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There is no escape from historical existence. With all its contingencies, unexpected happenings, and mysteries, historical existence offers opportunities for grasping the great drama of life…

RussiaConservative intellectuals have long been suspicious of the pressures that political ideologies place on the writing of history. Most famously, Herbert Butterfield, in his classic work, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), warned of the tendencies of historians to divide historical figures and events in terms of friends and enemies of a present understanding of progress. Eric Voegelin, in his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, spoke of modernity’s search for ideological certainty in order to overcome the anxieties of historical existence. Baldly claiming that “uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity,” Voegelin argued that the entire modern project was to “immanentize the Christian eschaton.” Christianity, properly understood, recognized the primacy of faith in a transcendent God, and did not countenance a necessarily progressive worldview. Gerhart Niemeyer, following Voegelin’s lead, argued that a philosophy of history presupposing an End is a “response to the artifice of a system, rather than to a manifestation of reality.” In his work, Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), Russell Kirk outlined four approaches to historical understanding. First is the school of “nothing ever happens,” i.e., events simply happen without any discernible purpose or significance. The second school he calls the “positivist,” and this dimension sees history as the study of “the record of progress toward some grand terrestrial culmination and perfection.” The third school comes from ancient times and sees history as cyclical. The fourth school believes that history is “the record of human existence under God,” and that “the purpose is to reveal to existing men and societies the true nature of being.” For Kirk, historians are not seers who can divine the future from the past. Rather, history is a “veiled reality,” a reality that we can only glimpse as an intelligible order. And in a beautiful essay, “Myth, History, and the Problem of Desacralized Time” (1982), Stephen Tonsor warned against the modernist understanding of an immanentized historical ending this way:

With the secularization of time and history, meaning, once given to history by its eternal context, must now be discoveredif it is to be found at allas immanent in history. However, if the meaning of history lies within the processes and unfolding of history itself, in the agonized convulsions of time, then there is, indeed, no salvation from time.

The central problem for mankind in our time is the break with the eternal context of time, the desacralization of history. Mankind, in spite of the inadequacy of the act of restoration through the cosmogonic myth, sees the necessity to escape from the agony of history and the decay of potency. Either individuals and human societies abandon hope and live within the negativities of the void or mankind secularizes a form of the cosmogonic myth with its periodic return to chaos and its periodic revival of the golden age through myth and ritual. Once the Judaeo-Christian conception of history has been abandoned there is no alternative to resort either to myth or to the immanentization of history.

I believe that there is great evidence in the pronouncements of our public officials in dealing with the new Russia that signify the diminishing influence of the traditional Judaeo-Christian understanding of history as put forth by imaginative conservatives, like Kirk, Tonsor, and Voegelin, and that this understanding has been replaced by the mythic and ideological understanding in order to obtain the illusion of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. I believe that the force of ideology is kindling a resurrection of the Manichaean structure of Russian-American relations as that which had prevailed from the post-World War II years through the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The insistence of our leadership class that Russia be recognized as our “primary enemy” (even before allegations of computer hacking of our elections and of political collusion with the Trump administration), the full-throttle drive to extend provocatively the North American Treaty Organization into Eastern and South-Eastern Europe up to the Russian border, and the insistence that political organizations created in the post-war years be recognized as historically conclusive exposes a structure of thought designed to overcome the uncertainties of political change in the past twenty-five years. Incessant references and pronouncementsalmost like incantations and actions of ritualfrom numerous media outlets, political representatives, and others that Russia poses a threat not simply to existential countries, but to the very idea of “liberal democracy,” reveal the extent to which ideology and myth have supplanted historical understanding.

