Individualism or Totalitarianism (2011)
With law our land shall rise, but it will perish with lawlessness.
—Njal’s Saga, c. 1280
He who can make an exception is sovereign.
—Carl Schmitt, 1922
The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas. Those in its thrall deny that ideas matter, proving only that they are in the grip of a powerful one. The cliché of the politics of inevitability is that “there are no alternatives.” To accept this is to deny individual responsibility for seeing history and making change. Life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased plot.
Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse. The capitalist version of the politics of inevitability, the market as a substitute for policy, generates economic inequality that undermines belief in progress. As social mobility halts, inevitability gives way to eternity, and democracy gives way to oligarchy. An oligarch spinning a tale of an innocent past, perhaps with the help of fascist ideas, offers fake protection to people with real pain. Faith that technology serves freedom opens the way to his spectacle. As distraction replaces concentration, the future dissolves in the frustrations of the present, and eternity becomes daily life. The oligarch crosses into real politics from a world of fiction, and governs by invoking myth and manufacturing crisis. In the 2010s, one such person, Vladimir Putin, escorted another, Donald Trump, from fiction to power.
Russia reached the politics of eternity first, and Russian leaders protected themselves and their wealth by exporting it. The oligarch-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, chose the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin as a guide. The poet Czesław Miłosz wrote in 1953 that “only in the middle of the twentieth century did the inhabitants of many European countries come to understand, usually by way of suffering, that complex and difficult philosophy books have a direct influence on their fate.” Some of the philosophy books that matter today were written by Ilyin, who died the year after Miłosz wrote those lines. Ivan Ilyin’s revival by official Russia in the 1990s and 2000s has given his work a second life as the fascism adapted to make oligarchy possible, as the specific ideas that have helped leaders shift from inevitability to eternity.
The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, Ilyin’s era, had three core features: it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with a mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy rather than as a set of problems. Revived in conditions of inequality as a politics of eternity, fascism serves oligarchs as a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes.
History always continues, and alternatives always present themselves. Ilyin represents one of these. He is not the only fascist thinker to have been revived in our century, but he is the most important. He is a guide on the darkening road to unfreedom, which leads from inevitability to eternity. Learning of his ideas and influence, we can look down the road, seeking light and exits. This means thinking historically: asking how ideas from the past can matter in the present, comparing Ilyin’s era of globalization to our own, realizing that then as now the alternatives were real and more than two. The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility. Eternity is another idea that says that there are no ideas.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, American politicians of inevitability proclaimed the end of history, while some Russians sought new authorities in an imperial past. When founded in 1922, the Soviet Union inherited most of the territory of the Russian Empire. The Tsar’s domain had been the largest in the world, stretching west to east from the middle of Europe to the shores of the Pacific, and north to south from the Arctic to Central Asia. Though largely a country of peasants and nomads, its middle classes and intellectuals considered, as the twentieth century began, how a empire ruled by an autocrat might become more modern and more just.
Ivan Ilyin, born to a noble family in 1883, was typical of his generation as a young man. In the early 1900s, he wanted Russia to become a state governed by laws. After the disaster of the First World War and the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ilyin became a counterrevolutionary, an advocate of violent methods against revolution, and with time the author of a Christian fascism meant to overcome Bolshevism. In 1922, a few months before the Soviet Union was founded, he was exiled from his homeland. Writing in Berlin, he offered a program to the opponents of the new Soviet Union, known as the Whites. These were men who had fought against the Bolsheviks’ Red Army in the long and bloody Russian Civil War, and then made their way, like Ilyin, into political emigration in Europe. Ilyin later formulated his writings as guidance for Russian leaders who would come to power after the end of the Soviet Union. He died in 1954.
