Russian Sobornost and American Critical Race Theory

A paper delivered to the Orthodox Scholars Association, 31 Jan. 7529 (Feb. 12, 2021, on the civil calendar).

I would like to suggest today insights that the Russian philosophical term sobornost offers for our current situation in the United States with regard to Anti-Racism. That capitalized term is shorthand for an intellectual, cultural, and social movement rooted in Critical Race Theory (CRT), but also related politically to Antifa, Pansexualism, Anthropocenism as in the Green New Deal movement, and through them all to the project called Cultural Marxism. While that term Cultural Marxism has been criticized as a straw-man phrase, it has also been used by proponents to describe their hopes to shape a society of equity based in Marxist principles through cultural struggle, not economic class struggle. Black Lives Matter (BLM), alongside Antifa, the Green New Deal of the Sunrise Movement and the ongoing movement of Pansexualism, arguably form the vanguard of cultural Marxist politics in the United States today. BLM involves leaders who claim to be “trained Marxists,” and for a long time the BLM website (until it was revised after criticisms) cited the need to move society past the oppressions of the nuclear family, in agreement with the anti-family social model of Marx and Engels, and BLM still upholds its dedication to Pansexualism. In this unified ideology of cultural revolution, as the chief diversity administrator on our campus reportedly told students, Christian values are seen as an originator of white supremacy. To that alleged unforgivable crime is added sexual oppression and environmental devastation.

Defending Christianity in this intellectual and cultural moment seems a daunting task. But in a recent online article previewing his upcoming book The Elect: Neoracists Posing as Antiracists and their Threat to a Progressive America, John McWhorter, an African-American professor of the Left at Columbia, criticized current Antiracism for fostering what he calls neo-racism, reducing American life to one binary, racism and anti-racism. Beyond what McWhorter criticizes as a neo-racism of totalitarian spirit, Critical Race Theory offers a framework that highlights the philosophical justification for the cultural revolution spurred by Cultural Marxist efforts in America today. However, it is so full of paradox and mystery as to qualify in the view of McWhorter and others as a kind of secular activist para-religion. As such, this underpinning is worth especially unpacking for Orthodox Christians in educational roles in Church and society.

McWhorter writes in satirical vein of the paradoxical para-religious practice of what he calls “neo-racism” as politics today :

  1. When black people say you have insulted them, apologize with profound sincerity and guilt. But don’t put black people in a position where you expect them to forgive you. They have dealt with too much to be expected to.

2. Black people are a conglomeration of disparate individuals. “Black culture” is code for “pathological, primitive ghetto people.” But don’t expect black people to assimilate to “white” social norms because black people have a culture of their own.

3. Silence about racism is violence. But elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.

4. You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people. But you can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist.

5. Show interest in multiculturalism. But do not culturally appropriate. What is not your culture is not for you, and you may not try it or do it. But—if you aren’t nevertheless interested in it, you are a racist.

6. Support black people in creating their own spaces and stay out of them. But seek to have black friends. If you don’t have any, you’re a racist. And if you claim any, they’d better be good friends—in their private spaces, you aren’t allowed in.

7. When whites move away from black neighborhoods, it’s white flight. But when whites move into black neighborhoods, it’s gentrification, even when they pay black residents generously for their houses.

8. If you’re white and only date white people, you’re a racist. But if you’re white and date a black person you are, if only deep down, exotifying an “other.”

9. Black people cannot be held accountable for everything every black person does. But all whites must acknowledge their personal complicity in the perfidy throughout history of “whiteness.”

10. Black students must be admitted to schools via adjusted grade and test score standards to ensure a representative number of them and foster a diversity of views in classrooms. But it is racist to assume a black student was admitted to a school via racial preferences, and racist to expect them to represent the “diverse” view in classroom discussions.

While such contradictions seem comic, the political effects, McWhorter argues, are serious.

The ideological roots are outlined in the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3rd edition). CRT’s genealogy lies in critical theory approaches that have become deeply rooted especially in the humanities and social sciences in recent decades, now spreading to STEM. I will suggest that not all of the more philosophical insights of CRT are inimical to Orthodox Christian perspectives on society as reflected in modern Russian philosophy. But their development as an alternative atheistic para-religious system at odds with Christianity betrays the roots and trajectory of their underlying cultural Marxism in the spirit of anti-Christ, that which denies the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh, opposed to His Body, the Church.

