Studies in East European Thought

, Volume 62, Issue 1, pp 71–79 | Cite as

Utopia and history. Some remarks about Nikolai Berdjaev’s struggle with history



The article deals with the philosophy of Nikolai Berdjaev (1874–1948), which he formulated between The Philosophy of Inequality (written in 1918, but published in 1923) and The New Middle-Ages (1924). Berdjaev’s philosophy is analyzed in the context of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath. The other point of reference is the crisis of culture and civilisation, which affected the West in the inter-war period. Berdjaev’s position has been interpreted in view of the archetypal myth of the struggle of the two principles, the principle of order (cosmos) and the forces of destruction (chaos). This myth is tied to the millenialist world view. Berdjaev took an anti-utopian stance. He juxtaposed the utopian-revolutionary principle with the hierarchical-creative one. From this position he criticized among others democracy, liberalism and socialism. In the midst of the crisis of the 1920s he remarked the possibility of spiritual rejuvenation putting forward the concept of the New Middle-Ages. One can say that at that time Berdjaev’s philosophy evolved within the conservative-creative framework, from the utopia of conservatism to the utopia of ‘free creativity’.


Conservatism Crisis of democracy History of religion Philosophy of history Russian revolution Socialism Utopia/utopianism 

„Aujourd’hui, réconciliés avec le terrible, nous assistons à une contamination de l’utopie par l’apocalypse: la≪nouvelle terre≫qu’on nous annonce affecte de plus en plus la figure d’un nouvel enfer. Mais, cet enfer, nous l’attendons, nous nous faisons même un devoir d’en précipiter la venue”.

(E. Cioran, Histoireetutopie)1

The collapse of the hitherto existing social order arouses, apart from anxiety and sometimes even dread, also the hope of a new order and the awareness of the temporariness of the situation. One cannot live in chaos, the world must be put in order again and the cosmos restored. “When a certain order is destabilized the hitherto binding values are undermined, utopia enters on the scene as the vanguard (anticipation, experiment, ideal) of the new order and the new values. This is, in a nutshell, the model situation, but it is obvious that the hiatus between the utopia and the new order is usually considerable (Rydzewski 1993, pp. 92–93).” Utopia is a vanguard, a project. But in history we have already encountered ‘utopia in power’ (M. Heller, A. Nekrich) or ‘a past of a certain illusion’ (F. Furet). It was not the only case, though the most spectacular one, with global significance. I am of course referring to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its consequences for Russia and world at large. No one needs to be persuaded as to the significance of the changes it brought about. In this short article I cannot present the complex results of the extensive historical, sociological, and philosophical research on this event. My ambition is humbler: I will endeavor to discuss the immediate reaction to the Russian Revolution of Nikolai Berdjaev, as recorded first and foremost in his Philosophy of Inequality (Filosofija neravenstva, written in 1918, published in 1923), but also in some later texts such as the once famous New Middle-Ages (Novoe srednevekove (1924).

What strikes the reader of The Philosophy of Inequality is its excessive emotionalism, the fact that, as the author himself stated, “it reflects negative feelings too explicitly” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 243). This is hardly surprising, since it was written in 1918, in the face of the revolution and the pan-European disaster of the First World War. Berdjaev is even more critical. In his autobiography Samopoznanije he admits that the book is unjust, not quite representative of his real position, even though its main tenets have remained unchanged. The Russian philosopher refers to the value he attached to the notion of freedom and its metaphysical substantiation (Berdjaev 2008, pp. 491–492).

In opposition to the revolution with its uncompromising principle of equality and its radical democracy, understood as the dictatorship of the people and evolving into the ideological, one-party system of power, Berdjaev presents his equally uncompromising principle of hierarchical-aristocratic inequality. Thus he takes a conservative standpoint, but at the same time he goes beyond it by emphasizing that the creative principle must complete conservatism. This position includes ‘going beyond time’, focusing on eternal values.

