Jake Scott

Slavophilism: The Russian Model for Anglo Conservatives

The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never  occurs to us to take them off’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

We are all Blairites now. It is a horrible thought, especially to those of us who despise the Blairite constitutional project: from gutting the Lords to the creation of the devolved assemblies, and the paradoxical tension between the move towards localism and the edictal erasure of British ways of life. The sad reality is that we live in Blairite Britain, more than we live in Thatcherite Britain. 

Such a thought, as uncomfortable as it is, must be the starting point of all conservative discussions, whether they are concerned with strategy, identity, or even over what we aim to ‘conserve’, because we can only begin to know where to go by knowing where we are. David Foster Wallace once gave a talk to a graduating class in which he told the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “morning boys, how’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “what the hell is water?” 

The story is intended to remind us of a simple truth: that the most obvious realities are the hardest to talk about, because they are so essential and taken for granted in our daily lives. Blairism is the cultural water we swim in, and the current that drives us inexorably towards the next crisis we cannot resolve, because Blairism holds the conflictual beliefs that government should be in every part of our lives, but that it should be so completely and utterly impotent. Think about how difficult it is to do anything in modern Britain, but that you absolutely must do it whilst holding the hand of the government. 

Regardless of Blairism’s inherent contradictions, we must not ignore the tide, even if only to swim against it. How do we do this? In Modern Culture, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that we cannot

 return to a pre-Enlightenment world because the Enlightenment is so inherent to how we think about society, Man, government, culture and so on. Even those of us who are believers in faith must accept that the draperies were torn down; but only by realising they were torn down can you put them back up. So, rather than deny the legacies of the Enlightenment, Sir Roger says, we must accept that they are with us, and instead ‘live as if it matters eternally what we do: to obey the rites, the ceremonies and the customs that lend dignity to our actions and which lift them above the natural sphere’. 

The philosophical movement that took this lesson to heart the most, in my opinion, was the Romantics. They did not pretend that the legacies of the Enlightenment were so easily eradicable nor so easily deniable; instead, they accepted that they lived in a changed world, but sought to use that change to re-suture man’s relationship with himself, to correct the deficiencies of the Enlightenment and the empty rationalism that it loved so irrationally. 

The Romantic movement, by virtue of its own logic, was not universalist. The Enlightenment sought to be universal, to find laws and rules that governed Man in every circumstance and every place; but Romanticism, in reaction, favoured particularism, rootedness, and the cultural significance of place and people. In fact, so many of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century owed more to the Romantics than they did to the Enlightenment (but again, only in the sense that the Enlightenment showed us that all humans are deserving of dignity and respect, they just choose to express that dignity in varied ways). 

One such example of Romanticism that has always fascinated me emerged in Russia in the 1830s, more than anything because I believe that Russia then holds a multitude of lessons for Britain now. Early-nineteenth century Russia experienced what could only be described as an existential crisis: the Napoleonic Wars had damaged Russia’s understanding of herself as the great military power of Eastern Europe, and brought many ideas of universal brotherhood into contact with a society that did not even have the intellectual framework to accommodate such thoughts. But the crisis went deeper: as much as one hundred and fifty years before, Russian society was shaken by external ideas, more than any invasion could have hoped for, under the Reforms of Tsar Peter the Great. The Petrine Era of Russia saw cultural changes from the top – governmental reforms, military reforms, and technological innovation, much of which modernised Russia and made her into a Great Power; but these changes did not go unquestioned. In fact, many of the influential groups in Russia rebelled, sometimes violently, as in the Moscow Rising of the Streltsy in 1698. 

The legacy of Peter’s reforms, however, were not felt until much later. Of course, all major cultural and social changes take time to really be felt at all, but the ‘short eighteenth century’ was a time of such rapid and dislocating change – across all of Europe, but especially in Russia – that many generations found themselves intellectually and culturally cut adrift from those who came immediately before them. Peter, pursuing a programme of Westernisation insisted, for instance, that the Russian court speak French, a language thought of as ‘intellectual’ (with good reason); dress like the Prussian court; rationalised the military along the Western European lines; built an entirely new town on a North Italian design (St. Petersburg – of course); and, in one of my favourite little quirks of history, outlawed beards in that city’s borders. 

Cultural issues grow like pearls grow – a single grain of sand works its way into a mollusk, and irritates the mollusk in such a way that bacteria and calcium grows around it. Cultural changes irritate the social fabric of the community it works into; but we don’t have bacteria to grow around it, we only have each other. Yet we can understand cultural issues in the same way as a pearl – an irritant works its way in, and we grow that irritant into a recognisable tangible entity, by coalescing around it and growing it in such a way that it becomes instantly recognisable. 

This is what led to the Slavophiles. Petrine Russia thought it was undefeatable – and from the Great Northern War onwards, it very much was – until Napoleon came roaring in. But the Napeolonic Wars did two things for Russia, both with the same outcome; the first was importing many ideas into Russia that challenged the existing understanding of Russian political and social structures; the second was, in the same way Soviet soldiers pushed Nazi Germany back into Europe, Petrine soldiers followed Napoleon back into Europe. In both instances, educated Russian men saw the way Europeans lived, and realised that their society was not the improved form that their reforming leaders dreamt of. 

And just as with a grain of sand in a pearl, the cultural dislocation of Peter’s reforms that had long irritated the reactionary elements of eighteenth-century Russia, was seized on by many of the early-nineteenth century intelligentsia as a means of explaining the situation in which they had found themselves. This fermented a series of backlashes, intellectual and cultural, that led to an explosion of political movements, such as the terrorists, the socialists, the populists (narodniki), and – most importantly – the Slavophiles. The Slavophiles looked at the state of Russia in the 1830s and considered the Petrine reforms to be an unmitigated failure: they had not kept Russia at pace with the rest of Europe; they had dislocated the cultural and social elites from the people over whom they ruled; and worst of all, they had severed the Russian people from their own past. Peter the Great had made the mistake of proto-enlightenment liberalism, that there were universal standards of humanity against which peoples’ behaviours, cultures and laws could be judged, and in doing so, he had not attempted to “reform” Russia’s venerable history, but deny its very existence, and begin from scratch.

Instead, the Slavophiles urged a return to pre-Petrine, Muscovite-style Russianism, an embracing of folk styles, food, clothing, language, and so on – not to petrify them into a living museum of nostalgia, but to rectify the mistakes of the previous century, and offer an alternative direction into the future. This precipitated many of the following century’s movements: for instance, the emphasis on the folk of Russia encouraged the nascent populism into radicalism; the embracing of the Russian commune form of land management gave Russian socialism a concrete model from which to work; and the idea of Russia taking an entirely unique path of development to Europe created the intellectual condition for Lenin and the communists to believe Russia could “leapfrog” past the bourgeois liberalism of the continent and move straight to socialism. This is not to say the Slavophiles were socialists – to even say so is to misunderstand the subtle relativism that denies such universalist theories in itself. Indeed, many Slavophiles were ardent absolute monarchists, with the famous Memorandum to the Tsar by Alexei Aksakov in 1831 claiming that Russia’s unique place in history stems from its Orthodox Christianity, the invitation by the Kievan Rus to the Varangians to rule them, and the steppes shaping the Russian mindset to one of boundless opportunism (something that Berdayev later used as a comparison to the American prairies and Manifest Destiny). 

The consequences of the Slavophile movement might not be palatable, but their inspiration is something that Anglo conservatives need to pay attention to. Their movement began by an important moment of clarity: the political reforming project of the previous age had failed. It is no secret that the emerging conservatism in Britain despises the Blairite consensus, and in many ways that means we are already doing as the Slavophiles did:  only by recognising that we are in Blairite Britain can we undo its disastrous effects. But we need to go further; we cannot simply throw our hands up and accept Blairism as the present condition of Britain, but we need to see it for what it truly is. It is a complete and utter separation of Britain from our past, a denial of that past’s validity, and an attempt to create a new political identity on entirely alien lines. 

Moving into the future requires acceptance of the present circumstance; one of the silliest phrases is that the clock cannot be wound back, when the truth is, if the clock is showing the wrong time, it is imperative  that you wind it back. And just as taking the wrong turn and continuing down the wrong path will only get you further from where you want to go, so too must you turn back. We are all Blairites now; and just as alcoholics have to admit they’ll never recover from their alcoholism, we have to admit we will likely never recover from Blairism, but will always “be” recovering. 

