Saturday, June 9, 2018
“Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?” —Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his June 7, 1978 Harvard University Commencement Address, at which I was present. In the address, Solzhenitsyn encouraged the West not to lose its soul to the powerful temptation of materialism. This address was delivered 40 years ago this week. Solzhenitsyn died 10 years ago, in 2008, at the age of 90
“If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the same address
“The turn introduced by the Renaissance was probably inevitable historically: the Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, having become an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. But then we recoiled from the spirit and embraced all that is material, excessively and incommensurately. The humanistic way of thinking, which had proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtle and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the same address
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.” —Psalm 137:1
In June of 1978, I was a recent graduate of Harvard College (1977), where I had written my senior thesis on the work and thought of the American Catholic convert, Walker Percy, especially his philosophical essays on semiotics, published as The Message in the Bottle (link).
The essential point Percy made was that a pure materialism cannot satisfy man…
…that there is a “something” in man that longs for, strives for, the “transcendant,” that which is “above”…
…that man must struggle to retain that longing, as the Jews in Babylon struggled and wept to remember Zion, setting down their lyres — though it seemed they could never return…
…that man must struggle to retain a longing for that “holy” which the soul longs for, though it seems as far away and inacessible and even (in the worst moments) as unreal, as Zion seemed…
…as rescue seems to a shipwrecked castaway on a desert island…
…who keeps hoping a ship will come to save him, or that a bottle will wash up on the beach with a message inside, telling him the news he wants to hear, that his rescue is possible and will soon come…
…but day after day, the message does not come.
June 7, 1978 came, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, as I stood by, a Russian exile stood up on the podium before a vast crowd and began to speak…
I was there at the 1978 graduation, and I heard the speech given that day by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Russian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, and the survivor of a long confinment in a Soviet work camp, who had been living in exile for several years in Vermont.
The rain poured down throughout his speech.
But everyone stayed.
We wanted to hear him.
What I remember is that he seemed very concerned, not about the Soviet Union, but about America, about our own country.
I remember that he seemed to be warning us about the possible loss of our own direction, of our own individual souls, and of our collective soul as a nation and a culture.
And it was on that day, in a certain sense, that was born in me the thought that some knowledge, some wisdom, and some fraternal guidance might reach us in the West… from the East.
Forty years have passed. The Soviet Union is no more. Solzhenitsyn, who walked acorss St. Peter’s Square to visit Pope John Paul II in the 1980s along with his assistant, Irina Alberti (who shortly after became my friend and contributed to Inside the Vatican magazine), passed away 10 years ago at the age of 90.
In his memory, and in the hope of deeper wisdom in our individual lives, and of deeper understanding between the two cultures from which we sprang, Russia and America, I print below two articles.
The first is by Solzhenitsyn himself. It was written in tha fall of 1978, and reprinted just a couple of days ago by the National Review. It decribes his own reaction to America’s reaction to his Harvard graduation address.
The second is by Stella Arabito, a senior contributor to The Federalist journal.
Here is a link to the full text of Solzhenistyn’s speech, which is long, but, if you have a few minutes of time, will reward a full reading (link).
Note: If you appreciate these letters, you can support them with a donation, say, of $1 per month, making $12 per year. The letters will remain free, of course, as they are personal, and imperfect. You can make a donation at the following link.
My Harvard Speech in Retrospect
By ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN
Re-published by the National Review on June 7, 2018 (link).
The original of this text is from the fall of 1978, a couple of months after the speech was given. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008 at the age of 90.
(Aleksander Solzhenitsyn — Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
In the winter of 1978 an invitation to give a commencement speech at Harvard suddenly arrived. Of course I could have declined, as I had done in 1975, and with hundreds of other invitations.
But Harvard is a place of significance, and my speech would be heard throughout America.
I had not given a speech in two years, and my temperament was pushing me once again to speak out. So I accepted the invitation.
When I began to prepare my speech in the spring, I found that, beyond my aversion to eternal repetition, I could not and did not want to return to previous directions or hit previous notes. For many years in the USSR, and for four years now in the West, I had kept slashing and hacking away at Communism, but in these last years I had also seen in the West much that was alarmingly dangerous, and here I preferred to talk about that. Giving expression to the new observations that had accumulated within me, I built my speech around Western matters, about the weaknesses of the West.
