Nikolai Biryukov

Soborností in the Russian Philosophical and Political Tradition



Introduced by Alexei Khomyakov and further elaborated by the thinkers of the so called Russian religious renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the notion of soborností emerged in the writings of ťmigrť philosophers of the 1920s and 1930s as the central concept, almost a ďtrade markĒ of Russian philosophical and political culture. Like Jewish priests of old in the Babylonian captivity, these thinkers (Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Semyon Frank, Nikolai Lossky and others) set to conceptualise what they cherished as Russiaís legacy to humanity.


In the Russian philosophical jargon the notion of soborností (in its present abstract form) is used to express a vision of some kind of mystic unity that presumably characterises the Church and, by analogy, the social body and (ideally) all of humanity. In this use the concept of soborností has had a profound impact on the Russian political mentality.


The word, which has no English equivalent, is a derivative of the Russian sobor, which means both ďcathedralĒ and ď[ecclesiastical] councilĒ. It was also used as the name for representative institutions of medieval Muscovy (Zemskie sobory). (Students of Balkan politics will recognise it in the official names of the Slovenian and Croatian parliaments of today.)


The sustaining myth (to apply R. Tuckerís term) of the culture of soborností is the idea of consensus that is no oneís particular achievement, but arises spontaneously out of some primary unity of the social group. In this, soborností is a gift of grace rather than a mundane property. As a model virtue preserved within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it was repeatedly opposed to authoritarianism and individualism seen as characteristic features of respectively Catholicism and Protestantism.


When applied to political life, soborností is basically a demand to make decisions and act ďall in commonĒ. The demand implies the community in question is an intrinsically integral entity. It is also the only legitimate political agency. Autonomous actions of any other agency within the community are seen and condemned as a violation of unity and an outrage against soborností.


When viewed from this perspective, society does not appear as a product of human interaction (whether of individuals or groups) and its internal structure is not a result of their efforts and conventions. The whole is a primary reality and within that primary unity the constituent parts are legitimate only inasmuch as they contribute to the general goal.


There is no reason to believe that societies that adhere to this creed are in themselves any more homogeneous than any other. However, the ontology of soborností implies a tacit ďrestrictionĒ on any speculation concerning social structure and social stratification. The priority of the whole is so pronounced that all internal distinctions appear irrelevant, which creates a specific ďegalitarianĒ attitude that, after it has been incorporated in the value system, affects both political decision-making and political behaviour.


But this is an ďegalitarianismĒ of a peculiar, totalitarian kind: while presuming that all individuals and groups that constitute a society are equal vis-ŗ-vis the ďsocial wholeĒ, it does not infer that they must therefore enjoy the status of free political agencies. The pluralism implied by that inference would obviously contradict the ideal of soborností. It is not surprising under the circumstances that this pseudo-egalitarian system of values proves a weak barrier when it comes to establishing elitist political institutions and promulgating the corresponding operational experience.


Moreover, this model of hypertrophied holism depicts society as so amorphous a unity that within it no single structure may legitimately claim an independent status, at least on a lasting basis. Ideally, even such vital functions as security and governance are presumably spontaneous and require no specific institutions. Naturally enough, reality and ideal are at odds in this, but it is precisely because the social ontology of soborností is anti-institutional in principle, that the institutions created to perform these functions in a society that professes the ideals of soborností have the paradoxical mark of permanent extraordinariness: they are established as if ad hoc and retain this character for decades. (Cf. the pledge concerning a near and inevitable ďwithering of stateĒ that formed an important part of the official ideology of one of the most statist regimes in human history).


No less paradoxical, though by no means any less unnatural, a consequence of this attitude is the hypertrophy of institutions of power. Their anti-institutionally minded subjects can neither think of a reasonable alternative to them, nor bring them under effective control. Contrary to the initial anti-institutionalism and egalitarianism of its prevailing ideology, a society of the soborností type quickly develops oligarchic bureaucratic structures and invests them with extraordinary powers. These oligarchies excel in behind-the-scene decision-making: like pluralism, openness and glasností would immediately destroy the illusion of soborností.


Soborností power is extraordinary and unrestricted. Russian political thinkers have suggested various explanations (justifications) for this which varied from the sinful nature of all politics and all power (whence the Slavophiles inferred autocratic monarchy as a means to minimise the number of persons involved in this evil, albeit indispensable job) to Leninís doctrine of ďthe revolutionary vanguardĒ (meaning the Bolshevik Party) that, having mastered the only true science of social development, is entitled to supervise that development, i.e. to rule.


Assimilation of Marxism, first by a part of the Russian intellectual elite and later by the traditionally minded masses, does not appear as incredible as it might seem. For what was adopted was not the doctrine of Marxism (alien, indeed, to the traditional Russian culture), but the Marxist myth that was tied to the doctrine artificially enough. Whereas the Marxist paradigm of social analysis is based on the ideas of social stratification and class struggle, the Marxist vision of the communist future emphasises social homogeneity and unity. Class differences are viewed as a social evil, inevitable, perhaps, at some stages of historic development, but sure to be eliminated in the long run. The Marxist ideal would thus reaffirm the ontological pattern that the Marxist theory mocked and refuted. ďClassless societyĒ may be seen as a Marxist equivalent for the ideologically alien term of soborností.


