Essays (George Orwell)

Orwell, George. Essays ed. Carey, John. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002.

Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, was a victim of his own success.  His two dystopian novels defined the genre for generations to come. Animal Farm is the most important book a student will read in high school.  1984, while nowhere near Animal Farm in terms of perfection, is the final word on dystopian literature.  As a result, when people think of Orwell, they think of those two novels.  They rarely read his essays, which is a shame.  Orwell was a master of English prose and he didn’t flinch from hard topics, willing even to subject his fellow socialists to brutal criticism.  These essays are organized chronologically, beginning in 1928 and ending in 1949.

Several themes emerge from this 1,300 page volume: Hitler, Pacifism, Socialism, and Literature. Regarding Hitler and Socialism, Orwell has strong opinions, but his conclusions might surprise you.

Hitler

Review of Mein Kampf

Orwell explains, no doubt in terms that will be unintelligible to today’s intelligentsia, Hitler’s rise to power. Like all demagogues, Hitler captured the sentiments against the prevailing world order, this one being the decadence of progressive living.  If all one desires is comfort and ease, it’s hard to imagine a world of patriotism and virtue.  As Orwell notes, “The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do” (251).

Pacifism

Orwell, rightly, has nothing but contempt for bourgeois pacifism.  Leaving rhetoric and emotion aside, the position is ultimately incoherent.  Pacifists know they do not really have an answer to the “Hitler problem.”

The pacifist will not resist Hitler. So far, he is consistent.  If he lives in Germany he has a few choices: roll over and probably be arrested, or he can move to an Allied country.  That seems logical.  Here is where the problem is: in order for the pacifist to continue to believe in ideals like democracy, he has to hope that war-like countries can defeat Hitler.  By force.  If killing is a moral wrong, then for the pacifist it must be just as wrong for Churchill as for Hitler. In the following line, Orwell skewers the pacifist on the horns of a dilemma:

“You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.  Whichever choice you choose you will not come out with clean hands” (389).

Socialism

Orwell’s socialism is simple: abolish private property.  What he never connects, at least I have not seen him connect, is that such an abolition entails the statism he so eloquently condemns elsewhere.  Orwell is quick to assure us, though, that the abolition of private property does not entail a stripping of private possessions (316).  Technically, he is correct but if the State were to do so, it is hard to see on what grounds Orwell would oppose it.

It is actually refreshing to see a Socialist come to grips with the key problem of socialism.  Orwell writes, “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them” (316).  I said Orwell wrestles with this problem.  In fact, I do not think he does.  As every serious free market economist has pointed out, “By what criteria does the State know what will be needed?”  Even worse, at what price should these goods be charged?  This question is unanswerable on socialist grounds.

Literature

Politics and the English Language

Orwell’s insights on modern literature pervade this volume and probably deserve their own review.  His most important essay, moreover, is “Politics and the English Language.” He does two things in this piece: exposes garbled prose and shows how that such prose warps reality. The death sentence for any writer is “You sound like a textbook” or “You sound like a sociologist.” Orwell gives you pointers for avoiding this fate.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” (954).

Modern English prosody prefers catchy phrases than precise words (956ff). Verbs now become phrases. “Noun constructions are preferred to gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’)” (958).

A good writer, therefore, follows:
a) avoid pretentious diction

b) avoid meaningless words

c) prefer the concrete over the abstract.

A good writer asks the following questions:

a) What am I trying to say?

b) What words will express it?

c) What image or idiom will make it clear?

d) Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Orwell suggests, though he understands its limits, the following maxim: use the fewest and shortest words to convey one’s meaning (965). There is a danger to this.  If applied too strictly, the writing loses all elegance and begins to look like an outline in prose form.

Conclusion

Readers of all political and cultural backgrounds should read Orwell.  He serves as a model for clarity in writing and in thinking.  In politics he is brave enough to avoid the party line.  He is a socialist, but socialists come under far worse criticism than nationalists or conservatives. These are the ideas that formed his more famous dystopian novels.

The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell)

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier.

Originally planned as a Leftist expose of “capitalist society,” Orwell actually gives us a fine expose of mass-industrial society, whether capitalist or socialist. To whatever degree northern British society was actually capitalist is a question beyond my expertise. Orwell’s remarks, however, show a society essentially at the same level of (non) flourishing as any you would find in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The real enemy is any impersonal system. This goes beyond mere economics, whether socialist or capitalist. Orwell could not have imagined how advanced technology is today (or maybe he could have). His observations are even more relevant.

