Religious communism? Nicolai Berdyaev's contribution to Esprit's interpretation of communism.
A French revolutionary movement called personalism, which originated in the 1930s, provides an instance for demonstrating the impact of Russian ideas on Europe. Not only did a substantial number of Russian emigres participate in this movement,(1) but the ideological goals of personalism also converged with a Russian philosophical tradition. Prior to the Bolshevik success in Russia, many intellectuals who participated in the Russian "Religio-Philosophic Renaissance"(2) advocated a spiritual or Christian socialism as an alternative to Marxism; committed to the principle of sobornost',(3) they held as their central tenets the sanctity of the person within organic communities and increased personal responsibility. The regeneration of sobornost' as a philosophical and religious precept -- it was first introduced by the Slavophiles early in the nineteenth century -- was inspired by Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) and entered the political forum with the publication of Vekhi (Landmarks/Milestones) in 1909.(4) Despite some success in religious matters as demonstrated in the great Orthodox Christian Church Sobor of 1917-18, Bolshevik repression of all things spiritual firmly squelched any continued growth of sobornost' in the new Soviet Russia. The major proponents of this tradition(5) left during the chaos of the civil war, or were victims of the Bolshevik's attack against the "Front of Ideas" in the summer of 1922 when some 160 intellectuals, professors, and artists were summarily exiled from Russia. One of the most prominent exiles -- and perhaps the most sympathetic to communism -- was the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948).
Upon his exile, Berdyaev, lived for two years in Berlin writing what some feel to be his most important work, Novyie srednie veka (A New Middle Ages).(6) In 1924 he moved to France to escape the vagaries of the German Mark. Having established his new home at Clamart, in the suburbs of Paris, Berdyaev began to participate in some of the "Ieftist" and Christian French intellectual circles: two of the most prominent were the Decades de Pontigny and the Thomist, Christian humanist group led by Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa. The Maritains' connection to Berdyaev was both one of culture -- Raissa Maritain was of Russian descent -- and philosophy as Berdyaev shared their aspirations for a new Christian and personal society. Starting in 1926, Berdyaev and Maritain attempted to integrate their respective salons at Clamart and Meudon in hopes of fostering a greater respect between the various Christian denominations, and with the intent of combining their energies towards the creation of a new Christian and personal philosophy.
One of the offshoots of this endeavour was the French personalist movement. The "at-homes" at Meudon and Clamart introduced a young philosopher from Grenoble, Emmanuel Mounier (1905-50), to the spiritual and social ideas of some of the foremost intellectuals of the new Catholic and Orthodox Left. In so doing, these meetings contributed to Mounier's development of his personalist ideology. While the influence of Jacques Maritain on Mounier has been clearly documented,(7) Berdyaev's contribution has received less attention.(8) Despite the Clamart salon, the discussion of Berdyaev's books -- especially A New Middle Ages -- at personalist study groups, and the participation of Berdyaev in the Mounier's personalist review Esprit (October 1932 - August 1941, restarted after World War Two in December 1944), historians have not examined the particular confluence of Berdyaev's ideas and personalist theory.
Due to his experiences as a Marxist (1896-1900) under Lunacharsky in Kiev and his later confrontations with the Bolsheviks, Berdyaev gradually developed a unique and devastating theory of communism. This essay posits that Esprit drew upon Berdyaev's theory to delimit their own position towards communism between 1932-39. In describing this theory, and thus the origins of Esprit's stance on communism, it finds support for the assertion that French personalism did, indeed, offer a "third way" distinct from the ideologies of Marxism or fascism, and a revolutionary plan opposed to either communist or capitalist economic theory While the issues of Russian emigre impact in the larger sphere or the possible long-term legacies of French personalism are beyond the scope of this paper, a clear exposition of Berdyaev's contribution to Esprit's interpretation of communism will help to clarify the often debated position of personalism in interwar France.
The personalist movement in France was largely centred around two groups, l'Ordre Nouveau (f. 1931) and Esprit (f. 1932), which published reviews under the same names. It was both a philosophical and political movement which intended to overthrow the current order in France and correct perceived problems in the modern world through a reappraisal of the human being. The personalists linked the modern Angst to rational humanism's mistake of conceiving the human being as solely a natural, material entity. They insisted that each person was both spirit and matter, and advocated the development of one's spiritual side as the only means to regain true value in society and control over one's own destiny. They therefore shunned all materialist or idealist philosophics which, for the personalists, inevitably led to the sacrifice of human beings to either a technical material process or an idea -- to a "thing."
Politically the personalists espoused a policy of engagement: the active application of philosophical principles to human situations. They insisted that their members not only assist in the creation of a personalist philosophy, but also that they five their lives in accordance with these new principles. The first goal of a personalist, therefore, was to develop his/her spiritual side and aid others in a similar transformation. This policy of co-operation stemmed from their belief that a person's full spiritual development could only occur in communion with others. Hence, they advocated the development of organic, communal societies to encourage the creation of true persons, and to replace urban isolation.(9)
Although the personalists opposed individualism in its definition as:
... a system of morals, feelings, ideas and institutions in which
individuals can be organized by their mutual isolation and defense
... Man in the abstract, unattached to any natural community, the
sovereign lord of a liberty unlimited and undirected; turning towards
others with a primary mistrust, calculation, and self-vindication;
institutions restricted to the assurance that these egoists should not
encroach upon one another, or to their betterment as a purely profit
making association ...(10)
And although they advocated a return to some form of communal society, they were not communists. For the personalists, communism was an end product of materialism: as materialist individualism had subjugated human beings to a thing -- "profit" -- so too did materialist Marxism subject people to "'class"; where individualism had created atomization, alienation, and impotence, the personalists believed that communism would relegate humanity to the "faceless collective." Desiring to present an alternative, a "third way," the personalists refused to be categorized as either "Left" or "Right." Consequently they sought the best means at their disposal to demarcate their political and ideological stance.
