Peterson and Solzhenitsyn Speak Truth to Power

It is not hard to see why Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated on December 11, would be such a compelling figure for Jordan Peterson, the Jungian psychologist who has become an international cause célèbre for defying Orwellian speech codes added to Canada’s Human Rights Act. In addition to advocating an ethic of individual responsibility for directionless and emasculated youths, Peterson has devoted much of his scholarship to the ways in which modern totalitarian systems manipulate language and concepts. Just as Solzhenitsyn in his day warned that “socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death,” so, too, does Peterson now condemn political-correctness as the spawn of Marxism—which is, in turn, “a murderous ideology” built upon “vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas.”

In his foreword to a new edition of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Peterson notes:

If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 there is absolutely and finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. Thank Heaven for that great author’s outrage, courage and unquenchable thirst for justice and truth. It was Solzhenitsyn who warned us that the catastrophes of the Soviet state were inextricably and causally linked to the deceitful blandishments of the Marxist utopian vision. It was Solzhenitsyn who documented the price paid in suffering for the dreadful communist experiment, and who distilled from that suffering the wisdom we must all heed so that such catastrophe does not visit us again.

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In addition to opposing political-correctness and affirming that “the essential goodness of Being” better explains the psyche than does libido-centric Freudianism, Peterson can also be credited for helping perpetuate the legacy of the man who beat the gulag.

In turning to that legacy, we find that there are aspects of it that are overlooked by many of Solzhenitsyn’s admirers. For both Solzhenityn’s profound religious convictions and his steadfast resistance to totalitarianism were bound up with his sense of patriotism—and if any principle needs particular affirmation in our rootless, acultural, and abstract age, patriotism is it. Catholics, at least, must concede that with respect to the patriotic question the Eastern Orthodox Solzhenitsyn stands squarely in the company of great minds like Saint Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and Saint Pius X, and in sharp contrast to Emmanuel Macron and other leftist figures who would reduce patriotism to a zeal for abstract propositions like equality and universal democracy. In Russia In Collapse, for instance, Solzhenitsyn explicitly defines patriotism not in reference to any political theory, ancient or modern, but rather characterizes it as “an integral and persistent feeling of love for one’s homeland,” and goes so far as to make the following analogy:

Love for one’s people is as natural as love for one’s family. No one can be faulted for this love, only respected. After all, no matter how much the modern world whirls and jerks about, we still aim to keep intact our family, and we hold it in special regard, suffused with sympathy. A nation is a family, too, except an order of magnitude higher in numbers. It is bound by unique internal ties: a common language, a common cultural tradition, a shared historical memory, and a shared set of problems to resolve in the future.

Solzhenitsyn concludes the preceding reflections on a plaintive note: “Why, then, should the self-preservation of a people be held a sin?”

Here we might ask if Solzhenitsyn might not be giving his readers too much credit when he assumes that they all acknowledge the importance of the family, for much of what is now celebrated as economic progress and upward mobility entails breaking up family networks and neighborhoods. In light of this, it is not hard to answer Solzhenitsyn’s question. Insofar as patriotism and love of family are both natural, therein lies the difficulty, for modern man rejects few things so violently as the idea that there may be some natural order which could condition or limit his wishes and appetites.

As a patriot as well as a Christian, Solzhenitsyn is as much a sign of contradiction in the twenty-first century as he was in the twentieth, for communism has much in common with the globalist ideology that has by now become ubiquitous in the West. Both systems replace the striving for God with the single-minded pursuit of a materialistic and utterly artificial planetary order; both seek to create a new man, liberated from all traditional conceptions of life; and both denounce local and national identity as indicative of a “false consciousness.” A case can easily be made, then, that globalism is merely communism 2.0, albeit shorn of certain economic inefficiencies.

