politics

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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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

It’s hardly a novel take at this point to notice that something is fundamentally “off”, to put it lightly, with the way politics and society are currently operating. The events of the last year and a half have demonstrated a distinct lack of consistency in terms of virtually everything. Groups of rioters tearing down and/or vandalising historical monuments have operated virtually unimpeded, whilst a peaceful vigil for a woman murdered by a police officer was met with unwarranted violence, and the once obscene conspiracy theory that COVID originated from a Chinese lab has now been deemed not only acceptable, but plausible by the political elite. Perhaps the worst part is, no matter how uneasy this situation makes us, there is nothing “off” or abnormal about it; it is simply politics operating exactly how it should, whether we like it or not. 

In Concept of the Political, German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt attempted to precisely define the term “political”; indeed, the more one thinks about it, the harder this task appears. If you asked twenty random people off the street what “politics” actually means, I’d bet a modest pittance you’d get around twenty different answers. From experience, it would range from “the practice of governing/making laws”, to “ruling over people”, to “compromising to reach a universally acceptable outcome.” Schmitt would have fundamentally disagreed with all of these propositions, more-so the last assertion for the crime of being egregiously wishy-washy. 

Instead, politics, like all spheres of human activity, is defined by a dichotomic distinction. In the sphere of morality there is “good” and “evil”, in aesthetics “beauty” and “ugliness”, and in economics “profitable” and “unprofitable.” For politics, “the specific [distinction] to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” The “enemy” in the political sense is not a business competitor, or the villain of a petty private rivalry, but a public enemy, or “hostis.” As Schmitt explains, 

“An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship.”

Politics then, is driven by group-based loyalties; ideology, nationality, ethnicity, etc., any means of finding commonality amongst otherwise isolated individuals. Of course, this reductively alludes to the sentiment of “strength in numbers”, but it also appeals to the human disposition towards a common purpose greater than themselves, fostering a sense of camaraderie between those who share in it. These are the friends, and those who do not share the values and goals of the group, or hold loyalties elsewhere, are enemies. For the safety and security of the friend group and its institutions, enemies must be defined, outed, and crushed. 

Historians and theorists continue to debate whether Schmitt’s “concept [or definition] of the political” drew from his tendency towards authoritarianism and later National Socialism. Despite this, one cannot ignore that Schmitt’s definition is universally observable both in the past and present. Having formed the Second Triumvirate, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus instigated brutal proscriptions to ensure their most high-profile enemies were disposed of. In the words of Ronald Syme, “the Triumvirs were pitiless, logical, and concordant. On the list of the prescriptions all said they set one hundred and thirty senators and a great number of Roman knights.” They were not motivated by personal disdain or savage revenge, rather “their victory was the victory of a party”; the supremacy of the Caesarean cause against its threats.[5] Lenin too was political in this sense, evident, among other places, in State and Revolution

“the ‘special repressive force’ of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat, of the millions of workers by a handful of the rich, must be replaced by a “special repressive force” of the proletariat for the suppression of the bourgeoisie.”[6]

This is essentially a high-brow version of “it’s okay when we do it”; the destruction of the bourgeoisie (the enemy group) through violent means is perfectly acceptable, nay necessary, but violence used by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat (the friend group) is unjust. Even Joe Biden began his presidency in this manner, declaring those who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th  (something which both the elite and faux leftist rebels are still seething over) to be “extremists dedicated to lawlessness” who “do not represent a true America.”[7] Whether it be the most brutal dictatorship or the smiliest liberal democracy, every successful regime refuses to suffer the presence of those who wish to undermine it. Regardless of what we think of Schmitt’s motivations and endeavours, or indeed the notion of group/identity-based politics in itself, the friend-enemy distinction rings true to those in power. 

Therefore, when the elite tells us that tearing down statues is correcting history, or that taking the knee before a sporting event is a heroic stand against injustice, but protesting against lockdowns or waving the flag of your own country is a threat to “our way of life”, they are simply doing what all political entities must do: defining what behaviours and values are and are not acceptable, preserving the sanctity of the friend group against its enemies. Indeed, this sentiment echoes through Samuel Francis’s concept of “anarcho-tyranny”; describing the situation when an authoritarian state, despite its extensive power, is unable to enforce basic law and order, leading it to overregulate the lives of law-abiding citizens instead, rather than attempt to deal with genuine crime. An example of this would be clamping down hard on people travelling too far for a run at the peak of lockdown, but refusing to take any meaningful action on systematic trafficking through grooming gangs. 

