Mutatis mutandis: Only Lifestyles Have Changed

Perry Anderson concludes his two-part critique of Dmitri Furman, the Russian scholar of comparative religion and, after 1991, post-communist societies, with the remark that Furman “preserved the dignity” of the terms “liberal” and “democrat” — rare enough in either Europe or America. A nice sentiment but a weak conclusion to these longish articles, which are still well worth the reading (LRB, 30 July / 27 Aug, 2015) .

Like Furman himself, Anderson draws upon a impressive range of learning. There is much to be gleaned from both reviewer and reviewed about the impact and nature of major world religions, as well as about power and politics in the gamut of post-Soviet societies. the swoop which extends from the Baltic states down across eastern Europe to Moldava and Ukraine and those on both sides of the Caucasus, then on to the Stans in central Asia.

Dmitri Furman’s shift from the sociology of religion to that of politics is telling. Since he had imagined that Soviet society as constituted prior to 1991 was capable of reform, perestroika and glasnost, the downfall of Gorbachev jolted him to change field of study. He wanted to explain the intricacies of the former Soviet colonies and what these might reveal about the future of Russia itself.

Perry Anderson himself was formed intellectually just before the ferment of the sixties, but already in 1962, he had assumed the editorship of the New Left Review, with which he is still associated. In fact, the two pieces in the London Review of Books coincide with the publication of the August, 2015 issue of New Left Review 94, which he edited, Incommensurate Russia.

There is no need to resurrect here the debates which prevailed in Western Marxist circles in those years, and I would not be the most objective person to do so. Suffice it to say that the underlying temper of the times, which was utopian, romantic, some would say adolescent, did not lend itself to Realpolitik. In the sixties and for a while into the seventies, even those committed to transforming the world, to use Marx’s phrase, were tempted to imagine that it would be enough just to change lifestyles. Mutatis mutandis: not much has changed, except lifestyles.

Geistesgeschichte, the discipline at hand here, does have explanatory powers, despite its weakness for the metaphor of entelechy — the innate unfolding towards its telos of something botanical, as if ideas were plants. The history of ideas can also slip easily into the embrace of mesmerizing ideals. Such comes with the territory, since ideals are in part ideas. Any idea, when it becomes compelling, can metamorphose into an ideal. That is one of the underlying themes of what we have idealized as Greek philosophy and the myths upon which it is based.

For Furman, democracy and the drive toward it was real enough to speak of “imitation [as opposed to real] democracies”, like the simulacra which arose in  the post-Soviet world and have now found their fully realized form under Vladimir Putin in Russia — the dog here being shaken by its tail.

Yet we should ask ourselves if it is sufficient to qualify as a legitimate “non-imitation” democracy just to have a system which allows alternation between, say, US Republicans and Democrats, instruments as they are of two adverse camps within the same oligarchy? Just maybe all mainstream parliamentary and constitutional democracies are “imitations”, as Luciano Canfora asserts in La democrazia: storia di un’ideologia. They all need glasnost and perestroika.