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.