A new essay collection, ‘Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West,’ illuminates how the vaunted Russian writer’s warnings about secularism and progressivism are as prescient and insightful as ever.
By Louis Markos
If there is one thing that 2020 has taught me, it is that the real political and cultural divide in our country is not between Republicans and Democrats, or even conservatives and liberals, but between traditionalists and progressives.
At the core of progressivism is not the optimistic American belief that things are improving and that our children can live better lives than we did, but the belief that man is a perfectible product of evolutionary forces. Rather than being made in God’s image and then fallen, progressives believe we must throw off the shackles and prejudices of the past in order to move forward to build utopia.
The traditionalist is not against growth and change, but he recognizes, as Edmund Burke did in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the danger of trying to remake society and man in the image of a new ideology that radically redefines such words as truth, justice, and equality. The progressive has no qualms about running roughshod over the established beliefs, institutions, and mores of a nation if he can only achieve his goals. At its most extreme, progressivism can justify to itself any present-day atrocity as long as it claims to be helping usher in a future brave new world of absolute egalitarianism.
The genealogy of progressivism runs from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s naïve belief in the noble savage to the bloody social engineering of the French Revolution to the deterministic dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, out of which arose the horrors inflicted on their own people by Lenin and Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-Il. According to all these progressive leaders, history was moving unstoppably toward their worker’s paradise, and anyone who sought to hinder its arrival—by deed, word, or thought—was backward, unenlightened, and, to use a cherished word of Marxist elites, atavistic.
Since the true face of progressivism revealed itself in the French Revolution, a number of brave critics have risen up to expose its destructive pretensions and its false view of man. A short list of these critics includes Burke, Alexis Tocqueville, the authors of the Federalist Papers, Cardinal John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, C. S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II. The critic, however, who saw and understood the dangers most clearly, partly because he suffered greatly at the hands of progressivism run amok, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The Man, The Writer, The Prophet
Born one year after the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn was raised as a loyal Soviet and even served as an officer in the army—until he was arrested in 1945 for saying something negative about Stalin. He spent eight years in the prison camps of the Gulag.
After being released, he lived in exile in Kazakhstan, where he taught physics. He later returned to Russia and published a novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), which he based on his experiences in the Gulag. Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970, when his literary exposé, The Gulag Archipelago, appeared in the 1970s, he was forced to flee the country, eventually moving to the United States in 1976.
Hailed as a hero of democracy and freedom, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University in 1978. After sincerely praising American freedom, Solzhenitsyn went on to criticize Western secularism, rationalism, and materialism. His address lost him the support of many in the media and academy, but it stands as a bold witness to the poisonous excesses of the progressivist spirit.
Similarly, when he was awarded the Templeton Prize in England in 1983, his speech, which drew a straight line from godlessness to the Gulag, caused him to be further labeled as old-fashioned, out of touch, reactionary, and, yes, atavistic. Solzhenitsyn, ostracized by the liberal thinkers who had once hailed him as a champion of freedom, lived the life of a recluse in Vermont until, remarkably, he was allowed to return to Russia in 1994, where he lived out the remainder of his long life in peace.
Like Ivan Denisovich, all of Solzhenitsyn’s major novels incorporate autobiographical elements. The three-volume The Gulag Archipelago critiques and exposes both Leninism-Stalinism and Western secular rationalism. Cancer Ward is a profound meditation on death by an author who almost died of cancer.
The First Circle is a conversation between inmates in a Soviet white-collar prison for educated scientists, with one of the characters based on the author’s own younger self as he moved from rationalism to religion. The four-volume The Red Wheel is a re-imagining of the Russian Revolution that blends fiction and non-fiction, historical documents and Solzhenitsyn’s own incisive analysis of how the “fated” revolution could have been avoided by different choices on the part of free, volitional individuals.
Thankfully for those who are familiar with Ivan Denisovich and the Harvard Address but have yet to work up the energy to read his long, complex, circuitous novels, a collection of essays has appeared that illuminates the many facets of Solzhenitsyn the man, the writer, and the prophet.
Edited by David P. Deavel, co-director of the Terence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and Jessica Hooten Wilson, Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas, Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West explores Solzhenitsyn’s links to Russian culture, Orthodoxy, politics, and other Soviet writers, as well as the influence that he and his fellow Russians have had on twentieth-century American writers. Although the collection is wide-ranging in its analysis, it’s especially valuable for illuminating what Solzhenitsyn can teach us about the dangers of progressivism today.
The Ideological Lie
In the opening essay, “The Universal Russian Soul,” Nathan Nielson, a graduate of St. John’s College, quotes this passage from Solzhenitsyn’s 1993 speech “The Relentless Cult of Novelty”: “And in one sweeping gesture of vexation, classical Russian literature—which never disdained reality and sought the truth—is dismissed as next to worthless. Denigrating the past is deemed to be the key to progress. And so it has once again become fashionable in Russia to ridicule, debunk, and toss overboard the great Russian literature, steeped as it is in love and compassion toward all human beings, and especially toward those who suffer.”
