Concerning  Freedom  and  Integrity of  the  Word


Concerning  Freedom  and  Integrity
of  the  Word

(1917 – #281)


  When they speak with pathos about the freedoms won by the Revolution1, then first of all they ought to have in view those rights of man, which cannot be taken away in the name of whatever the earthly blessings. But it is about these sacred and inalienable rights of man among us that they least of all think and least of all care about. Pathos for the freedom of man does not exist within the elements of the Russian Revolution. There is a strong basis to think, that Russians do not love freedom and do not value freedom. Our so-called “Revolutionary Democracy” is obsessed with a passion for equality, such as the world has never seen, but under freedom it however understands the right of violence against neighbours in the name of its interests, and arbitrariness in the overall leveling. In the name of equality it is ready among us to destroy whatever freedom pleases it. And the moral source of the denial of rights, such as guarantee freedom, mustneeds be sought in the weak awareness of the sense of duty and in an undeveloped sense of personal dignity. The rights of man presuppose first of all a sense of duty in a man. Without an awareness of the duty to preserve the sacred right of one’s neighbour, it is impossible to speak seriously about any sort of rights, for all rights will be squashed. The Russian revolutionary consciousness however initially denies the sense of duty in man, it stands exclusively upon the pretensions of man. And one, in whom the pretensions and demands are stronger than the sense of duty and obligation, morally loses his rights, morally buries his freedom. In the Russian revolutionary democratic emotional outlook there has completely faded the sense of guilt, such as is characteristic of the children of God, and it has been replaced by a sense of endless pretensions, as is characteristic to the children of this world. Any awareness of duties has faded in that element, which now is dominant in Russia, and therefore outrages are committed incessantly against the rights of man. In the guarantee of the rights of man most important — is not the pretensions of one, who possesses a right, but rather the sense of duty in one, who ought to respect these rights and not infringe upon them.

Russian revolutionary democracy sees as its most valuable conquests the universal electoral right, as in the Constituent Assembly, in the developing of the class struggle, in the democratisation and socialisation of society, but it fails to see them in the rights of man, in the free rights of man. And indeed this is no surprise. The spiritual understanding of freedom is totally foreign to the revolutionary democracy, and it is prepared to betray freedom, such as is bound up with the birthright of man, for a motley pottage of interests. And the Russian Revolution has given us no sort of the real and substantial rights and freedoms of man. We have no habeus corpus.  On the contrary, in the measure that the Revolution has “developed” and “deepened”, all the moreso there has triumphed the outrage against every human right and every human freedom. And first of all it has proven a stifling of the most sacred of the rights of man, the most sacred of freedoms — the freedom of the word, the freedom of speech. We are experiencing a period of the most terrible servility of word and slavery of thought. In our nightmarish days, few are those who are resolved freely and independently to think, freely and independently to express their thought in words. Our press is in sore straits; it is in a condition of restraint, and tends to support the conditional lie, connected with the ruling powers. Formerly it tended much to speak about “his majesty the lord emperor”, now in no less quantity it tends to speak the conditional lie about its majesty the revolutionary democracy. And no one makes bold to say, that the king has on no clothes (as in the saying of Anderson). On the streets and squares few are those who are resolved loudly to express their thoughts and feelings, everyone is afraid to turn upon them the heads the comrades in the neighbourhood. The Russian people have begun to speak in whispers the same, as during the worst times of the Old Regime. And it is necessary straight out and loudly to say, that the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech at present is in greater peril, than it was in the Old Regime. Back then for speaking freely they threw you in prison and exiled you to Siberia, now they might tear you to pieces and murder you. Back then, under the old oppression, free speech did work and it radically criticised the governing powers, morally it made a protest against the oppression and for a whole century it morally undermined the prestige of the powers, which had deprived people of rights and freedoms. Societal opinion went against the fundamental principles of the old tyranny and it always expressed this, though in a roundabout language. Now societal opinion has been rendered less free. Few are those who might resolve to rise up against the fundamental principles of the modern oppression and expose the moral ugliness of the present-day tyranny. The tyranny of the mob is more terrible, than the tyranny of the one or of several. Russian thought is situated in a grievous state of captivity. Societal opinion has become paralysed, it has lost its moral centre. There is no sounding forth freely and independently, rising above the struggle of interests, above the raging elements, there does not sound forth such a voice of the national conscience, of the national sense of reason, of thought-word (logos).