Unlike the case with my other speeches, I wrote this speech out, and Irina Ilovaiskaya [Solzhenitsyn’s secretary] translated it into English. Knowing the West very well, she was extremely worried and upset, and tried to persuade me to soften my ideas and words. I refused. After the speech had been translated and printed out, in tears she told Alya [Solzhenitsyn’s wife]: “He will not be forgiven for this!”
My speech was announced in advance, and what was mainly expected of me (they later wrote) was the gratitude of the exile to the great Atlantic fortress of Liberty, singing praises to its might and its virtues, which were lacking in the USSR. And needless to say, they expected an anti-Сommunist speech. The evening before, during the formal gala dinner, I had the honor to sit with the president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, his black skin almost purple in hue, his face betraying fatigue, and also with the former president of Israel, Ephraim Katzir (Katchalsky), who very much called to mind a good-natured Ukrainian peasant, but one keeping his plans to himself. And the nervously restless Richard Pipes — a man of great influence at Harvard, and who almost singlehandedly runs the studies of Russia here in America — came over to meet me and find out if it was true that my speech was to center on Cambodia. (That would indeed have been an issue well worth talking about.)
The following day, June 8, people took their seats under the open sky in Harvard Yard, the graduates according to their fields, then the guests, and a large crowd of people standing — some 20,000 in all, I was told.
The president of Harvard congratulated the graduating students, after which honorary doctorates were given to the president of Botswana, to Katzir, to the Danish anthropologist Erik Erikson (who had a remarkable countenance), and to me — and to my surprise, the crowd rose to its feet and gave me a standing ovation; clearly the myth surrounding me had yet to be dismantled here.
Then Harvard graduates marched across the yard (at their head an old man, who had been of the class of 1893), as did we, the honored guests, students calling out greetings to us, and then everyone again took their seats.
When the moment came for me to speak, it began to rain heavily.
We on the podium were protected by a canopy, but everyone else in the crowd was exposed to the rain, and as I was speaking I was amazed that some people opened umbrellas, others didn’t, but that everyone remained sitting in the rain, nobody hurrying away! And my speech, along with the translation, took an hour, twice as long as it normally would have, loudspeakers broadcasting it to all the corners of Harvard Yard.
I was also amazed at how often and how vigorously people applauded, something I had not expected, especially when I was talking about the importance of leaving behind materialism. This heartened me. At times they whistled, which is also, it turns out, a sign of approval, but there was another sound too, a drawn-out “ssss,” the way we call for silence in Russian, and that, on the contrary, was a sign of disapproval. (Later, I was to learn that on that same campus at an earlier time there had resounded the sharpest protests against the Vietnam War.)
After my speech the university asked me for the text, and it was immediately printed, with some 2,000 copies handed out, and there began a bacchanalian dissemination of arbitrary excerpts and quotes from it throughout the U.S. and around the world. The university received over 5,000 requests from twelve countries. (Here again: Things that I had said elsewhere that had fallen on deaf ears, now, coming from America, were listened to by the entire world, as if for the first time!)
The tireless TV stations, which had recorded my entire speech, broadcast it that very evening along with a discussion. Of all this, Alya and I that night only managed to catch that the Voice of America was broadcasting the whole speech, in my voice, to the Soviet Union.
The following day and a half was like an excursion into the past. In the evening, Harper & Row threw a dinner for us in Harvard’s dining hall, and the aged Cass Canfield hobbled over to see me: He had been the one who had once behaved so capriciously over First Circle, and had ultimately prevailed, with conditions that were humiliating and disenfranchising for me. One should not nurse old grudges, but seeing him there was unpleasant.
The next day we went to the Connecticut home of my translator, Thomas Whitney — his friend Harrison Salisbury was there too — both of whom had ended up taking my side in the Carlisle affair [some complications with the initial publications of Solzhenitsyn’s books in the West — NR]. That evening, our host had gathered together a few choice guests, Arthur Miller and his circle, New York’s elite.
On the following day we returned home, at which point there began — for a good two months! — an unending rush of agitated newspaper responses to my speech, and then also a flood of letters from Americans. Irina Ilovaiskaya read the letters and made summaries, while I myself read many of the articles. And I must say I was quite taken aback by the connection (or rather the lack thereof) between the criticism and the actual content of my speech.
