For Tsar and Country: Paul Robinson’s Russian Conservatism

If, as one classic of political philosophy contended, there’s no better argument for the study of conservatism — “the losers of history” — than “to gaze upon the society the winners have made,”1 this witticism may ring truest of all in Russia, where we have perhaps devoted too much hand-wringing to the (Bolshevik) winners of 1917 and not nearly enough to the (liberal) winners of 1991.2 

Now, with Paul Robinson’s Russian Conservatism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019) to guide them, Western intellectuals — who, as a lot, have scant knowledge of Russia’s identity, customs, or social institutions, of its achievements in state-building or advanced learning3 — can finally acquaint themselves with a branch of European reaction whose enduring neglect in the Anglo-American world has left us singularly unprepared to grasp what is at stake in the extraordinary reinvigoration of conservative politics in a resurgent Russia. And if this natural curiosity “to see over the hill” be lacking, one may note that this is also, in a way, a book about the West (our own culture is, after all, nothing but our sins and foibles seen through the eyes of others4) — a West whose intellectual (and after the Crimean debacle, military) domination of the motherland is to be warded, we quickly learn, by faithful sentinels. For the Russians, as Wyndham Lewis divined, are above all

conscious of their curious relationship to the West—of it, and yet not of it: conscious also of something like a mission with regard to it, namely as the purveyors of sincerity to the over-institutionalized European. … A cultural see-saw, westernizing and anti-westernizing, proceeded among the intellectual leaders: but to hold themselves apart from the West—a little contemptuously apart—was by far the more popular attitude.5

The jerking of this see-saw forms one of the major interpretive schemas of Russian history and, unsurprisingly, one of the major themes of the book: out in the depths of Holy Russia, ‘progress’ or ‘modernity’ can only appear as an alien and mutagenic force radiating out of Old Europe (for Dostoyevsky a “land of holy wonders,” yet as foreboding as the moon in its spiritual barrenness [80]), a sort of inverted-spiritual Chernobyl, which lends Russia its isolationist streak (87) while imbuing it with a sense of messianic destiny — of ‘redeeming’ the West from its moral degradation, and so on. (191) 

Conservatism is however about the “bad new days,” and in Russia as elsewhere it is birthed in disillusionment with the broken promises of the 18th century’s philosophical Utopias and the violent delights of its revolutionary passions — dreams of universal brotherhood cut short as much by the Loi Le Chapelier as by the guillotine.7 For the Slavophile Aksakov as for Burke, 1789 is then the cautionary tale about the “immolation of life on the altar of abstract theory” (60), and it is with “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” foremost in mind that Russia’s official conservatives advance the antithetical slogan and doctrine, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” — striking and alien consonants which could use some sympathetic consideration by Western ears. 

As in England and the Catholic countries, the state or official church occupies a central place in the ideology and affections of Russian institutional conservatives, who throughout this text display flashes of otherworldly piety for which there is no obvious analog in the Western European canon (save perhaps the Catholic-mystical revival of the likes of Péguy or Bernanos). As a political doctrine, “Orthodoxy” is there to supply an ethical standard and countervailing power ensuring civilized good behaviour on the part of the sovereign, preventing the slide of autocracy into despotism. (109) As for its (theological) content, Robinson is too hardheaded and practical to indulge in mystical speculation on the “Russian soul,” while the policy elite which forms the subject of his book is too Europeanized to serve as window into Slavic peasant mysticism. Indeed, Orthodoxy tends almost to “melt like ice, slip through the fingers like quicksilver,” until we are left grasping at nothing but a pure signifier of Difference (from the West) — a redoubled “Nationality,” or prop for national identity (188).8 If I were a devout theist or lover of the Russian classics, I might probe into what has made the “uncorrupted” faith of the east so mesmerizing to Western traditionalists; I am not, and I offer no guess. 

Meanwhile “Autocracy” is one of those unfortunate words which seems destined to arouse intense suspicions in an Anglophone readership thoroughly partial to the curbing of royal power by moneyed elites, and already predisposed to viewing Russian history through the lens of some “Asiatic despotism” — the embodiment of everything a good liberal finds viscerally frightening and intolerable.9 But Russian history, surely, offers a striking example of how a centralising monarchy, for all the nervous disapproval it arouses among Anglo-Saxon and especially Whig historians (forever fulminating against the “tyranny” of Louis XIV, and so forth), has often come as a reprieve — from the extortions of local magnates, the ravages of banditry and vendettas, of raiders on the frontiers — for those toiling masses for whom an appeal to a monarchical dispenser of justice was, so often, their last earthly resort.10

After all, “democracy,” if the word has any meaning at all, requires not only a ballot box but also a constant vigilant curtailment of particular interests in pursuit of a general interest — the moulding of, dare I say, “a single will” from “the multitude of opinions and factions, ideologies and positions which constitutes a people or a nation.”11 Further, it seems to me that Russia’s ingrained misgivings about democratic systems have more to do with a dread of what Tocqueville termed “the secret malady of the republic,” which is to say oligarchy:

In theory, the elected candidate must be the favorite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting the clique and the faction. (Konstantin Pobedonostsev, 104)

I think I’m prepared to accept this kind of argument, the good sense of which subsequent Russian history has tended to confirm, and which has more recently been buttressed empirically in even the most advanced democracies.12 (Providing we monarchists in turn admit that our preferred form of government provides ample opportunity for entrenched interests to corrupt the royal will!13)

