Concerning the Will of the People


Concerning the Will of the People

(1906 – #130)

    What is the will of the people? Where is one to seek its true expression and embodiment? Here is a question, which assumes at present an extraordinary acuteness. Having suffered, lacerated by a will foreign and strange, our people thirsts to live by its own will, through the self-accomplished expression of its will, by its self-accomplished embodiment in forms of a political existence. Here already for a long time has everywhere been heard, from the various ends of the land, the outraged will of the people letting loose with an outcry, resolute, constant: we demand the universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage right to vote, we demand a constituent assembly. This outcry signifies, that the people has aspired to an accomplished embodiment of its will, that it admits of only its own authority. Western Europe has worked out for this instance slogans and abstract formulas, by which we also express our needs. Woe to whoever admits even one part of a formula, in declaring a complete expression of the will of the people. And in the tumult of our days, in the furies of these days but few ponder over the problem, of what is the people, and in what is its will and power of authority.

We live in a very intense, a very responsible moment of our historical existence. The avid and searching glances of all the land had been fixed upon the Duma, and everyone felt, that this was the vessel, in which should be decanted a portion though of the people’s will, that here finally it would be gathered, that here finally, would be heard the will of the people.

And yet amidst this from all sides they have chipped away at the Duma, from the left and from the right, they refused on principle that it should be a true representative of the will of the people. For both the one and the other of them they have no idea, in what is the true will of the people, for some of them — it is the Red Hundreds, and for others — the Black Hundreds. The only content of will that they acknowledge as of the people is what they wish for themselves, and this points already to a profound antinomy of the perception itself of the will of the people, to the possibility here of a contradiction between form and content.

The left have said, that since the Duma is not a true popular representation, it therefore does not express the will of the people, because it is gathered not on the bass of an universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage of having a voice. By this is established a purely formal, an as yet bereft of content, indicator for the defining as to what the will of the people is, and in what is its true representation. Political democracy, in declaring formal signs for the expression of the will of the people within representative institutions, assents the truth purely in the negative. The four-part democratic formula of the suffrage right to vote is better than any limiting in the right to vote, with the predominance of any portion of the will of the people, whether of class or condition, with any coercive obstacles to the expression of the will of all the people in the selection of their representatives. But there is yet nothing positive in political democracy, and it futilely attempts to set out a fortuitous, mechanical, arithmetic result for delimiting the will of the people. In political democracy the will of the people is the product of a quantitative combination, the adding up and deducing out of individual wills; in these quantitative combinations vanishes the qualitative aspect of the individual will and thus does not obtain the qualitative aspect of the will of all the people. The parliamentary form is a characteristic product from a critical period of history, when everything becomes disjunctive and fragmented, when a people ceases to live an organic life and ceases to possess its own organic will. Our epoch is gravitating in its own abstract political existence towards a full and total rule by the people, — this is an utmost, endpoint idea of societal radicalism. They set off from the total will of the people (universal, equal etc voting right), and they arrive at a total ruling power of the people (a democratic republic). Let us analyse the concept of “people’s-sovereignty” [“narodovlastie”] and then will be exposed the falsity of the very path to people’s-sovereignty, since neither an arbitrary human will nor a godless human rule of power ought to hold dominion over the earth.

And first of all I shall point to the ineradicable opposition between people’s-sovereignty and the rights of the person. People’s-sovereignty, as an utmost sovereign principle, cannot guarantee the person his inalienable, unconditional rights, since it puts the fate of the person into dependence upon the arbitrary, subjectively-mutable will of people. If the human will is made a god of and neither admits of nor loves anything higher than itself, then also there cannot be talk concerning any absolute values, such as might establish the unconditional significance of the person, nothing inalienable is demonstrated concerning it, and its rights are apprised according to expediency. Freedom of conscience possesses an absolute significance and not in the name of anything can it be taken away from a man, if it be bestown by a will supra-human, Divine and not dependent upon human caprice. Posit freedom of conscience as dependent upon human caprice, on the will of people, and its sanctity will be completely violated. J. J. Rousseau, from whom comes the teaching about a total and consistent people’s-sovereignty, did not admit of freedom of conscience. The French Revolution, having attempted to establish a cult of the goddess of reason, tended to deny freedom of conscience at every step. Freedom of conscience has been violated by almost all revolutions, comparable in this to reactions, and its sanctity cannot be grasped by people with a pathos for people’s-sovereignty, just as slaves under a single-power have not known it. The Social Democrats not merely once have declared, that freedom of conscience, and freedom of the word, and every right based upon freedom will be taken from the person, if this be needful for the interests of the proletariat, if the proletariat should want this so.

