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K.Stoeckl,Community afterTotalitarianism

ID III.1.r1


Kristina Stoeckl, Community After Totalitarianism: The Russian Orthodox Intellectual Tradition and the Philosophical Discourse of Political Modernity, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008. 200 pp., $56.95, €36.40.

- Alexander Gungov (University of Sofia)

Written almost twenty years after the beginning of the dismantling of the last version of totalitarianism in Europe, Kristina Stoeckl’s topic has lost none of its timeliness. In the author’s view, this period of recent European
history, as well as fascism and Nazism earlier on, has eventuated in the paradoxical situation of “simultaneous absolute communization of society and absolute atomization of individuals.”(1) Reflections on this paradox are responsible for the current status of the three major political discourses in contemporary Western thought—liberalism, communitarianism, and postmodernism—each offering a different interpretation of the individual-community relationship. This book presents as an alternative and, at the same time, a complement, the Eastern Orthodox theological and philosophical thought represented mainly by post-1917 Russian and Greek Orthodox scholars. For Stoeckl, the October Revolution plays the role of a watershed in the development of Orthodox thinking, making it modern. This justifies her comparison of the political offspring of the Enlightenment with the teachings (and sometimes deviations) of the Eastern Church. Orthodox ideas do not fit under the umbrella of Western philosophical discourse because they approach totalitarianism from the perspective of the Orthodox version of Christianity. Their origins are to be sought centuries before the Enlightenment; their development has taken place outside of what usually is believed to be the space of Western Philosophy.(2)
(1) Community After Totalitarianism, p. 12.
(2) Ibid., p. 15.

Drawing upon the above-mentioned fundamental paradox, Stoeckl ponders the questions “How to conceptualize the relationship between the individual and community?” and “How to conceptualize the freedom of the human subject and its being part of a community?”(3) Working toward the answers she does not pledge allegiance to any of the doctrines considered or to any individual philosopher, but concentrates on three focal points that shed light on community after totalitarianism: “the quality of freedom, the role of practices, and the meaning of tradition.”(4) The author identifies the kernel of each of these categories and their interaction through an elaborate and erudite comparative analysis of contemporary liberalism, communitarianism, postmodernism, and Orthodox Christian thinking. The conclusion she reaches is that a tradition based on a religious approach can provide a different and viable response to totalitarianism,(5) following from the view that “the relationship between the human subject and community need not be understood as broken, like liberal theory would have it, nor need it be considered as natural, like communitarianism argues, nor need it be taken to entirely escape determination, like postmodern thinkers present it. Relatedness is a human potentiality for the Orthodox thinkers, and they are concerned with modes of realizing this potentiality.”(6) The author uses a very efficient and well-grounded methodology allowing her to present a thorough description and profound interpretation (7) of the theories scrutinized in her book.
(3) Ibid., p. 177.
(4) Ibid., p. 177.
(5) Ibid., p. 179.
(6) Ibid., p. 160.
(7) Of the liberals, she discusses Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas;
among the communitarians, her attention is attracted by Charles Taylor,
Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Amitai Etzioni, and, most of all, by Alasdair MacIntyre;
the postmodernists are represented mainly by Jean-Luc Nancy and to a lesser degree
by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben,
and Roberto Esposito; while among the Orthodox theologians and philosophers,
the views of Vladimir Lossky, Aleksej Losev, Sergej, Averencev, Sergej Khoruzhij,
and Christos Yannaras are analyzed—all of them belonging or being sympathetic
to Neo-Patristics and Neo-Palamism.

Her methodology consists of three levels: “socio-historical theory,” “political philosophy” and the “meta-theory of political philosophy.”(8) The point of departure of Stoeckl’s analysisis Cornelius Castoriadis’ understanding of any society as a product of “theradical imaginary.” All political philosophy trends she studies belong in this sense to the modern consciousness: when facing “the self-institution of society, it recognizes [...] the contingency of its beginnings, and understands itself as autonomous.”(9) Neither post-revolutionary Russian/Greek Orthodox thinking nor the liberal account are an exception to this pattern, in spite of the fact that the latter (if not in its main proponents, at least in their ardent followers) tend, according to Stoeckl, to take liberal political theory for granted as something necessarily emerging out of historical and/or economic laws. This might be the principal reason why all the intellectual traditions in this treatise are examined from the perspective of self-reflexivity, which is assumed to be part and parcel of the reflection on the post-totalitarian and post-cold war political situation.(10) Stoeckl, however, does not confine herself to the optic of modernity or, more especially, of Enlightenment optimism, but evidently appreciates the critical stance of Hegel, for whom “modernity had become a problem”; and who, in her opinion, “can be considered the founding father of any critical theorizing of modernity.”(11) This is, no doubt, an admirable position; the only regrettable lapse (not so much for this book as for contemporary political philosophy in general) is that Giambattista Vico’s groundbreaking contribution to reconsidering modernity, made almost a century before Hegel, is not given its due. Kristina Stoeckl’s book is an exemplary work of scholarship, one which extends far beyond the limits of a regular Ph.D. dissertation. It provides a clear and convincing interpretation of some of the most vexed issues of contemporary political thought, issues demanding special attention both in Western and Eastern Europe. This study succeeds in elucidating the depths of the allegedly mystical Eastern Orthodox intellectual tradition in an accessible form, thus allowing for comparison with the major trends in political philosophy. Furthermore, it aptly emphasizes those specific insights of Orthodox thought which offer productive solutions not yet explored by Western philosophy. The bibliography lists the most relevant and significant titles in the field, spread over five languages: English, Russian, German, Italian, and French; most of the Russian expressions given in Cyrillic contain no typos or spelling errors. Stoeckl’s study is an indispensable manual both for students of contemporary political philosophy and of Christian Orthodox religion, philosophy and culture. It promises future substantial achievements both in the subjects under discussion and in related areas.
(8) Ibid., p. 33.
(9) Ibid., p. 41.
(10) Ibid., p. 35.
(11) Ibid., p. 39.