Many among us tend to criticise the tactics of revolutionary democracy, they appeal for unity and coalitions, but morally they capitulate before that element, which breeds tyranny, which forcibly abuses thought and speech. Too much already everything is blamed on the Bolsheviks, who have become a common target, at a time when the evil is not only in them and it not only they that are destroying freedom in Russia. The evil has spread widely and its sources run deep. Our intelligentsia has confessed the world-concept of the slave, it has denied the very sources of freedom — the spiritual nature of man, of man’s sonship to God. The people for too long already have lived in slavery and darkness. And the most sacred rights of man, justified by his boundless spiritual nature, have been surrendered over into the grip of the quantitative human masses, the harrowing crowd. And if the fate of the freedom of the word is being entrusted to utilitarian interests and calculations, then in recent days the right to have this word is admitted only insofar as it is of service to the revolutionary democracy, but they abuse and refuse the right to words, which serve other ends, more lofty and deeper ends, upon this shaky ground that it is only words, playing up to the interests and instincts of the masses, that should receive unlimited freedom. All other words however, resounding from a greater depth, are subject to suspicion and violence. An hideous sense of blackmail connected with accusations of counter-revolution leads to a tyrannical mob justice against free thought and speech, the inviolable freedom of the person. It is necessary finally and forcefully to declare, that a true freedom of the word in Russia presupposes the possibility to have a say by everyone, even by those, that are proponents of monarchy. If the freedom of the word be given exclusively to the proponents of the democratic republic, then it will not be greater, but less so, than under the Old Regime, — then it would be unlimited freedom for words, but merely only by the former opposition current. And in a free Russia they want to limit the freedom of the word to only but one current! And indeed it is presupposed, that the Constituent Assembly, i.e. the sovereign people, will decide, whether in Russia there will be a republican or monarchical order, and that consequently segments having the most varied opinions can freely prepare for it. But monarchical convictions none of us dare freely express, this would be not without danger, the freedom and rights of such people could not be guaranteed. And this involves a moral lie, such as is wont to beget tyranny. Republicans, such as be worthy of this name, ought to bestow everyone a greater freedom, than did the monarchists. Bereft of the moral right to speak about freedom necessarily are those, who admit of freedom only for themself and for their own.

The self-appointed worker and soldier organisations already for half a year have been committing outrages against the rights of man, they live to deny freedom. It is impossible to deny not only the right, but also the duty of the workers to organise for defending their essential interests and for the increase of their societal standing, but with us the soviets from the very start of the Revolution have entered upon the path towards a class dictatorship, of a peculiar twist to a monarchical dictatorship, and this has turned into a destruction of freedom in Russia. The outrage against the freedom and dignity, the integrity of the word reached its extreme expression, in the playing out of the Kornilov tragedy. All at once darkness has enveloped Russian society and no one has made bold to counter it. The press was terrified and conducted itself unworthily, without any resolve to demand first of all an explanation of the truth, and it swallowed the government’s conditional lie about the “mutiny” of General Kornilov2. An investigation was begun, and over Russia hung the terrible phantom of a Red Terror, of a self-appointed mob inquiry over those suspected of sympathising with General Kornilov. Fright seized hold upon the woesome Russian society, a fright far greater, than in the most terrible times of the tsardom. Fright always tends to become magnified, but it is characteristic of the spiritual atmosphere of the Russian Revolution. In Russian society started a moral tenseness. Out of fear there were whispers about provocations, causing the Kornilov tragedy. The right even to freely defend General Kornilov, a war hero, a passionate patriot and indisputable democrat, was not given. And only gradually did exposures leak into the press, shedding light upon this dark and grim history. But those nightmarish days have ultimately disclosed for us the absence of the freedom of the word, the manipulation of thought, the stifling of spirit. For us the course of the Revolution has developed into faint-heartedness.


