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Summer 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Articles

Revisiting Solzhenitsyn

Max Teichmann

This article is based upon a book entitled A World Split Apart, which was originally an address given at Harvard University in 1978. Within a few years most of many books, lectures and pamphlets by Solzhenitsyn have ended up hidden in libraries and archives, and to such effect, that most people are unaware of the existence of many of them. Solzhenitsyn has been virtually silenced and isolated in the new mafia-style Russia, as he was silenced and locked up under the Communists. Our Western cognoscenti welcomed him with rapture, then came to damn him with faint praise, and finally spoke as though he were dead. He is 84. But the messages in his later writings are as mordant and as farsighted as anything else on offer.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn followed an intellectual path very similar to that of many Russian thinkers - even to this present day. Living under regimes ranging from the intrusive and censorious, to bloody despotisms of which those of Lenin and Stalin were the most lethal and destructive, they dreamed of freedom, and of a society more like those in the West.

Some wished to retain the best parts of Russian society - others saw the most desirable future as a whole-hearted immersion in Europe, and its liberal democratic and, if necessary, capitalist values and organisations. But whatever their preferences, they had no choice while living under absolutists and dictators. So, many made their way to the West, seeking a different life, the chance to breathe; others, like Solzhenitsyn, were driven out of Russia.

But, time and time again, the exiles were to become disillusioned, even shocked, as they began to separate idealisation and wishful thinking from reality - some finding the new liberalism in the West more like nihilism - a stage through which Russian intellectuals had passed much earlier and the democracy to be really plutocracy or corporatism; and freedom of thought in the West was discovered to be circumscribed by money, fashion and political correctness. The Western intelligentsia, as well as Western politicians, had become careerists and materialists, alienated from their own roots, denying or devaluing their own origins, and the achievements of their forbears.

So Solzhenitsyn, for one, redirected his gaze to Russia, and planned for a new society, which would combine the best of East and West. He returned to Russia, only to be disappointed yet again. His critiques of post-communist Russia have been biting and unacceptable to the newly powerful and the newly rich, who have effectively isolated him from his public. But they are also embarrassing, and therefore adjudged tedious, by erstwhile supporters in the West: he should have stuck to Russian history, they say.

Already in 1978, anticipating Huntington, he speaks of the world, not just as comprising two or three discrete parts, for example, first, second and third worlds, but as comprising many ancient and deeply rooted cultures, some territorially extensive, others quite small, but full of riddles and surprises for Western thinking: for example, China, India, Japan, the Muslim world, Africa and Israel. Furthermore the links of each to a religion were not unimportant. But he warns - relations with the former colonial world, once one of dominance and submission, may have switched to the opposite extreme. The West exhibits an excess of obsequiousness. However, he says, "It is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account. We now know the answer to this - for the demagogues out there, their loyal sycophants here, and throughout the West, nothing short of our cultural and political suicide will suffice."

We owe it to ourselves to oppose this trend - enough is more than enough - and make our rejection clear to both groups of antagonists - more and more of whom are showing all the signs of greed, covetousness and fork-tongued hypocrisy of our errant forbears. Which is not to say, he continues, that we should be Western-centric, and insist that everyone be the same, think as we do, value the same things, run their states and societies as do we - for this is simply colonialism by other means.

The present offensive to make every society a home for economic rationalists and free traders - to abide, not so much by Western-centric as New Class-centric values - and new theories of the family, children, procreation, education (and they are just theories) are causing a predictable backlash among many non-Westerners. Our failure to be non-ecumenical in these and other matters has set in motion extremist reactions - extremist politically, religiously, culturally - and, where possible, economically. We do not mean, by religious ecumenism, one unvarying church, so, why do we eschew ecumenism, or pluralism, in matters cultural, political or economic?