But I do not want to be defeatist; the first step of recovery is acceptance. We need to accept that we live in Blairite Britain, and only then can we begin tearing it apart. We need to start ripping out its core parts: the communications act (2003); the equality act (2010); the Supreme Court; the devolved assemblies; the abolition of the hereditary aristocracy; the fox hunting ban; the smoking ban; in short, all of the components of a foreign way of life that have been foisted upon the British people by our own misguided maniacal reformers. It is time to go to war; but you can only do that if you accept the war is already going on.


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On The Nature of Monarchy

In 1957, Ernst Kantorowicz published The King’s Two Bodies (KTB), a deep and penetrating analysis of the relationship between monarchy and the public realm. In this magisterial work, Kantorowicz explained with unmatched clarity the language of the medieval theologians and jurists, from dignitas to fisc to corpus mysticum, all of which have passed out of the bounds of our quite technocratic political language, but have, in many ways, shaped and laid the foundations for its articulation. The corpus mysticum, for instance, made the very notion of ‘popular sovereignty’ even thinkable, not merely conceivable. This article is an attempt to distill my research into Kantorowicz’s theory of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’, of the corporeal function that kingship played, in both the continuity of a people and in the question of the acting body, to show what the nature of monarchy actually is, beyond a simple constitutional component. 

In Kantorowicz’s analysis, there are three consistent themes: first, the synecdochical relationship assumed between the physical body of the king and the unphysical ‘body’ of the people over whom he ruled; second, the important function of continuity that the office performed; and third, the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. However, before turning to these three themes, it is important to note that Kantorowicz’s analysis revolves around two significant observations: first, that there was an awareness of the difference between ‘the King’, meaning of the office of monarch, and ‘the king’, meaning the actual person who occupied that office. This is the origin of Kantorowicz’s chosen title: ‘that by the Common Law no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage. For the King has in him two bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic’, a juridical fiction which, logically, ‘conveys “immortality” to the individual king as King, that is, with regard to his superbody’ in such a way that, in one court case, loyalty to King Henry VIII could be demanded as if he were ‘still “alive” though Henry Tudor had been dead for ten years’ (KTB:: 7, 13-14).

The second significant observation is that of the role played by Christian theology in the creation of a language of organic unity between ruler and ruled. It was St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12, verses 12 and 27) that affirmed the image of the Church as a single body, with Christ as the head, with whom the laity enjoyed unity, but the systematic expression of such a unity was St. Augustine’s to make. He referred only ever to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’, or in his native Latin, Corpus Christi – though interestingly, the phrase the ‘mystical body of Christ’ was not St. Augustine’s but was coined much later. Regardless, Corpus Christi refers to the idea that Christ ‘is to be taken no longer as an individual, but in His fullness, that is, with the whole Church, with all of the members, of whom He is the Head, as constituting one unit, one whole, one person’ (Grabowski, 1946: 73-75). It is important, however, to bear in mind how one individual person might join the body of the Church: through confirmation, and communion; in other words, through express desire, and continual affirmation of membership. Such an act ‘constitutes a spiritual entity which is [Christ’s] Body here on earth’ that results in ‘the incorporation into the Body of Christ’ (Grabowski, 1946: 84-85). As Kantorowicz shows, such doctrine was used as the basis for the relationship between people and k/King. Though Pope Boniface VIII intended to reassert the Papacy above secular powers, and remind them of their ‘purely functional character within the world community of the corpus mysticum Christi’ [the spiritual body of Christ],  it was the implication of ‘the Lord’s two bodies’ that would inform the emergent doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, to such an extent that Kantorowicz considered it to mold ‘most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’ (KTB, 194-206):

To summarize, the notion of corpus mysticum, designating originally the Sacrament of the Altar, served after the twelfth century to describe the body politic, or corpus iuridicum, of the Church, which does not exclude the lingering on of some of the earlier connotations. Moreover, the classical christological distinction of the Two Natures in Christ… has been replaced by the corporational, non-christological concept of the Two Bodies of Christ. 

It was in the wake of this theoretical shift that the secular powers, competing with the Church for supremacy, were able to adopt the language of the state as a body, with such phrases as corpus Reipublicae mysticum, which allowed the jurists to arrive ‘like the theologians, at a distinction between corpus verum – the tangible body of an individual person – and corpus fictum, the corporate collective which was intangible and existed only as a fiction of jurisprudence (KTB: 207-209). It is important to note here that the unique transformation brought about by the turn to the Christological terminology is specifically the idea of the body politic as a mystical body, not merely a body coterminous with the physical individuals that composed a political community. With this theoretical and theological background informing both the emergence of the doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, and the internal relationship between them, this creates much of the intellectual condition for the emergence of ‘the people’ as a mystical body abstracted from its component parts.

Focusing, however, on the k/King’s two bodies, the synecdochical relationship between the King and the people was a fiction well-theorised in medieval theology. In the mid-fifteenth century, it was generally acknowledged that ‘an attack against the king’s natural [physical] person was, at the same time, an attack against the body corporate of the realm’, with a qualifying difference of ‘“one [body] descending from nature, the other from the polity”’ (KTB: 15, 46). Drawing on Anthony Black’s comments that legality relied on a certain conception of a people as both a trans-temporal entity that those laws applied to, as well as the source of the authority of laws, the relevance of a people’s corporality makes sense when we observe that ‘“Laws, and not the person, make the king”… a statement well known to Canonists; and according to the lex Digna itself the emperors confess: “On authority of the Law our authority depends”’ (KTB: 150). 

If the King is a part committed to the whole of ‘the people’ as a single entity, then it must be remembered the authority of the King is derived from – whilst also being somewhat concurrent with – that entity’s will. After all, as one French jurist claimed, ‘the French king, like the Roman emperor, “had all the rights, especially the right pertaining to his kingdom, shut in his breast”’ (KTB: 153). Of course, this manifested differently across peoples: famously, in England, ‘the people’ was present in specifically in the King in Parliament; just as ‘the comitatus or county took visible form in the comitatus or county court, so the realm took visible form in a parliament’ (Maitland, 1901: 133). This held, however, for the English jurist Henry de Bracton (1210-1268) a paradox: ‘either the king is sovereign or no; if he be sovereign then he is not legally below the law, his obligation to obey the law is at most a moral obligation; on the other hand if he is below the law, then he is not sovereign, he is below some man or some body of men’ (cited in Maitland, 2015: 101). Although this was mostly resolved by the juridical separation between king-as-person and King-as-office, as noted above, it did eventually lead to the question of where sovereignty lay.

Of course, all of this relies on the recognition that there is an entity of ‘the people’ that is physically separate from the king, but ‘the king’s body politic could be the realm as a body politic – with the king as the head and the subjects as the members – or it could be the office of kingship – the dignity’ (Fortin, 2021: 5), . Joseph Canning has also noted the rise in medieval political thought of the distinction between the king and the people over whom he ruled: ‘notions according the kingdom an existence distinct from that of its king, organological views of society organised into a corporate body, and views of rulership as public office’ created the capacity to think that ‘the concept of a royal office, whose purpose was to serve the common good, involved the notion that the regnum or populus had a separate existence from that of its monarch’ (Canning, 2009: 64-65). This especially became emphasised in the later Middle Ages when (KTB: 193):

the centre of gravity shifted, as it were, from the ruling personages to the ruled collectivities, the new national monarchies, and the other political aggregates of human society. In other words, the exchanges between Church and State continued; but in the field of mutual influence, expanding from individual dignitaries to compact communities, henceforth was determined by legal and constitutional problems concerning the structure and interpretation of the bodies politic.

This is a significant development, as it coincided ‘with that moment in the history of Western thought when the doctrines of corporational and organic structure of society began to pervade anew the political theories of the West and to mold most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’, a change capitalised on by Baldus de Ubaldis in his definition of a ‘populus, the people, as a mystical body. He held that a populus was not simply the sum of individuals of a community, but “men assembled into one mystical body” … a body or corporation to be grasped only intellectually, since it was not a real or material body’ (KTB: 199-210). Despite the emergence, however, of the body politic as an ‘intellectual body’, the k/King remained the physical representation of that body politic in the world, as ‘the polity itself, or the mystical body of the realm, could not exist without its head’ (KTB: 227); hence, whilst the trend developing was to admit that ‘a people’ was a real entity separate from the physical body of the king, it was not thought to be capable of existing or, importantly, acting without something or someone through which it can be embodied. 

