Tag Archives: Vladimir Solovyov

Morality and Politics

Every now and then during my wanderings through the world of Russian political philosophy, I come across something which I want to share. So it was yesterday when I read a piece entitled ‘Morality and Politics’ written in 1891 by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Solovyov frames his argument in the language of Christianity, but I think that even a hardened atheist could find much to agree with. Moreover, although it was written 130 years ago, there’s a lot in this piece which is relevant for current times. And while one could easily accuse Solovyov of excessive idealism, it’s nice occasionally to read something pushing us in a positive direction.

In particular, I was struck by Solovyov’s condemnation of expressions of national exceptionalism and of the self-righteous imperialist atrocities which result from them. At the same time I was also struck by his refusal to allow these atrocities to induce enmity of the Western states whom he was criticising. Instead, he finishes his piece with an appeal for reconciliation between East and West, and argues that the pursuit of such reconciliation constitutes Russia’s international duty.

My rough and ready translation of the piece is below. I have cut out quite a lot in order to make it a more appropriate length for a blog post. In particular, I’ve eliminated a lot of the material in the second half of the article, which discusses Russian-Polish relations and which strikes me as less relevant for today (though even here one might find snippets of contemporary pertinence – e.g. Solovyov’s claim that ‘‘Poland would sooner agree to drown in a German sea than sincerely reconcile with Russia … the significance of Poland becomes clear as the avant-garde of the Catholic West against Russia’.)

Here it is:

Morality and Politics (Vladimir Solovyov, 1891)

A complete separation of morality and politics is one of the predominant mistakes and evils of our time. From a Christian point of view and within the boundaries of the Christian world, these two areas – moral and political – although they cannot entirely coincide, must nonetheless be tightly bound together.

Just as Christian morality has in mind the accomplishment of the Kingdom of God within an individual person, so too should Christian politics prepare for the arrival of the Kingdom of God for all humankind as a whole and its major parts, peoples, tribes, and states.

The past and present policies of peoples in history have had very little to do with this objective, and to a large part have directly contradicted it – this is an indisputable fact. … There is a widely spread point of view that each people should have its own policy, the goal of which is to support the exclusive interests of that individual people or state. In recent times, patriotic voices have rung out ever louder among us, demanding that we not fall behind compared to other states in this regard, and also that our policies be guided exclusively by own national and state interests, and that any retreat from such ‘interest politics’ is stupid or even treasonous.

Perhaps, there is a misunderstanding in this point of view, deriving from the lack of definition of the word ‘interest’; it all depends on exactly what interests one is talking about. If, as is usually the case, one is talking about the interest of the people, its wealth and external power, then despite the fact that these interests are undoubtedly important for us, they shouldn’t constitute the highest and final goal of politics, for otherwise we would have to justify all sorts of evil deeds which we see.

Our patriots boldly point to the political misdeeds of England as an example worthy of imitation. This is a good example; nobody either in word or in deed cares so much about their national and state interests as the English. As is well known, for the sake of these interests the wealthy and powerful English starve the Irish, oppress the Indians, force opium on the Chinese, and pillage Egypt. Undoubtedly, all these deeds are inspired by a care for national interests.

There is no stupidity or treason in this, but lots of inhumanity and shamelessness. … We dare to think that true patriotism is compatible with a Christian conscience, that there is a politics other than interest politics, or, it might be better to say, that a Christian people has other interests which do not demand, and indeed do not permit, international cannibalism.

Even those who participate in it understand that international cannibalism isn’t something praiseworthy. The politics of material interest is rarely presented in its pure form. Even the English, while happily sucking the blood of the ‘lower races’ and considering themselves entitled to do this because it suits them as Englishmen, often assert that they are thereby bringing a great benefit to these lower races, accustoming them to higher civilization, which is not entirely incorrect. Here, therefore, the crude desire for one’s own advantage is turned into an elevated thought about one’s cultural vocation.

