Sunday, January 28, 2018

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time - A Review

This is a book which I have known about for a long time, which I knew I would fully appreciate and learn from, but which I only finally got around to reading this past Spring (2017).


Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (EKL) was an enormously erudite man, a claim which is supported by the mammoth bibliography provided at the back of this book. The author uses his extensive historical knowledge to show how liberty and equality are infact 'contradictory' (von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 3). He begins with an outline of his definition of liberty, which is not congruous 'with an unlimited capitalism of the Manchester school' (Ibid., p. 5), but instead refers simply to a condition of liberty; the 'liberal' in his sense is not tied to any specific political position, but loosely denotes a certain disposition towards a more meaningful sense of freedom: 'A liberal is a man or a woman who is interested in having people enjoy the greatest amount of liberty - and this regardless of the juridical type of government they are living under' (Ibid., p. 3).

For EKL, the 'type of government' which makes for the best conditions of liberty is not a democracy, but an aristocracy, or a monarchy supported by an aristocracy. In his arguments for this assertion he marks himself as the follower of Alexis de Tocqueville and William Edward Hartpole Lecky, who warned of the dangers to individual liberties that increasingly democratic policies may present, and the predecessor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who maintains that a monarchy is less offensive to the personal livelihood of the common man than the highly bureaucratized modern democracy. He goes further than all of them, however, in his defense of 'personal rule' and the old order, which he recognizes as far more natural to humanity; the personhood of the King, for example, recalls the character of the family patriarch, who in the ideal sense rules his household justly and with an eye to keeping the peace among all its parts. The relation of the king to his subject, says EKL, is that of an elder father to his mature son:

To the cultural anthropologist monarchy is a patriarchal institution. Its underlying ideology is thus “familistic.” The ideal monarch is a father – a concept expressed in the symbolic pictorial representation of kings and emperors. The king of the playing-cards, or of the illustrations in children’s stories, is usually a bearded, middle-aged or old man with eyes expressing a mixture of benevolence, jollity and occasional severity. He appears to be neither too young nor too smart – and he is decidedly not a superman. He exudes authority, but he nevertheless gives the impression that shrewder subjects would get the better of him. Now, a father in the narrower sense is a creator, a procreator with a subsequent evanescent authority; a father in a wider sense is a man with full responsibility over minors, and a position of respect, seniority and leadership in relation to mature persons. This relation is intimate, emotional and affectionate. There is a mutual interest which is partly personal and partly “generational,” i.e., directed towards the ruler’s family, and thus transferable to the heir. Baruch Spinoza thought that monarchy is a form of government in which subjects are treated like children, whereas tyrants treat them like slaves. Yet in a traditional monarchy the relationship between king and subject is that of a middle-aged father and his mature son, not that of a young father and an infant. In a similar way Dante saw (De monarchia, iii, 16) in the Holy Roman Emperor a “first-born son of the Pope,” who owes him reverence, but not secular obedience. (Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pp. 138-39)

A substantial portion of the book is dedicated to showing the 'democratic' nature of totalitarian societies, which have to gain and preserve power through the manipulation of public opinion. Given the natural inequalities between men and groups of men, the metapolitical doctrine of 'equality' has to either be reconciled with the hypocrisy of expounding an egalitarian principle while maintaining a polity filled with inequalities, or it has to be pummeled into society through coercive measures in the attempt to actually attain the dreamed-of equality. Thus Henri-Frederic Amiel says, 'The only counterpoise to pure equality is military discipline.... [I]s it not curious that the regime of individual right should lead to nothing but respect for brutal strength? Jacobinism brings with it Caesarism; the rule of the tongue leads to the rule of the sword. Democracy and liberty are not one but two' (Amiel, pp. 136-37).

The hypocrisy of preaching equality but slyly allowing for the growth of inequality provides the best case scenario for the egalitarian creed, while the sincere pursuit of 'real equality' provides the experiences of Jacobinism, Communism, and National Socialism. The 'general will' is allegedly the bearer of universal equality, but in reality it only achieves its intent by subjecting those who do not conform to its common denominator to a crippling dehumanization – whether metaphorically in the sense of a superior living according to an inferior condition or literally under the guillotine. Thus, the ideas of 'democracy' and 'liberty' are indeed not synonymous or even sympathetic at all, but mutually opposed.

In his program for a new order, Dostoyevsky's raving revolutionary Verhensky provides a chilling and rather prophetic exposition of the real dangers inherent in the arguments for the realization of equality in society:

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it’s his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality. To begin with, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of education and science is only possible for great intellects, and they are not wanted. The great intellects have always seized the power and been despots. Great intellects cannot help being despots and they’ve always done more harm than good. They will be banished or put to death. Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned—that’s Shigalovism. Slaves are bound to be equal. There has never been either freedom or equality without despotism, but in the herd there is bound to be equality, and that’s Shigalovism! (Dostoevsky, Part II, Ch. VIII)

It is not, however, the 'totalitarian' state alone that exhibits the 'menace of the herd'; the so-called 'liberal democracy' (a contradictio in adjecto if there ever was one) is characterized by the same homogenizing and levelling tendencies of its Bolshevik and National Socialist rivals. These tendencies are no less destructive for the more permissive nature of representative democracy, but are infact in some ways more effective for it, since open repression has for a consequence the active resistance against it while a more subtle form of 'social planning' can silently change cultural mores and attitudes by instigating a desired public opinion without the citizenry ever noticing it. The freedom of original ideas to form in the West is constrained by the tyranny of majority rule, which dictates what is intellectually acceptable, what is 'politically correct.' De Tocqueville noticed this already in the middle of the nineteenth century: 'In America the majority builds an impregnable wall around the process of thinking. The Inquisition was never able to prevent the circulation in Spain of the books opposed to the religion of the majority. The majestic rule of the majority does better in the United States; it has removed even the thought of publishing them’ (quoted in Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 36).

We must not forget, however, that the 'rule of the majority' is itself ruled by the intellectual and moral currents that are fed to it through the prevailing institutions of the day. Thus, under the disguise of the notion of 'progress,' which teaches that we must know more than our forefathers simply because we are older and more 'mature' as a civilization, the architects of public perception can slowly manipulate it into increasingly 'liberal' and 'tolerant' feelings towards things which express its degeneracy, e.g., sodomy masquerading as something normal, abortion, pornography, unchecked immigration under the philanthropic auspices of 'saving the less fortunate,' etc.

The idea that our society is formed by the popular will is therefore only a half-truth, since the popular will is itself conditioned by what certain plutocratic 'elites' wish it to be. Through the media, education, entertainment, and a general sidelining of the traditional position of the father in the upbringing of the next generation, public opinion becomes the expression of an artificially-created ethos instead of the authentic popular will, which is best represented by the traditions and customs of the people as they have been cultivated for centuries.

This is not merely a circumstantial situation, either, something that happened as though by accident, but something that occurs as the natural result of a political order that relies on plebiscitarian consent for it to function. A democracy that requires the will of the people as such for its legislation and decision-making is highly vulnerable to the corruption that subverts the will of the people to the will of a cunning and flexible power base. This is because, especially in the age of the 'mass man' who is subject to a hundred different forces pulling him every which way, the people are as a whole a malleable entity, and will follow the fashion of the day or the first strongman who appears as Caesar here to save them; therefore Goethe says, ‘I have nothing at all against the masses; / But whenever they get into a tough spot / In order to protect themselves against the devil, / They call those scoundrels, the tyrants.’

Despite the honest if naive convictions of the ideologues of equality, it is in the best interests of the grotesquely unequal that their egalitarian programs are realized and the privileges of the past are torn down. This is because it is far easier to control and dominate a protean mass of wage-slaves than a graded hierarchy in which the bulk of men know their rank and position and actually find meaning in their work, which is expressed as a vocation rather than as a 'job.' The intellectual and political responsibilities afforded to the common man have proven to be beyond him, who has shown himself to be more easily moved by the arts of propaganda and the false promises of consumerism than by the more serious and durable content of his culture. Therefore Nietzsche is able to say of him in The Will to Power: 'The distinctive quality of people in modern Europe lies in their ability to be easily trained and broken in; people who learn easily, obey easily, are the rule; a herd animal... has evolved. He who can give commands quickly finds those who are born to obey.'


Before we conclude this review, we must go over the author's considerations of the different Christian religions and how they impact the social and political dimensions of the modern nation, for they comprise a substantial and rather important portion of the book.