To contextualize this discussion of the immanentization of history as ideology, we need to look briefly at what is probably the most important public statement on the death of historical thinking in the previous fifty years, Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article, “The End of History?” and the book that followed, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Dr. Fukuyama’s question—and it was a question—asked whether or not non-liberal, non-democratic ideologies could challenge modern liberalism and not be found wanting as alternative forms of political and economic organizations to provide for the wants of human societies. Developing his argument from the writings of Georg Friedrich Hegel and Alexandre Kojeve, Dr. Fukuyama concluded that the consciousness of the principles of liberty and equality had become imminent in what he called the “universal homogeneous state,” and that this represented “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” Dr. Fukuyama was not arguing that international and political conflict would cease or that economic competition would end, rather he argued that increasingly fundamental contradictions in political societies were being resolved through a “common ideological heritage of mankind.” Dr. Fukuyama concluded that “the spectacular abundance of advanced liberal economies and the infinitely diverse consumer culture made possible by them seem to both foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere…We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”

Dr. Fukuyama, however, was not completely sanguine regarding his conclusion. He ended his discussion with a forewarning that countries—Russia and China, in particular—might be “stuck in history.” Specifically, he referenced Russia’s historic imperialist and nationalist behaviors which might reassert themselves after the fall of the Soviet ideological system:

I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots.[1]

The recent troubles with Russia—especially since the 2016 presidential election—have, I think in very significant ways, proved Dr. Fukuyama very prescient, at least in this sense. While the consciousness of the end of ideological strife has had a great pull on the leading political thinkers of our time, recent political actions—the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit vote in Great Britain, the first round of voting in the French Presidential election in which the National Front and the communists received about half of the votes, and the lengthy leadership of Vladimir Putin in Russia—have exposed political and social anxieties that challenge the end-of-history thesis. Members of the international leadership class, at least those who embrace liberal democracy as the end of discussion in political matters, have not been reticent about voicing their fears of political and social “reaction.” It is because of the inherent tendencies to escape the uncertainties of history through myth and ideology, as Kirk, Tonsor, and Voegelin outlined, that this same class of leaders paradoxically embraces the language, symbols, and the structures of the previous Cold War.

Although in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination, the optimism attending what appeared to be the victory of liberal democracy over oppressive systems, “the end of history,” appears to have itself collapsed. The specter of a revised Cold War has been haunting the Western world during the past few years, and with the election of Donald Trump as President, and the allegations of this administration’s ties to the Russian state, the specter of a Russian menace has reached fever pitch, all of these fomenting memories of post-World War II antagonisms. One regularly reads and hears statements from political analysts, government representatives, and other officials that the world is once again in a Manichean battle between good and evil, between the “free world” and dictatorships, between East and West. Media people refer to Russia in the same breath as other “totalitarian” countries, such as North Korea. At times, politicians and journalists still use the terms “Soviet Union,” “Communist Russia,” and “KGB” in reference to present-day Russia, as though the Soviet Union had never collapsed. It is not the point of this essay to place blame in this recent development; rather, I would like here to suggest that what in fact we are seeing is a diminishment of the political imagination as it attempts to understand our rapidly changing world, specifically regarding Russia, a country that has marginalized its Marxist-Leninist ideology, its Communist Party, and by many measures has become a more traditional, national-oriented, pragmatic, and non-ideological, authoritarian regime. Furthermore, I maintain that our leadership class is re-establishing the Cold War in order to affect an impression of “security of consciousness,” or rather, to overcome the loss of certainty that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” theory affirmed. It is my position in this essay that a reason why a post-ideological Russia has become the “great enemy” of the 21st century is a result of what Dr. Fukuyama hinted at in 1989, that history has a way of resurrecting itself, and history, understood as the unfolding of uncertainty in time, precipitates great anxiety at which point we cease to think historically and grasp either the mythic mode of understanding or the trappings of ideology. While there are many examples of public figures invoking a new Cold War with Russia, here I would like to examine three to illustrate my argument.[2]

My first example is a look at the rhetoric of Senator John McCain who has led the charge in the U.S. government to address threats from Russia. In February of this year Senator McCain gave an interview to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, in which the Senator put forth that the “new world order” created after World War II was directly under assault by Russia’s President Putin, and also maybe even by our new President. In this interview, Senator McCain asserted repeatedly that we were living in “uncertain” times and that the basis for this uncertainty was the inability or the undesirability of certain forces to accept the successes of the post-war world created seventy years ago. Senator McCain was clearly looking past the significant changes that have taken place in Russia since the fall of Communism and was looking to perpetuate the ideological world order created during the first Cold War. Consciously or not, Senator McCain was asserting that the creation of a democratic order under the leadership of the United States in the late 1940s had signified, in Dr. Fukuyama’s terms, the “end of history” and was non-negotiable. For Senator McCain, the only way to address the messy contingencies of a new Russia was to fall back on the certainties of the old Cold War.

