Some lessons from The Gulag Archipelago

I’m about two thirds of the way through (an abridged version of) Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago… one wishes to believe that if we taught this in our schools in the United States, we would produce adults more wary of both communism and utopian dreams of all kinds. I thought I’d share a few quotations from the mid-section and how they bring to mind analogies with our situation. The point here is not to argue that the US is becoming a communist nation (cultural Marxism seems to have replaced economic Marxism now anyway, as progressives have decided that the hammer of Big Corporate is really their best friend in the culture war and that’s just fine), but rather to point out that the same human tendencies play themselves out, again and again and again, in just slightly different clothing.

  1. The countryside is more sensible. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    We have been talking about the towns, but we should not forget the countryside. Liberals nowadays commonly reproach the village with its political obtuseness and conservatism. But before the war the village to a man, or overwhelmingly, was sober, much more sober than the town…

    He goes on to say that the countryside was slower to deify Daddy Stalin, too busy for “world revolution”, and that the media (filled with lies and propaganda) had less penetration into rural areas. And today I think many city-dwelling US conservatives realize we are a minority in our neighborhoods and are somewhat saddened by the fact that good sense is more apt to be found in the less-populated and less culturally powerful parts of the country. This was a mystery to me for a long time, but I think it is easier for city-dwellers to live in abstractions (often even our jobs are abstractions), and abstractions can take you anywhere… your world becomes a thing you have created in your head rather than the world. People who are tethered to the land find their minds more tethered to reality as well.

  2. Burn a little incense to the state religion in every school lesson. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    In every lesson, whether it was pertinent or not, whether you were studying the anatomy of worms of the use of conjunctions in complex sentences, you were required to take a kick at God (even if you yourself believed in Him); you could not omit the singing of praises of our boundless freedom (even if you had lain awake expecting a knock in the night); whether you were reading Turgenev to the class or tracing the course of the Dnieper with your ruler, you had to anathematize the past and hymn our present plenty…

    I read that and couldn’t help but think about what is now the explicit, oh so explicit, push to make “diversity, equity, and inclusion” part of the curriculum of every subject and a part of every aspect of educational life in our public institutions today. Now of course if you press these folks, and they aren’t itching for a fight, they will insist that there is nothing ideological about DEI, it’s just about giving people who have struggled in life an extra push up… ideological dogmatists insisting they don’t even have an ideology is nothing new either. It is an ideology, a sort of smoosh of critical theory and nihilism and identitarianism (like many revolutions it is certain that it wants to tear down what exists now, but is less clear about exactly what comes next)… I am grateful for people like James Lindsay and Christopher Rufo (so crazy effective is that man) and lately Carl Trueman for publicizing what is going on in our institutions and giving the opposition the language they need to respond.

  3. Only an explicitly religious core in your life can finally protect you from being corrupted by the world. Solzhenitsyn, in a section about how everyone learned to lie, everyone learned to steal, in camp, writes especially of religious believers,

    How could one not envy these people? Were circumstances more favorable for them? By no means! It is a well-known fact that the “nuns” [by which he means virtuous older women generally, I believe] were kept only with prostitutes and thieves at penalty camps. And yet who was there among religious believers whose soul was corrupted? They died - most certainly, but… they were not corrupted.

    And then later, after examining the life of one scientist, he remarks that… OK, it isn’t just religious believers perhaps, perhaps more generally we could say that,

    So wouldn’t it be more correct to say that no camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept the pitiful ideology that holds that ‘human beings are created for happiness,’ an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel?

    I haven’t much more to say about that… many of Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of camp life are incredibly depressing, as men are treated more like beasts than men and so often became beasts. But yes - if you think the purpose of life is to be comfortable, or to accumulate possessions, or any such, and then get thrown in a prison camp (and probably unjustly) for 10 or 25 years or life, it would destroy you. We have many people in the United States today who believe that truth is ultimately relative, but power is absolute, and that attitude will excuse any behavior so long as it is pursued for the “right” ends.

  4. Class cruelty doesn’t count as cruelty. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    And, anyway, cruelty (‘class cruelty’) was praised and instilled, and you would soon lose track, probably, of just where between bad and good that trait lay. And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, and pity was ridiculed, that mercy was ridiculed - you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood!