I had given my speech the title “A World Split Apart,” and it was with this idea that I had opened the speech, that mankind is separated into original and distinct worlds, distinct independent cultures that are often far removed from one another and frequently unfamiliar with one another (I had then listed some of them). One has to renounce the arrogant blindness of evaluating these different worlds merely within the context of their development toward the Western model. Such a benchmark is the result of a misunderstanding of the essence of those different worlds. Also, one has to stand back and look soberly at one’s own system.
Western society in principle is based on a legal level that is far lower than the true moral yardstick, and besides, this legal way of thinking has a tendency to ossify.
In principle, moral imperatives are not adhered to in politics, and often not in public life either.
The notion of freedom has been diverted to unbridled passion, in other words, in the direction of the forces of evil (so that nobody’s “freedom” would be limited!).
A sense of responsibility before God and society has fallen away. “Human rights” have been so exalted that the rights of society are being oppressed and destroyed.
And above all, the press, not elected by anyone, acts high-handedly and has amassed more power than the legislative, executive, or judicial power. And in this free press itself, it is not true freedom of opinion that dominates, but the dictates of the political fashion of the moment, which lead to a surprising uniformity of opinion. (It was on this point that I had irritated them most.)
The whole social system does not contribute to advancing outstanding individuals to the highest echelons. The reigning ideology, that prosperity and the accumulation of material riches are to be valued above all else, is leading to a weakening of character in the West, and also to a massive decline in courage and the will to defend itself, as was clearly seen in the Vietnam War, not to mention a perplexity in the face of terror.
But the roots of this social condition spring from the Enlightenment, from rationalist humanism, from the notion that man is the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him. And these roots of irreligious humanism are common to the current Western world and to Communism, and that is what has led the Western intelligentsia to such strong and dogged sympathy for Communism.
At the end of my speech I had pointed to the fact that the moral poverty of the 20th century comes from too much having been invested in sociopolitical changes, with the loss of the Whole and the High.
We, all of us, have no other salvation but to look once more at the scale of moral values and rise to a new height of vision. “No one on earth has any other way left but — upward,” were the concluding words of my speech.
Not once throughout the entire speech did I use the word détente (they expected me more than anything to condemn it once again), nor did I make appeals for Communism to be overcome, and only in the background, as an aside, did I mention that “the next war . . . may well bury Western civilization forever.”
And what did the crème de la crème of the educated classes and the press hear in this speech, and how did they respond?
What surprised me was not that the newspapers attacked me from every angle (after all, I had taken a sharp cut at the press), but the fact that they had completely missed everything important (a remarkable skill of the media). They had invented things that simply did not exist in my speech, and had kept striking out at me on positions they expected me to hold, but which I had not taken.
The newspapers went into a frenzy, as if my speech had focused on détente or war. (Had they prepared their responses in advance, anticipating that my speech would be like the ones I had given in Washington and New York three years earlier?) “Sets aside all other values in the crusade against Communism . . . Autocrat . . . A throwback to the czarist times . . . His ill-considered political analysis.” (The media is so blinkered it cannot even see beyond politics.)
In the first days the press spouted scalding invective: “He has flung his gauntlet at the West . . . Fanatic . . . Orthodox mystic . . . Fierce dogmatic . . . Political romantic . . . Conservative radical . . . Reactionary speech . . . Obsession . . . Has lost his balance . . . Has missed the point . . . Sounded like the wanderings of a mind split apart” (a pun on the title of my speech).
And then they came to the “consequences”: “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?” (This came up in several newspapers, and more than once.) “Why, if life in the United States is so deplorable and venal, should he have chosen to live here? . . . Mr. Solzhenitsyn, don’t let the doorknob hit you in the rear on the way out . . . As you don’t like anything else here, it’s not unkind of us to point out that you don’t have to stay here . . . Love it or leave it . . . Would somebody please send [him] an airline schedule for overseas flights, east-bound.” They were particularly irritated that, when I said “our country” in my speech, I was referring to the Soviet Union and not to America. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is the guest who . . . lectures you on your faults. After getting out of Russia one step ahead of the KGB, Solzhenitsyn turns around and condemns us, his hosts, as having too much freedom” — (I admit that’s quite ironic) — while enjoyably “living in peace and freedom . . . It was America who saved his homeland from Hitler’s horde.” (Though one might argue about who saved whom.)
Before my Harvard speech, I naïvely believed that I had found myself in a society where one can say what one thinks, without having to flatter that society. It turns out that democracy expects to be flattered.