This intention was apparent in the first issue of Esprit (October 1932). Emmanuel Mounier explained the "personalist" revolution by which they hoped to combat the current disorder. Other articles, especially those written by Georges Izard, presented Esprit's critique of individualism, capitalism, and the current form of government in interwar France. However, the task of elaborating Esprit's position with regard to communism was left primarily to Nikolai Berdyaev. His article "Verite et mensonge du Communisme" carefully analyzed the precepts of Marxism in order to demonstrate that Marxism's popularity was due to its accurate presentation of certain human truths that had been ignored by democrats and capitalists and forgotten by Christians. Its menace, however, lay in materialist "lies" which Marx had based his theories upon, and which proffered only despair for humankind. In conclusion, Berdyaev suggested that human beings transcend the false promises of both capitalism and communism in favour of a truly beneficial, personalist alternative. Berdyaev's contribution provoked a large response from the French press and even drew the enthusiastic commendation from Andre Gide.(11)
As Emmanuel Mounier chose Berdyaev to make this first expression of Esprit's position on communism, it might be pertinent to ask why his critique was selected by the personalists. An obvious answer is that Berdyaev had been a Marxist (1896-1900), and he saw first-hand the results of the Bolshevik coup and their attempts at implementing communism in Russia. Having been evicted from Russia for his protests against the new regime, it would seem that he was an authoritative source on the negative aspects of communism. Yet this answer does not address the unique aspects of Berdyaev's view of communism which differentiates him from the more typical "White Russian" opponent to Bolshevism and, indeed, from many of his religio-philosophical Russian counterparts.
Berdyaev's view of communism was a culmination of critical thought, begun in 1901 when Berdyaev, during his exile in Vologda for participating in a Marxist group under Lunacharsky, turned from materialist Marxism to idealism.(12) As idealism gave way to a new commitment to Orthodox Christian ideas and an increasing loyalty to the traditions of Russian philosophy -- especially Slavophile thought and the concept of sobornost' -- Berdyaev began an ontological assessment of the historical development of socialist thought. Although Berdyaev was extremely sympathetic to socialist aspirations, his goal was to place socialism philosophically on a more rigorous basis.
At the time of Esprit's inauguration, Berdyaev had just completed his most comprehensive and precise appraisal of Marxism, Khristianstvo i klassovaia bor'ba (Christianity and Class War).(13) He drew upon the critique of Marx presented in this book and upon his conception of history as presented in Smyisl istorii (The Meaning of History)(14) in his article "Verite et mensonge du Communisme." These two crucial studies reveal the depths of Berdyaev's analysis of communism, its philosophical origins in Marxism, and his final conviction in its futility as a vital tenet for the destiny of humankind. As the title of his article for Esprit suggests, Berdyaev did not condemn Marxism outright: he acknowledged its truths while demonstrating its centrally flawed approach in order to assert that if Christianity and its personalist ideas were properly applied, Marxist lies would easily be defeated by Christian truths.
In his view of history, Berdyaev saw Christianity as the culmination of two am traditions: a religious tradition which he divided into the Greek and Jewish religions, and a racial tradition composed of the Aryan (Indo-European) and Jewish races.(15) For him, the Greek religion attributed to their many gods not only superhuman strength, but also very human characteristics. They placed significant change beyond the reach of human beings: a god might feel like helping humans; he might just as easily destroy them; people had some recourse through sacrifice and prayer, but the success of these supplications was never guaranteed. Moreover, because the Greeks believed in a cyclical pattern to life, they never saw specific events and changes as part of a concrete progression. The Jews, while not possessing a particularly merciful God, believed that their actions influenced their ascension toward the Messiah:
... the Jewish historical consciousness gave rise to the religious
millennium which aspired toward the future in a passionate demand
and longing for the fulfilment of the millenary Kingdom of God on
earth, and the advent of the Day of Judgement when evil would
finally be vanquished by good, and when an end would come to the
injustice and sufferings common to the terrestrial destiny of
In the Jewish tradition, human salvation depended upon solving social injustice.(17)
I believe that socialism is based upon a Jewish religious principle,
upon the eschatological myth and the profound dualism of the
Jewish consciousness . . . This dualism ... gave rise to the religious
millennium which aspired toward the future in a passionate demand
and longing for the fulfilment of the millenary Kingdom of God on
earth, and the advent of the Day of Judgment when evil would
finally be vanquished by good, and when an end would come to the
injustice and sufferings common to the terrestrial destiny of
In Berdyaev's racial polarity, the Aryans were obsessively preoccupied by their individual souls and life after death. They never concerned themselves with the collective good." The Jews, on the contrary, possessed a collective destiny: "the alliance of the Jewish spirit with the destiny of the people ... make of the Jews a collective people."(20) Consequently the Jews could not ignore any person's plight if they wished to fulfil their own destiny. Berdyaev asserted that, in the formation of Christianity, these traditions were mingled, and that specific characteristics of each appeared in the European Christian world.
From this conception of history, Berdyaev went on to describe the progression of these influences in European history. Capitalism -- an expression of excessive individuality or Aryan philosophy -- became the reigning economic ideology. In legitimizing individual profit it allowed the exploitation and enslavement of the proletariat and the atomization of society. Urbanization completed the destruction of collective life. The response of the now alienated masses was socialism:
Socialism, I believe, is the outcome of the disintegration of human
society and communal life, and of man's isolation produced by the
extreme development of individualism. The terror of abandonment
and isolation in the face of destiny, and the lack of all communion
with other people, incite man to re-establish some form of
communal and compulsory life.(21)
Although Berdyaev had serious problems with the compulsory aspect of socialism, he did agree that excessive individualism had been a curse to most of mankind and he fully supported some sort of socialist change in economic and social relations.