Interestingly, Marie-France Fortin has recently shown that Kantorowicz’s analysis reveals that, whilst the power of dignity, dignitas, conferred upon the prince by an ‘immortal polity’ (KTB: 397), was concurrent with the office of kingship, it was ‘the Crown, on the other hand, [that] connoted a more general, public and communal sphere’ and was ‘incomplete without the other members of society’ (Fortin, 2021: 2). We can turn here to the second theme of Kantorowicz’s analysis, that of continuity and the problem that the physicality of ‘the king’s two bodies’ created; as Kantorowicz noted, ‘the concept of the “king’s two bodies” camouflaged a problem of continuity’ and it would be a ‘mistake to assume that the new philosophic tenet produced, caused or created a new belief in the perpetual continuity of political bodies’ (KTB: 273) – this was a perennial issue in political thought, and the continuity of the king’s two bodies is more of a product, than a cause, of such an issue. 

Indeed, ‘the practical needs of kingdoms and communities led to the fiction of a quasi-infinite continuity of public institutions’ and that ‘practical needs produced institutional changes presupposing, as it were, the fiction of an endless continuity of the bodies politic’ (KTB: 284, 291). This is not to say the k/King was the only source of continuity: as with above, the law was seen a particularly reliable mechanism by which ‘every plurality of men collected in one body’ could be treated as a ‘juristic person, of distinguishing that juristic person clearly from every natural person endowed with body and soul, and yet of treating a plurality of individuals juristically as one person’ (KTB: 306). 

On the topic of the relationship between law and custom as methods of continuity for a body politic, St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings are particularly revealing. He claims, for instance, that ‘when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgement of reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of law, abolishes the law, and is the interpreter of law’ (1988: 80). As conservatives, I think we ought to be particularly sensitive to St. Thomas’ writings on this topic, especially as our modern world often forces us to see the law and tradition in conflict. Nonetheless, in the medieval era, the law increasingly became the source of legitimacy for public actions, be they of the King or any other public office.

However, the law could not resolve the issue of action and decision in and of itself, especially as there were increasing attempts to incorporate the ‘ruler’s will’ in the legal system, to the extent that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tussled with this will when compared to the ‘rights of the community’, with the kingship as an office ‘established with the specific purpose of securing the preservation and well-being of the communities which the ruler served’ (Canning, 2009: 162-166). Whilst I turn to the normative relationship between ruler and ruled shortly, here we can focus on Kantorowicz’s important observation that, as a product of the belief in the continuity of the people ‘as an universitas “which never dies”’ (KTB: 314), there arose the significant question of whether the corporate realm existed between the death of one king and the coronation of another. Whilst the earlier Middle Ages imagined that, due to the intertwining between Church and State, ‘the continuity of a realm during an interregnum had been sometimes preserved by a fiction: Christ stepped into the gap as interrex and secured, through his own eternity, the continuity of kingship’, the increasing tendency of Popes to claim authority as interrex made the fiction politically dangerous. Instead, the fiction arose of the sempiternity of the Crown (KTB: 334-335, 341-342): 

In the phrase “head and Crown” the word Crown served to add something to the purely physical body of the king and to emphasise that more than the king’s “body natural” was meant; and in the phrase “realm and Crown” the word Crown served to eliminate the purely geographic-territorial aspect of regnum and to emphasise unambiguously the political character of regnum… briefly, as opposed to pure physis of the king and the pure physis of the territory, the word “Crown,” when added, indicated the political metaphysis in which both rex and regnum shared, or the body politic (to which both belonged) in its sovereign rights.

As Fortin observes, the melding of the two symbols of King and Crown allowed elements of that perpetual community that the King ought to have embodied – the people – to pass into the Crown, such as the eternity of the office, and the corporate realm of the body politic (2021: 8). As a result, ‘in the later Middle Ages the idea was current that in the Crown the whole body politic was present… in this respect indeed the Crown and the “mystical body of the realm” were comparable entities. Neither one nor the other existed all by itself “in the abstract” and separate from the constituents’ (KTB: 363). We see here, then, a similarity to the Aristotelian notion of the polis as an embodied corporeal people, as well as a comparison to John Ma’s analogy of the polis as ‘social memory’; a reliance on a physical presence, be it king, king-in-parliament, or so on, meant the continuity of a people’s acting body had to be reflected in an equally continuous physical presence. In this respect, this was part of the conflation of Crown and King that Fortin analyses, in that each symbol acted complementary to the other: whilst the Crown was the eternal symbol, the King could be embodied in the king. This theoretical move was reflected most clearly in the emergence of the phrase ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ which, whilst deceptively simple, ‘powerfully demonstrated the perpetuity of kingship’ by suggesting an unbroken embodiment of the King that did not ‘end’ with one king’s death (or, ‘demise’) and another king’s accession (KTB: 412). Regardless, ‘the Crown… could hardly be severed from the king as King…. It remained possible, for example, to personify the Crown which, representing something that touched all, stood in many respects for the whole body politic’ (KTB: 372, 383). 

This brings us to the third theme of Kantorowicz’s work, that of the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. We can see clearly the synecdochical relationship that arose out of the organological, ‘corporate realm’ thought, as well as the use of the office of kingship to reflect a theorisation of the ruled people as a continuous entity, but this has not really answered the question of why an embodiment of that people is necessary. Whereas Aristotle’s theory of the polis as necessary for the bios and therefore the highest expression of the common good, the concomitant principle to the theorisation of a continuous people was one in which ‘the idea of a state existing only for its own sake was foreign… the very belief in a divine Law of Nature as opposed to Positive Law, a belief then shared by every thinker, almost necessitated the ruler’s position both above and below the Law’ (Kantorowicz, 2016: 144). Though the concept of popular sovereignty was historically distant, the awareness of the separability between the ruler and the ruled, at least on a practical level, had to be balanced with the necessity of the people’s capability to act as a political body. The Divine Right of Kings was certainly one answer, as ‘the king acts for the people which has been committed to his care by God and which cannot act for itself’ (Canning, 2009: 21). Just as the idea of Christ as the interrex declined, so too did the religious foundation for kingship, but the organological concept still posited that the King was the head of the body of the people. To justify the capacity for the King to act, not on behalf of the people, but as the people, there arose a particular conception of the universitas, the body corporate, as a legal minor. Largely a product of rediscovered Roman law, the conflation of ‘madmen, children and cities’ under an edict meant that (KTB: 374):

when, in the course of the thirteenth century, the corporational doctrines were developed, the notion of “city”, civitas, was logically transferred to any universitas or any body corporate, and it became a stock-in-trade expression to say that the universitas was ever an infant and under age because it needed a curator. 

Importantly, as this idea matured, it was transferred to the symbolic entity of the Crown, to the effect that ‘as a perpetual minor, the Crown itself had corporational character – with the king as its guardian, though again not with the king alone, but with that composite body of king and magnates’ (KTB: 381). 

What matters here is the relationship given between ruler and ruled that allows for the concentration of political action in the king; the corporeal embodiment of a people in the political world in a single person in such a way that allowed the people to act was due to that people’s inability to act for itself, owing to its legal immaturity as a single corporate body, and not merely because of its physical disaggregation as a multitude of individuals. As a result, ‘the king appeared as the animate instrument of a fictitious, and therefore immortal, person called Dignity’, meaning ‘the dogma of a political Incarnation, a noetic incarnation of the Dignitas or of the Body politic’ (KTB: 445). To compare this to the polis, then, whereas the people could act as a political community through a deliberation with consideration for the common good, under kingship the people were incapable of doing so, under the prevailing legal fiction, resulting in a concentration of decisionist power in the office of King. This was developed into the sleeping sovereign thesis by early theorists of popular sovereignty, but prior to the emergence of popular sovereignty as a concept, the necessity of an acting person required the existence of the office of King and the concept of Crown.