It is hardly surprising that in the face of the catastrophe that affected Russia and Europe as a whole (let’s not forget about the consequences of the First World War) Berdjaev is prone to use the emphatic style, which was generally characteristic of his writing. But this style covers something more: not only a man and his anxiety but his hope as well. The philosopher uses a very simple image: the order, the Cosmos, is endangered by a destructive force, the approaching Chaos. This image is not only very powerful but also old. Most probably it goes back to the ancient cultures of the Middle East. It is a dualistic image, inherently dramatic, comprising a historical dimension and progressing towards the ‘ultimate outflow’ into the transcendent, which is usually preceded by a period of apocalyptic struggle and a millenialist ‘Kingdom of God’—‘in heaven as it is on earth’. Thus the initial dualism is finally overcome. The principle of order, which guards the Cosmos (in ancient Egypt called maat, in the Vedas rita, in Zoroastrianism asha, in Hebrew Torah, in Christianity the natural law) is constantly jeopardized by the forces of Chaos (The notion of drug in Zoroastrianism, which means ‘lie’, ‘deceit’, is very illustrative here), which are usually represented by demon-like gods or simply demons, the forces of opposition, non-being, destruction. In Zoroastrianism they are symbolized by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu (Arhiman) (Cohn 2001, p. 82) and in Christianity—and this is especially important in the context of Russian philosophy and theology—by the apocalyptic figure of the Antichrist.

What does this all have in common with Berdjaev, with revolution and utopia? A lot, I think. According to Jerzy Szacki, the opposite of utopia is “first of all conservatism in all forms as well as any cult of vitality in social life” (Szacki 2000, p. 45). Berdjaev more than met those criteria, since he claimed that the opposite of utopia is the conservative-creative principle, which supports the hierarchical structure of society and which safeguards freedom and personal creative development. Therefore he took an anti-utopian standpoint. Would he remain consistent? Or would the very nature of the principle lead him towards a utopia? Let’s examine this more closely.

Berdjaev was convinced that revolution means the ‘return of demonolatry’, in other words that the forces of chaos enter the social arena. Only the hierarchical-aristocratic principle is able to oppose those forces. The roles are clearly allocated: even though the principle of order is endangered, it is acknowledged so that we can pinpoint the sources of its weakness. What does the strength of the utopian-revolutionary principle consist in then? And, conversely, where does the weakness of the hierarchical-aristocratic principle lie? It seems that both the strength of the former and the weakness of the latter derive from the same source, namely from the separation of the ‘cosmic forces’.

The characteristic feature of utopian thinking is its advanced rationalism, which alone suffices to evoke a defensive reaction in the philosopher. He maintains that rationalistic utopias, socialist ones included, lack “the knowledge of the flow of cosmic energy’,” that is that they are built on a “false consciousness,” which does not want to know anything about the “divine order of the world.” Thus it is limited consciousness, narrowed down to the “earthly horizons” of the present. It protests against drawing ultimate conclusions (including practical ones) on the basis of fragmentary, incomplete knowledge. In this sense it is a version of social rationalism which leads to madness (Berdjaev 1923, p. 30). Karl Mannheim would agree with this diagnosis because he writes, “nothing contains more irrational drive than a fully self-contained, intellectualistic world-view.”(Mannheim 1954, p. 197). Irrationality can put on masks of rationalism. What is more, Berdjaev agrees with the thesis that, by aiming for extreme social monism (the consequences of the ‘rationalistic reason’ are here unavoidable) utopias lead to tyranny (Berdjaev 1923, p. 71). In the sphere of social life the madness of reason is reflected in the form of tyranny.

Where can we locate the main source of the weakness of the hierarchical-conservative principle? It consists in its being separated from the “life of the cosmos” in its rationalized desire to maintain the status quo, in its being totally directed towards the past. What is even worse, in the face of the revolutionary movement it degenerates into a reactionary force whose only goal is to restore the status quo ante, that is, to oust the hostile forces from its own world, out of the cosmos, to forget about them. To live as if death did not exist. What is Berdjaev’s remedy? One needs to complete this principle with the creative dimension, with positive freedom, positive content and at the same time: positive power.

What then, according to Berdjaev, do we encounter in the sphere of social life? According to the Russian philosopher, rationalism, abstractionism is the cardinal sin of democracy. He understands democracy literally as “the rule of all,” but this principle derives from abstract premises, its very basis being “shapeless chaos” and its rule “the most horrible tyranny.” The philosopher did not fail to add that its triumph is only temporary because “… in those times darkness resurges and envelops the society” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 142). We encounter an attack by the forces of chaos and a dramatic attempt to establish an “order” which is in fact, paradoxically, only an unstable “chaotic order” based on the severely limited power of alienated abstract reason.

