N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
ON THE ABSTRACT AND THE ABSOLUTE
(1915 - #205(15))
An SD representative has declared, that the Social Democrats are refusing participation in the military-naval commission and that they will not take upon themselves responsibility for the defense of the land, since in the defense ought to participate all the whole people. With equal success he might as well have said, that there ought to participate all mankind or even all the animal and vegetative world. And still more he might have said, that the Social Democrats will be in whatever way positive about participating, only when the end of the world ensues and the Kingdom of God transpires, since beforehand it is difficult to expect absolute justice upon the earth. This is a classic model of the modern abstractness and formal absoluteness in politics. In essence, this is a refusal for acting, on the grounds that the world is in too bad a shape for me to participate in its affairs. In the affairs of this world always what rules is the relative, and not the absolute, and in them everything is concrete, and not abstract. And a large portion of the declarations of the Social Democrats are distinguished by the extent of their abstraction and fictitious absoluteness. The Social Democrats do not believe in an absolute, -- in philosophy, in religion they are always for the relative. But their politics is a continuous application of the absolute to the relative, the absolutisation of the relative material matters of this world, using abstractive categories for a concrete activity. I speak about the Russian Social Democrats, who not infrequently remind one typically of Russian boys. The German Social Democrats long since already are involved in a real, concrete and relative politics, although they too earlier were absolutists. And everything that I am talking about is even moreso applicable to the Social Revolutionaries. Absoluteness and abstraction tend to distinguish the declarations of the political doctrinists, whose fine constructs on societal life in the sphere of thought become mistaken for real life. Such abstraction and absoluteness in politics in practise leads to this, that the interests of a particular party or social group are set higher than the interests of the country and the people, the interests of the part – are put higher than the interests of the whole. The part, the group senses itself detached from the life of all the people, the life in common of the nation and the state, so as to dwell itself in absolute truth and justice. It casts aside the burden of responsibility for the whole, for the fate of the land and all the entire people. That portion dwelling their own absolute and abstract truth have no wish to participate in the mutual trust of national life, yea even of mankind in general. Such is the psychology of a sect, sensing itself saved and righteous in an endlessly surrounding sea of evil, darkness and perdition. And this is how every Social Democrat in the State Duma senses himself. The sectarian psychology carries over from the religious sphere into the political sphere. The sectarian psychology in religious life is also a deviation and leads to self-assertion and self-absorption, but in political life it has no rights to existence, since always it is a self-wrought idol from the relative things of the world, replacing the Absolute God with the relative world.
A doctrinaire and abstract politics is always giftless – in it there is no intuition of concrete life, there is no historical instinct nor historical insight, no subtleness, no suppleness nor plasticity. It is like a man, who cannot turn his neck and is able to look only straight ahead at a single point. Herein all the complexity of life eludes the eyes. A living reaction to life is impossible. The abstractive doctrinalists in politics think, that they can see far off. But their “remote vision” is not a foreseeing of the remote future. They – are not prophets, and they see only their abstract doctrines, and not the real life ahead. And indeed even the “remote vision” represents an impaired condition of sight, which requires corrective spectacles, in order to see what is right under their very nose, to read and to write. The abstraction in politics is a frivolous and irresponsible proclaiming of trite commonplaces, irrelevant to the vital tasks arising and irrelevant for the historical moment. Therefore, there tends to be no demand for any sort of creative work of thought over the complex tasks, no sort of sensitivity, no sort of penetration into what is happening. It suffices but to take out from the pocket the small catechism and recite from it some several paragraphs. The abstract and maximalist politics proves always to be a violation of life, its organic growth and flourishing. Such an abstraction denies, that politics is creativity and an art, that a genuine, moreso historically based politics demands special gifts, and not a mechanical application of trite commonplaces, a large potion of which are out of place. The simplistic denial of the complexity and concreteness of historical life, in which all the politics transpires, is an indicator of either a lack of giftedness amidst an elementary approach in this sphere, or else it is an absence of interest for this sphere, a lack of vocation for it. The aversion from the concrete complexity of societal political tasks occurs with us often as the result of a monomania, when a man comes wholly under the grip of a single idea, be it moral or religious or social, but unfailingly it is in the sense of the salvation of mankind by some sort of one method, by one path. This, in the final end, leads to a denial of the multiplicity of being and the asserting of one single whatever. But politics always has to deal with the given, with the concrete condition of the entire world, with the lower level of the human masses, with unregenerate souls, against the resistance of necessity. Abstract social and political teachings always err by their rationalism and their belief in the good fruits of outward force over the low level of developement of the human masses, and the needs begotten by this level. There is thus no rebirth in the texture of the soul of man and the soul of society. Politics always is immersed in the relative. It exists only for a society, in which are strong the swinish instincts. For a righteous society there would be no need of politics.
The direct straight-line application of the absolute values of spiritual life towards the relative historical life and the relative historical tasks is based upon a completely false mindset. The absolute can be in the soul of politics and in the soul of the people, within the subject of social creativity, but it is not in the politics itself, not in the social object. I can be inspired to social action by absolute values and absolute ends, and behind my activity can stand the absolute spirit. But the social deed itself is a turning towards the relative, it is complex, demanding subtleness and flexibility in interaction with the relative world, always infinitely complex. The transfer of absoluteness into the objective social and political life is an entrapment of spiritual life by the historico-relative and socio-material. Together with this, there is also an enslavement of all relative historical life in context of the absolute connections and abstract principles. And it was thus with all the theocratic currents, with pretensions to formally subject the society to a church. This always represents a lack of desire to admit the freedom of a multi-faceted relative life. There is a monistic coercion in both the right-theocratic and the left-socialist currents. Spiritual life per se with all its absolute values is fully concrete. But its direct straight-line conveyance over into the relativeness of the naturo-historical process transforms the spiritual life into abstract principles and doctrines, bereft of concrete vitality. Spirit, free in its inner experience, becomes instead obtrusive and coercive; it reveals itself to the relative external life not as a living experience, but as inwardly obligatory lifeless principles or norms. From a philosophic perspective, the relative historical life can be acknowledged as an independent sphere of absolute life itself, one of the manifestations of its drama being played out. And therefore the absolute ought not to be coercive, with an external and formal obligating for the relative by transcendent norms and principles, rather only can it be an immanent revealing of utmost life into the relative. The abstract and absolute politics of the Social Democrats is just as bad and enslaving a transcendentalism, as is the theocratic politics, as is Papocaesarism or Caesaropapism.
