Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, arguably the man most responsible for the myriad of distortions surrounding the Soviet socialist system, is dead. Anti-communists revere his name and cite as truth his book, The Gulag Archipelago, because the terrifying image of the massive political prison system, found in Solzhenitsyn’s historical fiction and in the really-existing United States, serve a propagandistic function. High schoolers are often required to read The Gulag Archipelago as part of bourgeois indoctrination.
In Blackshirts and Reds, Michael Parenti wonders:
Some Russian anticommunist writers such as Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, and many U.S. anticommunist liberals, maintain that the gulag existed right down to the last days of communism. If so, where did it disappear to? After Stalins death in 1953, more than half of the gulag inmates were freed, according to the study of the NKVD files previously cited. But if so many others remained incarcerated, why have they not materialized? When the communist states were over- thrown, where were the half-starved hordes pouring out of the internment camps with their tales of travail?
However, the public is never told about Solzhenitsyn’s theory that the Soviet Union was a creation of elite and wicked Jews, anti-Christian outsiders hellbent on world conquest. It’s true: despite his denial that this is not what he meant precisely, Solzhenitsyn’ work is filled with rabid anti-Jewish sentiment that implies that a Jewish cabal lies behind world history. The Gulag Archipelago dwells on the camp guards with Jewish names. His ethnonationalist tract August 1914 exaggerates Jewish influences in Russian history. And his two-volume tome, Two Hundred Years Together, masquerading as an honest account of the historic relationship between Jews and Russians – as if Jews aren’t Russians – is deeply anti-Jewish. He writes, “the population of Russia, as a whole, regarded the new terror as a Jewish terror.”
He exaggerated about many other things, as well, not least amomg them is his claim about leftwing opposition to the Vietnam War: “But members of the US antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there.” The US government was responsible for around 3 million deaths in Indo-China alone during this period. Who exactly did the United States betray by not killing more human beings?
His attack on humanism is reprehensible. In a 1978 speech at Harvard (A World Split Apart ), Solzhenitsyn argues, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature.”
The first part of the argument asserts that, if the purpose of being born is happiness, human beings would be immortal. Why? People are unhappy with the prospect of dying in part because people enjoy living. Life makes people happy and, not wanting to be unhappy, and not being able to imagine the content of annihilation, they don’t want to die. People also are unhappy about the prospect of death because they fear suffering. But not everybody who dies suffers. If I pass away in my sleep tomorrow, or if I cease to exist painlessly, surrounded by friends and family, I cannot say that I am now feeling unhappy about these future possibilities. Are some of those who die peacefully unhappy? It’s an odd question. Nobody is unhappy after they’re dead. The dead feel nothing. Do the deaths of others make us unhappy? Yes, of course. But people find ways to become happy again. And the dead do not wish us to be unhappy. So I wonder how it follows that, if one is born to die, one must be unhappy, or, to put it another way, that happiness requires eternal life. It is possible that eternal life could be very unpleasant? Watching the sun explode or go out?
What about the second part of the argument: “Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature”? How did Solzhenitsyn get to spiritual nature from the problem of happiness? Solzhenitsyn is saying that because a human being is born to die, he must be unhappy. Accepting this argument, are we to assume that spirituality presupposes unhappiness? Solzhenitsyn comes from the school of thought that human beings are born to suffer and part of their suffering is a mortal existence where death looms before them. It would have been tidy if Solzhenitsyn had simply boldly made this argument rather than trying to sneak it in through tortured logic concerning what humanists believe – especially since humanists believe no such thing!
For humanists, death has no purpose beyond the meaning we give it. All organisms die. All matter is transformed. This is merely the way it is. There is no intrinsic purpose in any of it. The universe and all the natural things in it do not exist for a reason or a purpose. They just are. It follows that whatever purpose is said to exist for the mortality of organisms is of human origin. Cats have no transcendent purpose in life nor can they make a purpose for themselves. The chief difference between cats and humans on this score is that the latter can manufacture a purpose for the inevitability of death occurring in both species. Since this is the case, why shouldn’t human beings decide that the purpose of life is secular happiness rather than spiritual suffering? There is nothing in Solzhenitsyn’s formulation that says it cannot be so.
