Tag Archives: Ivan Ilyin

Book review: The road to unfreedom

Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.

Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.

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Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom


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.

Quotations, quotations

I don’t like to keep returning to the same topic, but The New York Times leaves me little choice. A few months ago I wrote a piece denouncing a lecture by historian Timothy Snyder which, roughly speaking, proposed the following thesis: Vladimir Putin has quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo Putin is a fascist. Today Snyder repeated his thesis in an op-ed entitled ‘How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election’. In this he argues that, with Ilyin as his philosophical guide, Putin is trying to ‘discredit both elections and their observation’ and thereby ‘bring down democracy everywhere’.

According to Snyder, ‘Mr Putin has relied on Ilyin’s authority at every turning point in Russian politics’. This is clearly an enormous exaggeration given that Putin has quoted Ilyin a grand total of five times in the 16 years that he has been in power. Furthermore, Snyder’s description of Ilyin’s views is decidedly one-sided. He writes, for instance, that ‘Ilyin believed that individuality was evil’. Now I confess that I haven’t read everything that Ilyin wrote, but I’ve read a reasonable amount, and I have yet to come across anything which would suggest such a conclusion (see the quote below about soldiers being individuals). Moreover, Snyder errs in saying that Ilyin’s critical views of formal democracy could justify undermining democratic procedures in foreign countries. Ilyin was actually of the view that in some countries, such as Switzerland and the USA, formal democracy worked well. He made it clear that, even if he didn’t want Russia to follow their example, he was very happy for other countries to do things the way they did. The political system of each country had to match that country’s specific form of legal consciousness, he insisted.

But Snyder’s errors on those points are not what I am most interested in challenging. Rather, what exercises me is the assumption underlying his argument, namely that if someone quotes somebody who at some point said something else which was distasteful, then the person doing the quoting obviously shares that distasteful opinion in full.

To show why this is wrong, let us consider somebody else Putin has cited: the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov. Does Putin share all Aksakov’s views on everything? Surely not. There is the Konstantin Aksakov who supported centralized state power. But there is also the Konstantin Aksakov who was something close to an anarchist. There is the Aksakov who backed autocracy. And there is the Aksakov who opposed serfdom and was a fierce proponent of free speech. Which Aksakov is Putin?

Take some other examples. Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also at one point a member of the Nazi Party. Many philosophers continue to cite him and make use of his ideas. It would be ridiculous to claim that they are all Nazis. The jurist Carl Schmitt has become increasingly popular in academic works in the past decade. He too was a member of the Nazi party. But it would be preposterous to call all the legal scholars who cite him fascists.

So, let us look at which of Ilyin’s sayings Putin has actually referred to. There are as follows:

25 April 2005:

The great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote that, ‘State power has its limits … The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness, and convictions. It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It musn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.’

10 May 2006:

The well-known Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin said that the calling of soldier is a high and honourable title and that the soldier ‘represents the national unity of the people, the will of the Russian state, strength and honour’.

23 January 2012:

It is this special quality of Russian statehood that was outlined in Ivan Ilyin’s works: ‘Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and the great Russia…to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow everyone to pray in their own way, to work in their own way, and to engage the best in public and cultural development.’

26 June 2013

As the famous philosopher Ivan Ilyin said, ‘The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual’.

4 December 2014:

I will cite here Ivan Ilyin: ‘Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself, its international independence; freedom for Russia—as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labor, and property.

Professor Snyder thinks that these quotations make Putin a fascist. I cannot imagine what definition of fascism he is using to draw this conclusion. In 1990 the New York Times admitted that Walter Duranty’s reporting was some of the worst it had ever printed. Given what the newspaper is publishing nowadays, Duranty is facing some stiff competition.

Bandwagon of errors

The Ivan Ilyin bandwagon continues to gather passengers. The latest on board is historian Timothy Snyder, who delivered a lecture last week to the Watson Institute at Brown University in which he sought to explain Russian foreign policy through an analysis of the philosopher’s writings. The lecture promotes a familiar theme, namely: Vladimir Putin cites Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore Putin and the regime he leads are fascist. Needless to say, I have a few problems with this, and Snyder’s lecture forces me to return once again to the topic of ‘Putin’s philosopher’, even though it means repeating myself somewhat.