The King, as the office, was the embodiment of the entire body politic; embodied, of course, in the physcal body of the king himself (or queen herself). This is why the political community of the people lived and died with the monarchy – not the specific monarch, because to do so would risk admitting that the people could die. This was the inspiration behind Thomas Hobbes’ famous Leviathan frontispiece, in which an enormous person was composed of the very individuals over whom he governed; Hobbes was not writing and imagining the grand body of the body politic in a vacuum, and did not create the idea from the abstract, but was speaking to a long and fruitful tradition of treating the people as a single entity with a will that would allow that people to actualise its desires. 

This tradition is, as I hope to have shown, the legal fiction that the body of the king, as a temporary and temporally-bound entity, is merely the physical embodiment of the King, which is the eternal and spiritual office of the entire body politic over which a monarch reigns. Our modern ideas of popular sovereignty would never have arisen without this fiction, of the original meaning of the phrase, Rex Est Populus: The King is the People. 


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The Original Right-Wing Gramscians

There are many conversations being had on the Right in recent years, usually divided in two: what do we want to conserve, or build; and how do we do so? The former, I am glad to say, is no longer stuck in the stasis of Blairism, that tinkering with the edges of a hostile establishment is an hegemonic approach, and with Rishi Sunak’s call to revisit the Equality Act (2010) is an extremely welcome development; but the latter is still under-developed. Fundamentally, the concern here, of how we achieve what we want to achieve, is a question of strategy.

The question of strategy is one that the Right almost fears addressing. There are many reasons as to why, and I am pretty sure that a cowardly inability to accept the fundamentally conflictual nature of politics is one of them, instead retaining a small-l liberal belief in the neutrality of institutions. But this belief holds us back, because it prevents us from seeing these institutions as battle-grounds themselves, where the culture war takes its most concrete form; and it holds us back because the Left has committed itself to a conflictual vision of politics.

It is for this reason that the Right needs to adopt a Gramscian approach to retaking control of the institutions that have long been captured by the Left, an approach of ‘marching through the institutions’. The fundamentals of Gramsci’s theory are not our concern here, but what matters is that his theory of politics as a war of position has informed Leftist political strategy for a long time, nearly a century at this point, with Gramsci writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s about the need for the Left to inculcate a revolutionary attitude amongst the ‘subalterns’ via ‘organic intellectuals’. In other words, Gramsci advocated that the Left should not try to ‘lead’ the working class and try to capture institutions of power first, as the Leninists did in Russia, but instead should change our culture first, and capture institutions of power last.

Many on the Right dismiss this strategy, taking it to be Marxist all the way down, and that the Right should seek to create its own strategies. Perhaps; this argument certainly has its merits. But the weaker argument comes from a belief that this strategy could never work. This argument is weak because, importantly, it has already worked, and I don’t just mean for the Left. In the second half of the previous century, there was a major, successful and, some might say, permanent Gramscian revolution from the right. This came from the think tank world, begun in what might otherwise seem to be an incredibly unlikely place.  

History in the Long View

In 1947, a group of predominantly European intellectuals met at a Swiss lakeside conference centre at the base of Mont Pélèrin, whilst the International Trade Organisation met at the opposite end of the lake. Organised by Friedrich Hayek, the group that met at the base of Mont Pélèrin took it as their namesake and formed the Mont Pélèrin Society. In many ways, Mont Pélèrin is ‘ground zero’ of the great Neoliberal Revolution of the second half of the twentieth century; and yet, almost nobody knows about it.

Two years prior to the meeting, at the close of the Second World War, came a reckoning for intellectuals. For many people, political philosophy, political theory, grand narratives of history and abstract theorising had not only had their day but were increasingly thought of as dangerous; they had led Italy into fascism, Germany into National Socialism, Russia into Communism, and China into civil war, as well as pushing colonies into open revolt, and causing the proliferation of dangerous beliefs in what were thought to be safe, secure Western democracies. 

Not only that, but despite the defeat of Nazism, it seemed as though those Western democracies had adopted an uncritical collectivism, whilst the shadow of Bolshevism spread malevolently across Eastern Europe. In 1947, it would be some time before the Warsaw Pact or the Eastern Bloc became geopolitical realities, but nonetheless it felt that the fires of individual liberty were well and truly extinguished in the cradle of Western civilisation. 

But the Mont Pélèrin Society was not the birthplace of what came to be called neoliberalism. In fact, in many ways, the diagnosis of the problems across the world in 1947 was the long-view of history, begun in the 1920s in response to the Great Depression, at a time when global markets seemingly froze, collapsed, and could not be revived from within. Adherents to the nineteenth-century brand of liberalism that had seen a great liberalisation of markets across the world argued that, to revive the global market and ensure its survival, there was a place for State intervention to maintain its role as the defender of the market order and the provider of prosperity and stability. In this regard, those who consciously called themselves neo-liberals of the 1920s saw themselves as committed to individual liberty supported by statehood. 

This ‘neoliberalism’ emerged as a response to both the First World War and the Great Depression and was emboldened (largely out of panic) by the emergence of the totalitarian governments of the late-1920s and 1930s. The political climate at the time, however, was not in their favour; obviously the totalitarian states of Europe would not be receptive to messages of individualism and liberty, but neither were the British or French imperialists of the time, who pursued preferential, imperial economic systems. Moreover, in the 1930s, the British economy was put into a state of paralysis that was later referred to as the Hungry Thirties, as this very imperial preference system saw increasing outsourcing of the textile industry to India and Africa, increasing union militancy, and a National Government riven with disagreement. So, the warning of the neo-liberals – that dynamic statehood was a necessary precondition of individual liberty – was ignored. 

It is important to recognise that the goals and aims of the Mont Pélèrin Society were achieved, but by no means overnight. It took over thirty years before a receptive government in Western Europe was prepared to pay attention to the ideas of the Society, during which time Britain experienced an enormous economic boom, then followed by decades of economic deflation that resulted in the dreaded stagflation of rising inflation and rising unemployment. But Britain was, of course, not alone in the 1970s – the Vietnam War, the Oil Shock of 1973, the near-collapse of industrial relations, and the complete exhaustion of the Keynesian model, which came to a head in the collapse of the Bretton-Woods monetary system in 1971.

All of this led to a sense that the current paradigm had failed. And whilst this was terrible for economists and politicians, for intellectuals their time had come. 

The Meeting at Mont Pélèrin

In many ways, we can see why intellectuals met at Mont Pélèrin in 1947; or at least, we have half-answered it. The problem of history is it is never neat, and we cannot know exactly the reasons that something happened, but we can establish two broad forms of cause. The first is the ‘push’ or the ‘negative’ factors: what had to go wrong for the event in question to take place? And, relatedly, we can establish the second, the ‘pull’ or ‘positive’ factors: what needs to change for the negative factors to be avoided or changed? We know the negative factors – a fear of collectivism, and its consequences – but what did the Mont Pélèrin Society want to achieve? 

This question can be understood best by considering another question first, specifically ‘who was there’? As mentioned, the principal figure was Friedrich Hayek, who rose to prominence in the 1940s for his work, The Road to Serfdom. Serfdom was known for its systematic analysis of how the forms of economic collectivism pursued in the West under the totalitarian government had lead to the death of liberty and, importantly, so too would other economically collectivisms. We can understand this by considering what Hayek considered the key features of the welfare state:

a.    ‘Central planning’ – Hayek’s opposition to this approach to economic organisation was essentially an epistemological one, which is that the knowledge necessary for an economy to function is so diffuse, and so minute, it is impossible to aggregate it into a single formula or under a single agency. 

b.   ‘The redistributive state’ – Hayek believed that economic centralisation cannot be separated from the other areas of life. To quote Serfdom, economics is not ‘a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served’. 

This systematisation of the welfare state, of ‘welfarism’, is so much more extensive than merely the provision of services; indeed, as Hayek says, ‘the conception of the welfare state has no precise meaning… the phrase is sometimes used to describe any state that “concerns” itself in any manner with problems other than those of the maintenance of law and order’. 

Why is Hayek so concerned with welfarism? It is because, to him, neoliberalism in its pre-war form is what its name ought to mean quite literally: a liberalism that is modern. In this, Hayek proposes a return to classical liberalism via neoliberalism: as I describe above, liberal did and do not advocate for ‘individualist minimal government’, because the state is necessary for the protection of the conditions for individualism. He says, in a very Aristotelian fashion, ‘…there are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action… as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance […] which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise… and government may […] assist or even lead such endeavours’. 

