Solzhenitsyn’s conservatism

By: on June 19, 2009 | Philosophy

Book Review

Edward Ericson Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, eds.
The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005
(Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006) 634 pp.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s life and works are a testimony to moral, political and literary courage. His short stories, novels, speeches and his own experiences convey, perhaps more than any other author, the drama, terror and heroism that manifested themselves throughout one of humanity’s most violent and decisive periods. By collecting excerpts from these works together in one volume, the editors have performed a valuable service for English readers seeking to understand the forces and ideas that gave birth to and continued to support totalitarianism long after its bankruptcy was realized.

It is not an exaggerated claim to say that Solzhenitsyn stands out among twentieth century authors when it comes to both chronicling and influencing totalitarian thought and movements. Having fought the Nazi tyranny in World War II, Solzhenitsyn found himself, like so many Soviet citizens, subject to similar totalitarian insults in the homeland he had previously defended. Hauled off to various prison camps and forced research facilities after the war, he ultimately went into exile in the West in 1974.

Unlike most dissidents, however, Solzhenitsyn’s influence extended well beyond the prisons and oppression of his native Russia. Between 1945 and his exile from the Soviet Union, his literary reputation outside the Communist bloc made an international figure of the author, culminating in his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. In the period leading up to his exile and for a time afterwards, Solzhenitsyn was feted by western journalists and literary groups for his courage and artistic integrity. More importantly, his writings, especially The Gulag Archipelago, played no small part in solidifying western opinion against the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Some even claim that it was the publication of the work in French in 1974 that ultimately destroyed the Marxist consensus that had dominated French intellectual circles for decades.

During his period in exile, Solzhenitsyn ultimately settled in Vermont, a state he admired for its town-meeting style of democracy. But his time in the West was not one of unfettered appreciation. He often ran afoul of western intellectuals who felt Solzhenitsyn was an insufficient friend of modern liberty and autonomy. Notorious in this connection was his 1978 Harvard address questioning the growing legalism and humanism of American life, where licence and self-realization went unchecked by moral conviction or traditional self-restraint. For many, this was an attack on the liberal model of social progress that had taken root since the 1960s. Others saw the speech as undermining the freedom of capitalism and enterprise with its call for economic responsibility. What it was in fact, was simply a working out of Solzhenitsyn’s views on the wider historical and ideological forces that had brought his homeland and numerous other nations under the sway of revolutionary terror in the name of utopian perfectibility.

Solzhenitsyn subsequently found himself at turns celebrated and denigrated in his homeland and in the West. Much of this confusion arose from misunderstandings – at least among western commentators – as to the focus and meaning of his assessment of the twentieth century and the forces marking it. Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on politics and civilization were themselves the product of years of first-hand experience and informed reflection on the philosophic and political imperatives that had led Eastern Europe into a spiritual morass while splitting the West into various camps alternately hostile and sympathetic to the Soviet experiment. That many of these thoughts were cast in literary form renders their interpretation even more elusive. In response, the editors have provided an excellent introduction both to the author’s life and world and to his views on that world.

A common theme runs throughout Solzhenitsyn’s writings, one he summed up neatly in the poignant story he used to open his presentation of the Templeton Lecture in London in 1983:

“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened…” [I]f I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Religious themes running through Russian literature are common fare, but in this case, Solzhenitsyn turns the common sense saying of Russians into a tool of historical analysis. His argument is not that the world should return to a specific religious structure or that he is hankering for a strict revival of medieval Russian Orthodoxy. His point is rather that humanity, especially European civilization, has turned away from any overarching limitations placed on human actions. He relates this directly to the revolutionary impulse born in the Enlightenment and radicalized in the nineteenth century, one which seeks to make human beings the centre of the universe foregoing reliance on God or nature.

Solzhenitsyn, with the compactness of a great writer, neatly laid out the problems of human hubris in his 1993 speech in the French Vendee in memorial to the local peasants murdered some two hundred years earlier while resisting the extremes of the French Revolution. He draws on the notion that the French Revolution, like the Russian and so many others, was driven by the idea that humans were free to engage in vast and untrammeled social engineering with an eye to producing a more equal, prosperous and peaceful social existence. For Solzhenitsyn, this misguided belief with its rejection of limits on human manipulation lay at the core of human suffering throughout the twentieth century. It supported and became the lie at the heart of the Soviet system, one that everyone in the Soviet Union recognized but a lie to which most also acquiesced. It found its first victims in France, but would work its greatest evil in Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, in Mao’s China, in Cambodia, Vietnam and a host of other states. And it would be entertained in the fantasies of thousands of fellow-travelers throughout the West.

In his Vendee speech, Solzhenitsyn goes to the heart of the matter, reflecting on the grand French motto: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” He notes this was, and remains, a “self-contradictory and unrealizable slogan.” In a statement reminiscent of the best reflections of Tocqueville himself, Solzhenitsyn points out that equality in society ultimately must bump up against liberty. These two democratic notions run squarely into conflict inasmuch as democratic liberty implies self-government, while democratic equality must ultimately crush that self-government in the endless tinkering of bureaucratic and judicial measures taken to engineer equality. And in such a situation, the fraternity that fellow citizens have for one another is completely destroyed.