His criticism of liberalism goes even further, because, in his opinion, it is an extreme form of abstraction, equivalent in some sense to Protestantism within Christianity. The negative principle of freedom is only a far cry from the source of freedom (like the principle of equality in socialism), which derives from the ontological rooting in society. In this respect liberalism is an ahistorical position. It seeks support in the concept of the natural law, which it substantiates idealistically and thus abstractly. Berdjaev concludes that liberalism inevitably turns into democracy and the latter destroys the former: equality devours freedom (Berdjaev 1923, pp. 124–130). Thus again we return to chaos.

While democracy is based on a purely formal social structure, socialism is concerned with the social content, its realization. In Berdjaev’s view, socialism is religious in its nature. Two issues are crucial here: the sources, i.e., the historical genesis and the aims. As to the former, Berdjaev derives socialism directly from “ancient Jewish apocalyptic tradition”; in socialism we encounter a modern version of the millennialist dream. As to its aims socialism leaves historical reality behind in favour of a moralistic position involving the search for a kingdom of equality, earthly justice. The content of socialism is contradictory to the formal principle of democracy and it aims at the final abolition of the latter, because “… socialism does not reinforce the sovereign will of a nation, but the sovereign will of a class, the will of the class—the Messiah, the proletariat” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 174). One can conclude that the soteriological aspirations of socialism, i.e., its aims, are not commensurate with the materialistic, earthly means of fulfilling those aspirations.

Last but not least, anarchism is perceived as a direct attempt to introduce the forces of chaos into social life, but even here there is “rationalist madness,” which constitutes the major sin of this school of social philosophy. Moreover, “ … through the temptation of anarchism the dark forces, dark spirits want to disarm man in the most inopportune moment in history… It is no coincidence… Chaos wants to overthrow cosmos, putting on appearances of the good and freedom” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 189).

We have reached the point where Berdjaev’s reasoning coincides with Norman Cohn’s concept of the sources and nature of apocalyptic thinking. In the Russian philosopher’s opinion, revolution takes place at an exceptional time, at the time of historical crisis. His deepening apocalyptic mindset is in this context hardly surprising. He writes about it expressis verbis: “We have left the atmosphere of the Gospel and have entered the atmosphere of the Apocalypse” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 239). Christ is perceived as ambivalent. Consequently, the utopia of an earthly paradise is perceived as the Antichrist’s deception, which was already foreseen by Dostoevsky and Solov’ëv.

The only antidote for this venom is historical pessimism, which is the only effective teacher of anti-utopianism. In this way, following Berdjaev’s reasoning, we enter the world of apocalyptic premonitions. It is the revolution which, by uncovering the exhaustion of the old forms of life, is the first sign of “the end of the age.” Does this mean “the end of history”? Not exactly, but we can talk of its radical change. In his work The Meaning of History, published in 1923, Berdjaev talks of the epoch of “religious transformation” (religioznoje preobraženie) (Berdjaev 1969, p. 266), and he develops this concept in his essay The New Middle-Ages, which was published in 1924. The growing apocalyptic awareness is accompanied by the increasing sense that the history of the world is immanently tragic. He writes in The Philosophy of Inequality: “The apocalyptic sense of history is a tragic sense. It teaches us the severe truth that not only good but also evil increases in the world and that the most terrible struggle is still before us” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 200). Even though we sense strong eurocentrism in his disquisition, Berdjaev considers the whole history of mankind to have been tragic. All the same, Berdjaev points to a way out of this situation. It is possible thanks to the Christian understanding of eschatology, its existential and spiritual meaning. As he himself writes, “The end of history is revealed within history itself, in its depth, apocalypse is given as another dimension of history. The coming into being in time is a mere projection of what is given in its depth” (Berdjaev 1923, p. 234). What is meant is not the end in the terms of chronos, but a transformation, the fulfillment of history and at the same time the abolition of the duality of eternity and time. What is needed then is not a movement into the future (progressivism is categorically rejected), but within, in its own ‘depth’. What is to be found there? The sources of the ‘new Middle-Ages’.

The source is ‘the night’: the abyss of being, the primary principle of life, the basis of the universe, an equivalent of the mythological primordial waters (among the most famous being the Mesopotamian notion of the watery deep beneath the earth called Tiamat) (Cohn 2001, p. 32, 45). It is also Jakob Boehme’s concept of the Ungrund (boldly revealing the closeness of the abyss), which Berdjaev endorsed and about which the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote: “Within God there has always existed, and will continue to exist a dark deep, which some people call ‘chaos’, ‘the night of the ages’, ‘the wrath of God’. A bright spring of life, of spirit flows from it like from the dark sources of the earth. Also, there has always been in God a clash of the elements, struggling from darkness towards light” (Mickiewicz 2001, p. 466).

