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Prophets who saw through Lenin

by
02 December 2009

A century ago, a collection of essays caused a furore in Moscow. Philip Boobbyer considers the circumstances

Revolutionary times: Lenin haranguing the Soviet Congress JUPITER IMAGES

Revolutionary times: Lenin haranguing the Soviet Congress JUPITER IMAGES

THE PUBLICATION of the book Landmarks, in 1909, was one of the great scandals of Russian intellectual history. Written in the aftermath of the failure of the 1905 revolution, it was a collection of seven essays ac­cus­ing the Russian intelligentsia of a misplaced enthus­iasm for revolu­tion, and a tendency to fanaticism. It pro­voked immed­iate controversy, going through five editions within a year.

The idea of revolution was a sort of holy cow among Russian intel­lectuals. To question it was to break a kind of taboo. Socialist and liberal activists were furious, believing that the authors of the collection had gone soft on the enemy (tsarism). Lenin hated it, and the liberal leader Paul Miliukov went on a speaking tour to condemn it.

More generally, the religious hu­man­ism that Landmarks promoted was not welcome in a milieu where there was little dialogue between advo­cates of tradition, patriotism, and faith, and the supporters of lib­eralisation, reason, and modern­ity.

The authors of Landmarks were no ordinary group of thinkers. Four in particular stand out, mainly because of their importance in the history of Russian philosophy and theology: Peter Struve, Semyon Frank, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov.

The four were all Marxists in their youth; indeed, Struve was one of the founders of Russian Marx­ism. At the turn of the century, however, they grew disillusioned with the contradictions in Marx’s philo­sophy, and were drawn towards various forms of idealism, liberalism, and Christianity.

All of them achieved considerable prominence: Struve went on to become Foreign Minister in one of Russia’s White Armies during the Civil War (1918-21); Frank turned into one of Russia’s greatest philosophers, writing from a Neo-platonist per­spec­tive and in a sim­ilar vein to Heidegger; Berdyaev, perhaps the most internationally famous of the foursome, preached a brand of Christian existentialism that struck a strong chord with European audiences; and Bulgakov grew to be very influential in the field of Orthodox theology, and to this day has admirers such as John Milbank and Rowan Williams.

All of them achieved considerable prominence: Struve went on to become Foreign Minister in one of Russia’s White Armies during the Civil War (1918-21); Frank turned into one of Russia’s greatest philosophers, writing from a Neo-platonist per­spec­tive and in a sim­ilar vein to Heidegger; Berdyaev, perhaps the most internationally famous of the foursome, preached a brand of Christian existentialism that struck a strong chord with European audiences; and Bulgakov grew to be very influential in the field of Orthodox theology, and to this day has admirers such as John Milbank and Rowan Williams.

These men grew up in an en­viron­­ment where it was an oddity to be a believer. Bulgakov, for ex­ample, re­called of his early years: “I was help­less in the face of unbelief, and in my naïvety thought that it was the only possible world-view for ‘clever’ people.”

Frank, born into a Jewish family, also lost his faith as a young man. Yet he found the underground revolu­tionary milieu at Moscow University in the 1890s stifling, and was slowly drawn away from materialism towards Christianity — converting to Orthodoxy in 1912. He came to the conclusion that the Christian ethic was better suited to human nature than the secular moralities of Marx and Kant.

Landmarks reflected the growing appeal of faith in the lives of these men. And they were not an isolated phenomenon. It was an irony that, as Russia moved towards radical socialist revolution, some of its greatest thinkers were fast moving away from a Marxist world-view.

In one way, the authors of Land­marks were promoters of a “middle way”. In 19th-century Russia, the supporters of “progress” and science saw religion and the Church as instruments of oppres­sion, and moved in a sharply anti-clerical and positivistic direction. A gulf opened up between advocates of faith and supporters of social reform. It was that gulf that the authors of Landmarks sought to overcome, not so much by turning back to the Church, although some of them did that, but by arguing for the importance of Christian values for society. In their view, social reform needed a spiritual compon­ent.

IF THE underlying social vision of Landmarks was conciliatory, its tone when discussing the intelli­gentsia was much more aggressive. Indeed, Landmarks was an on­slaught on the assumptions of the revolutionary intelligentsia.

