Solzhenitsyn’s Warning

This, from Lewis M. Andrews writing in The Federalist, is, to my mind anyway, very good.

The novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, physicist Andrei Sakharov, mathematician Igor Shafarevich, historian Vadim Borisov, and art publisher Evgeny Barabanov—these and other Russian thinkers once admired for their daring criticism of the old Soviet Union are now mostly forgotten. But were they writing in our time, what would they make of American conservativism’s tendency to treat resurgent socialism as a problem of economic literacy, best cured with cautionary references to Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and the former USSR?

A look back at the Russian dissidents’ literary legacy suggests a disturbing answer. The growth of socialism, they had come to see, was not essentially an economic phenomenon. A people’s willingness to accept increasingly paternalistic government, argued Igor Shafarevich in his influential essay “Socialism in Our Past and Future,” stems as much from religious skepticism, a dislike of family, the desire to evade personal responsibility, and a rejection of monogamy—in short, from the adolescent fantasy of an impulse-driven life—as it does from any objection to wealth inequality.

Having studied collectivist societies from ancient Mesopotamia and the Inca empire up through the first communal experiments in the Middle Ages and the rise of nineteenth-century Marxism, Shafarevich joined with other writers to warn that socialism is less an economic theory than a symptom of advanced moral decay, especially among self-styled intellectuals. It is, he wrote, not a form of government but an ideology of hatred for traditional values, “a hatred which cannot be explained on economic or political grounds.”

Considering so many contemporary trends, from the decline of church attendance to the avoidance of marriage and childrearing, a surviving Russian dissident would be forced conclude that modern America is indeed fertile soil for the growth of socialism. They would be especially alarmed that even many Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy, in their misguided desire to appeal to the young, have aligned themselves with leftist causes whose leaders clearly despise traditional values.

There’s a lot of truth in that. In fact, it is a good reminder. Back in 2013, while filling in for me at Christmas, Jessica wrote about his 1978 Harvard Commencement address. That article is here, and a few highlights follow.

He saw a society in which:

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. 

And

Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our day there is a free and constant flow. Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones. 

That could have been written by almost any conservative in the last week. Solzhenitsyn wrote it in 1978. A shame no one paid much attention.

But the past is prologue, and now so what should we do? The author notes that Solzhenitsyn wrote:

 

Fighting socialism, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his essay “The Smatterers,” “doesn’t mean going around preaching the truth at the top of your voice.” It “doesn’t even mean muttering what you think in an undertone.” It simply means not allowing polite passivity to imply consent. In other words, “don’t say or let stand what you don’t really think.”

Their stated reason may be to prevent some aggrieved faction from ever again feeling judged or “unsafe.” But is it not just as likely that the leftist’s real opposition to the bemused smile, the blank stare, the cocked eyebrow, or some other gesture of disapproval comes from an intuitive fear of transformational self-reflection?

As Shafarevich, Solzhenitsyn, and the other Russian dissidents well understood, it is a people’s willingness to defend their moral and spiritual beliefs, however modestly, that ultimately sustains political and economic freedom. In their own time, it helped bring down an entire socialist empire without ever firing a shot.

In short, a house divided against itself cannot stand, it is just as true for an individual as it is for a country. There’s a sneaky little quiet voice in almost every leftist, that tells him just how wrong he is. It is our job to find ways to get them to listen to that voice.

Solzhenitsyn at 100

A hundred years ago today Aleksandr Isaievech Solzhenitsyn was born. He is decidedly a man we should read and heed. From Daniel J. Mahoney writing at City Journal.

Solzhenitsyn’s was a long but ultimately rewarding journey. Since early boyhood, he wished to become a writer. One of the key chapters of August 1914 (the first volume of The Red Wheel), depicting the Battle of Tannenberg and the suicide of General Samsonov, was already written in the fall of 1936, before Solzhenitsyn was 18. He dreaded what kind of writer he might have become without the experience of the Gulag. It was in the prison camp in 1945 and 1946, as he describes it in various interviews and in “The Ascent”—his account in the central section of The Gulag Archipelago of how the scales of ideology fell from his eyes—that he was “completely cleansed of any Marxist belief.” His cellmates helped him see the light of truth and the unparalleled mendacity of the ideological lie, the destructive illusion that evil is not inherent in the human soul, that human beings and societies can be transformed at a revolutionary stroke, and that free will is subordinate to historical necessity. Solzhenitsyn’s life is marked by this great paradox: in the camps, cold and hungry, and subject to limitless repression by camp guards and camp authorities, he recovered an appreciation of the purpose of things.

If you understand that paragraph, you will see much evil around you, not as unbound as he did, but evil nonetheless.

