N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)

Power and Coercive Violence

(1916 - #225)

I

         Particularly acute in our day arises the question concerning the nature of power and its relationship to coercive violence. The problem of power agitates Russian thought and nudges it along a new direction. With Russians here is no love for power, no cult of power, there is always a morally contemptuous attitude towards it. Power seems sooner diabolical, than Divine, and it readily gets confused and identified with coercive violence. The love for power, the religion of power we tend to imagine of the Germans and we see in this a lower spiritual type. But it cannot be said, that we have been altogether alien to coercive violence, that nowise possible is it to say this for all the austere Russian state aspect. We tend to be proud, that the ideology of power is foreign to us. The violence amongst us has to be examined as a fact, and not as an idea, as our sin, and not as our heresy. But it is time already for us to make better distinctions in the concepts of power and coercive force. This has great significance for our national consciousness and for our very national existence itself. And herein I tend to think, that for us it is inwardly needful to be fond of power, to cultivate and strengthen it in ourself, and only then will we not be bullied nor be bullies. Without a radical and spiritual transformation of our attitude towards power, in awareness and in action, we will remain in a condition of servility. Coercive violence in Russia has always been but the reverse side of powerlessness. Coercive violence anywhere and everywhere is the reverse side of powerlessness. Power however is a positive concept and value. Power -- is of God. God first of all is power. In every great man, genius or saint, is power. In every great deed in the world there is power. In a great value -- is power. In great creativity -- is power. In life itself is power. Powerlessness, an insufficiency of power is something very negative, bad a thing.

         It is time already to cease opposing power with Russian humility. This beloved opposition gets nowhere. A great and saintly humility is itself a spiritual power, a mastery over its lower elements. A bad and slave-like humility is however a matter of inability and dependence. Russian humility, recoiling from every aspect of power, frequently has become the fruit not of an inner spiritual power, but rather the woesome and dependent fate of Russian people, of the Russian people, of the inability to manifest its own inner might. The Russian people has not yet known an historically voluntary and world existence. Too much in it has been repressed and driven inward. Russian humility has often become an instrument of self-protection for the Russian people, its means of adapting to the grievous conditions of existence. The Russian creative power has not yet been summoned forth for historical activity, it has slumbered in the depths of Russian man. And in Russian man there has not been a consciousness of Divine power. Power to him has seemed a matter of coercive violence, since he is accustomed to acts of power external to him, over him and against him. Power tends to stand before the Russian in material a form, it seems materially crushing. Spiritual power however is not sensed as power, but the rather as humility, love, renunciation, as of an ineffable depth and not translatable into the language of the "world". But suchlike power tends to be that, which happens upon me, threatens me and violates me, and not that, what happens from me and transforms the world. And herein is the characteristic feeling of Russian man.
 
 

II

         No sort of a genuine power within human life can be merely an external and material power. Every power -- is inward, a spiritual power, might, drawn from Divine a wellspring. All the material powers of mankind, all the outward implements of his mightiness -- are the fruits of spiritual a power. And even though these implements can be directed towards evil, it does not diminish the essence of the matter. External material powers, nowise connected with inner spiritual powers, do not exist, this is only a deception from superficial a perceiving of life. Every authentic power, not merely seemingly so but for real, is an inward spiritual action upon that upon what the power itself manifests forth, is an inward and spiritual act of communion, of co-uniting and appropriating. Active powers in the human world cannot be by an external and mechanical impetus. One, who has power over me, has to establish an inner contact with my soul and spiritually act upon me, evoking from my depths a spiritual and free admitting of his power as not foreign to me. That which remains foreign to me, can with violence coerce me, but it does not have power over me. A power of governance, having lost contact with the souls, the spiritual community, is no longer a power of governance, it is already powerless. Whoso rules only the bodies and shifts around the atoms of matter, does not possess a true power of rule, his power of rule is illusory. Coercive violence is illusory a method.

