Ivan Ilyin: On Forms of Sovereignty

In this 1948 essay, Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) analyzes differing forms of rule, accounting for the history, culture, temperament, and geographic setting of a given nation. Ilyin advocates a position wholly unrecognized by the modern Western conception of universal liberal democracy: a diversity of peoples throughout the world merits diversity in forms of sovereignty. Translated by Mark Hackard. 

This complex and weighty question must be posed with caution and total disinterestedness in thought. Most of all, a form of sovereignty is not an “abstraction conception” and not a “political scheme” indifferent to the life of peoples, but an order of life and the living organization of the people. It is necessary that the people understand their system of life, so that it is able to organize “namely so,” and that they respect the laws of this system and invest their will into this organization. In other words, precisely the living sense of justice of a people gives a form of sovereignty its enactment, life, and strength; and so a form of sovereignty depends most of all on the level of popular sense of justice; the historically acquired political experience; the historically acquired political experience the people; its strength of will; and its national character.

Liberation of Moscow, 1612.

Liberation of Moscow, 1612.

It is absurd to sit a man down in front of a chessboard if he doesn’t understand the game and its rules, is unable to think out a game plan, and does not wish to invest his thoughts and will into the match. A team that has never played football together will fail in competition.

Suvorov prepared every battle, explaining to his soldiers the course and meaning of an upcoming operation; and exactly thanks to that he won one battle after another. So it is in political life: it is made by living men, their patriotic love, their understanding of sovereignty, sense of duty, organizational skills, and their respect for the law. All this must be cultivated. It is ridiculous to introduce a sovereign form into a country without considering the level and habits of the popular consciousness of justice. Further, a sovereign form must reckon with the territorial size of the country and the numerical strength of its population. In the Republic of San Marino, executive power to this day belongs to two captains elected by the Grand Council (parliament) for six months. And to this day some very small Swiss cantons gather once a year for their “one-day chamber” on a square, or in the case of rain, under umbrellas. In the majority of Switzerland’s remaining cantons, this is already impossible.

Further, a sovereign form must consider the climate and nature of a land. A harsh climate hinders the whole organization of a people, all relationships, and all government. Nature influences the character of men, the country’s produce, and its industry; it determines its geographic and strategic borders, its defense, and the character and frequency of its wars. All this must be accounted for in a sovereign form.

The multinational composition of a population presents its requirements to a sovereign form. I can become a factor of disintegration and lead to ruinous civil wars. Yet this danger can be overcome: by the nature of the country and the mountaineers’ love of freedom among peoples in solidarity with each other (Switzerland); or the longtime and free selection of emigrants, the overseas position of the country and the commercial-industrial character of the state (United States); or, finally, the religious-cultural predominance and successful political leadership of the numerically strongest tribe, if it is distinguished by genuine accommodation and kindness (Russia).

Our conclusions: every people and every land are a living individuality with their special characteristics, their own unrepeatable history, soul, and nature. To every people is therefore due its own special individual form of sovereignty and a constitution corresponding to that people only. There are no identical peoples, and there should not be identical forms of sovereignty and constitutions. Blind borrowing and imitation is absurd, dangerous, and can become ruinous.

Plants demand individual care. Animals in a zoological park have – by their species and type – individual schedules. Even people are sewn clothing by their measurements… Whence, then, comes this ridiculous idea that a system of sovereignty can be transferred by mechanical adoption from one country to another? Whence comes this naïve conception that the most unique English sovereignty, which was forged over centuries in a unique land (The blending of blood! An island! The sea! Climate! History!) by a most unique people (Character! Temperament! Sense of justice! Culture!), can be reproduced by any people with any sense of law and any character, and in any country of any size with any climate?! Can we truly think that educated politicians have never read any of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, or Buckle?

Alexander III Coronation II

Scene from the coronation of Tsar Alexander III.

What political myopia would be necessary in order to impose upon all peoples a form of monarchy, even upon those who have not a shadow of the monarchical mentality? (For example: the United States, Switzerland, or rebellious Mexico, where Emperor Maximillian was killed by the mutinous republicans three years after his enthronement.) However, is it not just as irresponsible to force a republican form of government upon the life of a people that developed over long centuries a monarchical sense of the state? (For example: England, Germany, Spain, Serbia, Russia…) What kind of doctrinal fanaticism was needed in 1917 to assemble a certain super-democratic, super-republican, super-federative constitution in Russia and plunge the land, with its most individual history, soul, and nature, into the chaos of meaningless and directionless disintegration that could only end in the tyranny of unconscionable internationalists! How correct was one of the composers of the election law for the founding congress, who three years later (1920), with grief and horror said:

What were we thinking of then?! What were we doing? This was simply psychosis! We aspired to outdo all the famous constitutions in democracy, and we destroyed everything!

Unfortunately this intelligent, honest and brave patriot who died soon after in a Soviet prison is in no way echoed by émigré politicians…Now almost all émigré parties, adhering as before to their doctrinal political fanaticism and the whispers of their internationalist “sponsors,” are again demanding a democratic, federated republic for Russia. They know what came out of the “one-day” founding congress in 1917; they know that Russians have from that time been picked clean unto poverty by those who have tried to turn them into slaves; they know that over the course of thirty years the Russian people have been deprived of accurate information on internal and foreign affairs and made politically blind; they know that Russians have been systematically weaned from any independent knowledge, judgment, and understanding, of independent labor and personal responsibility; that they have been denigrated for thirty years, their faith and all spiritual and moral foundations wrecked, accustoming them to hungry venality and vile mutual denunciation… They know all this and consider it a suitable condition for the immediate introduction of a democratic republic…

What can we expect from the enactment of such programs apart from national disasters?

There will pass years of national remembrance; settling in; solace; coming to reason; becoming informed. There will come a restoration of an elementary sense of justice; a return to the principles of honor and honesty; personal responsibility and loyalty; a feeling of one’s own dignity; to incorruptibility and independent thought – before the Russian people will be a condition to carry out sensible and not ruinous political elections. And until that time it can be led only by a national, patriotic, hardly totalitarian, but authoritarian – cultivating and reviving – dictatorship.