When I called out “Live not by lies!” in the Soviet Union, that was fair enough, but when I called out “Live not by lies!” in the United States, I was told to go take a hike.
I was furthermore reproached, and in no uncertain terms, that I was criticizing the same Western press that had saved me in my battles in the Soviet Union. That did seem like ungratefulness on my part. But I had marched into battle prepared to die, without expecting to be saved. I had written in The Oak and the Calf that “Western sympathy began to grow warmer and warmer until it reached an undreamed-of temperature.”
But now they regret having helped me.
Had the Bolsheviks exiled me to Siberia in 1974, the West would have been happy to look the other way, especially after reading my Letter to the Soviet Leaders. Kissinger and Pope Paul VI had come to the conclusion as far back as 1973 that I should not be defended.
Almost at the same time that I was speaking at Harvard, President Carter was giving a speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, fervently praising America. “In contrast to Carter, who spoke of the American way of life in almost evangelical terms,” Solzhenitsyn was full of criticism, lamented Newsweek.
A few days later the first lady, speaking at the National Press Club, almost overstepped the bounds of propriety, stating specifically in answer to me that there was no spiritual decline in America but that there was prosperity on all fronts. Now a great wave of justification of the United States swept throughout the press: “He does not grasp the American spirit . . . We are irresponsible, he tells us. We put our freedom first, before our responsibility” precisely “because we are a free people.”
The major newspapers did not print the actual speech, despite there being no copyright restrictions, but only passages convenient for their censure. “He arrived complete with preconceptions about American decadence and cowardice . . . Has no particular use for freedom, and little for democracy . . . Does not comprehend that there is strength, great strength, in our weakness, [even in] naïveness and non-monolithic government, [which] may be incomprehensible to a traditional Russian.”
And through many articles there echoed: He is too Russian, he is incorrigibly Russian, his experience is limited to things Russian, he does not understand. “A voice from Russia’s past . . . a nineteenth-century Slavophile . . . He despises our press . . . The unspoken expectation was that after three years in our midst, he would have to say we are superior. [Could he] at least have given one cheer for the extension of freedom to a whole society? . . . Didn’t we publish his books? Wouldn’t that be reason enough for gratitude? . . . Most Americans will cringe at the thesis . . . that ‘people have the right not to know’” — (I had spoken about “the forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk” — A.S.) — or that “commercial interest tends to ‘suffocate’ spiritual life . . . His conclusions made Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West sound recklessly optimistic . . . The giant does not love us . . . [He points] obliquely and indeterminately to a regeneration of ‘spiritual life.’ . . . [The speech only] indicates the weakness of Harvard’s ability to get an honest American [to address the graduates]. Thank God for being an American.”
Harrison Salisbury, who had initially defended me on television, saying that a rural philosopher was perfectly capable of seeing the big picture from his retreat, now also expressed surprise: “Can Solzhenitsyn, in a sense, be the opposition government for the Soviet Union and also the United States? That’s an enormous burden to be put on anyone’s shoulders.”
But even in the initial unified chorus of condemnation, there were also appraisals of my speech (more vocal with every passing day) that did not focus on its political elements, but kept comparing it, dozens of times, to Biblical prophecy, and me to the old American Puritans. “Poured out doomsday warnings . . . Renewed a tradition of apocalyptic prophecy . . . Struck responsive chords in many American breasts . . . It’s been a long time since we heard a Puritan like this. Increase Mather was president of Harvard once, and he would have looked like a moral weakling compared to Solzhenitsyn . . . He shook the country with a magnitude-9 earthquake, a bitter truth.”
Soon evaluations of the initial newspaper reactions to my speech began to appear: “An avalanche of critical misunderstanding . . . Touched a raw nerve [with the press] . . . An intellect of great force and appetite, Solzhenitsyn stirred up a hornet’s nest . . . Seldom has so much earnest controversy arisen from a single speech by a private citizen, and seldom has the preponderance of response so widely missed the mark . . . He attacked the media for self-assurance, hypocrisy and deceit and they will never forgive him for it . . . Liberals usually blush at the word ‘evil’ [but Solzhenitsyn] has looked at one of hell’s faces.”
