Dostoevsky on Socialism (Pt. I)

Philosopher Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky (1870-1965) gives us a fine analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s complex views on socialism. While Dostoevsky supported just economic arrangements for workers and the peasantry, he also vehemently rejected the atheism and materialism that underpinned so many socialist ideals. Russia’s great writer was truly a prophet, right down to foreseeing famine, cannibalism and the deaths of 100 million people that would characterize twentieth-century Communism. Let it be noted that the sponsors of this “experiment” were the forces of international capital, the same liberal oligarchs who control the West to this day. Translated by Mark Hackard. 

“I could never understand the notion,” says Dostoevsky, “that only one-tenth of people should attain higher development, and the remaining nine-tenths should serve only as a means and material to that goal while themselves remaining in darkness. I don’t want to think and live in any way but with the faith that our ninety million Russians (or however many will be born) will all someday be educated, humanized and happy.”(Diary of a Writer, 1876, Jan.) In Dostoevsky’s notebooks, the thought of these unhappy nine-tenths of humanity is repeated many times. From the years of his youth to the end of his life, he was concerned over questions of social justice, the necessity of securing every person the means for developing a spiritual life, the protection of the dignity of the human person and a defense against arbitrary rule.

In his novels, Dostoevsky speaks much of the wounds inflicted upon man’s soul by the offenses resulting from social and economic inequality. In Diary of a Writer, he write much about the cruel force of capital, about a proletariat exhausted by poverty and labor, etc. Dolinin says that “Like a true follower of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky dreams of achieving harmony on earth through love,” but he himself “stirs up class struggle in his every stroke whenever he begins to speak of the oppressed past and present, in the West and in Russia.”

The most influential movement from the nineteenth century to our day, one that has tried to enact social justice in full measure, is socialism. And Dostoevsky’s attitude to socialism will be the subject of our chapter. Dostoevsky himself was a participant in the socialist movement as a member of Petrashevsky’s Circle, and for that he was almost subject to execution and endured eight years of hard labor and exile. Inasmuch as Dostoevsky spiritually matured, within him there developed an ever-growing hatred for that type of socialism which was most widespread from the second half of the nineteenth century up to our time, a hatred namely for revolutionary atheist socialism based upon a materialist worldview morally and religiously unfounded. For Dostoevsky the highest value was the individual human person and his free spiritual development. Yet revolutionary socialism focuses all its attention upon material goods and neither values the individual person nor cares for the freedom of spiritual life.

In Dostoevsky’s reading, the spiritual makeup of the bourgeois and the materialist socialist is homogeneous: both value material goods above all else. “The present socialism,” write Dostoevsky, “in Europe and here in Russia, removes Christ everywhere and cares foremost about bread, summons science and asserts that the reason for all human calamities is one – poverty, the struggle for existence, ‘society.’” These socialists, “in my observation, in their expectation of a future arrangement of society without personal property, love money terribly in the meantime and value it even to the extreme, but namely in accordance with the idea they attach to it.” (Dostoevsky’s wonderful letter to V.A. Alekseev on the three temptations offered by the devil to Christ, June 7th, 1876, No. 550)

Beforehand there was a moral formulation of the matter: “There were Fourierists and Cabetists, arguments and debates over various quite refined things. But now the leaders of the proletariat have already done away with all this” and the struggle is governed by the slogan, “Ote-toi de là que je m’y mette” (“Get out of here, I’m taking your place”). Any means therein are counted as permissible: the ringmasters of materialist socialism say they do not consider them, the bourgeoisie, capable of becoming brothers to the people, and therefore they simply move against them with force, while brotherhood is denied outright:

‘Brotherhood will be formed from the proletariat later, and you – you are one hundred million souls condemned to extermination and nothing more. You are finished for the sake of humanity’s happiness.’ Others among the ringmasters directly say that they need no brotherhood whatsoever, that Christianity is nonsense and that the future of humanity will be designed on a scientific basis. (Diary of a Writer, 1877 Feb.)

If the moral foundations of society’s structure are rejected, then social unity will prove unachieveable. “How shall you unite men,” asks Dostoevsky, answering Gradovsky with regard to the latter’s article containing criticism of the author’s Pushkin Speech, “to reach your civil goals if you have no basis in a great and initial moral idea?” Dostoevsky at once points to this initial great idea: all moral principles, he says, “are based upon the idea of personal absolute self-perfection ahead, in the ideal, for this holds everything within, all aspirations and all cravings, and, it would be, thence derive all of our civil ideals. Just try and unite men into a civil society with the only goal of ‘saving our tummies.’ You’ll get nothing but the moral formula of Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous. With such a formula, no civil institution will last long.” (Diary of a Writer, 1877, Feb.) On the contrary, Dostoevsky’s short formula composes the whole essence of the Christian worldview. The Christian ideal of personal absolute self-perfection leads to the Kingdom of God, in which every member loves God more than himself and all people created by God as himself.

