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Various forms of liberalism

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.

Here goes:

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.

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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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