In many respects it is this degrading destruction of fraternity, the fellow-feeling of citizens who hold their political lives in common, that is most offensive to human life. Solzhenitsyn brilliantly displays the demeaning results for the Soviet Union in his short story, Matryona’s Home. Employing the full panoply of stark Russian realism, Solzhenitsyn describes a peasant woman who, despite the daily injustices levied against her by both neighbors and family, bears the burden of her life with grace and benevolence, helping out those who would only take advantage of her. Ultimately, this generosity leads to her death when she is run over by a train in the typically confused and indifferent atmosphere of Soviet-run transportation. Set against the backdrop of an absurd social system, Soviet citizens have lost fraternal feeling and seek to gain advantage against one another in any way possible. Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona is an anomaly in this suffocating place, but she also represents the hopefulness and surprising resilience of those labouring under Soviet oppression, a hopefulness repeated in the author’s longer works on the prison camps where small deeds of human decency persisted against totalitarian frustrations.

As the editors make clear, Solzhenitsyn repeatedly maligned this sometimes petty, but often violent imposition on the self-governing nature of humans. As noted, he was a great fan of New England town meetings as well as the jealously guarded independence he found in Swiss cantons and in Liechtenstein. But for Solzhenitsyn, it was precisely the limits placed on humans by God and nature that made this self-government, which includes self-limitation, possible. The revolutionary scheme makes the individual the centre of political action, but this quickly means that the self-indulgent individual, the individual demanding an endless array of rights, both personal and communal, insists on indulgent accommodation. And all too often, the state will respond with endless measures to satisfy this individual, to ensure his equality, to guarantee finally the “equality of poverty” that comes when self-government is effaced. This was a trend Solzhenitsyn found not only in the Soviet Union but in the freer West as well.

In his reflections on the limits of human action, Solzhenitsyn refers most often to God, both as limit and as source of hope. It is common among twentieth century authors to engage in a rather cantankerous assessment of the world, to play the gadfly to modernity with a post-modern posture. But in Solzhenitsyn’s case, this cranky and sometimes friendly scolding was ultimately oriented to a hopeful outcome, another Christian influence in his work. In his Nobel lecture, Solzhenitsyn drew a clear distinction between the post-modern self-absorbed writer who used literature as a means of “self-realization” and his view of the author as rendering the world around him and the moral and theoretical verities inherent in that world. Ultimately, this includes an account that gives courage to humans rather than a retreat into despair or violent revolution.

If there is one question that remains when reading Solzhenitsyn, it is what relevance he has today? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn’s efforts have been directed primarily to assisting Russia to emerge from the quagmire of Soviet tyranny. Whether or not he has had much success in this regard remains an open question. Still, there are some important lessons the contemporary reader can take from the Russian author. Certainly there remain forces in the world, holdovers from the totalitarian past as well as current movements afoot, who would still pursue the revolutionary lie, even if that pursuit is less vociferous today. But there are other lessons to be taken from Solzhenitsyn.

The editors characterize Solzhenitsyn as something of a “liberal conservative.” On the face of it, this phrase is a bit mystifying, but it speaks to the historical and philosophic issues conservatives must deal with today. We have already seen distinctions in Solzhenitsyn’s thought between democratic self-government on the one hand and democratic equality on the other. As also noted, this reminds us of Tocqueville’s own distinctions in this regard. We could just as easily see Solzhenitsyn in the light of Burkean conservatism, as he merges respect for older institutions with a disdain for revolutionary fervor. In deference to both of these past thinkers, we see that Solzhenitsyn combined conservative reliance on traditional guides – God and nature – with a healthy attachment to a chastened liberalism that sought to steer clear of the “soft tyranny” that so worried the liberal Tocqueville. And as the editors point out, Solzhenitsyn admitted the wisdom in the Nietzschean advice to strict conservatives of his own day: “only crabs can crawl backwards.”

Solzhenitsyn’s conservatism is one that is more expansive than the ideological conservatism that would seek to cement the status quo in place. He accepts progress and draws on Christianity as a means to guide that progress within a naturally ordered political life marked by self-government. At the same time, he does not give himself over to liberal egalitarian fantasies or socialist machinations. The world we live in is one where this kind of liberal conservatism, informed by Christianity, saw off the totalitarian threat – a story aptly told in John O’Sullivan’s book, The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister. Recently, the conservative heritage has come up for some dispute in Canada, as well as other countries. In the United States, neo-conservatives, theo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, libertarians, economic and social conservatives vie for pride of place. In Canada our own recent history demonstrated what happens when conservatism retreats into camps and fails to rise to the intellectual heritage given it by its greater thinkers and practitioners. While Canada certainly did not tumble into a totalitarian pit, it did sink into a virtual one-party state where mundane condescension passed itself off as the sole incarnation of “Canadian values” – our own version of the ideological lie. If there is a contemporary lesson to be drawn from Solzhenitsyn, it is that conservatism, as he envisioned it, is an intellectual, political and spiritual resource that speaks to human nature as it is, calling forth its optimism along with its, finally, salutary limitations. As a collection of readings, it would be hard to imagine anything more representative of the century past or instructive for the one now underway.

Collin May is a graduate of Harvard and the Ecole des hautes etudes in Paris. His area of specialization is the history of political philosophy, with emphasis on twentieth century conservative thought. A former employee of the United Nations and the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, Collin has written on European affairs, U.S.-European relations and transnational organizations. Currently studying law at Dalhousie Law School, he plans to specialize in criminal and constitutional law.


Enjoy reading C2C Journal? Please consider making a donation of $5, $25, $50 or more to help us continue producing C2C. To donate please click here.

About Collin May

Collin May, a member of C2C’s editorial board, is a graduate of Harvard and the Ecole des hautes etudes in Paris. His area of specialization is the history of political philosophy, with emphasis on twentieth century conservative thought. A former employee of the United Nations and the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, Collin has written on European affairs, U.S.-European relations and transnational organizations. Currently studying law at Dalhousie Law School, he plans to specialize in criminal and constitutional law.