Thursday, 12 June 2014

Russian Collectivism, Western Individualism

Immanuel Kant, who was a very wise man, once wrote that “it is manifestly absurd to expect to be enlightened by reason, yet to prescribe to it beforehand to which side [of a debate] it shall incline.” This provincialism of thought, decried by Kant, is intrinsic to man, and the prerequisite to the rectification of this primordial flaw, which has been haunting man ever since he came crawling out of the slime, is to become aware of it.

All too often we hear that the West is individualistic, whereas the East is collectivistic. The reductio ad absurdum of this apparent truism is that in the East the collective is everything, whereas the individual is nothing. Nations and societies at which this accusation is hurled are typically the Eastern opponents of Western hegemony. Thus Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, an American expert on Russia, makes the following observation with respect to the Russian society:

"Any Westerner who has visited Russia for an appreciable length of time knows how it feels to be treated as a ‘zero’ by the collective. Consider, for example, the abuse accorded to individuals in the crowds. On a bus, in a train, or in a crowded subway, one has to expect a certain amount of pushing, elbowing, even punching from others as they struggle to get wherever they are going. The remarkable thing from a Western viewpoint, is that no one seems to mind." (Cf. The Slave Soul of Russia, p. 205. New York, 1995)

This grotesque feat of cultural learning, by means of which mundane occurrences are seen as being symptomatic of the Russian character as such, allows of further application, provided we be willing to play Mr Rancour-Laferriere’s ludicrous game: those of us who have travelled by bus or subway in the major cities of Europe such as Vienna and Frankfurt am Main during the rush hours know very well that the travel experience of a European is quite similar to that of a Russian in St Petersburg or Moscow. We can put up with the antics of an insolent passenger or we can reciprocate his crudeness; civilised men exercise restraint.

Let us, admittedly for purely satirical purposes, dwell a little further on Mr Rancour-Laferriere’s argument, so as to lay bare its absurdity. The fact that there is pushing and shoving going on in Russia would surely indicate that the Russians’ sense of individualism is so strong that it willingly tramples underfoot any considerations for the collective. Could it therefore be that Mr Rancour-Laferriere, in adopting a collectivistic viewpoint, is merely betraying that he himself hails from a society in which the indivual is reduced to nullity?

"Such a recourse to tu quoque is not strictly necessary, and by being candid about the actual state of affairs, we could readily concede that Russian history contains some truly horrific examples of violations of the dignity of man. Perhaps the most revolting incident involved Turgenev’s grandmother who smothered a serf boy to death with her bare hands and proceeded from this act of murder to matters befitting a lady of the gentry with a staggering nonchalance.

But how were things in the West? We know that Tocqueville, often considered a champion of the Western notions of liberty, viewed instances of British repression in the colonies as necessary measures, considering that the colonial subjects were no better than wild animals. We also know that Locke, another alleged champion of Western liberty, recommended a heavyhanded treatment of the Irish, because the Papists were unworthy of having toleration extended to them. We shall now consider how well the vile theorisation of these Western paragons of liberty conformed with praxis in the Western society, and the America contemporaneous with Turgenev serves as a fitting case in point:

"Announcements of the lynchings [of Negroes] were made in the local newspapers […]. So as to enable kids to witness the lynchings, they were allowed to take a day off from school. The spectacle could involve castration, flaying, bonfire, hanging, or shooting. Souvenirs from the event included fingers, toes, teeth, even the reproductive organ of the victim as well as postcards.” (Cf. Freiheit als Privileg by Domenico Losurdo, p. 431. Cologne: 2011)

This juxtaposition of the crimes of East and West is ultimately a futile undertaking, because it provides us with no viable clues as to their relative inclination towards individualism and collectivism. What is important to keep in mind is that individualism and collectivism are no more than ideal types or abstractions. But even if view them as no more than abstractions, we cannot rule out the possibility of their socio-political ramifications. Furthermore, we must endeavour to uncover the contradictions inherent to a political idea. By contradiction we do not mean the violation of the rules of formal logic; no, what is of far greater interest is the obliqueness intrinsic to a philosophical idea and its being transposed to the social realm. Kant, as we have seen, was deeply conscious of man’s propensity to committing such an error, whereas Marx discovered that the deliberate propagation of this error was the order of the day. More than this, the aforementioned obliqueness was deemed to be in the very nature of things by the purveyors of this error, and as we all well know: there is nothing man can do to alter the laws of nature.