The authors of Landmarks be­lieved that the revolutionaries were over-optimistic about the capacity of politics to change the world. In their view, the idea that political change (i.e. the overthrow of tsar­ism) would be sufficient for bring­ing about a new society was deeply naïve. So, for example, Struve’s essay in Landmarks (“The Intelligentsia and Revolution”) criticised the be­lief that happiness could be found in the external organisation of society.

In Struve’s view, a slow, steady change of mentality was likely to be more productive than toppling the Tsar and changing one set of struc­tures for another. Struve con­demned the intelligentsia’s knee-jerk hostility to the state, and its un­wil­lingness to compromise; he was par­ticularly critical of its refusal to try to work with the tsarist regime after the modest reforms that resulted from the revolution of 1905.

Another key theme of Landmarks was the idea that the intelligentsia had rejected true religion in favour of a false worshipping of the “people”. Writing in the opening essay of the collection (“Philosophic Truth, and the Moral Truth of the Intelligentsia”), Berdyaev suggested that the intelligentsia had aban­doned the worship of God for the worship of man. Yet this new love of the people was not genuine. Missing a sense of the spiritual dignity of man, it was not founded on genuine respect for man as an equal.

Berdyaev also argued that the in­telligentsia’s commitment to equal­ity, social justice, and popular wel­fare had almost destroyed its inter­est in truth: it was interested in truth only in so far as it served people’s material needs, and the re­sult was a poorly developed philo­so­phical culture.

Similar themes were explored by Frank in his essay “The Ethic of Nihilism”. Frank noted that for many revolutionaries, socialism had be­come a new religion, emphasising the priority of human happiness. This faith, how­ever, was not what it appeared to be: its love for human­ity was an abstraction, and not directed at real people.

Furthermore, Frank argued that the psychological energy of this reli­gion was not love for people, but hatred of “enemies”, warning that it contained a violent component: “The great love of mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organis­ing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction.” The Rus­sian revolutionary was a fanatic; Frank called him “a militant monk of the nihilistic religion of earthly happiness”. What was needed in­stead was “the creative and con­struct­ive culture of religious humanism”.

In his essay “Heroism and Ascet­ic­ism”, Bulgakov saw this revolu­tion­ary mentality as the product of the atheistic strain in European En­lightenment thought. In repudiating God’s Providence as a factor in the world, man had inserted himself in its place as the saviour of mankind. The revolutionary had an inflated view of his own importance. He ex­hibited what Bulgakov called a “maxim­alist frame of mind”, con­tain­ing “symptoms of ideological mania” and “self-hypnosis”; it was a mentality that produced a “fanatic­ism deaf to the voice of life”.

Like Struve, Bulgakov noted the impatience of the revolutionary: “Consciously or unconsciously, the intelligentsia lives in an atmosphere of expectation of social miracle, of a universal cataclysm, in an eschato­logical frame of mind.”

To this, Bulgakov contrasted what he saw as the totally different spirit inherent in a Christian heroism or asceticism. In accepting God as the master of history, a person freed himself from false pride, and heroic pretensions, and started to focus on the task of carrying out real tasks. Heroic ambitions were not aban­doned, but done in the name of God, and with humility.

Christian asceticism was a matter of unrelenting self-control, a strug­gle with the lowest and most sinful aspects of one’s own “I”. Through this alternative, self-denying kind of heroic action, souls could find new life, and Russia could itself be healed of its wounds.

LANDMARKS was not an isolated publication. With hindsight, we can see that it was part of an evolving spiritual/intel­lec­tual tradition that emphasised the compatibility of faith and rea­son, spirituality and politics. One author (Nikolai Zernov) saw it as central to what he called the “Rus­sian religious renaissance” of the 20th century.

LANDMARKS was not an isolated publication. With hindsight, we can see that it was part of an evolving spiritual/intel­lec­tual tradition that emphasised the compatibility of faith and rea­son, spirituality and politics. One author (Nikolai Zernov) saw it as central to what he called the “Rus­sian religious renaissance” of the 20th century.

Yet if Landmarks was part of a renaissance of religious thought in Russia, it also came too late to pre­vent the tragedy of the Russian revolution: Russia was soon plunged into the First World War, and the resulting chaos gave the Bolsheviks their opportunity.