Orwell explains the psychology of the working poor, and unlike the rest of world socialism, he actually cares about the poor. Unlike today’s socialists, Orwell believes in work. He believes in a welfare state, to be sure, but for him it was a necessary evil. Man did not want to be on the dole. He wanted to work and would cry to God for work. Today’s socialist, by contrast, believes that welfare is of the very essence of the Good.

The first six chapters or so are grim reading. It is England at its ugliest. The next seven chapters turn into a savage critique of modern “bourgeois socialism.” Think of the Starbucks socialist today. This is Orwell at his literary best. He writes,

“I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners.”

He made many socialists uncomfortable with his critique of industrialism. Industrialism had long been the Holy Grail of world communism. The problem, though, is that increases in technology seemed to make work, and by extension man, unnecessary. The more advanced the technology, the less needed for man’s muscle and skill. As a result, anyone who wants to learn a skill will be perceived as anachronistic.

Orwell also saw the connection between poverty and bad diets. Why do most people below the poverty line choose to gorge themselves on junk food, when healthy food is often cheaper? He notes,

“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.

Conclusion

One of socialism’s PR problems was reversed expectations. The early socialist believed that the working man would want to make his working condition better. What actually happened, at least in America, is that the working man became patriotic, largely religious, and violently anti-communist. Socialism was relegated to university professors and social media activists.

Homage to Catalonia (Orwell)

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I hate communism with all of my heart. I am not sympathetic to the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any way Orwell could have better written one of his books. Every word and sentence is perfectly crafted. What surprised me the most is that Franco wasn’t the real enemy. The background in which we find every war was the real danger: Heat. Cold. Lack of supplies. Friendly fire. Disease. To top it off, the book ends, not with Franco’s crushing victory, as would happen a few months later, but with the Communists and republicans purging the ranks. It ended with betrayal, though Orwell should have seen it coming, since the essence of communist leadership is to kill anyone who might have helped some years earlier. This book defined Orwell’s later political outlook and is key to understanding his later fiction works. Orwell was a socialist, to be sure, but he was primarily an anti-Stalinist.

Orwell fought as a militiaman in the Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification (POUM). This was only one of the Marxist and anarchist fronts fighting Franco. He notes how the militia did most of the fighting while the Army trained away from danger. The biggest problem from the POUM, as for most of Republican Spain, was the lack of decent supplies and weapons. If they got a rifle–if–it would have been an old German rifle predating WWI. Revolvers were needed for trench fighting and were almost impossible to come by. The first casualty Orwell saw was not from a Fascist bullet, but from a rifle misfiring (if it fired at all). He notes,

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”

Truth be told, the Marxist factions never had much of a chance. Part of this was due to the nature of Marxist ideology. If we are all equal and if we are all “comrades,” then how can I as a senior officer command you to do something? I’m being serious. Orwell notes how ideological soldiers spent five minutes arguing with their superior officer. Communist militaries, to be sure, can be quite successful. They have to have what Trotsky called “The Necessity of Red Terror.” Of course, that further aggravates the problem of just how we can be equal in a communist society.

The book ends with betrayal. Various militia groups were accused of collaborating with Fascists or Trotskyites. Orwell and his wife (why would you bring your wife into the middle of a foreign civil war?!?) barely escaped.

As in all of Orwell’s works, it is filled with savage irony. We will look at a few quotes:

“The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think worth describing in detail.”

“Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically—i.e. in the form of society aimed at—the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality.”

“The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war. All foreigners are alike appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality. The one word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana.”

“No one I met at this time — doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients– failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”

“Fortunately this was Spain and not Germany. The Spanish secret police had some of the spirit of the Gestapo, but not much of its Competence.”

Das Kapital (Karl Marx)

If Marx had decided to end this volume after chapter 2, he would have given us a relatively interesting philosophical analysis of labour.  It would have been completely wrong, of course. Part of the book is his labour theory of value and several theorems deduced from it.  The rest of the book is a scare tactic on how bad industry is. Whenever argument is lacking, in come the sob stories.

We should perhaps cut off one argument at the pass. You will hear some say that Marx anticipated problems in today’s marketplace.  He did no such thing.  When Marx uses terms like alienation, he means something entirely different than why the minimum wage advocate means today.

This review will focus mainly on the first part of the book.  The reason is simple: it is the heart of his argument and if it is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what he gets right.

Chapter 1: Commodities

A commodity is a thing outside of us that satisfies our wants.

“The utility of a thing is its use-value,” and this is independent of the labor that goes into it.  Consumption of a product actualizes the use-value.