After a new Russian Federation emerged from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991, Ilyin’s short book Our Tasks began to circulate in new Russian editions, his collected works were published, and his ideas gained powerful supporters. He had died forgotten in Switzerland; Putin organized a reburial in Moscow in 2005. Ilyin’s personal papers had found their way to Michigan State University; Putin sent an emissary to reclaim them in 2006. By then Putin was citing Ilyin in his annual presidential addresses to the general assembly of the Russian parliament. These were important speeches, composed by Putin himself. In the 2010s, Putin relied upon Ilyin’s authority to explain why Russia had to undermine the European Union and invade Ukraine. When asked to name a historian, Putin cited Ilyin as his authority on the past.
The Russian political class followed Putin’s example. His propaganda master Vladislav Surkov adapted Ilyin’s ideas to the world of modern media. Surkov orchestrated Putin’s rise to power and oversaw the consolidation of media that ensured Putin’s seemingly eternal rule. Dmitry Medvedev, the formal head of Putin’s political party, recommended Ilyin to Russian youth. Ilyin’s name was on the lips of the leaders of the fake opposition parties, the communists and (far-right) Liberal Democrats, who played a part in creating the simulacrum of democracy that Ilyin had recommended. Ilyin was cited by the head of the constitutional court, even as his idea that law meant love for a leader ascended. He was mentioned by Russia’s regional governors as Russia became the centralized state that he had advocated. In early 2014, members of Russia’s ruling party and all of Russia’s civil servants received a collection of Ilyin’s political publications from the Kremlin. In 2017, Russian television commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with a film that presented Ilyin as a moral authority.
Ilyin was a politician of eternity. His thought held sway as the capitalist version of the politics of inevitability collapsed in the Russia of the 1990s and 2000s. As Russia became an organized kleptocracy in the 2010s, as domestic inequality reached stupefying proportions, Ilyin’s influence peaked. The Russian assault on the European Union and the United States revealed, by targeting them, certain political virtues that Ilyin the philosopher ignored or despised: individualism, succession, integration, novelty, truth, equality.
Ilyin first proposed his ideas to Russians a century ago, after the Russian Revolution. And yet he has become a philosopher for our time. No thinker of the twentieth century has been rehabilitated in such grand style in the twenty-first, nor enjoyed such influence on world politics. If this went unnoticed it was because we are in the thrall of inevitability: we believe that ideas do not matter. To think historically is to accept that the unfamiliar might be significant, and to work to make the unfamiliar the familiar.
Our politics of inevitability echo those of Ilyin’s years. Like the period between the late 1980s to the early 2010s, so the period between late 1880s to the early 1910s was one of globalization. The conventional wisdom of both eras held that export-led growth would bring enlightened politics and end fanaticism. This optimism broke during the First World War and the revolutions and counterrevolutions that followed. Ilyin was himself an early example of this trend. A youthful supporter of the rule of law, he shifted to the extreme Right while admiring tactics he had observed on the extreme Left. The former leftist Benito Mussolini led his fascists in the March on Rome soon after Ilyin was expelled from Russia; the philosopher saw in the Duce hope for a corrupted world.
Ilyin regarded fascism as the politics of the world to come. In exile in the 1920s, he was troubled that Italians had arrived at fascism before Russians. He consoled himself with the idea that the Russian Whites were the inspiration for Mussolini’s coup: “the White movement as such is deeper and broader than [Italian] fascism.” The depth and breadth, Ilyin explained, came from an embrace of the sort of Christianity that demanded the blood sacrifice of God’s enemies. Believing in the 1920s that Russia’s White exiles could still win power, Ilyin addressed them as “my White brothers, fascists.”
Ilyin was similarly impressed by Adolf Hitler. Although he visited Italy and vacationed in Switzerland, Ilyin’s home between 1922 and 1938 was Berlin, where he worked for a government-sponsored scholarly institute. Ilyin’s mother was German, he undertook psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in German, he studied German philosophy, and he wrote in German as well and as often as he did in Russian. In his day job he edited and wrote critical studies of Soviet politics (A World at the Abyss in German and The Poison of Bolshevism in Russian, for example, just in the year 1931). Ilyin saw Hitler as a defender of civilization from Bolshevism: the Führer, he wrote, had “performed an enormous service for all of Europe” by preventing further revolutions on the Russian model. Ilyin noted with approval that Hitler’s antisemitism was derivative of the ideology of Russian Whites. He bemoaned that “Europe does not understand the National Socialist movement.” Nazism was above all a “Spirit” of which Russians must partake.