What matters is that we must be vigilant towards the methods of provision, especially where welfarism is concerned, as it is the mindset that only the state can provide minimal services, as ‘…though effective for particular purposes, they would in their aggregate effect destroy a free society’. The coercion involved is concealed by their presentation in terms of public service.  The illusion is public service; the reality is state coercion: ‘though they are presented as mere service activities, they really constitute an exercise of the coercive powers of government’. 

This is why Hayek’s presence at the Mont Pélèrin Society matters: even more so as the instigator of this group, as his desire was to bring together intellectuals – and specifically intellectuals – to address the challenges of collectivism, amongst which was counted National-Socialist as well as Soviet totalitarianism, but also American New Deal liberalism, British social democracy, and continental Christian democracy. 

Those intellectuals that Hayek gathered were, predominantly, economists, but importantly a lot of them were people who lived under National-Socialist collectivism. As a result, they witnessed the terrible power of totalitarianism, but also adopted what we might consider a semi-irrational suspicion of the state as a mechanism by which totalitarianism became possible – but significantly, this created the grounds for a specifically transnational form of free market activism that both recognised mechanistic statism but also refused to be subordinate to it. 

What is most interesting, looking at the speech delivered by Hayek at this first meeting, is that he consciously notes the predominance of economists, and the lack of sociologists and philosophers. What Hayek desired, in terms of those in attendance, is clearly more diverse and, in our post-modern language, ‘intersectional’. He also notes, importantly, the lack of lawyers. We can discuss the potential consequences of this composition, but I think the likely reason for the predominance of economists is that those economists in attendance were anti-statist, and most governments were not receptive to their messages, as I say. 

What needs to be drawn attention to, is the presence of businessmen and journalists from the start – which Hayek intended; and the reasons why Hayek intended this, helps us to explain what the Mont Pélèrin Society wanted to do.

A Meeting of Minds

A close reading of the speech given by Hayek shows his intended and preferred strategy. Hayek lays clear that he rejects mass movements – probably due to his rejection of collectivism – but prefers instead the power of both ideas and individuals. In this regard, he suggests an extremely closed shop: he says ‘the immediate purpose of this conference is… to provide an opportunity for a comparatively small group of those who in different parts of the world are striving for the same ideals’ but, ‘we should probably not include any name unless it receives the support of two or three members of our present group… it must remain a closed society, not open to all and sundry, but only to people who share with us certain common convictions’. But, for those in attendance and whose specialism he values, he remarks that ‘we have among us a fair number of regular writers for the periodical press, not in order that the meeting should be reported, but because they have the best opportunity to spread the ideas to which we are devoted’. 

It is in regards to this that we can understand what the Mont Pélèrin Society was truly intended to be: it was not a ‘think tank’, though Hayek hinted at a journal or similar publication, but was what one writer has called a ‘thought collective’, a space for ideas to be generated, shared, refined and disseminated. But it was that final point that is most important; disseminated. The Mont Pélèrin Society was not just a talking shop. It fully intended for the ideas it generated to be shared, and widely. An important development is the recognition of what we call ‘opinion formers’, of people who are not necessarily at the wheels of power but have the ear of those who are, in an attempt to create a web of institutions that would make neoliberalism a ‘natural’ alternative to social democracy.

To this end, the Mont Pélèrin Society aimed to do something quite radical in the history of political activism: transcend national borders in an intellectual manner. Whilst we can reasonably assert that the communist movements of the mid-nineteenth century aimed at the international proliferation of their ideas, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the first to actually achieve this. Amongst their numbers, they counted British MPs such as John Enoch Powell and Sir Geoffrey Howe – Howe of course becoming Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor – German Kanzler Ludwig Erhard, Italian Presidente Luigi Einaudi, and 22 of Reagan’s 76 economic advisers in his 1980 presidential campaign team – a quite impressive stat in itself. 

But it is the founding members themselves that probably brings home just how influential this group became. Alongside Hayek, was Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, three of the most important social, political and economic theorists of the twentieth century. 

The Think Tank Archipelago

Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society was obscure, it was also highly influential. In many ways, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the ‘proto-think tank’, in that it was dedicated to the production, refinement and dissemination of ideas, but certain features of what came to be ‘think tanks’ were never achieved. For one, it did not produce a publication, and it consistently failed to raise the money it wanted. Moreover, a fracture between Hayek and Friedman led to the Mont Pélèrin Society declining in unity and effectiveness.

That being said, the Mont Pélèrin Society’s greatest legacy is not what it achieved directly, but what it spawned: the think-tank archipelago. Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society may have a limited legacy in itself, there is no doubt that it became the prototype of a new kind of right-wing activism that sought to influence government policy by developing ideas and policy proposals, researching those ideas and their potential impact, before taking them to governments and political actors as a ready-made policy package that those actors could then use for their own governance.

In recent history, much of the intellectual heft of the British political scene came from inside the party system, not outside: Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill were Members of Parliament, as were, of course, Gladstone and Disraeli. Likewise, Harold Macmillan and Enoch Powell both wrote leaflets, pamphlets and books as backbenchers, with Macmillan’s The Middle Way book of the 1930s acting as an explicit repudiation of the extremism of the continent. It is often forgotten as well that Powell wrote extensively on the need to reimagine the market as a better form of goods provision in the 1950s. Likewise, on the Left, the British Labour Party had the Fabian Society, and these loose groupings of intellectuals were intended to produce specifically party-sympathetic literature.

But those who, like the Mont Pélèrin Society, wanted to change the way politics worked in Britain, refused to associate with any specific party at the outset. Indeed, they believed that the parties were part of the problem and instead sought to influence receptive individuals who may or may not be in parties.

What Does a Think Tank Look Like?

This is only a footnote in a sense, but an important one. Think-tanks were highly professional bodies: their appearance mattered, as they needed to be respectable and gain the sympathetic ear of the political elite. Do not forget that 1970s Britain was very different to today; people typically wore suits, bowler hats, and so on, and whilst activists today can get away with jeans, to attempt to do so as a professional in the 1970s would have been ridiculous.

But aesthetic appearance aside, location mattered. Many people will have heard of Tufton Street in London, which is only a stone’s throw from Westminster; in many ways, Tufton St. is a product of the think tank revolution. Think tanks intentionally positioned themselves closely to the centre of gravity they were seeking to influence, again due to the constraints of the age, specifically technological, and the need to hand-deliver many policy proposals, but also the ability to network, have ‘chance’ encounters, and appear omnipresent.

There is another important thing to note with regards to the appearance and style of think tanks. Given that they operated in the political world, one would be forgiven for thinking they operated according to political principles, such as accountability and so forth; indeed, many other activist organisations had internal elections, membership fora, and so forth. Not so with think tanks. Instead, they had (and still have) highly corporate structures, with a ‘Director’ and managerial staff, and – this is quite notable – a very high turnover of staff, mostly interns (that don’t need to be paid). This is because there was a specific, new goal that the think tanks took upon themselves: as Benjamin Jackson writes, ‘Harris and Seldon stressed in 1959’ that ‘neo-liberal activists like themselves worked as brokers who mobilised and connected four important elite groups: business, sympathetic intellectuals, journalists, and politicians’.

As I say, the think tank world was spawned in many ways by the Mont Pélèrin Society, a fact we can understand by looking at the first ever Mont Pélèrin Society meeting to take place in Oxford – in 1959. The fact that it took the Mont Pélèrin Society twelve years to organise a conference in Britain speaks to three main facts: first, Britain as a political culture was deeply unreceptive to the Mont Pélèrin Society’s goals. The post-war Consensus meant that the party system was not looking for pro-market ideas, and though the party system was not the Mont Pélèrin Society’s target audience, as I mentioned, it shows how much the political culture was against them. Second, the Mont Pélèrin Society was right to recognise that this was going to be a long process; they knew the political climate was against them, but they also knew they had to be patient and chip away at things. But third, and encouragingly for the Mont Pélèrin Society, it meant their movement really was as transnational as intended. Of course, we might make a joke about how long it took – but they certainly achieved it in the end.