The human person discovers his freedom and its rights obtain an absolute sanction, they are endowed with an inalienable worthiness, if there be repudiated making a god of the human will and there be respected the supra-human will, the will of God. The highest will has willed freedom for man, has established the absolute inalienability of his freedom of conscience and his other rights, and no human sort of will is empowered to take away this freedom, to infringe upon the Divine within man. When however the person and his freedom are made dependent upon the will of people, when sovereignty be naught else than human-power, then the person loses its absolute character, and its rights to freedom fall in becoming subject to capricious human passions. And thereby the subjective will of the proletariat, or of the tsar, or of some other human ruling-power can deprive the person of the freedom of conscience, and the right to life, and indeed of every right. There is nothing absolute, nothing precious, nothing untouchable in its inner significance, if the world be surrendered to a ruling-power which is subjective, capricious, mutable, before which there be nothing higher for the human will to bow. Pure people’s-sovereignty is the making of the human will into a god, it surrenders the history of the world over into the grip of human desires, whatever they might be, it gives recognition to this human ruling-power in all its formal emptiness of content, it splits apart the will of the people (the form) from the righteous-truth of the people (the content). In this people’s-sovereignty is a continuation of the matter of human self-power, begun with an acknowledging of he sovereignty of the state, — a self-willed human invention, with making a god of the tsar, i.e. involving yet again human wills. People’s-sovereignty, — a total autocratic democracy is the selfsame bowing to an earthly governance, a state positivism, as is the deifying of an unlimited single-rule power, an absolute Caesarism, so hateful an autocracy for us. Both in an unlimited single-rule power and in an unlimited people’s-sovereignty the will is only human, arbitrary, capricious, and there is made a god of, in the first instance, — the will of one, and in the second — the will of all. And to Universal Reason needs to be limited, to be subordinated, not only the will of one or of several, but also the will of all people, since he human will, limited by nothing, subordinated to nothing, cannot arrive at freedom and world harmony. The fate of the world has to b subordinated to objective ideas, to a material, and not merely formal righteous-truth, issuing from a will supra-human, and not from subjective desires, empty of content in their self-sufficiency and self-smugness, issuing but from the human will, be it the will of one, of many or of all. Only in the universal, the Divine character of the will, such as governs the world, can there be the guarantee, that the significance of the person should be absolute, independent of anything temporal, that its rights be inalienable, that its freedom be posited higher than upon human usefulness and arbitrary human desires.

The idea of the rights of man, of the freedoms of man, is the expression of an universal, supra-human, reason-endowed will, and not by chance has the declaration of rights arisen in England upon religious a grounding. Liberalism in a pure, in an ideal form, contains within it an indubitable truth, but one yet still formal, bereft of real content and real footings, and therefore in its strivings to assert an absolute formalism, — lawfulness, it leads to falseness, in which decays the spark of God’s rightful-truth of governance.

The realm of formal governance, the realm of law, as utmost in the world, not only leaves everything hanging up in the air, dissociated from the living bosoms of the earth, but also in its “abstract” form it becomes transformed into something evil, inhuman and godless. The rule of law, possessed of a wellspring supra-human, proceeding upon the path of an abstract, formal “legality” in fatal a manner becomes subordinated to the state, in having a wellspring human, the changeable will of people, and the loud bustle of human interests which drown out the supreme voice, declaring the freedom of man. The formal truth of governance (objective idea) only in union with the real truth of love can offer resistance to the unbridled power of the state, to the unlimited human will, declaring itself sovereign.