Since religion is the strongest 'of all the "external" elements shaping the character of individuals as well as of groups' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 179), exploring the religious adherence of a particular nation is a crucial factor in understanding it. The truth of this is shown in the dramatic changes that take place upon the conversion of a people, as in Scotland or England before and after the Reformation, new Protestant countries who had to forcibly expunge the traditional Catholic elements from the populace over the course of centuries. It is also shown by a juxtaposition between two communities of the same country who hold different faiths; the cultural differences of Calvinist and Catholic Hungary, for instance, are sufficiently deep as to provoke the question whether they belong to the same nation at all. Of course, as the modern nations are increasingly secularized, these differences tend to wither away, but this is only because a new 'religious' creed is replacing the old ones, not because the differences were merely temporary or transitional. This point is important to keep in mind throughout EKL's thoughts on this matter, since religious attitudes have deteriorated as an influential force in Europe since the time of this book's composition (1952).

EKL defines Catholic Europe as following 'a basically patriarchal pattern, characterized by a ubiquity of fatherhood which automatically fostered royal over republican institutions' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 184). The progressive push for equality is not so keenly felt in Catholic countries, which have a tendency to cling to the old hierarchical modes of social structure. This is not to say that Catholic countries are necessarily 'elitist' by nature; the defense of the peasant and the rural way of life is almost invariably more vigorous in Catholic cultures than in Protestant ones, who are often in the vanguard of industrial and technological progress. EKL summarizes this phenomenon by saying that Catholic nations are 'demophile but not democratic' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 186), and the Spanish proverb 'Tener un hijo, plantar un arbor, escribir un libro' does even better in expressing their rooted, subdued, and organic way of life ('To have a son, to plant a tree, to write a book'). 'As for commercialism,' EKL says, 'it was never forgotten by Catholic nations that the merchants and money changers in the Temple were the only ones physically chastised by Our Lord' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 185).

The Catholic religion can be generalized as being that which looks to preserve the traditions belonging to man wherever he is found, or at least to understand them in ways congenial to Christian reform without necessarily destroying or replacing them completely; the Catholic evangelical approach is synthetic rather than substitutive. In Africae Munus, the document addressing evangelization in Africa, Pope Benedict XVI said that it 'would help to manifest the treasures of the Church’s sacramental life and spirituality in all their depth and to pass them on more effectively in catechesis, if the Church were to carry out a theological study of those elements of the traditional African cultures in conformity with Christ’s teaching.' While certainly this document bears the signs of Vatican II's stress on ecumenical harmony, it is still essentially the same method that the Church has always prescribed: that which can be seamlessly reinterpreted in a Christian light may stay while everything injurious to the person or is otherwise contrary to natural law must be abandoned and forgotten.

There is moreover a general attempt to retain, or rather to respect, the essential conditions of man. This follows firstly from the realism of Catholic theology which, drawing from Plato and Aristotle, depends on a formal definition of reality. Briefly stated, this view regards certain things as immutable, or impossible to change; the passions or vices of a man are not something that can simply be eliminated once and for all, but they can be altered or sublimated into something that lives in harmony with the soul. Things have a certain telos, a reason for their existence, a final end that they must seek, and our task as individual and social humans is to determine those ends and ensure that they are fulfilled. For the culture informed by the Catholic faith, this philosophy results in a relatively stable order that is content with one compartment of society engaged in the life of the spirit (the City of God) while the other toils in the world (the City of Man), seeing no contradiction or hypocrisy in their co-existence, seeing no problem with the monk in his cloister praying for the shopkeeper in the villa.

The 'Reformation' is aptly named, because it is at this time that radical ideas materialize into movements seeking the total reform of the old ways, which are seen as unsuited for a society truly in communion with Christ. Over the course of centuries the realism of the medieval era is replaced by the nominalism of the modern era, which no longer sees the universe as fixed and unchangeable but as something that can be shaped and conquered by the human will. Reform-minded Catholics like Savonarola in the 15th century and Charles Borromeo in the 16th century were instrumental in the attempt to fully 'Christianize' the peoples of Florence and Milan, both in the sense of purifying the ecclesial corruptions, which is normal, and of purifying the social body itself, which is something new.

It was Lutheran and Calvinist theology, however, which, being influenced by the nominalism and voluntarism of late scholastics like William Ockham and Gabriel Biel, formed the real engines of change in Europe. In this perspective, since things in this world are not as they are because that's just how they are, but because they are willed to be so by God (or, in later understandings, by man), this allows for the possibility of change. The fallen nature of man must be at least masked if not totally transformed by the creation of holy societies, which, led by the 'Elect' who have a responsibility to manage the damned, will finally eradicate the poisons of the City of Man.

Thus the Calvinist Jan Laski says that, in a truly reformed society, 'wars would cease among the nobility.... Virtue would be prized; vices corrected... brothels would be abolished; the poor would be cared for and all begging eliminated; the sick would be visited and consoled....' (Quoted in Taylor, pp. 105-6). A truly reformed society, in other words, would be heaven on earth, for all the things that characterize earthly existence would be abolished; man would be redeemed, not through the spiritual sense by which the medieval world typically understood redemption, but through a social organization that alleviated or even cured all of the ills born of the Fall.

The Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist reactions against Rome also exemplify the revolutionary tendency to reject the given edifices of authority. Given the eschatological temperament that characterizes a great part of the Reformation, which sees its work as tearing down the 'Fourth Kingdom' foreseen by David, the Roman Catholic Church (also seen as the 'Whore of Babylon), it is a matter of necessity that the old religious structure give way to the new, as the New Jerusalem shall take the place of the old. Karl Marx himself saw this when he said in 1844 'Germany's revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation. At that time it was the monk, now it is the philosopher, in whose brain the revolution begins.' We can therefore see the contributions of the German Reformation to the democratic impetus in European history, a particular branch of which culminates in the revolutionary fervour of Marxian socialism. Eric Voegelin goes deeper into this connection:

Luther's Reformation was the first step of a German revolution. He broke the faith in authority, but he put in its place the authority of faith. He liberated man from external religiousness but he made religiousness the substance of man. Protestantism, thus, has not brought the true solution, but it has revealed the true task, that is: the struggle against the priest. The struggle of the layman with the priest outside himself had been won; now the struggle has to be continued against the priest within man, against the priestly substance of man. "The most radical fact of German history," the Peasant War, broke against the wall of the new Protestant theology. Today, when this theology itself has broken down, the anachronistic, political state will be broken by the new philosophy. These passages show that Marx was perfectly aware of the connection between his own thought and German Protestantism. There is, indeed, an intelligible line of meaning running from Luther's destruction of ecclesiastical authority, through the destruction of dogmatic symbols in the generation of Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Feuerbach, to the destruction of "all the gods," that is of all authoritative order, in Marx. While it would be incorrect to say that the way of Protestantism leads with any inner necessity from Luther to Hegel and Marx, it is true that Marxism is the final product of disintegration in one branch of German, liberal Protestantism. (Voegelin, p. 283)

We will get into more of this when we review Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, but it has relevance for our present subject in that EKL similarly attributes to Protestantism a forceful desire for change, for willing something to be something better. This explains the customary Protestant approach to education, for example. In its attempt to universally educate the masses, the Protestant mind believes that, for man to become better, that is, to improve himself in a fundamental way, all he needs to do is learn about the world, to know the things that the scholar knows, that the priest knows, the vocational and intellectual differences between a philosopher and a baker notwithstanding. Thus, in the Protestant trust in the Holy Spirit and the common man's reception to it, the Bible is given to him unreservedly, without any formal guidance whatsoever; 'he will understand it,' they say; 'the Holy Spirit assures us of that.'

As opposed to the traditional relationship between a scholarly clergy and an unlearned laity, or between an intellectual elite and an unwitting peasantry, the Protestant country typically takes a democratic approach to the question of education, and therefore seeks to remove these vital differences altogether. If everyone is literate, if everyone is well-versed in the classics, mathematics, the sciences, etc., there will no longer be a stark contrast between a 'patrician' and a 'plebeian'; all will be equal. EKL talks about 'good averages,' which is 'the optimum for a democracy' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 189). As opposed to the Protestant-secular ideal of a race entirely composed of genius polymaths, the result inevitably tends to be something altogether lukewarm, mediocre. In trying to abolish the natural differences native to man, we do not suddenly find a fair and equal and homogeneous group of men uplifted to a loftier, nobler state; instead we find a group of men which is no longer marked by a few outstanding personalities, but by its faded, jaded uniformity. This is nevertheless a net positive for the democrat, since it is not really a profound individuation that represents the ideal citizen, but a willingness to conform (because homogeneity is equated with 'equality'):

There is no doubt that the great pride of the democracies, compulsory education (and, to a lesser degree, conscription), is a prime factor in the process of forming the minds of citizens into a uniform pattern. It is obvious that the situation which existed in the Weimar period of the German Republic, when parties were totally unable to establish a real “dialogue,” had to lead to anarchy or to the iron rule of one victorious party.... (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 200)
During the Nuremberg Trials, EKL relates, Julius Streicher argued that, for his 'anti-Semitic' beliefs, Martin Luther would be among the accused were he alive today. He then recounts the similarities between Lutheranism and National Socialism, or rather contends how the former allows for the latter.