Again, it is worth considering attended the 1959 Mont Pélèrin Society Oxford conference. The two most notable individuals in attendance were Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris, the two young men entrusted to run the new British free-market think tank, the ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’ (IEA). Amongst the initial roster was also Arthur Shenfield, who knew Hayek personally and had helped to set up the IEA. The IEA itself was founded by Antony Fisher, the businessman who made his fortunes by introducing battery farming hens to Britain; Fisher, inspired by Hayek, established the IEA and employed Harris and Seldon to run it, as a ‘scholarly research organisation’. As one businessman commented to Harris, in the 1960s and 1970s the perception was that universities were producing resources for unions, so there needed to be something that produced ‘bullets for business’.

Alongside the IEA, there were several think tanks set up in the 1970s, foremost amongst them the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). Founded by Madsen Pririe and the two brothers Eamonn and Stuart Butler at the University of St. Andrews, the ASI took its name from the moral and political economist Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations is seen as the great liberal economics manifesto (perhaps erroneously). The ASI was markedly different from the IEA; whilst the latter aimed at more ‘intellectual’ pursuits, the ASI aimed at producing direct and ‘bold’ policies, and is widely regarded as one of the foundational think tanks of Margaret Thatcher’s economic programme. Still operating today, the ASI is increasingly libertarian, nicknamed the Adam Spliff Institute by anti-cannabis legalisation activists. It is telling, however, that Pririe was referred to as ‘a sort of right-wing Trotsky’ – he had energy, vigour, and a real desire to see the system overturned in favour of what he wanted (and in many ways, he is the most successful political activist of Britain’s recent past).

But a particular development of the 1970s was the establishment of the first ever Conservative Party think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Founded in 1974 by Kieth Joseph, and supporting Thatcher’s bid for leadership, the CPS was explicitly pro-market, but aimed to codify and bring together many of the pro-market publications and writers in the Conservative Party to develop an actual policy programme.

As a footnote, whilst these were the major groups, there were many (at the time) smaller ones: the Taxpayers Alliance; the Aims of Industry; my personal favourite, FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco); and the wonderfully-named NAFF (National Association for Freedom).

Thinking the Unthinkable

The aims of the think tank archipelago must never be mistaken for coherent. Part of the philosophy that inspired almost all of these think tanks was a decentred approach to intellectual production, and so there was almost never a collaboration of aims, which makes the general consensus between these think tanks all the more remarkable. That being said, there was still a broad development of the aims pursued between 1950s and 1980s: originally, the think tanks sought to oppose anti-competitive business practices, encouraging businesses to be more competitive and see each other as rivals in the marketplace; yet later, there was an increasing emphasis on the ‘problems of government’, in which the think tanks sought no longer to criticise businesses, but instead saw their role as defending them from the State, as the source of anti-competitive practices.

There are two key reasons for this change, that we can see: first, the erosion of liberty; and second, the self-interested nature of government institutions. On this first point, the continual expansion of social democratic institutions was seen to be eroding individual liberty and economic efficiency in favour of that which Hayek defined as welfarism, as the belief in the State as the only source of minimal economic provision. In Jackson’s words, the think tanks ‘diagnosed the fundamental problem as an excess of politics over economics’. They wanted a return to non-coercive economic practices, spontaneous market mechanisms, and individual liberty and responsibility.

Entwined with this, moreover, was the second important critique of Statism: the  think tanks portrayed democratic collective agencies (such as parties, the State itself, civil service, etc.) as primarily self-interested, given that they ‘sought to expand their own power rather than serving the public’. A really interesting question to ask here is, why? Was it because they hated this, and thought it was corrupting of the British pluralist state? Or was it because they actually liked this, and considered it a useful mechanism for advancing things, as a lesson taken from self-interested market mechanisms?

I think it is a combination of the two. I think, it begins with the first, and translates into the second: bearing in mind that the original neo-liberals did not reject State action, but saw it as a fundamental support to the functioning of a free market. In this regard, perhaps the neoliberals of the 1950s to 1980s believed that the neutral state was really a myth and, if state power was going to be used, better it be used by them. But, if so, then what they decided to do to remedy this was to take market economics and inject them into the functioning of State bodies, in order to make them more efficient and dynamic.

Marching to the Institutions

The strategies open to the neoliberals were quite varied, but the specific one that they chose was very much informed by the Mont Pélèrin Society’s stated goal of addressing ‘opinion formers’: for instance, the IEA wanted to ‘bombard university students, school teachers and university lecturers’ in order to shape how politics and economics was taught, especially the relationship between them. But a more successful strategy was to influence the views of the ‘small metropolitan media and political elite that shaped policy debate in Britain’.

Whilst judging ‘success’ is difficult, when it comes to think tanks, we can do so in two regards: did they influence policy? And did they succeed in attracting donors?

As I said above, these think-tanks did not align themselves with any particular party, but the most receptive to their message in Britain was the Conservative Party. This being said, they did attract some specific apolitical allies: the Duke of Edinburgh was a fan of the IEA, for instance. But where they definitely made their success was in informing the political economic programme of Margaret Thatcher, mostly through her chancellors and advisors. Sir Geoffrey Howe, for one, was a long-time member of the IEA, as well as the Mont Pélèrin Society, and communicated with the ASI throughout the decades. Another tangible success for the IEA was that they advised Keith Joseph on how to set up the Centre for Policy Studies, which became the unofficial pro-market think tank of the Conservative Party, and is still active today (more prominently known through its publication, CapX).

As for donors, we know for a fact that the IEA was extremely successful. In 1968, it had £47,264 in donations; in 1981, that figure was £267,040. Likewise, in the same period, the income from sale of publications rose from £13,926 to £38,320. But the biggest rise come from corporate sponsors:

o   1974 – £76,574

o   1975 – £161,979

o   1979 – £210,343

Donations came from extremely important titans of industry, such as BP, IBM, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Tate and Lyle, and Unilever, as well as many major newspapers and high-street banks.

But these figures hide a more important story. As Jackson details, these think tanks could only exist thanks to donations: they never sold enough of their own works or publications to even cover their running costs. This matters because it is not simply a case of the donors paying and the think tanks doing as they asked: in reality, whilst the donors, corporations and businesses that funded them wanted a pro-market intellectual presence, Philip Mirowski makes it clear that many of these donors did not know exactly what kind of economy and society was in their best interest. As Harris and Seldon put it at the Oxford conference: sometimes the worst enemies of the free market are businessmen.

In many ways, lobbying is the think tank weapon par excellence; a lot of wining and dining, but with the intention of convincing potentially receptive political actors of their policy and political programmes; and, of course, throwing a lot of money around. Yet ultimately, the best expression of this think tank revolution’s success comes from the fact that so many think tanks still exist. They have become an institutional feature of government, and are still a go-to choice for new attempts to influence policy.

The Drowning of the Think Tank Archipelago

I do not want this article to be mistaken: I do not consider think tanks to be an effective method of altering the way in which British politics works anymore. For one thing, they have become highly institutionalised, and instead of challenging the establishment’s method of thinking, they do the thinking for them, and as it was once said that ‘whoever is in government, it is the treasury that’s in charge’, I think it is more accurate to say that whoever occupies 10 Downing Street, the thinking is done on Tufton Street.

But the problem goes further. The excellent Herbalis substack explains that the formation of what we call ‘the Blob’ emerges from think tanks recommending the existence of a funding body, from which those think tanks then receive funding; meanwhile the substack SW1 Forum takes the theory put forward by Herbalis and finds its clearest expressions. And very often, these think tanks, by virtue of being unmoored from a political party or philosophy, can so easily endear themselves to whoever is in power that it truly does not matter who they are trying to influence, only that there is someone to influence at all; consider the fact that the ASI, thought of as Thatcher’s greatest think tank allies, became so wedded to the Blaire governments.

What I aim to have shown in this article is that right wing Gramscianism is a viable option. I am not trying to urge the creation of another think tank archipelago; that particular form of Gramscianism is exhausted, and probably for the better. But the form should not be mistaken for the strategy, and the exhaustion of one tactic should not be mistaken for the exhaustion of the army. As Napoleon said, ‘you must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war’. 


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Destabilisation, not Conquest: Russia’s Real Strategy

As the crisis in the Ukraine drags itself on, it’s become quite clear that the Russian strategy from the start has not been conquest or even necessarily annexation, but a destabilisation campaign. 

