Ever since the monk Philotheus proclaimed in the 16th century that Moscow was the Third Rome, Russia has set out to teach a lesson to the world.
That she has done, and quite successfully, except that it’s a lesson in how not to do things, especially in politics. Different analysts ascribe that unfortunate state of affairs to all sorts of factors, cultural, geographic, demographic, geopolitical and so forth.
Most of them have a point, but I think they tend to miss the point. That’s based on the first words in St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word”.
St John was making a cosmological statement, but it can be profitably extrapolated to just about everything, and certainly to the art of creating and running a just and successful state.
That too starts with the Word, which in this case is a body of philosophical ideas. But they don’t create themselves – like the world itself, ideas require creators. And in a state evolving over centuries, their historical number has to be large.
Now, the Russians are talented people. Yet no nation is equally talented in every area: peaks dialectically presuppose the existence of valleys. For the Russians, it’s philosophy in general and, especially, political thought.
Although they’ve had some interesting metaphysical thinkers, few of them are known internationally. As to political thinkers, not a single one comes to mind.
Since Russia left her cultural development for late, she had to borrow Western patterns. However, those were but the starting points for Russian writers, artists, composers, inventors and scientists. Eventually they managed to find their own paths leading to greatness.
Nothing like that ever happened in modern political thought: it started and ended with aping the West. The Russians stuck Western saplings into their own soil, but the saplings didn’t take. That’s why I often comment regretfully on the paucity of the Russian opposition to Putin.
No intelligent person, especially no intelligent Russian, will fail to see the monstrosity of Putin’s kleptofascist regime – just like no such person ever failed to see the Soviets for what they were.
Where the problems start is in identifying an indigenous philosophical position – the Word in the beginning of everything – from which Russia can move away from Putin and towards a semblance of political virtue.
I read opposition publications every day and invariably bemoan their generally low, at times abysmal, level of thought. That’s especially vexing since some of the writers are genuinely talented.
One such is Igor Yakovenko, a kind of doyen of Russian liberal journalism. Writing in his characteristic acerbic style, Yakovenko is one of the most brilliant critics of Putin and his crimes.
However, when he ventures outside that area, a kind soul ought to tell him to do some serious thinking assisted by serious reading in political science. Using the ideology personified by The Guardian, La Liberation and other ‘liberal’ papers just doesn’t cut it.
Thus Yakovenko laments the existence of “the word levak (leftie) reflecting a negative attitude to a possessor of left-wing views… The word pravak (rightie) doesn’t exist. If a right-leaning politician is disliked, he’s criticised not for his views but for their consequences. Such as cynicism, neglect of moral and legal norms, a proclivity to solve complex problems by force. A levak is disliked simply for being on the left.”
Yakovenko seems to think that the West is like that too. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Levaks hate conservatives for what they are, while the latter abhor the former for what they do: mass murder, concentration camps, artificial famines, universal destitution, inordinate growth of state power, downgrading civil liberties.
Yakovenko takes issue with an article critical of the removal of Franco’s remains from their resting place in the Valley of the Fallen: “The article’s essence is fully reflected in its sub-title: ‘In memory of an outstanding man who saved Spain from international leftie scum’. [The author] criticises the Spanish people for no longer being capable of distinguishing imperfect good from absolute evil’.”
Now, I probably wouldn’t use the word ‘scum’, and neither would I describe Franco as someone only narrowly missing perfect goodness, but, in 1936, he did save Spain from the absolute evil of Stalinism.
Yet Yakovenko sharpens his irony: “To [the author] the concept of ‘international leftie scum’, along with those who were sent by Stalin to fight on the republican side, includes George Orwell…, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos…”
This sounds like the maligned author committed the ultimate apostasy. Yet Orwell, who fought with the anarchist POUM, was indeed a leftie. He thought that dispossessing the rich was a key to universal happiness and, in his Homage to Catalonia, criticised Stalin’s secret police, which had unleashed a reign of terror in Spain, for being insufficiently hard.
Hemingway is now known to have been a Soviet agent of influence, while Dos Passos, who started out supporting the republicans, was so disgusted by their murder of his friend José Robles that he refused to take part in Hemingway’s Stalinist propaganda film. Later he became a staunch conservative.
Yakovenko seems to believe that literary talent, of which he too has some, issues a free pass to its possessor. In that case, he shouldn’t find fault with the fascist views of Ezra Pound, Kurt Hamsun or Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Yet one suspects he does, which is most illogical.
Characteristically, Yakovenko mentions Guernica, but not the thousands of priests, nuns and members of the upper classes murdered by the Loyalists. In his eyes, the International Brigades have a halo of romantic goodness about them, whereas they were in fact the vanguard troops of the Comintern, which is to say Stalin.
Aware that the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ aren’t without a potential for confusion, Yakovenko manfully embarks on the effort of straightening it out.
“In the modern world, to be Left means defending the rights of ‘the insulted and humiliated’ [echo of Dostoyevsky there] and demanding changes to the existing order. Described as leftists are progressives, communists, Maoists, greens, social-democrats, socialists, autonomists, secularists, social-liberals, anti-globalists, defenders of the rights of LGBT and feminists.”
A fairly broad church then, but then so is the right, which presupposes “support for traditional values, demonstrated to various degrees by conservatives, national-democrats, reactionaries, globalists, right liberals, nationalists, monarchists, theocrats, fascists, Nazis, Francoists.”
Hence conservatives like, say, Burke or Enoch Powell only differ from Nazis by the degree of their support for traditional values. And they all display, if to various extents, “cynicism, neglect of moral and legal norms, the proclivity to solve complex problems by force.”
Yakovenko’s political taxonomies of both the Right and the Left are the ignorant drivel of a man traumatised to distraction by what he correctly identifies as his country’s evil regime.
Lumping together conservatives and Nazis is particularly galling. Support for traditional values? Seriously?
The traditional values of our civilisation are Christian, and national socialists hated them as much as their international cousins did. Just like the latter, they were economic socialists. If the Bolsheviks nationalised the economy de jure, the Nazis did so de facto, but they did nationalise it.
Yakovenko would struggle to show the inroads made into fascism by the conservative virtues of prescription, prudence and prejudice, so identified by Burke. Nor would he be able to give an example of a conservative thinker, or for that matter government, displaying “a proclivity to solve complex problems by force”.
Yakovenko regrets the fanaticism of Western lefties, which reduces what he sees as their inherently good ideas to caricatures. His analysis isn’t always wrong, but it’s always facile, at times to the point of being infantile.
A serious thinker would delve deeper, trying to identify the underlying causes of such fanaticism. He’d then uncover the existences of a vast group of monomaniac discontents whose monomania isn’t the cause they happen to tout at the moment, but hatred of every aspect of Western civilisation.
“The Soviet Union is dead but not buried,” concludes Yakovenko, at last finding himself in his comfort zone.
“Its decomposing corpse is poisoning the atmosphere, filling it with the miasma and phantoms of the past, one of which is the original sin of left-wing views…. We must bury the Soviet Union and then, after some 20 years, the word levak will stop being a swear word in the Russian language.”
I started out by saying we should learn from Russia. For Britain has had the requisite number of great political thinkers, along with the tradition of justice and liberty that has never existed in Russia.
Yet how many Britons ascribe unquestioned goodness to left-wing ideas? How many put conservatives and fascists under the same rubric? How many are as confused as Mr Yakovenko and his colleagues about their political taxonomies? How many fail to identify the philosophical core of our civilisation?
I haven’t counted. But if their number were to exceed a certain critical mass, we may end up like Russia: confused, impoverished, tyrannised.