As more readers’ reactions (albeit watered down and cut by the editors) and articles of thoughtful journalists made their way into the newspapers, and the press in the heartland began to enter the discussion, the tone of voice in the assessments of my speech became significantly more varied: “What he said was unadulterated truth and the truth can hurt at times . . . There is no greater gift an exiled stranger could bring us . . . We should thank him for being man enough to stand before our young people and point to a better way, a way of law that honors right . . . We had better heed the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn . . . Reconsider the Harvard address — not primarily as an attack, but as a plea to the entire human family.”
Finally, a graduate of Harvard, Wanda Urbanska, who had heard my speech, also managed to get her opinion into a newspaper: The address “ruffled many assumptions about ourselves and the world that Harvard has so carefully groomed.” Why, she asks, does one newspaper columnist presume to speak on graduates’ behalf? She concludes: Solzhenitsyn “challenged us; he bothered us; and he will stay with us.”
Now one could also begin to read many responses that were markedly distinguished from the arrogant stance of the America of New York and Washington: “We know in our hearts he is right . . . We are worse than he says we are if we do not face up to our faults and try to do something to correct them . . . Solzhenitsyn is right, too awfully right . . . Brilliant and courageous Harvard speech cut like a two-edged sword right through America’s flab . . . The American people will sustain Solzhenitsyn on this count . . . The Washington Post may smile at the Russian accent of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s words, but it cannot detract from their universal meaning . . . Let us be grateful before it’s too late . . . His speech ought to be burned into America’s heart. But instead of being read, it was killed . . . Can the press maintain diversity when ultimate control rests in the hands of a small group of corporate executives?”
Gradually another America began unfolding before my eyes, one that was small-town and robust, the heartland, the America I had envisioned as I was writing my speech, and to which my speech was addressed. I now felt a glimmer of hope that I could connect with this America, warn it of what we had experienced, and perhaps even lead it to change direction.
But how many years would that take, and how much strength?
And how was I to conduct such a battle, calling for a fight to the death against Communism, yet without in any way targeting Russia? And this in a situation where wily polemicists of the Third Emigration [the wave of émigrés allowed to leave in the 1970s — NR] were not only clouding the realities of Russia with their lies, but, in an unexpected turn, were spreading the credo that the true Russia, as opposed to the Soviet Union, is a far greater danger to the West than the current benign Communist regime, which must be supported, though kept in check by maintaining adroit negotiations.
In the wake of the Harvard invitation, there also came one from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: The adjutant general offered to gather together the entire student body, over 5,000 students, and I could lecture on any subject I chose. It would be an ideal platform from which to steer America in a new direction! West Point is a tribune of American presidents, and there would be a strong and sympathetic crowd, not like the brooding Harvard audience. What listeners could it be more important to convince? A severe and decisive place: These very students were going to be the military leaders on the battlefields of the Third World War and the administrators of the regions near the front. If not in them, then in whom did American hatred need to be deflected from Russia? Who, if not they, should be the first to be told of the betrayals of the First and Second World Wars, the first to whom the difference between the USSR and Russia should be explained?
It would have been an ideal blow against the Communists. I was very much inclined to go to West Point, but Alya rightly dissuaded me: How would such a speech be perceived back home in Russia? If, after speeches I had given at trade-union conventions I had been falsely accused of insisting that Russia be brought to her knees by starvation, then a speech at the military academy would be taken as my fraternizing with the “American imperialists.” The end result would have been the exact opposite of what I intended. So I was forced to decline the invitation.
The Harvard speech unleashed echoes that kept resounding far longer than I could have foreseen.
This excerpt is reprinted from Book 1 of Solzhenitsyn’s memoir Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile (link) with permission from University of Notre Dame Press, © 2018 by University of Notre Dame. The chapter excerpted here was written in autumn 1978, shortly after the Harvard address that it describes. The translation is by Peter Constantine.
ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN — Mr. Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Here is the second article, by Stella Morabito, from The Federalist (link)
40 Years Later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Speech Blazes A Beacon For Renewal
The Soviet Union has fallen, and some might like to think that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘bitter truth’ is a relic of a happily bygone era. Not so. His speech is even more relevant today.
By Stella Morabito
JUNE 8, 2018
(Solzhenitsyn in conversation with Vladimir Putin)
Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address at Harvard University was a shot heard round the world on June 8, 1978. It shocked many at the time, but was too quickly forgotten. The crowd at Harvard that afternoon numbered about 20,000.