It is equally instructive to observe a ‘discursive struggle’ over state power and bureaucracy — canonically associated, in the Western imaginary, with the Eastern bloc’s planned economies and its Cold War critics — play out under the earlier ideological constellation of the Tsarist regime: depending on the inclinations of the conservative faction, autocracy can assume the guise of a countervailing power keeping a bloated state bureaucracy in check (123-4); or the bureaucrats can be valorized as loyal servants carrying out the Tsar’s enlightened reforms. (101) A proposal for elected local legislatures, sponsored in the 1850s by a provincial aristocracy which could confidently expect to dominate such assemblies, is checked by a bureaucracy which in so doing courts accusations of acting on “socialist principles” and being intent on “expropriating” large landowners! (87) In Russia, Robinson illustrates, the tandem “liberal democracy” is pried loose into opposing principles, with reactionary social elites clamouring for representative bodies that would entrench their power, while progressive forces rallied to an autocracy which alone could carry out reformist schemes in the interest of the masses. This welcome defamiliarization helps drive home the point that questions of a “small state” or “limited government” are historically contingent and not absolute, and Fredric Jameson is always there to remind us that “at certain moments … the state can seem to embody progressive forces and is indeed no longer considered an alien power but rather the expression of popular forces themselves. At other moments, its subsumption under the interests of a ruling class or oligarchy is not only visible but leaves its mark on people’s experience and daily life.”14

So the point not to be missed here is that Russia’s autocracy is a social one, the only institutional actor at least nominally devoted to the material (and not just the moral) welfare of the ragged stick figures staggering out of the fields or factories at dusk. (101-11) There is less of the (quaintly ridiculous) paternalistic ‘moral uplift’ of the Victorian reformers — inciting young girls to ruffle through Shakespeare at dawn before bleeding their hands on the looms, or whatever. Nor is there more than a faint trace of orléanisme,15 of a credulous admiration of England’s parliamentary system and commercial prosperity (94-5); Boris Chicherin’s is the sole voice defending social inequality as beneficial to the nation (96), thus baring his flank to G.K. Chesterton’s classic retort: how can he be certain that the Motherland does not require him to occupy the station of the meanest serf? It says something that, come October and exile, even the whitest Russians must accept that any restoration would refrain from disturbing the spoils of Bolshevik land redistribution! (148)

But Russia’s conservatives are equally anxious to shore up the country’s position in the emerging capitalist global economy (sooner or later, the mailed fist of the ‘free market’ would come knocking), pressing the Tsar to expand his domestic market and manufacturing base by priming consumer demand with cheap credit (while keeping pernicious foreign capital at bay). (110) Yet if one sips from the poisoned chalice of technological modernization — which demands, as the Faustian price to pay for ‘progress,’ the total upheaval of Russian life and custom — one must also search out ways of ensuring society’s basic coherence and stability amid the “restless and corrosive dissolution of traditional social relations into the atomized … aggregates of the market system.” 

The mir or peasant commune is, of course, precisely such an organic world untouched by the forces of possessive individualism (73), and the Slavophiles dutifully march into the countryside to record loving sketches of a peasant life to which the Tsar’s industrial ambitions, and later the soviets and collectivization, will shortly put an end. But for a Russian elite immersed in European culture and wedded to Western consumption patterns (thereby driven to fear the “dangerous novelty” of mass politics and an “unbridling of passions” on the part of a working majority conceivable to this class only as “the mob”), the mir is also a form of brutish village idiocy and an alien underclass potentially hostile to their civilized comforts, which tends to plunge the conservative mind into a nagging awareness of its own ambiguous role in that “organic” social fabric whose praises are sung — an illusory organic unity that can only, when all’s said and done, be achieved at the level of ideology (Pan-Slavism, “Russia for the Russians,” or, as we’ll see below, antisemitism). Thus are Russian conservatives plunged into all the familiar conundrums and contradictions dogging their Western counterparts, as all are left eternally pondering how to square this circle, how to curb “excessive individualism” or “class strife” without being able (or even wishing) to preserve the old pre-industrial village life (20), and at the end of it all we’re left with a Dostokeyvsky feebly pining for “a spiritual meeting of estates [classes]” which would overcome Russia’s social divisions. (79) Yet without class strife or at least its threat, how could the labouring masses claim a dignified share of the social surplus? Silence on this point is a form of answer.

Nor are matters much improved when Churchill’s “dark hand, gloved in folly, intervenes: exit Tsar”: from 1917, conservative thought, now émigré thought, is further marked by the trauma of class defeat and the misery of exile. Robinson will insist on a silver lining to this experience, a “rose in the Cross of the present,” in the form of a new humanism which springs to life in the hearts of men fleeing state terror: as he finds when he wades with gusto into the controversy over the alleged “fascistic” tendencies of the dean of émigré philosophers, Ivan Ilyin, the White Russians had received the sort of firsthand experience of political violence which made it difficult to follow, say, Yeats down the path of fascistic flirtation (“It is amusing to live in a country where men will always act. Where nobody is satisfied with thought … The chance of being shot is raising everybody’s spirits enormously.”) To which I would only add that fascism was also, as the canonical texts urgently remind us, an envenomed rattling of the “iron cage,” a protest against that dreary bourgeois businessworld which had not yet arrived to reduce Russian life to “mediocrity, everybody lowered or raised to a dull, middle class, robot class.” The White Russians were too légitimiste, too invested in a feudal and clerical order, to surrender to the lure of fascism, with its romance of war and industry, its pitiless drive to warp “the human psyche to suit the requirements of the machine”; and if they too sought to fall upon socialism with fury, their officer-and-gentlemanly class origins probably inspired a dose of sneering contempt for fascism’s theatrics of mass demagogy. (142)

