Dostoevsky on Socialism (Pt. II)

Philosopher Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky (1870-1965) continues his analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s views on socialism. Dostoevsky sought to build a more just society rooted in love for Christ and one’s neighbor, a vision sadly quite remote from the regnant Mammonism that relentlessly destroys national identity and traffics in men’s souls. Translated by Mark Hackard. 

Dostoevsky was by all appearances a supporter of a type of “Christian socialism,” but he says nothing specific about its economic and legal structure. He has only one mystical-economic position announced by him through the name of some kind of interlocutor of his, the “paradoxalist,” and it is a position he obviously approves. “A nation should be born and rise, in its vast majority, on the soil from which the bread and trees grow.”

In the land, in the soil, there is something sacramental. If you want humanity to be reborn for the better, almost making men from beasts, then endow them with land, and you shall achieve your aim. At the very least we have the land and the commune.

Speaking on France, the paradoxalist directly clarifies his thinking: “In my opinion, work in a factory: the workshop is also a legitimate business and will always be born alongside already cultivated land – such is its law. But let every worker know that he has somewhere a garden under the golden sun and grapevines, his own, or more likely, a communal garden, and that in this garden lives his wife, a glorious woman, not one picked up off the road.” “Let him at least know that there his children will grow with the earth, with the trees, and with the quail they catch; that they are at school, and school is in the field; and that he himself, having worked enough in his age, will arrive there to rest, and then to die.” The bases for development of such a system he located in Russia. “The Russian factory worker has still kept a connection with the countryside, and the Russian peasantry has the village commune.” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, July-August)

As is known, love for the village commune among Russian populists was tied to the dream that the habit of communal land ownership would ease the enactment of socialism for the Russian people. This dream was hardly reasonable, as land in the village commune was divided into plots cultivated by each family individually. At the present time under the Bolshevik regime, the shift from a family’s individual work over a delegated plot of land to the collective labor of the kolkhoz in communal fields is being accomplished extremely painfully.

Besides notions of each man’s connection to the land, Dostoevsky also has many considerations on a just social order, but they all concern only the moral and religious conditions for the appearance and preservation of such an order; on its actual structure he provides no information.

In the West, Dostoevsky says in his “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” liberty, equality and fraternity are declared as principles upon which life should be built. But where the bourgeoisie holds power, freedom is in the possession of the millionaire: he does as he wishes, and those without any millions are at their mercy. Such criticism of the bourgeois regime is expressed in various forms by Marxists and especially Bolsheviks. And Dostoevsky recognizes that in the capitalist system, freedom provided by the law to the citizen remains without the possibility of its realization among those classes of the populace who do not have the material means to enjoy it.

Dostoevsky characterizes the equality that concerns people in modern society as envious: it is comprised of the wish to degrade those spiritually superior. (Diary of a Writer, 1877, February) Instead of fraternity, Dostoevsky finds everywhere only fighting for one’s own equal value; genuine brotherhood, meanwhile, exists where the ego sacrifices itself for society, and society itself gives over all rights to the person. Such a genuine brotherhood exists foremost where internal freedom is achieved through overcoming one’s will, and there will be a noble equality free from envy for others’ spiritual gifts. In a society guided by such principles, there is no necessity to sacrifice all one’s property for the common benefit, even more so as even the renunciation of property by all the rich would be only “a drop in the sea” and would not destroy poverty.

One must do “what the heart orders.” If the heart “orders you to give away your estate, then give it away,” but there is no need for dressing up in homespun coats or adopting the “simple life” for this; “it is better to raise a peasant to your level of refinement.” “Only your resolve to do everything for the sake of active love is obligatory and important.” “We must be concerned more about light, the sciences and strengthening love. Then wealth will grow as a matter of fact, and genuine wealth.” Dostoevsky calls such a solution to the social question the Russian solution; it is based on the Christian ideal of life, and he considers the spirit of the Russian people that developed Russian Orthodoxy to be Christian in its preponderance. (Diary of a Writer, 1877, February)

Having become acquainted in Dostoevsky’s Pushkin Speech with similar thoughts of his on the conditions for resolving the social question, Professor Gradovsky penned a critical article; he said that Dostoevsky put forth a “mighty propagation of personal morality, but no hint of social ideals.” In other words, Gradovsky understood Dostoevsky as a follower of the notion that only “personal improvement in the spirit of Christian love” is needed, while forms of social order are irrelevant, for kind and loving people will fill any social form with good content.