In the context of the friend-enemy distinction, anarcho-tyranny appears as a political choice rather than risible incompetence; to introduce another of Schmitt’s famous definitions: “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, holding the power to transcend the restraints of the law such that they may protect the friend group in a state of emergency.[9] “Anarchy” reserved for friends, permitted by the sovereign (ruling elite in this case, rather than single individual) to do as they please because they either pose no real threat to the system and its goals, or are a useful pawn against its enemies. “Tyranny” is imposed upon enemies, whose every move must be monitored to ensure they are not in a position to challenge the system, and swiftly dealt with if they are. However, the problem with liberal democracies is that they are operated by the soft-handed administrators of the managerial elite, who are hesitant to use brute force against their enemies, even at a time of emergency. Make no mistake, the tyranny is still there, it simply takes a subtler form, often involving long-term manipulative tactics rather than outright arresting or executing dissidents, as one would typically expect from an oppressive state. 

One of the most powerful of these tactics is “framing.” In this context, framing can be best described using the old adage “you’re either with us, or against us”, a sentiment expressed in one way or another by political icons from Cicero to Lenin and Benito Mussolini to George Bush. As soon as there is the possibility of a middle-ground, or a compromise with the enemy, subversion is all-but certain. Consequently, the slightest disagreement with the status quo can effectively be painted as a potentially system-level threat. Even the mildest of lockdown sceptics, concerned about the effects of shutting the country down on small business, human interaction, or children’s development, can be framed as a threat to public health by placing them, in the mainstream consciousness, as one step away from national enemies such as Piers Corbyn, David Icke, and other such “deranged anti-vaxxers.” When put so reductively it sounds like a laughable exaggeration, yet it works. Understandably, the average person holds no desire to be framed in such a way, given the potential ramifications it could have on their life, leading them too comfortably justify averting the risk and pushing any niggling worries they may have had to the back of their head, slotting comfortably back into “trusting the experts.” 

This process also notably applied to UKIP at its peak (perhaps even the entire “populist uprising” more broadly), a party of free-market libertarians who flirted with drug legalisation, yet successfully framed in the media as fellow travellers of the openly fascist and white nationalist BNP; simply because they both claimed to oppose “the establishment” and mass immigration, and didn’t apologise for the Empire every ten minutes. Neither of these examples have been presented to lament their underdog status against a system that hates them, but simply to illustrate that once the powers-that-be determine a group or an idea unacceptable, usually because it threatens their narrative, social pressure will be enough for the average person to cave in and accept the status out of fear of being associated with extremists, and subsequently marginalised. One silver-lining to this practice is that it informs us which opinions truly are dangerous. If you can say something without fear of being called an extremist, chances are it’s neither threatening to the system nor particularly edgy; how many people have lost their jobs or livelihoods for being a Marxist in recent years? If anything, it’ll get you a pretty cosy gig at SAGE.

Returning to Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty, our aforementioned extremists or “threats to the system”, are regularly exaggerated to justify a faux state of emergency or “exception.” The most hardcore COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers, should they by some miracle gain political power, would do some damage to the system, so too would the BNP if it ever got anywhere. Realistically, the chances of either of these happening is so miniscule it seems the media time afforded to them feels somewhat unjustified. What were the odds of the BNP winning an election, even at their peak? Essentially nil. How many people are total COVID deniers who think vaccines are the mark of the beast? An insignificant amount. Yet, we’re constantly bombarded with sensationalist fear porn to make it seem like the enemies are just one step away from ruining everyone’s day. By lauding them as existential threats to normality, and making them seem more powerful and influential than they are, it leads people straight back into the arms of the system, such that it may protect them from these awful people and their dangerous ideas. In fact, there is an argument to be made that suppression of extremists is counter-intuitive, as their existence (especially when, as it is in reality, negligible) works to support the system rather than weaken it, providing a visible manifestation of the enemy; a deterrent to discourage normal people (who are raised from birth with the idea that the establishment is the friend) from straying too far outside the Overton window. Framing then, acts as both a means of undermining the enemy, as well as consolidating the power of the friend group without needing to bash down doors and shoot dissidents in the street; far more civilised if you ask me. 

Framing also has an added bonus effect: it forces enemies to talk in the same language as friends, functionally turning them into a friend, but still kept at an arm’s length. Moderates of either side don’t want to be associated with extremists either, it’s bad PR, and will almost always side against them if it means they won’t be classified as an enemy. They possess a constant need for approval from the establishment; understandable at the surface level, as such approval allows them to participate in the mainstream dialogue, albeit at the cost of excessively watering-down their positions to the point where they offer little but an edgy (at best) spin on the narrative of the ruling elite. Hence why the moderate right-wing is so painfully milquetoast, they would rather cosy up to the progressive managerial elite than support people on their own side. Paul Gottfried refers to these people as “Conservative Inc.”, the Turning Points and “liberal Tories” of the world, establishment right-wingers who peddle toned-down, politically safe opinions, easily consumable by the average “sceptic”, whilst attacking those who offer a genuinely conservative alternative, often accusing them of being rabid reactionaries. Unfortunately, if you want a seat at the table of power, you need to be a friend, and that means you must play by the rules of the game and participate in the punishment of the enemies just the same. 