In 1938, Ilyin left Germany for Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1954. He was supported financially in Switzerland by the wife of a German-American businessman, and also earned some money by giving public lectures in German. The essence of these lectures, as a Swiss scholar noted, was that Russia should be understood not as present communist danger but as future Christian salvation. According to Ilyin, communism had been inflicted upon innocent Russia by the decadent West. One day Russia would liberate itself and others with the help of Christian fascism. A Swiss reviewer characterized his books as “national in the sense of opposing the entire West.”
Ilyin’s political views did not change as the Second World War began. His contacts in Switzerland were men of the Far Right: Rudolf Grob believed that Switzerland should imitate Nazi Germany; Theophil Spoeri belonged to a group that banned Jews and Masons; Albert Riedweg was a right-wing lawyer whose brother Franz was the most prominent Swiss citizen in the Nazi extermination apparatus. Franz Riedweg married the daughter of the German minister of war and joined the Nazi SS. He took part in the German invasions of Poland, France, and the Soviet Union, the last of which Ilyin saw as a trial of Bolshevism in which the Russian nation might prevail.
When the Soviet Union won the war and extended its empire westward in 1945, Ilyin began to write for future generations of Russians. He characterized his work as shining a small lantern in a great darkness. With that small flame, Russian leaders of the 2010s have begun a conflagration.
Ilyin was consistent. His first major work of philosophy, in Russian (1916), was also his last major work of philosophy, in its edited German translation (1946).
The one good in the universe, Ilyin maintained, had been God’s totality before creation. When God created the world, he shattered the single and total Truth that was himself. Ilyin divided the world into the “categorical,” the lost realm of that single perfect concept; and the “historical,” human life with its facts and passions. For him, the tragedy of existence was that facts could not be reassembled into God’s totality, nor passions into God’s purpose. The Romanian thinker E. M. Cioran, himself once an advocate of Christian fascism, explained the concept: before history, God is perfect and eternal; once he begins history, God seems “frenetic, committing error upon error.” As Ilyin put it: “When God sank into empirical existence he was deprived of his harmonious unity, logical reason, and organizational purpose.”
For Ilyin, our human world of facts and passions is senseless. Ilyin found it immoral that a fact might be grasped in its historical setting: “the world of empirical existence cannot be theologically justified.” Passions are evil. God also erred in his creation by releasing “the evil nature of the sensual.” God yielded to a “romantic” impulse by making beings, ourselves, who are moved by sex. And so “the romantic content of the world overcomes the rational form of thought, and thought cedes its place to unthinking purpose,” physical love. God left us amidst “spiritual and moral relativism.”
By condemning God, Ilyin empowered philosophy, or at least one philosopher: himself. He preserved the vision of a divine “totality” that existed before the creation of the world, but left it to himself to reveal how it might be regained. Having removed God from the scene, Ilyin himself could issue judgments about what is and what ought to be. There is a Godly world and it must be somehow redeemed, and this sacred work will fall to men who understand their predicament—thanks to Ilyin and his books.
The vision was a totalitarian one. We should long for a condition in which we think and feel as one, which means not to think and feel at all. We must cease to exist as individual human beings. “Evil begins,” Ilyin wrote, “where the person begins.” Our very individuality only proves that the world is flawed: “the empirical fragmentation of human existence is an incorrect, a transitory, and a metaphysically untrue condition of the world.” Ilyin despised the middle classes, whose civil society and private life, he thought, kept the world broken and God at bay. To belong to a layer of society that offered individuals social advancement promise of movement was to be the worst kind of human being: “this estate constitutes the very lowest level of social existence.”