A thing’s exchange-value must be equal to another commodity.  (Marx also says that exchange value is a mode of a thing’s existence.  It is a “phenomenal” form, “contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.” For someone who hated metaphysics, Marx uses many metaphysical concepts).

Marx then moves to the heart of his system, and indeed, the most fatal problem to it.  Since a thing’s exchange-value is equal to another thing’s exchange-value, how do we make this work? In other words, how do I really know that x weight of corn = y weight of iron?  Marx sees this problem, so he introduces a third term: each entity must be reducible to this third term.

What is this “something?”  Marx tries really hard to find it.  He notes that “exchange-value” is just an abstraction, and since any abstraction is as good as any other, we can do away with that.  What seems to be left is “labor.”  In language reminiscent of Renaissance alchemy, Marx notes that the “material thing is put out of sight.”

Let’s summarize the problem: there is a common substance (metaphysics-language again!) but it keeps manifesting itself as “exchange-value.”

Let’s go back to use-value.  Marx says a thing is valuable “only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.” The only way we can measure this value is by the quantity of labor. I don’t think Marx is saying that the hours spent making a watch determine how much we can sell it for.  He says “the total labor power of society,” the sum total of the values, “counts here as one homogenous mass of human labor.”

That does nothing to help me find out how much to sell my watch.  Marx’s answer isn’t much different from the earlier one: we take the average sample.

Conclusion: “The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labor time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other.”  As Sir Roger Scruton remarked in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Marx isn’t dealing with empirical data but with some occult entity embedded in the exchange. There is always a hidden essence in the exchange.  Whereas real economists would focus on how supply and demand influence pricing, Marx thought that irrelevant since it said nothing about the hidden essence.

In earlier metaphysics, either Christian or Neo Platonist, there was a cycle of exitus and redditus, of exit and return.  Imagine a circle with God (or Being or Good) at the top and a movement downwards along the circle.  That is the exitus.  There is then a return movement to the top, the redditus.  Marx does the same thing with currency and commodity.  We begin with C, Commodity.  It is exchanged for Money, M, and that money is then used to purchase another Commodity, giving us:

C → M → C

Marx takes it a step further: there are antagonisms within these oppositions.  Even more so, the commodity actually changes into the form of money.  This is alchemy. This transformation is itself an alienation (chapter 3, sect. 2).  

In the next chapter, Marx explains how this transformation completes the cycle.  We now move to M → C → M.  After further transmutations, Marx concludes that this is the general formula of capital.  All of this is very interesting, but the reader might be asking: what does this have to do with how much something should cost?  That’s the problem with Marxist economics: facts are subservient to theory.  Marx is always considering the matter in the abstract.  That’s completely backwards.

We’ll refute this in detail at the end.  It is worthwhile, in the meantime, to explain some of his other concepts:

Labour power: the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities in a human being when he produces value.  Its value is specifically determined by labour time.  If the owner sells the product at a profit, the surplus doesn’t go back to the labourer.  He is thus alienated from his labour.

The rest of the book is a collection of sob stories.  Now to the refutation:

First, as Bohm-Bawerk notes, Marx rests upon Aristotle’s theory of equality in exchange.  Aristotle said that goods of equal value are traded in an exchange.  Marx agrees but puts labor as one of the terms.  But if that’s true, then there is no reason to even exchange anything.  Nothing would disturb the equilibrium (Bohm-Bawerk 2007:70).

Further, Bohm-Bawerk continues, some goods that are exchanged do not involve any labor time: such as the soil, wood in trees, water power, coal beds, stone quarries, petroleum reserves, mineral waters, gold mines, etc.” 

There are even more damaging criticisms of the labour theory.  Labor isn’t homogenous, so how can it serve as a uniform medium of exchange?  Furthermore, Marx thinks that the businesses that are labour-intensive are the most profitable (which he has to say, since there has to be an active agent putting his labour into the product).  This means that the more machinery one employs, the less profit there will be.  Experience tells us the complete opposite.

Moreover, Marx sees all credit systems as the fat cat capitalist oppressing the poor borrower.  He never imagines a situation where the creditor lends to the government.

Marx has no concept of time-preference, where he sees production only as the gratification of immediate selfish needs.

Throughout his writings Marx says that the worker is on the side of society, and the interests of capitalists is against the interests of society, yet it is undeniable that capitalists produce technology (medicine, scientific advancements, etc) that benefit society.

It is true that there were many abuses in the Industrial Revolution.  We can be grateful for child-labour laws and the like.  None of that, however, requires a Marxist outlook on life.

Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen v. 2007. Karl Marx and the Close of His System. Auburn: Mises Institute.