So the émigrés are left to gnash their teeth miserably and pronounce a pox on both socialism and liberal democracy for their vanished class destiny and the departing glory of the imperial saga. But dreams of empire die hard, and it’s probably no coincidence that an object of great contemporary fascination, “Eurasianism,” makes its first appearance in émigré writings. This fanciful doctrine imagines the Russian ethnos as an amalgam of the empire’s non-Slavic peoples (Finno-Ugric, Iranic, Turco-Mongol), from which it conveniently follows that the anti-colonial critique levied against other European empires breaks down before the “harmonious, symphonic” unity of this baroque-orientalized Russia (137).16 Eurasianism is thus a matter of having one’s cake and eating it too, of taking a principled stand against Russia’s imperialist rivals in a slightly embarrassed awareness that such an ethos, left unmanaged, could turn its points against Russia’s imperial statehood.17 But with this anthropological thesis of the empire as a single socio-cultural entity also came a (properly geopolitical) conviction that Russia’s future lay beyond the stifling confines of a decaying Europe; revived in the works of Soviet ethnographer and champion of steppe cultures Lev Gumilyov (167-70), Eurasianism is thus also a primitivism and an embrace of “indigeneity,” a desire to leave behind the crowded confines of old, enfeebled Europe and seek out new destinies in the east, under a fresh soil and a sharp sun.18

Robinson now leaves behind the miserable squabbles of the exiled Whites, for it will soon be clear that counterrevolution (at least from abroad) has reached its intellectual and historical dead end and that Russian conservatism must play out its fortunes in the inhospitable soil of “really-existing socialism.” Peeling back the Iron Curtain, a chapter on Stalinism affords us Robinson’s insight into a debate of the greatest significance on the Left, namely the notion of Stalinism as a species of conservatism, a “Thermidor” putting paid to the wild revolutionary élan of the Lenin years.19 Realizing the folly of its attacks upon a host of institutions conducive to a stable society, the state ponderously reasserts its traditional prerogatives in law, culture, family, and so forth; relaxes its kulturkampf against the Orthodox church; and with the sponsorship of “socialist realism” (as the correct formal expression of a purportedly classless society), freezes avant-garde experimentation under a glacial neoclassicism in architecture and, in the arts, a sort of Norman Rockwellesque kitsch (eerily reflecting the sickly-sweet domestic glow of Eisenhower America, only without consumer durables!).20 (152-4)

Destalinization then uncorks an underground insurgency against the very modernizing thrust of the Soviet state itself (recall Lenin’s admiration of Taylorist assembly-line efficiency and his incredible remark equating Communism with “electrification!”). Even more striking, especially to those accustomed to viewing the Soviet public sphere as a wasteland of official Party platitudes, is the appearance of a semi-official conservatism premised on the Kremlin being “willing to accept a certain amount of cultural debate” (174). This movement is largely conservationist in nature, concerned to protect Russia’s dwindling natural and cultural heritage from the infuriating neglect or willful destruction of a growth-obsessed bureaucracy: “Sturm und Drang in Siberia’s development is no longer acceptable… Siberia is large, but we cannot allow a single meter of ground to be treated carelessly, and we cannot permit another tree in its forests to be felled without urgent need.” (178-9) By the end of the Soviet experiment, its project for a “New Man” is reeling under the hammer blows of revived traditions tolerated if not cultivated by the central leadership in Moscow, to the point where Brezhnev can complain of “too many damn church bells” chiming on state television!21

But to tear down the Iron Curtain is to unfurl what Harold Innis called the “Gold Curtain” of American cultural norms and exports, and by the 1990s Russian conservatism must perform a dramatic pivot to meet this new threat and grapple with a wholly unforeseen set of problems: this is the moment where the missing piece of our triptych, “Nationality,” returns with a vengeance. What future for a genuinely Russian culture or system of government in a globalized “end of history” where democracy (at least its formal institutions) has undercut the monarchical principle and Orthodoxy has managed, at best, a fitful and uneven resurgence? (There is indeed an intriguing correlation and kinship between the preoccupations and proposals of Russia’s post-Soviet conservatives and much of contemporary Left theory and strategy regarding globalization.)

This is also however a “Time of Troubles” in which the guardians of the state desert their posts, “the best lacking all conviction and the worst full of passionate intensity,” while law and tradition are swept away in a hallucinogenic flood of Western mass media, loans, and blue jeans.22 (182) Into this newly formed public sphere will swarm all manner of ideologues promising to fill the nihilistic void and festering wound opened by the Soviet collapse, and we are not spared some of the darkest expressions of ethnic chauvinism and hoariest tropes of the European (extreme) right — “Judeo-Masonic plots,” and so on. This lot is fairly rude about the supposed moral and cultural decay of the contemporary West, their astounding tirades flush with the embittered exasperation of those who feel they have had to contend with Marxism-Leninism not once, but twice: first as a “home grown” phenomenon, next as a cultural invasion from the West: “America is being turned in front of our eyes into an aggressive LGBT caliphate, in no fundamental way different from the Islamic Caliphate (sic!).”23 (190)

Viewed against this rogue’s gallery of villains, Vladimir Putin shrinks from his familiar contours — KGB spook and shirtless macho posturer, secretly the ‘world’s richest man,’ would-be restorer of either the Soviet Union or Tsarist empire (we can’t seem to decide which), Bond villain-esque corrupter of democracies and puller of strings behind armies of agents, trolls, and dupes — into the more mundane figure of a “national pragmatist,” a fairly apolitical technocrat eternally steering a middle course between competing cliques or factions. What Putin’s much-maligned authoritarianism begins to resemble, finally, is the role of “supreme arbiter” in the tradition of the Tsars (195) but also that of a “great balancer” in Bismarckian or Gaullist fashion, standing above parties and proffering a promise (or as critics would insist, a mirage) of social reconciliation and national unity. What also becomes apparent is that Putin belongs to a relatively modest wing of conservatives who consider the verdict of history upon the planned economy to be damning and final, and Russia’s isolation from Europe synonymous with national decline (207); others in the conservative camp are not nearly so convinced. 

Robinson concludes his useful little book with the warning that, as Russia becomes more democratic, it may yet trend more conservative; he may have added that we have not yet seen anything remotely resembling a ‘Russian Hitler’ in the Kremlin, but push Russia hard enough, and we may get one.