As I wrote earlier this year, Russia’s style of warfare is intended to displace populations and destroy civilian centres. Alongside this, Russia has claimed and supported the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, almost definitely to create a buffer region between Ukraine and Russia. Regardless, when I wrote that the next refugee crisis was brewing in the Ukraine, I actually underestimated the figures: I suggested that, of the roughly 30 million people in Ukraine who hate Putin, perhaps 1% (300,000) might leave; in reality, the figure is as much as ten times that. 

Refugee crises are challenges, and almost always met badly. But, this was what Russia was counting on: by displacing so many people (intentionally – again, due to their style of warfare), forced to move into relatively benign nations, such as Poland, Hungary and (much less likely) Belarus, Russia has laid the foundations for a refugee crisis in Central and Western Europe. It is not necessarily the policies of the receiving countries that will make this a crisis, but the simple numbers – already over four million people have left Ukraine, most of them women and children. 

Europe struggled to accommodate one million of the six and a half million Syrian refugees, but even the majority of these numbers arrived in Europe across a period of years, not weeks. This is the worst refugee crisis in Europe in living memory; and unfortunately, the vast majority of refugees are not going to be returning to the country they knew. If the pictures coming out of Ukraine are anything to go by, the level of urban destruction is consistent with both the style of warfare Russia executes, and that of the Second World War. As horrible as it may sound, there is every possibility the refugees will not have a home to return to.

And this goes deeper than a physical home; there may not be a recognisable ‘Ukraine’ at the end of this. It is absurd to think, despite the general consensus amongst the Western media, that Ukraine was without its problems before this war began, and many of them were over far-right groups active in the Azov region, such as the Azov Battalion. The prevalence of ultra-nationalist, and even active Nazis in some cases, in the Ukraine is something the West has sought to paper-over, and Putin has sought to exacerbate, but the honest truth is that this is a real and enduring problem for Ukrainian politicians. Some even compared the defensive war that Ukraine is fighting to the final days of the Third Reich and the Allied bombing campaign.

This has been going on for longer than we might want to admit. In 2018, the Kievan “National Militia” attacked local government meetings in order to strong-arm them into policies they favoured; in 2019, the Azov Battalion and other far-right groups (Dnipro-1 Battallion as well) carried out pogroms on minorities; and the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda – which has 15,000 members and has a parliamentary presence in the Verkohvna Rada – is regularly accused of neo-Nazi sympathies, not to mention the fact that Belitsky, leader of the Azovs, is a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament. 

Russia’s campaign has made these internal divisions public knowledge; it is spurious to pretend that Russia’s ‘de-Nazification’ claims are accurate to the situation, but it cannot be ignored that there is a major presence of National Socialists in the Ukraine. 

Why will Russia’s ‘special military campaign’ make this situation worse? Put simply, the immediate (and, it must be said, necessary) arming of civilians in order to fight the Russian invasion will have long, long term consequences. Whenever this war ends – which may be longer than we want to imagine – Ukraine will be facing the problem of what to do with a well-armed, combat-experienced, pissed off population. When the United States armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was seen as a necessary use of paramilitary forces to resist (again) Russian aggression. Now, Afghanistan is a mess of guerilla groups, Islamist fundamentalists and radical separatists. This whole situation was made worse by the 

This problem extends to normal politics as well; Volodymyr Zelensky has dismantled the free press, claimed a conspiracy exists to oust him, and has outlawed the existence of eleven pro-Russian political parties, one of which had 10% of the Ukrainian parliament.

So, when the dust settles, Ukraine will have to contend with the reality of neo-Nazis with modern arms such as NLAWS, displaced and angry civilians with access to combat weaponry, and a gutting of as much as 10% of its population that is abroad with no home to return to. 

Putin does not need to take Ukraine, or even necessarily enforce the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk. Instead, in many ways, he has done what he really needed to do; destabilise the West’s big player on its border, and likely the rest of Europe for a long time. 


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Ukraine is the origin of Europe’s next refugee crisis

As Russia is poised to invade Ukraine, with a build-up of as many as 100,000 troops on the border and a concurrent supply of blood banks, commentators are concerned with what this might mean for the rest of the European continent. It may seem selfish to consider the impacts on Western Europe of a ground war in Ukraine, but an inability to think clearly about such ramifications led to a series of ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East, a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the precipitation of homegrown terrorism. 

A recent Spectator article, from Owen Matthews, considered that economic sanctions on Russia would likely be enough to deter any invasion, as Putin does not want or need ‘more chunks of Ukraine – there’s no strategic, political or economic upside in fighting an attritional war over open country’. Perhaps not, and the cost of war would certainly be prohibitive, but this presumes that the gas lines to Europe will be turned off, at any point; Russia would not want that, as it would help to cover any military spending, and Europe cannot even consider it, as Germany closes down her nuclear plants and British energy bills are set to soar. 

But Russia can destabilise Europe in other ways; and the easiest way is to cause a refugee crisis. 

There are three main reasons why this is a likely possibility at this point. First, the Russian style of warfare is one that easily displaces populations: their typical attack plan is to besiege and pummel cities into submission, either with artillery or air support, and concurrently blockade ports until the population submits. The experiences of Russian tactics in Chechnya and Syria are evidence of this: in 2000, before nine years of attritional warfare would see Chechnya reincorporated into the Russian Federation, the Siege of Grozny decimated the city to an extent not seen since the Second World War. An estimated half a million people lived in Grozny by the time of the siege; today, there is just over half that number. 

Syria is the same story, with a few details changed. Rather than commit a ground presence, Russia engaged itself in the Syrian Civil War mostly in the air, with what was ultimately a five-year campaign that targeted anti-government positions, but killed as many as 2,000 civilians within the first six months. The refugee fallout of the Syrian Civil War cannot be laid solely at Putin’s door, but it is undeniable that the Russian style of warfare played a significant role in its creation. 

Then there is the actual population of Ukraine. Any ground war will not be a repeat of 2014, for a number of reasons, but the most important is the lack of support Russia and Putin experience amongst the Ukrainian population. The Annexation of Crimea was justified somewhat on the historical basis of Russia’s connections to the population and the resurgent separatism in the region; in Western Ukraine, there is no such support, and only 17% of the population hold any warm feelings towards Russia. 

Whilst it is never a certainty that a Russian invasion would displace the near-60% of Ukrainians who hold negative attitudes towards Russia, the rules of migration have drastically changed, and populations across the world are much more prepared to leave their homelands if forced to. Moreover, of the 25 million Ukrainians who hold negative attitudes, if only 1% of that number – 250,000 – decided to head West, Eastern European nations would be facing a series of very difficult questions indeed.

Which brings us to the third reason why a refugee crisis is likely; Ukrainians are already heading West, and have done for some time. Economic trends across Europe have seen improved national economies in the Eastern European nations, the Visegrad Group, to the extent that they are actually facing a labour shortage. Consequently, worker flows to Western Europe have slowed, and itinerant workers from Romania and Ukraine have increased in number; so much so, that there are over 300,000 Ukrainians in Poland alone. 

This figure has been manageable because of its gradual growth. The same number turning up on the Polish border would not be met with the same warmth; indeed, we already see this with the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. Accusations that the Belarusian government has been engineering the crisis are credible, but not the whole picture: Lukashenko stands by Putin very closely, and has accused the West of trying to ‘drown the region in blood’. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for the Russian regime to be orchestrating the refugee crisis on the Polish border, but even if they are not, who is to say that they will not in future?

Almost no-one is discussing the reality that the next European refugee crisis is brewing in Ukraine, and the hardest truth to face up to is it might not even need Western nations’ involvement to erupt. The hard questions Europe has faced for nearly a decade are about to get harder.


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Slavophilism: The Russian Model for Anglo Conservatives


The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

We are all Blairites now. It is a horrible thought, especially to those of us who despise the Blairite constitutional project: from gutting the Lords to the creation of the devolved assemblies, and the paradoxical tension between the move towards localism and the edictal erasure of British ways of life. The sad reality is that we live in Blairite Britain, more than we live in Thatcherite Britain. 

Such a thought, as uncomfortable as it is, must be the starting point of all conservative discussions, whether they are concerned with strategy, identity, or even over what we aim to ‘conserve’, because we can only begin to know where to go by knowing where we are. David Foster Wallace once gave a talk to a graduating class in which he told the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “morning boys, how’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “what the hell is water?” 

