Category Archives: Political theory

On the Failings of Political Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberal Optimism

In a new article for RT today (that you can read here), I discuss how reform in Russia has generally come from above, often with the help of what one might call ‘enlightened bureaucrats’. Western politicians who imagine that dissident oppositionists will liberalize Russia are probably deluding themselves. If change comes, it will most likely come from within the system.

Anti-liberals among you will no doubt notice that my analysis contains a definite liberal bias in that it accepts the inevitability and necessity of liberalization. I stand by that. It would be absurd to say that liberalism is the ‘End of History’ – mankind will probably around for thousands more years, and there is no telling what social, economic and political systems and values will be appropriate in the year 3021, let alone 1,000,021. That said, within the context of our own times, liberalism offers many advantages – freer societies tend to be more vibrant, more economically successful, and more politically stable. This means that there are strong incentives for state leaders to liberalize. They needn’t be liberals, but if they want their states to be powerful, liberalization makes sense.

That said, certain economic and cultural preconditions are necessary for liberalism to take root and not to collapse in disaster. The fact that liberalism is in some abstract, generalized sense, desirable, doesn’t mean that one ought to demand it immediately in the particular circumstances of a given society. Don’t force it, in other words. Let societies discover its advantages for themselves.

Given this, it seems to me that if we wish others to liberalize, our focus ought to be on creating the preconditions I mentioned above and on making it easier for societies – and in particular their rulers, the ones who will enact change from above – to realize the benefits that come from liberalization. That means doing pretty much the opposite to what Western states have done in recent years. Rather than seeking to impoverish what we like to call ‘authoritarian’ states via sanctions, we should be doing what we can to help them prosper.

At this point, some might object that this strategy doesn’t work, pointing for instance to China. But that is a mistake. China does indeed retain an authoritarian political system, but it is undeniably a much more liberal place than it was 40 years ago, before it opened up to the world. Moreover, that liberalization has brought huge benefits to the Chinese. Compare China with North Korea – the one we have helped prosper, and the other we have helped impoverish. Which do you think is closer to having the necessary economic, social, and cultural preconditions for a liberal society? The answer, I think, is obvious.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It strikes me as rather paradoxical that many so-called ‘liberals’ believe in the universality of their ideas, but at the same time think that they need to be forced on others. Surely, if these ideas are bound to succeed, all you need to do is wait for natural processes to do their thing.

In this respect, I am an unashamed liberal optimist unlike so many contemporary ‘liberals’, who have abandoned their faith in progress and like to regale us with predictions of doom and impending ‘tyranny’. I tend to the view that things will work out in the end, if we just butt out and let them run their natural course. Maybe I’m wrong. Only time will tell. It will be interesting to hear if you agree or disagree with me.

Post-secularism and the liberal international order

In October last year, I gave a talk entitled ‘Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order’ at a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). This has now been published, in Russian, in the latest edition (2019, no. 3) of ‘Tetradi po konservatizmu’ (‘Notebooks on Conservatism’), and can be found here.

As the piece is only available in Russian, below is a much truncated version of it in English, which provides the gist of the argument while leaving out most of the academic baggage.


Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order


In recent years it has become common in the West to talk of the ‘liberal international order’. Western politicians also make regular reference to the ‘rules-based international order’. Both are considered ideals which the West wishes to promote and defend. Yet rules do not have to be liberal and many of the rules governing state behaviour are founded as much on utility and necessity as on liberal values. Indeed, in the traditional Westphalian model of international relations, values were set aside in favour of international peace and stability. Western states thus find themselves in a paradoxical position, unable to pursue both rules and values without one in some way contradicting the other. Using post-secular theory, I argue that one reason for this contradiction may be that contemporary Western liberalism has taken on many of the characteristics of a political religion which has shed God but incorporates Christianity’s universalism and messianism.