Needless to say, the fear Solzhenitsyn prophetically expresses here has been realized in increasingly shameless attempts by American universities to ridicule, debunk, and toss overboard our Western heritage as a prelude to building an egalitarian, multicultural society, despite the fact that the legacy they want to jettison has provided the sole foundation for liberal democracy and individual freedom. Solzhenitsyn knew that no stable future could be built on hatred of the past, since hatred of the past inevitably leads to hatred of the self, not to mention hatred of one’s neighbor and one’s society.
The two essays that follow, “The New Middle Ages” and “The Age of Concentration,” are not analyses of Solzhenitsyn, but reflections by a modern Russian novelist, Eugene Vodolazkin, who shares Solzhenitsyn’s spirit and his mistrust of all progressive attempts to build a perfect society.
“It is wrong to think of utopias as harmless dreams,” he warns. “Combined with the idea of progress, utopian thought is a dream that motivates action. It establishes a goal so lofty that it cannot be reached. The more ideal it becomes, the greater the stubbornness with which it is pursued. There comes a time when blood is spilled. Oceans of blood.” In one way or another, all of Solzhenitsyn’s novels work out just that terrifying cause and effect, ripping away the façade of humanitarianism or revolutionary consciousness or classless equality to reveal the beast within.
In that vein, David Walsh, professor of politics at Catholic University, locates in The Red Wheel a central struggle “between those who seek to remake Russia in accordance with their own idea of it and those who seek to submit to the idea of Russia as itself the guiding principle of their action. It is the difference between ideology and truth. The protagonists of ideology are driven by the conviction of the superiority of their conception to all that has existed. The servants of truth subordinate themselves to what is required to bring what is already there more fully into existence.”
What is at issue here is not only the destructive nature of ends-justifies-the-means thinking, but the anti-humanistic arrogance that invests Marxist ideology (dialectical materialism, economic determinism, identity politics) with a sacred imprimatur for radically remaking society.
In his analysis of The Gulag Archipelago, Gary Saul Morson, Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, considers a question that Solzhenitsyn asks himself: Why do Shakespeare’s greatest villains kill only a few people while Lenin and Stalin killed millions?
The reason, Morson explains, “is that Macbeth and Iago ‘had no ideology.’ Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction.” All of us are capable of small, independent evil acts, but progressivism, by allowing governments to submerge their moral qualms beneath a sea of ideology, unleashes that evil on all of society.
Joseph Pearce, who interviewed Solzhenitsyn in Russia in 1998 and wrote an excellent biography, teases out Solzhenitsyn’s anti-progressivism by contrasting him with Leo Tolstoy. Unlike Tolstoy, Pearce argues, “Solzhenitsyn laments the modern ‘belief in eternal, infinite progress which has practically become a religion,’ adding that such progressivism was ‘a mistake of the eighteenth century, of the Enlightenment era.’ Technological progress in the service of philosophical materialism was not true progress at all but, on the contrary, was a threat to civilization.” In his novels, Solzhenitsyn drives these points home, not by offering philosophical disquisitions, but by incarnating these ideas in the lives of flesh-and-blood characters.
James F. Pontuso, Patterson Professor of Political Science at Hampden-Sydney College, offers an example of this incarnation. In The First Circle, writes Pontuso, “Solzhenitsyn captivatingly captures the allure of ideology in the character of Lev Rubin. Despite all evidence to the contrary, including his own undeserved arrest and imprisonment, Rubin is devoted totally and insensibly to the Communist cause. . . . Rubin fails to acknowledge what he experiences; instead he accepts what he chooses to believe. For him every crime committed in the present is justified by the glorious future of peace, prosperity, and universal brotherhood that Marx’s principles purport to bring about.”
Such is the power of Marx’s progressive ideology that Rubin discounts his personal experience. If such self-deception in the name of ideology sounds unbelievable, just think of the American politicians and media people who, during the summer of 2020, watched businesses being looted and burned but could only see peaceful protests in the name of racial justice and economic equity. They are those who not only live and propagate the lie, but who come to believe it themselves.
Perhaps the best summation of what Solzhenitsyn can teach us about the dangers of progressivism is found in a reconsideration of The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel J. Mahoney. “Central to Solzhenitsyn’s moral and political vision,” he explains, “is the nonnegotiable distinction between truth and falsehood. Solzhenitsyn’s target was precisely the ideological Lie that presented evildoing as a historically necessary stage in the fated ‘progress’ of the human race. He always asserted that the ideological Lie was worse than violence and physical brutality, ultimately more destructive of the integrity of the human soul.”
I can think of no better analysis of the true legacy of 2020: Not the Coronavirus itself, but the way it was used to justify the illegal power grabs of bureaucratic, progressivist elites; not the riots themselves, but the lie they were justified by (that America is riddled with systemic racism); not the attacks on Donald Trump per se, but the fact that his enemies in the government, media, and big corporations were willing to tell any lie to take him down.
Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include “Apologetics for the 21st Century,” “On the Shoulders of Hobbits,” and “Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis.”