This starts with the Lutheran rejection of 'reason,' which in Protestant thought is generally established as a rival of faith, whereas Thomistic theology views them as allied, philosophy being the ancilla theologiae, the 'handmaiden' of theology. The fideism of the early Lutherans accords with the 'irrationalism' stressed by the National Socialists, who were not only reacting against the Enlightenment idea of reason, but against the entire Western tradition of Logos, dismissing not only Descartes and Locke but Plato and Aristotle as well. The 'Providence' that is frequently mentioned in Mein Kampf is not used in the normal meaning of the term, but as a special kind of megalomania that seems to tell us that Hitler really considers himself as 'blessed,' as chosen by God to redeem and restore the German people to their glory (see Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth for an admirable study on this).

The Lutheranism of Germany not only helped shape the ideology of the National Socialists, but equipped the German populace with a kind of fortitude that numbed them to the thought of resisting the regime. Luther may have rejected the authority of the Church, but he did no such thing in regards to the state: 'Even if the magistrate is wicked and unjust there should be no excuse for rioting or rebellion. For not everybody has the right to punish wickedness; only the secular authorities in the possession of the sword' (quoted in Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 223). This obeisant sturdiness, born and cultivated in Lutheran Prussia, which meekly bowed to the Hohenzollerns and Junkers for centuries, meant that the Protestant response to the National Socialist imposition on their religious freedoms, its subversion of their beliefs, its anti-Christian policies, and its attempts to altogether replace it via 'positive Christianity,' was muted indeed.

The Catholic resistance was not on the whole very much better, but there was clearly a deepening tension between the Church and Hitler's regime as the German government continued to violate the Concordat, institute eugenic practises, and attack the clergy itself. Pope Pius XII himself maintained relations with German resistance groups, and his encyclical Mystici corporis Christi ranks alongside Bishop von Galen's homilies as outstanding intellectual comfort to those who felt a conscientious need to rebel against the regime. Moreover, in spite of the early National Socialist support around Munich, the decisive 1932 and 1933 elections clearly show a marked parallel between Protestant demographics and support for the NSDAP, while Catholic demographics largely remained loyal to Zentrum, the Catholic Centre party. This illustrates from the beginning a stronger antithesis between the National Socialist ethos and the Catholic religion, an antithesis which only grew as the regime established itself more deeply into German society.

There is nevertheless also something of the Catholic religion in the National Socialist phenomenon, which is alleged to be 'the combination of the degenerative process of Protestantism with Catholic absolutism and extremism' (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 232); the number of lapsed Catholics in the upper echelons of the National Socialist hierarchy (Goebbels, Himmler, Hess, Goering, Hitler himself) only provide further support to the idea that the ideology and the political power are stimulated by the 'absolutist' and 'pseudo-monarchical' qualities inherent in the social understanding of the Catholic religion. If EKL is right, if the unified German state were wholly Protestant instead of being religiously mixed, the impact of the National Socialist regime on German society may well have been much milder, even if its intellectual content would be no less venemous. That is, of course, assuming that an entirely Protestant NSDAP would have the success that the historical NSDAP had.

As a final aside on this question, in view of the National Socialist treatment of 'minority' peoples, the very structure of democratic thought cannot consistently dispense real justice to the minorities of any which society, insofar as it presupposes a division between majority and minority in the management of the nation. Unless the polls are manipulated or coerced, which they very often are, the 'general will' or 'public opinion' is never unanimous; there is always going to be a minority dissent. This is merely the bad luck of the few, who, according to the democratic principle, must yield to the many. As opposed to the multi-ethnic empire, which is free from any such constraints and can consistently dispense justice to all its minorities, regardless of their prominence, the democratic regime, as the expression of the people's will, must do what the majority wishes (or what the regime supposes or imagines the majority's wish to be).

Thus, Europe never knew the barbarism of compulsory displacement informed by popular ideologies prior to the democratic age, certainly not to the extent that the twentieth century was responsible for. EKL uses the example of the Ruthenian minority, comparing their relative security in the Austro-Hungarian Empire with their having to leave their homes according to the arbitrary notions of nationality of the Bolsheviks (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 314). This is not merely a symptom of totalitarian states, either, something to which the unfortunate saga of the Nisei in the United States testifies (though it should be noted that the use of Hollywood pictures to caricature Japanese-Americans as saboteurs is an instance of 'manufactured consent,' which is of course a key element of totalitarian society). While the democratic regime can slyly resort to the 'people's consensus' as an excuse for virtually any action, the monarchical state is subject to higher laws and principles, which recognize the claims to justice on the part of the many as well as of the few:

The monarch… is potentially the protector of minorities – especially the small, powerless and uninfluential minorities – just because he is “everybody’s monarch.” The very concept of a “minority” is non-monarchical and democratic. The constant counting and comparing of numbers characterizes all egalitarian-parliamentary regimes. The protective role of kingship is clearly seen in the oath of the Holy Roman Emperor. In democratic republics, on the other hand, we have always seen tiny, unpopular minorities being sacrificed to the whim of the majorities, who in times of stress blissfully disregard constitutional injunctions.... A monarch can, at least, be reminded of his coronation oath, but the citizenry stands under no special obligation or pressure – save from their weak and vacillating consciences. (Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 158)


Liberty or Equality is a diversely concentrated text that covers a broad portion of the intellectual and political landscape in the 1950's, but throughout the work there is a singular devotion to the freedom and the dignity of man. The democrat insists that equality and liberty are synonymous, but the history of democratic movements proves otherwise, especially in the 20th century. EKL carefully diagnoses the symptoms belonging to the majoritarian tumour, persuasively showing how the claims of the democrat to provide a fair and meaningful political existence to the citizen are increasingly unfounded in reality. With the aid of a wide array of social critics who are quoted extensively, the reader comes out of this book with a firmer idea of the inherent contradictions and the unsustainable presumptions in the modern order.

The clearest way that EKL clarifies this is in showing the profound division between the pre-modern and modern forms of government.  In contrast to the impersonal democratic order of the West, which pretends to take seriously the meaningfulness of the ballot while its results are more the product of contrived public opinion than of the real wishes of the demos, EKL subscribes to the traditional idea of an organic social hierarchy wherein each and every individual is cohesively integrated into a purposeful whole. Moreover, even if the popular will were sincerely expressed, the millions upon millions of votes that are tallied in the hope of achieving a majority opinion on the future of the nation's leadership or on the legislation of a moral issue reduce the significance of the political action of casting a vote to such a degree that the voter can hardly be deemed to be a real participant – especially when his options are already effectively chosen for him through the partocratic system that merely crystallizes the ideological sentiments in vogue.

In a democracy, a person is weighed mechanically, quantitatively, as though he were nothing but a number. Instead of the democratic slogan 'nobody is indispensable,' EKL substitutes the reassurance that 'Everybody is unique. Everybody is indispensable' (von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 107). An honest political order recognizes both innate qualities and those which are won through personal accomplishment, and it aims to produce a bonum commune wherein every man participates in a world of his own making.

Yet we cannot expect any 'soteriological' miracles from any system of government, which properly considered is more an agent of restraint than an agent of positive change. Recalling the 'Katechontism' of his contemporary Carl Schmitt, which redirects the Pauline concept of the katechon into a political repellent of chaotic revolution, EKL considers the fundamental aim of politics to be the cultivation of space for the individual to develop his own qualities, most especially those regarding his immortal soul. Families, for instance, which are likened as 'minor kingdoms' to the kingdom as a whole, are 'ideal spheres for the development of personality; and free societies always have strongly developed hierarchically built cells' (Ibid., p. 108).

Thus, the multi-dimensional Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn belongs not only to the tradition of counter-revolutionary writers such as De Maistre and Donoso Cortes, and not only to the tradition of 'liberal conservatives' such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, but also to the overarching domain of Catholic Social Teaching. This notion of the family as a microcosm of the polity, for instance, is preceded in Pope St. Leo XIII:

A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, "at least equal rights"; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. (Leo XIII, Article 13)
In Liberty or Equality we therefore encounter a rich political critique of the modern democratic creeds, which gather around immanent ideologies that pay no heed to the spiritual principles that played such an important role in the founding of our civilization. The problems are not laid out in a difficult, theoretical, or even a very in-depth way, but are presented as a matter of common sense with eminently practical consequences. The basis of the historical Western social organism is positively contrasted with an unrestrained pursuit of equality, with all its attendant symptoms. We come out of this text with an improved insight into how a rationalistic desire to 'improve' society often produces the opposite effects, as well as with a sense of urgency to cleanse our oldest institutions of all the intellectual bile and personal iniquity that currently occupy them.

