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Alexei Navalny and the Essential Burke


The death of Alexei Navalny at the hands, and perhaps the orders, of Russian President Vladimir Putin was, according to a Hobbesian view of power, either necessary or not necessary.

It is true that Navalny was a vigorous opponent of Putin’s attempt to turn Russia’s strategic orientation from West to East. Likewise, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a vigorous opponent of Saint Stalin, an eastern oriental potentate who little understood that Russia belongs to the West, not the East. The Putin restoration of a debased Stalinism is perhaps his most fatal mistake.

The rejection of Western perceptions cuts against the Russian grain from Peter the Great to Chekov, who wrote some of his most memorable plays in Ukraine.

Necessity, Thomas Hobbes tells us, is a cruel master – life in a Hobbesian universe, one without ordered liberty, is “nasty, brutal and short” -- but a master none-the-less. Once ethics and morality are removed from politics, power and force alone reign supreme. In a police state, where all the powers of the state serve modern tyrants such as Putin, power is at the service of a ruling unitary party.

Navalny was decidedly not a member in good standing of Putin’s fascist state. Yes – fascist state.

It was Mussolini who provided to the West a working definition of fascism: “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state.” That, it turns out, is also the Stalinist vision of a unitary world-government. With deadly blows , fascism eliminates what G.K. Chesterton and others, notably  Edmund Burke, used to call “the little platoons of democracy.”

In “A speech during the debate on the defeat of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga” in 1777, Burke addressed the mistakes of Great Britain’s military and political ministry. Had the British House applied to him at the beginning of the war of American Independence, Burke said, he could have told them – and did in fact tell them – of the many wants under which the Americans labored. “But,” Lloyd’s Evening Post reported at the time, “he could also have informed them that men fighting for liberty were not influenced by such particulars” as recounted by Burke – “as being without salt, without shoes, without a rag on their backs -- that these affect only the body, but that the souls of the Americans were unreduced.” The passage above is taken from Edmund Burke, On the American Revolution, Selected Speeches and letters, edited by Elliot R. Barkan.

Running for re-election to office in 1780, Burke told his constituents – many of them, like himself committed Royalists – that references to Americans as “our subjects in America, our colonies, our dependents [emphasis original]” was little more than a “way of proscribing the citizens by denominations and general descriptions [emphasis original]… nothing better at bottom than the miserable invention of an ungenerous ambition which would fain hold the sacred trust of power, without any of the virtues or any of the energy that give title to it, a receipt of policy made up of a detestable compound of malice, cowardice and sloth.”

This description perfectly portrays power hungry tyrants who use synthetic divisions to reduce the liberties of the people, proclaiming all the while that the font of liberty lies in the generosity of the state and not in the natural moral propensities of humankind.

Burke knew he would lose his election at Guildhall, Bristol. Never-the-less, he did not temper his speech in support of essential liberties: “…arbitrarily, to class men under general descriptions, in order to proscribe and punish them in the lump for a presumed delinquency of which perhaps but a part, perhaps none at all are guilty, is indeed a compendious method an saves a world of trouble about proof. But such a method, instead of being law, is an act of unnatural rebellion against the legal dominion of reason and justice; and this vice, in any constitution that entertains it, at one time or other will certainly bring its ruin.”

Putin is playing with fire. He and tyrants everywhere are the ruin of states that rest upon the essential liberties of its people. Liberty is not a product of statecraft, though a realist and honorable state will do its best to preserve the “little platoons of democracy” without which the liberty of the people cannot survive.

You can kill a man with a bullet, or a shot of nerve agent poison, or an extended stay at The IK-3 prison camp, nicknamed the Polar Wolf, located in the Yamalo-Nenets region well above the Arctic Circle. But the idea of ordered liberty under law, a quick review of the history of Rome to “The Second Rome,” the pre-Soviet Russian Empire, shows us that the idea of liberty under law is more durable and fully capable over time of withstanding the indignities of random force.


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