The great Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn understood more clearly than most that the revolutionary spirit born in France was a perpetual revolution, one that would spawn revolutionary movements across the political spectrum and around the globe. During his exile in the West from 1974 to 1994, he recognized that among these new political religions was democracy itself.
Even in the United States, seemingly the most conservative of the nations born of the Enlightenment era, Solzhenitsyn saw that the turbulent spirit of egalitarian ideals threatened to undermine radically the traditional structure of society.
Reflecting on French society during the revolutionary era, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), that “the ideal the French Revolution set before it was not merely a change in the French social system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race.” In other words, it developed into “a species of religion.” So did the early 19th century socialism of Count Henri de Saint-Simon, prophet of a “New Christianity” that boasted of two popes and proclaimed that paternity was to remain the mother’s secret. Saint-Simonism faced competition from the equally bizarre Fourierism, but both exerted a considerable influence on Russia’s radical populists, including the young Fyodor Dostoevsky.
None of these 19th century political religions ever came to power. Napoleon III declared himself a disciple of Saint-Simon, but he was attracted to the latter’s technological socialism, not his religious fantasies. As Eric Voegelin has taught us, however, there were 20th century political religions that did capture governments: fascism, national socialism, and communism chief among them.
Mussolini, who began his career as a Marxist, once stated, “Fascism is not only a party, it is a regime; it is not only a regime, but a faith; it is not only a faith, but a religion.” Hitler did not speak of national socialism in quite the same way, but he recognized the importance of religious rituals and spectacles. On watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the famous propaganda film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, the philologist and diarist Viktor Klemperer remarked that “the rally is a ritualistic action, National Socialism is a religion.”
Neither fascism nor national socialism advanced universal claims. The former was distinctly Italian and the latter insistently German; with the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, therefore, the political religions that had formed around them also died.
Communism, on the other hand, survived the deaths of Lenin and Stalin and even the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was universal in its claims and markedly more religious. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev pointed out correctly that “it is a property of the Russian spirit especially to switch over the current of religious energy to nonreligious objects.” The religious spirit was very much alive in the Russian “intelligentsia,” a social class defined not by economic status but by its alienation from existing reality and predilection for religiopolitical ideologies.
It is no accident, as Marxists like to say, that many of Russia’s 19th century revolutionaries were former seminarians or the sons of Orthodox priests. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the influential novel What Is to Be Done?, was both. His central character, Rakhmetov, is a revolutionary whose ascetical life parallels that of the 4th century Orthodox St. Alexius, the “Man of God.” Stalin, too, although he seems never to have believed in God, was a seminarian in his youth, and after winning the struggle for power he ordered portrayals of his countenance in the manner of Russian icons.
Solzhenitsyn, who knew all of this and was once a believer in communism, became the most famous critic of that political religion. On Sept. 5, 1973, only months before his expulsion from the Soviet Union, he sent an open “Letter to the Soviet Leaders,” in which he argued that it was not authoritarian government but Marxist socialist ideology and the lies that it “foisted upon us” that were intolerable.
Solzhenitsyn always rejected the claim, popular in Western circles, that the evils of communism were rooted in Russian history, that Stalin was a reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible; on the contrary, he argued, as in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, those evils were the consequences of ideologies emanating from Western Europe. He had more to say about the sins of ideology in The Gulag Archipelago:
The imagination and inner strength of Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology…. It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the lot of the twentieth century to experience villainy on a scale of millions.
above: cover for Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 book The Gulag Archipelago (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
After long years in the West, primarily in the United States, Solzhenitsyn came to regard democracy as another political religion, “the surrogate faith of intellectuals deprived of religion.” He seems not to have been aware that from early in their history, Americans had viewed their country as “a city on a hill,” from the Sermon on the Mount. America was the redeemer nation, its citizens a chosen people; this civil religion had come close to replacing Christianity as the object of their worship. As Walter McDougall has shown convincingly, however, the American civil religion has evolved into a global one, a crusading political faith employing the language of democracy and human rights.
While he reserved some respect for democracy at local levels of government, Solzhenitsyn’s distaste for democracy as an ideology was profound. In a memoir of his years in the West, The Oak and the Calf, he went out of his way to praise Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor who had published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, for preventing the literary thaw that ensued after Stalin’s death from flowing into works with a revolutionary democratic orientation.