However, Berdyaev asserted that a particular variety of socialism -- Marxism -- was not solely a protest against the great wrongs committed in the name of individualism, but also a consequence of the Jewish tradition. As proponents of the collective and, with their faith in human progression, the Jews espoused a "Heaven on earth" -- utopia.
This intense longing [for utopia] symbolizes the religious collectivism
of the Jewish people. It could accept neither Christ nor the
mystery of His Crucifixion because he came as the bearer of a meek
and not a triumphant truth on earth. His whole life and death were
a repudiation of the longing for terrestrial beatitude cherished by
the Jewish people.(22)
As the individualism of the Aryan tradition tended to excess, so too did the collectivism and utopianism of the Jewish tradition. Flatly contradicting the supposedly "scientific" base of Marx's philosophy, Berdyaev asserted that Marx simply propounded the old Jewish messianic ideal:
... his [Marx's] proletarian theory was not scientific but religious,
messianic, mythical; he created the myth of the messiah-proletariat,
the unique class free from the original sin of exploitation, the elect
people of God, saviours of mankind, endowed with every virtue.(23)
Demonstrating his loyalty to Christian dogma, Berdyaev dearly condemned Marxism for its sin of idolization.
Philosophically, he found Marx's sequence of social change highly illogical. Marx insisted that humans must undergo the abuses of capitalism in order to see that "exploitation is an evil and a sin, even the greatest evil and the worst sin," before they could achieve the communist utopia.
But his [Marxs] moralism is perverted, even demoniacal: he looks
on evil as the only highway towards good, an increase of darkness
is the only means of getting light; brotherhood, equality, and
friendship among men are born out of envy, hatred, malice, and all
uncharitableness, violence and repression bring freedom in their
Berdyaev was perplexed as to how the proletariat, encouraged to be "bitter, envious, vindictive, and prone to violence" by Marxism, could suddenly create "a new and better social system ... new and better relations between men."(25) He also disagreed with Marx's irrational assertion that capitalism was the ultimate evil. "In the end what remains of his [Marx's] (and still more his successors') work is a crude libel in which the bourgeois classes [sic] are accused of deliberately criminal intentions."(26)
Marx attacked capitalism because it "turns relations of men into relations of things."(27) Berdyaev recognized this as Marx's best and most authentic truth, but he then applied this condemnation to Marx's own theory. If capitalist materialist economics dehumanized man, then there must be more to life than labour, and man must have a spiritual side which is stifled in the capitalist system. Hence if capitalism is wrong, then beyond the economic and materialist world must exist living men and creative beings whose work and energy are appreciated. Therefore, economics is no more than the struggle of living creatures; it is a part of their creative activity. "There is no substantial economic reality; consequently, all economic categories are only historical categories, and not eternal principles as the classical bourgeois political economy teaches."(28)
Having established this, Marx then contradicted himself: he asserted that all men belong to a class, which is a thing, an object. Marx derided capitalism for objectifying man and then proceeded to do exactly the same thing with his own system. "The very process of dehumanization which Marx denounced in capitalism, takes place in materialistic Communism ... Both may turn man into a technical function."(29) Marx followed the capitalists in placing economics above humanity; he replaced the capitalist idol of profit with his own idol -- class; he reduced "man in his highest manifestations and his deepest spiritual experiences to a subordinate function of the class."(30)
Regarding his own era, Berdyaev unveiled the continued addictive and corrupting power of bourgeois capitalism. In France, the efforts of trade unions had improved the economic situation of the proletariat, who, being appeased by better conditions, began to support reform and not revolution. Socialism lost its fervour as the proletariat aspired to become bourgeois:
Socialism is definitely becoming a party which supports good order;
the practical reforming elements are coming uppermost in social
democracy, and the revolutionary and messianicpathos is vanishing.
Communists are most indignant at this state of affairs, but they are
themselves only the bourgeois of tomorrow or the day after.(31)
Not only was the appeal of Marxism declining, said Berdyaev, but the one example of proto-communism, the Soviet Union, had in fact completely adopted capitalist ethics:
Communism has taken the form of State Capitalism and allows no
professional and trade associations which do not depend directly on itself.
After having absorbed personality, society in turn finds itself absorbed
by the state, which is thus enabled to become an oppressor and exploiter,
to invent new sorts of slave-labour, to turn working-men once again into
bond-men, and to perfect a new system of tyranny.(32)
Thus for Berdyaev, Marx had completely failed in his attempt to destroy capitalism. Rather Marx had developed a system that was completely corrupted by materialist capitalism.
Berdyaev could not accept a Marxism that subjected people to the "faceless collective" as a solution to the slavery of capitalism. For Berdyaev, "class" could not be "good, intelligent, or noble," only each specific person could exhibit these characteristics. Berdyaev again pointed to Marx's only success in Soviet Russia:
But will the success of the proletariat, the abolition of classes, the
establishment of this organized rationality be a victory for man? He
was borne down in the past by classes and class warfare. Will he
survive in the future? No. He win definitively disappear, leaving only
a "collective" behind him.(33)
His critique of Marxism was therefore both religious and philosophical.
