Conservative thoughts from abroad

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, April 17, 2008 ,

No, this is not Tory Historian reporting from abroad, at least not physically so, but Tory Historian writing about conservative thinking in other countries’ history. Among these, possibly the most interesting is the case of Russia and its conservative thinkers, who have ranged from extreme theocrats to liberal conservatives like the legislator Mikhail Speransky (1772 – 1839) or the historian Boris Chicherin (1828 – 1904).

Both these gentlemen advocated as kind of rechsstaat for Russia. Their view was, and they were almost a century apart, that western-style liberal democracy was not appropriate for that country but the existing autocracy was undesirable.

The aim was a structure that was not parliamentarian but in which the rulers were subject to the law of the land. As Professor Richard Pipes, the pre-eminent historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, said in a recent talk he gave at the GB-Russia Society, that structure has not yet been achieved in Russia and was still highly desirable. He did not think we would see it in the immediate future.

Professor Pipes has maintained for some time that the West has a skewed idea of Russian intellectual development because it has concentrated on the liberals and the radicals – possibly a more glamorous cohort and one that has managed to install its views into Western consciousness since the 1870s.

Most recently, this fascination turned up in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant and tragic trilogy, “The Coast of Utopia”.

Tory Historian’s own view that a good deal of trouble has come from Sir Isaiah Berlin, who first popularized Herzen and his successors in the West in the twentieth century. This was real popularization. No university course on Russian history managed to get by without studying Russian Radical Thought. And Sir Isaiah’s admiration prevailed. He ignored the nastier aspects of that thought and concentrated on what he saw as the nobility of the struggle. Our perceptions of Russian history are still coloured by that.

There is more, says Professor Pipes.

In the West it is thought that Russia is a radical country. When I was at Harvard in 1948 we heard Isaiah Berlin lecture on Russian intellectual history; in time, Isaiah Berlin became a good friend of mine. Of course, his principal hero was Alexander Herzen, but others were Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and people like that.

He never lectured on the conservatives, and now we have a new play by Tom Stoppard called “The Coast of Utopia” which deals entirely with these people. But these people had minimal influence on the course of Russian history; if they did, it was in a very negative way by frightening the government and causing it to repress.

The course of Russian history for hundreds of years was determined by conservatives and there is virtually no one who deals with that subject, which is why I have made it my job to study Russian conservative thought and see how it influenced Russian thinking.
The fruit of all that endeavour is a fascinating book called “Russian Conservatism and its Critics”, published in 2006 and strongly recommended to all those interested in varieties of conservative thinking. You don’t have to approve of it.


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