Hello from snowy and not-un-Siberia-like upstate New York, where I’m attending a conference at the Russian Orthodox monastery and seminary. At dinner last night with some conference-goers, I was talking about my ideas for my upcoming book. As you regular readers know, I plan to write about the warnings people living here who grew up under Soviet and Eastern European communism are now sounding about the emerging totalitarianism in our own increasingly post-liberal culture. Many of you weren’t keen on me framing this as a recrudescent socialism, because I am talking mostly about culture, not political economy.
The thing is, socialism is not only about political economy. It’s a way of seeing the world. One of my Orthodox professor friends here at the conference said that Dostoevsky, no aristocrat, understood this. I found this bit last night online, describing Dostoevsky’s view on socialism:
The Rousseauistic view of human nature on which utopian socialism rested was severely challenged by Dostoevsky’s experience of prison in Siberia. The theoretical notion of the fundamental goodness of human beings was now tested against the reality of human nature in the raw. The unrepentant brawlers, thieves, and murderers with whom he spent four years were not merely innocent victims who would happily live in brotherhood and harmony once freed from repressive institutions. Returning from ten years in Siberia Dostoevsky encountered a socialism that had taken on a much more revolutionary cast. His remarks about it in both fiction and journalism over the next two decades are almost uniformly hostile. The enmity—largely theoretical—between Christianity and the socialism of the late [Vissarion] Belinsky and his circle, had now become a reality, and this revolutionary and atheistic doctrine the major rival of Christianity for the hearts and minds of the new generation. Dostoevsky’s critique of socialism, then, begins with its atheism. Dismissing the essential spiritual nature of human beings, the socialists can concern themselves only with man’s material needs. As Dostoevsky wrote in his notebook for 1863-1864: ‘The socialists want to regenerate humans, to liberate them, to present them without God and the family. They conclude that having forcibly changed the economic way humans live they will achieve their goals. But humans are transformed not from external reasons but only from moral changes.’ In his notes for an unfinished article, ‘Socialism and Christianity,’ Dostoevsky wrote that ‘the socialists go no further than the belly.’ Lacking any spiritual basis for human brotherhood, the socialists must resort to compulsion to establish it. French socialism, he wrote in 1877, ‘is nothing other than the compulsory union of humanity’; or, as he said, more vividly, about the slogan of Roman Catholicism, which he saw as sharing the goals of socialism, ‘Fraternité ou la mort’ (‘Be my brother, or off with your head’). These two ideas—that human problems can be solved by exclusively material remedies, but that this cannot be done without compulsion—run through Dostoevsky’s critique of socialism.
Point is, there really is a lot of “socialism” in Whatever This Thing We’re Dealing With Is. Marxist modes of thought are great at tearing down what we have, but insofar as nobody really believes in the Revolution anymore, it doesn’t offer much to replace it. The political theorist Augusto Del Noce captured a key aspect of what we’re dealing with now when he wrote: “the new totalitarianism is very different from older forms because it is a totalitarianism of disintegration, even before being a totalitarianism of domination. It dominates by disintegrating.”
Still, I am persuaded by some recent offline conversations that framing it as socialism obscures more than it illuminates. Two points a friend made bring this out:
- This phenomenon is not driven only by the state (and maybe not even primarily by the state), but by private actors, especially educational institutions and big corporations. How is that socialism?
- If we elected Republicans — members of the supposedly anti-socialist party — from now until forever, and if we left the free market unchanged, that would make no meaningful difference in stopping the progress of this disintegration. So how can we honestly tag this as socialism?
I find these points to be unanswerable. Maybe you disagree.
A reader sent me a link to Peggy Noonan’s latest column (which is behind a paywall). She says that our condition in the US these days reminds her of China’s Cultural Revolution, especially the “struggle sessions” in which fanatical young communists forced supposed enemies of the Revolution to confess their sins publicly (whether they were guilty or not). Noonan writes:
I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned and is here, in part because of the internet, in part because of the extremity of our politics, in part because more people are lonely. “Contention is better than loneliness,” as my people, the Irish, say, and they would know.
The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.
The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter . On literary Twitter social-justice warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. They’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.
There’s a feeling in the air, isn’t there? We’re all noticing pieces of the story here and there, in this incident and that. But maybe it has an overall meaning. And maybe that meaning isn’t good.
Reading this, it hit me: I’ve had the wrong commies in mind! What the former anti-communist dissidents among us are recognizing is the totalitarianism inherent in a new Cultural Revolution, the contours of which we are only just now beginning to discern.
The book I’m going to write is about how to hold on through the Cultural Revolution now upon us. It shares many characteristics with hardline socialism, but it is also significantly different — so much so that trying to pin it on socialism proper is problematic.
It is certainly the case that if our own American socialists came to power, they would implement the full panoply of identity politics leftism, though that wouldn’t be their main priority. But Del Noce, again, is acutely correct when he points out that it’s a mistake to think that totalitarianism requires a police state. It can exist even in democracies, he said, because totalitarianism is a condition in which politics invades all of life.
I wish you could see my e-mails or have the kinds of personal conversations I have with academics and people involved in public life. They make fairly mild statements critical of the woke, but ask me not to identify them. They’re afraid. They see what happens to dissenters. A friend told me this week, “You’re lucky, in a way. You’ll never be hired in a newsroom again, after the things you’ve written. You can say what you think.”
Yes, as long as there’s a TAC (thank you, donors). But if I lost my job here? We don’t have a state telling people not to hire the likes of me. We don’t need one. Sixty percent of employers in this poll said they check the social media profiles of potential hires, and include what they find there in their decisions. You think China is the only country with a social credit system?
A friend in DC told me this week that he was recently at a dinner party where one of the other guests said to him, “Growing up in the Soviet Union, my parents taught me never to believe a thing I heard in the media, and to be very careful what I say out loud. Now I find myself telling my children the same thing.”
That’s our country. That’s our Cultural Revolution. That’s the framing for this next book. It’s eventually going to burn itself out (I hope), but not for a long time, and not before doing a hell of a lot of damage. Our task is to fight it openly where we can, but to build up resistance in ourselves and in our communities. Almost one year ago, to the day, I spent one of the most important evenings of my life with the Benda family in Prague. Here’s my account of what I learned there. The most important lesson: the same strategies that the Bendas used to endure communism without losing their minds or their souls are keeping them solidly grounded in their faith and traditions in their post-communist capitalist society, which is the most atheist in Europe.
Those people know how to live. They have wisdom for us. So do others who came through communism. They can help us beat the Cultural Revolution.
UPDATE: Theodore Dalrymple:
In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.