Snyder begins his talk by saying that Russia’s problem is that it isn’t a real state, in that it has not worked out a system of succession of power. Instead, its leaders have deliberately chosen to falsify elections and leave Putin in power almost indefinitely. At the same time, Snyder sees the war in Ukraine as an effort to break up the Ukrainian state and prevent the European Union from becoming a state. To explain Russian behaviour, therefore, Snyder suggests that we need to find ‘an idea which is comfortable with the lack of a state’ (11.00 minute point in speech). That idea is ‘fascism’. Thus Snyder argues that it is no coincidence that the war in Ukraine has coincided with the revival of ‘a fascist geopolitical thinker’, namely Ivan Ilyin.

Next, Snyder relates favorable comments Ilyin made about Mussolini and Hitler, and after the Second World War about Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. According to Snyder (23.50 minute point), Ilyin ‘equates Jews and Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Jews, and therefore approves of Hitler’s discrimination against Jews’. Snyder says that Ilyin was (35.50 minute point) ‘a Eurasianist who says we’re all basically fascists’. The message he sends is that ‘we [Russians] are innocent’ and anything which goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault (mainly the West’s). (42.00 minute point)

My purpose here is not to defend Ilyin. I’m personally of a liberal and democratic inclination. Instead, my concern is the overly simplistic theme espoused by Snyder and others: Ilyin = fascist, therefore Putin = fascist, therefore we all need to be very scared.

In my last post, I said that the ideas of Eurasianism and Alexander Dugin were just several among many influencing Russian policy makers, and even then in a highly bowdlerized way. The same could be said of Ilyin’s ideas. It’s highly debatable whether Ilyin is really as influential as Snyder makes him out to be. But even if I’m wrong about that, Snyder presents only a fraction of what the philosopher’s ideas are all about.

It is indeed true that Ilyin said some positive things about fascism. But he was hardly alone in a lot of this. Winston Churchill, for instance, praised Mussolini in a 1927 speech, saying that fascism ‘has rendered service to the whole world’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Italian Duce ‘that admirable Italian gentleman’. And David Lloyd George described Hitler as ‘a born leader of men, a magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’ But we don’t generally call them all fascists.

Moreover, although he supported authoritarian rule, Ilyin was simultaneously a trenchant opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, which he described as ‘godless’. And contrary to Snyder’s depiction of Ilyin as an anti-Semite, the Nazis actually dismissed him from his job teaching in Berlin for refusing to preach anti-Semitic doctrine. In the end he had to flee Germany.

If Snyder is right that fascists are happy with a lack of proper states, then Ilyin can’t possibly have been a fascist since the establishment of a strong, law-based state was one of his most strongly expressed principles. Ilyin placed an extraordinarily high importance on the law and on the development of ‘legal consciousness’ (pravosoznanie), things which are quite incompatible with fascism (which Snyder admits is associated with ‘arbitrariness’). Ilyin also repeatedly said that the state must be limited, that it must not intrude into people’s personal lives, and that the people must enjoy freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and so on. Rather than saying that everything was somebody else’s fault, in his book On Resistance to Evil by Force Ilyin emphasized that those who fight an external evil have to accept that they are themselves partially responsible for it. Bolshevism, he wrote, was merely the external manifestation of the internal spiritual failings of the Russian people. He did not, as Snyder claims, say it was something imposed on Russia by the West (although he certainly viewed Marxism as a Western, not a Russian ideology).

Next, when you look at the bits of Ilyin which Putin has quoted, they are definitely not the more authoritarian ones. In 2005, for instance, Putin cited comments by Ilyin about the need to limit state power; and in 2014 he cited a statement by Ilyin about the importance of freedom.

In an article entitled ‘The Complex Legacy of Ivan Ilyin’, American scholar Philip Grier describes the philosopher’s thought as being often ‘paradoxical’. Snyder, however, seems to prefer simplicity to complexity, and so misrepresents both Ilyin and modern Russia. Clearly, Ilyin wasn’t a pro-Western liberal democrat, and if you think that Russia ought to be a pro-Western, liberal democratic nation, then Ilyin is not the philosopher for you. But it’s a step too far to go from there to saying that current Russian foreign policy is fascist in orientation.

