Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World

Why should it have been so hard to understand a writer who expresses himself with so little ambiguity? Or is it possible that his ideas were understood quite clearly but clearly hated, leading to futile attempts to discredit him? Ericson maintains his professional courtesies, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that intellectual confusion alone cannot account for the hatchet jobs done on the expatriate Russian writer.

Ericson quotes the socialist economist Robert Heilbroner to the effect that only the right–Friedman, Hayek, von Mises, and others of that sort–predicted with any degree of accuracy the outcome of the struggle between capitalism and socialism. Even the center expected the former to have increasingly serious problems and the latter to be the emerging economic system of the next century. That alone would be sufficient to damn this refugee from the world’s premier socialist country, a man who never ceased to condemn not only its tyranny, but also its futility. But there is more, much more.

For Solzhenitsyn is not primarily an economic analyst but a moralist of the prophetic strain; and his accusations have been directed squarely at the intellectual assumptions and habits that dominate the world in which his critics live. Hence come not only the disagreements, but also the distortions and the vitriol with which they’re expressed.

Ericson argues persuasively that Solzhenitsyn represents a Christian perspective that understands the Enlightenment’s wont to accommodate tyranny. Thus Solzhenitsyn is a partisan not of the blind and reactionary slavophilism of which he is often accused, but rather of a clear-eyed understanding that the West’s gradual descent into barbarism may be different in extent and pace but ultimately not in kind from communism s fundamental rejection of the norms of civilization. That is the heart of the matter.

The author quotes the late American Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who described Solzhenitsyn as a Christian writer, specifying , however, that in doing so he was not making a judgment of the expatriates status as a believer or churchman. Rather, Schmemann was referring to:

a deep and all-embracing, though possibly unconscious perception of the world, man, and life, which, historically, was born and grew from Biblical and Christian revelation, and only from it....I shall call this perception, for lack of a better term, the triune intuition of creation, fall, and redemption. I am convinced that it is precisely this intuition that lies at the bottom of Solzhenitsyn’s art, and that renders his art Christian.

This fact, more than any of his judgments on the Soviet order and its future, or even his criticisms of this or that feature of Western life and scholarship, accounts for the hostility to Solzhenitsyn in the West. His espousal of the ideals of a Christian civilization, expressed with the in-your-face rhetoric of the biblical prophet, could only elicit disgust and hatred from those being denounced. His acceptance of democratic forms, not as ends in themselves but only as means to freedom, could find no sympathy among critics whose own commitments had little room for freedom. His defense of free markets and private property clashed with fashionable ideologies that valued neither. His support for decentralization and localism, family and community, flew in the face of antagonists who saw salvation only in the aggrandizement of the idol State.

Unable to meet his arguments on their own terms, Western ideologues of secularity misrepresent them as a call for a theocratic state. The opponent of tyranny was thus said to be its proponent. As Ericson shows, these judgments were and are being made in defiance of innumerable texts in Solzhenitsyn’s writings that refute them. To a great extent we are dealing here with propaganda more than scholarship.

Although Ericson writes to refute the libels that snap at Solzhenitsyn’s reputation, this is not a work of hagiography. The prophet exaggerated the weaknesses of the West, missing the reserves of strength and determination that lay beneath the foolishness and cowardice of so many of its intellectuals and politicians. He saw little hope of averting a war between the Soviet Union and China. And he accepted too uncritically the discredited Club of Rome report and its message of impending environmental doom.

If Solzhenitsyn is right, we have here not just a scholarly debate which can be settled by evidence and arguments. This is a true culture war, one that has been in train for two centuries, if we use the typical Enlightenment dating, and much longer in fact. Arguments and evidence alone are not sufficient in this kind of struggle, however necessary they are. To them must be added courage, patience, and the willingness to continue the battle as long as necessary.