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The Alien Origins of Freedom

From: Ab Imperio
1/2013
pp. 15-20 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Attempts to offer a rigid definition of the phenomenon of freedom are like an academic treatise on the nature of humor: the very approach seems to be drastically at odds with the inner character of the object of contemplation. That is why the editors decided to open issue 1/2013 of Ab Imperio"How Do We Understand Freedom Today? Free Interpretations and Predetermined Models" with a text written in a most interactive format of academic dis­course: a public lecture delivered by eminent intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner, in August 2012 at the University of New South Wales (Australia). The Russian translation of his lecture "So, What Does Freedom Mean to Us? (A Genealogy of Liberty)" offers a dynamic map of the main ways of conceptualizing the phenomenon of freedom from early modernity to today. The Q&A session that followed the lecture, also published in the issue, ex­plicates Skinner's position and the main problem areas associated with it in an even more informal and free manner. Skinner's central task is to outline the conceptual foundation for elaborating a positive concept of freedom - as opposed to a more obvious and popular negative definition ("freedom is the absence of restrictions," that is, eventually, of nonfreedom).

Characteristically, freedom as a "category of practice" (political, eco­nomic, or gender) wholly reproduces the dilemma of conceptualizing free­dom as an analytical category (negative vs. positive). The most common and popular perception of freedom as a state of immediately experienced existence (individual or collective) is negative: freedom requires curbing everything deemed "unfree." The twentieth century became an ideal embodiment of all possible aspects of the negative reification of freedom: be it the nation state, a social group, a political idea, an ethnocultural community, gender, a demographic cohort, an economic system, and so on. In all of these instances, it is expected that true freedom is initially located somewhere outside, that it comes forward only with the annihilation (humiliation) of all things and people that constrain the subject of the "fight for freedom." Thus, freedom appears to be fundamentally alien to regular life and social order. According to Skinner's "map," this "negative" approach to freedom sees as its necessary precondition the liquidation of any external interference and (or) the unhindered self-realization of political, spiritual, or any other inner self.

The preponderance of this negative concept of freedom is confirmed by the articles published in the "History" section of the issue, all dedicated to attempts at fashioning the Soviet revolutionary (meaning: emancipatory) regime. The Soviet project presented itself as the realization of a new stage in the historical development of freedom - "true" freedom, based on the liquidation of social classes and hence of the structural situation responsible for the reproduction of "false consciousness." In this sense, freedom, of course, became a key element of self-legitimation of one of the most unfree (in terms of liberal theories of freedom) regimes of the twentieth century.

In the section's opening article, Benjamin W. Sawyer tells the story of the mass migration in the early 1920s of several thousand workers from the United States and Canada to the Soviet Union, where they would found labor communes. Resettlers from North America (only some of whom were originally immigrants from the former Russian Empire) were drawn by the dream of greater economic and political freedom, while Soviet organizers of their resettlement were driven by the hope of receiving the immediate, high-quality human and financial capital they needed to realize their plans. Both sides would soon experience disillusionment, but was this not predetermined from the very beginning, by the very idea of reaching one's ideal through conceiving the desired result "negatively," as something that could not be found at home?

The theme is further developed in the article by Martin Beisswenger, dedicated to the contacts between a founder of the Eurasianist movement, Petr Savitskii, and the Soviet nonconformist geographer and ethnologist, Lev Gumilev. Beisswenger argues that it is wrong to identify both Savitskii, after World War II, and Gumilev with classic Eurasianism, that they represented some new stage in the evolution of the doctrine ("trans-Eurasianism"). However, there was a paradox in their efforts: while bringing...



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