Solzhenitsyn was a fervent anti-communist and survivor of the Soviet Union’s murderous gulag labor camps, but that wasn’t what he came to talk about.
The West is spiritually sick, Solzhenitsyn told his audience. Therefore, it is ill-equipped to rescue the oppressed from their captivity, especially those held captive by the tyranny of communism. Our excesses and materialism are doing us in, he warned.
Solzhenitsyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful writing on communist oppression and spiritual emptiness. His 1962 novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” described life in a Stalinist labor camp. By 1973 Solzhenitsyn had published “The Gulag Archipelago,” which exposed the system of labor camps in far greater detail, resulting in his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.
The Harvard address is also known by the title, “A World Split Apart.” It follows up on Solzhenitsyn’s earlier speeches compiled in a volume called “Warning to the West.” The Harvard speech begins:
Harvard’s motto is ‘Veritas.’ Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.
Of course, the Soviet Union has since fallen, and some might like to think that Solzhenitsyn’s “bitter truth” is a relic of a happily bygone era. Not so. His speech is even more relevant today.
The ‘Me Decade’ Setting
Solzhenitsyn spoke against a backdrop of social malaise in the West that was fast devolving into a wave of social decay. In 1974, the United States granted him asylum, so he had four years to reflect upon the state of American society and culture by the time he spoke at Harvard.
In June 1978, the Cold War was still in full swing despite arms control talks and work towards a détente with the Soviet Union. The Watergate hearings and Vietnam War were behind us, but not their social fallout. Jimmy Carter, a decent but ineffective man, was in the White House. As he publicly took the Soviet Union to task for human rights abuses, political prisoners there suffered more, and his feckless response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The 1970s also brought seismic changes in American culture. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalized all types of abortions through all nine months of pregnancy. Academia was deep in the process of replacing the humanities with grievance studies (i.e., gender studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, etc.), fanning the flames of identity politics and fueling the metastasis of today’s political correctness.
It was a time of encounter groups, the growth of cults like Scientology and Synanon, and Jerry Brown’s first stint as “Governor Moonbeam” in California. The late Tom Wolfe labelled the self-absorption of the era as “The Me Decade.”
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was at the height of both its military power and the Brezhnev Era’s overall stagnation. Soviet citizens displayed cravings for all things Western: blue jeans, rock and roll, well-made goods, private cars. Soviet citizens spent many of their waking hours standing in long lines for difficult-to-come-by amenities like toilet paper, quality lipstick, or oranges. A malaise was spreading, with food shortages and the economic inertia inherent in communism. The Politburo—the inner circle of Soviet leadership—had become a gerontocracy on virtual life support.
Political prisoners were sent not only to Soviet gulags but to abusive psychiatric wards where they were broken in mind and spirit. Yet a strong resistance to the regime’s oppression was building within the Soviet Union. The Helsinki Accords resulted in efforts to monitor Soviet human rights abuses. Helsinki Watch groups were spearheaded in Moscow by leaders like Nobel laureate in physics Andrei Sakharov and his activist wife Yelena Bonner.
Despite all of the above, and the great split between the Democratic West and Communist East, most American analysts could not foresee the imminent fall of the Soviet Union. All the while, Solzhenitsyn could see that the West’s decadence disqualified it as a liberator capable of binding up the wounds of a post-totalitarian East.
The Split Remains Profound
Solzhenitsyn said this about the nature of the world split apart: “The truth is that the split is both more profound and more alienating, that the rifts are more numerous than one can see at first glance.” They involved a multiplicity of differences between many distinct cultures, including China, India, the Muslim world, and numerous cultures around the globe.
At the time, however, several Western scholars theorized there would be a “convergence,” in which all cultures would accept the Western way of life, a sort of cultural imperialism that continues today as the United Nations bureaucracy seeks to impose ever-devolving Western sexual mores in developing nations. It also gave rise to the idea that there would be a convergence between the West and the Soviet Union.
This sort of utopian vision remains ever the same, although the name today seems to have changed from “convergence” to “globalism.” Its advocates are perhaps even more entrenched today than back in 1978 when they were still dreaming of a European Union, often referring to it as a “United States of Europe.”
Today, many European leaders stubbornly continue to insist on encouraging policies such as uncontrolled immigration of populations unable or unwilling to assimilate. They cling perhaps to what Solzhenitsyn called “a soothing theory” of convergence, a theory that “overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all evolving towards each other and that neither one can be transformed into the other without violence.”