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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.

ilyin book

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Deep people

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is said to be a fan of Deep Purple. Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov is instead promoting what he calls the ‘Deep People’. In an essay  today in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Surkov has penned a prolonged paean to autocracy as the true democracy, in which the autocrat and the ‘deep people’ work together in glorious harmony. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the so-called ‘Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin.’ It’s also, I think, rather deluded.

A literal translation of the article’s title would be ‘Putin’s long state’, but a better version might be something along the lines of ‘Putin’s state will last a long time.’ Surkov writes that,

Putin’s large political machine is only just gaining momentum and intends to carry out a long, difficult and interesting job. … for many years Russia will still be Putin’s state. … We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putin system of government and the entire complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as the ideology of the future.

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Visualizing Russian conservatism

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.

Word Art1a

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Double standards and the Rules-based order

A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference organized by the Simone Weil Center at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order’. A Russian-language version has been published by ‘Russia in Global Affairs’, and I’ve decided to supplement that with the English version here. It is long, but I hope that you will find it worth the effort. Here goes:


Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order

When seeking a solution for the current tensions between Russia and the West, we need first of all to determine what the root problem is. For many in the West, the root problem is Russian aggression, the dictatorial nature of the Russian regime, and even the evil character of President Vladimir Putin. For many in Russia, it is American hegemony and Western double standards. The tendency to see the cause of conflict as lying in the hostile nature of the other is fairly common, but international relations scholars have long since understood that conflict is very often a product not of aggression by one side or the other but of misperception and mutual misunderstanding. These in turn have their own causes, which are far too many to recount here, but one cause of misunderstanding is the fact that the same words or the same concepts mean different things to different people.

So, for instance, a few years ago Russia and NATO countries reached an agreement that security in Europe should be considered indivisible. But they understood this completely differently. The Russians thought that this meant that NATO had agreed that European security had to encompass all of Europe including Russia, with no divisions in a geographical sense. But NATO thought that Russia had agreed that security was indivisible in the sense that it should not be divided up into different types of security, such as military security and human security, and so accepted the idea that human rights were an inseparable part of security. This mutual misunderstanding meant that future discussions on the matter went nowhere.

Today, both Russia and Western countries claim to believe in a rules-based international order, and each accuses the other of breaking the rules of the international system; Russia by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine; and the West by invading Iraq, toppling Muamar Gaddhafi, and supporting rebellion in Syria. What I want to show today is that part of the problem is that the two sides interpret a rules-based order very differently. For Russia, it is a system in which the same set of rules applies to everybody. To the West, it is a system in which one set of rules applies to the just and another to the unjust. This leads Russia to accuse the West of double standards. In a sense, this accusation is justified, but it isn’t just a case of hypocrisy but also a case of a different conception of what the rules are.

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The loneliness of the half-breed

Vladislav Surkov, long considered an important ideological figure within the ‘Putin regime’, has previously been described as a ‘relative Westernizer’ among Vladimir Putin’s advisors. But even he is apparently now fed up with the West. In an article published yesterday in Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov declares that Russia is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead it stands alone.

The events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine) marked a turning point, Surkov argues,

the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples. From 2014 onwards, a new long era, the epoch of 14+, stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two  hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness.

Surkov states that for the past 400 years, the Russian elite have tried to Westernize their country, following whatever trend seemed to be most in fashion in the rest of Europe, be it socialism a hundred years ago or the ideology of the free market in the 1990s. None of this has led the West to accept Russia as one of its own. The problem, says Surkov, is that

Despite the external similarities of the Russian and European cultural models, their softwares are incompatible and their connectors dissimilar. You can’t make a common system out of them.

That does not mean that Russia should turn east, Surkov says. Russia has done that in the past, during the era of the Mongol ‘yoke’. That left its mark on Russia, but in the end Russia moved on. Thus, Surkov writes:

Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400. Neither the one nor the other took root. We have gone down both paths. Now we need the ideology of a third path, a third type of civilization, a third world, a third Rome … And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilization. Rather, we are dual one, a mixture of both East and West. Both European and Asian at the same time, and thus neither completely Asian or European. Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles that of somebody born of a mixed marriage. He’s a relative everywhere, but nowhere is he a native. He’s one of his own among strangers, but a stranger among his own. … Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country.

