Apologies in advance, but this will be a long post, as I feel my way forward in an effort to fuse my recent research into the history of Russian liberalism with current affairs. If I ramble, it’s because I don’t have a clear idea where I’m heading and I’m making it up as I go along. I hope that what comes out makes sense. But in a way, it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination.
Russia’s development should be founded on a ‘conservatism for optimists’, argued the country’s president Vladimir Putin a speech to the Valdai Club in Sochi last week. This is a somewhat curious expression since conservatism is often defined as an essentially pessimistic philosophy. Whereas liberals and socialists believe that human nature can be improved by means of suitable social and economic reforms, the conservative supposedly follows Thomas Hobbes in believing that humans are basically nasty by nature and in need of the hand of the Leviathan to keep them in order. Thus in a book-length study of conservatism, my former colleague at the University of Hull, Noel O’Sullivan, described it as a ‘philosophy of imperfection’.
‘Conservatism for optimists’ was not the only phrase Putin used. He also referred to ‘sensible conservatism’, ‘healthy conservatism’, and ‘moderate conservatism,’ and declared that progress must be ‘organic’, thus neatly aligning with my own definition of conservatism as a ‘theory of organic development’. In this regard, Putin made it clear that conservatism was not about standing still or going backwards, but about going forwards, but doing so in a ‘stable’ fashion without the kind of revolutionary shocks that have done Russia so much harm in the past. He then compared this progressive, moderate, ‘optimistic’ conservatism with unhealthy ‘simple okhranitel’stvo’, a phrase that is very hard to translate but has resonances of harsh defence of state power for its own sake.
It would be a mistake to regard Putin as an intellectual. Still, his speech made it clear that his thinking has evolved over time in a philosophical direction and that he has developed a fairly coherent ideological outlook. It is perhaps not particularly original, and it contains big gaps, particularly in terms of how it is to find practical implementation, but it is, as I said, coherent. It’s also fairly moderate, and far removed from the claims made by many about him that he is a ‘fascist’, ‘far right’, ‘ultra-conservative’ or the like.
Justifying his position in the Q&A session after his speech, Putin cited the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. When asked by my Ottawa-based colleague Piotr Dutkiewicz who inspired him, he mentioned both Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, whose ‘book is on my shelf, and which from time to time I take out and read.”
This isn’t the first time that Putin has referenced Berdyaev and Ilyin, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I have discussed the issue on several occasions, especially in light of accusations that Ilyin was a fascist and that Putin’s admiration of him makes him a fascist too. But although I have gone over some of this ground before, I think it’s worth another take on the subject, as it provides a useful way of illustrating the relevance of these figures to the current day and thereby illuminating something about today as well. To do that, though, we need to go through a reasonably lengthy historical diversion.Continue reading Postliberalism, or a ‘conservatism for optimists’