The principle of a higher cultural vocation is cruel and false. Its cruelty can be seen in the sad shades of peoples who have been subjected to spiritual slavery and have lost their living force. And its falsehood, its internal inconsistency, is clearly revealed by its inability to be put into action. In consequence of the fact that higher culture and what the cultural mission consists of are poorly defined, there isn’t a single historic nation which has not expressed pretensions to such a mission and not considered itself to have the right to assault other peoples in the name of its higher calling.

But the pretension of one people to a privileged position in humanity excludes the same pretension of other peoples. Consequently, either all these pretensions have to remain empty boasting … or they must give rise to a struggle to the death among the great peoples for the right to commit cultural violence. But the outcome of such a struggle in no way proves that the victor’s higher calling is genuine; for superiority in military power is not evidence of cultural superiority.

The idea of a cultural vocation can be productive only when this vocation is considered not as a privilege but as a real obligation, not as domination, but as service.

A people has interests, but also has a conscience. And if this conscience is weakly revealed in politics and barely restrains the manifestations of national egoism, then this is an abnormal and unhealthy thing, and everyone should admit that it is not good. International cannibalism is not good, regardless of whether it is justified or not justified by a higher vocation.

Within the confines of a given people, fellow citizens daily exploit, deceive, and sometimes even kill one another, but nobody concludes that this is how it should be; so why they do hold to this conclusion when it comes to higher politics?

Promoting one’s own interest, and one’s own self-importance as the highest principle of the nation means legalizing and perpetuating the difference and struggle which are tearing mankind apart. The common fact in all nature of the struggle for existence, has a place in natural humanity. But the entirety of humanity’s historical growth, all its successes, consist of limiting this fact, and of gradually raising mankind to a higher form of truth and love.

Does Christianity abolish nationality? No, it preserves it. It abolishes not nationality, but nationalism. … We distinguish nationality from nationalism by their fruits. We can see the fruits of English nationality in Shakespeare and Byron, in Berkeley and in Newton; the fruits of English nationalism are worldwide pillage, the deeds of Warren Hastings and Lord Seymour, destruction and murder. …  Nationality is a positive force, and every people, according to its own special character, is appointed to some special service. Different nationalities are different organs in the entire body of humanity … but … the desire to separate oneself [from the body] can arise. And with such a desire, the positive force of nationality turns into the negative force of nationalism. … Taken to extremes, nationalism destroys the people who have fallen into it, making them an enemy of mankind.

One should not deceive oneself: inhumanity in international and social relations, the politics of cannibalism, in the end kill both personal and family morality, which is already partly visible in the whole Christian world. A human is a being of reason, and so cannot bear for long the miraculous division between the rules of personal and political action. … Even if at first only in theory, we must recognize that the highest guiding principle of all politics is not interest and not self-importance but moral duty.

This does not mean that nations do not have legitimate interests, nor a true calling, but on the contrary presupposes both. For if we recognize that each nation has a moral duty, then undoubtedly the fulfilment of this duty is connected to its genuine interests and its true calling. It doesn’t require a people to ignore its material interests and not think at all about its special vocation; it requires only that it doesn’t invest its soul in these, and that they do not become the ultimate goal which it serves.

To oppress and swallow up others for one’s satiation is an animal instinct, an inhuman and godless act both for an individual and for an entire people. To glory in one’s higher calling, to appropriate special rights and advantages over others is an act of pride … it is human, but also un-Christian. … Every nation should think only of its own duty, not paying any attention to other peoples, and not demanding or expecting anything of them. It is not in our power to make others fulfil their duty, but we can and must fulfil our own.

Most immediately, our historical duty appears to us in the form of the Polish question … and the Polish question is only one phase of the greater Eastern question … [and] our eastern question is a quarrel of the first, Western, Rome with the second, eastern, Rome whose representative from the 15th century onwards became the third Rome – Russia. … Should this third Rome be only a repetition of Byzantium, and fall as she did, … or should it represent a third principle reconciling the hostile forces [East and West]? … this reconciliation inevitably stands in front of Russia; without it it cannot fulfil God’s task on earth. … And so in virtue of all this, we will refrain from wilful condemnation of the West and will try instead to clear an intellectual path leading to the rapprochement of the two Christian worlds.