Zizek: First as Tragedy, then as Farce

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings there is a scene where Pippin takes the Palantir and looks in it, not realizing that he is giving Sauron access to his own thoughts (and also having access to Sauron’s). As a result, he is given a clear glimpse into the mind of the enemy. Likewise, it is not often one reads an actual Communist proposal. While there are constant tirades that Obama is a Marxist, the truth of the matter is that he strengthened neo-liberal capitalism. Zizek, on the other hand, honestly evaluates the likelihood of a future Communist movement.

The book is divided into two long chapters. In the first chapter Zizek thoroughly deconstructs the capitalist narrative in the light of the 2008 financial meltdown. He pursues themes he will later develop further (Living in the End Times, 2010). He offers the standard critique of modern capitalism: by lowering taxes and leveling the playing field, the market allows predatory forces in the form of Big Business outbid and monopolize the market, marginalizing “the little man” (see Archer-Daniels Midland’s attack on rural America). The irony is too rich: by attacking “socialism” the American conservative allows the corporate elite to force him out of a job. The rest of the chapter is a dense exposition of Lacan, interesting to only those who are already interested in Lacan.

The rest of the book is a modern Communist proposal. Zizek must face the fact that Communism seemed to fail immediately, even by Lenin’s own standards. After each failure, Communism must “go back to the beginning.” Zizek rightly notes that it is a form of Plato’s Idea, and an eternally recurring one. Zizek hints what Communism needs is an eschatology and a Personal realization of that Idea: it has neither.

Conclusion

As with any Zizek book, tracing the actual argument is notoriously difficult since he can’t stay on topic for more than two pages. This is complicated by the fact that this particular book consists of two 65+ page chapters

Unto This Last and Other Writings

Ruskin, John.  Unto This Last and Other Writings

It’s a collection of his thoughts on architecture, social morality, and economics (which, ironically, the Soviets knew were all interconnected.  That is why Soviet life was so dismal).

Ruskin has some relevance in light of the Bat Soup Plague and the stimulus bill.   How do both value life and create an economy that will sustain it?

From the Introduction

Architecture and Ontology

  • the quality of architectural adornment is affected by the conditions of labour in which it is produced (Introduction, 17).
  • A certain type of architecture will arise from the conditions in that society.
    • From Renaissance came neo-classicism.  The ornament is subservient to the perfection of design.
    • Industrial Revolution: grotesque, mass-produced.

Economics

Specialization is arbitrary and unnatural.  It isolates the subject from its environment.    Three influences on Ruskin: Bible, Toryism, Romanticism.    Interestingly, state intervention was a right-ish phenomenon (cf the abolition of slavery under Wilberforce, a Tory).

Unto this Last

Rejects and questions Mill:  if society appears to benefit from materialism and selfishness, how is it that Mill is not recommending this?  Mill’s economic man is a complete abstraction. Mill didn’t think he actually existed, but served as a good model.  Ruskin said this is not how science should proceed. If he doesn’t exist, why bother using him as a model? 

What do value and justice actually mean?

value:  an object’s value is its power to support life.  It is intrinsic. 

Goal of essay: “to provide a logical definition of wealth” (Ruskin 161).  His second goal is to show that the acquisition of wealth is possible only under certain moral conditions of society, and he will explain those conditions.  

Essay 1: The Roots of Honour

Modern political economy (liberal capitalism) presumes a “negation of the soul” (169). God intended social dynamics to be regulated by justice, not expediency.

The problem of wages: Ruskin argues for regulating wages.  He says this is already the case for most of the labour on earth.  All labour ought to be paid “by an invariable standard” (173). He suggests that the good workmen will be paid and employed, whereas the bad workman will (necessarily?) be unemployed. He maintains one result will be a steady employment rate.  

Ruskin is aware of the problem of intermittent labour (think of the construction worker on the rainy day).  So he says such a worker should have higher wages, but also this would encourage the employer to seek stable levels of employment.

Says soldiers should be paid more because they risk dying (175). By contrast, a merchant is always presumed to act selfishly.  Ruskin wants to say that a true merchant will occasionally allow for voluntary loss–in the sense that if the choice were to arise between duty and profit, or showing grace to renters vs. profit, the true merchant–the honest one–will always accept the loss (177).

Ruskin brings home his point with unusual force.  He lists a series of professions whose job is to provide for the “common objects of love” (Augustine’s words, not his). 

  1. The Soldier’s profession is to defend it (i.e., common objects of love)
  2. The Pastor’s is to teach it.
  3. The physician’s is to keep it in health.
  4. The Lawyer’s is to enforce justice in it.
  5. The Merchant’s is to provide for it.