By the time he wrote these books, Solzhenitsyn had completed his study of Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, regarded in the West as a tragically aborted attempt to create a democratic Russia, and had concluded that 1917 was in fact a disaster that made the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution possible—in fact, inevitable. It would have been far better, in his view, had a more liberal Russia evolved along the path of reform charted by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, a path blocked by his assassination in 1911. Even so, before his return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn cautioned his countrymen about democracy’s flaws and dangers, but in vain: “As far as they were concerned, it was: just give us democracy!—once we’ve got it, we’ll eat our fill, doll ourselves up, and have some fun!”
The political Urreligion at the heart of fascism, national socialism, communism, and democracy is that of revolution itself. A mystique surrounded Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, just as it does the idea of revolution. It is almost always taken to be a fine aspiration, something to be wished for—think of the scientific revolution and other revolutions in thought, such as new and “revolutionary” consumer products that claim to make life easier, or revolutionary cancer treatments to save or at least prolong life. None of these, however, equals the appeal of political revolution, for which Solzhenitsyn felt an “extreme revulsion.”
In The Red Wheel, a cycle of novels comprising his history of the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn was able to recreate the heady early days of the February Revolution:
Revolution! The magic word!…The marvelous flickering of red banners on tilted poles through the smoke of rifle volleys! Barricades!…The taking of the Bastille!…What earthly feeling could compare with that of a revolutionary?…Revolution was greater than happiness, brighter than the daily sun; it was the explosion of a red dawn, the explosion of a star!
The Russians had been plunged into a state of religious ecstasy. Solzhenitsyn knew this not only from his studies, but also from Berdyaev, who had also been expelled from Soviet Russia. In a piece entitled “Spirits of the Russian Revolution,” published in 1918, Berdyaev observed that Russian revolutionary sanctity took the form of a cult: “This cult has its saints, its sacred tradition, its dogmas. And for a long time every doubting of this sacred tradition, every criticism of these dogmas, every non-reverential attitude towards these saints led to an excommunication.”
Whatever the projected goal of a revolution may be— almost always it is equality and happiness—it is not long before it becomes an end in itself. That is why, under Lenin and Stalin, it was made permanent, often by ever uncovering new enemies of the people. When all enemies seemed to have been vanquished, the revolution devoured its own. Those who fought for the revolution were revealed to be counterrevolutionaries: Trotsky is the most notorious example. He was tried in absentia during the three major show trials of the so-called Old Bolsheviks in the late 1930s.
In Communist China, too, the revolution was permanent even after the deified Mao Zedong had amassed total power. Fearing that any weakening of revolutionary fervor might endanger his grip on the country, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). As older comrades grew weary of revolution without end, he replaced them with young cadres who were lusting for power. Similar scenes were repeated in every communist country.
On Sept. 25, 1993, Solzhenitsyn gave an address at Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne commemorating the bicentennial of the counterrevolutionary Vendée Uprising. He told those gathered that he would not wish “a ‘great revolution’ upon any nation.” France had a Thermidorian reaction that overthrew Robespierre, he said, but the revolution in Russia “was not restrained by any Thermidor as it drove our people on the straight path to a bitter end, to an abyss, to the depths of ruin.” It was, he observed, a pity that no one present in the audience could speak from experience of the suffering endured in China, Cambodia, or Vietnam, and could thus testify to “the price they had to pay for revolution.”
Solzhenitsyn maintained that such “experiments” had finally undercut the romantic appeal of revolution. People had learned that “revolutions demolish the organic structures of society, disrupt the natural flow of life, destroy the best elements of the population, and give free rein to the worst.” That the lesson has been learned by all may, however, be doubted: Witness the new wave of revolution in American streets. The revolutionaries of the Sixties failed to do what the Bolsheviks did—seize power—and so they had to settle for an incremental revolution, the “long march through the institutions.” The spirit and myth of revolution lived on in the academy and in governmental bureaucracies; it has now been passed on to yet another generation.
After the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter was able to bring white people voluntarily to their knees to beg forgiveness for the “original sin” of racism and for being born white. BLM signs appeared on lawns across the nation and Floyd became a martyr at the center of a religious cult. The U.S. government itself is another cult, particularly since Joseph Biden was sworn in as president. Like the street religions, it lacks a clearly articulated ideology other than the substitution of race for class struggle, and an insistence upon rituals of “self-criticism” reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution. Nor does it project a final goal—the revolution is permanent. Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we are treated to the same speech: “We still have a long way to go.” Solzhenitsyn often warned the West that a descent into the abyss could be its fate as well.
above: Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1994 (ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)