Tag Archives: Liberalism

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.

Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.

As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.

It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.

Continue reading Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

Farewell Chubais

Vladimir Putin has been at the top of the Russian system of government for 20 years. Until this week, there was somebody else who’d been around even longer – former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. On Wednesday, however, Chubais was dismissed from his job as head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation (Rosnano). Only a handful of Yeltsin-era liberals still remain on the scene (former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin being the main examples). Chubais’ departure provides an opportunity to look back and reflect on what Russian liberalism wrought and why it enjoys so little support today.

Chubais rose to prominence in the late 1980s as one of group of radical, free-market economists in Leningrad (later renamed St Petersburg), and like Vladimir Putin, in the early 1990s attached himself to St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. An advocate of rapid privatization, he became Deputy Prime Minister and then chief of the presidential administration, until he was fired in 1997. Subsequently, he ran the Russian electricity company UES with some success before taking up his post at Rosnano in 2008. Despite his later work, it is his role in the privatization of Russian industry in the early and mid-1990s for which he is best known.

The fact that Russian privatization resulted in a massive and unequal redistribution of wealth, concentrating ownership of industry in the hands of a few so-called oligarchs, while leaving millions of ordinary Russians in poverty, has forever tarnished Chubais’s reputation. In particular, he is blamed for the infamous loans-for-shares scheme in which valuable state corporations were handed over to a handful of private owners for a mere fraction of their true value.

To be fair to Chubais and his fellow reformers, the task they had was extremely difficult. In the late 1980s, the Soviet economy faced a severe crisis. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, while well intentioned, had exacerbated the country’s economic problems, producing severe shortages. Chubais and others like him were not wrong in determining that further tinkering of the socialist system would not work, and that something far more radical was required, to transform the socialist economy into a capitalist one.

Chubais was well aware that change of this sort was bound to have some negative effects. There was a certain logic, therefore, to moving as rapidly as possible, both to minimize contradictions in the process, and to make the changes irreversible before opposition could harden. Later, when it came to the loans for share scheme, the dire financial position of the Russian government meant that the temptation to resort to financial short cuts was perhaps understandable, even if the exact method chosen was decidedly untransparent and arguably even corrupt.

An economic experiment on such a large scale had never been attempted. It is hardly surprising that major errors were made. At the end of the day, though, a new system was created, which while far from perfect has provided Russians as a whole with an unprecedented degree of prosperity, albeit after a long period of suffering.

In this sense, the Yeltsin-era liberals don’t deserve all the mud that has been flung at them. That said, there are aspects of Chubais’s career which explain why so much of the mud has stuck.

For in some respects Chubais was a prime example of what one might call ‘liberal authoritarianism’. Russia’s failure to turn into a Western-style democracy is normally blamed on Putin. But in reality, Russian liberals of the reform era were themselves far from democratic in inclination.

This became clear as far back as 1989, when Chubais and fellow members of the Leningrad-based Association of Social-Economic Science published an article calling for a ‘hard course’. Criticising the proposals of Gorbachev’s government as insufficiently radical, Chubais and his fellow authors called for a ‘big leap’ forward, but warned that this would have some ‘extremely negative consequences’, including ‘mass unemployment … social-economic differentiation, illegal speculation on a gigantic scale and also the “unjustified enrichment” of some individuals’. In the face of the inevitable opposition this would provoke, the article demanded that the government take ‘tough measures … such as the dissolution of official trade unions in the event that they spoke out against government measures.’ The main political task, said Chubais, was for the government to keep all power in its hands. The difficulty was that the population as a whole lacked a democratic mentality, meaning that democracy would in practice give power to populists who would stop economic reform. For this reason, ‘The most critical problem for democrats … is the need to express their support for anti-democratic measures which are necessary for reform, such as a ban on strikes, control over information, and so on.’ To this end, it was essential that ‘control of the main element of the mass media remain in government hands.’

What is remarkable about this article is how accurately it predicted the negative consequences of reform. Nobody can say that the reformers didn’t know what they were doing. At the same time they displayed an extremely utilitarian morality – the ends justified the means, with huge inequalities, mass unemployment, and undemocratic methods all being justified by the supposed benefits to be obtained at some later date.

Interestingly, Chubais has never really backed off from his opposition to democracy in the name of democracy. Much more recently, for instance, he declared, ‘Imagine that we organized in the country genuine, fully democratic elections, based on the will of the workers, giving equal access to the mass media, and to money … the result of such elections would be of an order worse, and possibly simply catastrophic for the country.’