In "Verite et mensonge du Communisme" Berdyaev asserted that the failure of Christianity in the social sphere had left room for a messianic, religious movement like Marxism which replaced true love for God with the idolization of class. The best defence against Marxism was therefore a correct and complete application of Christian principles in economics and society. Philosophically, it was possible to dismantle Marxism on the basis of its poor logic and to condemn it as a perversion corrupted by materialist capitalism. He thus provided a view of communism in his article for Esprit which accepted its social, economic, and Christian truths, but denied all aspects of its utopianism, "faceless" collectivism, and materialism.
With his article, Berdyaev clearly differentiated Esprit's personalism from the leftist spectrum of communism; he accomplished this, not by simply deriding all Marxist principles, but rather by demonstrating how the weaknesses of Marxism outweighed its strengths. He also gave Esprit a unique Christian critique of communism which complemented the spiritual bias of the personalist movement. These particular elements of Berdyaev's critique largely explain Emmanuel Mounier's decision to solicit his contribution -- although Berdyaevs notoriety as a philosopher and opponent of Marxism was probably an added incentive.
The importance of his article to the personalists at Esprit was indicated by an editorial introduction -- the only one included in this issue -- which compared Berdyaev to Oswald Spengler and Hermann Keyserling as a crucial interpreter of the times:
Accuser l'occident, ce n'est pas renier les ressources qu'il detient
encore. Mais il faut d'abord enfoncer l'accusation avec violence pour
nous sortir de notre suffisance. A Spengler et a Keyserling il est une
autre reponse que la vanite de nos fautes. On pourra ne pas suivre
M. Berdiaeff dans les voies de salut qu'il nous propose. On ne
pourra lui reprocher de n'avoir pas pose le probl&me dans son axe.(34)
Esprit further illustrated the validity of Berdyaev's arguments by publishing a critical traveller's view of the conditions in the Soviet Union written by Jean Sylveire.
At a time when most such commentaries were quite positive about the Soviet experiment and the new regime, this article exposed heretofore unrevealed aspects of the costs Of implementing communism: passport laws, massive deaths caused by starvation and brutality, the suffering of the Russian people.(35) Such attention devoted to the problems of other nations also demonstrated Esprit's commitment to a world vision, and with this issue came the inauguration of its policy of exposing the plight of the Russian people to the world.
Emmanuel Mounier's decision to choose Berdyaev was probably facilitated by his personal knowledge of the Russian exile's views. Between 1928 and 1932 the greatest influences on the development of Mounier's thought had occurred in the "at-homes" at Meudon (Jacques Maritain's house) and Clamart (Berdyaev's home).(36) At these venues he had listened to and recorded the discussions of some of the foremost intellectuals of the French Catholic Left and the Russian emigre intelligentsia on a myriad of issues. Thus, Mounier had the opportunity to assess quite varied opinions and theories from several substantial and well-known theoreticians. In the end, he chose Berdyaev. From December 1930 to February 1931, Maritain hosted a series of discussions on economic theory with the Abbe Lallement presenting his views on capitalism and then encouraging discussion. Obviously, the issue of communism was frequently raised at these meetings. What is apparent from the notes which Mounier recorded from these sessions is a frequent naivety regarding communism, especially on the part of Jacques Maritain. Condemning capitalism as a system which gave no concrete value to work and thus inevitably exploited the worker, Maritain firmly placed himself beside Marx -- if only Marx could be separated from atheism.
J'avoue que si le communisme n'etait pas aussi radicalement athee
et maintenant ce minimum de propridtd individuefle qui est
necessaire a I'homme, je ne verrais aucune raison de n'y pas
Perhaps the group at Meudon understood the delicate nuances of Maritain's view, but when Mounier wished to start a personalist revolution which advocated communalism and yet was definitely not communist, it becomes clear why he hesitated to present such a view to the public.
Maritain did agree with Berdyaev about Maries greatest truth: that capitalism turns relations of men into relations of things, and that it is essential to regard man in his essence as primary. However, he did not offer any critique, as did Berdyaev, about Maries failure along the same fines; Marx also subjugated people to a thing, to "class." Rather, Maritain fully applauded Marx's dialectical theory and bemoaned that lack of a similar, concrete program like Marx's in the current era.