Only love makes one truly liberal, for only love does not separate right (rule) from duty (service), possession from being possessed, or allowing oneself to be possessed. (Franz von Baader)

Amiel, Henri-Frederic, Amiel's Journal, trans. Humphrey Ward (New York: Brentano, 1928)
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Possessed or, The Devils, trans. Constance Garnett (London: Everyman's  Library, 1931)
Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik Ritter von Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Times (Auburn, AL:  The Mises Institute, 2014)
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891 (, accessed January 7th, 2018)
Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1844 (,          accessed January 28th, 2018)                             
Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (London, 2007: Harvard University Press)
Voegelin, Eric, From Enlightenment to Revolution (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Eric Voegelin and the Liberal's 'Permanent Revolution'

This excerpt from Eric Voegelin's book From Enlightenment to Revolution exposes the 'milder,' liberal counterpart of the fiery impulse of the radical revolutionary. Concerned about the dark 'passions' unleashed by the Jacobin type, PROGRESS must nevertheless be ever on the march, and it is at its most successful when it moves through soft, undulating waves of reform.

This is what characterizes the 'permanent revolution' of liberalism, the work of 'democrats' and 'conservatives' alike to realize the future state of liberty, equality, and fraternity by means of minor increments. This is the meaning behind Chesterton's famous phrase: 'The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.'

The permanent revolution succeeds where the revolutionary moment fails because the advance of the radical is invariably followed by the return of the reactionary. By foregoing a violent and instant revelation of the progressive destiny, the liberal can avoid the inevitable result of what happens when man goes too far - he ends up somewhere on the other side. By quietly introducing new acts and novel measures, which are cloaked beneath the rational disguise of 'changing with the times,' the liberal can slowly, peaceably undermine the traditions of his oppressor and replace them with the plants of progress, the garden of Eden that will at last erase our political animosity and difference. Then the Revolution will have finally reached its end, and it will have done so not with the sword but with the word.

Thus, Voegelin:

'A first answer to the problem of the crisis is given by the liberals who wish to transform the violent rhythm of Revolution and Restoration into a gentle undulation of progressive reform. This idea was developed in the liberal periodical Le Censeur by its editors Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, in 1815. Revolution is recognized as a necessity insofar as it is required by the light of reason, but there are other revolutions which are motivated by pride and ambition. The revolution which resulted in the liberal monarchy of 1791 was commanded by reason while the Republic, the Consulate, as well as the movements which tend to restore the ancient regime, belonged to the second type. 

There are two states which are equally bad for a society: complete stagnation and prolonged, anarchical disorder. "The one clings too strongly even to its most puerile customs, and to its most superstitious practices; the other indulges in the disorderly movement of passions." Besides, the one state produces the other. Anarchical revolution is inevitable when a regime insists on its continuation against reason and history, while the reactionary despotism of a Bonaparte will rise from anarchy. "There is only one means for nations to prevent the great revolutions; that is, to put themselves into a state of permanent and wisely regulated revolution." When a nation is guided intelligently it is protected against all revolution, or rather its revolution is "permanent, but slow and progressive, so that it follows without jolts the progress of reason."

The articles of Charles Comte and Dunoyer have their importance because the Censeur represents the liberal restoration at its intellectual best. We see here developing an attitude toward the crisis which remains typical in later liberalism and we can observe in its origins the growth of an escapist cliché. The rhythm of Revolution and Restoration is considered a stupid exaggeration of the process of social reform, the violent swings of the pendulum ought to be toned down – under the title of “permanent revolution” – to the gentle process that today is called "peaceful change." The problem of the crisis itself disappears and is swallowed up by the category of progress under the guidance of reason. 

We have characterized this attitude as escapist because it skillfully dodges the real issue of the crisis. A society is by definition in a state of crisis when its remedial forces, while perhaps present, are socially ineffective. The social problems which urgently require a solution cannot be solved because the spiritual and moral strength for the task is lacking in the ruling group. In this situation, the counsel to do what is not done because it cannot be done is obviously vain. And the counsel is not only vain, it even adds to the gravity of the crisis because it detracts attention from a true alternative. The progressive counsel of Charles Comte and Dunoyer (and this has remained a constant factor in the aggravation of the Western crisis) poses the alternative of stagnation in the solution of social problems and intelligent gradual reform. This alternative does not exist concretely; the fact of the tardiness in the solution of explosive social problems is proof that on the level of pragmatic politics the alternative of intelligent gradualism does not exist. 

The true alternative would be the restoration of spiritual substance in the ruling groups of a society, with the consequent restoration of the moral strength in creating a just social order. The problem of the crisis must be stated in the Platonic terms of spirit and power. The pragmatic value of this alternative, as experience has shown, is not very high. The appearance of Plato did not change the course of the Hellenic crisis, the case of Nietzsche did not serve as a warning example for Germany nor did the appearance of Dostoievsky make a dent in the tsarist system. Nevertheless, this is the true alternative; and we must be clear on the point that a propaganda for gradualism which ignores and obscures the true issue has become a serious factor in the aggravation of the crisis.

The idea which emerges from the articles of the Censeur is so particularly grave in its consequences because it implies the further fallacy that the abolition of a social injustice will automatically result in a satisfactory stable order. The revolutionary abolition of a regime that is experienced as oppressive by a powerful stratum of society will certainly satisfy the successful revolutionary group, but it is not at all a guarantee that the new group will be more fit than the old one to discharge the obligations of rulership competently. Spiritual disorder is not the privilege of a ruling class; the revolutionary class which displaces it may be quite as deficient in this point, and even more so. The spiritual and moral competence of the bourgeoisie in handling problems posed by the industrial proletariat and the growing lower middle class was certainly a match for the incompetence of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy in handling the problem posed by the rising bourgeoisie. The record of the German lower middle class in the National Socialist revolution is no more edifying. 

The worst problem in the dynamic of the Western crisis is the fact that the resistance of the ruling class of the moment against "peaceful change" can derive a degree of spiritual legitimacy from the qualities of the revolutionary groups. The liberal and progressive idea of the “permanent revolution” of the editors of the Censeur ignores this whole class of problems, and it must ignore them because the spiritual problem of the crisis is obscured for them by the enlightenment cliché of "reason." But the light of reason is a dubious guide in the night of the spirit.'

Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press 1975), Pp. 179-81

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Poverty of the Soul and the Common Good

I recently (belatedly, really) read the rather brilliant article 'What is Poverty?' by 'Theodore Dalrymple.' Written all the way back in 1999 for the City Journal, this piece attacks the presumption that what ails the Western poor more than anything else is their poverty, and that their most positive improvement must come from ameliorating economic conditions. He makes the argument that, in spite of the massive progress in the living standards of the poor, the fundamental issues that afflicted the poor a century ago have not only not been eliminated, they have instead crystallized into deeper and more debilitating problems.

Where do these problems come from? From an apathetic culture that rewards antisocial and nihilistic behaviour; from a philosophical tolerance that supposes every wrong to be not the fault of the individuals who make bad decisions, but of the social conditions in which those individuals were born and bred.

To make his point, Dalrymple uses the example of doctors from vastly poorer countries such as India and the Philippines visiting the hospitals and streets of East London:

[T]hey are at first impressed that our care extends beyond the merely medical: that no one goes without food or clothing or shelter, or even entertainment. There seems to be a public agency to deal with every conceivable problem. For a couple of weeks, they think this all represents the acme of civilization, especially when they recall the horrors at home. Poverty—as they know it— has been abolished.

Their judgment changes, however, when the doctors become familiar with the kinds of problems the London hospitals try to resolve, and with the attitude of the patients, who exhibit no sense of thankfulness for the care they receive, but instead view it as their inviolable 'right,' something that they own by nature.

Dalrymple tells the all-too-typical story of a young woman who has deliberately overdosed. When they interview her about her history, they learn that she has been robbed and beaten by her ex-boyfriend, whose unborn child she wants to abort. She has had two children from two other fathers, neither of whom she sees (one was a one-night-stand and the other she left because he had sex with 12-year old girls). After explaining what will happen to the depressed and damaged woman, namely that she will be moved to a new flat with all the 'necessary' amenities of our age, Dalrymple asks a doctor from Madras if he thinks this was 'poverty':

He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural.
It turns out that a culture that is based around individual desire, and is entirely neglectful of communal relationships, creates individuals who do not have any consideration for the community, or how their actions affect their fellow man. It is said that massive welfare programs create a sense of 'solidarity' among the different classes; how, then, does it happen that the recipients of this redistributed wealth are invested only with selfishness and a sense of ingratitude? People who are on the receiving end of benefits their entire life are not edified by any kind of social belonging; on the contrary, they are inculcated with the idea that society owes them more and more, regardless of their own contributions (or lack thereof) to their neighbours. 