The story is intended to remind us of a simple truth: that the most obvious realities are the hardest to talk about, because they are so essential and taken for granted in our daily lives. Blairism is the cultural water we swim in, and the current that drives us inexorably towards the next crisis we cannot resolve, because Blairism holds the conflictual beliefs that government should be in every part of our lives, but that it should be so completely and utterly impotent. Think about how difficult it is to do anything in modern Britain, but that you absolutely must do it whilst holding the hand of the government. 

Regardless of Blairism’s inherent contradictions, we must not ignore the tide, even if only to swim against it. How do we do this? In Modern Culture, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that we cannot

 return to a pre-Enlightenment world because the Enlightenment is so inherent to how we think about society, Man, government, culture and so on. Even those of us who are believers in faith must accept that the draperies were torn down; but only by realising they were torn down can you put them back up. So, rather than deny the legacies of the Enlightenment, Sir Roger says, we must accept that they are with us, and instead ‘live as if it matters eternally what we do: to obey the rites, the ceremonies and the customs that lend dignity to our actions and which lift them above the natural sphere’. 

The philosophical movement that took this lesson to heart the most, in my opinion, was the Romantics. They did not pretend that the legacies of the Enlightenment were so easily eradicable nor so easily deniable; instead, they accepted that they lived in a changed world, but sought to use that change to re-suture man’s relationship with himself, to correct the deficiencies of the Enlightenment and the empty rationalism that it loved so irrationally. 

The Romantic movement, by virtue of its own logic, was not universalist. The Enlightenment sought to be universal, to find laws and rules that governed Man in every circumstance and every place; but Romanticism, in reaction, favoured particularism, rootedness, and the cultural significance of place and people. In fact, so many of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century owed more to the Romantics than they did to the Enlightenment (but again, only in the sense that the Enlightenment showed us that all humans are deserving of dignity and respect, they just choose to express that dignity in varied ways). 

One such example of Romanticism that has always fascinated me emerged in Russia in the 1830s, more than anything because I believe that Russia then holds a multitude of lessons for Britain now. Early-nineteenth century Russia experienced what could only be described as an existential crisis: the Napoleonic Wars had damaged Russia’s understanding of herself as the great military power of Eastern Europe, and brought many ideas of universal brotherhood into contact with a society that did not even have the intellectual framework to accommodate such thoughts. But the crisis went deeper: as much as one hundred and fifty years before, Russian society was shaken by external ideas, more than any invasion could have hoped for, under the Reforms of Tsar Peter the Great. The Petrine Era of Russia saw cultural changes from the top – governmental reforms, military reforms, and technological innovation, much of which modernised Russia and made her into a Great Power; but these changes did not go unquestioned. In fact, many of the influential groups in Russia rebelled, sometimes violently, as in the Moscow Rising of the Streltsy in 1698. 

The legacy of Peter’s reforms, however, were not felt until much later. Of course, all major cultural and social changes take time to really be felt at all, but the ‘short eighteenth century’ was a time of such rapid and dislocating change – across all of Europe, but especially in Russia – that many generations found themselves intellectually and culturally cut adrift from those who came immediately before them. Peter, pursuing a programme of Westernisation insisted, for instance, that the Russian court speak French, a language thought of as ‘intellectual’ (with good reason); dress like the Prussian court; rationalised the military along the Western European lines; built an entirely new town on a North Italian design (St. Petersburg – of course); and, in one of my favourite little quirks of history, outlawed beards in that city’s borders. 

Cultural issues grow like pearls grow – a single grain of sand works its way into a mollusk, and irritates the mollusk in such a way that bacteria and calcium grows around it. Cultural changes irritate the social fabric of the community it works into; but we don’t have bacteria to grow around it, we only have each other. Yet we can understand cultural issues in the same way as a pearl – an irritant works its way in, and we grow that irritant into a recognisable tangible entity, by coalescing around it and growing it in such a way that it becomes instantly recognisable. 

This is what led to the Slavophiles. Petrine Russia thought it was undefeatable – and from the Great Northern War onwards, it very much was – until Napoleon came roaring in. But the Napeolonic Wars did two things for Russia, both with the same outcome; the first was importing many ideas into Russia that challenged the existing understanding of Russian political and social structures; the second was, in the same way Soviet soldiers pushed Nazi Germany back into Europe, Petrine soldiers followed Napoleon back into Europe. In both instances, educated Russian men saw the way Europeans lived, and realised that their society was not the improved form that their reforming leaders dreamt of. 

Instead, the Slavophiles urged a return to pre-Petrine, Muscovite-style Russianism, an embracing of folk styles, food, clothing, language, and so on – not to petrify them into a living museum of nostalgia, but to rectify the mistakes of the previous century, and offer an alternative direction into the future.

And just as with a grain of sand in a pearl, the cultural dislocation of Peter’s reforms that had long irritated the reactionary elements of eighteenth-century Russia, was seized on by many of the early-nineteenth century intelligentsia as a means of explaining the situation in which they had found themselves. This fermented a series of backlashes, intellectual and cultural, that led to an explosion of political movements, such as the terrorists, the socialists, the populists (narodniki), and – most importantly – the Slavophiles. The Slavophiles looked at the state of Russia in the 1830s and considered the Petrine reforms to be an unmitigated failure: they had not kept Russia at pace with the rest of Europe; they had dislocated the cultural and social elites from the people over whom they ruled; and worst of all, they had severed the Russian people from their own past. Peter the Great had made the mistake of proto-enlightenment liberalism, that there were universal standards of humanity against which peoples’ behaviours, cultures and laws could be judged, and in doing so, he had not attempted to “reform” Russia’s venerable history, but deny its very existence, and begin from scratch.

Instead, the Slavophiles urged a return to pre-Petrine, Muscovite-style Russianism, an embracing of folk styles, food, clothing, language, and so on – not to petrify them into a living museum of nostalgia, but to rectify the mistakes of the previous century, and offer an alternative direction into the future. This precipitated many of the following century’s movements: for instance, the emphasis on the folk of Russia encouraged the nascent populism into radicalism; the embracing of the Russian commune form of land management gave Russian socialism a concrete model from which to work; and the idea of Russia taking an entirely unique path of development to Europe created the intellectual condition for Lenin and the communists to believe Russia could “leapfrog” past the bourgeois liberalism of the continent and move straight to socialism. This is not to say the Slavophiles were socialists – to even say so is to misunderstand the subtle relativism that denies such universalist theories in itself. Indeed, many Slavophiles were ardent absolute monarchists, with the famous Memorandum to the Tsar by Alexei Aksakov in 1831 claiming that Russia’s unique place in history stems from its Orthodox Christianity, the invitation by the Kievan Rus to the Varangians to rule them, and the steppes shaping the Russian mindset to one of boundless opportunism (something that Berdayev later used as a comparison to the American prairies and Manifest Destiny). 

The consequences of the Slavophile movement might not be palatable, but their inspiration is something that Anglo conservatives need to pay attention to. Their movement began by an important moment of clarity: the political reforming project of the previous age had failed. It is no secret that the emerging conservatism in Britain despises the Blairite consensus, and in many ways that means we are already doing as the Slavophiles did:  only by recognising that we are in Blairite Britain can we undo its disastrous effects. But we need to go further; we cannot simply throw our hands up and accept Blairism as the present condition of Britain, but we need to see it for what it truly is. It is a complete and utter separation of Britain from our past, a denial of that past’s validity, and an attempt to create a new political identity on entirely alien lines. 

Moving into the future requires acceptance of the present circumstance; one of the silliest phrases is that the clock cannot be wound back, when the truth is, if the clock is showing the wrong time, it is imperative  that you wind it back. And just as taking the wrong turn and continuing down the wrong path will only get you further from where you want to go, so too must you turn back. We are all Blairites now; and just as alcoholics have to admit they’ll never recover from their alcoholism, we have to admit we will likely never recover from Blairism, but will always “be” recovering. 

But I do not want to be defeatist; the first step of recovery is acceptance. We need to accept that we live in Blairite Britain, and only then can we begin tearing it apart. We need to start ripping out its core parts: the communications act (2003); the equality act (2010); the Supreme Court; the devolved assemblies; the abolition of the hereditary aristocracy; the fox hunting ban; the smoking ban; in short, all of the components of a foreign way of life that have been foisted upon the British people by our own misguided maniacal reformers. It is time to go to war; but you can only do that if you accept the war is already going on.


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