To look at this from another angle, we need to look at a Russian response to this rhetoric. In May of this year, after Senator McCain stated that the Russian President represented a greater threat to global security than the terrorism fostered by ISIS, President Putin responded to Senator McCain by calling him “old world,” a phrase clearly meant to dismiss the elderly Senator as out-of-touch. Senator McCain was not a voice crying in the wilderness; other international leaders and public figures quickly echoed his alarm. However, there is a deeper significance to this than at first seems, for in the past few years President Putin has very consciously cast himself as a leader of a new world conservative movement, the purpose of which is to move the world beyond Cold War thinking, that is to say, a move to provide an alternative to the ideology of “secular liberal democracy” and “globalization.” In a recent article in the Russian language online journal, Russkaia!dea, the scholar Mikhail Remizov, stated that “Moscow has begun to think of itself as the capital of a conservative international.” And Professor Boris Mezhuyev of Moscow State University believes that “Putin is adhering to a conservative understanding of conservatism.” Whether or not the development of a “conservative international” is simply an opportunistic approach of a very powerful authoritarian leader, or a sincere effort to arrange non-liberal forces for political and social action, remains to be seen. But within Russia today, there is much discussion about the meaning of candid and high-principled conservatism in the development of Russian as well as in American and European thought. (It is very common to read in the Russian media about classic conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet, Bertrand de Jouvenal, and many others.)[3]

In my second example, I would like to look at a statement by Paul Goble, a senior analyst on Russia. In his blog, “Window on Eurasia” from June 3, Goble argues that “Putin is a greater threat than Brezhnev ever was” because he is not “constrained by Marxist-Leninist ideology.” Goble lists ten reasons, many of which are unassailable, why Putin’s Russia must be challenged by the international community, but his main point is that President Putin is dangerous because he acts pragmatically in Russia’s national interest, and not ideologically. We may take from Goble’s piece that ideological regimes, because they are defined by an element of political and historical certainty, are therefore predictable in their actions, and predictability reduces elements of fear and danger.

The third statement that supports my thesis is by Adam Garfinkle of the American Interest. Dr. Garfinkle writes in his article, “The Anti-Cold War” (December 2016), that the ideological enterprise of Russian-American relations has indeed largely disappeared. Developing his argument from Daniel Bell’s thesis that we have reached not the end of history, but the end of ideology, Dr. Garfinkle writes:

All creedal systems, whatever they may claim about their own ontological status, are either predominantly (ideology) or entirely (religion) faith-based. And they all gain their evocative power through the language not of science but of metaphor, which is the hallmark of mythical thinking…Every culture, every society, has its myths. Every culture and society needs myths to provide putative answers to the “why” questions of political life that are otherwise not explicable through empirical evidence and reasoning alone.

For America in particular, the loss of ideology has birthed an exceptionally uncertain world. Dr. Garfinkle argues that by becoming “unstuck” from our modern Enlightenment understanding, we have been set adrift and rudderless, the results of which may be more dangerous than the original Cold War.

What I have attempted to demonstrate here is that our leadership class has been failing to relate to a new, pragmatic and self-interested Russian regime largely because our imagination is tied to the old ideologies of the Cold War. By reviving ideological warfare (the free world vs. the totalitarian world, good vs. evil,) we are reasserting our belief in moral security, if not physical security. While fears of a “hot” war with Russia (as described by Stephen Cohen) might be exaggerated, the actions of NATO and of previous U.S. administrations to extend our military presence into Eastern Europe up to the Russian border, the continued efforts to spread “liberal democracy” throughout the world, sometimes at the end of a barrel of a gun, and the fact that the we have been at war going on thirty years, demonstrate that the stresses of an ideological battle are more soothing than the stresses of uncertainty.

