Solzhenitsyn's Chilling Warning to College Students Tempted by Socialism
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was one of the moral Titans of the 20th century. Born the year after the Communist Revolution in Russia, he would go on to become an ardent Communist. But while fighting as a soldier in the Red Army against the Nazi invasion, he was arrested for a supposedly critical comment he had made about the government’s conduct of the war in a private letter to a friend in early 1945. He was then sent to the “gulag archipelago”—the vast network of Soviet prison camps in which the communists imprisoned their enemies.
Solzhenitsyn would go on to author a massive three-volume tome on his time in the Soviet gulag system which he entitled The Gulag Archipelago. Published in 1973 (outside the Soviet Union), it led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. No work did as much to undermine the supposed moral foundations, and indeed supposed superiority of the Soviet system. It forever demolished the fantasy that had been clung to by many Left-wing intellectuals since the 1930’s that the Soviet Union represented the next stage in human evolution—the advent of a new system of scientific “planning” appropriate to modern industrial life.
Solzhenitsyn forever demolished this fantasy by conclusively showing how the Soviet system—which indeed represented itself to the world, and was represented to the world by Leftist intellectuals, as the banner-carrier of Socialism—was completely reliant on oppression, violence, and tyranny.
What did Solzhenitsyn claim was at the heart of Soviet evil? Essentially, the idea that moral guilt or innocence depended on the collective identity to which someone belonged—which I’ll also refer to as “group-identity.” For example, one of the worst accusations that could be made was that you were a “class enemy.” This meant that you came from the wrong socio-economic “class.” Therefore, regardless of anything else about you, you were deemed forever and unalterably an enemy of the Soviet government. Of course, the definition of what constituted a “class enemy” was rather mercurial, and often simply used as a pretext to go after the perceived enemies of the Communists.
If you belonged to the wrong group, you became an “enemy of the people,” “enemy of the laborers,” “enemy of the proletariat,” or as previously mentioned, a “class enemy.” Those included within this wide umbrella included former Mensheviks (those who had fought against the Bolsheviks in the Revolution), clerics, entrepreneurs, capitalists, bourgeoise (essentially a member of the middle class, usually city-dwellers), kulaks (affluent peasants, and later identified in the USSR with those who refused to send their grain to Moscow), etc.
Similarly, if you belonged to the right group, you were deemed automatically righteous. You were part of “the proletariat,” a “laborer” for “the people,” a “comrade.” In short, your individual moral qualities no longer mattered—your group identity alone made you “good.”
This imposition of group-identity was, for Solzhenitsyn, at the heart of Soviet evil. It was based on Marxist philosophy, which held to the “materialist conception of history”—an explicitly atheist concept which saw history as the result of material conditions, rather than ideas. As Marx himself observed in the opening of The Manifesto of the Communist Party (or simply “The Communist Manifesto”) in 1848, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Thus, all human beings could be identified not primarily by their individual identity, but their group-identity, and thus divided into one of two categories: oppressor, or oppressed. Marx himself said so:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. [Emphasis added]
It was assumed that to belong to one class meant one was evil (an “oppressor”), and to belong to another made one good (the “oppressed”). It was thus eerily similar to contemporary identity politics, especially of the “intersectional” variety, in which group-identity is the basis for one’s supposed moral authority (or lack thereof). In the USSR, this monstrous way of thinking became manifest: your group-identity, not your individual character, became the standard by which your moral responsibilities (or lack thereof) were measured.
Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, affirmed that moral good and evil were not dependent on one’s group-identity, but one’s individual actions and conscience. He thus affirmed a fundamentally religious and Christian conception of the human person—that, because all bear the image of God (see Gen. 1:27), all are accountable to Him for their individual behavior. Their group-identity, on its own, would neither condemn nor acquit them. Regardless of one’s group-identity, evil was always possible—it always lurked at the doorstep of every human heart. The assertion of group-identity was thus, according to Solzhenitsyn, not only a way to avoid moral responsibility, but a way to justify unimaginable atrocities. One of the more famous of these was the “Holodomor Genocide,” a deliberately engineered famine of the “kulaks” in Ukraine by Stalin’s government, justified and carried out on the basis of notions of group-identity. They were just “kulaks,” after all, which meant not only was their destruction justified, but their murderers were absolved for destroying them. This was identity politics taken to its logical conclusion.
Against this madness, Solzhenitsyn eloquently affirmed the following in the first of his three-volume work:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Socrates taught us: Know thyself!
From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.
And correspondingly, from evil to good. [Emphasis in the original]
As Solzhenitsyn asserted, all the horrors of the Soviet system rested on this fundamental error about the nature of the human person. In the USSR, identity politics—the ideology of collective/group-identity as opposed to individual identity—had been used to absolve some of their moral responsibility, and inflicted on others to obscure their human dignity. All of this was done in the interest of the Left-wing/Socialist/Communist theorizing—the materialist conception of history, which supposedly disclosed how man could achieve the next stage of human evolution, the “New Man” of the coming Communist Utopia. Religious ideas about individual human worth based on the idea that all were created in the image of God only got in the way of such diabolical projects—as Solzhenitsyn discovered in the gulag.
He ended his magisterial work with a warning that many Leftists today would be right to remember, and take to heart, for it could be said with the same force and conviction now as when it was originally offered by Solzhenitsyn nearly fifty years ago:
All you freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you are concerned, this whole book of mine is a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it all someday—but only when you yourselves hear “hands behind your backs there!” and step ashore on our Archipelago. [Emphasis in the original]
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Volume I, Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps”); Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harry Willetts, trans., The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation: Volume I (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), 168.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Volume III, Part VII, Chapter 3, “The Law Today”); Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harry Willetts, trans., The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation: Volume III (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), 518.