The denial of abstractness and absoluteness in politics should least of all be understood, as a lack of principle or want for ideas. All the societal and political activity ought to be inwardly moved and inspired by the utmost ends and absolute values, and behind them ought to stand a spiritual rebirth, the regeneration of the person and the people. But this spiritual tempering of the person and the people consists not at all in this, in the applying of abstract ideas to life. The spiritually regenerated man and people would make their politics otherwise, than with the proclaiming of external absolute principles and abstract norms. The moral pathos would not be weakened, but rather increased, it would carry over into another plane, would be made inward, not outward, with an heightening of spirit, and not the political hysterics and political fanaticism. Robespierre was very doctrinaire on principle and he loved abstract declarations, but he was a man of the old sort, not the reborn man, he was of the flesh from flesh and blood from blood of the Old Regime, an oppressor in the matter of freedom. There was only a change of attire. Our maximalists in the revolutionary years likewise were of the old sort unregenerated people, a poor human material for the deed of liberation, -- the makeup of their souls was not ready for the fulfilling of historical tasks. Freedom – is not an external principle in politics, but rather of an inwardly inspired origin.
The question about having principles in politics is quite more complex, than the doctrinaire tend to think. It necessitates a recoursing to the question about spiritual renewal, about a transformation of the very fabric of the people and society, about a tempering of the character of the people. An outward and obligatory moralism in politics is out of place and unsupportable. But behind politics there ought to stand the moral energy of man, the moral tempering. However, with many of the moralists and radicals in politics, grounded in abstract principles, there is often absent all the moral tempering of the person. This too is to be discovered during moments of chaos and anarchy in society. And thus it was at the pitiful end of the Russian Revolution [of 1905]. In it we had individual heroes, capable of sacrifice, giving up their life for an idea, but in the revolutionary masses there was no moral character. And the important thing is not the abstract principle, but a live spirit, the renewed person. Having ideas in politics is bound up with the deepening of the person, with a nourishing of the soul of all the entire people, with a consciousness of great responsibility, and not with the simplification and schematisation of complex historical life. The moral principles in politics are affirmed from within, from the taproot of man, and not from the outside, not from the external principles of sociality. I repeat, the absolute in politics is impossible, impossible whether it be theocratic, or Social Democratic, or a Tolstoy’s anarchistic absoluteness. But the absolute is possible within the well-springs of the human spirit, in the inward fidelity of man to the holy. Politics however is itself always concrete and relative, always complex, always it has to deal with historical tasks of a given time and place, all which are not abstract, nor absolute, nor monistic. Our standing on principle abstract politics has been but a form of detachment from politics. In politics everything becomes “in part”, nothing becomes “in general”. In politics it is impossible to repeat anything automatically on the force of principle. What is fine at one historical time, becomes bad in another. Each day has its own unrepeatable and singular tasks and it demands skill.
Every sensitive man, non-doctrinaire, tends to understand, that the historic present day in Russia pushes into politics foremost the tasks of governance, the organisation of a responsible ruling power, and not tasks purely of legislative creativity and reform. But the day can quickly ensue, when the tasks will be altogether otherwise. At present all the forces have to be mobilised for the defense of Russia and for victory. This is an entirely concrete task, it is not dictated by any sort of abstract political principles. But the adherents of abstract political principles even now are making political declarations, which are completely lifeless and which bypass the most urgent tasks of the historical day. A spiritual upsurge, a moral power and inspiration is to be evidenced in a patriotic deed of service to the native land, in defending the native land to the point of death. These needs tend not to be foreseen by the principles of abstract politics; these tasks have arisen within a given historical day, and this moral energy is evident only now. Several years back there was not one of the politicians that foresaw, upon what it has become necessary to direct all his powers. And yet now for one who has to readjust his activity for the defense of the native land, there is hardly anyone who would call this opportunism. This – is not opportunism, but the demand for action and responsibility. The war teaches concreteness in politics, and it tempers the spirit. It introduces tremendous changes in our moral judgements, it establishes an altogether different correlation between the moral and the political. The point of view, which we are defending, acts to liberate from the absolutisation of politics, from transforming it into an idol, into a god. We ought not to bestow to the relative, that which is proper to bestow only to the absolute, i.e. we ought to bestow to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God – that which is God’s. The spirit, strengthened in its absolute well-springs and regenerated, ought to turn itself to the manifold and complex concreteness of the world, with a living creative reaction and discover its creative gifts. Russia has need most of all of people with a talent for rule, and such people have to appear.
© 2002 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1915 - 205(15,25) - en)
OB OTVLECHENNOM I ABSOLIUTNOM V POLITIKE. Published first in the newspaper "Birzhevye vedomosti", 18 Aug. 1915, No. 15034. Republished thereafter in the 1918 Berdyaev's anthology text of articles, “Sud’ba Rossii” (“The Fate of Russia”), Ch. 25, (p. 404-409 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).
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