None of this would perhaps matter too much if the reformers had been willing to share the suffering they knew that their policies would create. But instead, they exploited the opportunity to grow rich themselves. Chubais is a case in point, being said to be ‘himself worth several million dollars’. In 2009, he caused something of a scandal when he told an academic audience, ‘If you are an assistant professor and you do not have a business, then why the hell do I even need you!’. Failure to get rich is depicted as almost a moral failure. It speaks volumes of the lack of empathy for the real difficulties many Russians had to endure as a result of the economic collapse of the 1990s.

And here perhaps the Chubais case reveals the real failing of modern Russian liberalism. It’s not the basic direction of the policies that liberals pursued in the 1990s. By 1991, Gorbachev had driven the Russian economy into the ground. A radical and rapid move towards a market economy was pretty much the only option left. Nor is the problem necessarily the actual form that the policies took – given that they were in uncharted territory, it’s understandable that the reformers made some bad mistakes along the way. Rather, the liberals’ problem is related to their utilitarian mind-frame and apparent hypocrisy. For it’s very hard to complain that Putin’s Russia is undemocratic when you’ve hardly been democratic yourself; it’s difficult to complain of corruption, when you yourselves appear to be major beneficiaries of it; and finally it’s almost impossible to appeal to what are often deemed the ‘masses’ when you seem to be rather indifferent towards their sufferings.

Between Russian liberalism and the Russian people there appears to be what one might call an ‘empathy gap’. The career of Anatoly Chubais, a man widely despised in his own country but once crowned ‘European Finance Minister of the Year’, is perhaps as clear an example as one could find.

No enemies to the left

‘Only when a genuine, complete un-freedom arrived – absolute and deadly – only then did we understand how free we had really been in Imperial Russia.’ (Ivan Ilyin)

Before 1917, Russian liberals believed that they were not free, and that they lived in an oppressive state which needed sweeping away. To this end, they adopted the slogan ‘No enemies to the left!’ While not engaging in political violence themselves, they refused ever to condemn it, except when carried out by the state or the political right. Regular readers will remember that I recently wrote a piece in which I mentioned the refusal of the leading liberal party of late Imperial Russia (the Kadets) to cooperate with the Tsarist government, a refusal which arguably led to their own destruction. I got a bit of pushback on this from a very eminent scholar, who with some justification noted that the Kadets were in a difficult position and that the primary reason for the disaster which eventually struck Russia was the reactionary stubbornness of the Tsarist authorities. That’s fair enough – there was blame enough all around. But as I continue reading about the era, I’m struck by the liberals’ attitude to revolutionary violence and so, having read an academic article today which touches on the subject, it is to that topic that I now turn.

The article in question, by Israeli scholar Shmuel Galai, calls the liberals’ refusal to condemn revolutionary violence ‘neither a very logical nor a defensible position.’ As Galai notes, the Kadets argued that ‘while they themselves did not subscribe to violence as a means of struggle, it was not the business of a political party to pass moral judgement on the actions of other parties or movements. They also argued that the savage policies of the government were responsible for the revolutionary violence.’ This was, of course, nonsensical – passing moral judgements on other political parties and movements is very much politicians’ business. Furthermore, the idea that you can criticize the government, but not revolutionary mobs, is simply preposterous. So what led to this absurd, and ultimately self-destructive, proposition (which the Kadets in any case didn’t respect, since they were more than happy to morally condemn the violence of right wing groups)?

Roughly speaking, one can divide the reasons into two categories: tactical/political and ideological. Let’s look at each in turn.

The liberals’ primary aim was to coerce the state into making sweeping political concessions. Peaceful measures having failed to get the government to compromise, the political violence of the revolutionaries was seen as useful, even necessary. As one leading liberal philosopher and political activist, Pyotr Struve, wrote: ‘when it comes to national liberation, both the revolutionary struggle and peaceful and moderate opposition cannot do without one another’. The Kadets’ leader Pavel Miliukov was equally clear, declaring that ‘Until political freedom comes [all the opposition] will make common front against the common enemy [i.e. the state]’. ‘We must act,’ he said, ‘each as he can and according to his own political convictions. Do as you like, but act! All means are now legitimate against the terrible threat latent in the very fact of the continued existence of the present government.’

‘We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.

Still, the liberals felt that to condemn revolutionary terror would not only weaken the struggle against the state but also undermine their own electoral prospects. Simply put, liberals and revolutionaries were competing for the same constituency. As historian William Rosenberg notes, the Kadets had to maintain their own internal cohesion and ‘maintain their electoral following and cater to popular militance.’ According to Rosenberg, therefore, ‘politics superseded ideology’ in determining the Kadets’ position.

