The Imaginative Conservatism of S.L. Frank
by Dylan Pahman
The Russian philosopher S.L. Frank is not someone whose name comes up often among conservative cultural commentators anymore–if it ever enjoyed such currency. Indeed, I suspect that even when his works were more current, he was overshadowed in the Anglophone world by other more prominent contemporaries, such as Nicholas Berdyaev. That’s a shame. In his 1930 book, The Spiritual Foundations of Society * , Frank offers a refreshing vision of a conservatism that cannot survive apart from creativity.
The book is a remarkable tour de force of intelligent, nuanced, and in some ways even prescient Christian social thought. One can find references—some explicit, some in Frank’s own words—to personalism, natural law, solidarity, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, organicism, and ordered liberty, among others. These are all tied together through the uniquely Russian Orthodox concept of sobornost’ and its counterpart obshchestvennost’, the inner, supratemporal spiritual unity of society and its outer, temporal and mechanical form, respectively. Through these two lenses, he examines the perennial questions of social life: individualism and collectivism, morality and law, hierarchy and equality, the state and civil society, inter alia.
In the course of expounding his social philosophy, Frank also addresses the “dual-unity” of conservativism and creativity. Inspired, no doubt, by Vladimir Soloviev before him, Frank wrote, “Whenever the principle of the conservation of the old, of fixed traditions, is so intense and all-encompassing that it begins to engulf and suppress the freedom of individual initiative and creativity, then the primordial ground and real ontological substrate of social life—spiritual life—begins to die.” He continued to explain that “the blocked flow of spiritual creativity becomes a destructive whirlpool of revolt, is inwardly poisoned by this its morbid distortion, which transforms it from a creative principle into a destructive one. Conservation becomes destruction.” So for Frank, there can be no true conservativism without creativity or, we might say, imagination. “Conservativism which becomes reactionary, the tendency to conserve not life but lifeless ossified forms, is destructive in its very essence,” he wrote, inspiring the destructive force of revolutionary fervor.
Conversely, creativity would itself turn reactionary and regressive without deep cultural roots. “One the other hand,” said Frank, “when the principle of creative initiative does not peacefully mature in the womb of past traditions, is not nourished by the forces of tradition, it is always inwardly impotent, lacks the principle of genuine creativity, which always presupposes birth from the deep primordial core of being.” Imagination cannot be baseless but must stand upon what Russell Kirk would call the “permanent things” of life preserved by the institutions and mores of the past. As a result, to Frank,
Every decisive, radical break with tradition is the separation of a sprout from the nurturing soil. The appearance of novelty may remain, but the more this thirst for the new assumes the character not of positive creativity but of pure negation of the old, the more it spiritually reverts in this very negation to the old and becomes enchained to the old.
If one innovates simply to innovate, one will either find oneself, having won the reactionary fight, as now part of the new establishment or else stuck forever rebelling, dissatisfied, cynical, and restless. Those who wish for progress will not find it apart from conservatism.
Semyon Ludvigovich Frank (1877-1950) wrote major works on epistemology, ontology, philosophy of religion, and social philosophy. As a youthful Marxist, he was arrested and banned from major Russian cities for his radical activities. Becoming dissatisfied with Marxism, he soon turned to idealism and then to religious philosophy. Professor of Philosophy at Moscow University until 1922, when he was expelled to the West, Frank worked in exile until his death in London in 1950.
The Spiritual Foundations of Society is Frank’s attempt to examine society as a type of spiritual being, to develop an ontology of society. Two ideas are central to his vision of future social thought. The first of these, sobornost’ (from the Russian sobirat’: to gather), is the living, inner, organic unity of all human societies. Its primary form is the family unit. Opposed to sobornost’ isobshchestvnnost’ (obshchyi: general or common), the mechanical aspect of society in which the separate parts act to mutually limit and constrain one another.
The second idea is the principle of service as the most general expression of the ontological essence of man and therefore the highest normative principle of social life. According to Frank, all human right are grounded in one innte right — the right to fulfill obligations, the opportunity to serve. Thus, Frank reconciles the principles of solidarity and individual freedom through common subordination to the principle of service.
Though writing in the late twenties, Frank addresses fundamental concepts of the ground of social life applicable to all periods of history. His introduction of concepts from the Russian tradition enables us to see problems in a new light, and his approach — focused on concepts of community and service — challenges the now dominant materialistic and naturalistic theories of the nature of social life.
Read also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semyon_Frank