Robinson’s survey is an impressive achievement: he has read widely and presents his synthesis in crisp and lucid prose, refreshingly free from Cold War stereotypes of Russia as inscrutable, Sphinx-like, and Byzantine.24 The critical debates in the imperial court and the press organs of competing political factions are carefully documented, with appropriate references to clashes over policy; still, one hungers for a comparative perspective in which the uniqueness of Russia’s state formation — as a backwards, sprawling, multi-ethnic colossus on the periphery of the advanced core of the capitalist world economy — can spring into focus. Russia’s debts to the intellectual energies of European reaction are acknowledged in passing, but in a text bristling with imagery and concepts canonically associated with the likes of Burke, Taine, Donoso Cortés, or Maurras (for parallels with the latter, see especially the Belle Époque anti-parliamentary critiques, 106-07), the absence of comparative analysis is frustrating — Joseph de Maistre, spiritual father of the French Counter-Enlightenment and counterrevolution (who occupies, in the continental conservative canon, a towering position roughly analogous to that of Burke in the Anglosphere), never appears in the text, despite his 15-year stint as Savoyard ambassador to St. Petersburg!25

Yet here I can’t resist the urge to voice some misgivings, less about Robinson’s work than about that wider genre in which it is inscribed: that thing called a “history of ideas,” which drags in its train a whole set of methods and philosophical baggage. To be blunt about it, I probably belong to a small minority who believe that “ideas have no history,” and consequently that any purely intellectual history is of necessity a failure. By this token, the pseudo-cyclical pattern of Robinson’s periodization — stasis, reform, counter-reform, revolutionary upheaval — doesn’t seem very enlightening to me unless we note that these policy and governance shifts were in some manner reflective of deeper transformations occurring at the level of economic organization. What is generally absent from these pages, then, or at least pushed to the margins, is the “uneven and combined development” of Tsarist Russia itself (“a land of contrasts,” in Economist-ese), its stunted peasants hauling the crudest of hand tools across fields which in a few short years would tremble under the hooves of the Red Cavalry, while in the burgeoning industrial centres of the Donets basin and St. Petersburg, skilled metalworkers or smelters wielded the most advanced machinery, their heads filled with wild ideas about “workers’ councils” ready to assume “dual power” with the established authorities (until Lenin arrived to whisper, “All power to the soviets!”).

This decoupling of intellectual raw materials from the rhythms of economic history is thrown into sharp relief in the Soviet period. Robinson grounds his account of Stalin’s thermidorian conservatism in a makeshift theory of human nature, an anthropological “yearning for stability” (the people “wearying” of revolutionary upheavals, and so forth) — but surely these changes had at least as much to do with the parasitism of the new bureaucratic strata now comfortably installed at the apex of social life, concerned to put their house in order and ensure a smooth running of the machine as they comfortably skimmed the social surplus from worker and peasant alike (this betrayal of the revolution, according to some, reemerging symptomatically in the guise of a permanent-sadistic repression within the Party’s own ranks.26)

Robinson’s notion of conservatism is appropriately ecumenical, embracing a wide variety of ideological and political positions providing these pay lip service to an organicist evolutionary ideology of measured social change (what another tradition has usefully labelled “class compromise”). (9) Thus does he free himself to indulge in the joyous toil of classifying and sorting a vast taxonomy of possible conservative types: Westernizers and Slavophiles, Eurasianists and Great Russian chauvinists, “liberal conservatives” and “conservative liberals,” autocrats and democrats, reformers and traditionalists, imperialists and isolationists, entrepreneurs and communalists. Tremendous analytical ingenuity is expended, and Robinson has every reason to be pleased with the result — but it comes at a cost.

For I’ve long harboured a secret conviction that “organicism” is at once the most central and the least illuminating motif in the conservative canon; or if you prefer, that it joins under its mantle two fundamentally different, even opposite, pursuits. In a first phase, the organic metaphor serves to underscore “an incompatibility between two forms of communality or of social organization, between … the Gemeinschaft on the one hand, the older type of village commune or organic society, and the modern Gesellschaft on the other, that atomized agglomeration of isolated individuals in the modern market system.”27 Crucially, no one needs doctrines for things they live and know by sheer habit, and truly organic communities tend to lack a concept for what is simply the natural, ancestral, unthought order of things. Organicism as an ideology emerges after the Fall, as it were, once organic or illiberal-feudal communities in Europe have borne the full brunt of that anti-clerical and rationalist assault which furnished for the Enlightenment (and an ascendant commercial bourgeoise) “an aggressive conceptual instrument against the older feudal and hierarchical world-view which was based on caste.”28

Later however, when disenchanted modernity has fully drowned the feudal world “in the icy waters of egotistical calculation,” organicism rears its head again to furnish an alibi for policies which may have nothing whatsoever to do with defending such feudal relics as may remain.29 Its proponents are now “situational conservatives” only, seeking to invest the status quo with a mythological armature to blunt reformist impulses from competing status groups.30 These two activities, or two organicisms, strike me as having little enough in common, and subsuming them under the rubric of conservatism would appear to be a category mistake of the kind classically taxed with “idealism.” (This is the sense in which Burke, precisely, was not a tory; it is also the sense in which Khomiakov’s credulous admiration for Britain’s “invented traditions” (“in England they know how to respect the work of time. Today’s invention does not berate what has been created by long centuries” [61]) rings hollow.)31

(To put it slightly differently, what I find lacking in Robinson is that “hermeneutics of suspicion” pioneered by the supremely stigmatized trio who are Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx: that spider-sense which alerts you when an intellectual position (conservative or otherwise) is inauthentic, in bad faith; “a defense of privilege attractively packaged as an appeal to the past.” I have often felt that political historians mistake the representations or rhetorical strategies of conservatism for the latter’s content, slipping carelessly (in Marx’s words) “between the phrases and fantasies” of a political movement and the thing itself, “between their conceptions of themselves and what they really are.”)

