The Russian Empire 1801-1917
Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology
The Russian Anarchists
Danilevsky: A Russian Totalitarian
Russian Political Thought: An Introduction
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture
There is a continuing interest in the history of political thought, an enduring curiosity to learn how men in the past have reflected on the state, on the process of living together in society, and on the conditions of the just and good life. Even the current fashion for concrete sociological enquiries has not wholly displaced our interest in the forms of speculation to which we give the name “political thought,” This interest is no mere idle intellectual curiosity. Political thought is an integral part of the history of mankind. Take away the few writers on politics on the European scene in the last few centuries whose names first spring to mind—Machiavelli, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx—and history becomes meaningless. Can the history of Europe and America be understood without these names? All the more strange does it seem, therefore, that we have for generations been writing and talking about the history of Russia with only the most shadowy equipment, in the English language, for studying Russian political thought—beyond, perhaps, Herzen or Lenin.
Let it be granted then that political thought illuminates and explains the nature of the society into which we are born. In one sense the illumination which the great political thinkers provide is universally applicable: the insight of Machiavelli into the nature of rule, or the categories of Aristotle which map out the varieties of political systems, work as well in Russia as in America, in the sixteenth or in the twentieth century. But universality of insights does not mean uniformity of institutions. In spite of the views of the enlightenment, typified, perhaps, by Destutt de Tracy, or in Russia by most of the Decembrists, political institutions are far from uniform, they do not have in common an inevitable process of evolution irrespective of place: from autocracy to monarchy and then to republic, or the like. On the contrary, all historical experience seems to suggest that, even if they sometimes share a family likeness, institutions in different countries rise and fall, flourish or decline, change and adapt, in accordance with the peculiarities of tradition, history, cultural inheritance, religion, and many other factors that shape them. Of vital importance among these factors is political thought: the way men think about their institutions influences the institution; and, at the same time, the trials and obstacles faced by institutions, the success and failure in meeting them, influence the way in which men think about politics.
One of the many merits of Hugh Seton-Watson’s recent monumental volume on Russia’s nineteenth century is that it includes an adequate account of the main trends in political thought, thus making it possible for us to discern something of this process of interaction between thought and institutions during the last century of the Empire. But the study goes back much further than the nineteenth century. The reforms of the 1860s certainly set Russia on the path of modernization. But the inheritance from Byzantium, from the Mongols perhaps, and from …
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