But in life we sometimes have to die for something:

  1. The soldier will die rather than leave his post in battle.
  2. The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
  3. The Pastor, rather than teach falsehood.
  4. The Lawyer, rather than countenance injustice.
  5. The Merchant–what is his “due occasion” of death?

But Ruskin does not disparage the merchant.  I know it is fashionable to blame all of the evils of the world on Protestantism, but the truth remains that the Protestant world was a merchant/burgher world–and it exploded in science, technology, and  medicine.  This wouldn’t be possible without the merchant class.

And Ruskin knows this.  And a merchant has a great opportunity for the commonweal.   A merchant can function as a father figure to youths coming under his responsibility (178ff).

Essay 1: Roots of Honor

Question:  what is justice?

  • The affection one man owes another (169).  Ruskin includes this in his definition of justice. Many cannot be quantified as a laborer.  He has a soul that is a stronger motive force.

The problem of wages.  He begins by correctly noting that the price of labor is regulated by the demand for it.  However, he asserts that the best labor “ought to be paid by an invariable standard” (173). Ruskin thinks this will prevent bad workmen from offering shoddy work at half price. I’m not so sure.  On the other hand, this shows exactly what happened with cheap foreign labor.

Practical Applications

  • a capitalist will not necessarily want wages so low (which would maximize proximal profit) if it meant a sickly and depressed work force (169). 

Essay II: Veins of Wealth

Political economy consists in the production, preservation, and distribution of useful or pleasurable things (181). Real wealth consists in substantial possessions and not in a claim upon labor, which Ruskin associates with the mercantile class.

Essay III: Qui Judicatis Terram

Definition of Justice, revisited: absolute exchange.  All of this is fine but how do we move from this definition to something like “just wages?”  Ruskin says that it consists in a sum of money “which will at any time procure for him at least as much labour as he has given” (196).  Labor, then, matches wages.

As it is, this doesn’t tell me anything.  From this I have no idea whether 10$ an hour is just or $20.  Ruskin continues: “The current coin or document is practically an order on the nation for so much work of any kind” (196).  That’s not unprecedented. It worked in Nazi Germany after 1933 (one of the few times in history socialism literally worked).  It almost worked in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

On the next page Ruskin comes very close to the “subjective-value theory.”  “There are few bargains in which the buyer can ascertain with anything like precision that the seller would have taken no less.”  This is correct. Economics demands knowledge of various moving parts. Ruskin, however, does not draw the Austrian conclusion. He says because of this lack of knowledge neither side will try to outwit the other.  

Conclusion of justice: diminish the wealth in one man’s hands through a chain of men.  This doesn’t necessarily mean communism. It simply points out if there are limits to the amount of wealth in one man’s hands, it automatically limits his power over their lives (199). Just payment must be diffused through “a descending series of offices or grades of labour.”

Essay IV: Ad Valorum

Ruskin now tries to tie together his economic theory where it concerns value, prices, etc.  Unlike economists of his time (Smith and Marx), Ruskin does not go for a full objective theory of value.  There is a value to the object, to be sure, but Ruskin avoids Marx’s crude mistake. The value is in the use of the object (206). Midway through the essay Ruskin breaks free from these lines of thought altogether: “A truly valuable thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength” (209). We must desire things that lead to life.

Ruskin has subtly but brilliantly changed the definition of wealth.  It is no longer what we “have” but what we can use (210). But this only works when it is in the hands of those capable of using.  This leads to his famous saying, “Wealth is the possession of the valuable by the valiant” (211).

The book ends with some final essays which contain useful advice:

“All good architecture is the expression of national life and character” (233).

“The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things” (234).  I never thought discipleship and architecture would be interwoven like this, but they are. As James K. A. Smith points out, the shopping mall is modeled after a cathedral and it has its own liturgies.  When you are in a shopping mall, it is discipling you.

“True kingship consists in a stronger moral state, and a truer thoughtful state than that of others” (253).

Fors Clavigera

Ruskin’s letters are interesting.  His mother made him memorize Deut. 32, Psalm 119, the Sermon on the Mount, most of Revelation, and 1 Cor. 15  (307). He learned his Toryism from Walter Scott.

In the First Circle (Solzhentisyn)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. In the First Circle. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

In 1968 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published an edited version of In the First Circle, titled simply First Circle.  He knew the full novel would never pass Soviet censors.  This is the full novel. This book is the triumph of the human spirit and the expose that scientific and state socialism is pure evil. 

