The Persistence of the Lie

One must begin at the beginning—the personal decision not to live by lies. From that wise and liberating decision, all else will flow.

Editor’s Note – This essay was originally published at Law & Liberty on February 17, 2022.

As the great anti-totalitarian Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) noted time and again, violence and lies were the twin pillars, the soul-destroying foundations, of communist regimes in every time and clime, from Moscow to Beijing to Havana. In the words of Martin Malia, the author of the magisterial The Soviet Tragedy, communism had a recognizable nature, one incompatible in any time or place with liberty and human dignity. As for Solzhenitsyn, he knew of what he spoke. He had spent eleven years in prison, camps, and internal exile where, thankfully, the scales of ideology fell from his eyes. He experienced the ideological Lie from within. As a result, he became one of the most courageous and consequential moral witnesses of the twentieth century.

Through bitter experience, Solzhenitsyn arrived at this firm conclusion: The communist regime and ideology were in decisive respects at odds with the deepest wellsprings of human nature and with the moral norms that constitute a free and decent society. How can one attain liberty worthy of human beings when private property is summarily abolished or dramatically curtailed, the traditional family is assaulted and its prerogatives radically circumscribed, religion is cruelly persecuted, and humane national loyalty and traditions are replaced by an abstract and coercive utopianism based on contempt for the cultural and civilizational inheritance? Contrary to legend, communism was never good “in theory” as so many are wont to say today (including almost all the students I have taught in recent years). The theory itself demands this violence against human nature since communism’s four “abolitions,” that of property, the family (bourgeois or otherwise), religion, and the nation, are profoundly at odds with the nature and needs of human beings and the very structure of social and political reality.  

But the truly dramatic implosion of European communism between 1989 and 1991 has not led to the “end of History”(far from it) or even the cessation of ideological politics. New forms of ideological mendacity have risen in the place of the totalitarian Lie precisely because that Lie has never been truly and widely understood or repudiated. This essay will trace the movement from ideological mendacity in its classic totalitarian form to the new forms of ideological despotism that today threaten Western liberty, the search for truth, and the integrity of human souls. As I will show, the two forms of the Lie are by no means unrelated.

Solzhenitsyn on the Ideological Lie

As Solzhenitsyn himself testified in one of the most profound and soul-shaking books of the twentieth century, the three-volume Gulag Archipelago, the great ideological Lie “gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and justification.” “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him,” he famously observed. In their guilt and moral derangement, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth still bowed before the requirements of conscience and literally went mad as a result of their crimes.

But totalitarian ideology negates conscience and dismisses the moral law of which it is a reflection as an antiquated justification for class oppression, a tool of the forces of “privilege” and oppression (rhetoric that again has become all too familiar). In this grotesque transvaluation of values, whatever promotes world-transforming revolution is necessary and good, and whatever stands in its way is by definition retrograde and evil. The age-old distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is replaced by the morally corrupting distinction between “progress” and “reaction.” The movement of History is hardly coextensive with moral progress. Moreover, what is right and wrong does not fundamentally change from epoch to epoch or from culture to culture. The old is not necessarily antiquated and the “new” need not entail a moral advance. Surely, the tragedies of the twentieth century ought to have taught us to question the ideology of inevitable “historical progress” and to reaffirm the need to respect the elementary distinction between right and wrong at the heart of all authentic moral and political judgment.

Progressive ideologies closer to home draw on the same mix of moral nihilism and rage at the limits inherent in human nature, our society, and even the very structure of reality. Their rage reveals a crude division of the world that localizes evil in a specific (and an utterly dispensable) group of class, race, or gender oppressors, as well as unrelieved contempt for old verities, traditions, and points of view. At Bard College, we have recently seen three student activists, contemporary “Red Guards,” charged by its administration to “decolonize” the college library of books that are ideologically suspect. Such exercises in the groves of the academy are no longer exceptional or unexpected. Orwellian book-banning in the name of “progress”! This is blatant authoritarianism dressed up as anti-racism and moral preening. No progress there.

As Solzhenitsyn has indisputably established, the ideological Lie deceives at a very fundamental level. Those who perceive themselves as “innocent victims,” bereft of sin and any capacity for wrongdoing, or as agents of historical “progress,” become puffed up with hubris and feel themselves to be infallible. They become oppressors with little or no sense of limits or moral restraint. In Albert Camus’s memorable words, we must instead aim to be “neither victims nor executioners.” That is the path of moral sanity and political decency recommended by both the Christian Solzhenitsyn and the unbelieving Camus.

The Great Imperative to “Live Not By Lies!”

