One Exceptional Figure Stood Out

Perry Anderson

Famously, Russia gave the concept of an intelligentsia to the world. Though the term itself was first recorded in Poland, it was in Russia that it became common currency in the 1860s, reaching the West some two decades later. In historical memory, it remains the cultural marker perhaps most classically associated with the country to this day. The greatness of Russian literature in the 19th century, in a line of writers who so often appeared the conscience of their society, has much to do with that. But in Russia itself, the term in that period referred to a broader phenomenon: a passionate company of political thinkers and critics speaking out against the injustices of the established order, in the name of those it oppressed, and proposing ways to redeem or overthrow it – tribunes of the people who could not yet hear them. Belinsky, Herzen and Bakunin; the Aksakov brothers; Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov; Mikhailovsky and Kropotkin: these were among the emblematic figures of this tradition, which culminated in the leaders of the two wings, Bolshevik and Menshevik, of revolutionary Marxism. Journalists, exiles, editors, underground conspirators, this was by definition an intelligentsia without positions or place in the institutions of the state.

Dmitri Furman

By the turn of the century, however, there had emerged another kind of intelligentsia in late tsarism. The creative explosion in the arts of the Silver Age, flaring across painting, music, theatre and ballet, as well as literature, is well known. Comparable, and scarcely less remarkable, was the proliferation of original minds in scholarship, with the emergence of a major intellectual stratum based for the first time in universities, one of the most glittering constellations of the new century. Burgeoning before and during the Great War, its native development was largely cut off by the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks, who came from the earlier style of intelligentsia, had little understanding of the value of the newer one, and – in no mood to tolerate disinterested research or deviant ideas in the aftermath of the Civil War – drove most of it into exile, without realising the enormous loss they were inflicting on the country or their cause by doing so. If writers, reluctant to be separated from the land of their language, generally remained – Bunin, Aldanov, Nabokov were the exceptions, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak the rule; not to speak of those who sided with the revolution (Platonov, Babel, Mayakovsky) – the human sciences were badly affected. Of those who stayed, the Formalists and their kin survived best: Shklovsky, Tynyanov, Eikhenbaum; Voloshinov and Bakhtin; Propp. Political science, sociology, economics, literary history were another matter. Ostrogorski died in time; Kondratiev and Chayanov were shot; Mirsky too. From those who were expelled or fled, Western Europe and America were the principal, though not exclusive, gainers: in linguistics, Jakobson and Trubetskoy; in history, Rostovtsev, Vernadsky, Postan; in economics, Leontief and Domar; in anthropology, Shirokogorov; in sociology, Sorokin; in philosophy, Koyré and Kojève. Other names could be added.

Once Stalin was gone, dissidents within Russia revived the 19th-century tradition of the intelligent as outspoken critic of the established order. Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky and others attacked communist rule in much the same way as their forebears had tsarism; while with loosening controls in universities and (especially) research institutes, there was a modest recovery in academic life. The fall of the Soviet system undercut both. In the new Russia of oligarchs and fixers, in which money became the measure of all value, there was no place for old-fashioned moralism – Solzhenitsyn becoming an uncomfortable anachronism in his own lifetime, other dissidents not even returning from exile – while pitiable conditions of work in universities, starved of funds, forced many academics to make ends meet in murkier ways, or migrate. Politically speaking, widespread collusion with the Yeltsin regime lamed much resistance to its successor. In such conditions, it was now the corruption and commercialisation of the intelligentsia itself that became a target of the country’s leading ironist, in Pelevin’s scathing portrait of Generation P.

But in the flatlands of post-communism, one exceptional figure always stood out. Uniquely, in the mind and character of Dmitri Furman the two distinct incarnations of the Russian intelligentsia came together, at a time when both seemed to have all but disappeared. Virtually unknown outside the country, and little registered within it, he was a scholar of comparative religion and an anatomist of the aftermath of the USSR who joined political integrity and intellectual originality in a body of work that addressed the fate of his country, and the past of the world, in ways that were equally and strikingly passionate and dispassionate.

An unusual family background accounted in part for his independence of spirit. Born in 1943, Furman was the offspring of a brief wartime liaison between his mother and an artist killed in the war. He was brought up by his grandmother and her sister, whose brother Boris Ioganson was a leading socialist realist painter of the time, and president of the Soviet Academy of Arts when Furman was a teenager. Of Swedish origin (Johanson), this line was from the service nobility: his great-grandmother remembered as dancing with the tsar at a Smolny prom, Boris himself fighting with the Whites under Kolchak in the Civil War, before switching sides to the Red Army and making his career under Stalin.

