08 March 2016

Slavophilia and the state

Dr Susanna Rabow-Edling’s book on Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism is an incredibly rich and valuable scholarly text on Slavophilia, and although it restricts its analysis to the historical social and political context in which Slavophilia arose (a point the author takes significant pains to explain), it serves two very useful purposes. On the one hand, she seeks in this text to countervail against the idea that the cultural nationalism of the Slavophils was an inefficacious, rearguard, obscurantist and, indeed, doomed enterprise. This she does, both with commendable clarity and passion. On the other hand, though, she seeks to place Slavophilia within a broader tradition of European Romanticism in all of its intellectual, cultural and political commitments. Even though she also puts up a very solid and well-argued case here, this is where I depart from her view slightly.

I’m sympathetic to the view that Slavophilia was an engagement with and arose as a result of parallel German thought of the time. Khomyakov and Kireevsky both were well-versed in the idealist thinking of the German Enlightenment, and found themselves battling against it with many of the same critiques that Germans themselves were then using. Schelling and Herder were the most notable influences on the early Slavophils (Schelling in particular insofar as he himself saw clearest the hard limits of Kantian and Hegelian rationalism). And there is no doubt that they began to seek the cultural and civilisational roots of the Russian mir among the Early Church Fathers as a result of their coming to grips with the Romantic challenge to Enlightenment – and particularly what that meant for Russia as a whole. But Rabow-Edling goes even a bit further and posits a similarity between the political projects of the German and German-influenced proto-Romantics, and that of the Slavophils, particularly vis-à-vis education, progress and the state.

Dr Rabow-Edling does particularly well to explode the misconception that Slavophilia was simply a reactive, ressentiment-fuelled rejection of all things Western in an idle hope of constructing an Asian-facing Russian identity. Slavophilia did face eastward with considerable interest: Khomyakov’s highly-sympathetic analysis of Iranian civilisation in particular may be worth exploring in detail at a later time. But Rabow-Edling makes it clear that the Slavophils had a cosmopolitan, world-historical project in which they thought Russia could engage, something with which it could contribute positively to the evolution of Western Europe. She then takes this as an indication that Slavophilia can be seen to have a ‘progressive’ cast – something alluded to by Khomyakov himself when he maintains that conservatives of a certain type have hope of ‘progressing’ in a healthy direction.

Actually, in this respect, the parallels of the early Slavophils with the Sinophilia of Jiang Qing become more pronounced, as Jiang’s culturally-nationalist, traditional-tinged constitutional-Confucian proposals have a similarly cosmopolitan raison d’être. But no one ever accused Jiang of being a ‘progressive’ in the modern, Western sense, and this is not without reason. His frame of reference for his political thought is a fusion of Confucianism, Romanticism and Burkean conservatism – in much the same way the frame of reference taken by the Slavophils was based in Orthodoxy, Romanticism and the peasant traditions of the mir. But there is a point at which the two diverge, and that is in their treatment of power, which is to say the elites and the state. Jiang has hope that a governing elite imbued with Confucian learning and values can take the helm of a constitutionally-reformed China and guide it back toward civilisational health; this hope in Slavophil thought is not directed to the elites (who were divorced from the real life of the Russian country and out-of-keeping with their own nation’s traditions and roots), but rather toward the common people – the serfs and, later, the free peasantry. Slavophilia has a marked hostility toward the rule of a Westernising bureaucracy and elite culture, and this colours their attitudes as well toward state power.

Rabow-Edling draws an explicit connexion between this cultural hostility and the ‘anarchistic’ tendencies she notices in the philosophy of Herder. The Slavophils, she argues, were not overly concerned with political engagement because they felt that the politics of Tsarist Russia were centralised, susceptible to corrupting foreign influences, cut off from their taproots of life in the land and the people. The life of the people, thus, is meant to be kept pure and unsullied, apart from any consideration of power, as a tutor for the elites – this is an intellectual tendency the early Slavophils shared with the early Westernisers and the radical narodniki, particularly Herzen. But even though Rabow-Edling is a careful enough scholar that she recognises the potential pitfalls, I still think this interpretation runs a rather strong risk of misreading both Herder and the Slavophils generally on the subject of the state.

There certainly is a reading of Herder which can give his thought an anarchist cast. But it may be more appropriate to say that Herder rather thinks that government is far healthier which can be subordinate and answerable to the background matrix of beliefs, practices and habits out of which it arises. Herder doesn’t think that government can or should be wizarded wholesale out of its context, cut up into bits, processed into some pre-packaged container and exported in that form to whatever people would be foolish enough to take it. But for this very reason, his thought is not opposed to government; he is simply concerned with the institutions (to use the public-policy speak) which are supposed to support it – that body of customs, habits, assumptions, networks and informal rules which determine human activity outside of a legal context. It is probably this attitude toward government which the Slavophils adopted when they took their influence from Herder.

Because the Slavophils were monarchists; what’s more, they were paternalists. Aksakov in particular was adamant about his preference for having the government in the hands of one family with strong ties and commitments to the country they ruled, and thus keeping considerations of power under the check of custom; of keeping the brute force of statecraft firmly under the sway of love and paternal care. The Tsar, as noted by von Haxthausen in his Studies on the Interior of Russia, is thought of as the papa of the household, the father of the people – and monarchs who came after the infamous Decembrist uprising took this role very seriously right up until the dethronement of Tsar Nicholas II. Kireevsky was a notable advocate of the familial view of Russian society, and certainly thought the virtues of the Russian peasant father and mother could be generalised societally. But this principle they had that governments should cooperate in and allow themselves to be guided by the life and faith of the common people, also allowed them to make deep and cutting critiques of contemporary statecraft, both in Russia and elsewhere. States that rested and relied on abstract principles, states that had no inner life or real living connexion with their peoples, states that built up for themselves empty form, or states that – in Khomyakov’s terminology – maintained an outward religiosity rather than being moved by an inward faith: these received the full brunt of the Slavophil critique.

In full fairness to Rabow-Edling, anarchists and radicals of the succeeding generations of Russian intelligentsia did make heavy use of the Slavophil legacy: Nikolai Berdyaev not least of all! And there was good reason for it, at that. The Slavophils have a humane, instinctive revulsion toward the lethal use of power and brute force – a revulsion that, if we are to believe Berdyaev on the subject in his Russian Idea, they come by with historical honesty. But their legacy is far more complicated than that, as Berdyaev was the first to note. Rabow-Edling herself makes the point that their political thinking could at times be considered amorphous, and historically the Slavophils have been treated as an inefficacious and failed movement. Though Rabow-Edling deliberately, and with the good reason that she was concerned with the context in which the thought arose, omits them from her study and focusses much more firmly on Khomyakov and Kireevsky, it must nevertheless be recognised that the later Mikhail Pogodin and Nikolai Gogol were both Slavophils, albeit ones who were not as hostile to the Russian state as the aforementioned. And of course, Dostoevsky and Pobedonostsev both followed in the main of the Slavophil tradition, as later so did Vladimir Solovyov (who was anything but an anarchist, seeing the state anthropologically as an honest expression of ‘organised pity’).

All in all, though, I highly recommend Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism. Bear in mind that I’ve basically spent half this blog post picking political-philosophical nits with what is otherwise a masterful analysis, and one which treats Slavophilia with a remarkable degree of sympathy. It’s certainly a book I look to return to, as I continue to draw the parallels between China’s current moment with its traditionally-minded, institutionalist cultural reformers on the one hand, and the Slavophil legacy on the other.

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