    Our US-version of Marxism is not so much focused on economic classes… and even in the Soviet Union, I think Solzhenitsyn would say that it sometimes wasn’t “you are a member of the bourgeoisie so I hate you”, but rather “I hate you or want to hate you or need to hate you to serve some other purpose of mine, so I’m going to justify in my head why you count as a member of the bourgeoisie so now that hatred it OK”. The whole Marxist mindset is one of dividing people up into groups, and then your feelings toward someone and how they should be treated in society is entirely determined by what group they belong to… but nah, nothing familiar sounding about that.

  5. Once compromised themselves, the compromised will defend the status quo. Speaking of the recruitment of people to tattle on their neighbors to the state, Solzhenitsyn writes,

    Beyond the purpose of weakening ties between people, there was another purpose as well. Any person who had let himself be recruited would, out of fear of public exposure, be very much interested in the continuing stability of the regime.

    I think a lot of this happens today, where someone thinks X is wrong, or a bad idea, but people pressure them to accept X and eventually, because they are a weak individual or fearful for their employment or whatever, they give in. X could be anything from preferred pronoun stuff (because I assure you that many progressives believe that “if I think I’m a girl, then I am one” is crazy), to some of our COVID-19 rules. But then, once they personally have come to accept X, they become advocates (and sometimes the most fanatical of advocates) for rules that would require everyone to accept X. They do not want your courage out there reminding them of their own cowardice and making them look bad among the unconverted.

  6. Meaning well (or purporting to mean well) will not save a nation. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    We will not affirm that this was a special, diabolical plan for the moral disintegration of our people. As always in the half-century of our most recent modern history, a lofty, bright theory and creeping moral vileness somehow got naturally interwoven, and were easily transformed into one another.

    Beware utopianists.

  7. Some men desire power not because they have some goal for which power is needed, but just because they love power. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    In this respect the camp keepers were fully the equals of the very worst of the serf owners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Innumerable are the examples of senseless orders, the sole purpose of which was to demonstrate their power.

    And later,

    Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.

    It’s actually a common theme in Gulag that our great, progressive, scientific Soviet Union has brought back barbarisms that had been quenched by the preceding monarchies. Per the quotation, I think we’ve seen this play out time and again in our society’s response to COVID-19. Many rules which may have begun, in our innocence and lack of knowledge, as “we need you to do this for the health”, came in remarkably short order to be expanded far past any reasonable stopping point, and to be enforced as if (in some locales) something like “holding normal church service” (or “ice skating outside”) was kin to murder. Why? Because power thrills, and “for the health” quite easily morphed into “I said do blah, you said no, so I’m going to make you comply just because that pleases me so”. The power of the state should be limited firstly because our human nature would easily, so easily, turn that power to wicked ends.

  8. To utopian technocrats, we are all just data points. Solzhenitsyn writes,

    We have done far too much damage by looking at people as entries in a table.

    OK, I am cheating a little on this last one because it isn’t entirely clear to me, in context, what Solzhenitsyn means by this quip - he may mean my bold-faced summary and he may mean something else. But possibly cheating and assuming it’s the former… that is perhaps the biggest overarching political threat in the United States today. The Soviet Union prided itself tremendously on being a nation that would be entirely organized upon scientific lines… and from that, it lost its humanity. And now many in the US want us also to be a nation entirely organized upon scientific lines, and in the same way, in the sense of putting a few experts in charge of everyone, having them decide what counts as the optimal outcome for the nation as a whole, and then controlling people nigh without limit to produce those optimal outcomes. We are entries in a table to them rather than men and women with our own lives to be respected. It took a long time for some of us to really put to words the problem with the mindset that was driving our COVID-19 response - this is the mindset. Rick Devos actually had a nice thread a few days ago:

There are not many threats in the world that are truly new, and statism as a mindset isn’t new. But the technology we have today in terms of data collection and tracking and the ability of the state to constantly know where you are and what you are doing, that’s new. And that makes statism, which isn’t new, more dangerous than it has ever been before. Let us be very careful what we might accidentally help build for tomorrow.