Behavior is right only inasmuch as it consciously or instinctively is guided by such a love, with which is closely connected love for impersonal absolute values – truth, beauty, etc. Not only personal individual relations, but also social ties, any social hierarchy, and any social subordination and command carried out in good conscience, should in finality ascend to the ideal of absolute good under God. This notion was naively but correctly expressed by Dostoevsky’s Captain Lebyadkin, who responded after listening to the arguments of the atheists: “If there is no God, then what kind of captain am I after this!” (Demons) In Russian philosophical literature, thought on the religious basis of social life is especially well developed in Vladimir Soloviev’s The Justification of the Good and in S. Frank’s book The Spiritual Foundations of Society.

Atheist socialists, having rejected the idea of unselfish moral duty and counting the drive for advantage and self-preservation as man’s only motive of behavior, at the same time demand that the citizen of the future society renounce “rights to property, family and freedom.” “Man can only be so designed through terrible violence, his placement under dreadful systems of spying and the continuous control of a most despotic power.” (Diary of a Writer, 1877, Feb.) In a society deprived of the spiritual ideal, people are such that, “give them bread, and they will become enemies to each other out of boredom.” (Letters, No. 550) “Never shall they be able to allot amongst each other,” says the Grand Inquisitor, and even the bread acquired by them will turn to stone in their hands.

Dostoevsky compares the project of building a society without a moral foundation, a society based only on science and upon imaginary scientific axioms like “the struggle for existence,” to the construction of the Tower of Babel; attempting to design something along the lines of an anthill, men will not create wealth, but rather will come to such ruin as to end in cannibalism. (1877, November) In Demons Shigalev developed the program for his anthill. “Proceeding from limitless freedom, I conclude,” he says, “with unlimited despotism.” Pyotr Verkhovensky relates that “he has every member of his [secret] society watching over the other and obligated to inform.” “All are slaves and in slavery are equal. In extreme cases, slander and murder, but mainly equality.”

Shigalev’s project seemed a caricature created through Dostoevsky’s antipathy toward atheist socialism. Now, however, we must admit that the Bolshevik Revolution enacted the Shigalev system and even very likely surpassed it. In Bolshevik socialism, spying has been reached the point that parents and children often do not trust one another. The Bolshevik despotism is more multidimensional and petty than the despotism of some African potentate; slander and murder are applied on the widest scale. There is not the slightest freedom of conscience under the Bolsheviks (for a teacher there is not even freedom of silence on religious matters), nor is there freedom of thought, freedom of print or legal guarantees defending the individual from arbitrary rule; the exploitation of workers by the state is carried out to a degree undreamed of by capitalists under the bourgeois regime.

Dostoevsky insistently repeats that revolutionary atheist socialism will lead to such devastation as to bring about anthropophagy. His prophecy was realized literally: in the USSR there were at least two periods of cannibalism, in 1920-21 as a result of famine caused by “War Communism,” and in 1933 as a result of famine caused by the rapid shift from individual agriculture to collective farms. A shocking picture of cases of cannibalism can be found in Soviet literature, such as in Vyacheslav Ivanov’s short story “Empty Arapia,” for example.

Conceiving clearly by which paths it’s likely impossible to arrive at the establishment of social justice, Dostoevsky himself neither developed a specific positive ideal of social order, nor did he adopt one from other thinkers. In 1849 during his interrogation, Dostoevsky confessed that socialist “systems,” just as Fourier’s system, did not satisfy him, but alongside this announced that he considered the ideas of socialism, under the condition of their peaceful achievement, “sacred and moral, and most importantly universal, the future law of humanity without exception.” Such a conviction Dostoevsky preserved until the end of his days. This is clearly visible from his article on the occasion of the death of George Sand in 1876. With deep emotion, Dostoevsky touchingly speaks of George Sand’s socialism, which was seeking to secure the spiritual freedom of the individual and was founded upon moral principles, “not upon the necessity of the anthill.” (1876, June) But at this time of his life, Dostoevsky required that social order definitively was based on Christ’s testament. He wrote to V.A. Alekseev in June of 1876:

Christ knew that by bread alone, one cannot bring man to life. If there will be no spiritual life, the ideal of Beauty, then man will languish and die, he will go mad and kill himself or descend into pagan fantasies. And as Christ in Himself and in His Word bore the ideal of Beauty, He then decided it better to imbue in souls the ideal of Beauty; having this at heart, all men will become brothers to one another and then, of course, working for one another, they will be wealthy. (No. 550)

Read Part II.

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2 thoughts on “Dostoevsky on Socialism (Pt. I)

  1. Pingback: CrisPres Vraja nihilismului sau secolul lui Lenin - CrisPres

  2. Pingback: Dostoevsky on Socialism – Lossky | New European Conservative

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