Book Review: Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine

My recent post on Sergei Lavrov’s article provoked a discussion about whether it matters whom politicians cite. French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff has written a small book entitled Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine [Inside Vladimir Putin’s Head] based on the principle that it does.

Given how many people have written articles claiming to know what Putin wants or what he is thinking, it is surprising how few of them have bothered to go through all Putin’s speeches to find out what it is that he has actually said. Eltchaninoff has trawled 15 years of Putin’s pronouncements to discover which philosophers the Russian president has cited and to locate ideological statements. He has also interviewed a number of Russians who have taken part in the country’s ideological debates, such as philosopher/political activist Alexander Dugin, outspoken priest Vsevolod Chaplin, writer Alexander Prokhanov, and political philosopher Boris Mezhuev. He proposes that Putin is of more philosophical bent than commonly imagined.

By examining Putin’s speeches in depth, and using them to make a serious analysis of Putin’s ideological preferences, Eltchaninoff’s book breaks new ground. It contains much interesting material, and I certainly learnt a lot from it. In that respect, its contents are a valuable addition to our knowledge of Russia’s leader.

That said, I have some strong doubts about Eltchaninoff’s analysis of Putin’s philosophical sources. Eltchaninoff’s conclusion is that Putin is above all an ‘imperialist’ and an ‘arch-conservative’. But to reach this conclusion he has to treat some sources differently from others. Eltchaninoff dismisses as unimportant or irrelevant quotations from philosophers whom Putin has cited whose work doesn’t support his conclusion. Meanwhile, he puts a lot of emphasis on things other philosophers wrote which could support the conclusion, even when the things in question are not what Putin was quoting. The result is misleading.

Eltchaninoff mentions six main thinkers whom Putin has cited: Immanuel Kant, Konstantin Aksakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Konstantin Leontiev, Ivan Ilyin, and Lev Gumilev. He deals with the first three very differently from the last three.

Eltchaninoff discusses Putin’s references to Kant, and in particular Kant’s essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, in the context of his liberal, pro-European discourse in the early 2000s. But he doesn’t allow himself to conclude that Putin is, or indeed ever was, liberally-inclined or pro-European. Eltchaninoff notes that when speaking in Kaliningrad or Berlin, Putin said that Russia was part of Europe, but when speaking in Asian cities he said that Russia was Eurasian. The citation of Kant was, therefore, just a diplomatic ploy, an example of Putin’s ‘pseudo-liberalism’.

As for Aksakov, Eltchaninoff considers Putin’s mention of him to be irrelevant. Aksakov, he notes, was a ‘first generation Slavophile’, but these Slavophiles were not imperialists; Putin is an imperialist; therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions from Putin citing Aksakov! Instead, Eltchaninoff says that Putin is closer to ‘second generation Slavophiles’ such as Nikolai Danilevskii, and proceeds to provide a long explanation of Danilevskii’s beliefs. But as far as I know (and Eltchaninoff doesn’t produce any evidence to the contrary), Putin has never cited Danilevskii.

Putin’s mentions of Berdyaev are similarly regarded as meaningless. Eltchaninoff remarks that the concept of freedom was at the core of Berdyaev’s philosophy. Putin is, as we all know, against freedom. Thus, it follows, according to Eltchaninoff, that Putin simply doesn’t understand Berdyaev. If he did, Eltchaninoff says, he wouldn’t have cited him.

Leontiev, Ilyin, and Gumilev receive very different treatment, with Eltchaninoff taking care to emphasize the anti-Western and illiberal parts of their philosophies. He segues neatly from Leontiev to the so-called ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’ Carl Schmitt (to whom Putin has never in fact referred), thus creating the impression that Putin has fascist tendencies, while ignoring the fact that Schmitt is quite popular nowadays with a whole array of entirely non-fascist Western thinkers.

Eltchaninoff describes Putin’s references to Ilyin as ‘a manner of avoiding fascism while coming very close’. Like many other commentators, he draws attention to the positive statements Ilyin once made about fascism and to his repeated calls for ‘dictatorship’, while ignoring those things Ilyin said about the need to limit state power and the importance of personal freedom. And yet, it is precisely those latter points that Putin has cited, not the former.