Il nous faut aussi un schema (comme Marx): si non nous succomberons
devant ceux qui en presenteront un. Nous manquons imagination.(38)
When the Abbe Lallement suggested that Marxism was a very real danger which might potentially grow throughout the world, and that it was more inhumane than capitalism, Maritain responded that the people of Russia were better off now under the "napoleonic" Bolsheviks than they were under the Tsar and that their conditions could not be considered less favourable!(39) In fact he asserted that the Russian spiritual revolution which Berdyaev hoped to encourage was so well on its way that in fifty years the communists might develop a complementary regime to the Christian humanism that he himself proposed.(40)
The content of Mounier's notes from the Meudon discussions show clearly that the Maritains were well aware of the deprivations caused by the massive collectivization drive in the Soviet Union at this time. They even put forth numbers of those dispossessed, increased costs of living, and the industrial growth. A speaker, W. Bitt, presented a surprisingly well-documented lecture on conditions in the Soviet Union on 1 February 1931 which described inflation, problems with housing and abandoned children, the destruction of the Kulaks, and the massive growth of "enemies of the people." Despite this the Maritains continued to support many elements of the Bolshevik regime. As Mounier notes:
Raissa et lui [Jacques Maritain] ne peuvent croire qu'il ny avait pas
chez eux [Bolcheviks] un amour des hommes et de leur oeuvre en
vue des hommes. Maritain rappelle l'ascetisme de Lenine qui, lui
a dit un temoin oculaire, quand il fut blesse, n'avait pas de chemise
And Maritain himself gave a solid defence of Lenin:
Je pense a souci scrupuleux dorthodoxie chez Lenine qui employait
de gros bouquins a definir une distinction pour que la doctrine fut
solidement etablie comme une theologie. Cette idde d'un bien du
peuple devait les guider et comporter, du moins chez certains une
Although Berdyaev was present at several of these meetings, the notes of Mounier suggest that he was uncharacteristically quiet. However, at the end of a long discourse on capitalism, spiced with Maritain's support of communism, Berdyaev finally quipped: "sur tes chef communists, parle de folie rationaliste, mais aussi d'un amour du peuple."(43) (Mounier's emphasis)
Mounier continued to struggle with defining the correct position vis-a-vis communism as preparations to launch Esprit became more concrete and exact. At the end of November 1930 he talked with his fellow collaborators -- Georges Izard, Marcel Arland, and Andre Deleage -- and Maritain about the most politically appropriate attitude towards the Soviet Union. Maritain again asserted his support: pointing out that the big newspapers in France and England were completely hostile to the U.S.S.R. and thus regarded as its biggest enemies,(44) he suggested that Esprit would be well advised, "Leur donnner maximum de sympathie. Et ne pas intervenir."(45)
Maritain admitted that the economic system established in the U.S.S.R. embraced ideals that a personalist movement could never accept. Again he condemned its atheism. But instead of suggesting concrete actions by which the personalists could assist a spiritual revolution within Russia, Maritain simply suggested that they had "attendre une renaissance des ames."(46) Andre Deleage went further: he insisted that they all should "pray" for the Soviet Union.(47) When Mounier tried to turn the discussion to more tangible alternatives, suggesting that the U.S.S.R. was heading towards damnation and that its example might provide a valuable lesson for their nascent collectivist movement, Deleage responded abruptly: "Damnes, c'est de l'Eglise morte, cela ne m'interesse plus."(48)
In contrast with his French comrades seeming disinterest in transforming their ideas into action, Mounier found in Berdyaev another firm supporter of engagement. Through books like Christianity and Class War, The Meaning of History and The Russian Revolution, Berdyaev had risked censorship and derision in order to express his assessment of communism. He also participated in polemic forums like Vekhi in an attempt to educate and temper the Russian intelligentsia. The coming of the revolution and the Bolshevik coup did not silence him. Between 1917 and 1922 he wrote four books, submitted articles to critical appraisals of the revolution such as Iz glubiny (From the Depths).(49) Through his lecturing, writing, and regular discussion groups at his house he constantly challenged the Bolshevik regime; while he accepted the reality of the revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, he insisted that Marxism must be surpassed by a true spiritual and Christian revolution.(50) The effectiveness of his actions may be judged by the Bolshevik response. After bringing him before the head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, for an inconclusive meeting in 1920, he was permanently exiled from the Russia in 1922 as an "enemy of the people."
Even in exile Berdyaev continued his attempts to explain the messianic elements of Marxism. Holding discussion groups at his home, first in Berlin and then, after 1924, in Paris, he tried to persuade both natives and emigre Russians about the dangers of Marxism and the need for a spiritually humanist revolution. Unfortunately his reception, especially among the Russian emigrants, was less than gratifying. Many of the older Russians felt completely betrayed by the Bolsheviks and desired only a restoration of the Tsar. For them, Berdyaev's complicated assessment of Marxism and the revolution, branded him as no more than a communist.(51) Russian socialists who had lost out to the Bolsheviks, primarily the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, still refused to listen to his spiritual critique of Marxism; they preferred to engage in polemics about how the Bolsheviks had perverted the revolution.(52) They tended to label Berdyaev a religious reactionary.
In the Russian milieu, Berdyaev's one success was among the young. Both in Berlin and Paris he inspired the "Post-Revolutionaries" who were quite taken with his ideas of transforming the Bolshevik success into a spiritual revolution in Russia. The small, elite, "Post-Revolutionaries" believed "that in spite of communism, Russia was still pursuing her inner, spiritual evolution in accordance with her deepest national, historic, and religious traditions which would finally free her from Marxism."(53) This group interested Mounier, sufficiently so that as Esprit developed he asked them to contribute information about the U.S.S.R. to the review. Signing themselves "the Four," Helene Iswolsky and three other eager young Russians regularly collaborated on articles in Esprit and from her research, Iswolsky was able to compile the information to write two commentaries Women in Russia (1937) and L'homme 1936 en Russe Sovietique (1936).(54) Unfortunately the group soon disbanded, as did similar ones: the harsh realities of emigre life left them with little time and less money to put their ideas into effect.(55)
The lack of a sympathetic Russian audience combined with a belief that non-Russians poorly understood the complexities of the Bolshevik success" led Berdyaev to accept Emmanuel Mounier's invitation to write the article on communism for the first issue of Esprit.(57) For Berdyaev, participation in Esprit was a way to continue his battle against materialism and further the cause of a spiritual revolution:
The journal [Esprit] was occupied in elaborating a social program
of a spiritual nature. This was the trend among these youths with
which I most closely empathized. The young "Esprit" [group] felt
I was sympathetic to their personalist philosophy of which I myself
was a radical advocate, defending the social project of personalism,
so close to socialism, not Marxist, but of a newly abundant type.(58)
Moreover, he found the young French personalists at variance with the older tradition in France which seemed surprisingly abstract and divorced from reality. Having heard that the French intellectuals regarded themselves as the "touchstone" of political movements, he found the reality rather different upon his arrival in France: he rarely saw any political figures at intellectual meetings, and the intellectuals never entered political circles. Thus he felt more sympathy with the new generation of French intellectuals, like Mounier, who were prepared to consider concrete political action, rather than, "just stew in their own juice."(59) In his autobiography, Berdyaev describes Mounier as "a very knowledgable man, and active Catholic, in social orientation -- very leftist."(60) Thus Berdyaev seemed to have found in Esprit a way to carry on his quest, begun in Russia, for a more logical, honest, and personal approach to social issues.