Dalrymple goes on, telling how he would walk with these foreign doctors through the 'neighbourhoods' instituted by social housing, which he describes as being full of litter, where even the private lawns are overgrown and cluttered with refuse. A doctor from Bombay asks, 'Why don't they tidy up their gardens?' 

A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I've told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven't come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord's responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council's work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.
That is what happens in a society where there is no give-and-take, where there is infact only take (which applies to every social class, of course, albeit in different ways). The common good exists only as a spectre used to justify the parasitic activity of a growing underclass.

Another important point that Dalrymple makes is how all this trash that's tossed around as though the world is full of food is demonstrative of how the real problem is not 'poverty' at all. If people were truly impoverished, they would not be so carefree with the things that we really need to survive; they would infact cherish every meal as a gift from God. 

I ask the doctors to compare the shops in areas inhabited by poor whites and those where poor Indian immigrants live. It is an instructive comparison. The shops the Indians frequent are piled high with all kinds of attractive fresh produce that, by supermarket standards, is astonishingly cheap. The women take immense trouble over their purchases and make subtle discriminations. There are no pre-cooked meals for them. By contrast, a shop that poor whites patronize offers a restricted choice, largely of relatively expensive prepared foods that at most require only the addition of hot water.

The fact that both groups are economically comparable means that the problem goes well beyond 'poverty'; it goes into how differently they approach the essentials of our world. People who come from a society where you have to do things yourself, where there are traditions of fellowship and community, tend to put more effort into the most important things intrinsic to our nature: food and drink, health, family, and the spiritual life. When you cut off your relations with the social whole, when your entire existence becomes centred around what you want and how much you can get, these things suffer proportionately.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

Whatever merits that our material abundance afford to us, they cannot be worth the 'spiritual impoverishment' that accompanies it, nor can it be worth the fragmentation that occurs between the giving and the receiving classes. In the Middle Ages the beggar, who was truly in a state of poverty, responded to his benefactor by praying for his soul. Conversely, the giver, by his act of charity (his 'alms'), participates in the virtuous life thereby.

This relationship is reversed in the welfare state: the giver, the state, is virtuous only in the eyes of a socialist intelligentsia (which seldom gives its own money), and instead of prayers receives demands for more, while the receiver, the 'lumpenproletariat,' instead of being content with the basics of life grows increasingly covetous. What was once a very personal relationship imbuing both parties with a natural connection becomes a systematic process which dehumanizes the giver and the receiver. 

The article closes with Dalrymple revealing how he had the same experience as the Asian doctors, only from the opposite direction. When he was in Africa, specifically Tanzania, he was at first appalled by the physical conditions and the political corruption that ailed the country. Scarce food and medical care, rampant tuberculosis and various forms of cancer, children suffering and dying from snake bites, emaciated villagers and fat party men, these things characterized the African society, these things characterized true poverty. 

Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.

If we are going to advance to a real understanding of what avails our civilization, we might start with our true impoverishment, which as Dalrymple says is more spiritual than material. We do not mean here merely to attack the lower classes, which, being destined to follow the intellectual and political currents of the day, are in truth those which possess the least moral and social agency. We mean to attack the culture emptied of real solidarity and community that allows rapacious overlords to charge their renters and patrons the most and pay their workers and employees the least amounts possible. They do this because they make more money this way, and our prevailing economic ethic presumes this to be a fundamental good. This is behaviour that is no less antisocial and even more reprehensible than the selfish and parasitic activity of what we might call the 'slave' classes of the corporate 'elite.'

There is no one villain in this story; the society we share is the product of a conspiracy of classes, all equally self-serving and insulated from one another. It is moreover the effect of a long intellectual tradition that subordinates the needs of the community and the common good to the 'rights' that allegedly belong inherently to human nature, 'rights' that increasingly look like desires. 

When 'poverty' is defined as being drastically poorer than the wealthiest of their neighbours (who really exhibit an obscene state of luxury and should not be used as a frame of reference for anything) in a society which is enormously wealthier than anything else in human history, we lose the real meaning of the word. While the members of any community deserve to share in its success (and indeed there should be a reduction in the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest), it is futile and misleading to pretend that 'poverty' is our first concern when the richest nations in the world still exhibit all the symptoms of a diseased social body: suicides, drug dependency, illegitimate births, divorces, atheism, abortions, sodomy, low birth rates, etc.

It is clear that, in spite of rising living conditions, state subsidies, and a more or less uninterrupted period of peace, modern and modernizing countries have only experienced a corresponding growth of the malignant tumours that attach to all our attempts to create a world without God at its centre. The crisis of 'poverty' is thus the ultimate red herring, because it distracts us from the real crises at work in our culture. To obsess over the 'miserable' state of the poor in our societies, to suppose that unconditionally sharing more and more wealth with them will do anything else than create further dependents on the productive classes, is to do the same thing as the laissez-faire capitalists do in reverse and consider society as first and foremost a product of merely economic relations.

This attitude is in fundamental opposition to the common good, which, according to Pope St. John Paul II, 'is not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values.' This means that our own interests, which in the limited perspective of the individual usually amounts to an increase in wealth and social prestige, are subsumed into our real interests, which are ultimately communion with God and our fellow man. As men are made in the image of God, we intrinsically desire social justice (in the real sense of the term), however much this desire may be warped by our fallenness. Therefore, when people receive their 'just deserts,' whether great or small, we are inwardly satisfied, because justice has been done.

When we operate according to our own interests alone, something which is vindicated by our utilitarian ethical system, the common good gives way to an irremediable conflict between different groups in society, which results in 'class warfare' and 'identity politics.' Each individual or group of individuals is imbued with a desire to gain more for themselves, irrespective of whether their increase is just or not, and irrespective of the effect that their actions may have on the whole.

The fact is that total equality is just as much of a myth as is the total abolishment of poverty. This does not mean that we cease finding ways to palliate the conditions of the poor; far from it, acts of charity to the suffering are central to the social teaching of Christ's Church (something which the higher classes tend to be forgetful of in their lavish and frivolous spending).

It does mean, however, that we cease chasing dreams of an equally privileged community based on a homogeneous distribution of wealth, not only because this is utopian, but because it completely misses the real errors of our age. We have established modes of living that have far surpassed anything we have known in history, that certain parts of the world still do not know. In doing so, however, in sating our most pressing physical needs, we have opened up new existential challenges that cannot be overcome by merely economic salves, but by radically reëvaluating our interior livelihood. This is why we have to stress the fact that it is not our material 'poverty' that is principally responsible for the malaise of our communities and the ejection of Christ from the social plane, but our poverty of the soul.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Picture of Providence: Christopher Dawson and the Conversion of Scandinavia

Upon reading Christopher Dawson's lectures on the development of the Christian religion in the early periods of European history, which are compiled in the text Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, I was particularly struck by the beauty of the passages on the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples. The splendour of God's work, in this case the increase of the Church's membership through the evangelization of the Northmen, attaches itself to anything that replicates it (in however diluted form), so it is in this spirit that I humbly submit my reading of Dawson's work.

While the plain logic of what transpired in this episode of Christian history according to Dawson leaves nothing to question, there is nevertheless a distinct providential aura about the series of events depicted. The frigid and most resolutely pagan regions of Europe went from being the most serious threat to the survival of the Christian faith in the British Isles, France, and the Germanies to a thriving Christian society alive with the liturgy of the Mass and informed by the lives of the Saints; they went from being constituted by a divisive array of warring tribes to being united in the form of kingdoms ruled by strengthened executive powers in the persons of their respective kings.

What gives this story another dimension, however, is that these were not defeated peoples succumbing to the religion of a foreign conqueror; the conversion of the Vikings happened more or less internally. The result of their contact with the monks and missionaries of the lands they raided led to an introspective change in the soul of the Northern man while his rule over subjected Christian nations left an indelible mark on his patterns of social and political behaviour. When Canute was recognized as King of England in 1016, 'he dismissed the Viking army and ruled England "under the laws of King Edgar" according to the traditions of Christian kingship' and committed himself to the patronage of Christian institutions. This radical shift is exemplified in his adorning the sepulchre of St. Alphege of Canterbury, whom his fervently pagan father had slain! 