This was a family, Furman said, that ‘naturally hated the Revolution but perceived it as a kind of periodically inevitable natural disaster’. For such people, ‘revolution is always blood, chaos and the “rule of louts”. But once it’s over, everything calms down and life becomes normal again. Russia had become a bit weird, with a ridiculous Jewish ideology’ – but Russia remained Russia, and ‘Russian artists have to celebrate Russian rulers and the ideology they preach.’ His mother, however, went on to make two marriages with Jewish husbands, the first an artist who gave Dmitri his surname, the second a scion of the original revolutionary elite, whose father had been a militant of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) under tsarism, later shot by Stalin. His son fought with Smersh in the Second World War, supposedly with some role in the surrender of Von Paulus at Stalingrad, before coming home damaged from the battle for Budapest in 1944. After the war this stepfather remained a fervent believer in communism, but not in Stalin, in time befriending others – mostly Jews like himself – who had returned from the camps. Observing such incompatible outlooks, Furman said, he felt from the beginning ‘ideologically detached from all that was said and done around me. This detachment never became anger. It aroused curiosity in me, not faith.’

At school, he realised that he was being taught Marxism because he was in Moscow, as a boy in Cairo would be taught Islam – an established creed like any other. When he got to university, he chose ancient history as his subject, a field too arcane for much interference by officialdom, in which he could study the theological disputes of early Christianity with the quarrels of the early RSDLP, whose minutes he was also reading, in mind. In 1968 he completed a level-headed dissertation on Julian the Apostate, a ruler psychologically unbalanced but programmatically more coherent than he was often given credit for being, whose correspondence he translated. A year earlier, he had published his first piece in Novy Mir, remarking of a recent discussion of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ that the strong disagreements it aroused were to be welcomed as normal and natural in the development of any science, the absence of which could only be a morbid symptom.

It had never been his intention to be confined to ancient history. Disciplinary divisions being less rigid in the Soviet system than in the West, he could transfer without difficulty from the history to the philosophy faculty at Moscow University; thereafter first to the Institute for Study of the Labour Movement, and then – at the end of the 1970s – of the United States and Canada, at the Academy of Sciences. Making his way through these institutions, he was urged to cast off the misleading handicap of a Jewish surname. Loyal to the memory of his first stepfather, he declined. By this time, he recalled, there were virtually no Marxists left in the humanist intelligentsia to which he belonged: a milieu contiguous with déclassé dissident circles on one side and the upholstered nomenklatura elite on the other, it was generally amorphous in outlook but united in dislike of Soviet power. He believed in the official ideology even less than those he frequented, and had done so for longer: an unconditional zapadnik, he was convinced that the future of the country lay in the achievement of the type of orderly and durable freedom responsible for the success of Western societies. But he felt less repressed rage – virtually none – against the communist system than most of his friends or acquaintances. He neither feared the CPSU, nor expected anything particularly bad from it. Confident that Russia would eventually become a democratic society, he viewed democracy simply as a normal attribute of a given age of humanity, as literacy, firearms or railways had been of other ages. There were grounds for apprehension about the transition to it, which might even see a weak kind of anti-communist fascism – he imagined the change of street names: Prospekt Solzhenitsyn, Vlasov Avenue, White Guard Boulevard – but it would pass. He felt no impulse to political action. Ambition for power or money was foreign to him. Academic by temperament, he loved books, shunned clamour, and was averse to meetings of any sort. There was research to be done.


Comparative religion would be his field. That had formed the most continuous, consolidated block of inquiry in Weber’s vast sociological enterprise, producing his most achieved monographs – starting with Protestantism and proceeding through Confucianism and Hinduism to ancient Judaism – and generating the leitmotif of his life’s work; pursuit of the economic logic of extra-mundane beliefs that had given birth to a rationalised modern capitalism, and its existential consequences, in the West rather than in any other part of the world. Combining extraordinary erudition of detail – his later writing on China, India and ancient Israel is much more impressive than his relatively thin early sally on Protestantism – with a battery of novel theoretical concepts, the range and depth of Weber’s undertaking compose the greatest single monument of classical sociology.

