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Chapter 6 considers the work of two positivist liberals, Pavel Miliukov and Maksim Kovalevskii, with particular reference to the constituent liberal idea of progress. The chapter argues that the idea of progress played a seminal role in their understanding of the significance of liberalism for Russia, and that this is the source of both important strengths and deep tensions within their careers as liberal politicians. More specifically, the chapter analyses to what extent their political activities and writings relied on a deterministic view of history, and how they sought to reconcile their positivist beliefs with the claims of flesh-and-blood individuals. While these men deserve a place in Russia’s liberal pantheon, the elements of their thought that support a teleological view of history as progressing upwards towards a perfect society sit in tension with non-dogmatic, pluralistic forms of liberalism.
This book is a comparative intellectual history of liberalism, a crucially important topic at all times but perhaps especially now when liberal values and institutions are in retreat in countries where they once seemed relatively secure, and when prospects for liberal development in countries such as Russia and China seem as remote as ever. The idea of liberalism as a persistent compromise between sometimes competing claims provides a useful interpretative paradigm for understanding the experience of Russian liberalism, the variety of strands within it, and its relation to similar movements in other countries. This study draws on the insights of contemporary research in liberal theory concerning multiple conceptions of liberal freedom to assess the degree to which Russian liberals engaged with the tensions between potentially conflicting values, and the extent to which they tried consciously to resolve them. The thinkers examined in most detail here illustrate both the complex nature of striking a balance between clashing values, as well as the inherent validity of the attempt to compromise between, for example, positive and negative liberty. I argue that such an approach highlights both a persistently liberal preoccupation with value conflicts in late imperial Russia, while simultaneously uncovering traces of the illiberal belief that a specific set of liberties is universally legitimate.
Chapter 1 deals with those pre-twentieth-century Russian thinkers who developed their views of personhood and of freedom in dialogue with Western philosophy, and articulated the broad framework for later liberalisms. With the exception of Boris Chicherin, the men discussed in this chapter did not self-identify readily as liberals, but their engagement with both the value of negative freedom enshrined in law, and the idea of a social, ethical project, provided a powerful legacy on which their successors drew. While the possibilities for political participation increased towards the end of the century, the engagement with liberalism during this period was largely an intellectual endeavour.
Chapter 3 presents a contextual analysis of how intellectuals engaged ever more intensely with liberal notions of a constitution, democracy, and a free press (among others), and witnessed the effects of their (flawed) implementation first-hand in the years around 1905. The chapter recasts the party politics and discussions of the period to show how Russia’s most prominent liberals systematically engaged with liberal ideas and practices of Western origin as they constantly redefined their attitudes to the important issues of the time – agrarian reform, civil liberties, political terror, and democratization – as new problems and obstacles arose. It argues that there was no easy solution that was both morally viable and tactically expedient to the Russian liberal dilemma. Primary sources demonstrate both the range of liberal views represented within the Kadet Party, and how moral, political, and legal questions concerning the defence of individual dignity during revolution were not easily resolved, particularly since they were posed during times of social confusion and political upheaval. The chapter attempts to show that Russian thinkers modified their views of liberal ideas such as freedom and progress in the light of circumstances which were changing all the time.
Chapter 5 discusses the work of two important neo-idealist theorists, Pavel Novgorodtsev and Bogdan Kistiakovskii, who stand out for their concern with the ongoing tensions within liberal history and theory, and their desire to place the experiences of Russia’s liberal movement in a broader historical context. In the aftermath of 1905, Novgorodtsev wrote two book-length studies explicitly concerned with the history of liberalism, while a number of Kistiakovskii’s long articles, including ‘In Defense of Law’ (1909), demonstrate the fluidity of the concept of liberalism. In the period under consideration, these thinkers, who had been intimately involved in elaborating a legal philosophy applicable to Russia, now distanced themselves from an optimistic theory of historical change, in favour of a much more nuanced view. Their respective intellectual trajectories demonstrate the value of their attempt to learn from Western liberal history, while simultaneously illustrating some of the difficulties they had in using its lessons for Russia.
Chapter 4 examines the unravelling of Russian liberalism in the years from 1909 to 1917, and explores how and why other ideational currents (for example, religious mysticism) surpassed liberalism in the popular imagination. This chapter considers the reasons for the decline and transformation of Russian liberalisms in the years between 1909 and the First World War, and links them with certain insurmountable contradictions within liberal theory itself. If prior to 1905 a significant portion of Russia’s educated classes was able to put aside some of their most profound intellectual differences because of their shared belief that freedom and self-realization could be achieved following the removal of the autocratic state, diverging views of the significance and ramifications of the revolution now fed more clearly into conflicting political commitments. During this period Russian liberalism seems to lose even the limited degree of cohesion and focus it had displayed earlier.
By focusing on the Russian aspect, this study adds an important and neglected element to the intellectual history of liberalism. It does so at a time when transnational conversation about liberalism and its philosophy is important in areas beyond academia, and can be expected to become even more so in the near future. On the one hand, we are increasingly aware of the fragility of liberal-democratic practices and institutions (both in countries with long-standing liberal traditions and those without), and, on the other, liberalism has consolidated its status as the ‘least bad’ political ideology. The Russian part of this history, in the decades leading up to the October Revolution, offers fascinating insights into liberalism’s internal contradictions.
Chapter 2 discusses the ways in which liberal ideas of Western origin shaped Russian political theory during the period roughly between 1895 and 1903. The pan-European reassessment of many fundamental positivist assumptions after about 1890 inspired the Russian Silver Age, and occasioned a debate between liberally inclined thinkers about the proper philosophical assumptions on which to base their views of selfhood, freedom, and history. Neo-idealist liberalism thus developed as part of the search for new forms of understanding to accompany the social and cultural transformations that Russia was undergoing. The chapter argues that both positivism and neo-idealism contained the philosophical resources to support a moderate, pluralist view of human values, but not all of their variants were liberal.
Liberalism is a critically important topic in the contemporary world as liberal values and institutions are in retreat in countries where they seemed relatively secure. Lucidly written and accessible, this book offers an important yet neglected Russian aspect to the history of political liberalism. Vanessa Rampton examines Russian engagement with liberal ideas during Russia's long nineteenth century, focusing on the high point of Russian liberalism from 1900 to 1914. It was then that a self-consciously liberal movement took shape, followed by the founding of the country's first liberal (Constitutional-Democratic or Kadet) party in 1905. For a brief, revelatory period, some Russians - an eclectic group of academics, politicians and public figures - drew on liberal ideas of Western origin to articulate a distinctively Russian liberal philosophy, shape their country's political landscape, and were themselves partly responsible for the tragic experience of 1905.
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