Thus, it was at the height of their power that the Vikings submitted to the God of their enemy. Dawson says that 'the incorporation of Scandinavia into Western Christendom was due, not as in Central Europe to the power and prestige of the Western Empire, but to the conquest of Christian England by the barbarian who brought back Christianity to the North with the other spoils of invasion.' The Northerners did not need a Charlemagne or a Cortes to forcefully initiate them into the Church; it was the work of their own heroic leaders, which included Canute in Denmark, St. Olaf in Norway and St. Vladimir in Russia. 

The relationship between state and Church was hardly one way either; just as the extent of the Church was lengthened and deepened by the inclusion of the Northern converts and their lands, the formerly pagan kings were enabled by the universal power and prestige granted them by the Christian religion to consolidate their authority and attain the support of the provincial territories and their minor lords. 

'In this way,' Dawson says, 'the victory of Christianity coincided with the attainment of national unity and was the culmination of the process of expansion and cultural interchange which had accompanied the Viking movement. The mixed culture of the Christian Viking states across the seas reacted on the culture of the Scandinavian homelands and led to the breaking down of local particularism alike in religion and politics. Indeed it seemed for a time as though the whole of the Nordic culture area from the British Isles to the Baltic would be united in a northern Christian empire under the sovereignty of the Danish king. Ruling from his court at Winchester, surrounded by English ecclesiastics, Scandinavian mercenaries and Icelandic poets, Canute brought the Northern lands for the first time into real contact with the international life of Western Christendom. The North had never before known a king so rich and so powerful. As Toraren the Icelander wrote: Canute rules the land / As Christ, the shepherd of Greece, doth the heavens!’ (p. 95)

It was not Canute, however, 'who became the type and representative of the new ideal of Christian kingship in the Northern lands.' While he was an excellent statesman and a veritable wizard in how he acquired and utilized financial resources, he was not a true hero in the old Northern sense. This role was instead fulfilled by Olaf Haroldson, who 'was an authentic representation of the Northern heroic tradition, like his predecessor Olaf Trygvason (995-1000). He completed the latter’s work of Christianizing Norway, breaking the stubborn resistance of the pagan chiefs and countryfolk with fire and sword, and died like the other Olaf in an heroic battle against hopeless odds. But the battle of Stiklestad (1030) differs from that of Svoldr (1000) in that it was a civil war against the king’s faithless subjects who had been bought by Canute’s English money. Thus it was an historical realization of the dominant motive of the old epic poetry – the tragedy of loyal heroism defeated by treachery and gold.' (pp. 95-96)
There go the prince’s foes Bringing their open purses,Many bid dearly in metalFor the head of our king.  
Every man knows that he who sells His own good lord for goldWill end in black hellAnd of such is he worthy.
~Olaf’s friend, the poet Sighvat 

There has never been a clearer example of the sublime synthesis between the transcendent truth crucified on the Cross and the natural truths belonging to all human order. The primitive, warrior spirit of the natives is elevated into the new context carried by the Gospel; the self-sacrifice of the warrior is universalized into the self-sacrifice of the God-man; the links between Odin and Baldar and Christ are immortalized.  'As Olaf’s retainers kept their faith with their lord, so Olaf himself kept faith with the Lord of Heaven. And thus the new religion became the object of a deeper loyalty than the religion of the old gods had ever evoked.' (p. 96)

What happened next defies the ideals of the kind of 'master morality' espoused by the likes of a Nietzsche or a 'Ragnar Redbeard' as well as those consecrated by the indigenous pagans. Instead of following the victor and celebrating the winner, the Northerners took the fallen St. Olaf for their patron and protector, and throughout Norway there are innumerable accounts of his miracles alongside the telling of his legendary end. The virtues of might and conquest are no longer absolute; there is a higher power in which heroic men like St. Olaf may participate in and share with their people. The glory of the warrior is aligned with Christ's glory. Dawson moreover tells us that 'Even [Olaf's] former enemies acknowledge this power and accepted him as the patron and guardian of the Norwegian monarchy, as we see in the fine poem called “The Song of the Sea Calm” which Canute’s court poet Toraren wrote only a few years later. Although the poem is dedicated to King Swein, the Danish usurper, its real hero is the dead king who still rules the land from his shrine at Nidaros': 

There he lies 
Whole and pure  
The high and praised king
There the bells  
May ring aloud 
Of themselves,  
Above the shrine  
For every day  
The folk to hear  
The clanging bells  
Above the king.  
Hardly had Haroldson  
Got a home  
In the heavenly realm  
Ere he became  
A mighty man of peace.  
A host of men  
Where the holy king doth lie  
Kneel for help,  
Blind and dumb  
Seek the king,  
And home they go  
Their sickness healed.  
Pray thou to Olaf 
The man of God  
That he grant thee 
His holy spirit.  
With God himself  
He seeks 
Success and peace 
For all men. 

Dawson continues:

'Thus the popular canonization of St. Olaf in 1031 is important not only as one of the first and most spontaneous instances of the way in which the new peoples consecrated their nationality by adopting a royal saint as their national patron, but still more because it marks the final reconciliation between the Nordic and the Christian traditions. St. Olaf quickly took the place of Thor as the patron of the farmers, their champion against trolls and witches, and the ideal type of the Northern warrior. The national code of law became known as the laws of St. Olaf, and the kings of Norway were regarded as the heirs and representatives of St. Olaf, almost in the same way as the kings of Sweden in the heathen time had been the successors and representatives of the God Frey. The wholehearted acceptance of Christianity in Norway and Denmark gradually transformed the spirit of Scandinavian culture.' (p. 98)

One of the most profound records of this 'spiritual transformation' is found in the Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis of Adam of Bremen, friend of Denmark's King Sweyn Estrithson, which reads: 

'But after their acceptance of Christianity, they have become imbued with better principles and have now learned to love peace and truth and to be content with their poverty; even to distribute what they have stored up and not as aforetime to gather up what was scattered…. Of all men they are the most temperate in food and in their habits, loving above all things thrift and modesty. Yet so great is their veneration for priests and churches, that there is scarcely a Christian to be found who does not make an offering on every occasion that he hears Mass…. In many places of Norway and Sweden, the keepers of the flocks are men of noble rank, who after the manner of the patriarchs live by the work of their hands. But all who dwell in Norway are most Christian with the exception of those who dwell far off beside the Arctic Seas.' 
Adam later on expounds on the newfound 'charity' of the Northerners: 

'Blessed is the people, say I, of whose poverty no one is envious, and most blessed in this – that they have now all put on Christianity. There is much that is remarkable in their manners, above all Charity, whence it comes that all things are common among them not only for the native population but also for the stranger. They treat their bishop as it were a king, for the whole people pay regard to his will, and whatever he ordains from God, from the scriptures and from the customs of other nations, they hold as law.' 

Finally, Dawson explains the aftermath and the profound contributions of the new Germanic converts to the spiritual and cultural climate of Christendom: 

'With the fall of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Scandinavian world became the great representative of vernacular culture in Northern Europe. And it was, above all, in Iceland that the scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took up the tradition of King Alfred and founded the great school of vernacular historiography and archaeology to which we owe so much of our knowledge of the past. We are apt to regard medieval culture as intolerant of everything that lay outside the tradition of Latin Christendom. But we must not forget that the Northern Sagas are as much the creation of medieval Christendom as the chansons de geste and that it is to the priests and the schools of Christian Iceland that we are indebted for the preservation of the rich tradition of Northern mythology and poetry and saga.' (P. 100)

Thus a very succinct history of the conversion of the Northmen to the faith of their erstwhile enemies. Even in this abbreviated form, however, the beauty, the mystery, the drama and most of all the providential character of the experience is patently evident, which is why I figured Dawson's rendition of events to be worth copying and sharing. In these dark times may the memory of our historical turning towards God help us return to him again.

As a bit of a post-script, we are reminded by the above of what Hilaire Belloc had to say of the Normans, that famous mingling between the Christian Gauls and their former Viking conquerors. This powerful new race, whose creation was made possible by the imprint of the Christian ethos on the once-marauding Northmen, left a remarkable impression on the structure of European civilization on multiple levels. We leave Belloc's commentary here as a very brief but still sufficient introduction to the character of the Norman race, a kind of parallel if more adventurous and impactful culture to the Danes and the Norwegians:

'These "North-men," the new and striking addition to the province, the Gallo-Romans called, as we have seen "Nordmanni." The Roman province, within the limits of which they were strictly settled, the second Lyonnese, came to be called "Normannia." For a century the slight admixture of new blood worked in the general Gallo-Roman mass of the province and, numerically small though it was, influenced its character, or rather produced a new thing; just as in certain chemical combinations the small admixture of a new element transforms the whole. With the beginning of the eleventh century, as everything was springing into new life, when the great saint who, from the chair of Peter, was to restore the Church was already born, when the advance of the Pyreneans against Islam was beginning to strike its decisive conquering blows, there appeared, a sudden phenomenon, this new thing—French in speech and habit and disposition of body, yet just differentiated from the rest of Frenchmen—the Norman Race.

