Power and Responsibility


Power and Responsibility

(1917 – #264)

 Prior to the revolutionary turnabout we had a prolonged crisis of power. The old powers had ceased to be national and statelike, had assumed an hostile attitude towards all the nation, and was overthrown into non-existence on an impulse by all the nation. The entire people’s revolution has had to put forward a provisional government, to express a maximum of national and state unity, and to lead in line with the historical tasks, corresponding to the level of the societal developement of Russia. Power itself possesses objective a nature, it cannot be totally subjective and capricious, a matter of party and class. When it happens thus, the power of authority degenerates and falls. The old Christian wisdom taught, that all power is from God [Rom.13,1]. It would be inaccurate to interpret this truth merely in the context, that an autocratic monarchy or some other defined form of state power is something mystical and divine. This truth mustneeds rather be understood thus, that every power of authority by its nature is mystical and divine, if it fulfills its objectively destined purpose, if it is expressive of the civil and national nature in general, if it transforms chaos into ordered cosmos, sets limits to the triumphing of an evil will, and organises the people’s life. In this context, the power of authority in democratic republics is mystical and divine the same, as is also every other power, congruent with its destined purpose. In the nature of the power of authority and in the attitude, which it evokes towards itself, there is a sort of mystery, which cannot be rationally grasped. The power of authority can degenerate into an evil principle, into a self-assertion merely, and then it betrays its divine wellsprings and its destined purpose, then it ceases to be of service. Such an evil degeneration of he power of authority long, for quite long occurred under the old regime. And it mustneeds straight out be said, that the power of authority of the provisional government, so unstable and transitory, is moreso divine, moreso in accord with the eternal nature of power, than was the power of authority of Nicholas II, set upon so ancient a grounding, than was the power of his temporary governments. The power of authority by its nature and its destined purpose is not a right, is not a privilege, is not a matter of interests. Power is a duty of obligation, a burden and service. In the self-satisfying and self-asserting struggle for power there is always a great untruth. It is because anyone taking upon himself the burden of power first of all imposes upon himself a great responsibility. One having taken upon himself the burden of power cannot still look upon all from partial a perspective, from the perspective of a group, class, party, from the perspective of opposing some private power against the whole. Unperceivable on the part of the life of the great whole. he enters into the mysterious life of the whole people and the whole state, he enters therein not only at some given moment of its existence, but into its historical continuance, into the connection of the times. In having assumed upon oneself the burden of power, it obligates one to think about the enormous whole, to organise it, and not permit the falling apart of the whole, or an ultimate uprising of a part against this whole. To this mystery of the whole, of the whole people and the whole state, is united only one who bears upon himself the responsibility. Power is inseparable from responsibility, an irresponsible power has to fall, it has to be overthrown. The old hence fell, because it was unable to bear the responsibility for the fate of Russia, because it irresponsibly helped ruin Russia, shoved it towards the abyss.

Our provisional government can be criticised from various points of view, but it is indisputable, that in it is an highly developed sense of responsibility, it has taken upon itself the responsibility for the great whole, for Russia namely, in  very difficult moment of Russian history and it is prepared to bear this responsibility to the end. The provisional government has expressed a line of action objectively-national and objectively for the state, a line of action for the great whole. It has concerned itself with the fate of Russia, with the accomplishing of daily historical tasks. The provisional government, under the impetus of the Russian revolution, possesses original features, distinct from those of other temporary provisional governments of other revolutions. In it there is not the self-serving lust for power, not the self-assertion, nothing of the dictator. Moreso rather it consolidates upon too great an humanness and gentleness, almost akin to a Tolstoyan non-resistance. It — is sacrificial, completely unselfish and it bears the power of authority, as a burden and obligation. It desires nothing to grab for itself. It is responsible for the whole, it is immersed under weighty considerations for the administering of Russia, for its defense, and the averting of anarchy. In this “bourgeois” government, as regards the irresponsible street terminology, there is something characteristically Russian, a Russian dislike for holding power, a readiness to resign power, if this be necessary for Russia. The provisional government holds power not out o a sense of a right and greed for it, but from a sense of duty and responsibility. At the present historical moment the power in Russia is a cross, and with reluctance is the resolve to take it upon oneself.