For a practical demonstration of how “ideas” morph and mutate according to the dynamics of an economic and social substrate, consider a phenomenon deeply marbled into Russian (and continental European) conservatism, as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Solzhenitsyn’s notorious Two Hundred Years Together (which has yet, as of writing, to find its English translator!) are there to remind us: antisemitism. The Left has bequeathed to us a useful little theory of antisemitism which I can probably accept; namely the “socialism of dunces,” a self-censorship or self-deception which preys upon those who (correctly) perceive and deplore that “war of all against all” which is the competitive market society, but who – for reasons of religious faith, class loyalties, and so forth – reject the socialist diagnosis and its proposed remedies. The pathology of antisemitism, in this view, springs from a mindset which “attains insight into … the crisis of society, but places the ontological responsibility for this on the individual”;32 it is thus, pace Robinson, a warped anti-capitalism, an attempt to ground the ascent of capital (the demon “Mammon,” in the Catholic conservative canon) in the recognizable form of human actors (an anticapitalism grounded in a critique of an objective process of accumulation would have no need of such scapegoats). So, lacking a real (practical) solution to the struggle between capital and labour, the antisemite concocts a fantastical one: defeating the “Jewish plot.” (In the antisemitic imaginary, Jews are, properly speaking, a fetish, summoned to explain social ills whose economic origins are denied.)33

Projecting this reading onto Robinson’s text, antisemitic currents emerge against the deeper rhythms of an economic transformation of which they now function as cyphers or markers. So long as Russia remains relatively untouched by industrial wage relations, its conservatives are free to adopt philosemitic postures and champion Jewish emancipation (90-93).34 Only when the state-led industrialization policy of Tsar Alexander began to bear fruit, dragging explosive class and revolutionary tensions in its train, does official conservatism perform a brutal volte face, maligning Jews for the “growing revolutionary movement” (102) or fearing that redistributed estates “will pass into the hands of … Yids.” (126) As their ideal of industrial prowess without social tension (110) proves unachievable, Russian conservatives are driven to conclude that their civilization knows not one contrary, but two: the West, resplendent in its arrogant material power, is supplemented by the malign figure of “the Jew,” as what was formerly an external threat is interiorized and unleashes a paranoid hunt for agents and conspiracies.35

I linger on this topic not to convert readers to this pet theory, but rather to jolt them into perceiving how curious a procedure it is to write “intellectual histories” in isolation from economic questions: without some meaningful, synthesizing vision embracing the totality of social life, one comes away feeling that philosemitism and antisemitism are merely another pair of optional “beliefs” in that vast buffet menu of intellectual opinions available to the (virtuous or wicked) moral actors who stride pompously on and off the historical stage. In compiling this book Robinson dwelled among the tories of the steppe in spirit and was possibly not totally immune to their spells; but pseudo-concepts like “moral crises” or “wars of ideas,” among other moral explanations for historical change, are one legacy of conservative thought that can probably, as a matter of basic philosophical self-discipline, be put to rest.

  1. George Grant, Technology and Empire, p. 67: “Progressivist historians do not write much about the losers of history, because belief in progress often implies the base assumption that to lose is to have failed to grasp the evolving truth. Nevertheless, the losers existed and they are worth reading now that we see what kind of society the winners have made.”
  2. My hyperbole here is deliberate, yet it acquires a certain plausibility when we recall the “shock therapy” and forced deindustrialization embraced by Russian liberals under Western tutelage in the 90s, precipitating probably the most punishing collapse in living standards ever endured by a peacetime democracy. Anatol Lievan recalls, “Many liberals gave the impression of complete indifference to the resulting immiseration of the Russian population… At a meeting of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington…, former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar boasted to an applauding US audience of how he had destroyed the Russian military industrial complex. The fact that this also destroyed the livelihoods of tens of millions of Russians and Ukrainians was not mentioned. This attitude was fed by contempt on the part of the educated classes of Moscow and St Petersburg for ordinary Russians, who were … treated as an inferior species whose loathsome culture was preventing the liberal elites from taking their rightful place among the ‘civilised’ nations of the west. … I vividly remember one Russian liberal journalist stating his desire to fire machine guns into crowds of elderly Russians who joined Communist demonstrations to protest about the collapse of their pensions. The response of the western journalists present was that this was perhaps a little bit excessive, but to be excused since the basic sentiment was correct.” Anatol Lieven, “How The West Lost,” Prospect Magazine 31 August 2020.
  3. The Western canon offers a suggestive catalogue of pioneering Russians languishing in obscurity after passing their insights and innovations onto more influential and accessible Western disciples and successors. A reliable pattern in Russia’s contributions to the social sciences and humanities is that its efforts, relatively inaccessible outside of specialists in each field, tend fatally to be agglomerated and associated with Western figures more apt to impart them to the wider culture: thus Kondratiev’s economic “long waves” are canonically associated with Schumpeter on the right and Mandel on the left; Roman Jakobson had the misfortune of sharing the ‘structuralist moment’ with the vastly more marketable Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes; and even the unfortunate Georgi Plekhanov, whose notorious ideas on “The Role of the Individual in History” are often attributed to Marx himself (with especial zeal by the latter’s critics), is denied the dignity of confronting his detractors head on!

