PROFILE: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Solzhenitsyn: the conscience of modern society
, February 8, 2003
Twenty years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was recognised as the intellectual force who de-authorised the Soviet Union. Today he turns his attention to the West but few are listening says Max Teichmann.What follows is based upon a little book entitled A World Split Apart which was originally an address given at Harvard University in 1978, being only one of many books, lectures and pamphlets by the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Within a few years most 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; whereas 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.Intellectual path
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, as against its State - others saw the most desirable future as a wholehearted immersion in Europe, and its 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 being 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 found the new liberalism more like nihilism - a stage through which Russian intellectuals had passed much earlier - that democracy was really plutocracy or corporatism, while 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 forebears.
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, unacceptable to the newly powerful and the newly rich, who have effectively isolated him from his public. But, also embarrassing, and therefore, adjudged tedious by erstwhile supporters in the West; he should have stuck to Russian history, they say. Well he hasn't.
Already in 1978, anticipating Huntington, he speaks of the world, not just as comprising two or three discrete parts, e.g., First, Second and Third Worlds, but of many ancient and deeply rooted cultures, some territorially extensive, others quite small; but full of riddles and surprises for Western thinking. Thus, China, India, Japan, the Muslim world and 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 say NO - enough is more than enough; and make it 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 forebears.
Which is not to say, he continues, that we should be Western-centric, and insist that everyone be the same - think like 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 theories of the family, children, procreation, education (and they are just
theories), is 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. We do not mean, by religious ecumenism, one universal church (I hope), 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 starting to get the message: for whom the Bell Tolls. Solzhenitsyn thinks that the West is now too corrupt to serve as a model for other countries. And many of these are saying so.Courage
Solzhenitsyn found 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, at a time when groups with an excess
of courage are rising to challenge us. Some from desperation, or indoctrination; or 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.
Whereas, hosts of young people are being brainwashed 'out there' 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; to seek pleasure and avoid pain at all times, and at all costs. Pain may just mean the denial of instant gratification.
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 such a 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 did not say, or perhaps at that stage did not realise, that the ruling elites and intellectual establishments of the West are not simply decadent, as he could see, but are in large measure usurpers and parodists of what went before. The triumph - if you wish to call it that - of the Untermensch, means taking over, as Nietzche predicted, and replacing the intelligent, the creative, the courageous, and the public spirited. And doing this behind banners reading Freedom, Equality, Compassion ... and Compensation.Digression
A politician from a State other than Victoria, who went on to become a famous figure, rang me at the beginning of the 70s that he agreed with some pieces I had done on education and universities. Pieces that identified big problems in the years to come, and predicted a massive blowout in public spending. Spending to no avail.
He agreed with all of this, and as someone interested in fiscal matters, he, too
, had big worries. But had I picked up on the next money tree that was about to rise, until it would be as big as the one called 'New Education?' No? Social work. It would finish as the prickly pear of the late 20th century. (I had better not give out his name, had I?).
What he and I didn't, possibly couldn't, foresee, was the tidal wave after that
one - counselling. Nobody would appear to be safe from its attentions - ruthlessly spurred on by a chinless media.Repressive tolerance
But to return to Solzhenitsyn. He was quite unprepared for the controls upon free thought in the West, and the ossification of creativity that it 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, "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 just decisive leaders are increasingly rare in modern democracies - at a time when people and the situation demand more and more from their governments, while at the same time denying leaders any potency, any real power to change things. And, at the urgings of the press, the public is loath to even cede their leaders respect.
So, far from the cut and thrust of ideas and strong personalities which Solzhenitsyn expected in his idealised democracy, he found a kind of stagflation, with troupes of actors called dissenters, critics, even rebels, miming strong feelings and burning convictions, whereas, neither they nor most people in the West believed in anything - except the pursuit of pleasure. The rebels of Russia had been of much sterner stuff.
He continues, "Strangely enough, the doctrine of 'Man is the measure of all things on earth' appears to hold sway. A disastrous doctrine, for imperfect man. He was never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects; but is to "need no superior, no teacher, no standards other than generated by and from his own imperfect self". Lacking, as he is, in all self-knowledge.
Solzhenitsyn thinks that the total absence of spirituality, of religious feelings, and a proper acceptance of death doom man to unhappiness, to discontent with his lot, no matter what it is, and a permanent feeling that something vital is missing; but always just out of reach. This is the regime of Modern Man.
But, on a topical note: "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 wellbeing. Nothing is left in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal."
Solzhenitsyn thinks "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 were many gifted collaborators of Solzhenitsyn during this Samizdat period and here is a passage from just one of them, Vadim Borisov:
"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 word, 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."