Articles / Philosophy / Aleksandr Shrejder and his book “Ocherki filosofii narodnichestva”




Russisches denken im europaischen dialog, STUDIENVerlag, 1998



Let me start with a very short introduction. I have nothing to do with Russian philology or Russian studies. If one is not very well versed in a subject, the most successful step is to dig up, to unearth something or somebody which is not very well known; this is a very widely spread dilettantism. I want to talk to you about a half-forgotten, or probably almost entirely forgotten Russian philosopher. His name is Aleksandr Shrejder. I would like to make two preliminary remarks about this philosopher and in a way about myself, too. The first remark is that it was a very strange occasion, in the early spring of 1918, and the scene of action was Butyrki Prison in Moscow. Two young Russian philosophers not yet known at that time decided to abide in Butyrki Prison for a while. One of them became very well known: the French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, at that time a very young gymnasiast named Sasha Kozhevnikov, and the other was Sasha Shrejder, who was considerably older than Kozhevnikov and who was indeed very soon forgotten; his destiny is totally unknown to me.

I am not a historian of Russian philosophy – let me repeat this emphatically. What I am really interested in is some of his ideas and particularly the context within which and against which those ideas were coined by that strange man. So he wrote his book in Butyrki Prison, where he spent about seven months. After Alexandre Kojeve had escaped, he published Shrejder’s book in the “Skify- Verlag” in Berlin in 1923. A second preliminary remark is about my method. It is no method at all. I decided quite consciously to tell you about his ideas in his own very simplistic and primitive way, which is quite congenial to myself as a philosopher – you have to be simple and very primitive. The title of the book is “Ocherki filosofii narodnichestva”. Can you imagine a more banal title? But when you open the book, it is strikingly interesting. It is interesting not because it presents a kind of new metaphysics, new sociology, new system of ethics, or new anything.

It is interesting because it is strikingly abnormal in the Russian context at the beginning of the twentieth century. First of all he claims himself to be not only a real, but the only real Russian Narodnik. Secondly, he says there were some real Russian Narodniks, some of whom didn’t even know that they were Narodniks. In this context, the first, as it were, pre-Narodnik or proto-Narodnik was none other than Aleksandr Ivanovich Gercen. The second was of course a real Narodnik – Mikhaylovsky. And then Lavrov. And then Shrejder himself. I’ll start with a very simple exposition of his ideas. The first idea, amazingly enough, his tale about his own philosophy is very Husserlian. We see it in his book. He makes three references to the Russian translation of “Logische Untersuchungen” 1 volume one and then volume two. His perception of Husserl was quite true. He starts speaking of his own epistemology, he says that two ideas without which no Russian philosopher can start a philosophical or non-philosophical discussion is the idea of belief or faith on the one hand, and the idea of truth on the other. And he says that these notions are, as it were, very aperceptional. The first question is: Whose ideas and whose truth? It starts in a very primitive way to be interesting because he says, well, in fact there are two big groups of philosophers. For the first group Truth has a capital T, it’s one truth, the only truth, the truth which is ontologically postulated, that is postulated as a first ontological entity. I’m not with them, he says, the Russian Revolution is not with them.

And in fact, the Russian Revolution was initiated and conducted and became victorious with those people with one Truth. They are, to use American terminology, truists, and they know it. But it is not genuine truth. Genuine truth is my own truth, your own truth, his, her own truths. I understand truth as an idea subject to phenomenological analysis; that is, as an idea par excellence non-ontological. What kind of truth are we dealing with then in Shrejder’s tale? According to traditional philosophical discourse of the 19th century, he is a complete solipsist. But his idea is that the plurality of individual truth is the only thing which really constitutes the People with a capital “P”, Russian People in particular. It is the sum total of millions and millions of atomic, atomary truths. Of course there are enemies of the real approach to truth. They are Hegel, Marx, Engels and particularly his personal enemy – he speaks of him with great animosity – G.V. Plekhanov. Because they know the truth and they do not know that their truth is their truth. Why? Because they cannot produce the most elementary “phenomenological reduction”. Had they produced it, they would have seen immediately that their truth is a complex of socio-cuitural, economic and political ideas, and it is so diverse, so motley, so heterogeneous, that it would never hold water because it is too diffuse.

He goes on to talk about the idea of progress. As you know, that idea was not only extremely popular in Russian philosophy but also in Russian life. From Shrejder’s point of view, progress is one of the most subjective categories. Again he reveals himself as a complete solipsist, using the same critical terminology of the 19th century. Progress does not exist, that is, there is a kind of relative idea of progress, which means freedom, which means freedom to be or not to be progress, which means an absolute freedom of choice. The only real meaning of progress, and he puts it in single quotes, is that it is a very individual condition for individual freedom of choice. The main non-mathematical and non-logical articles by that great man were published in the twenties and the thirties. My impression is that he did not read Whitehead at all, but in his intuitive approach to ontology he views it as a kind of continual emergence – emergence and disappearence of acts and moments of individual consciousness. But you may ask me, what does this have to do with Narodnichestvo? Yes, it has something to do with Narodnichestvo.

