The End of an Ideological Cycle?

Cyril Hovorun

This article is part of our “Russia/Ukraine: Law and Religion Perspectives” series.
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Daniel Bell (1919-2011), a leading American sociologist, declared in his 1960 essay collection, The End of an Ideology, that the mainstream ideologies that had shaped the global political landscape since the nineteenth century exhausted their momentum by the 1950s. Among them included ideologies that had contributed to World War II: communism, fascism, and Nazism. The end of the war meant their collapse.

The old ideologies indeed seem gone, however ideologies, as such, are still with us. Some ideologies appear to substitute the old ones, sometimes with the same power to drive masses. Others look like updated versions of the old ideologies, even though they pretend to ferociously fight the latter.

Such is the ideology that the Kremlin uses to wage war against Ukraine. This ideology claims to purge Ukraine of neo-Nazism. The Russians do not conceal their intent to chase out neo-Nazism in Europe, after they succeed in Ukraine. However, in many points they themselves hold ideas and support practices similar to those of the Nazi Party. 

“The old ideologies indeed seem gone, however ideologies, as such, are still with us.”

The proponents of this ideology have called it by different names, none of them exhausting. The Kremlin presents it as anti-Nazi. The Russian Orthodox Church, which significantly contributed to it, calls it the “Russian world.” It is fluid and hardly pinnable.

I would identify it as “civilizational nationalism” or “civilizational exceptionism.” It could be called so because at its core is the concept of “civilization.” This concept goes back to Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and his idea of the dawn of the Western civilization. Spengler’s idea that the West is declining is entertained with much appreciation in the Kremlin. Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) developed the idea of civilization further, in a more optimistic light. Lev Gumilyov (1912-1992) adjusted it to incorporate the historical circumstances of Russia. He coined the term “super-ethnos” and argued that Russia is such a super-ethnos with its own mentality and values. This mentality was formed during the Middle Ages under the influence of the Asian nomads who contributed to a powerful momentum for Russian “passionarity.” Gumilyov called upon contemporary Russians to be as “passionate” as their ancestors in the period of conquest and expansion, to make the Russian super-ethnos great again.

“Make Russia great again” would adequately describe the driving force of the Kremlin’s ideology that underpins its war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin wants to restore the grandeur of both imperial and Soviet Russia, including their borders and zones of influence. No wonder he became a model hero for politicians who were elected on the promises of making their own countries great again, from Donald Trump to Victor Orbán. Although some leaders, such as Orbán, continue supporting Putin despite the Russian atrocities in Ukraine and at the same time get reelected, one hopes that the ideology of “making <…> great again” has exhausted itself. Even if it continues propelling some Western politicians to the top of their political establishment, it will for a long time be tarnished by the crimes of war in Ukraine committed in the name of making Russia great again.

“Make <…> great again” is the main ideology that made the war in Ukraine possible, but not the only one. There are other ideological constructs that played a role, even if they are passive. One of them is neoliberalism, which is sometimes also identified as neoconservatism. Its basic belief is in the power of markets and economic integration. Neoliberals assume that economics can protect peace better than armies can. In many cases, they are right, because gaining from trade is usually better than losing in a war. One may assume that the spread of international corporations and trade pacts between countries has prevented many military conflicts after the World War II.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the West believed that countries of the former Soviet bloc could cease to be a threat through their integration to the global economy. It certainly worked for some countries like the Baltic states and Ukraine, but not for all of them. Thus, Russia used its integration into the global economy as an instrument of manipulation against the West and its own neighbors. In other words, it turned the neoliberal ideology against those who had conceived and promoted it. Using oil, gas, and pipelines, the Kremlin made the West more economically dependent on Russia than Russia is on the West. This reliance is further visible in the corruption Russia has deviously infected in Western democracies. Many Western politicians followed the unwritten rule: you shall not steal the money of your own taxpayers, but you may receive money stolen from the Russian taxpayers. That is how Russia managed to create a huge network of influencers in the West, including politicians, journalists, public intellectuals, etc. Some of them are on the Russian payroll, and others would receive lucrative positions in Russian corporations after their retirement. Through its cheap energy and corrupted influencers, the Kremlin managed to tie the West’s hands, when the latter is supposed to retaliate against Russian encroachments on human rights and international order.

