04 July 2018

Against implicit anarchisms disguised as Christian

It is easy for the literary-artistic bohemian to get caught up with a vague anarchism. But this does not enhance the type of soul for anarchism. And this is because the literary-artistic bohemian is usually one who has lost his spiritual centre and the deep connexion with the wellsprings of life. In the anarchistic approach of the bohemian type there is no selection of qualities, there is no aristocracy of soul, there is no consciousness of the higher dignity of man as a son of God, there is no manful spirit…

Chaos seeks to overthrow the cosmos, appearing in the guise of good, in the guise of the spirit of freedom… In anarchism it is not the creative spirit that finds uplift. And the genuine creativity of man cannot but oppose anarchism.

- Nikolai Berdyaev
It may shock some of my readers to see quoted thus one of the great ‘anti-authoritarian’ religious philosophers in the Russian Orthodox diaspora, and to see him cast many harsh words at the anarchists, with whom he is so often identified. In The Philosophy of Inequality, which is Berdyaev’s jeremiad against all manner of ideologies which have surfaced within the ‘New Russia’ from which he was exiled, the anarchists (including voices as diverse as Bakunin, Stirner and Tolstoy) are indeed berated for – among other things – the ‘shallow, empty pretension’ to a ‘boundlessly free and autonomous’ existence, their ‘self-adulation’, their ‘irresponsibility’, their ‘meonic lie’, their ‘passivity of spirit’. Berdyaev, being close to anarchism in a way rivalling that of William Morris, indeed completes and deepens Morris’s rejection of anarchism.

On Fr Stephen Freeman’s excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things, he has recently put up an article with which I find myself in deep agreement on most particulars, but whose overall shape has a certain lack of form, a certain incompleteness and a certain ‘anarchistic’ lacuna, which troubled me deeply. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Fr Stephen. I do think he is profoundly correct in his descriptions and diagnoses of modernity. (And I’m certain that Berdyaev would agree with these diagnoses, as harshly as he indicts the ‘bourgeois spirit’ and the anti-personalism at the core of the modern myth of progress.) Moreover, I tend to suspect that most of Fr Stephen’s conclusions are necessary correctives to the excesses of modern American political culture. However, there is something in his prescriptions which strikes me as a bit off, however well-intentioned (I use the term advisedly) they may be.

We do live in an age, much like the last, in which progress is seen as a paramount good by all political ‘sides’, and action (or activism, or engagement) as the preferred means of attaining it. This is as true of (what used to be called) Tea Party Republicanism as it is of Black Lives Matter. However, we are seeing the failures of all this action and engagement all around us. Far from the triumphs of rationalisation and the scientific-technological society that were promised to us, all we have found is further alienation. As Christians, we do need a critique of action and progress which the dominant ideologies of the age do not provide. We do need to be sceptical of ideologues of all stripes promising a better world through their grand plans. We do need to reject homo œconomicus as the yardstick of our own well-being. We do need to understand that, as Berdyaev himself says, ‘the Kingdom of God cometh not with notice and the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world’. All of this is true, and all of it Fr Stephen points out with admirable justice and prudence.

On the other hand, I feel like there needs to be, not only more of Berdyaev’s critique of anarchism, but also more Solovyov and more Basis of the Social Concept in this message. The literary-bohemian anarchism-but-not-quite of, say, Will Willimon or Rod Dreher, may sound Christian with its message of alternative intentional community-building and disengagement, but it’s not. It’s Essene. And it works only for the ‘literary-artistic bohemian’ mentioned by Berdyaev. Such disengagement is not actual repentance. It is not transfiguration. It is all the more dangerous because it tends to look so much like both. There is no resurrection and no place for the æternal Kingdom in disengagement, only the semblance of both.

Bringing the subject back around to ‘the state’. Insofar as Fr Stephen’s is a revolt against ‘politics’ in sum, against ‘civil power’ per se, his latent Tolstoian (and thus very modern) anarchism becomes that much more apparent. And when he denies outright the ‘responsibility as citizens’ which comes with belonging to this city, he unfortunately steps straight into Berdyaev’s crosshairs as the latter takes aim at the spirit of anarchism as a whole. The state, this city, may indeed be intrinsically violent. But the state is also needful as an instrument of organised pity, precisely because of our fallenness, of the failures of our action, of our inability to do anything good out of ourselves. And if we are, even for a brief moment of history, part of that state, we do have a certain set of obligations that can align with our participation in the ‘other city’, the heavenly kingdom.

For Solovyov, ‘The purpose of [civil power] is not to transform the world which lies in evil into the kingdom of God, but only to prevent it from changing too soon into hell’. The historical witness of the Orthodox Church (likely under Solovyov’s influence) says the exact same thing; does not oppose Aristotle when he describes us as political animals, nor Plato when he enjoins those of us who have ‘seen the light’ to go back into the cave. Funnily enough, none of these people were, or thought like, Americans or moderns. There is indeed a kind of responsibility demanded of us here in this city (not just the other one), even if it is not the kind of ‘engagement-action-activism’ the apostles of progress enjoin on us.

Christ did not tell His followers to join the Essenes; neither did He pick up a sword and fight the Romans with a host of angels at His back. If He did not succumb to the three temptations of the Evil One (at least two of which were explicitly political), neither did He stay in the wilderness! Instead He taught, He healed the sick, He fed the hungry, He had His disciples do the same – and He shared the same suffering and ignominious death on the Cross of two kana’im (violent political rebels or ‘bandits’), one of whom became the first of our saints.

Again, what comes above is not meant as a polemic against Fr Stephen or his work. I do not think that Fr Stephen is wrong, either about modernity, or about its ideologies, nor even about the remedies which must be used against it (stop worrying; be content; love people – especially enemies; express thanks; think local; learn another language or two). All of this is good and useful and necessary to hear, however hard it might be (especially for yours truly). But there are some questionable assumptions sneaking stealthily in under the good thrust of his argument. Neither politics nor war nor the state with its violence are uniquely modern concerns. Nor is living in a state somehow a new condition for the human being, that requires some kind of new quasi-anarchist, ‘anti-authoritarian’ or even ‘anti-political’ resistance.


  1. Can Bakunin really be lumped in with those bohemian dilettantes and neo-Essenes, though? There is plenty to reject in his thinking but he was hardly a quietist. He was committed to action and had specific strategies of organizing revolutionary struggle and creating a new society (e.g. federalism, syndicalism).

  2. The interest in Russia and things vaguely Orthodox came to me as a child through Tolstoy. In my later teens I began to perceive something wasnt quite right then I remember the almost revelatory thought Tolstoy wasnt a Christian!
    Thank you for this excellent blog !