         Power by its essence is deeply contrary to coercive force. Coercive force is always powerless or in any case an indicator of insufficiency of power. Coercive force is a sign, that a given energy does not act sufficiently deep enough, skips a beat, does not penetrate at depth, does not inwardly act, does not set afire or take hold. An oppressive mechanical shoving in human life is of powerlessness, an incapacity. An authentic power and might sets free, grants freedom to all and everyone, it is a transition into the world of Divine energy, its taking root into the very core of things. Powerlessness always enslaves, is violence prone, and bestows beatings. Authentic power evokes a respect for itself, meets with acknowledgement, and in its supreme manifestations -- is a delight. Whoso possesses true power is one who rules over human souls or the soul of the entire people, and is never sensed as an oppressor. An oppressor however rules nothing. In every state there is coercion and force, but no state can rest entirely upon coercion and force. A state tends to fall apart and collapse, when the power of rule in it is violent force, and not rue power. And thus, the coercive national politics with us has always been the result of he powerlessness of Russians in regard to the non-Russians.

         A true power indeed amongst the Russians would lead to the freedom of the non-Russians, to a liberation of all the nationalities. Only someone, who has a sense of his own powerlessness in his own enormous state, would want a limitation in rights and restraints on others, and that they be under restraints enough, limited in rights and situated under minority status. This -- is shameful a powerlessness, unworthy of a great people. The exaggeration of dangers and fears reflects a break-down of the elementary national hygiene. The power and might of a true national politics is always creative, and not terror. The governing nationality of a great empire should be endowed with spiritual power, setting afire and taking hold, ought to captivate by its visage. And I believe in the spiritual might of the Russian visage. But in this might our rightist circles do not believe. The ruling prevalence ought always to belong to power, and not powerlessness. If the Jewish, the Polish, the Finns, the Georgian/Gruzinians, the Armenians, the Tatars and other foreigners are spiritually stronger than the Russians and the Russians can protect themself only by coercive force, to manifest their own national visage only by the repression of a foreign visage, then it becomes impossible to believe in the fate of the Russian people. Then the coercive force, which accompanies reactionary politics, the same as politics purely revolutionary, is always of an insufficiency of power, the insufficiency of an inner contact, a spiritual persuasiveness and appeal, the absence of a national all-peoples inspiredness. Factually all the phenomena within the life of peoples and of mankind is complex, and in them there is an admixture of power and powerlessness.
 
 

III

         Material power is not itself per se an existent reality. Material power is begotten of a manifestation of spiritual power. The material technical aspect is a manifestation of the inner power of a nation. But insofar as a material manifestation of spiritual power resorts to coercive force, the spiritual power proves insufficient for mastering and co uniting, for a mastery over existences, over the souls of people and things.

         In the world there is evil coercive violence, insofar as Divine power fails to take root in the world, and does not take hold in the world down to its very depths. Power always proceeds from within and goes inward. Power -- is ontological, real in the deepest meaning of this word, it is contrary to all illusiveness and all non-being. An insufficiency of power is a diminuation of being. And insofar as the world cannot yield and be brought under the mastery of an inner spiritual power, it is illusory and of non-being. No other sort of power, except spiritual a power, can there be. Only God is powerful, the devil however is completely powerless, he only pretends to be powerful, and his mastery in the world -- is illusory a mastery. The powers of this world in an ontological sense can prove to be very weak. For the Russian people and for Russian man is needful a consciousness of the majesty of power, its spiritual and Divine aspect. And for us it is necessary to surmount the externalistic attitude towards power. For the purpose of the spiritual hygiene of the individual man and the entire people it is not good to sense oneself as weak, on all sides beset by dangers and dwelling upon one's weaknesses, such as humility, as a quality, almost unknown to other peoples. The ever eternal feeling of oneself as weak, as helpless and beset by dangers, tends to engender a mistrustful anxiety and, in the final end, leads to such phenomena, as with the Jewish pogrommes, -- this is an extreme example of a national powerlessness and inability. Power is not a given, received externally, power is drawn forth from the inner depths. Power can and ought to increase in oneself, and needful for this is a spiritual hygiene of the person and the nation. Out of a mistrustful anxiety, out of fear, out of an idealisation of weakness, power is lessened and falls for real. And power for real grows and rises forth out of an awareness of oneself as strong, out of a love for power, out of a fearlessness in the face of dangers.