It’s time to recognize this reality, Surkov argues. This doesn’t mean total isolation. Russia will continue to trade, to exchange scientific knowledge, to participate in multilateral organizations, and the like. But it should do so ‘without denying its own self.’

Surkov’s article will no doubt get a negative reception among Western commentators, and be spun to argue that Russia is bent on confrontation with the West. After all, if you’re not with us, you must be against us. But it’s worth noting that Surkov at no point condemns the West nor argues that Russia should be trying to undermine Western hegemony. He simply argues that Russia and the West are doomed to go their separate ways. This is far removed from the ambitious Eurasianist designs of the likes of Alexander Dugin, who argue that Russia should lead a grand international coalition to overturn the existing international order. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Surkov avoids using the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe Russia and also directly denies that Russia is a ‘third civilization’, thus failing to endorse a key Eurasianist concept.

Rather than Eurasianism, with its often expansionist, anti-Western ambitions, Surkov’s view of Russia’s place in the world seems closer to that of the late Vadim Tsymbursky and his idea of ‘Island Russia’ into which Russia should retreat. That is keeping with the editorial line of Russia in Global Affairs, which in recent times has published a number of Tsymbursky-inspired pieces, such as articles by Boris Mezhuev on the idea of ‘civilizational realism’ and an essay by Nikolai Spassky, entitled ‘Island of Russia’.  These bear witness to a growing isolationist trend in Russian geopolitical thought. ‘Isolationist’ isn’t actually a very good word, because as Surkov points out, separation from the West doesn’t mean that Russia won’t still be connected with the wider world. Perhaps the word he chooses to use – ‘loneliness’ (odinochestvo) – might be better. But whatever word one uses, the point is the same. If Surkov’s article, and others in Russia in Global Affairs, are anything to go by, Russia’s elite aren’t looking for a conflict with the West, but are increasingly convinced that partnership is impossible and that Russia will have to learn to live on its own. People in the West should not find that threatening, but personally I do find it more than a little bit regrettable.

Interview with Mikhail Remizov

Mikhail Remizov, author of the book Russians and the State, and president of the Moscow-based Institute for National Strategy, is considered one of the sharpest minds among Russian conservative intellectuals. I had the pleasure of interviewing Remizov a few weeks ago while in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview. Happy reading!


Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book on Russian conservatism. But, as you know, philosophers like Samuel Huntington have said that there is no history of conservatism. Do you think that there is a link between the conservative views of thinkers today and those of thinkers in the past?

Mikhail Remizov (MR): Well, if we look at a document like Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, which one can consider one of the earliest manifestoes of the conservative worldview, then we find the same leitmotivs which remain topical today. You know that this memo was given to Alexander I and was a critique of his reforms and foreign policy, as well as an apologia of autocracy. Judging by this memo, the basic line of Russian conservative thought consists above all of a distrust of government reformism, of the reformist syndrome, of the desire to restructure activity according to an abstract plan. Moreover, these plans are borrowed from abroad. This line is relevant today, as the liberal reformist syndrome is very clear in the Russian government. If we look, for instance, at how it has reformed the system of education, then we see that it has been done mechanistically, in accordance with Western models and standards, without thinking of the effect and content of those standards. This is reformist syndrome in its purest form, when the authorities and the experts around it consider themselves progressive, consider that they are cleverer than everybody else, take Western models and begin to apply them mechanistically, but end up with an entirely different result. You can see this in the system of Unified State Exams and the so-called Bologna standards and citation ratings, which are being introduced into education here. And conservatives today apply the same methodology to criticize this reformism.

Mikhail Remizov

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Interview with Alexander Dugin

On 31 August, I interviewed Alexander Dugin in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview.

Alexander Dugin.

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book about Russian conservatism and wanted to talk with you as a well-known Russian conservative. In the West, many people talk of a ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. Do you think that this is the case?

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