As for Gumilev, Eltchaninoff provides some interesting information about Putin’s knowledge of his works, but fails to provide context for all the citations. When speaking at Kant University in Kaliningrad, Putin cites Kant; and when speaking at Lev Gumilev University in Astana, he cites Gumilev. Eltchaninoff believes that the latter cancels out the former, but not for some reason vice-versa. If Putin quoting Kant is merely ‘pseudo-liberalism’, could not Putin quoting Gumilev be ‘pseudo-Eurasianism’?

Having finished his survey of Putin’s speeches, Eltchaninoff comes to the conclusion that, ‘The philosophical sources of Putinism, however diverse they may be, all rest on two pillars: the idea of empire and an apology for war. This is the common core of Sovietism, Ilyin’s ‘White’ imperialism, Leontiev’s conservatism, Danilevskii’s panslavism, and Eurasianism.’

There are two major problems with this conclusion. First, the thesis that Putin is pursuing an empire by means of war is highly debatable as a matter of fact. Second, the interpretation of Putin’s philosophical sources as being united by empire and war is also highly debatable. Sustaining this interpretation requires one to ignore several of the most important sources and to be highly selective in one’s use of those sources which remain. After all, Putin’s citation of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ hardly fits Eltchaninoff’s conclusion.

Overall, this book is, as we academics like to say, ‘an original contribution to the literature’ on Russia’s president. But I am unconvinced that it really tells us what is going on ‘inside Vladimir Putin’s head’.

Russia’s ‘holy war’ in Syria

Commenting on the Russian military campaign in Syria, Vsevolod Chaplin, the provocative head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for church-society relations, remarked this week that, ‘The struggle against terrorism … is a very moral, if you like holy, struggle’. But one of Chaplin’s former teachers, Andrei Zubov, has spoken very differently: ‘We have the social concept of the Russian church, which the synod approved 15 years ago, in 2000, and of which I was one of the authors, and it clearly says that war is a very great tragedy.’

Russian philosophers have generally not paid much attention to what in the West is called ‘just war theory’. The Soviet position was rather crude: in essence, any war fought by reactionary forces (i.e. capitalist states) was automatically unjust, while any war fought by progressive (i.e. communist) states was automatically just. For more sophisticated analysis, one has to go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 book The Kingdom of God is Within You laid out the pacifist position, and earned a riposte in the form of Vladimir Solovyov’s 1900 work Three Conversations. The latter is possibly the most entertaining book of just war theory anybody has ever written, but its format – essentially a play in three acts – means that it doesn’t provide a very complex examination of the subject, and in any case it goes seriously off the rails at the end with a bizarre story about the Anti-Christ. And that is pretty much it for pre-revolutionary literature.

The First World War prompted a few philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, as well as Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galicia, to pen short articles on the ethics of war, but as far as I am aware, the only book-length examination of the ethics of violence by a Russian philosopher prior to the collapse of communism is Ivan Ilyin’s 1925 work On Resistance to Evil by Force. Given the interest that my previous posts about Ilyin have generated, it is worth looking at this in some depth.

Ilyin’s basic argument is that the moral demands of war are contradictory. In some circumstances, one may be morally obliged to wage war, but doing so involves carrying out actions which are usually considered unjust (killing, deceiving, etc). Consequently, the necessary use of force is an ‘unsinful perpetration of injustice’, which requires ‘spiritual compromise’. This is a deliberately contradictory position: Ilyin’s argument is that it is only by recognizing the inherently contradictory moral demands of force that one can avoid the moral pitfalls associated with it.

Ilyin reached this conclusion by arguing that the imperfection of the world creates situations in which one has no choice but to use force in order to prevent the triumph of evil. In such situations, the use of force is a moral obligation. But while it is necessary, it isn’t ‘just’. ‘The way of the sword’, Ilyin wrote, ‘is an unjust path … what the swordbearer does in the fight with evildoers is not perfect, not holy, not just’. The actions of your enemy which justify your actions are always at least partly your fault, as there is always something you could have done to prevent them. Even a war of self-defence isn’t ‘just’ because everybody is in some way responsible for the external environment which has created the situation in which self-defence becomes necessary. Since everybody is thus at least partially responsible for any war they fight, ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.

Furthermore, the use of force only combats the external manifestations of evil. This is insufficient. One must also fight what nowadays we would call the ‘root causes’ of the evil. Otherwise, the evil will merely return once you defeat it.

