Friday, 10 May 2019

Russell Kirk and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — The Centennial of Two Conservative Giants

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A century has passed since the Bolshevik Revolution announced that an age of new ideology was falling over the world.

Before the guns could fall silent on the battlefields of the First World War, the harbingers of a century of collectivization, concentration camps and gulags, planned economies, one-party states, and “death by government” announced the coming of this age of ideology. But even then, the origins of the burgeoning ideologies that would afflict the world lay generations in the past: the French Revolution in 1789 and the Year of Revolution throughout many European nations in 1848 were but a warning of what would soon come to pass.

The success of the dangerous ideas was documented. Richard Weaver, one of the fathers of post-World War II American conservatism, wrote Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver astutely demonstrated that even seemingly abstract philosophical doctrines can have a profound influence on the course of civilizations. And the seemingly abstract speculations of the philosophers all too often become the justification for the creation of ideological systems. The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, V.I. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf — to name but a few titles — have claimed millions of victims in the causes of totalitarian ideologies. It has been a century of warfare across innumerable battlefields, with different ideological parties waging war on one another, and against all of the traditional nations and cultures of this world. 

The warfare has also been waged in the realm of ideas, and in this battle the past year marked the centennial of the birth of two great writers in the conflict for the minds of men. The writings of Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994) and Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) are invaluable treasures at the heart of a rich inheritance of 20th-century conservative thought. 

Both men were shaped by immersion in their respective cultures, and it is precisely that foundation that helped establish their clear enunciation of the “Permanent Things” in their writings. As Russell Kirk observed in a letter from 1963:

The great line of demarcation in modern politics does not lie between the liberals on the one hand, the totalitarians on the other, but rather between the immanest [sic] sectarians on the one hand, and all those who believe in a transcendent order on the other.…

Surely we have a hard row to hoe. And we may fail. But we are put into this world to do battle. “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” more than ever before. I suspect, indeed, that the modern age will come to smash; and then we will have to build afresh upon old principles. Meanwhile, we guard what Mr. T. S. Eliot calls, “the enduring things.”

Or, as Solzhenitsyn stated more formally in his 1972 “Nobel Lecture on Literature”:

And who, if not the writers, are to express condemnation not only of their own bankrupt rulers … but also of their own society, whether it be a matter of its craven humiliation or its complacent weakness, or the featherbrained escapades of youth, or young pirates brandishing knives?

People will ask what literature can do in the face of the pitiless assault of open violence? Well, let us not forget that violence does not have its own separate existence and is, in fact, incapable of having it: it is invariably interwoven with THE LIE. They have the closest of kinship, the most profound natural tie: violence has nothing with which to cover itself except the lie, and the lie has nothing to stand on other than violence.… Writers and articles have a greater opportunity: TO CONQUER THE LIE!

Writing in defense of The Truth — “the enduring things” — both men illuminated the lies that must be opposed. Thus, Solzhenitsyn’s writings swept around the globe and were soon translated into many languages, and continue to be translated for, and read by, a generation born after the “dissolution” of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Dr. Russell Kirk’s writings also continue to find a global audience, as recent Portuguese, Czech, and Italian translations of his works offer sufficient witness.

Both men were born in the year that the guns of the First World War fell silent, but their lives were marked by the aftermath of the war. Solzhenitsyn was born after the Bolshevik Revolution, and his entire life was shaped by life under communism, and, in time, the war waged against communism. Solzhenitsyn never knew his father: He was killed in a hunting accident months before Aleksandr’s birth. Although he studied mathematics at Rostov State University, Solzhenitsyn’s desire to write the history of the Bolshevik Revolution was already firmly in his mind by 1936. He fought in the Second World War, and earned the Order of the Red Star as an artillery officer — only to have that honor stripped away after Military Intelligence arrested him for criticizing Joseph Stalin in letters to a friend. He served eight years in the Soviet Gulag. After being released, he survived cancer and became a teacher, writing in secret. His early work, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published during the post-Stalinist “thaw” under Khrushchev, but his continued writings — though popular in the underground and in the West, where translated editions began to appear — brought down the wrath of the Soviet regime. He dared not leave the USSR to receive his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, for fear he would be forbidden to return home. After the KGB discovered the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago, he was threatened with a further sentence in the Soviet Gulag before being exiled to the West, where he eventually settled in Vermont. In exile, he continued to write and speak about the evils of communism, while the KGB continued to harass him in his exile. His Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990, and he returned to Russia in 1994, where he died in 2008.