It possessed these characteristics—a great love of exact order, an alert military temper and a passion for reality which made its building even of ships (though it was not in the main seafaring) excellent, and of churches and of castles the most solid of its time.
All the Normans' characteristics (once the race was formed), led them to advance. They conquered England and organized it; they conquered and organized Sicily and Southern Italy; they made of Normandy itself the model state in a confused time; they surveyed land; they developed a regular tactic for mailed cavalry. Yet they endured for but a hundred years, and after that brief coruscation they are wholly merged again in the mass of European things!

You may take the first adventurous lords of the Cotentin in, say 1030, for the beginning of the Norman thing; you may take the Court of young Henry II. with his Southerners and his high culture in, say 1160, most certainly for the burial of it. During that little space of time the Norman had not only reintroduced exactitude in the government of men, he had also provided the sword of the new Papacy and he had furnished the framework of the crusading host. But before his adventure was done the French language and the writ of Rome ran from the Grampians to the Euphrates.' Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith

All excerpts quoted from Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1991, New York: Doubleday) and Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (2007, Cosimo)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vladimir Putin: Rebuilding Russia

Disclaimer: I wrote this entry-level English essay for a Berkeley student in exchange for a few shekels. The directions were to argue an opinion over a controversial persona, so I chose Putin. As this was for a school highly Marxist school, and because I was getting the student in enough trouble by arguing for Putin, I took it a bit easy. I didn't press against homosexuals, for example, and neither did I press the (((ethnic))) character of either the Bolsheviks or the oligarchs who inherited their empire.

I also kept it very basic, meaning that I didn't go into the problems with the Moscow Patriarchate, but maintained a positive attitude towards Putin's cozy alliance with the newly powerful Russian church; neither did I go into Putin's friendship with the oligarchs of his own choosing, but restrained myself to lauding him for crushing the worst of them. The writing, the ideas, and even the format of this paper are basic as well, seeing as this was for a first year course.

I nevertheless stand by the essential idea of this paper, which is that Putin, despite his many issues, is fundamentally a force for good in the Russian universe, and that he really aims to institute a lot of Solzhenitsyn's ideas — that's why I decided to republish this here.

‘Time has finally run out for communism. But its concrete edifice has not yet crumbled. May we not be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty.’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While Solzhenitsyn made the observation above in his 1990 essay Rebuilding Russia, it is essentially as true as ever today. Sure, the ‘concrete edifice’ has made way for something different thanks to more than two decades of kleptocratic practises and democratic innovations in Russian politics, but the rubble remains. This is evident not only in the continued corruption among the ruling classes (even if they’re now private rather than public), but in the continued social mores of the Russian and post-Soviet peoples. Abortion, alcoholism, divorce rates, illegitimacy, etc., are all still highly prevalent factors in the Federation. Moreover, while Russians have again identified as Orthodox after the fall of state atheism, they have not fully returned to Orthodoxy in a meaningful way that reflects a return to authentic belief; indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, only 5% of men and 9% of women attend religious services at least once a month. If Solzhenitsyn was right when he said that Bolshevism is an example of what happens when men ‘forget God,’ it remains as crucial as ever that Russia rediscover her Orthodox identify in order to prevent and finally reverse the ills that currently afflict her.

It may be fortunate, then, that in Vladimir Putin Russia has one of Solzhenitsyn’s most ardent admirers entrenched in the Kremlin. Thanks to the Russian president’s efforts over the long course of his rule, there are no fewer than three of Solzhenitsyn’s books that are currently required reading in Russian schools, including The Gulag Archipelago. In 2006 Putin awarded the Nobel-prize winning author the Russian Federation state decoration for outstanding achievements in the cultural and educational spheres, and then met privately with him in Solzhenitsyn’s own house, during which time Putin stressed the ideological compatibility between himself and Solzhenitsyn wherever possible.

The relationship was not at all one-sided either, as Solzhenitsyn, however reservedly,
expressed praise for Vladimir Putin as well. According to the former US ambassador to Russia William Burns, who visited with the Soviet dissident months before the latter’s death, ‘Solzhenitsyn positively contrasted the eight-year reign of Putin with those of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which he [Solzhenitsyn] said had “added to the damage done to the Russian state by 70 years of communist rule.” Under Putin, the nation was rediscovering what it was to be Russian, Solzhenitsyn thought.’ While he also conveyed criticism of the nepotistic and plutocratic status of Russian corporations and big money oligarchs, Solzhenitsyn clearly had favourable impressions of the way that Putin’s Russia was going.

Contrary to the ongoing demonization of Vladimir Putin in the West, there is little that connects him to the likes of Hitler or Stalin that the media try and compare him to, certainly not in religious affairs. On the contrary, Putin has improved the lot of his people in various ways, which includes (1) the stabilization and the increase of influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia; (2) the restoration of a semblance of an identity to the Russian people that has been distorted and molested since the Petrine Enlightenment; and (3) the cleaning up of the vampiric oligarchs that installed themselves as quasi-rulers in Russian society during the Yeltsin era. None of these things were achieved in a wholly positive nor even lawful fashion, and infact they often meant compromising on crucial issues or resorting to plainly barbaric actions. Nevertheless, the net result of Putin’s leadership has been a serious improvement in areas that have long been debilitated, which has led to a small revolution in terms of the moral and economic health of the nation.

The Russian Orthodox Church suffered an unprecedented trauma in the Soviet era, particularly under Lenin, pre-WWII Stalin, and Khrushchev. The official ideology held that the Christian religion was a relic of feudalism, and that the Orthodox Church was a superstitious institution that preyed upon the Russian people. The advance of revolutionary socialism is alleged to free the country from its priestly grip and share the enlightenment of materialistic atheism with everyone. This led to the closing of churches, the killing and torture of priests, and the banishment of Bibles everywhere; the public space went from being littered with icons and host to regular processions to a sea of red and gold in the form of Soviet banners and propaganda posters. In a letter to Molotov in 1922, Lenin made the following command: ‘The more representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot on this occasion, the better.’ Many of us are familiar with how the state attempted to indoctrinate the next generation at an early age. There is, for example, the anecdote of Russian officials telling schoolchildren to ask God for sweets and subsequently, when the sweets failed to materialize, telling them to ask Stalin for the same thing. We can imagine their confusion, as well as their delight, when all sorts of little treats were immediately brought in by more Russian officials while their prayers achieved nothing.

The Russia that Putin inherited may have started to reassert its Orthodox identity on the surface, but it was far from doing so in any meaningful way — something that he aims to rectify. From the beginning of his rule Putin has trumpeted a ‘return to Christian values,’ and this has accelerated with his resumption of the presidency in 2012, which has meant censoring theatres showing plays at odds with Orthodox teachings, blocking major porn sites from Russian servers, and reaffirming the traditional Christian idea of marriage.  In early 2013 Putin met with delegates to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishops’ Council, where he made the following statement that succinctly summarizes all his efforts in the relationship between church and state: ‘We want to continue our multifaceted and positive partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church and will do everything we can to help the Church as it rebuilds itself. We will work together to consolidate harmony in our society and strengthen our country’s moral backbone.’

Putin himself associates his political image with the national religion. In May 2016, Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, went together to the monasteries on Mt. Athos, one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodoxy; the fervour that many in the East have for Putin as a representative of their Christian culture is shown in the fact that a shirt with Putin’s visage printed on it was selling fast at souvenir shops on the mountain. While this image does not really correspond to the personal life of Putin, who has likely been romantically involved with ex-gymnast Alina Kabaeva for some time now, the fact that Putin is continually staging public events at divine liturgies, alongside the visit to Mt. Athos, demonstrates his desire to be seen as a leader with a strongly spiritual and devoted character — because what Russian nationalism wants is a ‘holy leader.’

There are more profound indicators of Putin’s effect on Russian society. One of the most impressive is the decline of abortion over the course of the ex-KGB man’s reign. While a disheartening ratio of 32% of all pregnancies end in abortion as of 2014, this is roughly half as high as it was when he first took over in 2000. Although this decline can certainly be attributed to rising living standards, it’s also signalling the success of Putin’s anti-abortion measures such as the one signed into law in October 2011, which limited abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This correlates with the rise of birth rates, which have risen significantly from an abysmal 1.2 (total fertility rate) in 2000 to 1.75 in 2014. In light of the falling birth rates across the Western world, this is a substantial achievement, as the greater the population growth, the less of a burden an aging population will be on the next generations.

