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Motherland: a Philosophical History of Russia by Lesley Chamblerlain

Marcus Wheeler is provoked by Lesley Chamberlain’s history of Russian philosophy.

This book is a tour de force if only in that it encompasses an enormous subject – the ‘long tradition’ of Russian philosophical thought from 1815 to 1991 – in fewer than 350 pages. The author is not a professional or academic philosopher but a writer and journalist: she has however studied Russian and German language and literature and philosophy, and the present work is informed by a deep understanding of these three intellectual disciplines. When she writes on the last page that Russian philosophy “is a branch of German philosophy, perhaps even of German poetry”, she restates, albeit in a deliberately provocative way, what British philosophy students used to be told fifty years ago – that philosophy in Russia was wholly derivative from Hegel and German Idealism (and, by implication, not worth bothering with). Like many of us, Lesley Chamberlain was first drawn to 19th century Russian thought by the writings of Isaiah Berlin – his celebrated articles in Encounter on “A Marvellous Decade” and these and the other essays assembled in Russian Thinkers and elsewhere. Chamberlain surprisingly presents Berlin himself as a philosopher in the Russian tradition: in fact, his claim to fame rests far less on his original, recognisably Western-style contributions to philosophy than on his work as a historian of social and political ideas.

Chamberlain owes much not only to Berlin but to more systematic historians of Russian thought, such as Andrzej Walicki, Frederick Copleston and James Scanlan (though she does not mention Derek Offord, who has published extensively in this field in recent years). She sets herself however the ambitious and original aim of distinguishing in the Russians between social and political ‘thought’ and ‘philosophy’ proper and of relating their teachings to the general tradition of Western philosophy from Descartes to present-day post-modernism. To this end she has divided the book into four parts. Part I – entitled “The Making of the Intelligentsia” – is a lucid and straightforward sequential summary of the principal figures and movements from 1815 to 1917 – Chaadaev, Westernisers and Slavophiles, Populists, Marxists and fin-de-siècle ex-Marxists and religious thinkers. The title of Part II – ‘The Making of Russian Philosophy’ – leads the reader to expect a parallel treatment of the evolution of philosophical views, but its three component chapters are more or less discrete self-contained essays. In the first of these, as at intervals throughout the book, Hegel appears prominently. The author is thoroughly versed in his teachings (to her credit, since in British universities Hegel and Idealism have been virtually mothballed since World War II) and explains cogently why his view of society as constantly subject to change through conflict appealed to young Russians suffocated by their static autocracy; as also why his identification of reality and rationality came to offend Belinsky and others by seeming to ignore human suffering and injustice. She presents nearly all the Russian dissident liberals (whom, confusingly, she later calls “anarchists”) as “Counter-Rationalists” preaching a “Counter-Enlightenment”. This, since she describes herself as a “Cartesian rationalist”, may account for her harsh judgment that Russian philosophical history amounted to “two short centuries of intellectual and moral defeat for Russia.”

Part III consists of a single essay – one of the best in the volume – in which the author demolishes the claims of Lenin (“who has never been attacked enough”) to be regarded as a serious philosopher. Interestingly – and this well illustrates the distinction between ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ – she refers at length to Lenin’s rambling, tedious Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as his ‘textbook’ while making no mention of his far more famous and influential tract What is to be Done? A vigorous contrast is drawn between the insipid Lenin and the lively religious philosophers of the period – Solovyov, Berdyaev and Bulgakov – though this hardly justifies the assertion that “All Russian philosophy except positivism was theology at heart”. Part IV covers the Soviet period and brings the story up to the present day. This section of the book, in which the author defends her argument that the ‘long tradition’ ended not in 1917 but only in 1991, elaborates her own views on present-day philosophy and seeks to vindicate the assertion in her Preface that “Russia’s experience of philosophy has curiously anticipated a breakdown of Western trust in reason”, is the least successful. It contains many digressions and chronological zigzags, and presents an oddly one-sided picture of contemporary Western philosophy: there is a lengthy treatment of existentialism (including the astonishing assertion that “Soviet Marxism… was an existentialism in disguise”), but no mention of the main trends in Anglo-American philosophy in the last sixty years, although this latter is once obliquely alluded to in the suggestion that Berlin forged “a marriage of Russian anarchism [sic] and English common sense”.

One significant bonus for readers of this book is the series of parenthetical vignettes of such unjustly neglected figures as Odoevsky, Shestov, Fyodorov, Bogdanov, Kojeve (is this an abbreviation of Kozhevnikov?) and Pasternak’s friend Valentin Asmus.

The reading list is short and curiously selective: for example, Aileen Kelly’s biography of Bakunin is listed, but not her two more recent collections of essays – Toward Another Shore and Views from the Other Shore – although some of these display a common interest in German influence on Russian thought. Given Chamberlain’s keen interest in religious thinking, the absence of a reference to the writings of the priest-theologian Alexander Men is noteworthy.

There are a few corrigenda: Chaadaev was composing his Philosophical Letters not just “in 1831” (p.16) but from at least 1827; Lysenko’s first name was Trofim, not Anatoly (pp.206, 325); predostanavlivat’ (p.304, note 26) should read priostanavlivat’.

To sum up, this is a controversial, at times exasperating, but lively and thought-provoking book, punctuated with arrestingly fresh dicta – some plausible, some frankly perverse. It is like a fusillade of bullets sprayed indiscriminately from a state-of-the-art machine-gun. In her Preface the author undertook to provide “a missing piece in Western understanding of a country which is a ‘motherland’ to its own people but a strange ‘otherland’ to outsiders”. Sadly, since 1991, Russia has become an ‘otherland’ for many of its own people.

© Prof. Marcus Wheeler 2006

Marcus Wheeler was Professor of Slavonic Studies at The Queen’s University Belfast 1968-92. This review first appeared in the Journal of the GB-Russia Society.

Motherland: a Philosophical History of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain, (London: Atlantic Books, 2005) ISBN 1843542854. pb £14.99.

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