The key event is not the phone call to the US attache about the atomic bomb.  Rather, it was when Gleb decides not to join the mathematicians’ “inner ring” in prison.  Truth be told, it really isn’t even that important a decision. However, it is a decision big enough to let him find his humanity.

Each chapter or collection of chapters is about a key character.  In this Solzhenitsyn also describes his historical methodology (i.e., “nodal points”). As Sologdin says, “Think like a mathematician.  Apply the nodal points method….Get an overall view of Lenin’s life, spot the main breaks in gradualness, the sharp changes in direction, and read only what relates to them.  How did he behave at those moments? And there you have the whole man” (181).

One of the key themes in this book is the resistance to reducing everything to material and economic factors. In his intra-novel novella on Stalin, Solzhenitsyn notes Stalin’s problem with language: is language part of “base” or “superstructure?”  In Marxist theology (and it is a theology), the economy is the base. The social phenomena is the superstructure. Language isn’t a mode of production, so it can’t be the base. However, it’s not clear how language functions as a superstructure, since language is more foundational than that. Superstructures change and can be discarded.  Language may adapt, but it never disappears.

Continuing this critique of Marxism, and the Marxist dictum that being (seen as economic forces) determines consciousness, the protagonist Gleb, not yet converted is rebuked: “If that were true, life wouldn’t be worthwhile….why do lovers remain faithful to each other when they are parted?  ‘Being’ demands they be unfaithful! And why do people in exactly the same circumstances, in the same camp even, behave so differently” (333)? The interlocutor goes on to note that we all have an inner essence.

Is Marxism even a science?  Rubin and some other guy have a fun conversation (483). Marxism claims its whole doctrine is derived from the nuclear concept of commodity and stems from the three laws of dialectic.

a) transformation of quality into quantity
b) interpenetration of opposites
c) negation of the negation

A scientific law must give direction and coordinates.  Revolutionary progress does not do this. Key problem: does the Marxist “negation of the negation” always take place in the course of development (489)? How do we know when to expect it?  We don’t. Even the Marxist Rubin admits that you can’t move from “the dialectic themselves to concrete analysis of phenomena.”

Here is the obvious problem with these three laws: there is no evidence they apply in the social realm.  The fact that water changes to steam has nothing to do with the bourgeoisie changing into the proletariat.  Nonetheless, the Marxist lecturer gives a good overview of Marxist metaphysics (and it is a metaphysics). “Matter alone is ultimate” (646-648).

Gleb comes to a different realization.  No ideology can change society. Progress doesn’t mean material progress.  Something else is needed. He comes on the truth almost by accident. He tells his friend Gerasimovich that they need to get the information out.  Ger. counters, “I thought you didn’t believe in radio or progress.”
Gleb: “No. They can jam it.  I’m saying that maybe….a new means will be discovered for the Word to shatter concrete.”
“But that completely contradicts the laws of resistance to materials.”
Gleb: “Not to mention dialectical materialism. So what? Remember ‘In the Beginning was the Word. So the word is more ancient than concrete. The Word is not to be taken lightly” (672).

On Prison Camp Names

“….Ozerlag, Luglag, Steplag, Kamyshlav…:”
“Makes you think there’s some unrecognized poet sitting in the ministry of State Security. He hasn’t got the stamina for whole poems, can’t get it together, so he thinks up poetic names for prison camps” (10).

One of the more moving climaxes of the book is when Gleb Nerzhin realizes that “the People” is an abstraction created by the Party elites.  Only your soul, not Party leadership, not Revolutionary dogma, can admit you to humanity (496).

Another fun development is when Gleb speaks with the half-blind Spiridon.   Gleb wants to see the real people, and not a socialist abstraction. He gets Spiridon, and what a joy Spiridon is. Spiridon’s criteria for morality is fairly simple: “He spoke ill of no one. He never bore false witness. He killed only when at war. He wouldn’t steal a crumb from any person, but he robbed the state whenever opportunity afforded, with a cool conviction that it was right” (505).

August 1914 (Solzhenitsyn)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. August 1914. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

See here for a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn’s method. https://aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-center.squarespace.com/his-writings/large-works-and-novels/the-red-wheel/solzhenitsyn-on-method-of-nodes

This is Solzhenitsyn’s counter to Tolstoy’s view of history.  Actually, it’s a counter to everything Tolstoy believed. Solzhenitsyn arranges his philosophy of history around a series of “nodes” or “knots” that describe the fall of Russia.  Particularly fine is his brutal, yet fair and realistic critique of both liberalism and blind monarchism. How do I know he is being fair? If you can find yourself in the critique and say “Ouch,” then you know he is being fair to all sides.