In addition, the contributors to Landmarks possibly lacked the ability to incite a movement of social reform based on a Christian humanist ideal. They were also better at seeing problems than offering solutions; indeed, they were not fully united among themselves about Russia’s future (some saw a greater part for the Church to play, while others stressed the importance of the rule of law).

The authors of Landmarks were not silenced by the October revolu­tion. In 1918, Struve, Frank, Berdy­aev, and Bulgakov were contributors to From the Depths, a sequel to Land­marks which interpreted the revo­lution in negative apocalyptic terms.

In Moscow the following year, Berdyaev started a Free Academy of Spiritual Culture that promoted religious-philosophical ideas to the wider intelligentsia; and, in spring 1922, Frank joined him in founding a Faculty of Philosophy and Hu­mani­ties as part of it.

Publicly critical of Bolshevik ideas, these men and their peers struck a chord with student audi­ences, and were an irritant to the Bolshevik leadership.

Lenin immediately saw in Land­marks a threat to his vision for Rus­sia. He disliked its moderate politics, and was hostile towards religion (he once described any idea of religion as the “most dangerous foulness”). So it was not surprising that after 1917 he was suspicious of the Landmarks authors.

More generally, he did not sym­pa­thise with the desire of intellec­tuals, secular and religious, to play an independent public part in Rus­sia: there could be no room for this in the new one-party state. To Stalin in July 1922, he wrote: “Get them all out of Russia. . . We need to do this immediately.”

In the autumn of that year, some of Russia’s most prominent thinkers were shipped out of Russia to the West, on what has come to be known as the “Philosophy Steamer”, Berdyaev and Frank among them. Struve had already left Russia, and Bulgakov was also forced into emigra­tion.

Not until the early 1990s would an independent public sphere be re-established in Russia (and that has been hard to retain).

Ironically, it was deportation that saved the authors of Landmarks intellectually; for in emigration they produced some of their greatest works. Many of those left behind perished in the labour camps.

IF LANDMARKS was widely criti­c­ised at the time, and its actual influ­ence on events was negligible, it came, over time, to be regarded as pro­phetic. Its warnings about the intel­ligentsia’s hatred of enemies, fanaticism, and atheistic moralism seemed to be born out by events; the Soviet regime really did exhibit the violent characteristics that its authors warned about.

It was for this reason that in the 1960s and 1970s dissident intellect­uals who read Landmarks in samiz­dat editions (the text was, of course, banned in the USSR) were drawn to its diagnosis. In 1974, a collection of essays inspired by Landmarks was put together by the novelist

Aleks­andr Solzhenitsyn under the title From Under the Rubble; and in it Solzhenitsyn declared: “Even after 60 years, Landmarks’ testimony has not lost its brightness; today [it] still seems to have been a vision of the future.”

After the collapse of the USSR, in 1991, forbidden writers such as Struve, Frank, Berdyaev, and Bulga­kov became the object of fascination to a new generation of Russian read­ers.

Published and widely discussed, Landmarks was indeed widely seen as a “landmark” in Russian intellectual history. It was perhaps reassuring for the Russian public to know that the country did have great minds who had predicted the tragedy of the revolution, and that there were Russian, as well as Western, thinkers who could provide intellectual re­sources for the post-communist era.

It is for the enduring relevance of Landmarks, both in Russia and the West, that it is worth remembering the volume a century on. In a general sense, the book warns reformers of all persuasions that changes of structure, without changes in mentality, are destined to be inadequate.

The collection’s more specific message about the dangers of certain kinds of Enlightenment humanism also seem relevant today, however. Modern European secularism —which in the name of tolerance is often impatient with religion, and can have strongly moralistic over­tones — has some similarities with the secularism of the Russian revolutionary tradition, even if it lacks its enthusiasm for violence.

Landmarks’ call for a religious rather than an atheistic humanism was certainly a challenge to the intellectual orthodoxy of early-20th-century Russia. In today’s Russia, the idea that lasting social change can be achieved only with the help of religion is not so controversial — even if, in practice, Christian values do not seem to influence Russian politics and society very much.

Ironically, it is in the West that it challenges the prevailing thinking.

Ironically, it is in the West that it challenges the prevailing thinking.

Dr Philip Boobbyer is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Kent. He is the author of S. L. Frank: The life and work of a Russian philosopher 1877-1950 (Athens, Ohio, 1995).

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