22 November 2016

Sobornost’ and the state – a partial correction

The recent Social Matter essay by Mark Citadel on the topic of sobornost’ is an interesting one, though there is a certain level of misunderstanding which pervades it regarding the key theorists of sobornost’: Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. One would walk away from this essay thinking they were in total agreement, and indeed in ideological lockstep, with the likes of Count Uvarov and the ‘official nationality’ which Tsar Nicholas I propagated throughout his Empire. Yet far from being taken in by the state, the Slavophil theorists – every one of them, from the elder of the movement Khomyakov down to the youngest of that generation, Yuri Samarin and Ivan Aksakov – were hounded and censored by Tsar Nicholas I. Why is this?

I have written, in fact, a mild critique of Dr. Susanna Rabow-Edling’s thesis along the same lines as Mark Citadel has here. I have some deep misgivings about hewing too closely to the line that the Slavophils were devoted anarchists – even Berdyaev (devoted anarchist that he was!) was willing to credit the Slavophils with some subtlety, and did not shy away from the reactionary-hierarchical tendencies within Slavophil thought. But decontextualising Khomyakov and Kireevsky from the intellectual and social ferment that Chaadaev set off with his philosophical letters as Citadel does in this essay, is to do them a grave disservice. Chaadaev had issued a challenge to the entirety of the Russian lettered classes in the wake of the Decembrist Uprising, that Russia had nothing to offer the world in the way of moral or technological or civilisational advance, and that Russia’s duty now was to fall in line with the received wisdom and habits of the West from which they had been so long divorced. The entire idea of sobornost’ as a key contribution of the Russian genius to human civilisation came forth out of these intellectual disputes.

On one aspect at least, Mr Citadel gets the idea of sobornost’ very much right. The original focus of the Slavophils, inspired by Saint Isaac of Nineveh and by the Optina monks, was indeed on the Orthodox Church, as an organic collectivity based on mutual love and dynamic participation in a life built on a shared, common experience. But if they had left their analysis here – that is, if the Slavophils’ intellectual frenemy (the proto-Westerniser) Aleksandr Herzen’s barb about them ‘seeking the living Rus’ in the Chronicles the way Mary Magdalene sought Jesus in the tomb’ were indeed true – then the Tsar would not have any reason to consider them a threat. But in truth, they carried sobornost’ a great deal further than that, and began to read their concepts into Russian history in a creative and even subversive way, which is precisely why they fell squarely under Imperial scrutiny.

Pace Citadel, the basic unit of organic society to which the Slavophils pointed as the living and breathing archetype of sobornost’ was not the state, but the commune (or obshchina). It is not possible to understand the ideal of sobornost’ without first understanding the Russian peasant commune, the organic and dynamic collectivity of the village life which was described in such intricate and loving sociological detail by August Graf von Haxthausen. For all its meticulously-documented faults (the illiteracy, the superstitions, the child marriages and so on – Haxthausen was, after all, possessed of the typical German perfectionism), Haxthausen recognised in the Slavic peasant village the very principles of dynamic free participation, of love, of living collectivity, of customary life enriched by each generation’s living in it, of a truly organic communism in land and property ownership persisting down generations, that the Slavophils were at pains to highlight. And though Haxthausen saw in the communes a patriarchal power vertical at play with the batushka as the undisputed head and ruler of the household wherein everything was held in common, he also noted a definite disconnect: an independence of the life of the commune from the hierarchies of the state. This disconnect was also taken up by Khomyakov in particular as evidence that servile obeisance to lords and rulers was something foreign to the Slavic Russian national character – and Khomyakov and Kireevsky both looked to the Chronicles to confirm the fact that their rulers had indeed originally been foreign adventurers from the Nordic countries.

Citadel incorrectly reads Kireevsky when he asserts that the state was held to be an organic mode of collectivity. Indeed, reading Kireevsky’s essays in On Spiritual Unity, he attacks nothing with such gusto as the idea that the state and its laws are ‘given’, and he insists on nothing so strongly or so stubbornly as the idea that the laws of the state must be brought into harmony with the unwritten, customary constitution which is written on the hearts and in the elder ways of its people. For Kireevsky, the state is simply a shell and a shelter – it is not a living organism, but the object of that living organism’s free creativity which best expresses that organism’s character. And for Kireevsky and Khomyakov, Tsarist autocracy was not a supreme good in its own right (not in the same way that, in their view, the obshchina was a supreme good), but rather it was a contingent good conditioned by the demands of Russian history and the Russian character. The Tsar was Russia’s batushka, but his authority was given by the weight not only of divine command but also by the whole weight of Russia’s history down from Ivan III., and the whole weight of Russia’s popular custom, of its narodnost’. Though the Slavophils may have agreed with the letter of ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, populism’, they weighted these concepts in such a way that they in fact subverted the Westernising pressure that same autocracy was bringing to bear on Russian society.

Sobornost’ is ultimately a doctrine of communities, of families and villages. It is not a doctrine of states. In the doctrine of the Slavophils, states serve a needed purpose, but they are static, necessitarian, objects. The life of the narod is not to be found in dusty lawbooks or beneath gavels. It is to be found instead in the rites, in the songs and stories told by the elderly to the young, in the love of a husband for a wife, in the care of a mother for her children, in the honour of a host for his guests. That is where sobornost’ is born and can thrive.

It is therefore necessary to resist, as the Slavophils themselves did, the temptation to absolutise loyalty to the state (to say nothing of that insatiable, amorphous and inhuman idol of the ‘market’), or to view politics as the final battleground. And if we want to recover sobornost’ we will not do so by professing loyalty to some abstract bureaucracy or to some cult of personality, but instead we must do so by privileging the local, the immediate and the particular over the national, the abstract and the falsely-universal.