    For all this, a grudging respect for Russian prowess in the applied sciences and engineering is probably the natural consequence of watching Sputnik buzzing over our befuddled heads, to say nothing of the rout which Western expeditionary armies endure every few years at the hands of peasants armed with Kalashnikovs.
  4. “Take the public-school code of honour, with its ‘team spirit’ and ‘Don’t hit a man when he’s down’, and all the rest of that familiar bunkum. Who has not laughed at it? … But it is a bit different when you meet somebody who laughs at it from the outside; just as we spend our lives in abusing England but grow very angry when we hear a foreigner saying exactly the same things. … It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your own beliefs really are.” George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.
  5. Wyndham Lewis, Enemy Salvoes, p. 81.
  6. This can only be welcome to Westerners whose experience of themselves is often sharply at odds with the actual conduct of their governments abroad, and it bears noting that even the most unsavory characters of the Russian far right lived their lives in paralyzing fear of “the terrible overwhelming pressure of NATO divisions and brigades, aircraft carriers near Sicily, submarines in the Atlantic, nuclear bombers over the Pole…” John B. Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, p. 170.
  7. The Le Chapelier Law (June 1791) proscribed trade unions, mutual aid societies and other “corporate” bodies deemed incompatible with republican citizenship, leaving the labouring poor — after the smashing of the old guild system — entirely at the mercy of capital. Thus the march of progress, “up and up and up and on and on and on!” Michael David Sibalis, “Parisian Labour During the French Revolution,” Historical Papers of the Canadian Historical Association, vol. 21, no. 1 (1986), pp. 20-22.
  8. Rather the way a suburban or sedentary Canadian, who may never have shod snowshoes or portaged a canoe, might brandish stock images of “the Wild” as markers of difference from the American republic.
  9. Whig history is nothing if not a celebration of monarchy’s domestication under the heel of aristocratic or burgher elites, who — no doubt with only the general welfare at heart, and nary a thought for their private interest! — conspired to cut the crown down to size by means of assemblies, charters, and the occasional axe blow to the neck. The opposite process, whereby a crowned centre curbs the power of the great regional magnates or smoothes out the “parcelized sovereignty” of feudalism under a national bureaucracy, can only appear as proto-totalitarian and a perverse inversion of that triumphant march of “liberty” into which England’s regicidal history is canonically rewritten.
  10. In 1324, a French commune ruled by merchants petitioned the crown for its own abolition “in favour of direct royal control, because of fiscal oppression by the mayor and the échevins.” Rodney Hilton, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism, p. 17.
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, p. 282. If a polis must be democratic, Aristotle reasoned, let it be ruled by farmers, for these would be too busy to attend the assembly and be “corrupted!”
  12. In 1906, Prime Minister Stolypin advanced a sweeping reform project whose passage through the Duma was instantly beset by entrenched special interests: “His efforts to reform local administration were stymied by resistance from the nobility; his attempt to introduce universal primary education ran into the objections of the Orthodox Church…; his bill to introduce an insurance scheme for workers was opposed by industrialists…” (121) A decade later, when popular opinion amid the ruin of tsarism shifted decisively to the Bolsheviks, Rabochaya Gazeta (press organ of their Menshevik rivals) regretfully concluded: “For this Bolshevik success, we are indebted to the inadequacy of … democracy, which has not given the masses any concrete results.” Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, p. 93. In a much-cited recent study, Princeton researchers found that “economic elites and … business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 12, no. 3 (2014).
  13.  “A single will” is, after all, just as susceptible to the whispered designs of “evil advisors” as an elected assembly. Every old-fogey monarchist is, I think, bedeviled at night by the sneaking suspicion that a crowned sovereign only displaces this problem, rescaling the sins of representative democracy (the turbulent squabble of pressure groups, special interests, and the like) into the monarch’s court or inner circle. Indeed, the whole thrust of Russian peasant or “popular” monarchism hinges on the explosive idea of an impotent Tsar, one whose affectionate fatherly benevolence is forever deceived and stymied by the palace intrigues of “traitor boyars” (among them some of the protagonists of Robinson’s book!):

    In its simplest and most common expression, popular monarchism took the form of the adage, “The tsar wants it, but the boyars resist.” “It,” of course, was justice, or tax relief, or a redistribution of land — whatever the narod [peasantry or common people] most wanted. … The tsar, in other words, is surrounded by self-seeking bureaucrats … and they conceal the truth from him to prevent their exposure and dismissal. If only the tsar knew what is happening in that courtroom, in my bureau, in our village, then surely … justice would prevail.