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction first describes racism as ordinariness, in the sense of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “permanent lie.” But this masks the very totalitarianism of cultural Marxism that underlies its own approach. CRT’s own totalitarian spirit would enforce the arbitrariness of a virtual reality of binarized racism and antiracism, enforced by socioeconomic elites operating in dominant institutions today, from media to business to education. The complicity of Marxism in deaths of millions in racial and cultural genocides in the past century under Communism is ignored in favor of total focus on the alleged inherent and systemic evils of America’s constitutional republic and historical Protestant civil religion and culture. Yet the hate-filled legacy of Communism remains the American revolutionary Left’s great unacknowledged and un-reparated moral debt, in which CRT also ignores its own complicity in justifying the eradication of minority faith-based traditional Christian cultures in America.

Another principle of critical race theory according to the activist authors of the introductory book is material determinism. This alleges an unspoken alliance of elite economic interests with psychic needs of the white working class. A version of dialectical materialism, its materialistic approach however is undermined by the embrace of CRT by “woke” capitalists and privileged cultural elites. Their material role in the economy would seem to belie the working class’ pre-determined support for revolution, even with the paradox of what CRT alleges to have been an alliance between working-class whites and elites in systemic racism, another fissure in the idea of material economic determinism.

A third principle offered by the book is social constructivism of race accompanied by “differential racialization.” This proposes that race is a fluid identity and constructed for purposes of social control, and marginalized or privileged in varied ways across time. Following this, CRT promotes the idea of “intersectional anti-essentialism,” asserting that varied identities can simultaneously shape a person’s socially constructed situationality, thus in effect limiting exclusionary aspects of race as a factor of constructed but determinative identity. But paradoxically CRT also asserts that the united “voice of color” deserves privilege as a revolutionary force against racism. In this mystical amalgamated “voice of color,” “people of color” unite to assert the primacy of their own narratives, although in a white American culture that is itself becoming a minority culture, by comparison with the aggregation of groups claiming both to be minorities and the new majority, and thus by right dominant.

There are aspects of Critical Race Theory that overlap with perspectives from the Russian philosophical critique of the West historically. The Slavophile movement in the 19th century involved philosophical views highly critical of the Western Enlightenment and the development of a focus on the autonomous individual in Western thought. That critique would include categories of race that sought in effect to universalize Western European culture (including individualism) as superior to the culture and developmental stages of other peoples. The Pochvennichestvo or “back to the soil” movement in late 19th century Russia included much of that critique but coupled it with a more positive engagement with the Westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter the Great and an effort to include the industrialization and modernization of the Russian Empire as a means for competing with the West. Dostoevsky sympathetically engaged with this movement, and expressed also its mix of universalism and nationalism in his suggestions that Russian Christianity, as the legacy of the Third Rome so to speak, offered insights important to all people, and not specifically just to Russians or even Slavs at large. That universal significance was closely tied of course to Orthodox Christianity. Wilfred McClay in his recent American history survey entitled Land of Hope: An Introducton to the Great American Story, has suggested a parallel to this in the history of American patriotism as having both universal and exceptionalist aspects to it.

In the post-Revolutionary era the Russian Orthodox exile philosopher S.L. Frank articulated furthest a case for a balance between sobornost or spiritual unity and obshchestvennost or the mechanical and individualistic aspects of society, especially as developed in the modern world. He did this in his book The Spiritual Foundations of Society but also in other works. In them he was highly critical of atheistic Communism and its effects in Russia and essentially anti-Christian nature. Like Dostoevsky, Frank saw this model as having both particular aspects to Russian culture and universal aspects.

Sobornost as a term exemplifies that. The term in adjectival form translated „catholic“ in the Slavonic Nicene Creed. It etymologically means „cathedral- or council- mindedness,“ the root sobor or „cathedral“ itselfderiving from roots „together“ plus „to bear.“ A gloss on a French essay by the mid-nineteenth-century Slavophile Russian philosopher Aleksei Khomiakov fashioned sobornost as an abstract Russian noun.It could also be regarded as parallel to the Greek term koinonia with a meaning of communion. Another way to think of its meaning is an intersection between mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, as expressed in Orthodox ecclesiology.