In accordance with the theory of Isaiah Berlin, the Russian intelligentsia's central principle of living, and not just talking about their ideas, was strongly manifest in Berdyaev.
There may be said to exist at least two attitudes toward literature
and the arts in general ... For short, I propose to call one French,
the other Russian. The French writers of the nineteenth century on
the whole believed that they were purveyors ... the artist's private
life was no more concern to the public than the private life of a
carpenter . . . This attitude of mind (which I have deliberately
exaggerated) was rejected with the utmost vehemence by almost
every major Russian writer of the nineteenth century . . . The most
characteristic Russian writers believed that writers are, in the first
place, men; and that they are directly and continually responsible
for all their utterances, whether made in novels of in private letters,
in public speeches or in conversation. This view, in turn, affected
western conceptions of art and life to a marked degree, and is one
of the arresting contributions to thought of the Russian intelligensia.(61)
The adoption of this principle in the west appears to have affected the approach of some young French intellectuals like Emmanuel Mounier. Hence the participation of Berdyaev in this new, largely unknown review which at its height would garner no more than three thousand subscribers may be further explained by the convergence of his active Russian approach with Mounier's own commitment to engagement. Neither man was content to write abstractly about their ideas, they had to five them and take risks for them. Berdyaev's four arrests under both the Tsar and the Bolsheviks and his two forced exiles proved his willingness to engage reality. He served as a living example for Mounier, who insisted that all members of Esprit,
... had to apply its [personalist] principles to everyday life, in their
family, in their business affairs and in their profession ... They also
had to oppose all manifestations of modern disorder and tyranny:
whether caused by the excesses of capitalism or by communist and
However, perhaps the most important reason for asking Berdyaev to outline Esprit's position towards communism was political. In 1930s France, the radical division of "Right" and "Left" made it very difficult for a young group to situate itself along a third path.(63) In accepting sponsors and contributors, they decided to forego the writers Malraux and Jouhandeau because they were too closely linked to the communists. Henri Massis was also excluded because of his ties to the right-wing review Action Francaise.(64) Mounier openly acknowledged the difficult climate of the times when he wrote Berdyaev to confirm his agreement to submit the article on communism:
. . . Vous avez compris, entre autres choses, que nous sommes
disposes a une tres libre et audacieuse enquete sur le terrain social
et politique. C'est vous dire que je vous demande d'dcrire I'dtude
que vous avez bien voulu nous promettre avec toute la liberte et
toute l'ampleur requise. N'attenuez ni ne diminuez rien: il nous faut
travailler avec grandeur, et les raisons qui pourraient vous faire
ailleurs refuser cette etude seront celles memes pour lesquelles nous
vous la prendrons.(65)
Berdyaev, an exile from the Soviet Union due to his opposition of communism and a respected philosopher, carried no such stigmas. Moreover, his well-known commitment to an ontological, Christian approach as well as his own advocacy of a "third way" made Berdyaev eminently suitable for Esprit's purposes.
Having declared its opposition to the status quo in France -- to capitalism and liberal bourgeois democracy -- Esprit required a different approach to communism than the simple capitalist denunciation of all things socialist.
On ne saurait opposer au communisme une forme de restauration
quelconque ou bien l'exemple de la civilisation capitaliste et bourgeoise
des XIXe et XXe siecles. Lorsque le Temps se dresse en
face de I'Eternite, on ne peut lui opposer que l elle-meme, non une
autre forme du temps, deja perimee.(66)
Berdyaev demonstrated the validity of a socialist ethic while condemning the philosophical approach of Marxism; he did not deny the need for a "Christian socialism," but rather insisted on immaculate philosophical usage and impeccable "means." By illustrating how Marxism degraded the person and human spirituality as much as capitalism had, Berdyaev cleared a path for Esprit to propose a social policy which would encourage equality and diminish exploitation while always maintaining the primacy of the spiritual.
Esprit's continued allegiance to Berdyaev's theory was demonstrated in their defence against a possible interdiction by Rome which was launched in 1936. Accused of several sins against the church it sent a manifesto to Rome to clarify their position with regard to Christianity, the personalist revolution, and communism.
Ce que le communisme a de si redoutable, c'est cette combinaison
de la verite et du mensonge: il s'agit avant tout de ne pas nier la
verite mais de la degager de l'erreur.(67)
By using the exact terminology employed by Berdyaev for the title of his first article in Esprit, Mounier acknowledged the personalist debt to his ideas.
Although it may be debated whether Esprit maintained its commitment to the "third way" and Berdyaevs Christian and philosophical critique of communism after World War Two, its initial orientation was certainly highly affected by the Russian philosopher. During the 1930s, Esprit maintained the position on communism which was presented in Berdyaev's "Verite et mensonge du communisme." If we understand how important it was for Esprit to differentiate itself from the "right" and the "left" in proposing its spiritual personalist revolution and how Berdyaev so clearly identified the errors in communism, we can see why one historian has stated:
Berdyaev's analysis, adopted by Mounier, became a classic
statement of Esprit's position on Marxism and lies at the root of its
often complex and widely criticised relations with French communism.(68)
The importance of Berdyaev's contribution cannot be diminished. Esprit was often accused by its critics on the "right" of simply propounding another version of communism. That the French Marxists refused to acknowledge Esprit and in fact were sometimes its harshest critics, did not affect this challenge. It is only by looking at the specific philosophical position created by Berdyaev and espoused by the review that we can see the variance of Esprit's position with that of Marxism and truly say that it did advocate a "third way." This, in turn, may help to explain the origins of the present-day call for a new order and a distinct "third way" which has emerged as a force in postcommunist Europe and, indeed, even in postcommunist Russia. Ideological alternatives like those proposed by Berdyaev did exist in Russia prior to the revolution: some proponents were simply defeated by the events of 1917; others were forced to emigrate after the fact and find new, fertile ground in foreign lands where their ideas could be preserved and disseminated for a later era.