One constant complaint that the Western media makes of Putin’s Russia is that it persecutes LGBT activists and homosexuals, but this is only because Russia has been moving in an opposite direction than that of the progressive West. As Putin himself says on several occasions, there is no condemnation of homosexuals as such; in an interview with Oliver Stone Putin says that ‘We have no restrictions or harassment based on gender. Moreover, many people explicitly talk about their non-traditional sexual orientation. We maintain relations with them and many of them achieve outstanding results in their activity.’ The reason that Russia disallows homosexuals from getting married is firstly because it goes against the religious values of the country, and secondly because ‘same sex marriages will not produce any children.’ To institute something foreign to both the culture of a nation as well as its well-being cannot be said to be the mark of a strong and prudent leader.  

The rediscovery of Russian religious identity goes hand in hand with its rediscovery of national identity. While ethnos and religion are synergistic in every people, it is particularly true of the Russians, who are said to have a ‘messianic’ penchant that derives from their capacity, their hunger for suffering; Dostoevsky himself said that ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering.’ A suffering soul is a deep soul, and this manifests in a vibrant and virile religious life, such as the one that the Russian nation as a whole enjoyed prior to the Westernization that occurred beneath Peter the Great.

That Marxism and revolutionary socialism took such a strong hold in Russia before any other developed nation, in spite of Marx’s predictions that it would be England or Germany to turn first, can be attributed to the innately religious character of revolutionary socialism itself, which burns with a fire not unlike the spiritual fervour of fanatical fundamentalists of various religions. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky also said that ‘It’s easier for a Russian to become an atheist than for anyone else in the world.’ These kinds of paradoxes or apparent contradictions are immersed deep within the Russian psyche, something that Nicolas Berdyaev noticed when he said: ‘The inconsistency and complexity of the Russian soul may be due to the fact that in Russia two streams of world history — East and West — jostle and influence one another…. Russia is a complete section of the world — a colossal East-West. It unites two worlds, and within the Russian soul two principles are always engaged in strife — the Eastern and the Western.’ This can be plainly seen in the history of Russia of the past five hundred years, with certain factions agitating for stronger relations with the West while other, ‘Slavophiliac’ elements argued for a retreat into the primordial depths of the Russian heritage. The consequence of this debate resulted in the barbarity of the USSR, where the worst of both worlds found their ultimate expression.

In order to recover from this calamity, and in order to preclude any chance of it happening
again, the Russian character must come to terms with itself. In the 1990’s Boris Yeltsin engaged in a mild, all-encompassing sort of civic identity that brought in every different people of the nation into one relation, simply that of being a citizen of the Russian Federation. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, things have begun to swing towards a more nationalistic determination. Whereas at first Putin warned against ethnonationalism as ‘a bacillus’ that, if uncontrolled, may destroy the Russian Federation as it destroyed the USSR, during Putin’s third presidential term there’s been a clear progression towards emphasizing the Russian ethnos as the ‘core’ of the country: ‘The core and the binding fabric of this unique civilisation is the Russian people, Russian culture.’

This trend has culminated in the aggression of the Russian state towards Ukraine, which it feels to be fundamentally one with itself by virtue of their common ethnocultural identity. The dangers of this move consist in how the international community views the annexation of Crimea and the Russian support of Ukrainian separatists in the Donbass as flagrant actions in violation of international law. The benefits, however, not only consist of the economic gains of uniting with the oil– and grain-rich Ukraine, but also in forming a solid bloc constituted by people of highly similar interests and characteristics.

In a nation as large and heterogeneously constituted as Russia, however, there nevertheless has to be a project towards embracing the outlier elements, the peoples who do not correspond to the traditional idea of an ethnic Russian. It is for this reason that Putin has been adamant on stressing unity throughout the nation, saying to a meeting of various members of the Russian ethnic universe that ‘the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia.’ Even as Putin emphasizes the role of the ethnic Russian in the creation of the new republic, he’s also drawing in other ethnicities to a central Russian identity that goes beyond ethnos altogether. This is fully in accord with the traditional Russian idea of an empire, which necessarily involves rule over multifarious peoples without treading all over their own identities.

This is the sum of the fine balancing act that Putin engages in: celebrating the historical Russian people as the leaders of the country without distancing other members from the central idea of what it means to be Russian. The international community has every right to be scandalized by any criminal actions on Putin’s part against the sovereignty of nations like Ukraine, but from the Russian perspective such actions are perfectly commensurate with its pursuit of a ‘Eurasian’ bloc that is politically and culturally unified. This is moreover in line with the ideas of Putin’s ‘tutor’ Solzhenitsyn, who argued for the unity between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, saying that ‘We all together emerged from the treasured Kyiv, “from which the Russian land began,” according to the chronicle of Nestor.’ By reorienting Russian identity around this common heritage, Russia may be taking one confident step towards reacquiring its traditional character that preceded the Westernizing perversions and the Asiatic backlashes that have characterized the country for the past several centuries.

One of the first defining moments of Putin’s Russia was his disruption of the corrupt network of private businesses that benefitted enormously from the privatization of ex-Soviet industries in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, and of the subsequent economic development that occurred under his watch. Numerous kleptocrats, who owned their own media that constantly lambasted the positive moves of the Russian state out of Yeltsin’s crime-ridden society, were jailed or exiled for illicit economic activities. Private investors such as Boris Berezovsky who bought for a dollar and sold for hundreds more meant that the Russian people footed the bill; the things which were once basic commodities now became things to be exploited by those who could make money off of them. Without any regulations watching over this freshly freed market, vampires and vultures thrived in an economic wasteland.

Vladimir Putin’s regime was not supposed to hinder the rule of the ‘New Russians,’ the oligarchs who were birthed by Gorbachev and thrived under Yeltsin; he was supposed to be merely a continuation of the prior weak government. Thus, it was to their immense surprise that he increasingly instituted fairer systems that curtailed their ruthless exploitation. Through the Federation Statute 95-FZ of 2003 all the little fiefdoms created by the oligarchs were standardized, meaning that they were all subject to the same federal law, meaning that they no longer had absolute control over what went on in whatever regions they sucked dry. This not only led to increased consumer spending, but also to an economy strong enough to pay off its debts; this meant that Russia was able to pay off its IMF debt ahead of schedule in 2005 before paying off the Paris Club in 2006 and the United States in 2007. That debt-ridden Western governments can accuse Russia of ‘irresponsible spending’ involves no small measure of hypocrisy.

One more important aspect of the Russian economic development under Putin is how fair it is to small businesses. This is again something that Solzhenitsyn addressed in his final years: ‘Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin's times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption.’ Even as he has had to rely on big business for support, especially in the early years, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to be fair to small and medium businesses to ensure a truly competitive market and to foster the growth of a genuine middle class. In September 2016 he announced at the meeting of the Council on Strategic Development and Priority Projects that ‘We should reach over the longer term small business employment level and its GDP share comparable with indicators of countries where businesses, small and medium-size ones in the first instance, are the backbone of the economy.’

Vladimir Putin is no saint — something that we know for a fact due to the constant chirping of the Western media. There is always another side to the story, however, and, as we have seen, this applies no less to the current President of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin, in league with the teachings of his ‘mentor’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has helped to transform the Russian state from a weak puppet of international, corporate, and criminal interests into a powerful free agent that’s taking his country on a new course. The Russian people are no longer subject to the persecutions of state atheism and indoctrinated with communist ideas; they are instead exhorted to rediscover their common Orthodox traditions and to practise Christian values. They are no longer defined by an international idea of ‘Worker Solidarity’ nor by the flimsy conception of ‘civic identity; they are being encouraged to return to the organic national and ethnic parameters that define their history. Finally, they are no longer victim of the conspiratorial capitalist oligarchs that leeched off of an already languishing population; they are being helped by a relatively benevolent state to create their own economic destiny.

As Western cultures continue to get drawn into the moral and philosophical abyss that’s been created through secular and progressivist values, Putin’s Russia, with however many bumps along the way, looks to a more solid past to ground itself for the future. Putin himself has a response to the Western societies which unceasingly attack his government, whose values led to a ‘rejection of their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. [Many Euro-Atlantic states] are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that put same-sex partnerships on a par with large families; belief in Satan on a par with the belief in God.’ From the words of the foremost Soviet dissident and the policies of a former KGB man, it can safely be said that the Russian Federation is moving away from the horrors of communism and towards a society once more informed by the Orthodox spirit that created its people. While his actions have often been more than questionable, and sometimes far from lawful, there can be no doubting that Vladimir Putin has played a profound part in rebuilding Russia from the ground up.

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