Marx’s definition of freedom as „conscious, rational control over economic and social forces“ differs fundamentally from the oikonomia, or operation of grace as cosmological law, in sobornost. By contrast, Indo-European roots of terms for freedom feature meanings of fecundity linked to community– to be „liberal“ or „free,“ as in being generous—related to Christian sobornost. Sobornost’ involves “ togetherness, wholeness, communality; it emphasizes a oneness, but without uniformity or loss of individuality,” as the Russian émigré scholar Nicolas Zernov put it. It “means a symphonic Church which forms a harmonious unity out of the diverse gifts of its different members; like a well-conducted orchestra it produces one harmony, although each musician plays his own part on his own particular instrument.”[1] It has also been defined, through Dostoevsky’s literary expression, as organic collectivity, “a free, inner, organic ‘unity in multiplicity,”” or the freedom of human personhood realized in the Person of Christ.[2]

The Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote of the logic of sobornost that,

“Therefore, every villain, whilst in the commission of evil acts, must be met with all who unite to resist him; this resistance is conducted by few on behalf of all, and on behalf of a people’s unified, common goal. This is the meaning of any spiritually consequential social organization. A sense of mutual connection and mutual responsibility, when it has matured, indicates to people their common spiritual goal and induces them to create a unified common authority to serve it…. It is the living body of that power which is made up of all individual, spiritual forces connected by a social solidarity with the common sacred space: this force has the power of the sacred space, and it is its living phenomenon and its living sword.”

A commentator on Ilyin adds that sobornost is the unity of people “who, in an act of spiritual freedom, forego their individualism out of love for a greater good. This stands in contrast to social contract theory, in which people submit to authorities for their own benefit.” By contrast, it involves submission “for the greater good of the fight against evil, that is, the work of God.” Boris Jakim glossed Frank in writing, “The spirit of sobornost’ is the spirit of freedom…. [the] outer, mechanical stratum of social life is possible only on the basis of the living, inner, organic unity of sobornost’. The primary and fundamental form of sobornost’ is the unity of marriage and family,” co-existing with “religiousness and the commonality of the life and fate of people.”  The union of Christ and His Church, symbolized as marriage, likewise is typed by the overlap of sobornost and obshchestvennost in Frank’s philosophical writing. Jakim summarizes this thus:

Sobornost’ is an expression of that inner fullness and freedom of life which is the ultimate Divine ground of being and which (in its action on and its realization in the world) is the transfiguration and deification of the world, the incarnation of Divine truth in the world…. All human rights are ultimately grounded in one ‘innate’ right: the right of man to demand that he be given the opportunity to fulfill his obligation, i.e., the opportunity to serve…. The principle of solidarity and the principle of individual freedom, the unity of ‘we’ and the unity of ‘I,’ can be reconciled and harmonized only through their common subordination to the principle of service. The legitimate demand for equality is really the legitimate demand for the equality of service.

Sobornost carries meanings of spiritual unity or wholeness, “conciliarity, ecumenicity, harmonious togetherness, catholicity,” related to its root sobor or assembly, associated with the assembly of a dioecese at the Bishop’s Cathedral in Russia. But the Latin Church in the West began using “catholic” and “ecumenical” as synonymous, conflating the meanings of “spiritual unity” with “universality” in universalis, later paralleling the rise of the term university, which interestingly became in the secular West often a focus of a universalist spatiality of neocolonial globalism, of the type assailed by critical race theory. “[T]he Slavonic translators conveyed to us the understanding that catholicity is not just ubiquity, nor is it only association, but that it is unification around one center, or the unity of all in Christ,” notes the émigré Russian theological writer Fr. Michael Pomazansky. Pomazansky observed that the term sobor in Orthodox Liturgy also is identified with the assembly of particles of eucharistic bread behind the iconostasis, symbolizing in real terms for believers Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, and Church members. Thus, a part of the Church is one with the whole of the Church. This is not so much spatial unity as an internal characteristic, which Pomazansky wrote addresses the “how” rather than the “where” of hidden yet expressed unity, communion.

S.L. Frank articulated three entwined and continuing forms of this idea of spiritual unity: 1. The unity of marriage and family, in the physiological inner union of complementary male and female (a central image in Christian ecopoetics, also translatable to monasticism in the marriage of community to Christ, and echoed by statements about the relation between marriage and the republic by American founding fathers); 2. The spiritual life of faith, as in ecclesiology of conciliarity; and 3. “the common fate and life of every united group of people.”[3]  Frank in exile distilled a summary list of four features of what distinguishes sobornost from obshchestvennost (the “outer, empirically given nature of the social connection”). In sobornost,

1. “The whole not only inseparably unites the parts but is present in each of its parts…. In contrast to the external social unity, in which the power of the whole normalizes and limits the freedom of the separate members, and in which unity is realized in the form of external order and the distribution of competences, rights, and obligations among the separate members—the unity of sobornost is free life, the spiritual ‘capital’ that nourishes and enriches the life of its members.”