Both liberals and Russian monarchists today think Solzhenitsyn was a pure Russian nationalist.  He might have been in his private life, but that doesn’t come through in his writings. He is very critical of the Tsar and in other writings (e.g., The Russian Question) he thinks every war Russia fought was a bad idea.  

And his take on the Jews is more balanced than people on either side realize.  He mocks the anti-Jewish attitude of conservative Russians just before the Revolution. One of the characters had the name Isaaki (named after St Isaac), so the University thought he was Jewish and wouldn’t let him in.  He proved he wasn’t Jewish and then realized, “His acceptance rested on his having proved that he did not belong to the nation through which Christ had come into the world” (Solzhenitsyn 20).

Solzhenitsyn is aware of the existential danger that Russia faced, and not just from Satanists like Lenin.  Russia had lost two big wars, Crimea and Japan. She could not afford another loss (112). Even worse, Russia had failed to listen to Dostoevsky and form an eternal alliance with Germany.  Such would have protected her against the Bolsheviks (and forever doomed the British banking clans). Neither scenario, however, would be realized. Russia was doomed before the war began.

What Russia Should have Done

1) Tell France to go pound sand.

2) Expand the invasion of East Prussia beyond the Maurian lakes.  Amputate the whole thing (208).

3) Following Dostoevsky’s instructions, Russia should have formed an “eternal alliance” with Germany (114). Indeed, “peace between Germany and Russia was far preferable to this disastrous alliance with those circus artistes from Paris” (348).

Nota Bene:

a) German General Hermann von Francois was of Huguenot descent (214).

b) “It was one of those moments in war when time contracts to an explosion, when action must be instantaneous and nothing can be put off” (191).

c) There is a fun scene where an old man finds out that Sanya and Kotya are Tolstoyan and Hegelian, respectively (399-401).  As someone who used to be a pure Hegelian, I enjoyed this part. It also reveals that a Hegelian affirms the existence of the state.  This means a Hegelian can’t be a Marxist. It’s important to make this basic distinction, otherwise conservatives come off as conceptually inept.

The whole section is a wonderful critique of ideology. We shouldn’t impose a government from top down as a way to “fix” society (409).  Rather, the people of a country should focus on developing its soul. An example of this is the misguided attempt to “make the world safe for democracy.” That is the essence of Revolution and Bolshevism.

d) One is often struck by the similarities of the Russian “intelligentsia” and the “Woke” Americans of today.  Both sneer at the idea of a nation’s history. Indeed, both sneer at the idea of nations. Both are socialistic.  Some characters in the book are accused of being part of the “Black Hundreds,” an ultra-nationalist (and probably xenophobic) paramilitary group in Russia. If someone is a patriot, then he is a Black Hundred by definition.  It’s similar to today when anyone who loves America is an evil nationalist and probably a member of the KKK.

That’s another lesson today’s conservatives should learn from Solzhenitsyn.  Revolutionary socialists want you dead. You cannot reason with them. You cannot tell them “No, I am not a racist or ______.”  They are only waiting to line you up against the wall.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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This is a stark vision for Bernie’s America.  True, Solzhenitsyn couldn’t have known that, but it fits nonetheless. This book doesn’t have the raw,electric force of Gulag Archipelago.  To be fair, Gulag is a near-perfect read. Solzhenitsyn was a fair writer when he wrote Ivan. He was a perfect writer when he wrote Gulag.  I would probably start here, but you can mostly understand Gulag without Ivan.

You can find freedom or prison in any circumstance. Alyosha the Baptist, because he has been raised with Christ, isn’t given over to despair like other prisoners.  Elsewhere, while they are slaving (and remember, socialism is slave labor) in the snow, Shukhov actually enjoys his work. It is a routine. The routine is what gives you the ability to endure.

Nevertheless, the Gulag is dehumanizing. Men are reduced to caring more for an extra crumb of bread than they are for their fellow men.  I think that is deliberate.

The last two pages are worth the entire read.  Shukhov asks Alyosha why he doesn’t pray for freedom.  Alyosha counters “Why should he?” God is testing him, and Shukhov would probably waste his freedom on trash, anyway.

Gulag Archipelago

the-gulag-archipelago

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago: A Literary Investigation I-II. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974 [1973].

Few books are written with raw, electric energy. Solzhenitsyn’s work can only be labeled as a testimony to the 20th century and its postmodern politics. His work is a triumph of the human spirit. As is commonly noted of classics, this book is quoted yet rarely read. You will see blue-pilled virtue cons quote it about “human dignity” (and liberals ignore it altogether), but few will follow his reasoning out (and definitely shy away from what he says about Churchill).