After all, we saw the dangerous folly and lethal implications of Holism in the doctrines of Nazism and Communism. Why did we not anticipate a similar resistance to our Universalism? Now that some groups are calling for the Islamisation of the world, we are hearing a message: for whom the bell tolls. And Solzhenitsyn thinks that the West is now too morally corrupt to serve as a model for other countries. And many of them are saying so.

Courage

Solzhenitsyn finds now in the West a decline in courage - "perhaps the most striking feature an outside observer notices". And we all know how things have deteriorated since that 1978 address. Conversely, groups with an excess of courage are rising to challenge us, some from desperation, or indoctrination, and others from a general perception of the moral confusion and ambivalence, leading to weakness, even self-hate, on the part of so many of us. We know who is going to win that contest. Hosts of young people are being brainwashed elsewhere to seek out death and glorious immortality - the Chechen hostage-takers saying: "We seek out death more than you seek life." Like Spanish Falangists chanting "Vive la Morte", our young are being brainwashed to feel unreasonable fear, especially fear of death, and to seek pleasure and avoid pain at all times and at all costs. Pain for them may come to mean the denial of instant gratification.

Solzhenitsyn notes that the Western world "has lost its courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and of course, in the United Nations". He sees this decline in courage as particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society: "There remain many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life."

Solzhenitsyn does not say that the ruling elites and intellectual establishments of the West are not simply decadent, but are in large measure usurpers and parodists of what went before: theirs is the triumph of the Untermensch, taking over, as Nietzche predicted, and replacing the intelligent, the creative, the courageous and the public-spirited. And this is done behind banners reading Freedom, Equality, Compassion and Compensation.

Western Controls on Free Thought

Solzhenitsyn was quite unprepared for the controls placed upon free thought in the West, and the ossification of creativity that it has produced. Without any censorship, "Fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way to periodicals or books or being heard in colleges." We are so accustomed to this in Australia, as to consider repressive tolerance as natural law for it operates almost irrespective of the content. But if there is a natural law here it is the iron law of mediocrity.

Thus Solzhenitsyn observes, "A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times; he is constantly rebuffed by parliament and the press. He has to prove that his every step is well founded and absolutely flawless. Dozens of traps will be set for him from the beginning. Thus, mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints."

So, great or even decisive leaders are increasingly rare in modern democracies - at a time when people and the situation demand more and more from their governments and at the same time deny leaders any potency, any kind of ability to change things. And, at the urgings of the press, the public is loath even to cede their leaders respect.

Hence, far from the cut and thrust of ideas and strong personalities which Solzhenitsyn expected in his idealised democracy, he finds a kind of stagflation, with troops of actors called dissenters, critics, even rebels, miming strong feelings and burning convictions, whereas, neither they nor most people in the West believe in anything - except the pursuit of profit and pleasure. The rebels of Russia had been of much sterner stuff.

He continues by noting that strangely enough the doctrine of "Man is the Measure of All Things on earth" appears to hold sway: a disastrous doctrine, for imperfect man was never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects; but apparently he is to "need no superior, no teacher, no standards other than generated by and from his own imperfect self". Solzhenitsyn believes that the absence of spirituality, of religious feelings and of a proper acceptance of death doom man to unhappiness, to discontent with his lot, no matter what it is, and to a permanent feeling that something vital is missing, being always just out of reach.

Solzhenitsyn notes,

"No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of will power. In a psychological weakness weapons can become a burden for the capitulating side.

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 in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal."

Solzhenitsyn adds,

"We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out we were being deprived of our most precious possession, our spiritual life. It is being trampled by the mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West."

This is as relevant now as in 1978. It applies to the West now, and it seems to give a fair account of our two party system. There are many gifted collaborators of Solzhenitsyn during this Samizdat period, and here is a passage from just one of them, Vadim Borisov: "There is a long known but eternally neglected truth; that a people can perish without being totally annihilated physically. It is necessary only to remove its memory, its thought and its words, and the soul of the people will die. History may observe the numbing spectacle of the dead and soulless body's continued growth for a long time afterwards but eventually it witnesses the predestined collapse."


National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003