I had never heard of the idea of Christian fascism before I read Timothy Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom.
According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Ivan Ilyin was a philosopher from a noble family in Russia who found in the disastrous situation that Russia found itself in after World War I that he wanted to oppose Bolshevism and the instrument he chose for that purpose was Christian fascism. Interestingly, this was the same instrument chosen by Putin and Trump. There are deep historical roots to that process. Ilyin’s ideas though became popular much later, after the fall of Communism even though Ilyin had died 30 years earlier in 1954.
Vladimir Putin adopted Ilyin’s views as the intellectual foundation for his oligarchy. According to Snyder, “Ilyin was a politician of eternity. His thought held sway as the capitalist version of the politics of inevitability collapsed in the Russia of the 1990s and 2000s. As Russia became an organized kleptocracy in the 2010s, as domestic inequality reached stupefying proportions, Ilyin’s influence peaked.”
Very few people in the west have been aware of the influence of Ilyin. I know I never heard of him before I read Snyder’s The road to Unfreedom. His name has come up much more often after the second war in Ukraine. Snyder says Ilyin reached magnificent heights in Russia after the fall of communism and the brief interlude that followed. Snyder said, “he has become the philosopher for our time. No thinker of the twentieth century has been rehabilitated in such grand style in the twenty-first, nor enjoyed such influence on world politics. If this went unnoticed it was because we are in the thrall of inevitability: we believe that ideas do not matter.”
According to the Romanian thinker E. M. Cioran, Christian fascism embraced the ideas that before history God is perfect and eternal. But once he begins history, God seems “frenetic, committing error upon error.” Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s inspiration, took up this idea. He thought it would take a philosopher like himself to regain the solid ground of reality—i.e. the divine totality that would avoid the spiritual and moral relativism” that God’s “mistake” led us into.
Ilyin realized that the politics of from the 1880s to the early 1910s were the politics of globalization, just as they were again later from the 1980s to 2010s. In both eras the conventional wisdom was that export led growth would bring enlightened politics and end fanaticism. During the First World that optimism broke down. In the 2010s Trump and the resentful class to whom he appealed, showed that this optimism had also broken down in America. As Snyder says, “Ilyin regarded fascism as the politics of the world to come.” And of course so did Trump and his 73 million voters. The phrase politics of the world to come, reminds me of what George Orwell said, “If you want an image of the future imagine a boot stomping a human face forever.”
Ilyin in the 1920s was in exile in Italy and he was disappointed that the Italians arrived at fascism before the Russians. Just as Trump later yearned for fascism when he looked at Putin and a host of other tyrants around the world and wished he could be like them. Trump always found dictators and tyrants more congenial than the leaders of the world’s democracies. That is not as surprising as it might sound. Trump naturally swam in the waters of tyranny. That was where he felt most at home. Ilyin was also impressed with Hitler. Just as Trump was impressed with Putin. Like liked like. Ilyin actually spent most of his time from 1922 to 1938 in Germany.
The attraction of Hitler for Ilyin was the same as for so many fascists: “Ilyin saw Hitler as a defender of civilization from Bolshevism. The Führer, he wrote had “performed an enormous service for all of Europe” by preventing further revolutions on the Russian model.”
This is an important thought to remember. Capitalists are quite comfortable with fascists, because the real enemy is communism, or even socialism. In fact historically, capitalists are more friendly with fascism than democracy.
At this same time in Europe ,American capitalists were swarming to adopt Hitler as a congenial ally. Communists those were the real enemies of American capitalists. The connection between capitalism and fascism is deep. The connection to democracy is much more tenuous. It was therefore no surprise to see American capitalists enthralled by Trump, notwithstanding his obvious authoritarian tendencies. Later many were enthralled by Putin.
As Snyder pointed out, “Closely related to the fantasy of an eternally innocent Russia includes the fantasy of an eternally innocent redeemer, who does no wrong and therefore will not die.”