Russian enlightenment?

By Michael Miller
web posted May 15, 2000

Astounding news from Moscow! (Moscow Times, April 26) Vladimir Putin's economics adviser, Andrei Illarionov held a news conference at which he "vociferously" supported the philosophy of -- Ayn Rand!

Illarionov's news conference was specifically "dedicated to the launch of Rand's work in the Russian language." Rand's Russian translators and publishers said they want the Education Ministry to make Rand compulsory reading in schools. "Every import tariff and every limit on foreign-exchange transactions is a blow to our consciousness. Every tax acts against our freedom," Illarionov said. He noted that President-elect Putin has a copy of "Atlas Shrugged" in his personal library.

Mainstream Western media responded with conspicuous silence.

E. G. Ross, an American commentator who is himself influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism, responded by noting that "Putin may have a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged on his bookshelf, but rights in Russia remain a grim joke." (The Objective American Daily, May 9) Ross observed that rule of law is only beginning to develop in Russia, that typical Russians don't know the meaning of individual rights, and that Russia missed out on the main sources of individual rights in modern centuries: the Renaissance and the Reformation. Ross expects that Russia will "continue to disintegrate -- or collapse back into outright dictatorship and maybe totalitarianism."

Yeah. But!

Yeah. Ross is right about rights in Russia and about Russia's general cultural deficiencies. Russia did indeed miss out on the Renaissance and the Reformation, and it missed most of the glorious developments arising from them, including the Enlightenment and individual rights. Russia remains mystic, pessimistic, collectivist and statist right down to its cultural toenails.

But! But Russia is not anti-intellectual! Not in the way that today's West is anti-intellectual.

Under Marxist rule Russia was spared the worst ravages of Pragmatism, Existentialism, Linguistic Analysis and their assorted noxious residues. As far back as the 60s, a philosophy student in the West could count himself lucky to get a Marxist professor; at least you could learn something from a Marxist. The other species of philosophers were a complete waste of oxygen, and they produced today's Western culture. They taught that philosophy is a pointless game played by otherwise unemployable academics, or a mindless moaning about the meaninglessness of life, or a blind range of the moment expediency.

Accordingly, today's Western mainstream is profoundly anti-intellectual; it unanimously regards philosophy as impotent and irrelevant. Philosophy as a respected cultural power is dead in the West. It is dead by suicide of course -- no other hand is mighty enough for that deed! -- but it is dead, dead, dead.

It ain't dead in Russia! Communism acted like a time capsule to preserve certain ideas in Russia that have long since perished in the West. Among them are the convictions that ideas matter, that deeper ideas matter more, and that the inescapable root of all morality, culture and politics is philosophy.

The best evidence of this is Illarionov's news conference itself, "dedicated to the launch of Rand's work in the Russian language." Try to transpose that to the West. Just try to imagine a top Western government official, a respected intellectual, holding a news conference to declare allegiance to a philosophy. When you grasp why that couldn't happen here (yet!), you'll be able to grasp what it means for Russia.

It means that a significant part of the Russian intelligentsia, not just Illarionov, have declared their ideals to be those of Ayn Rand: undiluted reason, egoism and laissez-faire capitalism. It means that these intellectuals have declared war on the immemorial Russian culture of mysticism, self-sacrifice and statism. It means that they are invoking the power of philosophy to re-build Russian culture and politics from the ground up. It means that they are invoking that power on behalf of the ideals that were implicit in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the ideals that created individual rights. It means that they aim to fix all the flaws noted by Ross.

In the spirit of old time Kremlin watchers, do not overlook the pointed reference to "Atlas Shrugged" on the President-elect's personal bookshelf. This is a statement of fundamental intent. It will be heeded because the whole country was systematically trained in "ideology;" it knows that philosophy matters. One could dramatize this official sanction in a shocking headline: Russia adopts Objectivism.

Will these Russian intellectuals screw up a lot? Hell yes! We'll shake our heads in wonder at their assorted ignorances and we'll wince at their contradictions, such as proposing to make Ayn Rand compulsory reading in state schools. Will they have an easy time of it? Hell no! They've declared war, not victory. But they'll be fighting from the groves of academe, not against them. They'll be offering leadership to a nation that has learned the power of philosophy. They have an excellent chance of transforming Russia into a land of capitalist freedom and prosperity.

Is there any historical parallel for a cultural revolution driven by a concerted intelligentsia with broad cultural aims? Yes, there is: the Japanese Enlightenment. Between roughly 1860 and 1900, Japanese intellectuals deliberately and systematically imported Western culture wholesale. In 40 years Japan morphed from a medieval society--far more backward than Russia then or now -- into an essentially modern nation. Japan still wasn't especially rich or pretty by 1900, but it was no worse than some other modern nations. By 1905 the Japanese navy was modern enough to annihilate a Russian fleet at the battle of Tsushima Strait. The Japanese Enlightenment transformed Japan from medieval to modern in about one working lifetime. ("The Japanese Enlightenment" is out of print, but try Amazon.com)

Russian intellectuals have yearned for centuries to catch up to the West. They tried a Marxist detour; it led to murder and poverty. Now they've set out on a philosophical highway to capitalism. It's not clear how long it will take Western intellectuals to catch up to them.

Michael Miller is the peerless publisher of Quackgrass Press and has been absent from these pages far too long.

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