In the culture of soborností acts of government are identified with those of the community. Indeed, a community that exalts its own shapelessness as a realisation of an ideal is virtually unable to act otherwise than through its one legitimate institution, i.e. the Government. The mythology of soborností knows of only one political agency, ďthe CommunityĒ as a whole. The reality of soborností identifies the former as ďthe GovernmentĒ. The apparent inconsistency is overcome by presuming a fundamental innate affinity between the two agencies. (As numerous posters once displayed throughout the Soviet Union used to claim, ďThe People and the Party are one!Ē) The lack of conflict this presumed affinity implies, is by no means sheer illusion: a community that is denied a capacity to act on its own cannot enter a conflict with those in power, even if such conflict appeared long overdue to an external observer.


Representative institutions of soborností are modelled after the same pattern of totalitarian holism that forms the bed-rock of the culture of soborností. This culture reduces all functions of political representation to a single one: the representative body is expected to ďrepresentĒ the community as a whole in its intercourse with the Authority. Naturally, the body must be a replica of the society it ďrepresentsĒ Ė not of the actual society, but of its ideal model, of what its members believe it to be. In true accord with the prevalent understanding of the community, the representative body is also seen as a kind of unstructured unity that permits no internal divisions. If these appear, they are treated as temporary flaws soon to be removed.


Strictly speaking, no representative institutions are necessary, if the idea of an intrinsic affinity that unites all the members within the community and ties the latter to the Government is taken seriously. Under ďnormalĒ conditions the administration (the only legitimate decision-making body and the only real political agency) has no use for them, and even if they exist, they operate in a ďdemonstration modeĒ. Crises of legitimacy alone can make them influential politically, but even at times of crises their sole task is to provide new legitimisation for new (or old) institutions of power. (Was it by chance alone that, historically, truly powerful, i.e. responsible, representative bodies only appeared in Russia during ďtimes of troublesĒ and revolutions? And is it surprising under the circumstances that a common mind instinctively associates the very idea of representative power with a major crisis, or even with a national catastrophe?)


One of the most striking features of the representative institutions of the soborností type is their anti-procedural bias. The obligation to abide by ďthe rules of the gameĒ is invariably renounced in favour of political expediency. This fits the pattern: a mind that believes in intrinsic unity between the rulers and the ruled sees no sense in trying to restrict the former with ďrulesĒ (whatever these may be). Such restriction must, moreover, be regarded as an attempt on the governmentís raison díÍtre, potency. In an atmosphere like this, even raising a point of procedure would normally bring one under suspicion as to oneís real (presumably dubious) motives.


The modelís other idiosyncrasy is intolerance toward factions or, to put it in broader terms, toward any particularistic stand that dares to manifest itself within the representative institution. In an institution modelled after the pattern of soborností, all internal differences must appear abnormal. The sobor members belong to some groups (classes, estates, strata, ďfactionsĒ or ďpartiesĒ), but the sobor is, by no means, considered an ďappropriateĒ place for voicing and defending their particular interests. In its capacity as the representative of the society in general, of the ďentire landĒ the sobor can be an arena of debate, but not of negotiations and voting. What has to be done in that respect, must be done elsewhere, and if not elsewhere, then at least ďbehind the scenesĒ.


Despite the fact that under the communist rule the term soborností was never to be heard Ė due to its obvious religious connotations (its objectionable semantics were made even less agreeable by the fact that soborností became the catchword of the exiled idealistic philosophers) Ė the ontological and axiological attitudes it stood for remained paramount in Soviet political culture. The Soviet regime may thus be seen as an attempt, even if futile, to realise the national political Utopia.


The collapse of the Soviet regime let soborností emerge out of the cultural underground. Hermeneutic analysis of debates at the Congresses of Peopleís Deputies of the USSR revealed the predominance of soborností as underlying the mental processes, parliamentary rhetoric and political behaviour of the bulk of the deputy corps: anti-procedural bias, rejection of pluralism (styled as ďfactionalismĒ), assumption of innate affinity between the electorate and the deputy corps, the ďrealisticĒ (in the sense implied by medieval scholasticism) understanding of the nature of political issues and the respective expectations concerning their solutions. The conflict between the President and the Supreme Soviet of Russia in 1993 unfolded as a controversy about who, more properly, had the right to speak on behalf of the people ďas a wholeĒ (meaningless, indeed, outside the conceptual framework of soborností) and demonstrated that neither party was ready to accept the principle of separation of powers as the working basis of democratic institutionalism.


On the other hand, the culture of soborností (both in its traditional form and in the form of syncretism created by the Communist revolution) is obviously in crisis, as is Russian society in general. Whether the Russian political elite will once again opt for the traditional patterns of soborností as a means of reconsolidating the social body and overcoming the present crisis or will look for other alternatives, remains to be seen.

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