Tag Archives: political philosophy

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.

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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