McGill University (1) Recently, it has been posited that personalism was in fact begun by a Russian emigre -- Alexandre Mare (b. 1904) -- who coined the term personalist, and helped to found what was perhaps the first personalist group l'Ordre Nouveau with his 1931 manifesto that declared: "we are neither individualists nor collectivists, we are personalists!" See Christian Roy, Alexandre Marc and the Personalism of L'Ordre Nouveau, 1920-1940 (Montreal, 1987), MA. Thesis, and Alexandre Marc et la Jeune Europe, 1904-1934: L'Ordre Nouveau et aux origines du Personnalisme (Montreal, 1992), PhD Dissertation. Other prominent Russian participants in the French personalist movement were the Existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, Helene Iswolsky, daughter of the Russian ambassador to Paris before World War One, Vladimir Nabokov, Marc Chagal, Father Sergei Bulgakov, Igor Stravinsky, and Georges Florovsky. (2) "Renaissance" is the term which the Russians involved in this philosophical and religious movement between the 1890s and 1917 employed. In the west, the like-minded intellectuals of this period combined with the artistic Symbolist movement are usually labelled "Silver Age." (3) The philosophical conception of sobornost' was first elaborated by the Slavophiles (1840-61) who drew from the example of the Orthodox Christian Church Sobor or "meeting of equals" a social ideal in which the community became an organic entity of freely united individuals. (4) Vekhi (Landmarks), (St. Petersburg, 1909). Vekhi was a compilation of articles written by Berdyaev, S. Bulgakov, P. Struve, M. Gershenzon, A. Izgoev, B. Kistiakovsky, and S. Frank. It criticized the Russian intelligentsia's blind commitment to materialism and promoted the primacy of the spiritual in all things. The common goal of Vekhi was to enlighten the intelligentsia and urge them to seek legitimate philosophical foundations for their ideology instead of being seduced by "simplistic dogmas" like Marxism. (5) The major sobornyi philosophers include Semen Frank, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Lossky, Sergei Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Vasili Zenkovsky, and Pavel Novgorodtsev. Although the limits of this essay prevent a closer examination of the multiple and perhaps more important contributions of some of these figures, it may be noted that they remained closely linked to Nikolai Berdyaev during the period of exile and, although none were very involved in the French personalist movement, they did help Berdyaev explain the unique elements of Russian philosophy to interested French, German, British, and American intellectuals. (6) Nikolai Berdyaev, Novyie srednie veka [A New Middle Ages], (Berlin, 1923). Translated into French in Paris in 1927 and into English in New York in 1933. In Berlin, Berdyaev began the Russian Religious Philosophical Academy, participated in the formation of the Russian Christian Students Movement under the auspices of the Y.M.CA., lectured, wrote, and finally published several heretofore forbidden manuscripts. (7) John Heliman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950 (Toronto, 1981). (8) Historians of French personalism tend to focus on the French roots of personalism and, although they acknowledge antecedents in German and Russian thought, a full discussion of these trends goes beyond the scope of their studies. See for example, Hellman op. cit., Joseph Amato, Mounier and Maritain: A French Catholic Understanding of the Modern World (Alabama, 1975), Michael Kelly, Pioneer of the Catholic Revival. The Ideas and Influence of Emmanuel Mounier London, 1979), and Etienne Borne, Mounier (Paris, 1972) for some of the more concrete discussions about Berdyaev's influence.
