V. Rampton: Liberal Ideas in Tsarist Russia

Liberal Ideas in Tsarist Russia. From Catherine the Great to the Russian Revolution

Vanessa Rampton
Ideas in Context 126
Anzahl Seiten
X, 229 S.
£ 75.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stefan Kirmse, Direktorat, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin

Vanessa Rampton’s research monograph is an interesting contribution to intellectual history, and the history of liberalism, in particular. It discusses late imperial Russian thinkers and their culture-based understandings of freedom to advance a general argument about historical manifestations of liberalism.

The book’s main audience are therefore not so much historians of Russia as historians of liberal theory and practice. This is reflected not least in a detailed introduction to liberal theory (pages 6–37), which helps to situate Rampton’s book in this literature but makes only sporadic reference to how this theory mattered in Russia. Second, rather than trying to capture liberalism in imperial Russia more generally, the book focuses on tensions, contradictions, and compromise in Russian liberalism. In fact, the book contains a number of assumptions that make it a challenging read. Most importantly, for a broader audience, the distinction between positive and negative liberty would require a systematic introduction. Many readers other than legal philosophers will not be familiar with the intricacies of this debate, especially the reasons why these types of freedom are often seen as conflicting.

For Rampton, the examination of liberalism in tsarist Russia, an empire shaped by autocratic rule and political polarisation, brings to light liberalism’s complexity and changeability. Most importantly, it highlights liberalism’s internal tensions and the fact that these tensions could be quite fruitful. While many liberal thinkers and scholars saw and continue to see negative and positive freedom – that is, the “freedom from” any kind of evil or dependence versus the “freedom to” develop one’s capacities, often enabled by the state – as contradictory, the Russian case reveals multiple attempts to compromise between them. In fact, Rampton argues that liberalism as a persistent compromise (pp. 135, 185) is a useful interpretive paradigm for a comparative study of this political doctrine.

Chapters 1–4 follow a broad chronological logic, engaging with Russian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century, around and after 1890, in the context of the 1905 revolution, and between 1909 and 1917. The final two chapters discuss individual figures representing the two main strands of Russian liberalism. Combined, the chapters bring up a number of themes.

The first theme is blurred boundaries. These were already visible in Russian liberal thought in the mid-nineteenth century. The so-called “westernisers” may have looked towards Europe for inspiration but were not necessarily liberal, with some of them expressing praise for brutal rulers. The “slavophiles”, most of whom turned towards community and spirituality and saw “freedom” as “freedom from politics”, also adopted elements of reformist thought. Others, like Alexander Herzen, would call for societal models based on the peasant commune and criticise Western parliamentary democracy while insisting on the sanctity of the individual and free will. The “legal Marxists” around Georgii Plekhanov sought to achieve socialism by legal means and emphasised individual freedom within broader economic structures. Finally, public intellectuals such as Vladimir Solov’ev would emphasise the individual’s right to a dignified existence and make a case for positive freedom ensured by an interventionist welfare state; but his religiosity would also encourage a universalist Christian narrative bordering on what Rampton sees as “theocratic utopianism” (p. 60).

The second theme is the distinction between positivist and neo-idealist liberals. While the former based their ideas and claims on empirical principles, the latter’s argumentation was more rooted in metaphysical-religious or ethical principles. Rampton uses the distinction between the two strands mainly to highlight the liberal movement’s multifaceted nature, not to emphasise deep divisions (for, in reality there was traffic and cooperation between these types). In fact, the liberals addressed in the book had much in common, not least because virtually all of them were highly educated and spent time in the West, with many of them explicitly engaging with European or American liberal thought. Russia’s liberal project is thus best understood as overlapping forms of liberalism, with few thinkers ticking all the boxes of liberal ideal types.

How did the two types differ, then, and why did it matter? The positivists believed in scientific method and objective historical laws that would lead to progress and greater freedom whereas the neo-idealists called for a revolution of the spirit and argued that freedom would have to be rooted in a new human consciousness. Positivists like Maksim Kovalevskii and Pavel Miliukov – who played a key role in Russia’s main liberal party, the Kadets – saw institutional reform as a precondition for transformed individuals and constitutional democracy as the best way to ensure progress. However, their optimistic view of history also led them to justify the curtailment of freedom. While Kovalevskii’s monarchism and elitism led him to reject revolutionary alliances and stress that intellectuals would first prepare the ground for democracy by educating the masses, Miliukov and many others in the Kadet Party favoured pragmatic alliances with socialists and revolutionaries, who could help them bring about political reform.

Such positions were partly shared by neo-idealists such as Bogdan Kistiakovskii, who would agree with the positivists’ call for negative liberty. At the same time, Kistiakovskii argued that a dignified human existence and liberal values would best be served by a “lawful socialist state” that would first do away with social inequalities (p. 144). Measures to reduce inequality would impinge on negative freedom but they would constantly be readjusted to ensure that people could fully develop their individuality. Kistiakovskii thus saw the two types of freedom as both challenging and bolstering each other. Neo-idealists like Pavel Novgorodtsev would argue more from religious premises but also contend that freedom and individual dignity would have to be guaranteed by the laws and measures of an active state (p. 151).

Rampton concludes that ultimately both positivists and neo-idealists partly supported a commitment to positive and negative freedom. In this sense, the Russian case questions assumptions about their tensions or even incompatibility.

The third theme is perhaps most interesting for the general reader and historians of Russia: the liberal dilemma of being caught between a repressive government and violent revolutionaries. Liberal thinkers and politicians were forced by the circumstances to look for pragmatic solutions and compromise. Could violence be justified if it led to greater freedom? Is the state entitled to respond harshly to revolutionaries in order to maintain peace and stability? Should it focus on retreating and removing shackles, or on taking an active role and empowering its citizens? Rampton’s book shows that there was a confusing array of answers to these questions, depending on circumstances and individuals who changed their positions over time. It is also a timely reminder of the quagmire faced by political moderates in modern history: neither willing to condone the violence of the masses nor to condemn state repression, they ultimately lost the trust of both the street and the authorities. Almost in passing, the author refers to liberalism as “an unsuccessful movement in Russian history” (p. 187), and indeed, the Russian case shows that the liberals were among the victims of an ever-more polarised political landscape.

On the whole, the book contains much fascinating detail that tells us a great deal about intellectual culture in turn-of-the-century Russia, and as such, I would consider the book to be a difficult and dense but ultimately rewarding read. The 30-odd page introduction to liberal theory should have been reduced to a minimum because historians of liberalism will know this anyway while historians of Russia do not need it to understand the rest of the book. A greater consideration of impact would not have gone amiss. How much of an imprint did Russian liberal thinkers and movements leave in the press, the broader public debate, both locally and internationally? Which pieces of legislation were informed by them? And perhaps even: in which respects could their thoughts and actions be considered “successful” after all? In the end, success and failure are just as multifaceted as liberalism itself.

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