Walicki's Slavophile Conservative Utopia

‘In some sense all these dreamers seeking the past – to whom I belonged for the three days I spent walking Lvov’s streets and parks – are the ideal conservatives, they replicate perfectly conservatives’ impotence. They search for something that doesn’t exist, something that may never have existed, […]. They seek better, more beautiful times, and even if some obliging shaman agreed to resurrect what they desire for five minutes, that is, life before the disaster, the crowds, the clouds, the window displays, the shrubs before the disaster, they would still cry out in dismay, “Oh no, that’s not it, it was far more marvellous before!”’ 

-Adam Zagajewski, ‘Should We Visit Sacred Places?’

Writing of ‘the anti-capitalist character’ of the Slavophiles’ worldview in his magisterial account The Slavophile Controversy (1975), the great Polish intellectual historian Andrzej Walicki observed that ‘it is precisely this utopian Weltanschauung which is the most original aspect of Slavophilism and ensures it a place in the history of ideas’.[i] As a ‘strongly utopian variety of conservatism’, the classical Slavophilism of the 1840s represented ‘not so much an ideological defence of an existing tradition, as a utopian attempt to rehabilitate and revive a lost tradition’. Even in the more realist Russian social climate of the 1850s, Walicki notes, ‘the more consistent Slavophile “romantics”’ such as Ivan Kireevskii (1806-56) still ‘clung to their uncompromising utopianism’: Kireevskii ‘never gave up his utopian belief that a return to lost traditions was a prerequisite of progress’. Walicki classifies Kireevskii in terms of his ‘conservative and Orthodox Christian romanticism’.[ii]

When summarizing the Slavophiles’ view of the Russian people’s historical mission, Walicki identified ‘certain universal ideals’ which usefully describe the utopian ideals of the Slavophile thinkers: ‘for the Slavophiles this mission had been the defence of the principles of “true Christianity”, social integrity, and spiritual wholeness’.[iii] In so far as these utopian ideals reflect what Lesley Chamberlain has called Russian philosophy’s ‘desperate need for a principle or set of beliefs to hold the country together as one coherent community or society’, they show the Slavophile mission to be entirely representative of Russia’s philosophical mission as summarized by Chamberlain. ‘From the first Schellingians to the last Communists, philosophy in Russia during its long tradition 1815-1991 aimed at integration.’[iv] Walicki’s account enables us to see how the Slavophiles were distinguished by the accent their conservative utopian thinking lays on spiritual integration. He underlines their concern with ‘the “wholeness” (tsel’nost’) of spirit’. ‘Their return to the past – to Orthodoxy and old communal traditions – was part of their nostalgia for the “wholeness” (tsel’nost’) of spirit, lost as a result of Europeanization.’[v]

As Walicki writes, Kireevskii theorized that ‘types of social integration and types of personal integration (or disintegration) are strictly interdependent’. Personal division or spiritual fragmentation was ‘one aspect of the dualism pervading all spheres of life in Europe which was introduced into Russia with the Petrine reforms’. This dualism in turn stretches back to ‘the dichotomy between Christian and rationalist principles inherited from classical Roman civilization’.[vi] Walicki emphasizes that, for Kireevskii, it was not ‘Europe and Russia’ that were seen as ‘irreconcilable opposites’, but instead ‘rationalism and pure Christianity’. ‘What he was primarily interested in was something affecting the internal development of both Russia and Europe – namely the contrast between a Christian society and a society based on rationalism.’[vii] In the remainder of this piece I want to continue to explore how Slavophile ideals of spiritual integration emerged out of this antinomy.     

Walicki found that ‘it is clear that the most widely applicable negative frame of reference for Slavophile doctrine was “rationalism”’. He went on to define the Slavophiles’ conception of rationalism in terms of ‘the rationalist interpretation of the personality and of inter-personal relations, which in the nineteenth century was associated primarily with the capitalist rationalization of production processes’. He explains that, having made its first Russian appearance in the work of Vladimir Odoevskii, ‘the characteristic conservative-romantic attack on capitalism and its corollary, the romantic critique of rationalism’, was ‘taken up and developed’ by the Slavophiles. Kireevskii’s philosophical criticism of rationalism derived from what Walicki calls the ‘German romanticists’; for example, Kireevskii’s assertion that ‘a bare logical concept cannot grasp reality as such’ repeated Schelling’s arguments (Kireevskii had attended Schelling’s lectures in Munich in 1830). In Kireevskii’s article ‘On the Necessity and Possibility of New Principles in Philosophy’, as Walicki notes, German philosophy ‘taken in conjunction with’ Schelling’s philosophy of revelation is seen as the basis of an independent Russian philosophy. Yet the Slavophiles also understood the creation of a philosophy based on the principles of faith to involve an initial ‘critical transcending of German philosophy by depriving it of its dangerous cutting-edge – rationalism’.[viii]