2. Its unity “constitutes the life-content of the individual,” “a kind of spiritual nourishment, by which the individual lives inwardly; it is the riches, the personal property of the individual.” This aspect Frank summarizes as love, and is distinctively related to the Christian “gift economy” view of Creation (and property) as relational rather than objectified. “Love is precisely the name of that relation in which the object of the relation is in our possession though it is outside of us; love is the relation in which the one who gives himself away enriches himself inwardly.”[4] Property rights in this sense are “metaphysical” and basic, not in a materialistic context, but rather identified with divine grace–not objectifiable by individual, corporation, or state, but needing to be shared. Scriptural strictures on usury, debt, and objectification of the land, point toward a decentralized agrarian-style household economy, based on a sense of the natural world as a gift from God in love, which is shared through alms-giving philanthropy, not controlled and enslaved by the power drive of atheistic technocratic masters.

3. This love must be for an individual whole, some organism, such as “a given family, a given nation, a given church,” although the highest spiritual attainment tends toward love for the one organism of Godmanhood in Christ.

4. The “supratemporal unity of sobornost.” Frank writes, “Human life is possible in general only on the basis of memory and foresight—it is life with the aid of the past and for the future, the use of the past in the interests of the future.”  So “according to church doctrine, the visible church as the union of living believers is only the empirical incarnation in the present of the invisible church,” so it is with “every visible communion” of human beings, trans-generationally.[5]

The fictional philosopher Pavel Ivanovich Varsonofiev in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914, in dialogue with the Tolstoyan-peasant-student Isaac (Sanya) Lozhenitsyn, a fictional version of Solzhenitsyn’s father, suggests sobornost as the basis for justice in an Orthodox Christian sense:

[Sanya:] “What about justice?” That was something he hadn’t mentioned. “Surely justice is an adequate principle for the construction of a good society.”

“Yes indeed!” Varsonofiev said turned the two brilliantly lit caverns [of his eyes] toward him. “But not the justice we devise for ourselves, to create a comfortable earthly paradise. Another kind of justice, which existed before us, without us, and for its own sake.”

Orthodox Christian ideas of sobornost offer a relational view of identity like Critical Race Theory, but it is a relational identity based in God, not athetistical, and not the basis for atheistic revolution which ultimately is aimed against God. Frantz Fanon in his essay The Face of Blackness, a foundational text for Critical Race Theory, writes of the character Digger Thomas in Richard Wright’s famous novel Native Son, and how he is driven to accidental murder and scandal. Fanon writes, “To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” It is as if an ethical approbation for murder, one that resonates with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s observation (in The Gulag Archipelago‘s section on “The Soul and Barbed Wire”) that the governing ethical principles of Marxist totalitarianism were “survive at any price” and “only material results matter.” As put in discussions in The Brothers Karamazov, this involves a sense that “everything is permitted” without God, seen in the ideas of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov as lived out by his putative half-brother Smerdyakov, exemplified also by the political nihilist Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s Demons, and by the whole social trajectory of Russia in Solzehnitsyn’s cycle of historical novels, The Red Wheel, careening toward the egotocracy of that ultimate practitioner of nihilistic totalitarianism, the mass murderer Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin. This, too, is where the ethics of Critical Race Theory and its allied forms of Cultural Marxism lead, via “soft” or “cultural” totalitarianism. Sobornost shares a critique of Western individualism with Critical Race Theory and its allied ideologies, but without merely extending the problems of individualism even further, as does CRT’s assertion of relational identity without God. Cultural Marxist ideologies, rooted in aspects of the Eurocentric Enlightenment thinking they criticize, by pursuing that atheistic relationality of identity ironically become synchronized with the customized and commodified identities of neoliberal capitalism, which set up the kinds of alliances we see between CRT, Pansexualism, Anthropocenism, and Antifa with secular consumer and surveillance capitalism today. As Hannah Arendt noted of classical forms of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, a new alliance of elites and “mob” emerges today in digitalized forms. Faithful traditional Christians in a new Catacomb Church will face intensified spiritual warfare and persecution in this Cultural Revolution 2.0 of the advancing “latter days,” while remembering that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against our Lord’s Church, which is His Body. Glory to God for all things!

[1] Nicolas Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937), 21.

[2] Richard Pevear, citing Frank, in Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 2003), vii, f.n.

[3] S.L. Frank, Spiritual Foundations of Society, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986), 60-61.

[4] Ibid., 63-64.

[5] Ibid., 65-67.


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