         It is needful to call forth from the depths a feeling of power and to strengthen the awareness of power as spiritually higher an existence. In the depths of each man and each people there is power, but in slumbering a condition and weighed down beneathe the external layers of life.

         For foresight into the activity and discernment of power it is nowise indifferent  thing, whether it be a consciousness of the majesty and spiritual value of power, or whether on the contrary, it be a consciousness of the sinfulness and untruth of all power. And needful therefore in Russia is a radical reform of consciousness in relation to power. Power -- is immanent to man and the people, and not transcendent. A transcendent consciousness involving power would hold the people in slavery. The cult of a spiritual power, as also of any power, would seem to many Russians to be a Germanic, and not Russian an idea. But this is a simplification of the problem and a self-deception. Within Germanism there is a specific cult of power, transitioning into a will to power over the world. But of itself the idea of power, as spiritual and Divine a potentiality, is worldwide, trans-national and objective an idea. Only power conquers the inertia of the world. All ought to be powerful and uncover their power in the world. World conditions at present compellingly demand of Russians, that they be powerful in all regards, that they transfer into an active condition all their potential powers and ultimately be aware of the significance of power. The Russian people, as with any people, ought to realise, that they themself are the fashioner of their own fate, that from their own particular power depends their historical future, rather than from the powers, bursting forth over them. Neither the person of the individual man, nor the person of the entire people can presume unto themself power, they themself have to be powerful. Both the power of the person and the power of the nation have to be organised. Russian power has to be directed otherwise, than the Germanic power, it ought to be liberating, bestowing also goodness, but it ought also to be power, rather than powerlessness. Russians however have hitherto tended to think, that power is something Western European, a foreign land thing, and German a category predominantly. For Russian man very characteristic is the wont for non-resistance, passive refusal and withdrawal. But it erroneous to set non-resistance as the opposite to violent force. If violent force reflects a powerlessness or insufficiency of power, then "non-resistance" is illusory a way out, a refusal of the cultivation of power, in overcoming world evil. It can be said, that the violent force in the war signifies an insufficiency of power, a powerless good, but the refusal from participation in the war, its boycott, nowise signifies a cultivation of power, indicative of positive might. This is only a powerless ignoring of the worldwide cycle of responsibility, of historical a cultivation of power, often fine for the sensitivities, but feckless for the awareness. And there is no other way out of it for the person and the nation, except a positive cultivation  of spiritual power, creating for oneself also all the necessary material tools, along with the finding of oneself in the outer world. Christianity itself is a religion of power, and not of powerlessness, a struggle towards power and a matching up of spiritual strength. The perspective of power is a perspective of value, and not of utility. Power possesses sacrificial a nature, it bestows from its exuberance, and neither usurps nor plunders. Power -- is a supreme good. A powerless truth -- is ungodly. But a truth that is mighty is not a good and benefit of this world, it is but a path towards the transformation of this world. And all of life ought to be based upon a [true sort of]1  power.
 
 

                                                      N. A. Berdyaev.

                                                1916

  2010  by translator Fr. S. Janos.

(1916 - 225 -en)

SILA I NASILIE. Article originally published in literary gazette "Birzhevye vedomosti",  2 April 1916, No. 15478. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, "Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922", Izdatel'stvo Astrel', Moskva, 2007, p. 405-409.


  1 text of paper damaged, word restored as to contextual meaning.
 


Return to Berdyaev Online Library .