This would explain why globalists insist that America’s number one foreign policy priority should not be protecting US citizens from the concrete threats posed by jihadists or MS-13, but waging a second Cold War against Russia, which styles itself the world’s foremost defender of national sovereignty and Christian culture. If Solzhenitsyn is correct in his startlingly prescient 1980 article “Misconceptions about Russia Are a Threat to America,” it would seem that the roots of such calls for a second Cold War go even further back than the 1990s and Boris Yeltsin’s criminally incompetent administration. Even during the first Cold War, “a hostile and distorted portrayal of old Russia” had come to be taken for granted in American scholarship, Solzhenitsyn suggested, and added that there was an ulterior motive on the part of liberal intellectuals who fostered said portrayal:

While communism was still the object of Western infatuation, it was hailed as the indisputable dawning of a new era. But ever since communism has had to be condemned, it has been ingeniously ascribed to the age-old Russian slave mentality. This interpretation currently enjoys wide support, since it is so advantageous to many people: if the crimes and vices of communism are not inherent to it, but can be attributed entirely to the traditions of old Russia, then it follows that there exists no fundamental threat to the Western world […]

In other words, if the defective Russian character rather than utopian ideology can be blamed for the catastrophe that was the Soviet Union, maybe we ought to give Marx a second chance. Those who say that socialism is a wonderful idea which was never tried implicitly assume that the Cold War miseries suffered by untold Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, East Germans, Czechs, and Romanians—and Russians—ought to be blamed not upon the ideas of Marx, or even of Lenin, but upon the tradition of Russian imperialism, a tradition based in turn upon Russian nationalism.

Solzhenitsyn would have none of this. Instead of seeing the USSR as an expression of old Russia, he contended instead that the Soviet project represented the negation of Russian nationality, a negation with which the proto-globalist Western intelligentsia happily went along:

It aims at nothing less than the final destruction of the Russian peasantry: huts and villages are being razed, peasants are being herded together in multi-storied settlements on the industrial model, links with the soil are being severed; national traditions, the national way of life, even apparently the Russian landscape and the national character all are disappearing for ever. And the reaction of the meager Western news media to this murderous communist onslaught on the very soul of our people? They have not so much as noticed it!

In the first revolution (1917-20) Lenin’s curved dagger slashed at the throat of Russia. Yet Russia survived. In the second revolution (1929-31) Stalin’s sledge hammer strove to pound Russia to dust. Yet Russia survived. The third and final revolution is irrevocably underway, with Brezhnev’s bulldozer bent on scraping Russia from the face of the earth. And at this moment, when Russian nationhood is being destroyed without pity, the Western media raise a hue and cry about the foremost threat today—Russian national consciousness….

This claim is nothing short of astonishing. If true, it means that even in 1980 American and European journalists and academics were more worried about “reactionary” Russian elements like Solzhenitsyn than about a “progressive” Soviet regime which had for a generation overseen massacres, purges, and show trials. A belief that traditional Russian patriotism rather than communism posed the greater danger to Western civilization at first appears bizarre. But such an attitude on the part of elites would surely help explain why Solzhenitsyn came to be dismissed by many as a reactionary crank following the 1978 address, even as unequivocal paeans to Karl Marx are to this day found in The New York Times. Moreover, we remember how much the intelligentsia tends to simplistically equate Western civilization with the Enlightenment rationalism critiqued by Solzhenitsyn in his controversial Harvard Address. At any rate, Solzhenitsyn’s succinct retort may be found within the address itself. The real and ultimate existential threat to Western civilization is not political but spiritual—it is “the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs,” a trend manifested in the liberal West no less than in the Communist East.

As Joseph Pearce points out, Solzhenitsyn’s magisterial Gulag Archipelago has been placed on the required reading list for all Russian high school seniors. Whatever may be wrong with Russia today, attempts to compare it with the darkest, most dystopian periods of Bolshevism are simply outlandish, for sentiments like the following could hardly have been placed front and center under Lenin’s rule:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even with hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil […] I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history. They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

Come to think of it, such sentiments are not often favored in America’s parochial schools nowadays either. Were it customary to familiarize high school students in the United States with Solzhenitsyn’s counter-revolutionary perspective, perhaps fewer millennials would see evil as a straightforward problem to be solved by giving carte blanche to technocrats and social workers. As is, only a spectacular failure on the part of Catholic leadership could explain why so many of our college students now need an idiosyncratic non-Catholic psychologist to explain to them sex differences, personal accountability, and the notion of objective truth. However else Solzhenitsyn and Peterson may differ from each other, together they serve as a rebuke to every pastor, scholar, and official who has put career advancement ahead of the obligation to speak truth to power.

Editor’s note: Above is a photo of Russian author and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn taken in Cologne before his departure for Zurich, February 15, 1974. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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