    This, the immemorial sigh of the peasant extorted beyond endurance, is the theme of Daniel Fields’ remarkable Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, as daring in its premises as it is scathing in its conclusions: “The most obvious problem of the myth is that the tsar was not the benefactor of the narod… The tsars delivered millions of peasants and their families into serfdom and upheld and enhanced the serfholders’ authority with all the resources of the state. …The tax collector and the recruiting officer came into the village at the tsar’s hehest.” (18). But for a contrasting view of a Tsar “constrained to rule according to custom, tradition, piety, and even law, and enjoying a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects,” see Maureen Perrie, “The Muscovite monarchy in the sixteenth century: ‘national,’ ‘popular’ or ‘democratic’?,” Cahiers du monde russe Vo. 46 No. 1-2 (2005).
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, p. 195.
  15. The House of Orleans, a cadet branch of the Bourbon dynasty, was installed in the July Revolution of 1830 to preside over a parliamentary system backed by big commercial and industrial capital.
  16. Russia’s backwater status and its concomitant envy of, and dependence on, “subject peoples” as a reservoir of professional talent sets the Russian imperial experience apart from even close cousins like the Habsburgs, with key positions in commerce, administration, and learning disproportionately filled by the human capital of conquered peoples (in the Habsburg domains, conversely, “German” was synonymous with “state official”). Nine years after the final partition of Poland-Lithuania, a Polish Catholic, Prince Czartoryski, rose to the rank of Russian foreign minister: this is rather as if a Berber Muslim had been elevated to the French cabinet shortly after the conquest of Algiers! Boris Mironov notes that Mulsim Tatars likewise “formed part of the political and intellectual elite of the Russian empire,” citing scores of Tatar patronyms among the imperial ruling class. Boris Morinov, “Response to Willard Sunderland’s ‘Empire in Boris Mironov’s Sotsial’naia istoriia Rossii,’” Slavic Review Vol. 60, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001),  p. 582. (Mironov has elsewhere argued that, in an inversion of the usual settler-indigenous dynamic, ethnic Russians generally under the empire enjoyed (if that is the word) a lower standard of living than other nationalities.) In the days of the Soviet “informal empire,” Moscow practiced a virtual reverse of the usual imperial dynamic, importing high-value added finished goods from its Czechoslovak or German “periphery” while exporting oil, wheat, iron ore, and other raw materials from the metropole!
  17. It should be noted that an inverted Cold Warrior Eurasianism, condescending where the original was celebratory, enjoys wide currency today among Russophobic liberal historians, who have, for example, speculated on the “Mongol” origins of the Muscovite bureaucracy to explain Russia’s slide into “oriental despotism.” In other words, Eurasianism (or something approximating its basic premises) is a perfectly respectable paradigm when used in Western academia to disparage Russia; only when Russian voices reappropriate this age-old prejudice (“Grattez le Russe, et vous trouverez le tartare”), inverting its subtly racist thrust and lending it a celebratory valence as a vector of national pride and cultural distinctiveness, must it be denounced as an outlandish and fringe theory, the domain of oddballs, cranks and extremists (an alarmism which, it is true, the colourful and eccentric output of Aleksandr Dugin has done much to excite).
  18. Is there a thinker out there bold enough to proclaim that the Byronic Napoleon of the Egyptian campaign, with his fevered dreams of an Ottoman or even Mughal throne (to be won in alliance with Tsar Paul!), was the first Euranianist? “Europe is a molehill. There have never been great Empires except in the East.” There is scarcely space here to lament the passing of yet a third flavour of what I’ll provocatively label Eurasianism, which is to say the old Gaullist dream of a Europe united “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” and serving as a necessary counterweight to the Atlantic world.
  19. On a darker note, the Stalinist consolidation of power spelled the end of Lenin’s generous nationalities policy (Korenizatsiya) and the rehabilitation of what Soviet authorities had previously denounced as “Great Russian chauvinism,” with devastating consequences for Ukrainians, Tatars, and other minorities.
  20. Small wonder that the spectre of “convergence” – the sneaking suspicion that the great ‘technostructures’ of postwar industrial capitalism, breeding a new species of ‘organization man,’ would one day subject the Free World to the same “administered society” as the unfree East (a conviction already present in Heidegger, and echoed in James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution) – was a burning preoccupation among Western conservatives of the immediate postwar, before the pressures of Cold War patriotism forced them to abandon such reckless theorizing!
  21. Ariel Cohen, Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis, p. 104. Brezhnev’s death reversed this trend briefly, with Pravda resuming its familiar refrain against “Russian chauvinism,” but by the mid-80s, village prose writers, nationalists and even monarchists could claim the most prestigious state awards, the traditionalist essayist Vladimir Soloukhin receiving the Order of the Red Banner of Labour!
  22. Visiting French economist Jacques Sapir observed how the “outrageously individualist” discourse of the ascendant liberals in the 90s “demoralised” Russian society, sapping whatever vestiges of public-service ethos and technocratic rigour still persisted in the late Soviet bureaucracy, “Western values” installing a grim Darwinian Zeitgeist in which “concern for one’s dignity, let alone that of others, condemned one to the ranks of the ‘losers’.” To Russia’s youth, crime and prostitution were deemed perfectly acceptable means of securing a living amid this collective shipwreck; the beauty of Russian women opened the added escape valve of emigration as “mail-order brides,” probably the most profound humiliation ever suffered by a people unconquered in war. Jacques Sapir, Le chaos russe : désordres économiques, conflits politiques, décomposition militaire (1996), pp. 484-5.
  23. I consider the labelling of the current hegemonic Left ideology — neo-puritanical militancy around questions of identity — as “postmodern Marxism” (by the likes of Jordan Peterson) to be a misnomer and analytical muddle, this new ideology having very little to do with what used to be called “scientific socialism.” But the equation of the two on the contemporary Right is now an established fact and must be contended with as such.
  24. It is no coincidence here that the foundational Ur-text of Anglo-American geopolitical hostility to Russia, H. J. Mackinder’s “The Geographical Pivot of History,” occasioned the following remark by Mackinder’s close collaborator, Conservative MP Leo Amery: “I would criticize one thing Mr. Mackinder said when he described Russia as the heir of Greece. It was not the heir of Hellenic Greece, but of Byzantium, and Byzantium was the heir of the old oriental monarchies with the Greek language and a tinge of Roman civilization thrown over it.” H. J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 23 No. 4 (April 1904). In the British imperialist imaginary, the sole and worthy heir of classical Greece — in all its Appolonian-august dignity — was, of course, Britain herself.
  25. Konstantin Leontiev’s ode to Difference or Particularity against the universalizing thrust of abstract equivalence — “the Turks’ [conservatism] is Turkish, the Englishman’s is English, and the Russian’s is Russian” (6) — irresistibly recalls De Maistre’s remarkable rebuke of universal ‘Man’: “Il n’y a point d’homme dans le monde. J’ai vu dans ma vie des Français, des Italiens, des Russes; je sais même, grâce à Montesquieu, qu’on peut être Persan; mais quant à l’homme je déclare ne l’avoir rencontré de ma vie; s’il existe c’est bien à mon insu.” Joseph de Maistre, Considérations sur la France (1797), p. 142.
  26. Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 211: “incessant purges were necessary not only to erase the traces of the [Stalinist] regime’s own origins, but also as a kind of “return of the repressed,” a reminder of the radical negativity at the heart of the regime. The Stalinist purges of high Party echelons relied on this fundamental betrayal: the accused were effectively guilty insofar as they, as the members of the new nomenklatura, betrayed the Revolution. The Stalinist terror is thus not simply the betrayal of the Revolution, i.e. the attempt to erase the traces of the authentic revolutionary past; it rather bears witness to a kind of “imp of perversity” which compels the post-revolutionary new order to (re)inscribe its betrayal of the Revolution within itself, … in the guise of arbitrary arrests and killings which threatened all members of the nomenklatura … (As is well known, Stalin wisely recruited into the NKVD people of lower social origins who were thus able to act out their hatred of the nomenklatura by arresting and torturing high apparatchiks.) … [P]urges are the very form in which the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime.”
  27. Fredric Jameson, “Demystifying Literary History,” New Literary History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1974), p. 607.
  28. Fredric Jameson, “Ideology, Narrative Analysis, and Popular Culture,” Theory and Society, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1977), p. 556.
  29. “Liberal conservative” Boris Chicherin, a right-Hegelian whose political philosophy bears some likeness to the French ultraroyalist Charles Maurras, is able, apparently without misgivings, to weaponize the organic principle as an argument for depriving Russia’s peasantry — the organic community par excellence — of political rights: “It would be hard to find someone less capable of democratic government than the Russian peasant.” (90)
  30. These remarks should not be taken as signs of a garden-variety “progressive” ideology – the belief that a “status quo” is necessarily wicked, and reforms necessarily desirable: the latter often reflect only the narrow interests of an upstart or arriviste group, basely parading their private interest as the general interest.
  31. C. B. Macpherson, Burke: the latter “had no romantic yearning for a bygone feudal order and no respect for such remnants of it as survived.”
  32. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 148. This new intellectual antisemitism must on no account be conflated with the older clerical antisemitism of the peasant village. Ideological antisemitism is, as Adorno never tired of explaining, the scar and symptom of that Great Transformation to which I’ve alluded above (commonly known by the euphemism, “modernization”), which generates an envious and hostile fixation on a Jew whose paradoxical twin status as archaic survival of the pre-modern (sacred scrolls, blood kinship) and successful practitioner of the liberal professions makes him a double target for class and ethnic ressentiment. The priest’s Judeophobia led to pogroms (deplorable enough), but the intellectual’s antisemitism contained a germ of the Holocaust: age-old Christian Judeophobia is thus “to the Nazi murderers what knives are to the atom bomb.” Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, p. 90.

