Among The Counter-Revolutionaries
Sir Roger Scruton was a genuine hero of the anti-communist resistance in Central Europe. In the 1980s, he would travel to Czechoslovakia and Poland, helping set up underground universities, where free thought could thrive, and where students could earn a meaningful degree outside the corrupt communist system.
Today, he sees a fast-coming need for a similar sort of underground resistance in Britain, a nation that has forgotten the lessons of communism. In this excerpt, Sir Roger speaks of the underground seminars that Czech intellectuals hosted in private apartments. This was part of building what Czech dissident Vaclav Benda called the “parallel polis” — a separate society where truth could live, and be passed on:
In those times, when private education was criminalised, and the universities and colleges were devoted to Marxist-Leninist dogma, the older generation of professors, the best of whom had been expelled from their positions following the Soviet invasion in 1968, had no other way of passing on their knowledge than through such secret seminars. For most of them publication was impossible, and the important books were unavailable or banned.
The chain of intellectual inspiration had been broken, and they were owners and curators of its last severed link. They lived at the end of an educational tradition, and their attempts to nurture that tradition and to pass it on had to be conducted underground. Do not think that this was an accidental feature of communism: it was the real political meaning of the system. Knowledge means privilege, advantage, curiosity, free enquiry, all of which were threats to the proletarian revolution and to the Party that had taken charge of it.
What is so fascinating, from our contemporary perspective, is how consumer capitalism, technology, and radical individualism has managed to accomplish what the communists could not do. As Neil Postman said, George Orwell feared a society where the state burned books; Aldous Huxley feared a society where the state did not need to burn books, because nobody wanted to read them in the first place. Our coming totalitarianism is softer, Huxleyan, not the hard Orwellian kind. The rise of the classical Christian school movement is one response to it. These schools are still permitted to function in the US, though Scruton points out that in his country, Britain, the Labour Party proposes banning private education of all kinds.
One thing I have heard over and over in traveling through former communist countries this year, talking about our common cultural crisis: it was easier under communism in one way alone — that you knew where the lines were. Today, you don’t. For example, you knew under communism that if you went to an underground seminar in an intellectual’s apartment that you were doing something very risky, and with powerful meaning. You were doing something revolutionary. Today, if someone wanted to have a seminar in their house to discuss the meaning of Aristotle, it would be just one choice of many on a Saturday night.
But think about it: if people aren’t taught Aristotle in the communist state schools, and they choose not to go to a risky underground seminar, the memory of Aristotle, his teaching, and why it’s important to our culture, fades away. In our society, if people aren’t taught Aristotle in the public or private schools, and they choose not to inform themselves in other ways, the memory of Aristotle, his teaching, and why it’s important to our culture, fades away.
Whether you go the Orwell route or the Huxley route, the result is the same.
A side note. On my recent Russian trip, I interviewed Viktor Popkov, a persecuted Christian dissident from Alexander Ogorodnikov’s circles. Popkov came to believe in Christ in the early 1970s. Back then, to be openly Christian was to align yourself against everybody and everything in Soviet society. It wasn’t only that you would get yourself persecuted. It was also that nobody understood you. This is why coming together for fellowship was so important. It wasn’t possible to do it in churches, Ogorodnikov, also a young convert, organized the “Christian Seminar” in Moscow — a regular meeting of believers who came together to discuss their subversive faith. They were like the Prague intellectuals, only they focused not on philosophy and literature, but on Christianity, both in its intellectual dimension, and its popular dimension. Popkov told me:
“Fifteen to twenty people would get together (at these seminars) on the weekend to talk to each other. Completely surprising things would happen. Obviously we were being followed by the KGB. They knew everything about us. These meetings caused me to feel something very, very deep that I continue to feel today. It was an intoxicating happiness. We gathered together, and the Lord answered us with his presence. This feeling was something we felt only when we were meeting. When I’m reading the Acts of the Apostles, that’s what it felt like. By gathering together, we were able to rise to a new level, and then go back home and live at a higher level.”
He added: “In Soviet life, there were only two colors: black and white. In Western society today, there are a large number of colors, and it’s so hard to make a decision. In that way, we had it easier than people today.”
Anyway, back to Scruton’s new piece. Here he talks about the underground Prague seminars as the seeds of civil society:
What disturbed the authorities was not the fact that these peculiar people were studying Plato. After all, Plato was studied in the official universities too. The problem was that they were studying Plato together, and without asking permission. They had created a club of their own, outside the vigilance of the state, and they had united in friendship to pursue that goal. They had created a fragment of civil society, and in doing so had brought meaning into their lives beyond anything delivered by the grim routines of the communist bureaucracy.
In the Czechoslovakia of those times there was a hunger for civil society. Older people remembered the clubs, troupes, parades, pilgrimages, dances, bands, teams and regiments that were the lost heart of their nation. Younger people looked enviously at those Western societies in which pop groups, dances, festivals and protests offered a life outside the system. And the more serious the desire for those things, the more determined was the Party to forbid them.
It is well known that civil society has been declining these past few decades (the whole “Bowling Alone” phenomenon). This is not happening because a one-party state has been monopolizing power. That’s the Orwell scenario. It has been happening because as Huxley feared, we have become a people saturated with information, and distracted to the point of dissolution. We won’t have it in us to resist future persecution because we will not recognize it when it comes.
In my reading for this new book I’m working on, I have learned a powerful lesson from Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, a history of the Bolshevik Revolution. The revolution was born among groups of radical intellectuals who met in each other’s houses to conduct seminars, and who were willing to risk serious persecution by the Tsarist state — and willing to suffer imprisonment and exile to Siberia when it came — for the sake of their beliefs. They took what they learned from those seminars, and spread the revolutionary faith to ordinary Russians. Eventually, the country was theirs.
Of course, they destroyed it. That’s not my point. My point is that a great movement began from the seeds planted in these underground seminars, by true believers who were willing to suffer for their faith. Scruton recalls the anti-communist version of this, from the 1980s, and says that the censorious Left, which owns British universities, are creating conditions where such seminars will be necessary to ensure that British students who want a real education can get one.
What would those seminars look like for us if we held them today? I’m talking about seminars like the Czechs did (based on academic and cultural topics), and seminars like the Russian Christians did, focusing on the faith?