Solzhenitsyn wrote with “lucid understanding,” and with no small dose of scorn, about the “Progressive Doctrine,” the inhuman ideology that justified terror and tyranny as no regime or ideological movement had ever justified the killing and repression of real or imagined “enemies of the People.” He showed that the heart of Bolshevism lay in a monstrous coming together of violence and lies that gave rise not to mere dictatorship but to a totalitarianism that transformed betrayal and lying into “forms of existence.”  This totalitarianism demanded fierce resistance, both for the sake of liberty and for the right of the human soul to breathe freely, with the dignity afforded it by God. [,,,]

Solzhenitsyn spoke in the name of an older Western and Christian civilization, still connected to the “deep reserves of mercy and sacrifice” at the heart of ordered liberty. It is a mark of the erosion of that rich tradition that its voice is so hard to hear in our late modern world, more—and more single-mindedly—devoted to what Solzhenitsyn called “anthropocentricity,” an incoherent and self-destructive atheistic humanism. Solzhenitsyn asks no special privileges for biblical religion (and classical philosophy), just a place at the table and a serious consideration within our souls.

In fact, I think he speaks as one with our founders, for an ordered liberty, and as Majoney says, biblical religion. It is not to be inferred though that he thought modern America had it right either, he didn’t.

In a three-part series, starting with The Exhausted West, over Christmas five years ago, my former co-author and my dearest friend, Jessica looked seriously at his Harvard Commencement speech in 1978. It bears review.

He saw a society in which:

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. 

It is hard to see that nearly forty years later, things are any better; here, as elsewhere, Solzhenitsyn  prophesied aright. He identified the reasons for this very well:

Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day 

The West was, he said, ‘spiritually exhausted’. The ‘human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.’

I don’t know about you, but here forty years on from that speech, what he says is even more evident to me. Jessica believed, as I do, that the key to the malaise is God, and to use that phrase again ordered liberty, which can translate as liberty under law.

In the last of the series, Sun-lit Uplands, she explicitly compares him pointedly to the prophet Jeremiah, to good effect.

She also quotes this from him, which has much bearing on the present, I think.

A statesman who wants to achieve some– thing important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly: there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well founded and absolutely flawless. In fact, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

Light from the East?

Putin and AS

The last few days we have been looking at two voices from the East – President Putin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn; in many ways they are far apart as you could want, but in another not; they both offer a critique of Western consumerism which derives from Russian Christian sources.  Putin may be doing this for a number of reasons, but the origin of his criticism is the same as Solzhenitsyn’s – which is the conviction that man is not at the centre of his own universe; whether Putin believes it, who can say? That Solzhenitsyn did is clear.

One of the most potent points Solzhenitsyn makes is that:

in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.

When America’s Founding Fathers separated Church and State they did not do so because they were atheists or thought Christianity wrong, they did so because they did not want one Church to dominate in their society; they do, indeed, seem to have assumed that man would be bound by the responsibilities which the Christian faith laid upon him; realists, they did not think man would always live up to these, but they did not see freedom as license; can we now say that of ourselves and our leaders? What is it which binds us?

Here, Neo often excoriates modern political leaders for what is essentially their lack of courage and morals. By that last he isn’t just talking about sex, he is talking across the range of things which ought to bind leaders: a concern for honesty, integrity and truth. Modern political leaders seem to have discovered that these things can be dispensed with, as long as it is not done ostentatiously; and they wonder why the electorate is disillusioned with them and their leadership?

Solzhenitsyn’s critique is a Christian one:

There is a disaster, however, that has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

Of such consciousness man is the touchstone, in judging everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes that were not noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our day we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity, which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.

For a true understanding of man’s real destiny, God is essential:

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature.

But if we refuse to recognise this, or think it of no importance, then we shan’t see any reasons for exercising any self-restraint save for that imposed by the law – and if the law is the only guide we have, then we have become a society without a spirit of self-sacrifice or restraint:

People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law, and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice, and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. 

It seems here that this light from the East says much about where we are as a society, and why there is, in all quarters, a feeling that we have somehow taken the wrong turning. Maybe it takes men speaking from a society which took the wrong turn for many generations to see this.  It may well take more humility than we have to be told it and to learn from it.  But when a Russian President says:

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity

then we can either point fingers and say who is he to talk? Or we can ask whether there is not something in what he says from which we might learn? The choice is ours.

