06 November 2018

The other Russian, inequality, secondary simplification

Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont’ev

Konstantin Leont’ev is a truly fascinating figure, in many ways antipodean after the best tradition of Russian thinkers, but also in a certain sense separate from the rest. Not for nothing is he called – ‘the other Russian’. Leont’ev began his career as a democratic idealist, drawn to the romance of revolution, to the striking figures he found at their heads: people like Napoleon and Lord Byron. But during the 1860’s his political views took a sharp turn rightward; he became a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, a Tsarist and an apologist for the unmitigated power of the autocratic state. He shows a similarly antipodean relationship to religion: at times he can be Orthodox to the point of hyperdoxy, evincing the terrors at the heights of the Byzantine religious consciousness, naked before the Judge of All; at other times he delivers himself of opinions that reveal something of a deep, sensual and libidinous rodnoverie. Interestingly, in his autobiographical collection of writings, these two antipodes: democratic-revolutionary and reactionary; Christian and pagan; neurotic and narcissist – are at war in his psyche from the very beginning. Little wonder that Nikolai Berdyaev found Leont’ev such a mesmerising figure; his philosophy never managed to get fully out from under Leont’ev’s reactionary spell, and that same philosophy (particularly when Berdyaev veered leftward politically) was that much richer for it.

Konstantin Leont’ev served as an army doctor in the Crimean War, having studied medicine prior to that. It was during and after the Crimean War that he formed much of his political consciousness, but more importantly, he adapted a kind of poiēsis of science from his medical studies. This comes into play in his doctrine of the evolution of civilisations. He believes that civilisations tend to ‘develop’ (though he has certain problems with the word) according to three stages. There is, first, a process of flourishing in primitive simplicity; then one of flowering complexity; and finally one of secondary fusion and simplification. He uses the medical analogy of a disease in the lungs to describe this process, which at its pinnacle causes a spectacular differentiation within the lung tissue, but which either reverts to the ‘primitive simplicity’ of health, or else triumphs and produces the simplification of the body through death and decomposition. The analogy is limited in its usefulness, and Leont’ev quickly abandons it; however, his analysis of the development of social orders is compelling and even convincing in some cases. He had in mind modern Europe when he spoke of the process of secondary simplification, as here:
Oh, the massive, blood-soaked but picturesque mountain of universal history! Since the end of the last century you have been labouring in torments of new births. And out of your suffering depths merely a mouse crawls out! A self-satisfied caricature of the people of former days is born, the average rational European, in his comic clothes that even the ideal mirror of art cannot reflect, with a small and self-deluded mind, with his creepy, practical goodwill!

No! Never yet in the history of our times has anybody seen such a monstrous combination of mental pride before God and ethical submission before the ideal of a homogeneous, grey, labouring and godlessly passionless all-mankind!

Is it possible to love such a mankind?

Should one not, with all the strength of even a Christian soul, hate—not the people who are stupid and have lost their way—but a
future of theirs such as this? Yes, one should! One should! Thrice, one should!
This is the estimation of Leont’ev of the bourgeois European. It is true, Leont’ev by his own admission cannot stand the pretensions of the ‘radical’ intellectuals of his own day; though he makes a couple of notable exceptions for Aleksandr Herzen (whose work I am now eagerly looking forward to reading) and JS Mill, whose æsthetic modes of thought render them more sympathetic. (Even at his most democratically-minded, he understands that equality, in a metaphysical sense, is a problematic proposition. His democracy is an æsthetic one. He loves it not so much for itself, but for the brilliantly-colourful men-of-deeds that arise out of it.)

But neither does he have much use for the capitalist mass man, the respectable European who reads the newspapers, the suburbanite. He detests, even loathes, the very idea of ‘a world in which all people everywhere live in identical, small, clean and comfortable little houses the way people of middle income live in our Novorossiysky towns’. What fit world is that for heroes to come out of, for great deeds still remaining to be done? The equality he sees in such a world is the equality of death and decomposition. For the reactionary Leont’ev, any conservatism that regresses to such a vulgar mean is no conservatism at all worth espousing. Indeed, he says this outright: ‘Cosmopolitan democratism and political nationalism—these are but two shades of one and the same colour!’ So what does he propose in its place? Konstantin Leont’ev puts forward five—not canons, precisely, in the Kirkian sense, but something a little looser than propositions:
  1. The state should be diversified, complex, strong, class-structured and cautiously mobile. In general, strict, sometimes to the point of ferocity.

  2. The church should be more independent than the present one. The church hierarchy should be bolder, more powerful, more concentrated. The church should have a mitigating influence on the state, and not vice-versa.

  3. Everyday life should be poetic, varied in its national unity, and insulated from the West…

  4. The laws and principles of authority should be stricter; people should try to be personally kinder; the one will balance the other.

  5. Science should develop in a spirit of profound contempt towards its own utility.
For a doctor and a natural scientist, noteworthy in particular is his emphasis on poetry. Leont’ev places as much emphasis on that in the very midst of his politics as do Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis. ‘The highest poetry and the highest politics have a deeper connexion than people usually think. When poetry declines, so does profound thought.’ He believes that social orders must indeed have a mystical, metaphysical foundation in order to last (it would have been quite interesting to see what the man would have made of Morris).

And further, he believes that in order to forestall the process of secondary simplification, to stop the progress of decay and to ‘survive as a state and culture’ in the face of threats from China, India and the West, it is necessary for Russia, not to disappear within a hodge-podge synthesis and levelling, but instead to ‘fuse together this Chinese state system with Indian religiosity and European socialism, gradually forming new, stable social groupings’. The two of them likely would not have seen eye-to-eye, but this threefold civilisational analysis (China; India; Europe) and especially the conclusion that some conservative, mediated form of socialism could be adapted to an authentic civilisational flourishing, has distinct parallels in the New Confucian thought of Liang Shuming. Likewise, Leont’ev’s thought here is not quite Slavophil; his attitude toward the state is far too cavalier. But it is easy to see where the Slavophils have influenced him.

This ‘other Russian’, this proud reactionary and literary critic who could nevertheless never quite put away his old romantic attachments to revolution, is very deeply worth considering at our present political moment, particularly when the forces of consolidation, civic monoculture and secondary simplification are still afoot and rampant within our own body politic.

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