Surviving the Sterility of Ideological Times by George Bagby
From Under the Rubble: Surviving the Sterility of Ideological Times
This little volume from 1974 was edited by Solzhenitsyn around the theme of anamnesis and the survival of humane minds under the ideological idiocy and oppression of the late Soviet Union. These eleven essays contain a variety and richness that is difficult to capture in one survey, and are a fount of inspiration and encouragement. The parallels between their descriptions of ideological rigor and fear have clear connections to our own difficulties in the modern West. The subjects here include the history of socialism, spiritual freedom, ethnic problems in a failed state, decadent intelligentsia, spiritual renewal after materialism, and national repentance and self-limitation. Applying the criticism and vision of this volume to the modern West is a tonic and a pleasure.
The analysis of ideology is a crucial theme running through several essays, and as Dostoevsky and Voegelin warn, these writers also affirm ideology is an ersatz religion and can only be properly overcome by religious renewal. One aspect of this decline in thought comes in the attempt to oversimplify the world with materialism, as we see with Marx and with consumer economies like our own. Mikhail Agursky warns in his essay, “Contemporary Socioeconomic Systems,” that “the Communist economy is no more than the next stage in the development of the Western economic system,” and notes their common materialism and obsession with endless growth. The Southern Agrarian critics of Roosevelt’s New Deal noted the same metaphysical error.
Several writers here note the moral degradation that accompanies ideology. Igor Shafarevich, in his “Socialism in Our Past and Future,” notes a prevailing “urge to self-destruction, the human death instinct” that characterizes his people. This is accompanied by a refusal to distinguish between better and worse, as the slogan of “equality,” in the end, demands. He quotes Marx, who wrote that “the difference between the ‘lazy’ and the ‘industrious,’ between the foolish and the wise cannot exist any more in the new society.” The siren call of “equality” means the willful ignorance of all natural hierarchies. Shafarevich notes increases in sexual deviancy that accompanied the rise of the Bolsheviks, including a 130% increase in divorce rates between 1924 and 1925, and bizarre movements against sexual shame.
Religious belief was replaced by the God-term “equality,” according to several writers. Shafarevich writes that an official group titled “Union of the Equal” published slogans about this notion, saying “We want real equality or death,” and “We would sweep everything away in order to retain just this. Let all the arts vanish if necessary, so long as we are left with genuine equality.” Truly, all the works of man and of God would have to be destroyed in order to be free of the evidence of our infinite inequalities. Shafarevich notes the “striking correlation between socialism and religion” in these dogmas. Evgeny Barbarov notes in his “Schism Between the Church and the World” that ideological thought is a heresy about the Kingdom of God, for “the Kingdom of God which Christ taught us about ‘is not of this world’ and will be realized in full only beyond the bounds of earthly history.” Vadim Borisov writes in his “Personality and National Awareness” that it is only in mutual recognition as creatures of God that we have the equal freedom to realize our differing qualities.
Solzhenitsyn’s provocative first essay, “As Breathing and Consciousness Return,” demands first the need of a vision of health and the good before recovery is possible. Chesterton begins his What is Wrong with the World with precisely the same claim. Solzhenitsyn writes that the contemporary Western vision of indolent consumption is merely another variety of the materialism at the root of Communism, and freedom is useless without an affirmative vision of the good life. The implications of his thought are refreshing or shocking, depending on the liberalism of the reader; Solzhenitsyn endorses the agrarian, patriarchal, and authoritarian institutions of Russia’s past as good examples. These institutions, he says, “preserved moral health […] incomparably higher than that expressed today in simian radio music, pop songs and insulting advertisements: could a listener from outer space imagine that our planet had already known and left behind it Bach, Rembrandt and Dante?” Agursky goes further on this line in a way that will particularly challenge the American Right, calling for censorship and gun control. He writes, “the entrepreneur who profits from pornographic literature enjoys unlimited freedom to exploit any of the mass media for its popularization,” and “one of democratic society’s gravest defects is its lack of control over the mass media.” Agursky concerns himself with the fate of the liberal West because the premise of liberalism does not include any sure vision of human nature or virtue. He writes that this means we in the West “have lost the basic, valuable first principles of democracy” because we have lost a “high degree of self discipline based on ethics.” Then follows this delicious paragraph on gun control:
The free sale of arms in the USA in the nineteenth century was no threat, but now that the self-discipline which once prevented their abuse has been lost, it has become a serious menace. A simple prohibition on the sale of weapons would accomplish nothing, since vast quantities are already in the hands of the public and could be withdrawn only by the application of draconian measures unthinkable in a democracy.
These challenges and prophecies do the modern American good service in that they question our assumptions on solid, Christian grounds. It is a veritable bath for the thoughts.
Concern about ethnic conflict in the Soviet Union inspired one of the most interesting topical essays in the volume: Shafarevich’s “Separation or Reconciliation? – The Nationalities Question in the USSR.” His reflection that “several generations of Russians have been brought up on such a horrendous version of Russian history that all they want to do is to try and forget we ever had a past at all” should reverberate with every Westerner today as a warning. Alas, that very historiography is certainly institutional everywhere in the West today, and it is only in counter-cultural institutions where a healthy and constructive vision of history can survive. Shafarevich notes that, although the Marxists spent a great deal of effort and rhetoric to debunk the concept of national groupings, the ethnic groups of the USSR asserted their identities so strongly that Moscow recognized them anyway. He notes that the resentment against Russian “colonialism” by the smaller groups is a function of the ideological, centralized state in Moscow which is at war with individual personalities as it is with nations. Although Shafarevich is hopeful that the ethnic SSRs would be federated with a post-Soviet Russia, we see in his essay reasons for the tensions that resulted in the peaceful secessions of eleven states between ’88 and ’91. As the EU, the UK, Spain, Ukraine, and others struggle with secession movements and revived nationalisms, the American is left wondering about the implications of these concerns in the United States.
Finally, the great theme of spiritual renewal through suffering and endurance emerges. In an essay by A. B. entitled “The Direction of Change,” the author asks “Why is this rebirth taking place in our country, where Christianity is attacked particularly systematically and with great brutality, while the rest of the world suffers a general decline in faith and religious feeling?” He answers that it is the impotence of human resources to deal with their sufferings that has reawakened the spiritual resources of the Russian people. He preaches that “Christianity alone possesses enough motive force gradually to inspire and transform our world,” and that the task of the believer means “embodying” the faith in the darkness of the modern world in order to leaven the world like yeast. Like Nikolai Berdyaev, A. B. also claims that revolutions” are strong and concrete on the negative and destructive side,” but have nothing but abstractions to point to as a vision of good. This, he says, is the ground on which the orthodox religious vision is always destined to triumph over ideology. Solzhenitsyn, in his crowning essay against the Russian intelligentsia, “The Smatterers,” says that the first thing Christians ought to do is to stop mouthing ideological slogans. The best line from the book, perhaps, is Solzhenitsyn’s demand, “DO NOT LIE!” By this, he says he doesn’t mean we ought to preach, but that we must stop “saying what you don’t think.” Some love Trump precisely for this reason: he says whatever he thinks without regard to the slogans. However, Solzhenitsyn’s meaning has a great spiritual significance. The cleansing of the nation and the land begins with our own souls.
From Under the Rubble is a source of inspiration for traditional souls in a dying age. Although it was written in response to the stultification of a collapsing Marxist experiment, it has much to say to Westerners at a time with the classical liberal notions are looking very vulnerable. Solzhenitsyn and his friends found the spiritual strength to preserve the eternally valuable elements of the Russian nation through a time of rapid decline. The West has much to garner from their success and example.