Solzhenitsyn’s Look at the West’s Shortcomings
The Harvard speech is a must-read for our times, a diagnosis of what ails us, whether or not you agree with all of it. Below I’ve listed some of the symptoms and concerns that Solzhenitsyn shared in it. We ought to consider them thoughtfully and address them, because I fear they’ve gone without treatment and are even more ingrained today.
The decline in civic courage was the “most striking feature” of the West, to Solzhenitsyn’s eyes. He could see it happening in Western countries, political parties, and the United Nations. Moreover, he said, “Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.”
Along with this is a loss of will in the West. We can’t defend ourselves if we are not willing to die for anything: “there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.”
Dependency. The welfare state and our ever increasing desire for material goods doesn’t bode well for anybody, Solzhenitsyn noted. He made an analogy with the biological reality that “a high degree of habitual well being is not advantageous to a living organism.” Our declining self-reliance, consumerism, and material cravings have eroded our capacity to develop and grow.
On hyper-individualism: “Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives towards further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames . . . I have spent all my life under a communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man.”
When laws are passed without regard to virtue, there will be Hell to pay. We end up in what Solzhenitsyn called “an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.”
Our excessive and unchecked freedom is leading to evil. When individual rights become extreme, taking precedence over human obligations, we end up in a situation in which certain individuals accrue so much power that society becomes defenseless against them.
This tilt towards evil has come about gradually. Its source is the humanistic idea that human beings don’t have any evil within themselves. So we end up shifting blame to a political system, or claiming that it’s all society’s fault.
Solzhenitsyn’s most profound expression of this point comes from “The Gulag Archipelago”: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Media as unelected arbiters of our society and culture. Solzhenitsyn called out the carelessness and superficiality (“psychic diseases of the twentieth century”) that he saw in the Western press. Obviously, when journalism becomes propaganda, we’re in deep trouble. He stated: “the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Yet one would like to ask: According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”
Political correctness. In 1978, the term “political correctness” hadn’t yet come into circulation. But he talked about it, referring to it as a fashion in thinking, or a prevailing fad in how we’re supposed to think. He challenged the way political correctness prevents true scholarship and independent thinking, warning us to shun it because it only creates “dangerous herd instincts.”
Political correctness functions as “a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds,” he warned. That, of course, sets us all up for collapse. The illusions of political correctness will be broken as all illusions are: “by the inexorable crowbar of events.”
Socialism is death. Solzhenitsyn made sure we understood that his criticism of the West was by no means intended as a defense of socialism. In the Harvard speech, he cited the now out-of-print book “The Socialist Phenomenon” by the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, and condemned socialism completely with this: “Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”
The West is no model for growth. It’s in a state of “spiritual exhaustion.” Its mass commercialism, technologies, and mass living habits have produced in us a stupor, disqualifying the West from being a model to the rest of the world.
Solzhenitsyn contrasted the effects of our complacency with the effects of the suffering that victims of totalitarianism endured. He observed how such suffering tempers the human spirit, and produces “stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being.”
Solzhenitsyn also remarked on the political short-sightedness in the West, especially in the case of moral relativists who open the door to totalitarianism. “Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria.”
He actually mentioned American historian and political advisor George Kennan by name, condemning his advice to unilaterally disarm. “If you only knew how the youngest of the officials in Moscow’s Old Square roar with laughter at your political wizards!” In the shadow of the Vietnam War, he called out antiwar activists as “accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there.”
Secular Humanism and Its Consequences
The Harvard Speech also sheds light on the source of our ailments: the secular humanism that came out of the Enlightenment, along with its celebration of material and technological progress that moved us away from faith, and set us up to be our own gods.
All of a sudden, after we “recoiled from the spirit and embraced all that is material,” the West “found itself in its present state of weakness.” It’s logical then to look at the foundation of our humanistic thinking. If we couldn’t or wouldn’t admit to any intrinsic evil in man, if our whole and only goal was to gain happiness on earth, then what?
Well, this creates a vacuum, or as Solzhenitsyn put it: “gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today.” As we achieve the “rights of man” our responsibility to God—and therefore also to our fellow man—continues to grow dim.