Like Solzhenitsyn, Russell Kirk was also a university graduate before the onset of the Second World War, receiving his bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University and a master’s from Duke University before serving in the Army in Utah from 1942 to 1946 in the Chemical Warfare Service at the Dugway Proving Ground. Following his military service, Kirk began doctoral studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, earning the Doctor of Letters in 1953. His published doctoral thesis became one of the founding works of postwar conservatism: The Conservative Mind. From his home in Mecosta, Michigan, Kirk wrote a syndicated column for many years, founded and edited two journals (Modern Age and The University Bookman), lectured throughout the United States, and wrote dozens of books. He and his wife, Annette, hosted innumerable lectures and conferences at their home, which helped to shape several generations of conservative students. Kirk died at his home in 1994.

Photo credit: AP Images

This article appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.

Solzhenitsyn and Kirk both desired to become writers from a very early stage of their lives. For Solzhenitsyn, the desire was to write a definitive history of the Russian revolution, and his understanding of the significance of that revolution changed with time from a naive adherence to Bolshevism to an adult repudiation of communism, which bore fruit in some of the most insightful critiques of the totalitarian doctrine produced in the 20th century.

Solzhenitsyn’s desire to become a writer was, in a sense, long delayed by the years that he spent in Soviet prison camps; however, it was in the camps that Solzhenitsyn began to gather the material for his novels, including his Gulag Archipelago, and it was there that he developed the mental discipline of memorization. Because possession of even brief snippets of his planned novels could result in further prison time, he would write out a brief portion, memorize the text, and then destroy the print copy. When Solzhenitsyn survived a bout of cancer after being freed from the Gulag, he dedicated the remainder of his life to his work of writing and pursued that art with unrelenting zeal.

Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones — Volume I begins to tell the story of his time of exile in the West. In The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn told the story of his life leading up to his exile from the USSR. 

In a crucial passage in Between Two Millstones, Solzhenitsyn defines the “two millstones” to which he refers in the title of his memoirs: “It was July 1977. I was feeling smothered, bewildered: how were we to live in the West? The millstone of the KGB had never tired of crushing me, I was used to that, but now a second millstone, the millstone of the West, was descending upon me to grind me all over again (and not for the first time).” The widespread indifference to the communist threat, the venality of many among the Western political and intellectual elite, and the litigious character of Western European and American society appalled a man who had hoped the West was earnest in an effort to check the Soviet advance throughout the world.

For Russell Kirk, the defense of the “permanent things” was a life-long concern. As he wrote to publisher Henry Regency in 1987:

What I have been undertaking, ever since I first was published nationally when I was sixteen years old, is the defence of what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” … My historical books, my polemical writings, my literary criticism, and even my fiction have been meant to resist the ideological passions that have been consuming civilization ever since 1914 — what Arnold Toynbee calls our “time of troubles.” Rather than singing hallelujah to the river god, I have rowed against the current of public opinion. As I approach my seventieth birthday, I am somewhat surprised that I have not been swept out to the great deep; indeed, that I have made some headway against the tide of ideology and the fierce appetites of our age.

After completing his military service in World War II, Kirk was free to pursue his academic studies. His doctoral thesis, The Conservative Mind, proved to be a vital philosophical foundation for the creation of a modern understanding of conservative thought in postwar America.

In the initial chapter of The Conservative Mind, Dr. Kirk set forth six canons of conservative thought:

(1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.…

(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.…

(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.…

(4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

(5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

(6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and the statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

These canons have held up well against the test of time, and readily present a response to those movements, such as neoconservatism, which have attempted to turn conservatism into an ideology.

Kirk’s assessment of the state of Western civilization was not far removed from that held by Solzhenitsyn, save for the fact that hope continued to break through. As Dr. Kirk wrote in a letter from April, 1963:

One often grows discouraged, of course, at the confusion of American politics, practical and theoretical. But all this is part of the nature of things. In any time, the great mass of men are moved only by self-interest and prejudice. Of that small minority who think seriously about the problems of their society, most are badly schooled; and there is a lag of a generation between the slogans of the politicians and the new concepts of men of intellect. Besides, the non-ideological character of American and British politics — in part a considerable blessing — tends to slow and confuse the development of theory in a time of crisis.