Such a unidimensional social philosophy exists. In this sphere, there are two opposed doctrines. According to one, all of man’s shortcomings, his vices and crimes, are conditioned upon the imperfection of the social structure; it stands to perfect the social structure, and man’s behavior will become good. According to the other doctrine, quite to the contrary, correct behavior both in individual and social relations depends only upon personal morality, and forms of social order are irrelevant. Dostoevsky harshly rejected the first of these one-dimensional theories, and Gradovsky assumed that he must have been a representative of the opposite and also unidimensional doctrine. Vladimir Soloviev termed this one-sidedness “abstract subjectivism in morality.” In The Justification of the Good, he clearly and convincingly proves that subjective good is insufficient, and in addition a “collective incarnation” of good made from the perfection of the social order is necessary – and so human society would become “organized morality.” The state is never solely comprised of good people, and therefore it is necessary to organize such a social order that would promote the restraint of evil and the achievement of good.

Like Pushkin, Dostoevsky strikes us not only with the force of his artistic creation, but also with the force of his mind. Therefore it’s difficult to permit that he fell into such a crude unidimensional theory of “abstract subjectivism.” And he in fact was indignant over Gradovsky’s criticism and wrote him an answer in Diary of a Writer, in which he attempted to prove that he was free from the one-sidedness ascribed to him. Nonetheless, Dostoevsky is interpreted as a proponent of abstract subjectivism in our time, as well. We shall examine this question in detail.

Answering Gradovsky, Dostoevsky clearly says that religious and moral ideas, along with the improvement tied to them, serve as a point of departure in the search for a corresponding organization of society: due to these ideals, men will begin to search for “how they should organize themselves to preserve the jewel of great value they received, not losing anything from it, and find such a civil formula of common living that would help them advance to all the world the moral treasure they’ve obtained in all its glory.”

If the spiritual ideal of any nation begins to “shake and weaken,” alongside it “the entire civic rule” collapses. (1880, August) Not only that, even with the existence of well-organized social forms, morally unsuitable men contrive in certain cases to find the means to bypass the law and distort the spirit of social forms, from which, of course, it does not follow that these forms have no meaning. Dostoevsky therefore resolves to say that personal improvement is “not only the beginning of everything,” “but the continuation of everything and its outcome.” (Ibid) However tempting it may be to interpret these words in the spirit of abstract subjectivism, we must remember that they were written in the response to Gradovsky, where Dostoevsky removes himself from the professor’s reproach over one-sidedness, and by these words he only wants to express the notion that “social and civic ideals” are connected “organically to moral ideals,” and that it is impossible to divide them into “two halves” isolated from one another. (Ibid)

Consequently, Dostoevsky did not deny the necessity of a certain ideal of just social organization. Without a doubt, he had such an ideal or was searching for it. In which direction? By all appearances and as in his youth, in the direction of socialism, though neither revolutionary nor atheist, but Christian. As has been said, he hoped like the populists that a perfected order would evolve from the Russian village commune. He considered it necessary that every worker, and especially his wife and children, keep their ties to the land and have a garden, whether personal or communal. Especially valuing freedom, he was confident that the social ideals developed by Russia and deriving from “Christ and individual self-perfection” would be “more liberal” than those of Europe. (Ibid)

Dostoevsky also considers possible the preservation of property rights, and apparently even land and production rights, in the future order. It will be said, of course, “What kind of socialism is this?” In answering, we will remind the reader that there exist attempts to develop the ideal of a socialist order in which the right of personal property to the means of production would be preserved, though subjected to legal restrictions, due to which the economy would serve not the goal of personal enrichment, but the needs of society and the state. We shall point, for an example, to the work of Professor S. Gessen, “The Problem of Legal Socialism.” (Contemporary Notes, 1924-1928) One hardly has to keep the word socialism for signifying such a complex social order that combines valuable, practicable dimensions of the socialist ideal with valuable dimensions of individual management. However, we will not argue over words. It is only important that the creative efforts of many states such as the United States and Great Britain are directed toward the development of such a complex social order.

Looking at how difficult this process of developing a new system is and what kind of special knowledge, both theoretical and practical, it demands, we fully understand why Dostoevsky has no defined teaching on it. As a religious thinker and moralist, he confidently spoke of the religious and moral bases of a just order, but as a man of extraordinary intellect, he understood perfectly well that to elaborate a concrete doctrine on a new economic system and its legal forms was a matter for politico-economic specialists and practical social agents. Besides that, the actualization of these problems was premature in his time. Only fifty years after his death, due to the extreme primacy of technology, the rationalization of production, and the ever-decreasing number of workers needed for physical labor, the development of a new economic system became urgently necessary.

We examined Dostoevsky’s most important literary creations and became acquainted with his thoughts on central questions of worldview. Everywhere with him, we found as the basis Christ and His two commandments that compose the essence of Christianity – love for God more than for oneself and love for one’s neighbor as oneself. Therefore, we can call his worldview authentically Christian.


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