Finally, Ilyin notes that force tends to excite the passions and undermine the moral senses of those who use it. To avoid this problem, people must, in line with the argument above, recognize that what they are doing, though necessary, is not just, and they must undergo continual ‘penitential self-purification’. In other words, the only way to avoid the worst consequences of war is to rid yourself of the idea that because your enemies are the ‘bad guys’ that means that you are the ‘good guy’ and thus free to do as you choose.

So, what would Ilyin’s logic tell us about Russia’s war in Syria? I think roughly the following:

  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an evil which must be fought. Armed struggle against it is not only justifiable, but mandatory.
  • Nevertheless, ISIS is just a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem is ultimately a spiritual one. Fighting ISIS without fighting the root causes which produced ISIS is pointless. One cannot simply defeat ISIS and return to the status quo ante.
  • Among the root causes of ISIS are the actions of those now fighting it – the repressive regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the failed interventions by Western states in the Middle East. Russia also has contributed to the situation by its previous support of those repressive regimes. It must acknowledge its share of responsibility for the problem and change its behaviour.
  • While necessary, attacking ISIS is not a morally good action. It is at best a lesser evil. It will involve injustices – for instance, when innocent civilians are killed as ‘collateral damage’ in Russian air strikes. Those fighting can’t just brush off the injustices as mistakes, unavoidable consequences of military action, and so on. They must acknowledge their guilt.

I don’t accept all of Ilyin’s reasoning. I am far more pacifistic. But his logic is undoubtedly original and poses significant challenges to the way people normally think of the ethics of violence. On the one hand it requires the use of force in some situations. On the other hand, it is extremely demanding of those who do use force. In line with Zubov, I have previously written on this blog that ‘holy war’ is not part of Orthodox tradition. From what I have read, it is not part of the wider Russian philosophical tradition either.

More on ‘Putin’s philosopher’

There are occasions when one regrets putting an idea out there, as everybody else jumps on the bandwagon but then gets it all wrong.

My doctoral thesis was a study of émigré White Russian military organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, especially the Russian Military General Union (ROVS in Russian). As part of my study, I wanted to work out what these émigré soldiers believed in, and since some of them quoted the philosopher Ivan Ilyin I decided to read his works. Later, when I shifted focus and began writing also about military ethics, it struck me that it would be interesting to pen an academic article about Ilyin’s book on the ethics of violence, On Resistance to Evil By Force. This article was then published in the Journal of Military Ethics, and it turned me instantaneously into a sort of Ilyin ‘expert’, not really because I knew that much about the subject but because almost nobody else in the West had either heard of Ilyin or written about him (the exception was Philip Grier, who has translated Ilyin’s thesis The Philosophy of Hegel as a Doctrine of the Concreteness of God and Humanity, and whose essay The Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in remains, 20 years after it was published, far and away the best introduction to the subject available in English).

After Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, it struck me that there were certain similarities between his worldview and that of Ilyin. I therefore wrote an article for The Spectator in January 2004 in which I remarked that complaints that Putin was aiming to restore the Soviet Union were wrong – the Russian leader’s ideology seemed far closer to that of the Whites, such as Ilyin, than to that of the Reds.

As far as I can tell, this was the first article anybody anywhere wrote linking the two men. My aim was not to suggest that Ilyin had influenced Putin – in fact at the time I had no evidence that the latter had even heard of the former – but rather to point out that there were commonalities of outlook. Later, I learnt that Putin did indeed know Ilyin’s works, and so I felt that my argument had been justified. I therefore developed it further in a piece I wrote for The American Conservative in 2012, as well as in a post for this blog.

At this point, the idea took off, with my American Conservative article being cited in various other works, most notably Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s book Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. It has now become conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, as the meme has spread, it has become more and more exaggerated.

Whereas I wanted just to point out that Putin and Ilyin apparently shared some ideas about the nature of the state, now authors such as Walter Laqueur in his book Putinism, and Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thorburn, in an article this week in Foreign Affairs, are presenting Ilyin’s work as constituting an unofficial state ideology. This greatly over-inflates its importance.

These authors also focus entirely on what one might call the ‘scarier’ bits of Ilyin’s philosophy – his one-time admiration for elements of fascism and his belief that the Western world was irredeemably hostile to Russia – while ignoring other aspects of his thought, such as his emphasis on the rule of law and on the limits which must be imposed even on autocratic governments. The result is a distorted picture of reality.