I don’t think even Solzhenitsyn anticipated how accurate his words would describe 21st century social science, particularly “social engineering.” Social engineering is when a scientific and/or ruling elite engage in various practices to “shock” a people, thus manipulating them towards a pre-planned goal. He gives numerous examples

  • [people not accused of anything were arrested] simply to terrorize or wreak vengeance on a military enemy or population (Solzhenitsyn, I:29).
  • In the rear the first wartime wave was for spreading rumors and panic…”This was just a trial of bloodletting in order to maintain a general state of panic and tension” (78).
  • “All that was required in order to heighten the general consciousness was to arrest a certain percentage” (82).

I should probably clarify one point. You might see well-meaning authors describe the above as “The Hegelian Dialectic.” It is nothing of the sort. Hegel didn’t believe in such a dialectic. For him every thesis contains its own antithesis. Hegel wasn’t saying that we should create a problem in order to deliver our pre-planned solution. That’s what the Deep State does, but that’s not what Hegel said.

We might be tempted to say that the Soviets elites are simply stupid. There is some plausibility to that. Most Communists are stupid. But I think it is deeper. They are engaged in social alchemy. They are “changing” a population from leaden kulak into golden proletariat. They aren’t stupid. They are quite shrewd.

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On How to Survive the GULAG

“From the moment you go to prison you must put your past firmly behind you…”From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me” (130).

In other words, a strong doctrine of man’s soul.

AS neatly interweaves doctrines of man’s soul combined with what Gulag does to you. Although he likely doesn’t intend this, it is a good illustration of the mind-body problem.

The Bluecaps

The Soviet elite also adopted the motto of the criminal underworld, in which they would say to one another, “You today; [perhaps] me tomorrow” (145).

One danger, perhaps the main danger AS warned about in all of his works was ideology. Ideology is what separates the common criminal from the diabolical evil-doer. The criminal knows he is wrong. The Deep State agent has convinced himself that he is doing the Good. As he notes, “The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology” (176). As concludes with a chilling observation: “Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life….But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains” (177).

That Spring

AS rightly notes Winston Churchill’s post-WWII actions: “He turned over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. Along with them, he also handed over wagonloads of old people, women, and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers. This great hero, monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths” (259-260). In a moving, heart-breaking footnote, AS comments,

“This surrender was an act of double-dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy. The heart of the matter was that the Cossacks were determined to fight to the death, or to cross the ocean, all the way to Paraguay or Indochina if they had to . . . anything rather than surrender alive. Therefore, the English proposed, first, that the Cossacks give up their arms on the pretext of replacing them with standardized weapons. Then the officers —without the enlisted men—were summoned to a supposed conference on the future of the army in the city of Judenburg in the English occupation zone. But the English had secretly turned the city over to the Soviet armies the night before. Forty busloads of officers, all the way from commanders of companies on up to General Krasnov himself, crossed a high viaduct and drove straight down into a semicircle of Black Marias, next to which stood convoy guards with lists in their hands. The road back was blocked by Soviet tanks. The officers didn’t even have anything with which to shoot themselves or to stab themselves to death, since their weapons had been taken away. They jumped from the viaduct onto the paving stones below. Immediately afterward, and just as treacherously, the English turned over the rank-and-file soldiers by the train- load—pretending that they were on their way to receive new weapons from their commanders. In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom.

To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim II Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought! And when, subsequently, the Russians pushed out Mikolajczyk, when Benes and Masaryk came to their ends, when Berlin was blockaded, and Budapest flamed and fell silent, and Korea went up in smoke, and Britain’s Conservatives fled from Suez, could one really believe that those among them with the most accurate memories did not at least recall that episode of the Cossacks?

The Law as a Child

AS notes that a dialectic functioned on the people during this time: “And in the end, the members of the intelligentsia accepted it, too, cursing their eternal thoughtlessness, their eternal duality, their eternal spinelessness” (328).

The Law Becomes a Man

AS surveys a number of key trials between church and Soviet, and notes a number of tactical blunders by the former.

The Law Matures

In these chapters on the Law “growing,” AS notes since there isn’t a stable Law, then there isn’t stable justice. Soviet Justice is quite consistent in this regard, as seen here: “For a thousand years prosecutors and accusers had never even imagined that the fact of arrest might in itself be a proof of guilt. If the defendants were innocent, then why had they been arrested” (394)?

When one is done reading this work, you really can’t say too much more. Perhaps something like what Wittgenstein said,

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”