Solzhenitsyn’s Critique of the West as a Warning for Our Times

The last few months have been difficult for many Americans. We have watched our nation struggle with a global pandemic, a history of unresolved racism, and violence in the streets. Economic and social turmoil have engendered feelings of helplessness and despair, as events continue to spiral out of control. Many are left doubting the foundations of American democracy, if not western civilization itself. Radical forces are currently seeking the destruction of both. Few seem capable enough or brave enough to defend them.

Years ago, a friend asked me to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, a task I only recently got around to completing. Like Orwell’s 1984, Solzhenitsyn’s message is bound to resonate no matter the historical circumstance of one’s reading, but perhaps now more than ever.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a famed Russian novelist, philosopher, and outspoken critic of Soviet communism. He served in the Red Army during World War II only to be sent to the gulag for the crime of criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. Even after his release, Solzhenitsyn continued to provoke the ire of Soviet authorities. He was exiled from his native land, ultimately taking up refuge in the United States.

Two years later, when Solzhenitsyn stepped up to the podium at Harvard, the audience likely expected an attack on communism delivered by a grateful exile. Instead, they were treated to a blistering critique of their own supposedly more virtuous way of life. Solzhenitsyn prefaced his speech with the warning that “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Consider these seven points with corresponding excerpts from the text. One need not strain to see their relevance to the present day.

  1. The Impossible Trap of Materialism

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

  1. The Limits of Legalism

“(In the West) the limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad… 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 will 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.”

  1. Unlimited Freedom Leads to Decadence and Irresponsibility

“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, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror… Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil…

“Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations…”

  1. The Pernicious Role of the Press

“Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus… we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”

  1. The Convergence of Opinion around a Few “Fashions”

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which 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.”

  1. Dissatisfaction with Society and Calls for Socialism

“It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development… However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current… Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death…”

  1. A Lack of Courage

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days…

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower… To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Soulless materialism, the shirking of responsibility, a pernicious press, a decadent and depraved “mass” culture, a lack of courage. These features have continued to characterize American life in ways that Solzhenitsyn himself likely could not have imagined at the time of this speech (he died in Russia in 2008).

There is an ongoing debate among political philosophers as to whether liberal democracy can withstand the current storm, or if the end is near. The former position can be found in Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, while the latter is best expressed in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

Solzhenitsyn falls firmly in the latter camp, locating the source of the West’s spiritual crisis at the very root. The humanism of the Renaissance and the secularism of the Enlightenment put man at the center of his own universe, in particular his material needs. Solzhenitsyn decries the folly of making man the “touchstone” of everything on earth — “imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, vanity, and dozens of other defects.” He notes:

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days 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. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.

America was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy of the likes of Locke and Montesquieu, who inspired our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that at the time of the American founding, a strong sense of religious responsibility remained as a check against unlimited human freedom. However, since then we have discarded every limit on the individual’s ability to satisfy his whims. We have lost a proper understanding of freedom, and society has become increasingly materialistic as a result. Communism too developed out of humanism, taking man’s earthly happiness as its highest aim. In this sense, the competing ideologies of East and West have more in common than either side cares to realize.

But Solzhenitsyn points out that “if humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.” The basic fact of man’s mortality negates it, while pointing to the worthier goal of moral growth. He advises against “attach(ing) oneself to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” declaring that “we cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society.” He concludes:

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

In our quest for spiritual renewal, we cannot simply crawl back into the comfort of the Middle Ages, an era as imperfect as our own. What is needed is a great infusion of the spirit, a moral awakening. Man has both a material and spiritual nature, and the needs of both must be met. However, our spiritual needs are always greater, as they pertain to that immortal part of ourselves. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has witnessed a recent resurgence in popularity, a predictable development considering the rising uncertainty and unrest. Based on the rule of St. Benedict, founder of western monasticism, Dreher calls upon orthodox Christians to turn inward, seek support from like-minded families and building “arcs” capable of weathering the coming secular Dark Age.

Dreher was criticized for surrendering mainstream culture too easily, after the publication of The Benedict Option in 2017. However, his book contains practical, common sense advice. We can start by taking back control of our children’s education, fighting pornography, limiting smartphone use, engaging in meaningful work, and building real communities. In the battle for hearts and minds, we should never compromise the truth. Perhaps most importantly, we can pray.

Sometimes it seems like we are fighting against forces so large and powerful that it is hard to maintain hope. For conservatives, it can be difficult and disheartening to accept that we have lost the battle to define our nation’s culture: in the arts, in the schools, and in the courts. But no lie can last forever, no matter how widespread; “the truth will out.”

Forty-two years ago, a Russian dissident called Americans out for our lack of courage. Only by reorienting ourselves to the truth can we rediscover the strength of will and self-confidence we have been missing for far too long.

On Liberty, Order, and Revolution

Two separate but related movements are playing out across our country right now.

The first is a grassroots protest movement driven by widespread outrage over the tragic death of George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, it has taken the form of speeches, peaceful demonstrations, discussions about the persistence of racism in America, and debates over police brutality.