His approach to Narodnichestvo is very individualistic. In his opinion the Russian people – in Russian: “Narod” – is, by its very nature, by definition, antimonistic, and more than that, antimonotheistic. He never uses the term favored by some of the critics of Russian religion and theology, “pogan’ “2, instead he says “antimonistic”. What is very strange is that when he speaks about the process of the Russian Revolution, he says that in its initial sources and impulses, it is entirely natural, plural, pluralistic, anarchic, antirnonistic, antimonotheistic, but in its actuality it had become absolutely monistic, absolutely anti-pluralistic and absolutely anti-individual. Why is that so? He answered that question saying: because that line, that anti-natural line – of course it is his postulation about what is natural and what is anti-natural – that anti-natural, counter-natural line was always predominant. Since when? Since the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century. Why? Because poor Russia, Kievan Russia, got its religion from the most monistic cultural source: Byzantium. And the whole of Russian history can be imagined as a field of battle between natural individualism, pluralism, voluntarianism against alien monism, alien uniformity.

Again, even in that very primitive book it is not as simple as that. The Russian Revolution according to Shrejder was initially a revolution in and of consciousness, but the Russian intelligentsia tried its best to convert it into a material revolution. The real “narodnicheskaja filosofija” according to Shrejder is that philosophy which means to get rid entirely of all positivist influence – Marxism, Proudhonisrn, even Bakuninism – and to return to some genuine sources of human popular psychology. He makes a remark that each and every popular, real psychology in each and every people is individualistic, antimonistic, pluralistic by definition. I cannot say that he is right, but it is not my business to criticize him; I only want to tell you about his central ideas with which I do not agree but which I love. Love and agreement are two totally different things, as different as love and respect. I would like to return to the central term of his philosophy: freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice is understood by Shrejder not so much as freedom to choose between A and B; the most essential thing, writes Shrejder, is that man constructs for himself a certain field in which he is free. And that field is the field of freedom of choice. It practically doesn’t matter how he would choose between A and B; the main thing is that he is able to include himself in that field of freedom. He comes to the conclusion that in the final account that freedom of choice is not an anthropological but rather a completely ontological category. And here I am coming to the last section of his philosophy: his philosophy of religion, which is very curious. He says that we cannot say that there are monistic religions like, say, Christianity, Islam, partly Buddhism, and dualistic religions such as, obviously, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Mazdeism etc. It is historically wrong to say that, according to Shrejder.

Each religion in its pristine form is dualistic; this is his postulate. It is in the process of historical development – not of religion in general but of each so-called universal or great religion in particular – that we see that religion is an arena, a scene of battle between dualistic and monistic tendencies, and unfortunately the monistic tendencies usually win. Why do they win? It’s very simple. Because they coincide with the state – they are “etatistic”. Of course, historically speaking it is humbug, because the first great dualist religion, Zoroastrianism, was taken as a state religion by the Achaemenidians and existed as a state religion through the islamic period, all in all for more than 15 centuries. But it doesn’t matter. He only makes a short comment about Zoroastrianism, saying that they distorted the primary dualism of their own religion. Of course he returns to Russia and Russian religion. He says that in Pravoslavie there is an everlasting struggle between primary, real dualism and false, unreal monism. From his point of view, the choice at the time of St. Vladimir was not between Pravoslavie, Judaism and Islam, as legend would have it. He says the real choice was between a real spiritual Pravoslavie, which was rejected by St. Vladimir, and the alien, monistic, etatistic Pravoslavie brought from Byzantine. In the Russian Revolution, monism won, and dualism lost. In fact now we are doomed to remain again in that usual Russian sphere of enforced monism – whether religious or socialist, Marxist or Orthodox church does not matter – again we are defeated entirely.

The people are defeated; the pristine, primary spirituality is defeated by the new, terrible wave of monism in the Russian Revolution. It is very interesting that at the time of the publication of that book by the “Skify-Verlag” in Berlin in 1923 there were at least five dualist circles in Russia. One of them flourished in Petrograd. Its head was Sinjagin, who was later imprisoned and died in a concentration camp. There were about twenty members in his circle, which was called “Kruzhok ontologicheskogo, transcendental’riogo dualizma” (Circle of ontological transcendental dualism). It existed for more than two years in Petrograd, and its ideas were, interestingly, very similar to those of Shrejder. Only, in the context of that new, Petrogradian dualist philosophy, dualism assumed more ethical dimensions, strictly speaking; the idea of the primary freedom of choice was not between one thing and another but rather between Ormuzd and Ahriman according to Sinjagin.

Sinjagin’s article written in 1937 or 1938 was published by his old friend Prof. Abaev in Moscow, who published his selected works, and wrote a preface saying that he wanted to publish an article written by his old friend Sinjagin about Kreshchenie (Baptism) Rossii. This was an absolutely dualistic article and most of the members of that circle were quite well versed in Zoroastrianism and Manicheism and gnostical sectarian movements, and of course among them was Abaev himself, now the greatest one carrying on the ancient Zoroastrian tradition. I do not think there was a real connection between Aleksandr Shrejder’s Narodnicheskaja Filosofija and that upsurge of transcendental dualism in Petrogradian intelligentsia at the beginning of the twenties. What is interesting is to look at the extent to which the renewed interest in dualism was typical in the absolutely monistic situation of Russian ideology and self-consciousness at the beginning of the century.

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