Social Democracy has introduced great improvements into the formula of people’s-sovereignty, it has detailed and made concrete the concept of “the people”. For Social Democracy the true people is the proletariat, and perfected people’s-sovereignty is proletarian-sovereignty. But the full triumph of the proletariat abolishes classes, and the victorious proletariat is transformed into the sole mankind. The deifying of the proletariat, so characteristic for “the idea of the fourth estate”, is the deifying of a future mankind yet to come, acknowledging the sovereignty of is human will and denying all supra-human values, denying the will of Universal Reason. Through the consummated people’s-sovereignty — proletarian-sovereignty, the fate of the world will be entrusted ultimately to the human will, to the human subjectivity, to human desires, from which by way of arithmetic combinations will be deduced the will of the sovereign people-mankind. Will there be a triumphing of freedom, will there be fortified the unconditional significance of the person, will there be the acknowledging of its inalienable rights? Will there be attained a perfected expression of the will of the people? In an unlimited, and subordinated to nothing higher, people’s-sovereignty is extinguished both the person, and so also the people, and there is attained neither the rightful-truth of the person, nor the rightful-truth of Sobornost’-communality. Everything precious will be dependent upon the subjective desires of people and everything will have to be subordinated to their mechanical sum. And in this mechanical sum, — a new Leviathan, is revealed neither the image of the person, nor the image of the people.

Social Democracy involves one contradiction, very dangerous for the developement of democracy and very instructive for us. It proclaims the principle of the will of the people, it reveres universal the equal etc suffrage right to vote, in people’s-sovereignty it sees its political ideal, but not every, even though formally perfect, aspect of the will of the people does it tend to subordinate itself to. Social Democracy would boycott the most complete representation of the will of the people, if such were not to be endowed with the proletarian-socialist quality, if it did not make the object of its strivings the triumph of the “idea of the fourth estate”. Thus bespeaks the Social Democratic thirst to surmount formalism, to transition over to the content of the will of the people, to its objects. But the frightful thing is in this, that the content of the Social Democratic religion shows itself to be a forever entrenched formalism — the deifying of the will of a future mankind yet to come, loving nothing higher, and the objective “idea” of this religion — is empty of content. Social Democrats have to be subordinate to the will of the people, since they know of nothing greater, nothing higher, than people’s-sovereignty.

There mustneeds be surmounted the emptiness of content of the will of the people, the formalism of people’s-sovereignty. It is time to admit, that the essence of the matter is not the will of the people, but in rather the objects of this will, in the objectives, to which it is directed, in the ends of this will. Only a sobered will is striving to an end, directed to that, what is higher and greater than it, whereas a will, directed upon itself, locked up within its own human limitedness, asserting only itself — is lacking in content and empty, and leads to non-being. A mankind making a god of itself, worshipping its own human welfare, is a nothing, non-being. The human will only then becomes infinitely of content and full, if it has as its own objective end a worldwide All-Unity, the plenitude and harmony of universal life, when it catches sight of God in itself and over it and has the desire for Him. In the history of the world the human will came into being, when it was imbued with ideas and values, when it aspired to supra-human objectives, to a meaning worldwide, and otherwise came to non-being, when it made a god of itself, nowise aspiring to anything greater, than the human, nowise thirsting for All-Unity, having turned away from the One. And in the name of the person, of its content and freedom, it is necessary to disavow the self-involved deifying of the human will of the person, of a sovereign human power and instead devote oneself to the Divine-Power, in forever asserting the idea of the person itself, with the absolute grounding of the value of its freedom of conscience, its freedom of the word, its free self-determination.

But what indeed is the people? Avidly they seek to find the true representation of its will and they do not know, wherein is this reality, which they term the people. The people is not a class, nor an estate. The people is not and cannot be in an arithmetic combination of people’s individual wills, in mechanical a combination. The people, as a reality, is a certain mystical organism, is a communal-assemblage unity with a single object of the organic will, with a single love. The mystical organism of the people is difficult to find in the critical and fragmented epochs of history, and in them the organic will of the people, the organic love of the people gets replaced by an arithmetic, a mechanical quantity. The people’s-sovereignty with all its representative institutions is also a substitute for the organic will of the people, wrought through a fatal necessity in an irreligious, critical epoch. The genuine will of the people, the will of the mystical organism always possesses a content, always has valuable objectives and only because it is a communal-assemblage, what it expresses is not the quantity of human wills, but rather a new supra-human quality of will, what it wanted is the All-Unity, a free worldwide harmony, that in it be given the triumph of subjective wishes with objective ideas, objective righteous-truth. In this sense the genuine will of the people is the will of God, is a will not arbitrarily-human, but rather supra-human and of reason. Before the will of the people ought to fall down every human power. Where however is to be sought the embodiment of this will of the people — this will of God?