With these concepts we have entered the reasoning characteristic of ‘the new Middle-Ages’. Let us see what emerges out of these depths, the Ungrund, the abyss. In other words, what does Berdjaev mean by ‘the new Middle-Ages’?

In his writings we encounter at least three meanings of this phrase. Firstly, it is a rhythmical change of epochs, the transition from the rationalism of modernity to medieval-like irrationalism or meta-rationalism (Berdjaev 2005, p. 415). Modern reason and its creations come to an end; a new epoch approaches, new principles begin to dominate. Having diagnosed the crisis, Berdjaev progresses to describe the ‘new reality’. In order to do so, he assumes an almost prophetic stance.

Secondly, in Berdjaev’s own words, “I choose to call ‘the new Middle-Ages’ the collapse of the legal principle of power, the legitimacy of monarchy and democracy, and the substitution of this principle with the principle of force, of the vital energy of spontaneous groups and social organizations” (Berdjaev 2005, p. 422). That is why Berdjaev welcomes both the nascent Italian Fascism and all kinds of corporativism or syndicalist movements. What is more, he maintains that Fascism, like Communist internationalism, is already a harbinger of a new epoch, the time of struggle, which will precede the spiritual unification of humankind. For Berdjaev, who both analyzes the contemporary crisis and prophesizes the future, the period of transition will be, or better has already been—the signs are already visible—marked with violence, which foreshadows the awaited breakthrough. Strong power, characterized even as dictatorial, cannot be avoided, but he considers its exact form and character as secondary, most probably because he makes it dependent on the emergence of the totally new conditions which have never yet occurred in the history of mankind. All we learn in this respect is that he acknowledges “some degree of the truth” in anarchism, so that it should be a partially spontaneous process, referring to corporativism and syndicalism, but preserving hierarchy in the spiritual dimension of social life. He admitted that in the years 1918–1919 he proposed that Russians would be able to create a new polity: a syndicalist monarchy. He clung to this conviction while writing The New Middle-Ages (Berdjaev 2005, pp. 433–435).

Thirdly, we encounter instances of negative formulation, that is, ‘the new Middle-Ages’ are the end of humanism, individualism, humanistic morality, rational and empirical philosophy, and the beginning of a new, collective religious epoch.

What is left then? The possibility—but no guarantee—of the real transformation of being; in other words, the establishment of the Kingdom of God (Berdjaev 2005, pp. 421–422, 428–429). But an inherent part of this process is the polarization within being itself—an anti kingdom comes into being and technocracy becomes a real temptation. Thus we have again found ourselves in the centre of apocalypse. Let us notice that the notion of the polarization of being and power derives directly from the metaphysics of the shoe-maker from Goerlitz, Jacob Boehme, who claims that an inherent part of the Ungrund as the source of light is its dark core. It does affect the history of the world. History, set in metahistory, appears to be ambiguous. Its bright prospects for the future remain uncertain, although one thing is certain: mankind will face a crisis, a very dramatic one, because it stands on the eve of an apocalyptic struggle, labour preceding the birth of a child, begotten by an unknown father, a true or a false messiah.

Having taken this into consideration, one may risk the statement that the concept of ‘the new Middle-Ages’ is to some extent a historical transcription of Boehme’s metaphysics and its projection into the historiosophical dimension.

The Middle-Ages unsettlingly smack of the worship of force and anti-formalism, most prominently, anti-legalism, since the corollary to the rejection of legal formalism is the extolment of ‘direct action’, only if it is the expression of the truth of experienced being. In Henryk Elzenberg’s opinion, this leads to the violation of conscience and, in plain English, to violence. Let us, for instance, remember that in The New Middle-Ages we came across praises of Italian Fascism. This remark can hardly be ignored, as together with the second reservation voiced by the Polish philosopher referring to the ‘contradictory’ nature of Berdjaev’s perception of religion it constitutes a vital memento: “Berdjaev needs God only to have a counter-god, a satan” (Elzenberg 1991, pp. 234–238). It seems that the awareness of an overwhelming apocalypse, drawing near, is so powerful that it permeates and provides a framework for Berdjaev’s whole philosophy.