“[Russia] turned the neoliberal ideology against those who had conceived and promoted it.”

How neoliberalism worked inversely against the West became clear in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and launched its proxy war in east Ukraine. The sanctions imposed by the West were rather symbolic, as the very idea of sanctions goes against the neoliberal intuition. Although symbolic, these sanctions were often ignored and bypassed by Western governments and businesses. The investigation published by The Telegraph has demonstrated, for example, that Germany and France systematically evaded the sanctions and armed Russia with military hardware worth 273 millions Euros. Some of this hardware, as the investigation suggests, is allegedly being used in Ukraine. Neoliberal ideology, which justifies such deals, has thus contributed to the war and bears part of the responsibility for it.

Finally, there is an ideological knot featuring several ideological threads. All of them are united in opposing the Western hegemony in global matters. According to this polarizing worldview, the complex world is reduced to a primitive binary of the “evil” West against the “innocent” rest. The Kremlin tries to manipulate this knot of global ideologies by presenting its aggression against Ukraine as a struggle against the dominance of the United States and its allies. The war in Ukraine is not easily registered by the proponents of such binary thinking. In the best case, it remains under their radars. In the worst, they interpret it as a conspiracy of the still evil West against those who oppose Western dominance. Russia, according to this conspiracy theory, champions the global anti-Western resistance and is a lesser evil.

Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) is one of the most outspoken proponents of such bipolar conspiracies. In his interviews and interventions published on the Ukrainian war he, on the one hand, repeatedly expresses sympathy with the suffering Ukrainian people. On the other hand, he presents this war as being driven by the Western desire “to punish Russia — to the last Ukrainian.” He calls on Ukrainians to capitulate and on the Western powers to allow Ukraine to give up resistance. He explains his call as a desire to preserve the country and its people from destruction. However, I am not sure what he wants to preserve from destruction more: Ukraine or Putin’s regime? Chomsky’s rhetoric surprisingly resonates with proponents of the war in Russia. For example, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu warned the West, led by the United States, that they will wage the war “to the last Ukrainian.”

Also among the anti-Western political doctrines in this ideological thread is postcolonialism. It has not contributed to the war as such but does allow those who follow it to be ambivalent about the war. Postcolonialism became dominant in international politics after World War II and, in many points, it is coherent with neoliberalism. Like neoliberalism, postcolonialism did a lot of good to the modern world. Thus, it narrowed the gap between rich and poor countries, helped to reduce the numbers of those who starve, suffer from bad water, and die from the lack of medical care. It allowed voices from the margins of the world to be better heard and has inspired many to believe that justice can be served for everyone, not just for the privileged.

At the same time, postcolonial thinking sometimes retains the old colonial, black-and-white outlook on the world. Only instead, the black and white parts of the world have swapped. Formerly, the colonizers saw themselves as bringing light to the dark parts of the world. Now the former colonial powers are seen as dark forces and the former colonies as essentially good, regardless of what is happening there.

“Postcolonial thinking sometimes retains the old colonial, black-and-white outlook on the world.”

Pope Francis can be seen as a representative of such postcolonial thinking. He, on the one hand, genuinely supports the Ukrainian people and expresses sincere empathy with their sufferings. On the other hand, he seems to be unclear about the war’s underpinnings. In a recent interview to the Italian newspaper Corriere della sera, he acknowledges that he does not fully understand the reasons of Putin’s aggression and suggests that “in Ukraine, the conflict was triggered by other actors.” He specifies that those actors are the usual suspects — the West and NATO: “Maybe it was ‘NATO barking at Russia’s gate’ that compelled Putin to unleash the invasion of Ukraine. ‘I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked’ Bergoglio wonders, ‘but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.” It seems that even the Pope cannot break through the spell of this binary conspiracy thinking about the “evil” West encroaching on the “innocent” rest of the world, which includes Russia.