Take, for instance, this week’s Foreign Affairs article. This says the following:

He was not truly an academic or philosopher in the classical sense, but a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings. … Ilyin was interested in the idea of Eurasianism. … In his view, Hitler’s National Socialism, Mussolini’s fascism, and the Russian White movement were very similar and ‘spiritually close’.

The article’s authors then link all this to Putin by quoting Timothy Snyder describing the Russian leader as having ‘placed himself at the head of populist, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces in Europe.’ Ilyin is thus portrayed as the ideologist of a modern fascist Russia. As the authors put it:

Always something of a conspiracy theorist, Ilyin introduced the Russian term mirovaya zakulisa (‘world backstage’), which he used to describe a conspiracy of Western leaders against Russia. In the broader sense, this term implies that the official elected leaders of the West are, in fact, puppets of the world’s true leaders: businessmen, Masonic agents, and, often, Jews. Substitute ‘Jews’ with ‘gays’ and ‘Masonic agents’ with ‘foreign agents’, and Ilyin’s views synchronize perfectly with Putin’s propaganda narrative.

‘Ilyin was most likely chosen [as ideologue] because his works legitimated Putin’s authoritarian grasp on power, justified limitations on freedom, and provided an antidote to all Western criteria of freedoms, right, and goals of the state,’ Barbashin and Thorburn conclude. ‘Through Ilyin, the Kremlin transmits what it sees as a proper ideology for today: a strong cocktail of uncompromising hatred for the West, denial of the European nature of Russian civilization, favor of dictatorial methods of governing, rabid nationalism, and a dash of conspiracy theory.’

These are strong words indeed.

In fact, while Ilyin did write a lot of material for a popular audience, he was more than a ‘publicist’. His thesis on Hegel and his book on the ethics of violence are serious works of philosophy. Nor was he a conspiracy theorist, let alone, as is suggested above, an anti-Semite. In fact, he lost his job lecturing in Berlin in the 1930s because he refused to teach anti-Semitic doctrines. Eventually, he fled Nazi Germany, an odd act if he was really a Nazi. Nor was he a Eurasianist. In fact, he rejected Eurasianism.

For sure, Ilyin was no Western liberal democrat. He was at heart a monarchist, and felt that post-communist Russia would be so intellectually and morally bankrupt that it would not be capable of sustaining a democratic order. Furthermore, he believed that Russia’s size required a centralized state to prevent centrifugal tendencies from tearing it apart. But allied to this was a powerful sense that government had limits. Above all, both rulers and ruled had to abide by the law. ‘The autocratic monarch’, he wrote, ‘knows the legal limits of his power and doesn’t pretend to rights which don’t belong to him.’ The autocrat could ‘give the people self-government, a constitution, and even parliamentarianism with responsible government.’ As Grier points out, Ilyin insisted that any state worthy of the name required a high level of legal consciousness (pravosoznanie) on behalf of both citizens and rulers. While he supported dictatorship, ‘Ilyin is equally clear that such a “dictatorship” would be justified in the long run only by its success in raising the moral, legal, and religious consciousness of the population to such a level that a state based upon the rule of law would become possible.’

Ilyin thus fits within the Russian tradition of liberal conservatism, albeit on the conservative end of the spectrum. This often appears to Westerners as a self-contradictory school of thought and indeed, as Grier points out, Ilyin’s writings do contain apparently contradictory elements. Because of this, it’s easy to pick outs bits and pieces and portray him in a slanted light. But taken as a whole, although Ilyin certainly didn’t promote democratic ideals of the sort we nowadays cherish in the West, he also wasn’t the evil, freedom-hater which Foreign Affairs suggests.

What this means is that if it really is true that Ilyinism is the ideology of the Russian state, then Laqueur, Barbashin, Thorburn and others are wrong in regarding this as proof that Putin’s Russia is turning in a fascist direction. And if they are right that Russia is moving that way, then it isn’t because of Ilyin; in that case, Putin’s ideology isn’t really Ilyinism but rather some form of bowdlerised version of it. Either way, the formula ‘Ilyin is “Putin’s philosopher”; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore, Putin is a fascist’ is well wide of the mark.