Kireevskii’s critique of rationalism had an undeniable social dimension, attacking social disintegration: Walicki observes that the critique ‘was directed not only at bourgeois rationalism – the rationalism of the calculating merchant and manufacturer – but also at the bureaucratic rationalism of absolute monarchy’. The way in which ‘rationally conceived social bonds […] intensify social atomization’, reflects how ‘the autocratic rule of reason intensifies the disintegration of the psyche’. Yet despite the social dimension of Kireevskii’s critique of rationalism, it seems fair to say that the critique primarily aims towards the ideal of personal or spiritual integration. As Walicki points out, the Slavophiles, after all, ‘were willing to grant the value of Hegelian reason, but only as an element subordinate to “integral wholeness”’. That is, for the Slavophiles it was more important to strive for tsel’nost’ than to attack the merchant’s reason. Kireevskii theorized, Walicki writes, that Hegelian reason went against ‘“Orthodox thinking”’ ‘only in so far as it sets itself up as the highest cognitive faculty’.[ix] As Walicki summarized ‘New Principles in Philosophy’:

‘The ideal personality portrayed in the essay is an integral structure with a vital core and “inner focus” that serves to harmonize the separate psychic powers and safeguards the inner unity and “wholeness” (tselostnost’, tsel’nost’) of the spirit. As natural reason is only one of these psychic powers, man can only preserve his inner wholeness by subordinating reason to his “total” psyche.’[x]

Walicki adopts the term ‘integralism’, so as to distinguish reason from the ‘whole’ personality defined as ‘a total spiritual structure embracing reason but as a non-autonomous and entirely submissive faculty’. Recalling the influence on Kireevskii of German romantic philosophy, Walicki points to Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophy of Life (1828) as ‘an excellent and typical example of the anti-rationalistic “integralism” of the conservative romantics’. For Schlegel in that work, philosophy’s main task was to liberate the soul from the ‘autocratic rule of reason’ and reconstruct man’s ‘primary unity’ with the help of religious faith. Likewise for the Slavophiles, inner ‘wholeness’ was (in Walicki’s words) ‘a quality which depends on faith and is threatened by autonomy’.[xi] In Kireevskii’s words, the essence of faith was the attempt ‘to concentrate the separate psychic powers into one single power’. Interestingly, however, Kireevskii also saw faith as contingent on ‘inner wholeness’, maintaining that it ‘embraces man’s whole personality and manifests itself only when inner wholeness has been attained and then in proportion to the degree of this wholeness’.[xii]

For Kireevskii the inner wholeness of spiritual people was also, as Walicki puts it, ‘a function of the organic ties binding them to the community; […] their exceptionally strong faith springs from their exceptionally close fusion with the Church as a social organism’. The Slavophiles were ‘more consistent in their criticism of rationalism than like-minded philosophers in Germany’, precisely because theirs (unlike the aristocratic thought of Odoevskii or Pëtr Chaadaev) was a ‘social philosophy, […] which claimed to have found in Orthodoxy and the communal traditions of the Russian people the values irrevocably lost in Europe’. The Slavophiles argued that faith stems from collective religiosity, or from what Walicki calls ‘a life guided by tradition and participation in a supra-individual community’.[xiii]

Just as the later conservative romantic Konstantin Leont’ev understood the twinning of the maintenance of an unfree society with the existence of personal freedom, Kireevskii noted repeatedly (when treating the histories of ancient Rome and Western Europe) that individual freedom and state despotism are not mutually exclusive. Walicki observes that, for Kireevskii, ‘notions of individual liberty were only an apparent contradiction of the principle of external authority’, because for him both were rooted in ‘the individual’s separation from the collective consciousness, in the licence granted to him to make an arbitrary interpretation of revealed truths living on in the collective consciousness of the people’.[xiv] The conservative romantics’ preoccupation with this ‘apparent contradiction’ seems important, because it reflects what Chamberlain called ‘Russian philosophy’s chief problem: how to reconcile individuality with selflessness’.[xv] Kireevskii seems to be hinting that the conundrum, or the seeming lack of reconciliation, can become resolved through a return to participation in a communal spiritual life – as if by replacing attention to selflessness qua submission to the authority of a repressive state, with attention to selflessness qua submission to the spiritual truths of collective religiosity.    


[i] Adam Zagajewski, A Defense of Ardor, trans. by Clare Cavanagh (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005; first publ. 2004), p. 172; The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought, trans. by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 237.
[ii] Walicki, pp. 454, 460, 279.
[iii] Walicki, p. 504.
[iv] Lesley Chamberlain, Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (New York: Rookery Press, 2007; first publ. [London(?)]: [n. pub.], 2004), pp. 165, 166.
[v] Walicki, p. 355.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Walicki, p. 168.
[viii] Walicki, pp. 223, 72, 161, 334-35.
[ix] Walicki, pp. 148, 151, 326.
[x] Walicki, p. 150.
[xi] Walicki, pp. 152, 154, 155 (quoting Schlegel), 307.
[xii] Kireevskii quoted from Walicki, pp. 151-52, 151.
[xiii] Walicki, pp. 157, 307, 157-58, 317.
[xiv] Walicki, pp. 173, 139.
[xv] Chamberlain, p. 57.


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