It is necessary loudly to proclaim, that in Revolutionary Russia the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought does not exist, indeed even less so, than in the old and autocratic Russia. The revolutionary democratic societal order tends to read better into the heart of matters and demands a greater conformity of thought, than did the pre-revolutionary reactionary powers, which were too indifferent to every nuance of societal thought and incapable of making sense of it. The censorship by the revolutionary democratic societal setup is more all-encompassing and pervasive, than our old censorship. And it mustneeds be said, that a censorship urged on by the masses of the people is always more terrible, than the censorship by a government power, where much tends to slip by. When the people itself infringes upon the freedom of thought and speech, this encroachment is more terrible and oppressive, than the encroachment of a government power, — in this scenario there is nowhere safe. After the revolutionary turnabout the constraints of censorship fell off and there was abolished even the military censorship as is necessary during wartime, but there was not a declaration of the rights of freedom of thought and the freedom of speech, the infringement upon which is a crime against both man and God. A wantonness and dissoluteness of speech is not freedom. This wantonness and dissoluteness has destroyed freedom of speech for us. The freedom and worthiness, the integrity of speech, presupposes a discipline within speech, an inward ascesis. The right of the freedom of speech presupposes a sense of responsibility in the use of words. Every freedom presupposes a disciplining and ascetic effort, and with irresponsibility it always perishes. Those wanton orgies of words, which for all these months have been practiced in the revolutionary socialistic press, have prepared the way for the destruction of all freedom of speech. The wantonness, the dissoluteness and arbitrariness are destroying freedom, for freedom demands the preservation of integrity in man, keeping it clean, a self-restraint. The corrupt manipulation of words destroys the integrity of the word and becomes enslaving. In the revolutionary press occur orgies of verbal corruption. The revolutionary phraseology has degenerated into a quite real perversity. Is it not perverse, all those false cries about “counter-revolution”, is it not perverse all these false promises for a speedy start to a social paradise, is it not perverse all these words about the sacredness of the Revolution, about the sacredness of the Internationale, etc.?  For the winning of a true freedom of the word it is necessary to fight against this corruption of the word.

Russian writers, conscious of their calling, their integrity and their responsibility for their native-land, ought to demand a promulgation guaranteeing the freedom of thought and word. But this demand can morally carry weight only in the mouths of those writers, who are observant of the higher integrity of word and thought, who set truth and the right higher than whatever the interests. Over the course of these revolutionary months there has as it were grown dim the integrity and significance of Russian literature and Russian free thought. Too many of the Russian writers have been subjected to stifling street shouts about their “bourgeoisness”, about the “bourgeoisness” of all the educated, of all the creators of culture. In them there has not proven a sufficient strength of resistance in the face of the raging elements, they go to pieces and begin themself to pronounce words, inconsistent with the depths of their being. With too many Russian writers there has not appeared their own unique idea, which they are called to introduce into the life of the people, and they instead seek for ideas in that very people, which is itself situated in darkness and in need of light. In Russia there ought to be heard truly free words about that moral savagery and ugliness, to which we have fallen, and these words ought to be raised above the struggle of classes, groups and parties, above the struggle for interests and the struggle for power, they ought to be a reflection of the Divine Word, to which only can be based the sanctity of the free word and free thought, now so abused and trampled upon. This is not a question of politics, this — is a question of the people’s ethics, a question of the religious conscience of the people. The people’s conscience and reason ought to possess a centre, a central focus. And such a central focus can only be with the bearers of an higher spiritual culture, free of the slave-like orgies. We inevitably have to renew the spiritual foundations of our life and seek for the inner sources of freedom. A purely external path will drag us down to ruination and slavery. We have no further desire for more slavery, neither the old, nor the new. The revolutionary violence against free thought and words in essence bears within it the seeds of counter-revolution, it is the violence of the old demonic darkness and it cannot be tolerated in a free land.

Nikolai  Berdyaev.

7 October 1917

©  2006  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1917 – 281 – en)

O  SVOBODE  I  DOSTOINSTVE  SLOVA. Article originally published in the weekly Journal “Narodopravstvo”, No. 11, p. 5-7.

Republished in Tom 4 of  Berdiaev Collected Works by YMCA Press, in the collection of 1917-1918 Berdyaev articles under the title, “Dukhovnye osnovy russkoi revoliutsii (Stat’i 1917-18)” (“Spiritual Grounds of the Russian Revolution (Articles 1917-18)”,  Paris, 1990,  p. 216-223.


1 [trans. note, n.b.: this is the 27 Feb./12 Mar. 1917 Russian “February Revolution” which formed the Provisional Government under A. F. Kerensky, which was supplanted by the 15 Oct./ 7 Nov. 1917 Russian “October Revolution” under the Communist Bolsheviks and V. I. Lenin. Berdyaev’s present article here was published on 7 October 1917, late in the life of the Kerensky revolutionary democratic Provisional Government, and reflects the increasing chaos that led to its collapse.] 2 [trans. note: 28 Aug./ 10 Sept. 1917, when General L. G. Kornilov attempted to restore order during the prevailing chaos under the Provisional Government, and was in turn arrested, denounced and vilified by Kerensky, who relied increasingly upon the support of the leftist socialist soviet elements.]