    Often attributed to Marx or Engels and popularized by August Bebel, the leader of German social democracy (whose bas-relief portrait adorned the offices of the Yiddish Forward! in Manhattan!), the aphorism “socialism of dunces” appears to have its origin in the journalism of Austrian left-liberal Ferdinand Kronawetter. It is significant here that the vanishingly rare antisemitic motifs in Marx date to his embryonic period as a Fuerbachian humanist, long before the development of “historical materialism” as a methodology and “scientific socialism” as a political programme. See his notorious “On the Jewish Question.” (1844)
  33. In Arno Mayer’s words, “the Jew had become a convenient surrogate for the bourgeois” among those reactionary elites who imagined themselves the patrician enemies of (philistine, hypocritical, cosmopolitan…) bourgeois values, but who shied away from attacking the bourgeois socio-economic structure: antisemitism allowed for anti-capitalist posturing without anti-capitalist consequences. Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, p. 291. (It is no coincidence here that a perverted “golden age” of antisemitic literature coincides with the passage from entrepreneurial to monopoly capitalism: a real conspiracy — that of the ‘trusts’ to squeeze out small family firms, manipulate prices, “de-skill” traditional craftsmanship — begetting a fictitious one. This period can be usefully bookended by Drumont’s La France juive (1886) and the Foundations (1899) and Protocols (1903).)

    This essentially apologetic function of antisemitism is starkly rendered in its most barbaric and virulent form, Nazism, whose extreme right-wing and anti-Communist mission, oddly coupled with demagogic appeals to the working class, would ordinarily generate extreme cognitive dissonance: Nazi ideology papered over these cracks by fetishistically splitting capitalism in two: between a (noble, forthright, productive, industrious) “Germanic” incarnation and its (parasitical, rapacious, speculative, corrupting) “Jewish” mirror opposite (sometimes abstracted as the difference between industrial and financial capital — as if these were not mutually engendering phases of a single process of accumulation!). The socially destructive nature of capitalism was thus, conveniently for Nazism’s major industrial financiers, expelled from consciousness and paranoically reconstituted as an alien and malign human figure, whose extirpation could then proceed in a savage and inhuman parody of the class struggle.
  34. It is probably fortunate that Russia’s imperial elite, worlds removed culturally and physically from the toiling Slavic peasantry (62), was in no position to tax Jews with “alienness”: the Slavophile Aksakov remarks, “[educated] society speaks French; the people Russian. Society wears German clothes; the people, Russian… Society is temporary; the people, eternal.” (66)
  35. This logic is mirrored in the Whites’ conception of the October Revolution, in which it cannot be allowed that the Bolsheviks (for all their ruthless tactical cunning) were borne to the pinnacle of state power on a wave of genuine social grievance: we are instead led into a dark world of plots and conspiracies in which the role of the German Secret Services is paranoically inflated; Lenin appears as Deceiver and demagogue, the snake in the garden seducing credulous masses with castles in the sky; while a “spiritual crisis” is conjured to explain the masses’ desertion of the monarchy (134). (Needless to dwell on how such motifs achieved their unholy synthesis in the fascist trope of a “Judeo-Bolshevik plot,” and with what consequences.) Contrary to this Cold War mythology, “which saw Lenin essentially as an organizer of coups, the only real asset he and the Bolsheviks had was the ability to recognize what the masses wanted… When, for instance, he recognized that, contrary to the socialist programme, the peasants wanted a division of the land into family farms, he did not hesitate for a moment to commit the Bolsheviks to this.” Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, p. 61.