It has impossible a position. Those social democrats, which are hostile to the provisional government, organise demonstrations against it and want to overthrow it, they struggle for power, as though it were their right and privilege, but they are afraid of holding power and lack the resolve to take upon themself the responsibility, connected with power. And it mustneeds be said, that this hesitancy and fear of taking upon themself the responsibility for power is not only the effect of cowardice and lack of resolve, it has deeper real roots. Power in the hands of the socialists, with their class proletarian perspective, cannot be responsible. This power in its administration would not have the perspective of the enormous whole entirety, bearing the name Russia, it could not in essence be national and of state in general. Upon everything it would be impelled to look only from a perspective of private interests. Dealing with the mystery of power, certainly, there would have to be a change somewhat in the nature of those, who now stand upon purely a class point of view without any concern about the whole. But this is something they also are afraid of, something they do not want to do. One, who enters into governance, becomes fatally involved in the state aspect and looks with a statewide perspective upon that, which he previously regarded from private a perspective. And the social democrats are afraid of being rendered as the object of an irresponsible opposition, fighting for private interests, they are afraid to dirty their socialistic purity, their red socialist attire. To administer Russia in that hour of its existence, when an extraordinary revolution is combined with an extraordinary war, when the ruling power has been left such a terrible legacy from the old powers, is not only difficult, but also horrendous. The social democrats wanted to hide behind the sweetness of an irresponsible and pure confession of their abstract teachings. But every power in the world is a sacrificing of purity in the name of responsibility for the fate of peoples and states. And it mustneeds be said, that in certain regards the “mensheviks” are worse than the “bolsheviks”, since they want it both ways and yet are afraid. It is immoral to want power and not want the responsibility. This is a denial of the great mystery of the whole, the mystery of the national and state being, a denial for which history will fiercely punish.

It is not only now that the working class in Russia cannot rule, but also never can any sort of class, rule. The nature of power — transcends class. Class dominance would subvert power. A socialist, having entered into governance, would the same defend the citizen rights of the bourgeiose, as would also every other minister, he would have to concern himself over provisioning all classes of the population, the security and defense of the Russian state, the organisation of police, the courts, securing the rights of citizens, whatever the class they might belong to. Every power has to be powerful — a powerless power is meaningless, and no one needs it. An example of a powerless power was manifest in the final period of the old regime. And a power has to be especially powerful in the era of such a crisis, as Russia is experiencing at present. But a powerful power has to have credibility and possess support among the people. It has to feel, that it expresses the middle line of the will of the entire people, which only can bring Russia out of the crisis. A power is responsible, when upon it they have imposed responsibility for the administration of the country, when they allow it freedom of action and do not hinder it at each step. The mania of mistrust, which at present has infected the Russian people, subverts not only the power, it subverts Russia, it is killing the soul of the people. This irresponsible preaching of mistrust everywhere, this hunting for “bourgeoisness” is the greatest evil of our day. The principle of democracy is perceived for us first of all as a mistrust and suspiciousness towards every manifestation of a personal principle. And this is the legacy of the old Russia, having undergone the old slavery. The preaching of mistrust by soldiers towards officers and generals subverts the army and puts Russia in defenseless a position. The preaching of mistrust towards the “bourgeoise” and the “bourgeois” government breaks up Russia into parts, seeking to abolish every remembrance about the unity of the people. And this — is a slave’s preaching. It seems further, that after the revolutionary turnabout the mistrust has become greater, than under the old regime. The first days of Russian freedom have become poisoned. The preaching of mistrust repudiates man in Russia, repudiates the dignity of the person, it repudiates the Russian people. And for the salvation of Russia and Russian man there has to ensue a moral sobering up and renewal of health, an austere awareness of moral responsibility. The moral and religious ascetic aspect has to put a limit to the irresponsible and dissolute orgies of social fantasies.

N. A. Berdyaev.

8 May [1917]



©  2010  by translator Fr. S. Janos.

(1917 – 264 -en)

VLAST’  I  OTVETSTVENNOST’. Article was originally published in the weekly Journal “Russkaya svoboda”, 1917, No. 6, May, p. 3-6. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, “Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922”, Izdatel’stvo Astrel’, Moskva, 2007, p. 534-537.