Tag Archives: conservatism

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.

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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Some other Russian isms

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:

  1. Westernism/liberalism.

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.

  1. Statism/Realism.

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.

  1. Cosmism.

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.

Conservatism and Russian IR Theory

Last week I gave a talk to the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa on the topic ‘Conservatism and Russian International Relations Theory.’ You can watch it here:

For those of you who don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here is a summary:

Continue reading Conservatism and Russian IR Theory

Moscow conference

At the start of September I spoke at a conference in Moscow dedicated to exploring the current tensions in Russia-West relations. Paul Grenier has now produced an excellent summary of the conference proceedings for The American Conservative. You can read it here.

Conference participants raised a lot of really interesting ideas. I don’t agree with them all, but I thoroughly recommend Paul Grenier’s piece to you all, so that you can decide for yourselves. On top of that, his analysis raises a host of questions for future consideration:

  • Is there an ideological/philosophical divide lying at the root of current Russia-West tensions? In my own presentation, I suggested that perhaps there is: Russia and the West seem to have very different conceptions of what constitutes a ‘rules-based international order’. If this is the case, then our current difficulties are rather deeper than many people imagine and can’t be resolved simply by compromising over certain material interests. Instead, they require us to find some way of reaching philosophical agreement – not an easy task.
  • But is agreement even possible? Boris Mezhuev’s idea of ‘civilizational realism’ rests on an assumption that it isn’t, and that the only way for Russia and the West to live in peace is to recognize each other as separate civilizations, in effect to agree to disagree.
  • Is there any way that the West would ever ‘agree to disagree’? Western liberalism is essentially universalistic. I have my doubts that it could ever accept ‘civilizational realism’ as this would mean accepting that Western liberalism is not applicable to all. That puts us in an impasse: Russia and West appear to be philosophically divided; they can’t reach agreement, but they also can’t agree to disagree. I have to admit that I’m not sure how we get out of this.
  • Is the answer to be found in some sort of ‘post-liberal politics’? Is the only solution to our problems a re-imagination of what it means to be liberal, as James Carden suggests? Does it require a disassociation of globalization from Westernization, as Nicolai Petro says? Richard Sakwa raises an important issue, in explaining that the West doesn’t truly believe in dialogue. Globalization to date has largely been about spreading Western standards and modes of operation; it hasn’t involve a genuine exchange of ideas between different parts of the globe. Do we need, then, to abandon liberalism, as Adrian Pabst claims? (If we do, I’m not sure that we are capable of it.)

As I said in the conclusion of my own presentation to the conference, we don’t have any great answers to these questions, but at least conferences like this help us define what the questions are. It’s an important first step. Many thanks to Paul Grenier for  organizing our  meeting in Moscow, and to him and The American Conservative for making our deliberations available to a wide audience.

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.

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Mikhail Remizov

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