On the day Solzhenitsyn was arrested in Moscow, February 12, 1974—and the day before he was forcibly exiled to the West (first to West Germany, then by choice to Switzerland, then to settle down to eighteen productive years of writing in scenic Vermont)—he issued a truly dramatic proposal to his compatriots through samizdat, or underground self-publishing, and in hurried translation in the Washington Post. That pungent and memorable text, “Live Not by Lies!,” since expertly retranslated,  was a clarion call for his fellow citizens to recover civic pride and self-respect even in the absence of a regime of political and civil liberty. Solzhenitsyn argues that nothing but bloodshed, tyranny, and tragedy could result from the revolutionary illusions of “conceited youths who sought, through terror, blood uprising, and civil war, to make the country just and content.” Solzhenitsyn at once rejects “the vileness of means” that “begets” the “vileness of the result” (and the other way around). “For violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies, and lies can only persist through violence.” The twin pillars of ideological despotism—violence and lies—must be rejected at their very source along with the utopian illusions that inspire them. Drugged with ideology, and with the cruel impatience that marks those inspired by utopian illusions, the path of violence and lies leads an entire people off the cliff, like the demoniac Gadarene swine so vividly described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 8:26-39). Another truly humane path forward must be found.

Solzhenitsyn finds the path to liberation through a self-conscious decision by sturdy, self-respecting souls not to participate in lies: “Personal non-participation in lies!” as he strikingly puts it in the imperative (Václav Havel would reformulate this imperative as “living in truth” in his well-known 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay where he favorably cites Solzhenitsyn no less than four times). Of course, no one is morally obliged to scream the truth at the top of his lungs in the public square. But persons of integrity must not knowingly reinforce the web of totalitarian mendacity. Men and women of good will must not denounce coworkers or neighbors who are charged with self-evident lies by a lawless state just as we must resist a cruelly censorious cancel culture and the intoxication of brutal Twitter mobs. This path of non-participation in lies will entail sacrifices, perhaps the loss of jobs or children barred from promising careers, but not the inevitable internment in prison or camp characteristic of the Stalin (and even Lenin) years in the Soviet Union. When Solzhenitsyn wrote his searing manifesto in 1974, the edifice of ideological mendacity was already “flaking,” as he put it, and would soon be exposed for the whole world to see. The situation demanded a judicious combination of personal steadfastness, spiritual integrity, and civic courage.

Courage but not necessarily martyrdom (Solzhenitsyn recognized that most human beings are not naturally courageous and that “dissent” in post-Stalinist forms of Soviet-style communism entailed fewer risks than in the Lenin and Stalin years of classic totalitarianism). If the camp of those who refused to live by lies was multiplied to include thousands, even tens of thousands, then Solzhenitsyn and other Russians “will not recognize our country!” But if Solzhenitsyn’s compatriots instead choose the path of passivity, acquiescence, and the habitual assent to grotesque lies, then they would indeed reveal themselves to be “worthless, hopeless,” and deserving of “scorn.”

Speaking to Us in a New Situation

What, one might ask, does Solzhenitsyn’s noble appeal to spiritual integrity and civic pride have to say to us in the United States, an ostensibly free country faced by the growing specter of woke despotism? To be sure, ours is a new and different situation even if parallels can be readily drawn. We do not live under the yoke of totalitarianism. Yet, a generation ago, a political scientist such as myself could readily and rightly declare that the United States was a country largely free of extremist ideological politics and parties and with no intelligentsia to speak of. A radicalized intelligentsia was instead typical of countries like France and Russia where a large part of the intellectual class assented to moral nihilism and revolutionary politics represented by 1793 and 1917, respectively. This once striking feature of American exceptionalism is, alas, no more. Our intelligentsia (including radical academics, professional activists, journalists who repudiate old norms of fairness and objectivity, myriad woke-minded persons in the high tech sector, the whole industry dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and advocates of socialism and even communism in “progressive” circles) more and more resembles the intellectual class in Russia between 1860 and 1917, one dedicated at the same time to nihilism, ideological fanaticism, and contempt for patriotism and customary morality. In both cases, a culture of repudiation, as the late Roger Scruton calls it, replaces moderation, common sense, and gratitude for our received inheritance.