This does not mean, however, that ideology played no role. Russian liberals were, by European standards, rather left-wing. Leftist revolutionaries might have been seen as mistaken in their choice of tactics, but they were regarded as wanting more or less the same things at the end of the day. In other words, their methods might have been wrong, but their hearts were in the right place. By contrast, the heart of the government was viewed as entirely rotten. For Russian liberals, therefore, the revolutionaries were not the enemy. The state was.

Few liberals had any doubts that Russia’s troubles were the government’s fault. Revolutionary violence was a symptom not a cause. Eliminate the cause (the government) and the symptom (the violence) would vanish also. What had to be condemned, therefore, was not the violence of the mob, but the violence of the state. Thus in a debate in the Russian parliament (the State Duma), Kadet deputy Vasily Maklakov argued that terror from above was more dangerous than terror from below, while another Kadet, Sergei Bulgakov, pronounced ‘that he abhorred violence from whichever side it came, but on the issue of terror, the government was mainly to blame. The moment it stopped wielding terror from above, the revolutionaries would cease their terror campaign from below.’

With hindsight, one shudders at the foolishness of Bulgakov’s words (to be fair to Bulgakov, like Struve, he later repented). In 1917, the liberals got their wish. The hated autocracy was overthrown. The ‘terror from above’ ceased. Civil liberties were granted. The prisons were emptied. The gendarmerie and other repressive organs of the state were abolished. And did the ‘terror campaign from below’ come to an end? No, not a bit – once the constraints were relaxed, the revolutionaries proved to have a will of their own, and rather than giving up and going home pressed forever onward. At that point, many liberals suddenly changed direction and swung to the right, looking for a strong man, such as General Kornilov, who could save them. But it was too late. Law and order, once hated and undermined, proved impossible to restore when its value became obvious, and the liberals and all they cherished were swept away, as Trotsky said, into the ‘dustbin of history’.

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.

Continue reading Various forms of liberalism

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.

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.

Democracy ≠ Liberalism

Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong. The people really pulling the strings are graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, many of whom have infiltrated the foreign ministries of countries around the world. Being a member of this global conspiracy, I received this week the college’s annual newsletter, ‘The Antonian’. An article by Dan Healy, the Director of St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?’, looks at ‘the roots of the 2013 law banning “propaganda among minors for non-traditional sexual relations”.’ It contains an interesting lesson about Russian democracy.

Healy explains that the roots of the legislation ‘might be found in the early 2000s, when conservative-nationalists and religious lobbyists in the Duma began calling for such a law. … The Russian MPs’ crude early versions of their ban on “propaganda for homosexualism” were rejected.’ Rebuffed nationally, conservatives moved their campaign to the local level. According to Healy, by 2012, ‘Local authorities around the country had enacted their own versions of “gay propaganda” bans and from Novosibirsk the Duma received a formal request for a national ban.’ At this point the Kremlin finally abandoned its opposition, perhaps because President Vladimir Putin had himself become more conservative and/or perhaps because the government recognized the public mood and wanted to score popularity points.

Normally, the Western press casts the blame for the 2013 law on Putin personally. What I find interesting about Healy’s description is that it shows something rather different. The Kremlin initially resisted the policy, but in the end succumbed to perceived public demand. This reveals: first, that Russia is perhaps more democratic than people make it out to be; and second, that democracy in Russia does not necessarily equate with liberalism.

Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true. But not always. Often, the elites who govern Western democracies are more liberal than many or most of the people they represent, as seen for instance with opposition to the death penalty and support for immigration. Also, some of the more important advances in human rights have come not from legislatures, but from the courts – in other words, from the non-elected part of constitutional systems. If governments in Western countries accurately reflected the desires of their peoples, they might well be much less liberal than they are.

Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty. They therefore devised a semi-democratic, semi-monarchical, constitution. Similarly, 19th century Russian liberal conservative thinkers believed that only an autocratic government could bring about liberal reform – democratic governments would in practice prove to be reactionary. I don’t think that they were entirely right about that, but as the example above shows, they weren’t entirely wrong either.

In a 2004 letter, imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that, ‘Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country’s population’. If Putin is now less liberal, that means that he has become closer to the people he represents, not the opposite. A recent article by the University of Copenhagen’s Matthew Del Santo highlights this:

Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia’s Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: ‘Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist’. Until 2012, he said, the conservatives ‘who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990s’. This has now changed. ‘Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist’, said Remizov. ‘In a Russian context, he’s a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority.’

None of this is meant to say that democracy is a bad thing; it has many advantages above and beyond its capacity to deliver liberal reform. Not least of these advantages is improved accountability. Rather, the point is that Russia’s government consists of a curious mix of democratic and non-democratic elements, and Healy’s article draws our attention to the uncomfortable fact that some of the aspects of Russian behaviour that we in the West don’t like are due more to the former than to the latter.