Stephen Williams' Recovery of a Forgotten Russian Liberal

Editor’s note: The following remarks were made on a panel organized by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University on October 8, 2018. The author was invited to discuss Stephen F. Williams’ book, The Reformer: How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution. The recent sad news of Williams’ passing at the age of eighty-three prompted the publication of an abridged version of those remarks. They are meant to honor the memory of a wise judge whose judgment and civility will be sorely missed.

“There is nothing more fruitful in wonders than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship in liberty.” I think that these words of Tocqueville may be used to describe the message of Stephen Williams’ book, The Reformer: How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution. This is an unusual and remarkable book for several reasons. It is a labor of love written by a judge in retirement who is not a professional historian. Stephen Williams wrote about a courageous politician who lived in dark times and tried to build the institutions of liberal democracy on the ruins of an autocratic regime. Even if the context may seem remote to us, the topic—whether and how liberal democracy can grow out of an autocracy—remains highly relevant for us today.

By the end of his life, Tocqueville became resigned to the idea that he would not live long enough to see liberty established in France. The hero of Judge Williams’ book, Vasily Maklakov (1869-1957), shared several things in common with Tocqueville. He, too, fought for liberty but lived in a country in which liberty had weak roots. Russia’s long tradition of absolutism made it inhospitable to parliamentarism and the rule of law. It was a country in which property rights enjoyed little respect and civil society was fragile.

Building a Foundation of Liberty

As a lawyer and politician, Maklakov sought to build the institutions and rules of representative and parliamentary government in tsarist Russia in the short interval between the massive political unrest in 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917. He belonged to the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party whose members were known as the Kadets (hence the name of Kadet Party). Yet, Maklakov was no common politician. He represented the type of moderate who “rose above all parties,” seeking common ground with a view to enacting necessary political reforms for the common good. He believed in the importance of compromise, without which no political life is possible. “While we live in a constitutional order, we must know that constitutional life requires compromise,” Maklakov once wrote. Moreover, he was accustomed to perceive a share of truth on the opposite side and a shade of error on his own.

Maklakov was convinced that the opponents’ views have some merit and we must always strive to find the kernel of truth in them, even when we disagree strongly with them. “For me,” Maklakov once said referring to Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), “to recognize when my opponent is right, to recognize the merits of my political foe, is a duty of political honor.” He challenged Stolypin but agreed to meet with him to save the Second Duma. A key principle for Maklakov was that the rule of law can exist only in a state where citizens develop the habit of compromise and thus become able to recognize the rights and interests of others. At the same time, Maklakov was not shy at criticizing his colleagues in his own party whom he always held to high standards. He was averse to narrow party allegiance and seems never to have been really content with his party’s overall direction. But even when he thought his party erred in its strategic choices, he did not leave it to form a new one.

Maklakov may have been a moderate who believed in compromise, but this does not mean that he was a mere defender of the status quo, nor that he lacked a coherent reformist agenda. His moderate cast of mind, in Judge Williams’ words, was “invariably pragmatic and consequentialist.” He wanted reform, but not revolution, and he believed that moderation could serve as a powerful antidote to revolution, anarchy, and absolutism. His speech in the Vyborg trial in 1906 was a clear example of his firm moderation and pragmatism. On that occasion, over one hundred leading members of the Kadet Party were brought to trial and subsequently suspended from the Duma for their endorsement of the Vyborg Manifesto drafted by Pavel Milyukov (1859-1943).

His dialogue with Milyukov is a good case in point, and the book sheds light on it. They both fought for the same principles and ended up on the losing side, spending time in exile; yet their political sensibilities were quite different. Milyukov once described Maklakov as “a Kadet with special opinions.” This was hardly a compliment. In turn, Maklakov took Milyukov to task for being excessively rigid and dogmatic in his insistence on the inadequacy of the October Manifesto of 1905 and the Fundamental Laws of the tsarist empire. Maklakov’s main goal, as Williams notes, was pragmatic. He focused on controlling governmental arbitrariness, while Milyukov sought to establish a majoritarian democracy. Williams sees their dialogue as the modern-day reiteration of the exchanges between Burke and Paine in 1790s, with Maklakov playing the role of Burke and Milyukov that of Paine. To me, their exchanges point to the differences between a moderate and a radical mind.

Moderates like Maklakov refuse to simplify reality and know that most political issues have more than one side.