By the way, the Pope’s conspiracy theories have become unexpectedly appreciated in conservative Russian circles. Such an appreciation is intriguing, as these circles are usually very anti-Catholic. It appears, however, that their fondness of conspiracy theories is stronger than their anti-Catholicism. Thus, Anatoliy Stepanov, the editor-in-chief of the influential website Russian People’s Line, published an editorial piece titled “An Agent of the Kremlin?” He noticed, among other things, that “today only a few politicians in the West dare to explain the reasons for Russia’s special military operation as a NATO provocation. And then — the ‘barking NATO’; someone helped inflame Putin’s anger! For less harsh expressions, the Western press today mixes any public person with mud. The former American President Donald Trump, for example, was easily called the ‘Kremlin’s agent,’ ‘Putin’s man.’ Are we really going to witness an information campaign against Pope Francis?”

The paradox of modern postcolonial thinking is that it often does not acknowledge new attempts at colonization by powers which are not traditionally perceived as colonial or themselves were colonies. What Russia does in Ukraine and has been doing since early modernity is colonization. Therefore, to remain credible, postcolonial ideology must abandon the dichotomization between the West and the rest, and to register new colonizing powers, including Russia.

“One can generalize that ideologies tend to rise and decline in cycles. The cataclysms, such as World War II or the war in Ukraine, speed up the ideological cycles but do not terminate ideologies.”

Some countries that suffered from colonialism in the past now cynically exploit postcolonial thinking. For example, China and India, despite their differences, seem to use the same postcolonial rhetoric to push forward their own interests. They, along with other countries in Africa, South America, and Asia, hesitate to condemn the Russo-Ukrainian war. For example, when the United Nations resolution ES-11/1 that deplored Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was voted on March 2nd, 35 countries abstained. They included China, India and quite a few other countries that pioneered anticolonial struggles, such as South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Sri Lanka. A similar picture can be observed in the World Council of Churches. While its Western members explicitly condemn the war and push the WCC to take a clearer stand against it, some churches from what is called the “global South” hesitate to take a similar stand. As a result, the WCC articulately and persistently condemns injustice and violence in the former colonies but avoids the same kind of clarity in addressing injustice and violence in Ukraine, where they take the most atrocious forms.

The list of modern ideologies that have contributed to the war in Ukraine, either actively or passively and each to its own degree, can be continued. I do not intend to repeat Daniel Bell’s overestimation that ideologies that are complicit in massacres are destined to disappear. The post-war history of ideas has proven this hope to be vain. It is probably more realistic to assume that the post-WWII ideological cycle has reached its end to give space for a new cycle, just as the post-WWII cycle succeeded the interwar cycle, as described by Bell. In other words, one can generalize that ideologies tend to rise and decline in cycles. The cataclysms, such as World War II or the war in Ukraine, speed up the ideological cycles but do not terminate ideologies.

What kind of ideologies are likely to pass to the new ideological cycle? It would be too speculative to nominate candidates, except probably one: liberal democracy. This idea drives millions of Ukrainians to protect their democracy from Russian autocracy. Most of them are ready to die and some actually die for Ukrainian society to be free and democratic. This refutes the argument of Russia and other global autocracies that liberal democracy has exhausted itself and its cycle has come to an end. The Ukrainian struggle and Western solidarity with Ukraine prove such an argument to be wrong. Democracy is still more resilient and attractive than the ideologies from both the prewar and even postwar cycles. ♦

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is an Orthodox priest and a Professor in Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at the University College Stockholm. He is also an international fellow at Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta in Canada and an invited professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Recommended Citation

Hovorun, Cyril. “The End of an Ideological Cycle?” Canopy Forum, June 14, 2022.