The Credo of Ukrainian Conservatism. In honour of the 140-year anniversary of Vyacheslav Lypynsky

30 Квітня 2022, 19:51

Article by Roman Lekhniuk, historian


Vyacheslav Lypynsky’s birthday is a good cause to reflect upon his conservative school of thought in light of modern Ukraine. In their time, Lypynsky’s work, despite its undoubted intellectual value, has not gained widespread popularity, giving way to many other, more simplistic and leftist theories or even radical nationalism. I won’t be spreading breaking news by saying that conservatism had not become a very popular ideology after independence in 1991 in Ukraine. Despite the existence of several intellectual groups, conservatism was not highly represented in Ukrainian politics. Even more so, many Ukrainians associate the word ‘conservatism’ with the lack of will to deliver or make changes. And in the reality of Ukraine when change is more than welcome, the existing association is not a good facilitator of conservative thinking. Despite this and regardless of political terminology, figuring out how conservatism itself may be beneficial for Ukraine is important.


What is conservatism? Summarising this is not an easy task because conservatism, unlike other ideologies does not operate under simplistic dogmas. The essence of conservatism is an understanding of tradition. In this case, tradition refers to the habits of a community – habits which determine its meaning, characteristics and identity. Modern conservatives (as well as early conservatives) under the wing of tradition do not imply the preservation of everything that is old and rejection of everything that is new. This is not conservatism but rather a reactionary impulse. Conservatism on the other hand, is not about ensuring change but is rather concerned with the character of these changes. Seeking change is necessary, but only when the change leads to something better, rather than seeking change for its own sake. Reforms must take into account the specifics of a state and society, where they will not only be implemented on the basis of theoretical frameworks, driven by intellectuals that are detached from reality. Conservatism therefore is above all the desire to ‘organically’ combine the past with the present and future.


It is also important to address national identity as part of modern conservatism in light of national culture and statehood. Lypynsky emphasised on this important topic – and little has changed since the time of his work. The existential meaning of a fully grown national identity can be seen just by looking at Russia’s eagerness to destroy our state, culture and national uniqueness. Despite this being evident, progressivist thinking denies this, as it has already ‘experienced’ the end of history and the dawn of a new, multicultural global community which will enjoy basic freedoms as conceived in liberal democracies. It can be said with great confidence that this prediction failed to materialise, and will not do so in the mid and long run. After all, we have been through another era of optimism – the early XX century. What happened next is well known.


Modern conservatism with its focus on culture and identity is very fitting to the Ukrainian situation in terms of the complexity of decolonisation. For Russia, the destruction, repression and violence against everything that is Ukraine is a ‘raison d’ètre’ (a reason to be) – as this is the core of the Russian imperialist model. In fact, this is the only model that Russia has ever had throughout its short history. Under such conditions, knowing one’s own national history, culture, national identity, and simply put – trying to be who you truly are, is exactly what makes us a nation in the conservative definition of the word. Furthermore, the confrontation with Russia is also a defence of our traditional way of life. By ‘way of life’ in the Ukranian traditional manner means – individualism which differs with Russian collectivism and the eternal mentality of ‘We all – are slaves of the state’.


Moreover, today, this Ukrainian individualism can be even seen on the front lines of the war. Multiple military experts already noted that the Ukrainian army differs from the Russian horde due to its bottom-level initiatives which have an immense impact on the battlefield. Henceforth, the Ukrainian advantage of an individualistic culture can be seen as an advantage also on the battlefield. Ofcourse, individualism was often a disadvantage as well. For example, anarchy and constant rebellions were often caused by this phenomenon. However, it is still part of Ukraine’s national DNA so to say, for which, Ukrainians have fought for for the entirety of our history.


Despite the difficulty of having to inherit a colonial and totalitarian past, we have slowly been getting rid of this reputation, a reputation of failed institutions. A reputation of a country associated with corruption and rent-seeking. Many of us have recognised that the state is not just the president and his officials, but a common task and responsibility that is shared by all. As any successful state, a country cannot be successful without an already existing capability of self-organisation by its citizens – and society itself needs an internal structure of hierarchies. This is what is viewed as a healthy society in the conservation vision. Conservatism is about the harmony and balance of social and state solidarity from top to bottom (and vice-versa) as well as an intelligent dedication to the common good.


Conservatives often defend traditional institutions such as: families, local communities, and civic organisations in their historically diverse sense. It is on this basis that the fundamentals of a society and its social norms are formed. In the XXI century, when the word ‘progress’ is most often used with the reduction of value (or even an outright rejection of it) of such institutions, they still retain their value. Because a citizen who is a member of society is not only raised by the state (school), but also his family and local community – right from his or her birth. The strength of the ‘horizontal’ connections in Ukrainian society can be seen just by looking at the vast activity of Ukrainian volunteers which originated in 2014 and exponentially increased after the invasion on the 24th of February 2022. This would not be possible without a clear and critical view of the collective responsibilities for the fate of their country by many Ukarinians (spread over many small communities, bound by family, friends, village or town).


Amongst other key principles of conservative philosophy was the position of elites – which was often the central focus of Lypynsky’s work. His theory of elites can be regarded as one of the most prominent elements of his work on conservatism. The problem of Ukrainian elites in the last thirty years or so, was probably ignored only by either those who are clueless or lazy. One must always remember that elites in Ukraine (political elites) are a reflection of society which has helped form that very elite (and in democratic terms – directly elects them). Despite the urge to follow anti-elitist sentiment, it is necessary to keep in mind a key conservative principle – without your own national elites, the nation and state therefore may not be sustainable. The question is, what shape will these elites take. Lypynsky, as many other conservative thinkers, emphasised that social hierarchies must be formed based on personal qualities and not by any hereditary status. Later, this idea became central to the conception of meritocracy, which was highly important to Ukraine with its unbalanced social mobility – which still needs to be amended today.


Lastly, it is crucial to turn our attention to one other aspect. When we talk about conservatism, customs and traditional values, we often hear that this is no different to the Russian, reactionary statements of the orthodox, ‘Russian world’ that Russian propaganda often is centred around. All in all, conservatism has nothing to do with this. An absolute domination of the state, the lack of individuality of its citizens, lack of basic freedom and rights, no agency, overly focused on the past (a false past as well), imperial revanchism and a pervasive kleptocracy – is incompatible with any conservative understanding of tradition (as seen by Edmund Burke and further developed by Lypynsky). After all, not everyone who considers themselves as a follower of an idea is truly a follower by definition.


In other words, the inherited legacy of European conservatism is worthy of a much more widespread recognition (and education thereof) than it does today in Ukraine. It is not just a valuable artefact from the past, or a stylish intellectual accessory. Yes, the monarchical context of Lypynsky’s work is not relevant today but the conservative principles outlined by him are very relevant: the concept of healthy traditions, responsibility of elites, effective governance, a developed culture and identity, social solidarity and the protection of the common good. These are not abstract ideals, but rather tools that are able to give a new life to nation states. This is the very phenomenon that ensures Ukrainian resistance against its enemies on the front lines in this war today. Hence, I believe that Ukrainian conservatism will live to see the day of its recognition, and together with it – its outstanding representative and contributor – Vyacheslav Kazymyrovych Lypynsky.