Solzhenitsyn plays a rhetorical game. He projects onto humanism his own belief that there must be a transcendent purpose in corporeal existence so that he can then present to his audience the appearance of logical symmetry in order to legitimate the contrary claim, namely, that since man is born to die, his purpose in life must possess a spiritual character. Even if one accepts the premise that humanists believe that human beings are born with a purpose (to be happy), this belief has no bearing on what humanists believe about the purpose of mortality. For the record, as if this were not obvious enough, we should note that humanists do not believe that there is a purpose to life and death. Solzhenitsyn is wrong from the git-go.
Humanists quite reasonably contend that the human experience should be pleasing to our sensibilities rather than destructive to well-being. Why? Because human beings – like all other animals, and even plants – seek surroundings in which they may thrive. Environs that are destructive to well-being cause the opposite effect to manifest; instead of thriving, organisms suffer and perish under conditions hostile to their well-being. With human beings, as apparently with all animals, suffering is incompatible with thriving and happiness, and the latter are usually sought over the former. Only human beings choose to believe life is suffering and actively seek out manners of living that bring suffering – and religion is one of the principle forces driving this absurd and destructive belief.
Of course, where democracy does not obtain, not every person is in the same position to decide what the purpose of human existence is. In hierarchically-arranged society, the powerful few decide for the rest of us what our purpose is to be. This is especially true in religious systems such as the one Solzhenitsyn advocated during his life. In such religious systems, priests and texts tell human beings what their purpose is. They tell us, circularly, that our purpose is suffering here on earth for the sake of escaping a world beyond the pain of the real, that there is eternal life in an ethereal form freed from our corporeal and tragically mortal bodies. Moreover, they tell us that failing to believe in this transcendent purpose, a purpose that rests entirely on faith belief, will be punished with suffering impossible in the real immediate world. So the loving God has created a special place for impossible suffering: Hell. So it is hell on Earth for all and hell after life for those millions who failed to submit to belief in a loving god, a loving god who made you mortal and will torment you for all eternity if you fail to appreciate it.
What humanists desire above all is returning the human beings to an understanding that human social life is collective, that individuality is a product of collective existence, that the real relation is not a vertical and spiritual one between God and Man, but a horizontal and secular one between human beings, and that for each person to have a say-so in determining the meaning and purpose in life, a democratic form of government must be in place. Being ruled by religion, tradition, and/or an authoritarian state imposes upon human beings a purpose they did no choose, one that is usually beneficial to those few elites defining purpose and detrimental to the many who exist under the thumb of the elite. Since human beings make purpose, the choice is clear: either the few define the purpose for the many, or the everybody collectively defines the purpose for themselves.
Thus, while Solzhenitsyn was embraced by anti-communists proclaiming to believe in democracy (over against the authoritarianism of the Soviet state), the man’s views are fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian. He believed in subordinating collective and individual decision to the power of religious hierarchy, ethnic tradition, and the nation-state. He believed that the West was decadent for the same reason the Soviet Union was decadent: it had abandoned religion. Ironically, this alleged champion of freedom’s call for restoring the power of religious control, and his condemnation of secularism and humanism, was a condemnation of individual freedom and a call for authoritarian structures.
Let me cut to the chase: Solzhenitsyn’s books are works of historical fiction – or, more accurately, historical falsification. Solzhenitsyn, a hero to authoritarians and racists, was a literary fraud. However, because of the ideological needs of capitalists, namely to manufacture the illusion that the Soviet Union was worse than Nazi Germany (perhaps the most outrageous lie ever told), and because of the intersection of anti-Jewish hatred and anti-communism before the late-1960s, Solzhenitsyn’s hatred of the Jews was glossed over. What is more, he he peddled religion, arguing that without it human life was meaningless, meaningless because morality is suffering without spiritual opium.
The occasion of Solzhenitsyn’s death, especially since so many obituaries are crediting him with telling us about the gulags, provides an opportunity to tell the truth about him. It’s tragic that so many millions of school children have been told that this sanctimonious ideologue’s writings about Soviet history were accurate and that he represents a figure of moral and a profile in courage.