The Exhausted West?

aleksandr_solzhenitsyn1

The title is not mine and it is not new. It was the title used by one of the last century’s greatest writers and spirits, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his 1978 Commencement speech at Harvard. This came as a shock to the West at the time. Here was a man whom it had lauded as a hero of the Cold War, a moral giant who had exposed and condemned the Stalinist regime and its successors; in the face of his writing, the Left which liked to appease Communism fell silent, and the Right which loved to excoriate it celebrated him. But after his Harvard speech, his admirers were puzzled. Instead of thanking them and saying how wonderful the West was, Solzhenitsyn could not have made it clearer that he did not think that the best alternative to Communism was individualistic, humanistic capitalism. Any system which saw man as instrumental in a materialistic sense missed the point of human life: we are not here to be parts of the economic utopia or to consume, we are not an economic animal whose main point is to accumulate as much wealth as we can, or to consume as much as we can; there is nothing wrong with creating wealth, or even accumulating it – unless it is an end in itself. After all, the Good Samaritan could not (as Lady Thatcher once reminded us) have done any good had he not had the money with which to do it. Jesus did not condemn wealth, he feared its effects on the rich man, and he wanted it, like all of God’s good things, to be used rightly. A society which pursued wealth for its own sake and which makes money (or celebrity) an end in itself is not a good one.

America was founded on noble ideals, including the pursuit of happiness. Our wealth has become such that many citizens can get an unimaginable amount of material wealth, but, as he noted:

the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life, and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development. 

He saw a society in which:

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. 

It is hard to see that nearly forty years later, things are any better; here, as elsewhere, Solzhenitsyn  prophesied aright. He identified the reasons for this very well:

Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day 

The West was, he said, ‘spiritually exhausted’. The ‘human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.’

The origin of this decadence lay, Solzhenitsyn suggested, in the anthropocentric views of man’s destiny which came in with the secular thinking of the Enlightenment. Man was at the centre of all things, and the ends for which he was meant were material ones:

Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our day there is a free and constant flow. Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones. 

But these are not the ends for which man is made, and so even if he reaches them, he is dissatisfied and his spirit unsatisfied. So it is that even in the richest society the world has ever known, even the rich lack what is needed to heal what ails them?  We can reject God and make gods of ourselves. But Solzhenitsyn did not see that as bringing us what we needed; and forty-five years on, we can see, even more clearly, that like Jeremiah, he was a prophet to whom few wanted to listen.

Caleb Stegall: “A Call to Arms, a review of Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists by Bill Kauffman” | Nomocracy In Politics

This review takes a little while to really get going but, stick with it and see if it doesn’t talk about the America we all miss so much.

Can we go home again?

Editorial Foreward: This review was authored by Caleb Stegall, and it is republished here with permission from ISI. At first glance, the very title of the book being reviewed seems contrary to the notion of nomocratic order. Such wariness, however, is mitigated by two considerations: (1) the book is far less radical and truly anarchist than its title might suggest; and (2) the implications of Kauffman’s vision entail restoring the decentralist, localist tradition that is the true fruit and heir of the America’s constitutional lex. Here it is helpful to recall that Oakeshott’s conception of true lex entails rules derived through a legitimately authoritative legislative process, but much of today’s de facto regime and political order has been foisted on us through unauthorized means such as inappropriate delegation of legislative power to bureaucracies and Courts that lack legitimate legislative authority. A large swath of American life today is NOT governed by legitimate lex in the Oakeshottian sense. Authors like Kauffman dare to challenge the loss of American localism, and we can find common cause with them to the extent that they seek a return to the the proper political order provided by the real Constitution. 

Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and
Front-Porch Anarchists by Bill Kauffman. ISI Books, 2006.

It is an occasional convention in conservative literature to talk about the “real split” in the world that animates contemporary political and cultural disagreements, a split deeper than the more pedestrian divide of Republicans versus Democrats. Russell Kirk liked to quote Eric Voegelin’s remark that the “great line of demarcation in modern politics…is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other.” Rather, it is between materialists who recognize only a temporal order and those who admit to a higher, transcendent order. To Voegelin, liberals and totalitarians of various stripes were essentially alike in their progressive materialism, the price of which was “the death of the spirit.”

In this he concurred with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in his famous 1978 Harvard Address, referring to Western liberalism and Eastern communism, said that, “The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.” For Solzhenitsyn, the disease plaguing both sides was the belief that man’s chief task was to “search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them.”

More recently John Lukacs described the real split in America as being between“progressives” (more often than not misnamed “conservatives”) and “conservationists.” “It is the division between people who want to develop, to build up, to pour more concrete and cement on the land, and those who wish to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where they live.” It is the divide between those who cultivate a “true love” of their country and those with only a “rhetorical love of symbols such as the flag, in the name of a mythical people,” between a home-loving domesticity and a wandering nomadic life, “between the ideals of stability and those of endless ‘growth.’”

Continue reading Caleb Stegall: “A Call to Arms, a review of Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists by Bill Kauffman” | Nomocracy In Politics.

I sure hope so.

 

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