Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Remembering Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918. He joined the Red Army during World War II to fight the Nazis and was decorated for bravery. One day, though, while camped on the German front, he made the mistake of criticizing Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was arrested and sent to a Soviet labor camp in Kazakhstan. This led to a series of novels that were banned in his home country. Nonetheless, his writings earned him the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature. This was followed by his writing a memoir, The Gulag Archipelago, that led to another arrest, this time for treason.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's mugshot

When I was young and foolish, I regarded Mr. Solzhenitsyn dismissively for being a stalking horse for conservative anti-communism. In an intellectually lazy fashion, my opposition to conservative bullishness on nuclear brinksmanship and discontent with the excesses of capitalism were enough to close my mind to alternative points of view. Having grown older and wiser, I have rediscovered his works and I have found in Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s a compelling, modern voice that sounds the themes that America’s Founding Fathers had once sounded years before. 

It is also sobering, though, to reflect on the timeliness of his words. When we fall victim to the illusion that “what is, is normal” we fail to recognize the slow and steady encroachments of tyranny. We are, to use a trite cliché, those frogs that remain calmly in a pot of water as the temperature slowly rises. Below, I highlight some of the themes of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s work.

I. Privacy.

Against the naïve canard that privacy matters not when one has “nothing to hide,” he wrote, “Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.” In reality, every one of us has something to hide, because the private details of our lives can be distorted and used as evidence by those who have an interest in creating fear and compliance. By zealously defending privacy, we take away one of the tools of tyranny. He lamented the fact that, “we are even unsure whether we have the right to talk about the events of our own lives.” He posed the question, “If you always look over your shoulder, how can you still remain human?”

II. Moral Complexity.

Against the foolish clinging to ideologies that set citizens against one another, Mr. Solzhenitsyn urged that we embrace a sentiment of solidarity. “Gradually,” he said, “it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart.” These ideologies that set conservatives against liberals and the supposedly right-headed against the supposedly wrong-headed, they are ideologies of self-interest disguised as higher principles. However, “the salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all.”

III. Courage in Defense of Freedom.

“Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?” He was referring to a particular kind of courage: the courage to desire freedom even if one is made to feel afraid. The tyrant always creates imagined enemies to make the people want nothing more than to be protected. The desire to be protected is not far off from the desire to be tyrannized. “A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.” And in explaining how it was that the Russian people allowed themselves to become the victims of tyranny, he suggested, “we didn't love freedom enough.” 

IV. Opposing Oligarchs is Defending Freedom

“It's true that private enterprise is extremely flexible,” Solzhenitsyn  wrote. “But it is only good within very narrow limits. If private enterprise isn't held in an iron grip it gives birth to people who are no better than beasts, those stock-exchange people with greedy appetites beyond restraint.” In reflecting on his works an older Solzhenitsyn reflected, “In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion.” 

It is important to think carefully about what he meant by socialism. The Soviet Union called itself a socialist state but it was notorious for being ruled by a clique of oligarchs. Anderson and Boettke's scholarly work in the journal Public Choice (1997) explains how Soviet leaders ostensibly created monopolies to ensure that the people received a steady supply of necessary goods. In fact, monopolies in the USSR were like monopolies anywhere else: they were means of preventing competition and allowing monopolists to make overgrown profits at the peoples' expense. I don’t believe Solzhenitsyn had in mind all forms of socialism –viable governments in the developed world are to varying degrees “socialist,” including even our partners France and the United Kingdom – but what he did have in mind was mercantilism (the exchange of privilege for revenue) and oligarchy (rule by the wealthy and influential) in the guise of socialism.

In the era of 'Obamacare' it is worth remembering Solzhenitsyn's observation of the Soviet Union: "Medical services were legally rationed according to need, but in reality were rationed by bribery." This is inevitable in an oligarchy.

V. Solzhenitsyn and Putin

As is often the case when lionizing a great man, one comes up against the fact that the great man is in fact fallible like the rest of us. Solzhenitsyn has been rightly criticized for supporting Vladimir Putin’s rise to political power. To understand how Solzhenitsyn may have erred, the issue of oligarchy remains pertinent. Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken opponent of Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had opposed Mikhail Gorbachev and led Russia to embrace a free-wheeling free-market economy. Yeltsin had the support of wealthy Russian businessmen and money flowing in from the United States. Speaking of the Yeltsin regime, Solzhenitsyn said,

“The most basic feature of the previous communist regime—the complete closedness (zakrytost) to the people and the lack of accountability for [its] actions—is no less fundamental to the current [Yeltsin] regime. ... Every kind of democratic screen is used to conceal a greedy oligarchy and for the deception of world public opinion.”
Putin, despite being a protégé of Yeltsin’s, stood for “hostility toward privatization and oligarchs” and made “speeches about the plunder of the people and the hand of the U.S.A. in the ‘democratization’ of former republics of the USSR (Horvath, 2011).”

In American politics, privatization is often viewed as a good thing, particularly by members of the political right. However, Solzhenitsyn saw privatization as a boon to oligarchs, and the logic is clear-cut. Large corporations with near-monopoly power are usually the beneficiaries when industries are privatized. Is this to say that privatization is always a bad thing, or that government ownership is always a good thing? I’d say certainly not. True to the genius of Solzhenitsyn, there are no simple answers to this question other than to say that, where corruption exists, it will find a way to profit from private or public ownership of industries.  

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