In Kirk’s estimation, a significant part of the problem was that the role of colleges had been badly distorted. As he wrote in 1968: “The typical mass campus is far too big, and has attracted a great many students who have no real interest in the real intellectual concerns of the academy. The rootless are always violent, and the lonely and bored find riot a welcome diversion” — an apropos description of the rank and file members of Antifa today. In the same letter, Kirk noted: “Aye, the tendency of the time in this country is to break down the remaining institutions and bodies of principle which distinguish between the things of Caesar and the things of God.… Church-connected colleges increasingly would be pushed to the wall, if this tendency were to continue; and the whole social order would be increasingly bored and violent, and the realm of the transcendent should be closed to the mass of men.”

Kirk and Solzhenitsyn were troubled by the inhuman character of Marxist ideology, and sought to combat it. Solzhenitsyn’s motivation throughout his writings was similar to Kirk’s notion of the moral imagination; as he notes in Between Two Millstones: “My goal in the entire book [Gulag Archipelago], as in all my books, was to show what a human being could be turned into — to show that the line between good and evil is constantly shifting within the human heart.” Ideologists such as the communists could not endure forever; but who would oppose them now, so as to limit the evil they would work before their downfall? This was a question that troubled both men. In Solzhenitsyn’s words:

To me it was clear that Communism could not last forever. It was decaying from within, chronically ill, but on the outside seemed immensely powerful, marching forward with great strides! And it was marching forward because the hearts of the affluent people of the West were timid, timid due to that very prosperity. But with Communists, as with thugs, you must show unrelenting toughness. In the face of toughness they will relent, toughness they will respect. 

But who will demonstrate the necessary toughness? How decisive the next American president’s views must be, how unwavering his heart! How will such a president arise?

In both Between Two Millstones and Kirk’s book Imaginative Conservatism, one is reminded that both men saw themselves as the victims of slander. Solzhenitsyn knew that not only the Soviet KGB, but also Western liberals, were vociferously opposed to his writings, and he found that Western opponents often repeated lies that had their origin in Moscow:

The particular success of slander, when it is being wrought by a totalitarian state, is that while in an open society all slander can be countered by objections, denials, conflicting recollections, the publication of documents, and the existence of archives and letters, in the Communist vault nothing of the kind is possible. There is nowhere one can object, and the slightest motion in favor of those who are slandered threatens the defender with ruin.… 

The proverb does say: Truth sticks like resin, lies run off like water. So I could hold that all the slander would trickle away, that nothing would remain. But there is another proverb that might be cited — including about the whole Progress Publishers enterprise — that there is no smoke without fire. And in the end, how many years must one spend in the KGB’s loving clutches before one realizes for sure that they have their own chemical formula for producing smoke without fire.

Kirk was among those who found themselves at the center of the neoconservative purge of American conservatism after offering his critique of neoconservatism in a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in December 1988. The public attacks on Russell Kirk, Pat Buchanan, and the Rockford Institute on charges of “anti-Semitism” marked a public division. As Kirk wrote in a letter from June 1989: “The Heritage Foundation people tell me that somebody has organized a sub rosa campaign to sow dissension among conservative or quasi-conservative groups, and that the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times features are the beginning of this.”

In the war against the totalitarian forces of ideology, both the pen and the sword must be employed by those to whom such means have been entrusted by Providence. As Richard Weaver noted in Ideas Have Consequences: “It is the duty of those who can foresee the end of a saturnalia to make their counsel known. Nothing is more certain than that we are all in this together. Practically, no one can stand aside from a sweep as deep and broad as the decline of a civilization. If the thinkers of our time cannot catch the imagination of the world to the point of effecting some profound transformation, they must succumb with it.… Perhaps we shall have to learn the truth along some via dolorosa.” In the battles of the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Russell Kirk earned places of respect for themselves among the ranks of traditional conservatives. Though they were both far from flawless (both men had a Christian understanding of sin which informed them of their failings), there remains much of value in their writings to teach the rising generation and to emulate in wielding what Kirk deemed the “sword of the imagination.” 

Photo credit: AP Images

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