Despite all of this, liberal democracy tries to disguise the friend-enemy distinction. According to Schmitt, as an ideology emergent from the economic sphere, liberalism is inclined towards compromise, as it is unprofitable to hold contemptuous relationships with a potential business partner or customer. As we have established, this does not mean that liberal democracies do not enforce the friend-enemy distinction, in fact, considering the effectiveness of framing they’re rather good at it, but they do attempt to smokescreen the natural dichotomy of politics. 

One of the methods this is achieved is through what Curtis Yarvin calls the “two-story myth.” Under authoritarian regimes, a “national myth” is forced upon the population, constituting a narrative of history containing elements justifying the existence and power of the ruling elite. The problem with this, according to Yarvin, is that people fundamentally hate being told what to think, particularly as national myths are never completely truthful. You can see this in the limp efforts by the Conservative Party to promote “British values”, the substance of which are another issue entirely, and are almost always widely repudiated, whether it be through cynical edginess or a realisation that these things cannot be artificially created. Therefore, it is arguably more effective to create a “two-story myth”, whereby the national myth is split into two narratives. 

“When people hear one story, they tend to ask: is this true? When they hear two stories, they tend to ask: which one of these is true?”

What is being questioned is not whether the ruling elite is justified in its position or not, simply the path taken for it to get there. The Tories (when not infested with Blairism) tell us that the British state promoted individualism, freedom of speech, and entrepreneurship, good old classical liberal values which built us into the country we are today. Labour on the other hand insist that our country was built into what it is now through co-operative values such as trade unionism, the NHS, and the welfare state. Despite both of these being mostly falsehoods, there are nuggets of truth present in them which provide just enough for there to be an “uncontroversial, bipartisan consensus”, meaning that when the system is threatened, the loyal peons of each path can be relied on to defend it. 

As politics is innately dichotomous and confrontational, the two-story myth provides a faux-friend-enemy distinction to act as a “safety valve” stopping people turning to narratives that won’t arrive in the same place as the approved ones. Whilst people are busy fighting over whether the Tories or Labour should be in power, it keeps them from realising that they are friends, and that by supporting either they are supporting the maintenance of the status quo, regardless of which one is in office. Even people acutely aware of their similarities, quite a substantial number these days, still fall into the trap of engaging with such theatrics. This does not mean that there is no disagreement at all between friends, there are tussles over particular policies, permitted insofar as the fundamentals of the system are not challenged, and as long as the illusion of disagreement (at least superficially) maintains the deception. Different MPs of different parties had all sorts of opinions on Brexit, but beyond lip service, none of them ever questioned whether globalism or free-trade are inherent goods in themselves. Equally, Boris Johnson, Joe Biden, and Justin Trudeau certainly all have their own views on a variety of matters, and may not even like each other on a personal level, but when the time comes, they chant in unison their desire to “build back better.” 

There is no friend-enemy distinction between Labour and the Conservatives, or any party in parliament; if any of them were deemed to be enemies of the system they would not be allowed anywhere near power. Back to the BNP example, whatever one thinks of them, they did not share the values of the ruling elite, nor did they buy into the national myth via either one of the two stories. Consequently, after gaining 2 MEPs in the 2009 European Parliament election, they were actively denied access to information afforded to every other party, and it was made clear that their involvement in anything meaningful would be kept to an absolute minimum. This is not an endorsement of the BNP or its failed plight against mainstream politics; honestly speaking, it makes perfect sense, bringing us full circle back to the central question raised by the friend-enemy distinction: would you let a rogue element, which actively despises you and everything you stand for, operate on the same playing field as you? If the answer is yes, then you must be some kind of masochist. 

One should not misinterpret this as a polemic against liberal hypocrisy; yes, they allow their friends to operate as they please whilst marginalising anyone they disagree with, but that is not hypocrisy, it is simply politics. They are the ones who hold the power, and no one can expect them to sit back and give free rein to potential subverters.  It may not be particularly nice, but the sooner we come to terms with it the better, and once we stop trying to be the bigger person, better still. They want you to “debate” them because it is a distraction, no matter how easy it is to tear apart their ideas and arguments. If those with power decide that something will happen, it will determine whether its justifications are fallacious or if anyone agrees or disagrees with it. 

The simple answer is to return the favour, if they don’t care what you think of them, then you shouldn’t care what they think of you. Stand tall for what you believe in, refuse to allow that which you hold dear to be critiqued or questioned by people who hold you in contempt, because as soon as those ideas become contestable, they lose their sacred status. Let them bombard you with petty insults, safe in the knowledge that they are, in the words of Roger Scruton “propaganda words”, abstract weasel words designed to attach enemy status to someone; recognising such is the first part of stepping over the quagmire of liberalism.  One you discover your friends (not enemies who wear the skins of friends) discuss ideas among them by all means, learn from your enemies but do not engage with them, no matter how much they try to lure you in with the promise of “free and fair discussion”; a deception to hide their true intention: to confuse you, humiliate you, and obliterate you and your way of life. 

Friend good, enemy bad; the motto of all successful political entities.  


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