Monday, March 23, 2009

Solzhenitsyn, The Americans, And The French

I had known that Solzhenitsyn has gradually become anathema to the left. He is regarded as a crank by many in the American academy, and the erosion of his reputation here is a fascinating story. I had not known that he remains popular in France, and is regarded seriously even by those who disagree with him. Bernard Henri-Levy and Raymond Aron were powerful figures in a strain of French intellectualism that is first of all anti-totalitarian, and thus deeply suspicious of all marxist strategies, though neither were in any sense right-wing. American leftists pay lip service to this anti-totalitarianism, but tacitly side with any number of dictators and despots, so long as they stick a finger in the eye of conservatives. In France this is less true. If their marxists are more thoroughgoing than ours, there is at least a clear division with anti-marxists who subscribe to classical liberalism. Everyone on the left seems infected with some marxism here, ranging from a whiff to a deluge. Good on the French, then. (Side note: I regard Henri-Levy as lazy and sloppy intellectually, but highly perceptive)

It’s nice to read something to approve of about French intellectuals for a change, isn’t it?

It has also been gratifying to learn that Solzhenitsyn retains some important defenders among the intelligentsia here. In the first years of his exile, it slowly dawned on the American left that Aleksandr was rejecting not only Stalinist and Soviet excess, but marxism itself (Quelle horreur, eh?). His depiction of Russian elites in August 1914 revealed that he thought them dangerously wrong, and a primary cause of the 1917 revolution. Worse, Solzhenitsyn was traditionally religious in outlook. Much of later criticism had these key failings at its foundation, though this was seldom conscious or acknowledged. The revelatory comments are fairly obvious to those alert for them, however.

He believed the West should oppose the Soviet Union rather than engage it, and embrace its own religious heritage rather than reject it. He believed the West had lost its courage and moorings. He saw the origin of political problems in moral decisions.

Shortly after Solzhenitsyn's watershed Harvard commencement address, Mike Barnicle stated that S "couldn't write his way out of a paper bag." I imagine that must be because the Russian's One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch and The Gulag Archipelago are the only serious competition to Barnicle's commentary on Boston Globe Cartoons for "Most Significant Book Of The Twentieth Century."

There remain aspects of S that deserve criticism. His insistence that the Russians were the primary victims of marxism allowed him to diminish the role that the Russian people played in imposing this horror on other countries. He refused to see the Holodomor, for example, as anything but an excess of what was happening everywhere, including Russia. But he remains the indispensable writer of the 20th C.

1 comment:

karrde said...

At first glance, it seems hard for me to exercise much energy on Solzhenitsyn.

I first read his famous speech to Harvard in the last '90's, long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

However, I suspect that Solzhenitsyn was not just an anti-Marxist. I also remember his statement that the line between Good and Evil runs through every human heart.

Solzhenitsyn also clearly sees and labels as Evil the many wrongs of the Western world.

Thus, it is unwise to ignore him completely, even if he did not correctly account for all the evil done by the people of his homeland.