So as to dispel the charges of an unnecessarily abstract mode of exposition, it would serve our purposes well to offer a concrete example of the foregoing, and we shall let John Locke speak on behalf of liberalism:

Reading the epistemological works of Locke always brings a smile to one’s face: his common sense philosophy is all too English. At times Locke is so pedantic, even though he has nothing profound to say, that the aforementioned amusement quickly turns into indignation, and one can only sympathise with Nietzsche, according to whom Englishmen were unfit for philosophical thinking. It is only in Locke’s works of political philosophy that we begin to discern an intriguing piece of perversity: Locke’s advocacy of the case for liberty has no bearing on the question of the dignity of man; something else is at stake, and nowhere else does this become more apparent than in Locke’s treatment of the question of property in conjunction with considerations of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to do away with the life of a human being:

"[T]he preservation of the army […] requires an absolute obedience to the command of every superior officer, and it is justly death to disobey or dispute the most dangerous or unreasonable of them; but yet we see, that neither the sergeant, that could command a soldier to march up to the mouth of a cannon, or stand in a breach, where he is almost sure to perish, can command that soldier to give him one penny of his money; nor the general, that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or for not obeying the most desperate orders, can yet, with all his absolute power of life and death, dispose of one farthing of that soldier’s estate, or seize one jot of his goods; whom he yet can command any thing, and hang for the least disobedience." (Cf. Two Treatises of Government, II, § 39. New York: 1953)

It is possible that a self-congratulatory Western reader may discern in these words a noble confirmation of the high esteem in which private property is held in his part of the world, but it is also a possible that a reader with a penchant for social satire could see in these words the mutterings of a miserly English Puritan all too concerned about being deprived of the money in his wallet. However we may decide on this matter, there is one conclusion that, according to Domenico Losurdo, inevitably forces itself upon us: that Locke views the "absolute inviolability of private property [as] more inviolable than life itself."

But there is another tradition represented by the Chinese, the Russians, and last but not least: the Germans. The Russian Staatstheorie, being an amalgamation of ancient Eurasian customs and German political philosophy, is at odds with its Western counterpart: in Russia, life is deemed to be more valuable than property. In order to understand this Staatstheorie, we need to reflect on the words of Hegel: in his lectures on religion, Hegel points out that love is essentially the act of making an exception for a human being, and to universalise this love would entail that it would be deprived of its fervour. Assuredly, there are saints who are said to have loved the whole world in a passionate manner, but it would be foolish to expect the average man to be capable of such heroic display of charity. Furthermore, it only makes sense to conceive of love in the negative: to love or not to love is a choice that each and every one of us has. Such a conception of charity in the negative is at the heart of Western liberal tradition: to help or not to help the poor is a choice that I have. And if I do help them, I also have the privilege of moral satisfaction. Hegel wishes to deprive you of your choice as well as your moral satisfaction. You shall be forced to love your fellow man, and once such a duty has been enjoined upon you, we are no longer dealing with love but with justice.

Russia cannot afford the luxury of the ‘love’ of the Western liberal. It is owing to liberal policies that most of Eastern Russia lies in ruins today. As the Russian thinker Alexander Zinoviev pointed out, given the harsh climate, life in many parts of Russia is twenty times more expensive than in the West, and government subsidies are absolutely essential to the maintenance of the Russian civilisation in Siberia. The long term aim is a self-sustainable Russian civilisation in the East, but the channeling of government subsidies to the East is a necessary precondition to the attainment of such an objective. These government policies may appear wasteful to the liberal, but they shall prove worthwhile in the long run.

The Russian commitment to collectivism is in the best interest of the individual; and this renders the Western dichotomy of individualism and collectivism wholly meaningless. A significant contribution to the collective is demanded of the Russian by the state, and the man who refuses to abide by this principle of justice shall have his property taken away from him. This was the fate of Alexander Solzhenytsin. "Let the whole world perish, so long as I may keep my fief." These words could well have been carved on this Russian gentleman’s grave. He had his property expropriated by the state, and he would never forgive the Soviet authorities for divesting him of his aristocratic privileges. He fled to the West, wrote fictional accounts of how terrible life was in the Soviet Union, and his imaginary ramblings are today part and parcel of the canon of Western Sovietology. To Solzhenytsin, property was more valuable than the reputation of his Motherland, and as in the case of Locke, it was more valuable than life of his fellow man. This is liberal pathology at work; any remnants of this Western disease, this morality of animals, must be uprooted from the Russian soil and cast into the furnace.