more than a little odd. The idea that ethnic groups (ethnoi) are a product of an upsurge of people who have a mutation giving them a greater capacity to convert energy into work (passionarnost’) is weird enough. The idea that this energy comes from the animate matter of the ‘biosphere’ and also from some sort of mysterious and undefined ‘cosmic radiation’ is downright kooky. At least old Lev was smart enough to realize that the ‘noosphere’ [derived from the Greek word ‘nous’, meaning mind] was a load of nonsense, but otherwise I can’t say that he convinced me of his theories. I sympathize with those who think that they’re pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Yet, looking at the United States, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something to the theories after all.

An ethnos, Gumilev said, is not a social-economic phenomenon as described in Marxist theory. Nor is it a racial, or a cultural, or a territorial phenomenon. Nor is it, as Benedict Anderson has said of nationality, an ‘imagined community’. Ethnoi are very real, according to Gumilev, and what distinguishes one from another is that they all have different ‘behavioural stereotypes.’ Everyone except a newborn baby has an ethnos, wrote Gumilev, because everybody behaves in some way. How he or she behaves determines what ethnos he or she belongs to.

According to Gumilev, behavioural stereotypes are a product of adaptation to the physical landscape. Although he never said this, one could regard big cities as a type of landscape. The modern city has required adaptation which in turn has created new behavioural stereotypes. In other words, there has been a process of ethnogenesis which has led to the emergence of a new ethnos in the cities alongside the existing one in the rest of the country.

This model actually fits the United States, which in Gumilevian terms contains not one ethnos but two. Ethnos 1 lives in the big cities, and behaves one way; ethnos 2 lives in the smaller towns and the countryside, and behaves another way. If two ethnoi have sufficient ‘complementarity’ (another Gumilevian term) they can form a ‘superethnos’. To do so, they must share what Gumilev called a ‘dominant’ – that is some ideal which can be given verbal expression. The two American ethnoi, however, appear to increasingly lack either complementarity or a dominant. Consequently, the American superethnos is disintegrating.

In Gumilev’s theory, the rise and decline of ethnoi is not a constant; the graph has numerous peaks and troughs. Perhaps an unexpected shower of cosmic radiation will generate a great ‘passionary’ who will revitalize the American superethnos. Or perhaps the two American ethnoi will each throw up their own passionaries who will accelerate the process by which the two Americas become distinguished from one another. Or then again, the whole thing might just be a load of pseudo-scientific hogwash after all.

Leontiev in Donetsk

As I toil away writing a book on the history of Russian conservatism, I find it reassuring when I come across evidence that it is of more than just academic interest.

Following Alexander Zakharchenko’s remark about aliens (see my last post), Lenta.ru published a collection of the DPR leader’s bons mots, which you can read here. Among them was something Zakharchenko said in October 2015:

The Russian world is a colourful, lively, genuine spring. It is not a nationality, it is a community of nations. Kazakhs and absolutely anybody can join it. And what is Europe, Western civilization? It is globalization. People are placed on the same footing as featureless beings, which know neither family nor tribe – all are identical, that is they are a common, grey mass. A mass of consumers. And there is a war between the living, genuine and colourful, and the grey and dead.

Superficially, this seems like a fairly typical anti-Western, anti-globalization rant. But if you look more closely, you see some markers which identify a very specific philosophical influence – late nineteenth century writer Konstantin Leontiev. While Zakharchenko could have picked up the ideas in his statement from any number of intermediate sources, they are distinct enough that their origin, it seems to me, is fairly clear.

Leontiev looked at the world in aesthetic terms. Diversity and colour were good. Bland uniformity was bad. Civilizations, he wrote, began simple, peaked during a period of ‘blossoming complexity’, and then decayed again into simplicity. According to Leontiev, the West was entering into a period of secondary simplicity. Capitalism and the 19th century version of globalization were turning the West into a grey mass of bourgeois uniformity, blurring all distinctions between nations and classes. Russia needed to avoid the same fate. Zakharchenko’s use of words and phrases like ‘colourful’, ‘the same footing as featureless beings’, ‘common grey mass’ and ‘mass of consumers’, and his final phrase about the ‘war between the living, genuine, and colourful, and the grey and dead’, are pure Leontiev.

leontiev
Konstantin Leontiev

Continue reading Leontiev in Donetsk

Blair’s vincible ignorance

A Facebook post by the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, whom I knew many years ago at Oxford, prompted me to send him a short reply, which I think deserves further development here.

Responding to the Chilcot Report about Britain’s war in Iraq, Stephen commented, ‘I still respect Blair’s commitment to doing what he believed was the right thing.’ This echoes the excuse Blair himself has often given for his behaviour – ‘I may have been wrong, but I acted according to conscience’. As Blair said in his own response to the report, ‘Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.’

For simplicity’s sake, let us take Blair at his word, and accept that he acted in ‘good faith’, and that he did what he did because he sincerely believed that it was the right thing to do. Given the disastrous consequences of his decision, does the fact that he was acting according to conscience excuse him?

A good way of answering that question is to turn to Thomas Aquinas and the distinction he drew between ‘vincible’ and ‘invincible’ ignorance. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas asked whether it was sinful to obey an erring conscience. He answered that, ‘absolutely speaking, every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.’ In other words, if your conscience (which Aquinas defined as being the application of reason) tells you that something is right, then you must do it. If your reasoning subsequently turns out to have been wrong, you still won’t have acted sinfully. But Aquinas linked this conclusion to the concept of ‘invincible ignorance’. Aquinas wrote:

It is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.

Following this, Aquinas then asks, ‘whether an erring conscience excuses?’ He replies:

Now this question depends on what has been said above about ignorance … If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.

Simply put, if you do something wrong believing it to be right, your error is excusable if you weren’t to blame for your own ignorance. But if your ignorance was your own fault, because you should or could have known what you did not, then the fact that you were acting according to conscience does not excuse your mistake.

So was Tony Blair vincibly or invincibly ignorant about Iraq? Could he, or should he, have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that the invasion of Iraq would lead to the collapse of government authority in that state and bloody civil war, and that the invasion would probably increase the threat of Islamic terrorism? Or were these all things that he could not have known, and which he should not be blamed for not having known?

The Chilcot report provides the answers. As I pointed out in my last post, the report makes it clear that the intelligence Blair received about WMD was not nearly as categorical as he pretended; he was warned that the Americans did not have a decent plan for the post-war occupation; and he was warned that the war would probably increase the danger from terrorism. But he chose to ignore these warnings. In other words, his ignorance was vincible. Consequently, the fact that he was ‘doing what he believed was the right thing’ does not excuse him at all.