If we consider the field since, however, it is striking how limited in horizon, and regressive in direction, is much of what has appeared. While the history of singular religions – principally, but not exclusively, of Christianity and Judaism – has registered remarkable advances, comparison of them has not. One reason for that, no doubt, is simply the weight of Weber’s precedent itself, intimidating enough for any posterity. It is noticeable that the one outstanding exception, the remarkable work of Jonathan Zittell Smith, a brilliant mind by any measure, should avoid so much as a mention of Weber’s name in connection with his subject. In it comparison alters focus, completely. Taking not only an expressly anthropological approach to the study of religion, but anthropological fieldwork from pre-literate societies for much of its material, it parallels findings from the Moluccas or the Congo with texts from the ancient Near East or Mediterranean Late Antiquity in a series of bravura demonstrations. The polemical motive behind this strategy is explicit: to shun what Smith terms the ‘unprincipled nature’ of the list of so-called ‘world’ religions associated with large geopolitical entities, in favour of ‘minor’ religions lumped together with the ‘primitives’ who exemplify them. In practice, Smith’s scope includes Judaism and early Christianity. Standard biblical studies of these are robustly attacked as products of an arrogant Protestant hegemony.[1] Weber’s problematic, and its range, are pointedly ignored.

If the exceptional nature of Smith’s gifts has made him not only an eminence but something of an isolate, his work has given a quirkish lustre to a turn in the field that has been much more general, and equivocal. That derives from two inter-related sources, one stemming from Frazer’s Golden Bough, the other from Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, each taking preliterate practices and beliefs as the keys for understanding the phenomenon of religion at large. Frazer’s magpie compilations were soon discredited, but his methods had a sequel in the prolific output of the Romanian mystagogue Mircea Eliade, an adept of Indian tantrism who instructed the Iron Guard in the insights of Gandhi, and went on to produce a torrent of more or less arbitrary morphologies of assorted rituals and myths held by ‘archaic man’, presented as an antidote to the ‘terror of history’. More soberly, Durkheim’s argument that religion, defined by its separation of the sacred from the profane, was at bottom society’s worship of itself in a set of collective representations assuring it moral cohesion, survived his handling of Australian totemism and hope that the Third Republic would find some equivalent to secure it against revolution, to become a background inspiration for a good deal of later French thought. Falling in line with a Gallic tradition stretching from Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being through Tocqueville’s conviction that political stability always required a transcendent faith to Comte’s Religion of Humanity, Durkheim’s approach took its place in what might be called a multi-authored pendant – or riposte – to Weber, a kind of ‘Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Solidarism’. Whatever the merit or otherwise of these meditations on the need for a civil religion, not a few from distinguished minds, an insistence on common presuppositions of any collective life inhibited much taxonomic thrust.

If such was, roughly speaking, the state of the art in what always remained a relatively recondite branch of learning, the last decades have seen religion move sharply up the public agenda, as an object of political preoccupation. In a context altered by increased immigration in Europe and Kulturkampf in America, and increased imperial operations by both, four anxious tendencies now populate the field. On the one hand, postcolonial postures have generated a considerable literature rejecting the very idea of ‘religion’ as a figment of the Orientalist imagination, confecting an imaginary Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism for the colonial purposes of the West.[2] Counterpointing these, earnest Western denials of any necessary connection between modernity and secularisation – there is a Protestant and a Catholic version of this – hail the persistence or revival of assorted brands of Christianity as proof that faith in the divine is, thankfully, as strong as ever.[3] In a third variant, at a loftier level where Taylor and Dworkin join hands, a philosophy of belief assures readers that whatever they may think, religion still provides the spiritual springboard of their lives, while a philosophy of disbelief informs them of the vital need for religion, even if they can dispense with god.[4] Last but not least is the contention – Rawls and Habermas resonant, official pronouncements galore – that all major religious creeds are basically at one, sharing a treasury of common values with liberal humanism in a ‘post-secular age’: a celestial pensée unique to match the terrestrial version below, enshrined in countless eirenic textbooks on Faiths of the World.[5] A sub-variant joins the sociology of Parsons with the philosophy of Jaspers in wonder at the simultaneous emergence of transcendent creeds – Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Indian – in an Axial Age of religious awakening, an evolutionary leap forward in mankind’s journey to modernity, of which we are still the fortunate heirs.[6]

Religion is thriving; religion is everywhere; religion is one; don’t even call it religion. All in one fashion or another are impeccably right-thinking, all protective of their object. Only the second allows of any comparisons at all. But these typically amount to little more than registers of the degree to which the various Western societies have clung to their denominations, and the reasons that some – the United States commendably the most – have done so more stoutly than others.[7] That secularisation continues unabated across the advanced world is now so disregarded, if so obvious, a truth that a level-headed demonstration of it in unanswerable detail – it includes the United States – should have to be subtitled In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory.[8] In such a landscape, it is no surprise that Weber’s legacy should be at a discount. In effect, serious contrastive scrutiny of the major world religions is now all but taboo; risking analysis of differences of outlook is incompatible with the political correctness – limp or strident, as the variant may be – of the period. The maxim of an apprehensive prudence has become the tic of an unspoken phobia: comparisons have never been more odious.