So what happened? Well, according to Solzhenitsyn, there grew “an unexpected kinship” between the Enlightenment and the forces of totalitarianism. The West succumbed to the temptations of material progress, and the appetite for shiny objects grew while eating. As we reached towards material progress, we lost our moorings and forgot about God.
So, as humanism became more materialistic, socialists and communists could easily apply those ideas to suit their own agendas: “Karl Marx was able to say, in 1844, that ‘communism is naturalized humanism.’ . . . It is no accident that all of communism’s rhetorical vows revolve around Man (with a capital M) and his early happiness. Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition.”
As Solzhenitsyn describes it, the process has become ever more acute: “Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. The Communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism’s crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes.”
Is the West Dying Out—and Why?
So, is the West committing suicide or dying of natural causes—or by serious accident? The West continues to suffer from the maladies that Solzhenitsyn described so well. We’re sick. Some think we’re dying.
Recently, Federalist author John Daniel Davidson challenged the thesis of Jonah Goldberg’s book “Suicide of the West,” which argues the great prosperity and freedom we enjoy is a miracle produced by capitalism and constitutionalism, which took off at the dawn of the Enlightenment. But the miracle is threatened by many social forces, including tribalism, nationalism, populism, and identity politics.
The very forces that gave rise to our material wealth and well-being planted the virus: the Enlightenment and its siren song to materialism.
Davidson responds that if the West is dying, it is of natural causes. (For an excellent summary of some current debate on the Enlightenment today—and age-old commentary as well—see Ben Domenech’s recent Federalist article.)
Davidson’s argument is in sync with the Harvard speech, while Goldberg’s is not. It is interesting to note that in the index of Goldberg’s book, there are zero references to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and perhaps that is intended, for whatever reason. But I think the omission also reveals some fault lines since Solzhenitsyn was such a powerful twentieth-century voice on the diseases that afflict the West. Of course, many took offense at Solzhenitsyn’s speech back then, and perhaps still do.
Davidson echoes Solzhenitsyn in his critique: “Maybe the only way forward is to go back and discover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment,” things he says Goldberg is not very interested in. Our wayward path, says Davidson, was all spelled out in one of the most prescient of all writings of the twentieth century: C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man.” Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech seems infused with the spirit of Lewis’s essay.
Davidson notes: “Lewis’s larger argument in “The Abolition of Man” is that man’s conquest of nature is chimerical; it ends with nature’s conquest of man. Having debunked all tradition and morality through the wonders of applied science, having succeeded in reducing all of human life to mere biological functions that can be precisely manipulated, mankind will ‘be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.’”
It’s all there in Solzhenitsyn’s iconic speech: our path away from God, our worship of technologies, our addictions to pleasure and leisure that atrophy our capacity for growth, our spiritual void—all leading inevitably toward death. The disaster was inside each one of us, he says, because we refused to see it when we made man the measure of all things, “imperfect man who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey.”
Not that we weren’t warned.
Is This the End—Or a Major Turning Point?
Solzhenitsyn suggested that even though our species is imbued with disaster, perhaps today’s crisis does not signify the end. Maybe instead we are at a watershed moment in history, akin to the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
It’s easy to discount this optimistic idea today, knowing that Solzhenitsyn spoke 40 years ago. The world has since gone through many more convulsions technologically, socially, culturally, and spiritually. On the other hand, maybe the slope we’ve been on has been so slippery that we have no choice but to hit rock bottom before we can get up and come to our senses.
There’s no predicting when “the end” will come. So perhaps we’ve spent these 40 years wandering in the wilderness. I believe that in 2018, just as in 1978, there is great hope as long as there are enough people with the spiritual courage, vision, and the will to prevail over evil.
They may be unsung, but there are many more than we know, certainly far more than enough to make a difference. They need only speak out to one another within the hidden sphere that Czech freedom fighter Vaclav Havel spoke of in his essay “The Power of the Powerless.” Expanding that sphere builds a ripple effect of freedom.
At the end of his speech, Solzhenitsyn advised that if we are to get through such a massive shift, we must rise to the occasion. The times demand a rebirth of spiritual fervor and a strong sense of vision in which we achieve a new equilibrium. This means, he says, that we do not curse our physical nature, as was done in the Middle Ages and among today’s transhumanists. But neither will we allow the trampling of our spiritual being, as is being done in the Modern Era.
In the end: “This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but upward.”
(Stella Morabito is a senior contributor to The Federalist.)