The second is a radical, revolutionary movement seeking nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society and government. Its aim is to tear down America as it currently exists and replace it with something fundamentally different. Members of this movement are not interested in dialogue or the democratic process. They are determined to impose their will through intimidation and force, not debate.

This first group may be considered “liberals,” in both the classical and contemporary sense. They are concerned primarily with liberty and equality, and thus naturally skeptical of order, authority, and hierarchy.

The second group can be considered “radicals,” as they share many features of past radical, revolutionary movements. Unlike liberals, who are generally peaceful and accepting of gradual change, radicals view violence as a necessary and even righteous path to achieving their ends. Some are motivated by the naive belief that getting rid of existing institutions like the police will bring an end to problems inherent to the human conditions (i.e. greed, inequality, scarcity). However, many radicals are less concerned with building a better world than with burning down the old one. The thrill of rioting and looting and desecrating can become an end in itself. What they don’t realize is that there is always a smaller, better organized group waiting in the wings to capitalize on the chaos. Unlike the young, starry-eyed radicals being used to create the power vacuum, they know exactly what they will do once they step into it.

Of course, there is a third group: conservatives. These are the law-and-order types who have been watching the nation’s descent into anarchy with mounting horror and disbelief. They generally value liberty and security and support law enforcement, though they are more likely than liberals to own firearms for their own protection. Many conservatives do not recognize their country anymore. They are currently either thanking God that they live in rural, suburban, or red-state America, or else making plans to move there.

As I write this, a group of radicals has taken over a six-block area of Seattle, including a police station. They have declared it an autonomous zone, free from police interference. The irony that they have erected barriers (much like border walls), implemented ID checks, and posted armed guards is not lost on conservatives. How quickly do high-minded ideals melt away when injected with an infusion of power.

The radical Left has been equally merciless in the cultural arena. Even the popular kids show “Paw Patrol” has come under attack for depicting positive portrayals of police (talking cartoon dogs). A&E has pulled its hit TV-show Live PD. The Academy award-winning classic Gone with the Wind has likewise been pulled from HBO. Beloved author and liberal J.K. Rowling has been denounced by the radical Left for daring to defend the common sense notion that biological sex exists. When it comes to “cancel culture,” nobody is safe.

Where is all of this going? What is the end game?

I was discussing this with a friend recently. She wanted to know my take, as a student of history. My response: “The revolution will eat its own.” Allow me to explain.

While it can be exciting in the initial phases to denounce authority and demand drastic changes, the majority of people eventually tire of the unceasing demands of revolution. This includes even liberal “fellow travelers” who may have initially backed some of the radicals’ demands. At a certain point, the need for a return to normalcy overrides the desire for change. There’s a reason Mao needed a “Cultural Revolution” to bring back the spirit of revolution a few decades into China’s experiment with communism.

The irony now, as with the French Revolution of 1789, is that the liberals always give birth to the very radicals who eventually escort them to the guillotine. In 1791, the French National Assembly penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document full of Enlightenment high ideals. Less than three years later, King Louis XVI’s head was rotting on a pike, and France was in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Five years after that, the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was cheered as he entered Paris. This from the same crowds who had only recently demanded “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They were ready for the madness to end, and eager for a return to law and order.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 followed a similar pattern. What began as liberal criticism of Nicholas II and frustration with Russia’s continued involvement in World War I ended with the radical Bolsheviks seizing power, a bloody civil war, and decades of totalitarian rule.

Of course, America was also born in revolution, but ours was an oddly conservative one. Men like Washington and Franklin saw themselves as restoring rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta and English common law, not creating something radically new. We drew our inspiration from John Locke, who argued that governments exist to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. These ideas can be found almost word for word in our own Declaration of Independence.

The French had for their inspiration one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Coming at the tail end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic Era, Rousseau was critical of the overly rationalistic manner of earlier thinkers like Locke. He made a name for himself criticizing civilization itself in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he presented man as a “noble savage” corrupted by society, and the institution of private property as his original sin.

In his later, more extensive work The Social Contract, Rousseau posits the state as the ultimate expression of the General Will, or the people collectively. As such, the state cannot be wrong. People who differ from the General Will must be rooted out and brought in line by force. But in the words of Rousseau, this means only “that he will be forced to be free.”

If you want to know how someone can go from denouncing inequality to demanding totalitarianism, look no further than Rousseau. I find his call for a civil religion particularly telling and prophetic:

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them… As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty…

The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries… As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.

Did you get that? If you don’t toe the line of the General Will, you will be banished. Pretend to do so and you will be executed. But all this in the name of tolerance!

In the case of Russia, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin provided the intellectual inspiration. A Germany historian and philosopher, Marx viewed all of history through the lens of class conflict. He saw mankind as divided fundamentally into two camps: the haves and have-nots. In Marx’s day, the haves were the bourgeoisie, the ascendant middle class of industrial capitalist society. The have-nots were the “workers of the world,” the proletariat. Owning nothing but their own labor, they were forced to sell themselves at starvation wages to the owners of the means of production.