Its perfect and objective embodiment is possible only in religious Sobornost’, religious communality, in the uniting of people in the name of God, in the Church. only in the Church, and not in the state, does the will of the people find itself an adequate expression and conjoin with Divine-Power, whereby mankind comes to be of God-manhood. Concerning the Church, concerning true religious Sobornost’-communality we do not dare to speak self-assuredly and self-confidently, we yet know too little, we only seek and have presentiments. Bt we know already, that we have to choose this path. We know, that it is necessary to subjoin the human will to objective values and ideas, to conjoin subjective desires with worldwide righteous-truth, to delimit people’s-sovereignty by rather the unconditional significance of the human person and its freedom. The human will has to become enkindled with love and reverence for sacred things, the centre of gravity has to shift from a will humanly-arbitrary, empty of content and self-sufficiency, to a will absolute, infinitely of content and universally liberative, and the formalism has to be overcome by realism. The declaration of the rights of man and citizen was already an expression not of the human will, but of the Divine, and therefore only therein do the rights of man obtain with absolute a significance. In this — is the non-arbitrary truth of the teaching about natural truth. It is necessary to go further the path of explicating in the world the supra-human will, to strengthen and to sanctify these aspects of the world liberation movement.

In our — alas — tranquil State Duma, certainly, it would be impossible to seek for a perfect will of the people and not only because, that it was convened not on the basis of universal etc voting rights. It is not a true representation of the will of the people, since that it is not Sobornost’-communality, the unity of the supra-human, since the people itself as it were is not seen. The people is not a combination of social groups, is not a sum of individuals, the people — is an objective spirit, a supra-human organism, reflected also in Russian literature and in national creativity.

The people — is an insoluble mystery and we thirst to be in communion with it. Yet only bits, only fragments of the will of the people, though also not communal, but merely gathered, and splintered, have spoken in our Duma, have bespoken within it the people’s indignation against a government, tearing apart the people, constituting a people’s tribunal over the old regime, and brought about a sense of the people’s thirst for earthly freedom and righteous-truth. At the Duma via subterranean coursings wound its way the people’s will — the will of God, and in the weak voices of the people’s representatives there began resonating the disunited parts of this will, though still mechanically consolidated not by love for a new good, but by hatred for an old evil. The Duma, as with any parliament, mirrored the will of the people during an era of fragmentation and disunity and therefore it was a least of evils, since for a greatest good there would have had to occur a turnabout of character religious, and not political.

The path of Russia is twofold, having apparent the struggle of two principles: human-power and Divine-power, man-worship or God-worship. We can only serve that path, upon which Russia, having become free of an human single-power, does not fall into a new slavery to an unlimited human-power, even though it be termed people’s-sovereignty, a path upon which the mystical organism of the people, — an unity supra-human, should determine our historical existence, and with objective ideas and values there should win out over the limitedness of all human passions, and empty desires. In categories purely political we by this deny the sovereignty of a state, such as is the expression of arbitrary human will, and we affirm sovereignty based upon law, and expressing supra-human will. Only in the person of the people, as a religious Sobornost’-communality, can be revealed a glint of the Divinity, and not in the mechanical aspect of a state, even though it be based upon people’s-sovereignty or proletarian-power. We deny a merely formal politics, which but speaks about the means of life, in the name instead of a politics material, mystically-real, which addresses the ends of life, concerns itself with the meaning of life.

The truth of the liberation movement tends to set free the will of the person, denies oppressive dependence and the power of other, alien human wills, and sunders the coercive and unjust connecting bonding of the atomised bits of the world. But let us not stumble down the path of a new whatever enslavement of the person by the human will, of a new coercive and mechanical binding together. The objective, universal right-truth has to issue forth through a mystical act of its free choice by the person, and this act of freedom has to have its own political reflection. A liberative personal will should desire, should love worldwide an All-unity, Divine harmony, as its own absolute freedom and plenitude.

N. A. Berdyaev


©  2010  by Fr. S. Janos

(1906 – 130(3,23) – en)

O NARODNOI VOLE. First published in weekly social-political newspaper “Moskovskii Ezhenedel’nik”, 1906, No. 20, p. 31-39. Later incorporated by Berdyaev into his 1907 book, “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”, Chapter 23 (p. 468-477) in year 2002 Moscow Kanon reprint edition.