In Russia under Brezhnev, of course, none of this obtained. Nor, however, did easy access to Western scholarship in the field, classical or contemporary. In conditions of isolation, as Furman himself remarked, Russian thinkers of his generation were inevitably in some degree autodidacts, always liable to reinvent the bicycle. Furman was also, as his friend and best commentator Georgi Derluguian noted, by temperament a pragmatic researcher, little interested in intellectual genealogies or engagement with parallel bodies of work.[9] So it remains unclear how far he started writing, consciously or otherwise, in the wake of Weber, and indeed how much he knew of his work at the time. At all events, probably by happenstance rather than influence, his opening choice of topics coincided with Weber’s. His first book, Religion and Social Conflicts in the USA (1981), focused on the role of Protestantism in American history and society, flanked soon afterwards by an essay on the ideology of the Reformation in early modern Europe. Weber’s Protestant Ethic, written just before and after his trip to the US in 1904, set out to show that the inner-worldly asceticism of Puritan doctrines had been a decisive condition of the rise of capitalism in the West – in effect, though he would later deny this, the critical differentia specifica separating Occidental development from the rest of the world. For Furman, this was too narrow a vision: the implications of the split in Latin Christianity were not merely or even principally economic, but of much broader scope, and the relevant canvas for considering them was not capital as such, but modern bourgeois society as a whole. Where Weber essentially whittled the drive of Protestant theology down to the notion of ‘calling’ – a biographically rooted obsession of his own that he overextended backwards – Furman located its explosive dynamic not in the realm of will, but of knowledge.

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[1] Relating Religion (2004), Divine Drudgery (1990), On Teaching Religion (2013).

[2] See, inter alia, Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993), Russell McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion (1997), Richard King’s Orientalism and Religion (1999), Daniel Dubuisson’s The Western Construction of Religion (2003). For temperate versions: Lionel Jensen’s Manufacturing Confucianism (1997) – shorn of this element, an impressive work of philological scholarship – and Sharada Sugirtharajah’s Imagining Hinduism (2003).

[3] For the Anglican variant, David Martin, On Secularisation (2005); for the Catholic, José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994).

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007); Ronald Dworkin, Religion without God (2013).

[5] Religion properly construed, of course, not ‘fundamentalism’. For Rawls, see Political Liberalism; for Habermas, ‘Secularism’s Crisis of Faith: Notes on Post-Secular Society’, New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 2008, and the round-up of ensuing discussion – ‘Habermas’s view of religion’s potential as a remedial cultural resource for contemporary social ills is shared by many religous leaders’ – in Philip Gorski et al, The Post-Secular in Question (2012), complete with a chapter on ‘“Simple Ideas, Small Miracles”: The Obama Phenomenon’.

[6] See Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution (2011), where the great Axial breakthroughs to higher forms of piety are presented side by side, with no attempt at comparison between them. Bellah was a troubled Episcopalian.

[7] This is the burden of David Martin’s first venture into the field: A General Theory of Secularisation (1978). For the political tenor of this body of writing: ‘If you want an example of genuinely Christian heartwork you can find it in the occasion when Bill Clinton repented in tears before a large company, including his wife, and was tearfully forgiven’ – ‘When Prime Minister Blair said he would face his Maker over his decision to send soldiers to kill and be killed in Iraq, he showed something of the specific gravity resting on those bearing political responsibility’ – ‘Luther King also had sight of the Promised Land of full citizenship according to the promise of the American covenant before his exemplary death; and Obama entered into that inheritance, like a veritable Joshua’: On Secularisation (2005), Religion and Power (2014).

[8] See Steve Bruce, Secularisation (2011).

[9] See Derluguian’s fine introduction to the selection of Furman’s writings on comparative religion – the indispensable starting point for reflection on their author – which he edited in 2011.

[10] Since the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, a short-winded literature has proliferated on the contemporary role of assorted faiths in politics, in collections like God’s Rule: The Politics of World Religions, whose rabbinical editor, Jacob Neusner, boasts more than 900 books published under his name. Its introducer explains that ‘in a particular and wonderful way, this is a profoundly American exercise’. Output of this kind adds little to the subject.