To sum up, it is legitimate to consider Berdjaev’s philosophy, which derives from his response to the crisis of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, to be a form of conservative utopia, even when we acknowledge its complexity (Ricoeur 2005, p. 362). If we understand utopia as a theory whose aim is to explode the existing order, Berdjaev’s initial position, which we call ‘conservative-antirevolutionary’, appears to be defensive, ‘counterrevolutionary’. It seems that in the later period, when he is more and more aware of the process of metamorphosis going on in the world with the approach of the ‘New Middle-Ages’, he comes to the conclusion that he has to accept the status quo: the fact that the forces of chaos, which he has been trying to oppose so far, have burst their banks and flooded history. But considering the ambivalence of these very forces, he can ascribe to them a cosmological as well as a historical role. In this analysis we move within the dialectics of utopian-conservative thinking. If, however, it is utopia in Karl Mannheim’s understanding of the term, then one has to consider the underlying chiliasm. There is a constant possibility that ‘chiliastic ecstasy’ may explode the conservative utopia from within. This seems to be the case with Berdjaev’s philosophy. Many years later he would say that he “… could never accept the fact that hierarchical order should determine human relations” and that “… in his own life he does not perceive any hierarchical order,” but he will always retain a sense of “spiritual aristocracy” (Berdjaev 2008, p. 592) This conviction, which may have contributed considerably to his anti-egalitarian position at that time, can be interpreted as the result of the two intertwined dimensions of Berdjaev’s philosophy: his spiritual aristocratism and social conservatism. The two are not necessarily synonymous. In spiritual aristocratism we sense revolutionary undercurrents, the undertow of ‘creativity’, which sometimes bursts the conservative framework. This is the direction in which the Russian philosopher progressed: philosophy of freedom and creativity. He was to be more and more outspoken against the limitations of freedom and creativity, both from the East and the West, the past and the future, experienced in the present, which opens onto the transcendent, and all this in opposition to the objectivized world.

The development from the ‘philosophy of inequality’ to the ‘new Middle-Ages’ is a result of the inner evolution of Berdjaev’s conservative-creative principle. For Karl Mannheim conservative utopia is a “… utopia submerged in reality from the very beginning,” it is hic et nunc (Mannheim 1954, pp. 211–212). In this respect the concept of the ‘new Middle-Ages’ meets the criterion quite well. What is more, contextuality is important for its understanding and self-understanding, as the character of a utopia is formed in the struggle with the other contemporary versions of utopia. Perhaps the conservative position can overcome its passivity and quietism and can become an active force, Berdjaev’s conservative-creative principle, due to its confrontation with the other utopias as defined by Karl Mannheim: the socialist-communist utopia on the one hand and the liberal-humanitarian utopia on the other.

In that case we would be dealing with a version of irrational utopia (meta-rational) which is seen as the opposite of any products of rationalism, both in the East (Russian communism) and in the West (democracy, socialism, liberalism). Despite this meta-rationalism and its corollary, ‘situational transcendence’, ‘utopia’ is a historical category and depends on the conditions in which it is formulated (Szacki 2000, p. 45). Berdjaev’s case and his response to the Russian revolution and the inter-war crisis of European culture are more than proof to this, if we are ready to trace revolutionary utopian motifs in his philosophy. Viewed in this perspective, the Russian philosopher appears to be an anti-utopian who in the struggle to get to the “meaning of history” sometimes escapes into utopia. One cannot exclude the other possibility: utopia may contain anti-utopian motifs whose content depends on the opponents it comes to face. Notwithstanding his anti-utopian position, which he assumes in the face of a utopia in the making, utopian-religious motifs—to be exact: millenialist thinking—were never alien to him. It was this millenialist thinking, which pervaded his writing at that time (or maybe always did) that determines the perspective from which he can assess the experience of both ordinary historical time and great crises.

One can draw one more conclusion from this analysis: throughout history there have been ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times for utopia, and this does affect our attitude to it. It is the contextuality of a utopia that often determines its vitality, its usefulness for history. Maybe the situation I have analyzed in the present article (one utopia stands in opposition to another utopia) transcends the limits of utopia altogether and enriches our perception of history.

Translated by B. Poważa-Kurko; reviewed and edited by E. M. Swiderski.


  1. 1.

    Cioran (1995), p. 1047.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyJagiellonian UniversityCracowPoland

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