An atheist and a materialist, Marx rejected all divisions based on race, nationality, or religion – “the opiate of the masses.” He thought it was only a matter of time before the workers began to think of themselves as a class and unite against their oppressors. Then the workers or proletariat would seize power from the bourgeoisie through a revolution. They would run society temporarily as a dictatorship of the proletariat until such a time as class enemies were eliminated (they could not be reformed). At that point, there would be no need for government, as Marx saw government as just a means by which the ruling class oppressed the others (surely the proletariat could not oppress itself?). The reward for their hard work would be nothing short of heaven on earth, the “anarchist utopia” that would signal the arrival of true communism.

Vladimir Lenin made one key revision to Marx’s outline of revolution. The people themselves could not be trusted to guide the revolution. They would need an elite core to tell them what to do and crush all dissent.

Marx may have died in 1883, but his ideas live on in America’s colleges and universities. America’s Marxists have shifted their concern from the shrinking blue-collar working class (who tend to be Trump voters), to other “oppressed” groups: racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the LGBT community. As with original Marxism, the first step is to convince the majority of people that they are being oppressed. The second is to divide people into haves and have-not’s. After all, the flip-side of oppression is “privilege.” Just like the show trials in the old Soviet Union, class (now race) enemies must be made to publicly confess to their crimes, even the crime of simply belonging to a privileged group. But no apology can ever erase the stain of being an enemy of the people, a speed bump on the route to utopia.

Left-wing radicals are attempting to channel the legitimate grievances of historically underprivileged groups into an ax that they can wield against all the institutions they seek to overthrow: organized religion, law enforcement, the nuclear family. A cursory glance at the official Black Lives Matter organization reveals an agenda that goes far beyond saving black lives; it is saturated with Marxist thinking.

Marxists tend to denounce all authority and hierarchy as arbitrary. But as Jordan Peterson has explained, proper authority is not arbitrary; it is tied to competence. On an airplane the passengers listen to the captain; not because he is some tyrannical dictator, but because he is the only one knowledgeable enough to get them all safely to their destination. No sane person would suggest overthrowing the captain for the crime of elevating himself above the passengers; the result would be death for all.

Many hierarchies are just the natural results of variation across groups. There are necessarily fewer outstanding than mediocre basketball players. The same goes for plumbers, artists, and musicians. The excellent athletes, artists, and tradesmen make more money and receive more attention than their mediocre peers. This isn’t “unfair”; it’s life.

Perhaps academics and bureaucrats have a hard time understanding this, as their positions are more determined by connections than by merit (The same goes for the overfed children of the upper middle class who formed the core of Occupy Wall Street). They begin to see all hierarchy and authority as bad. There can be no families, as families subordinate children to their parents; no small businesses, as these subordinate employees to their bosses. Society appears like a house with far more people dwelling in the basement than in the upper levels. The only way to make everyone equal is to burn the house down.

And this would be a good solution, if one’s only goal was to make everyone equal, in some vague, amorphous sense. But what about liberty?

The radicals may be expressing themselves in the language of Karl Marx, but the real prophet of the nineteenth century was Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book Demons (also translated as The Possessed), Dostoevsky describes how the generation of 1840’s liberals unwittingly gave birth to the radicals of the 1860’s. Even as the youth of the town descend further and further into nihilistic violence, the older, liberal generation looks on with mild bemusement until it is too late.

In Demons, one young radical proclaims:

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”

Ha!

As Dostoevsky notes with both the title and epigraph of his book, there is something akin to demonic possession in the frenzy of the radicals. It defies logic or reason, but rather grips hold of a person or group, spurring them to commit violent acts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the radical Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to the original rebel himself: Satan.

It’s worth looking over those rules now and seeing how they are being implemented. One in particular stands out: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

What the conservative understands is that freedom is not simply the license to do whatever one pleases; such a world would quickly descend into hell on earth. True freedom, properly understood, is the ability to choose the good. This kind of genuine freedom only thrives where there are structures in place to channel human passions toward constructive rather than destructive ends. We are not born “noble savages” as Rousseau once claimed; society is not the enemy of morality, but rather its teacher. We are not each other’s enemies, as Marx later claimed; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not between “good” and “bad” classes of persons.

Our country was founded on the concept of ordered liberty, or freedom limited by the need for order in society. Today our rights are being threatened both by anarchy in the streets and draconian lock-downs imposed by state governments to fight COVID-19 (limits that oddly enough do not apply to protesters). Both have enjoyed widespread support from liberals, most of whom don’t yet realize the radicals’ agenda or the greater threat posed by the globalists’ desire to establish a new world order with themselves at the pinnacle.

The Right is not immune from its own extremist tendencies in the other direction. Fascism results when the need for order becomes an obsession, and hierarchies become too rigid. But I would argue that too little order poses a greater danger to genuine human freedom than too much of it, for the reasons explained above. Chaos is only a temporary state on the path to a new order more tyrannical than its predecessor.

The revolution will eventually eat its own. The question is, how will we measure the collateral damage, both to individual families and freedom-sustaining institutions? How long will the process of rebuilding take, before a civilization more confident in its purpose than our own is able to rise from the ashes?