The story told in this book suggests that one may sometimes have to abandon moderation to achieve the long-term goals of moderation. Maklakov’s actions were sometimes immoderate. Judge Williams comments on the contrast between his domestic policy and his foreign policy views. Maklakov disliked war but was no pacifist when the question was about defending his country. He distinguished between good and bad nationalism, while insisting on securing respect for the rights of the Poles and the Finns. When it came to issues of foreign policy, Williams writes, “Gone are the nuances, the ability to see the other side, the search for win-win solutions.” Maklakov behaved like a liberal imperialist in Balkan affairs and was concerned not to lower the status of Russia in the eyes of Europe. Toward the end of the tsarist regime, Maklakov showed increasing readiness for risky actions in pursuit of two partially contradictory goals: victory in war and avoidance of revolution.

In 1915, Maklakov published a terrific allegory, “A Tragic Situation,” in which he compared Russia to a bus with no brakes being led by a mad driver into the abyss. Some interpreted his words as a call to staging a coup d’état. Yet he was nothing but a pragmatic moderate opposed to perfectionism. He was convinced that any chance for reforming the country ought to be seized upon. The October Manifesto of 1905 issued by Emperor Nicholas II was far from perfect, but it represented a valuable starting point for the liberalization of the regime. It did recognize the basic principles of political freedom and affirmed the Emperor’s commitment to the core principles of the rule of law. At the same time, Maklakov was a bold moderate. He denounced Article 87 that allowed the government to issue a law on its own while the Duma was not in session. He fought for securing judicial independence, limiting government arbitrariness, protecting the peasants from abuse, eliminating restrictions on Jews and religious minorities, and providing constitutional guarantees to national minorities. He denounced the government’s use of undercover agents and attacked the courts’ martial decrees.

Maklakov never became the leader of his political party. His propensity to compromise, to flip, and to keep an open mind might have doomed him from the start. Instead, he remained to the very end a sort of maverick, a gadfly who reveled in his status as such. “I could have jumped parties,” he wrote, “but there was nowhere for me to go. There was not a single party in which I would have felt at home.”

On Bold Moderates

Reading The Reformer one cannot avoid asking a tempting question: what if Maklakov and his like-minded colleagues had prevailed in Russia in 1917? Would Russian history have been much different after that? What about the course of communism in the world at large since 1917? These questions are fascinating because they allow us to imagine another, happier trajectory of history. In A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830, I asked what would have happened if the so-called French monarchiens led by J.J. Mounier had carried the day in the heated debates from June to October 1789 in Paris. Wouldn’t the entire course of French politics and European history have been different, had Mounier and his friends prevailed over their more radical colleagues in the Constituent Assembly?

Of course, we cannot know the answer to these questions. But we would be well advised to study moderates such as Maklakov and the French monarchiens who attempted to find common ground between competing parties. Their examples remind us that in reality, moderates are not rudderless in their choices, nor lukewarm in their commitments. They do have a moral and political compass, even if they choose to affirm it in a specific way. Moderates defend the principles of open society, dialogue, and constitutionalism. They have a primary commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive community that comprises people with whom they disagree. Rather than insisting on litmus tests and political purity, moderates encourage all sides to make timely and reasonable concessions that can advance the public good. Consequently, moderates refuse to simplify reality and know that most political issues have more than one side. They resist the temptation to define one single best way.

Maklakov spent the last 40 years of his life in exile, far from his beloved Russia which could not be reformed in time to avoid a bloody revolution. There are enough reasons to believe that his moderation was a recipe for defeat. But I think we can also conclude on an optimistic note. Appearances notwithstanding, Stephen Williams’ book shows that moderation can often be a powerful instrument for change. There is always a market for moderation, even in tough times; it can be a winning card if played wisely.

Closing the pages of Judge Wiliams’ book, I asked myself once again: what is the spirit of moderation? To describe it, I would like to paraphrase the words of another wise judge, Learned Hand. Even if we cannot rigorously define the spirit of moderation, we can agree that the spirit of moderation is the opposite of a dogma. It is the spirit which is never too sure that it is right and which seeks to understand the minds of those who think differently from us, and weighs their interests alongside with ours without bias. It is the spirit which knows when to be bold and when to be meek. It is the spirit which knows when to be satisfied with partial successes and imperfect reforms and when to press for more. And it is a spirit that has more than one face. Rather than speaking about moderation, we should always refer to many faces of moderation.

Judge Williams’ book offers us one such face of moderation and reminds us that moderates like Maklakov are our unsung heroes. They perform a vital role in society, even if it often goes unacknowledged or misunderstood. Without them, as John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” We should therefore be grateful to Stephen Williams for having written a wonderful book that reminds us of this old truth. The Reformer should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the apprenticeship of liberty, the rule of law, and the transition from an authoritarian regime to representative government.