John Locke's Disciple

GEORGE F. WILL

March 24, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- In London's Putney Vale Cemetery, eight mile south of Marx's grave in Highgate Cemetery, rest the remains of Alexander Kerensky, who might have spared Russia a 70-year secession from civilization. Boris Yelstin seems to understand the moral of Kerensky's failure.

In July 1917, at a moment of extreme fluidity in the dissolution of the old regime, Kerensky became Russia's premier. Perhaps he would have been brushed aside anyway, but his cautious centrism, his insufficient radicalism, doomed him.

He would not remove Russia from the war or boldly multiply property owners by redistributing land. In a matter of months Bolsheviks, manipulating ''workers' councils'' pretending to be a legitimate legislative authority, deposed him, using democratic rhetoric to advance totalitarian designs.

Kerensky spent 53 years in exile. Mr. Yeltsin's decision to appeal past today's ersatz legislature (concocted by the dying communist regime) to the people shows that he will not go quietly along Kerensky's path.

It is not surprising that the sudden collapse of an empire and a secular religion has resulted in chaos, or that the old ruling class of communists is tenaciously trying to use the new parliamentary forms to regain domination. But time, if Mr. Yeltsin with Western help can buy enough of it, is working against the old guard, for two reasons.

One is actuarial: The old guard is old. The other is that Mr. Yeltsin and the resurgent Russian people are creating intractable facts.

Every day brings a thickening of civil society, those private institutions of consensual association and empowerment that enable society to flourish independent of, and if necessary in opposition to, the state. James Billington, the librarian of Congress and a specialist in Russian history, notes that in the Orthodox and other churches, parishes are multiplying more rapidly than priests can be found to administer them. Furthermore, there is under way the largest liquidation sale in history.

In 1992 more than 46,815 stores and other state entities were privatized. Mr. Yeltsin aims to sell 8,000 more per month. If the program is not derailed, by the end of the year 150,000 state properties -- 25 percent of the state assets -- will have been sold. Business Week reports that upward of 40 percent of all Russians already are working full- or part-time in the burgeoning private sector. This is the Second Russian Revolution -- a Lockean Revolution, at last.

If Russia is to have a democratic order in a consensual society, it must use John Locke to erase Marx's legacy. Locke, the most important intellectual progenitor of the American Revolution, held that property rights exist prior to government, to which people submit to secure their property. And property is to be understood capaciously as ''lives, liberties and estates'' because property is indispensable to individual independence and security. Private property is the foundation of a right to privacy generally.

Mr. Billington believes Russia faces a choice of two identities. One is authoritarian nationalism glorifying the state and military, and imposing order from the top down. The other is market-oriented democracy that builds participatory and consensual institutions from the bottom up.

For America, says Mr. Billington, the stakes are enormous. The entrepreneurial maritime powers -- first England, then the United States -- have always tried to prevent authoritarians from dominating Eurasia and reducing democratic societies on the Eurasian periphery to vassalage.

If Russia becomes locked in nationalist conflict with the other parts of its former empire, the former Muslim republics may become similarly radicalized for self-protection. This could tip the Middle East's balance toward the Iranian rather than the Turkish model.

Mr. Billington believes that even Germany, balanced uneasily between East and West, could be pulled away from its postwar democratic identity, toward a Eurasian pattern of autocracy.

Mr. Yeltsin's decision is to --, by means of extra-constitutional decrees and a referendum, toward completion of the anti-socialist revolution. To shake off the dead hand, he is listening, as it were, to John Locke, a father of American liberty. Mr. Yeltsin's fight is ours.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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