Having grievously failed to come to terms with the Lie at the foundation of communist totalitarianism, to pass on its lessons to the next generations, we are now reliving the ideological madness that gave rise to unrelieved human tragedy in the first place. We risk restoring a world of victims and executioners, the very world Camus and Solzhenitsyn so powerfully warned against. Weren’t the kulaks (the allegedly prosperous peasants) in the Soviet Union and the Jews in the Nazi orbit persecuted, harassed, and killed (and in the Nazi case industrially exterminated) far more for who they were than for anything any member of those suspect classes and races had done? Wasn’t the bourgeoisie targeted for being “privileged” as if industriousness and success were always or usually a product of villainy and exploitation, an illusion or lie if there ever was one? Is the obsession with race, class, and gender in every level of education, in almost all cultural institutions, in journalism, in corporate America, and sports different in principle from the old totalitarian and ideological obsession with race and class enemies?

I think not.

As importantly, how can the dignity of every person under God’s creation thrive or even survive if we continue to think and act in such a grossly divisive manner? One is led to ask: Have we learned nothing from the political tragedies of the twentieth century? Where is the sobriety, the moral realism, that alone can give rise to mutual respect, free and decent politics, and realistic and durable change within a framework of critical respect for our country’s admirable achievements? The fevered politics of purity and perfection are in every respect an enemy of the good, of mutual respect, and a shared liberty under the rule of law. If we don’t recognize this elementary truth, and soon, we shall surely lose our civilizational soul and perhaps our freedoms, too.

Reasons for Hope

But there remain considerable reasons for hope. An independent liberal such as Bari Weiss, driven out of the New York Times at the beginning of the woke ascendancy in the summer of 2020, has self-consciously taken up Solzhenitsyn’s challenge to “Live Not by Lies!”—citing his 1974 essay as an inspiration on more than a few occasions. In a striking essay in the November 2021 issue of Commentary, Weiss highlights the intimate connection in our new situation between courage and “the unqualified rejection of lies.” In the spirit of Solzhenitsyn, she impressively outlines the categorical imperative underlying the rejection of woke despotism as all forms of ideological despotism: “Do not speak untruths, either about yourself or anyone else, no matter the comfort offered by the mob,” on Twitter or elsewhere. She gives multiple inspiring examples of Americans—professors, teachers, lawyers, parents—who are doing precisely that with courage and moral integrity. Inspired by Solzhenitsyn, Weiss has a sturdy confidence that in the right circumstances “courage can be contagious.”

In his book Live Not By Lies, published in 2020, the Orthodox Christian and conservative culture critic Rod Dreher draws wisely on Solzhenitsyn’s appeal to civic courage and spiritual integrity with special emphasis on the threat to religious liberty and traditional morality posed by the woke revolutionaries. His thoughtful and provocative book has sold over 150,000 copies despite a de facto media embargo by the likes of the New York Times.

Then there is the equally inspiring story of the musician Winston Marshall of the world-famous band Mumford and Sons widely reported by the British press in the spring of 2021. Under immense pressure from a censorious Twitter mob for retweeting an account of brutal, Antifa violence in Portland, Oregon, he quit the band but refused to back off or apologize for perfectly honorable convictions. He did not want his band to feel permanent pressure from a mob whose ferociousness refused to give way. Inspired by the peroration of Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies!,” a text that fortified his will and gave him encouragement and strength, Marshall remained true to his convictions. Between the mob and his “sense of integrity,” he chose his conscience. This is civic courage that inspires and reinvigorates the soul.

This is yet another example of how Solzhenitsyn’s great injunction to “Live Not by lies!” continues to speak to men and women of good will in an era threatened by a new and insidious version of the ideological Lie. We do not want to overstate. Since free institutions are not yet moribund in the United States, one would like to believe that this counter-revolution that Solzhenitsyn has helped instigate has more than a fighting chance at succeeding. Let us do our best to make this reasonable hope come true. But short of ultimate success, what matters first and foremost is maintaining the integrity of our souls.

The Choice and Challenge Before Us

As I have argued elsewhere, following the Czech Catholic dissident Václav Benda, the categorical rejection of the ideological lie is the precondition for the next crucial step of civic salvation; building a “parallel polis,” a series of parallel institutions that reject the hate-filled lies at the heart of every tyrannical and ideological project that has deformed the late modern world. Only institutions that self-consciously reject woke assumptions in the name of truth and liberty are likely to maintain their integrity and autonomy. The building and sustaining of such institutions is more and more in evidence and must be supported by all people of good will. But one must begin at the beginning—the personal decision not to live by lies. From that wise and liberating decision, all else will flow.

All that is asked of us is to display moral integrity and a modicum of civic spirit. If we reject this path, we surely deserve the scorn owed Pushkin’s passive and contemptuous herd of cattle who are all too content with their enslavement. The choice—so momentous with consequence—is truly ours.

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