11 May 2021

Ideocracy: the idea that explains Putin’s Russia – and Sturgeon’s Scotland

By Ian Mitchell

The Scottish National Party’s approach to government is evolving towards what, in the 1930s, Prince Nikolai Trubetskoy called “ideocracy”. He coined the term in the context of the new ‘Eurasianist’ movement which he helped found amongst émigré Russians in Austria and Germany. It implies a sort of right-wing, nationalistic socialism, which has a lot in common with Vladimir Putin’s approach to governance. It explains a lot about what has been miscalled “tribalism” in Scottish politics—and “identity politics” elsewhere.

Trubetskoy in exile was Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Vienna. Though himself descended from an ancient noble house of non-Russian (Lithuanian) origin, his best-known book, The Legacy of Genghis Khan and other Essays on Russia’s Identity, explores what it means to be authentically Russian. Reversing Peter the Great, Trubetskoy examines Genghis Khan from an orientalist point of view. 

The book was not translated into English until 1991, but it is invaluable for anyone wishing to understand the roots of Russian nationalism today and its nostalgic yearning for the broad steppe and the thunder of a thousand hooves. Trubetskoy was a sworn enemy of both the Bolshevik regime, which he had fled, and of the Nazis, who took over Austria in 1938 and hounded him to an early death in the same year. He understood too much about both to be allowed to live in peace.

Eurasianism fell out of fashion until it was revived in Russia in the era of perestroika, though in mangled form. The sinister, crankish “philosopher”, Alexander Dugin, was its most high-profile advocate. He was well received by Vladimir Putin a decade or more ago, though today his star has faded. He is seen as an unsophisticated embarrassment to an increasingly materialistic oligarchy. Nonetheless, Eurasianism has become an unseen part of the Kremlin’s DNA and the underlying justification for its geostrategic ambitions. The essence of the concept is the political theory which Trubetskoy called “ideocracy”. 

Ideocracy means the rule of those who represent and fight for an idea of what a country should be in racial, religious, cultural and political terms. It is nationalism sans frontières. It is also pure assertion and, as such, takes no serious account of borders, neighbours, diplomacy or limitations of a practical nature. Nobody who does not promote the “idea” can be part of the elite; and nobody who is not part of the elite is fit to have any influence on government, even by voting. 

Ideocracy is explicitly anti-democratic, but it is not elitist in the 19th century sense. Indeed it is a mixture of elitism and populism. Everyone is part of the elite who accepts the ruling idea. This is the “weaponised consensus” that the SNP uses in its mass-mobilisation politics.

You do not have to belong to a race or a tribe, much less a class, to be a Scot Nat. You just have to accept the SNP’s general idea about the “tone” of Scottish government. That makes it culturally inclusive and politically exclusive, just as Trubetskoy’s Mongols were (as modern research tends to confirm). Holyrood is not a forum for debate. It is a competitive declamation arena in which the aim is not to persuade but to dominate. If that fails, ridicule, humiliation, name-calling and ostentatious contempt are the weapons of choice in the frozen conflict that is the result of the SNP’s “asymmetric warfare” against the United Kingdom.

Most SNP supporters would prefer to see a parliament in which the opposition has no seats. Michael Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution¸ recently implied that Scots who support “English” constitutional ideas are “traitors”. Hatred is the mandated emotion to be deployed against anyone who does not accept the ruling idea. 

Not long ago, I reviewed a book called SNP Leaders in which Nicola Sturgeon admitted that “hatred of Margaret Thatcher” has been “the motivation for my entire political career”. That is the political totem, while the social (i.e. class) one is that Sturgeon appears to be “authentically Scots”. That means she is “state-educated, working-class, left-leaning and believably human”. In the new Scots ideocracy, these two criteria determine status. Everyone else is an actual or potential traitor.

This country is being torn apart not so much by old-fashioned nationalism as by a Putinish determination to impose ideocracy on the country of Adam Smith and David Hume. Ideocracy takes nothing from the Scottish Enlightenment. It owes more to the Calvinistic Covenanters of the 17th century who were arguably the most authoritarian government the country has ever had – until now.

For the final word, let us return to Trubetskoy, whose essay ‘On the Idea Governing the Ideocratic State’ opens with this passage (emphasis mine):

“It is one of the fundamental theses of Eurasians that modern democracy must give way to ideocracy… Ideocracy presupposes the selection of the ruling echelon according to its faithfulness to a single governing idea. The democratic state has no convictions of its own…so it cannot lead the culture and the economy. Therefore, it tries to interfere as little as possible in both (“freedom of trade”, “freedom of the press”, “freedom of art”, etc.) and lets such irresponsible factors as private capital and the press rule society. Contrariwise, the ideocratic state has its own convictions and its own governing idea and must itself organise and control all aspects of life.”

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Ian Mitchell is the author of 'The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.