On the alternative side, biographers of Berdyaev -- Donald Lowrie, Rebellious Prophet. A Life of Nikolai Berdyaev (New York, 1960) -- and Russian philosophical historians -- N. Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy (New York, 1952) -- are more concerned with the Russian developments and influence of Berdyaev. They briefly mention his impact in France while concentrating on the unique developments of his thought within the Russian tradition. (9) See John Heliman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950. (10) Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (London, 1952), pp. 18-19. (11) Nikolai Berdyacv, "Verite et mensonge du Communisme," Esprit, (Oct. 1932). Andre Gide, Journal 4 Jan. 1933. Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle, Les Non-Confomistes des annees 30 (Paris, 1961), pp. 117-20. Mounier wrote to Berdyaev:. Je dois vous redire combien votre article a souleve d'enthousiasme de tous cotes. Il a ete certainement un des plus remarques de notre premier numero." Emmanuel Mounier, Mounier et sa generation (Paris, 1956), p. 103. (12) See Nikolai Berdyaev Subjectivism i individualism v obshchestvennoi filosofii (Subjectivism and Individualism in Social Philosophy (St. Petersburg, 1901). (13) Nikolai Berdyaev, Khristianstvo i klassovaia bor'ba (Paris, 1931). (14) Nikolai Berdyaev, Smyisl istotii, The Meaning of History, trans. George Reavey, (New York, 1962). First published in 1922 in Berlin. (15) "Ibid., p. 90. (16) Ibid. (17) Ibid., p. 21. (18) Ibid., p. 90. (19) Ibid., pp. 82-88. (20) Ibid., p. 90. (21) Ibid., p. 148. (22) Ibid., p. 96. (23) Berdyaev, Christianity and Class War, trans. Donald Atwater, (New York, 1933), p. 44. (24) Ibid., p. 45. (25) Ibid., p. 71. (26) Ibid., p. 21. Although the sense is correctly conveyed, this translation is a bit erroneous. A literal translation reads: "Having received the rude pamphlet, peculiar to Marxists, they accuse the bourgeois class of consciously villainous intentions (Poluchalcia grubyi pamflet osobenno u marksistov, obvinenie burzhuaznykh klassov v soznatel'no ziodeiskikh namereniiakh)." Berdyaev, Khristiansivo i klassovaia bor'ba, p. 19. (27) Ibid., p. 39. (28) Ibid., p. 39. (29) Nikolai Berdyaev, "Marx versus Man," Russian Philosophy, James Edie, James Scanlan, and Mary Zeldin, eds., Vol III. (Chicago, 1969), p. 163. (30) Berdyaev, Christianity and Class War, p. 33. (31) Ibid., p. 48. Berdyaev actually stated that "Socialism unavoidably is becoming bourgeois (Sotsializm neotvratimo delaetsia burzhuaznym)" in the original Russian text. Berdyaev, Khristianstvo i klassovaia bor'ba, p. 50. (32) Ibid., pp. 76, 77. (33) Ibid., pp. 4243. The original Russian text is again more forceful: ". . . man will disappear, leaving behind only the special collective and not man (chelovek ischeznet okonchatel'no, budet spetsial'nyi koliekav, a ne chelovek)" Berdyaev, Khristianstvo i klassovaia borba, pp. 43-44. (34) Esprit, October 1932, p. 322. (35) Jean Sylveire, "Contre?" Esprit, October 1932, pp. 300-22. (36) Heliman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, pp. 23, 28-31, 38-40. (37) Emmanuel Mounier, Entretiens II, 20 Dec. 1930, unpublished. (38) Ibid. (39) Ibid. (40) Ibid. This was a surprisingly prophetic statement in light of the changes which have occurred in the former Soviet Union in the last seven years. (41) Entretiens II, 1 Feb. 1931, unpublished (42) Ibid. (43) Entretiens II, 20 Jan. 1931, unpublished. (44) It should be noted that this remark of Maritain was not accurate. Several large English and French newspapers were quite positive about the Soviet Regime such as The Guardian. (45) Mounier et sa generation, 66. John Hellman has shown that Maritain was well-aware of his limitations regarding a concrete critique of communism and that he in fact suggested that Mounier enlist Berdyaev's help in defining Esprit's position towards communism. Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, p. 40. (46) Mounier et sa generation, p. 66. (47) "Alors prions, c'est tout," ibid. (48) Ibid. (49) Nikolai Berdyaev, "Dukhi Russkoi Revolutsii," Iz glubiny, (Moscow, 1917). (50) Nikolai Berdyaev, Samopoznanie: opyt filosofskoi avtobiografii (Paris, 1949), p. 275. (51) Helene Iswolsky, light before Dusk. A Russian Catholic in France, 1923-1941 (Toronto, 1942), pp. 95, 96. (52) Robert Williams, Culture in Exile (Ithaca, 1972), pp. 242-52. It is interesting to note that the philosophical and political elements of Berdyaev's critique of Marxism concurred with many of the attacks of these displaced socialists. In particular, the writings of Leon Trotsky agree with Berdyaev that Bolshevism soon became "State capitalism." However there is no evidence as of yet, that any committed socialist came over to Berdyaev's position. Presumably they had no wish to engage in the introspection of their positions demanded by his critique and found it easy to condemn it simply as religious nonsense. (53) Iswolsky, p. 105. (54) Ibid., p. 106. (55) Williams, p. 248. Two notable exceptions are Alexandre Marc and Helene Iswolsky. Marc went on to found the first Personalist group, l'Ordre Nouveau, in 1931 which worked closely with Mounier's Esprit until a break in 1934 over doctrinal differences. Iswolsky participated in Esprit writing articles about the state of man in the Soviet Union. Her complimentary recollections about the Personalist movement are well-documented in her partial autobiography Light Before Dusk. (56) As Stanislas Fumet states in his Histoire de Dieu dans ma vie (Paris, 1987): "Sentant que nous pourrions mal comprendre sa [Berdyaev's] vision mystique des evenements, l'auteur de Verites el erreurs [sic] du communisme sera moins dur pour les communistes russes que dans les annees oi il ecrivit Un nouveau Moyen Age," p. 291. (57) Emmanuel Mounier made this invitation on June 27, 1931. Mounier et sa ggn&ation, (Paris, 1950), p. 80 (58) Nikolai Berdyaev, Samopoznanie: opyt filosofskoi avtobiografii, p. 314. (my translation) (59) lbid., p. 313. (60) Ibid., p. 314. (my translation) (61) Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers (New York, 1978), pp. 128-31. (62) Iswolsky, p. 112. (63) The difficulties which Esprit had in distinguishing itself from either communism or fascism is apparent not only in its reception in the political milicu in 1930s France, but also in the historical interpretation of their movement. John Hellman has tried to link personalism to the growing fascist impulse -- J. Hellman, "Personnalisme et fascisme," Lepersonnalisme d'Emmanuel Mounier (Paris, 1985) -- and Michel Winock has bluntly called personalism "philocommunisme" -- M. Winock, Histoire politique de la revue Esprit, 1930-1950 (Paris, 1975). (64) Mounier et sa generation, p. 70. (65) Ibid., p. 80. (66) Ibid., p. 185. (67) Ibid., p. 194. (68) Kelly, p. 36.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1995|
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