So how should imaginative conservatives address the issue of Russia? We should first recognize the significant changes in Russia that have occurred since the fall of communism in the early 1990s. While there is a significant rebirth of conservative thought in the Russian polity—and President Putin gives signs of wanting to be a part of that—we should understand that a Russian conservatism will be greatly different from an Anglo-American conservatism as outlined in Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. We should also soundly reject the view, voiced by many, that President Trump’s calls for better relations with Russia are foolish at best and maybe treasonous at worst. We need to heed the words of America’s most prudent diplomat of the Cold War era, George Kennan, who argued consistently for a2 historical understanding of Russia.

That Russia will ever achieve “democracy,” in the sense of political, social, and economic institutions similar to our own, is not to be expected. And even if Russian forms of self-government should differ significantly from our own, it is not to be postulated that this would be entirely a bad thing. Our own models, as most of us would agree are not perfect. And there will continue to be ups and downs in our relationship with Russia.

We should, as Dr. Kirk explained, pursue a politics of prudence:

A soundly conservative foreign policy…should be neither “interventionist” nor “isolationist”: it should be prudent. Its object should not be to secure the triumph everywhere of America’s name and manners, under the slogan of “democratic capitalism,” but acceptance of the diversity of economic and political institutions throughout the world. Soviet hegemony ought not to be succeeded by American hegemony. Our prospects in the world of the twenty-first century are bright—supposing that we Americans do not swagger about the globe, proclaiming our omniscience and our omnipotence.

With the collapse of the ideological Soviet state, contra Dr. Fukuyama, we have re-entered history, the great drama of human action. Tonsor again:

Perhaps, then, the greatest and most important function of history is to permit us to live among the noble dead. The transformation of our lives occurs not through any science but through our ability to comprehend and understand the nobility, the tragedy, and yes, the pettiness of the past. This operation cannot save us from the future or transform that future, except by indirection, but it can make us better men and deeper and more humane persons…History will not give you power, it will not enable you to predict or manipulate the future, but at its best it will give you wisdom and understanding. We cannot escape history by a retreat into myth or by immanentizing the historical process.

“Ideology is the disease, not the cure,” wrote Kirk. There is no escape from historical existence. With all its contingencies, unexpected happenings, and mysteries, historical existence offers opportunities for grasping the great drama of life.

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Notes:

[1] Paul Sagar, in his article, “The Last Hollow Laugh” https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming (retrieved July 10, 2017), argues that Dr. Fukuyama’s thesis in the book was not triumphalist and that Dr. Fukuyama had correctly, if not consciously, predicted the rise of “demagogic strongmen from the fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.” Dr. Sagar, a Leftist, is of course referring here to Donald Trump and his supporters.

[2] On the threat of a new Cold War, watch this discussion with Professors Stephen Cohen, Fiona Hill, and Robert Legvold at the Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZKGVaiWDV8

[3] On the day of this writing, Dmitri Drobnitsky, a Russian political analyst, echoing Pesident Trump’s Warsaw speech, writes that the world today is witnessing a battle between two civilizations. The first, a “Christian civilization which made the West the West and Russia Russia.” The second, “an aggressive liberal-secular anti-civilization, which today has control of the mechanisms of international relations.” Mr. Drobnitsky’s plea is that Russians “understand that we are standing against only one of these two Western civilizations, the anti-Christian and aggressive atheistic.” https://www.politanalitika.ru/v-polose-mnenij/zapad-eto-dve-tsivilizatsii-a-ne-odna/ Mr. Mezhuyev, in a facebook post linking Mr. Drobnitsky’s article, reminds his readers that while Western and Russian conservatives have much in common, there are some deep religious beliefs that cannot be ignored and that “their successes are not our successes.”

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Published: Jul 26, 2017
Author
Glenn Davis
Glenn A. Davis is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is the Academic Dean at All Saints Episcopal School in Lubbock, Texas where he teaches Latin and Russian. He holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His dissertation topic was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s historical imagination. He has published in the Slavic and East European Journal, Christianity and Literature, Modern Age, and Humanitas.
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