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International Socialism, October 1974


Bruce Young


The Politics of Isolation


From International Socialism, No.72, October 1974, pp.25-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SOLZHENITSYN’S expulsion from the USSR several months ago provoked the reactions that were to be expected. In the USSR the mass media revealed that public opinion was disturbed only by the fact that the slanderer had not been dealt with before. Meanwhile various hired hacks in the Western press used the event for anti-socialist propaganda. And Edward Heath invited the dissident to come to Britain, the traditional haven for political refugees (except socialists from Chile and such-like trouble-makers).

In all this the important thing for socialists is to search out the man himself amidst the hubbub, and get a clear understanding of his politics and his art. The problem with Solzhenitsyn is that whereas in his work he describes truthfully and entertainingly what it’s like to live in a Stalinist system, his own politics are highly reactionary. Therefore I shall try to show just what his particular brand of politics amounts to, how it arises and how it interacts with his work.

Solzhenitsyn’s Politics

LOOKED at overall, Solzhenitsyn’s politics are those of an intellectual outsider, moulded by his life-experience as a political prisoner. His are the politics of desperate self-defence in unbearable social conditions, conducted in isolation from the social forces – first of all the working class – which alone are capable of overthrowing these conditions. Solzhenitsyn’s fight to save his integrity is heroic, but diverted and distorted by his lack of any adequate social perspective or awareness of the need for one.

The tragedy is that he has never in fact emerged from the prison camp in which Stalinism incarcerated him from 1945 to 1963. It forced him to retreat into a power-encircled inwardness, a solitary confinement of the spirit. This determines the basic trend of his politics, and makes explicable both why the politics themselves are so reactionary in contents and yet co-exist with literary work which is not at all reactionary.

In common with all isolated intellectuals in revolt Solzhenitsyn’s politics are an incredible mish-mash of reactionary and some progressive ideas. But in Solzhenitsyn himself the mix is bound together by religion. This religiosity pervades his whole approach to politics. Perhaps it gave him the spiritual strength for resistance, but certainly it made him incapable of fighting back against the regime that made him suffer.

For him the world as God’s creation is essentially harmonious and perfect: any disharmony, imperfection or evil in it is the result of man’s wilful interference and fallen nature. [1] This is a recipe for transforming spontaneous revolt into passive, moral protest which is utterly utopian and in practice downright reactionary. If the world’s troubles are due only to human interference with it, then clearly the way to improve things can never be to organise to change it ourselves according to earthly human need and desire. On the contrary we must submit ourselves to God’s heavenly will, as interpreted to us by his authorised representatives on earth – in former days the Tsar’s priests, nowadays presumably Solzhenitsyn himself. [2] This doctrine is not just anti-socialist, it is anti-democratic as well: if people are evil by nature they need an authoritarian order to keep them in check.

Not only does Solzhenitsyn in accordance with this religious attitude blame marxism and the Bolshevik revolution for the crimes of Stalinism [3], it also makes him inherently incapable of envisaging any realistic political action whatsoever (even a reactionary one). Politics for him gets reduced to the level of moral exhortation of the authorities. In his recent Letter to Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn addresses himself to the authorities rather than looking to the action of the people themselves. What is more he openly says that he expects the authorities to take no notice whatsoever. [4]

In fact, Solzhenitsyn has no politics properly speaking at all: instead he has a mixture of political ideas and prejudices drawn from quite diverse standpoints and ideologies. And what a mixture it is! From the pre-revolutionary Russian Populists (Narodniks) Solzhenitsyn takes his rejection of Western ideas, especially Marxism, as allegedly foreign to the Russian ‘soul’. [5]

Just as with the Narodniks, this makes him incapable of identifying the real social forces fighting the regime he hates so much, and picking out the urban working class as playing the leading role amongst them. These forces appear to him only in the distorted form of an almost mystical Russian ‘people’ in which the real class forces vanish into what is actually an idealisation of the peasantry – not even the modern peasantry, but the Tsarist peasantry, and not even that, but Solzhenitsyn’s idea of it. Next from Tolstoy he takes pacifism and religious moralism, raising them to unprecedented heights of absurdity.

From Stalinism, he takes Russian big-power nationalism and turns it against the Stalinists themselves – for too long, he says in his letter to Brezhnev, the Russian state has sacrificed its interests for the sake of the world revolution, now it’s time to leave all that to the Chinese. [6]

Then from Western liberalism, he takes opposition to authoritarian repression. Not that he is against authoritarianism as such – the Russian people, he says, are immature and need an authoritarian order (an idea taken from the fascists – Franco and Salazar). But it must be a moral authoritarianism, like the Tsar’s, and especially it must not be directed against intellectuals such as himself. [7] And to top off the brew he throws in a bit of socialism as well – mightn’t it be a good idea, says he to the Kremlin, to renovate the Soviets? [8] There’s no need to delve further into the details of Solzhenitsyn’s political views: in future years he will not be remembered for his politics, but forgiven for them. What is needed is a serious analysis of the artist, which does not try to cover up the glaring absurdities of his political ideas but shows just how in spite of them he has been able to write about Soviet life in his novels with accuracy and truth.

Solzhenitsyn’s Art

IT IS CLEARLY not enough to say that Solzhenitsyn somehow manages to be acutely realistic in his art ‘in spite of his politics. One has to explain just how this actually comes about.

The situation seems to be roughly this. Solzhenitsyn’s politics, in fact both permit his artistic achievements and fix their limitations, and they do so by making him an isolated outsider from official Soviet society. In so far as he is an outsider, he is enabled to depict the true state of things in that society unhampered by any need to defend it, even ‘critically’, as somehow connected with something basically desirable called socialism. It emerges from his pen as a society gripped so tightly in the vice of the bureaucracy that there is absolutely no way out of its dead end except through total social revolution (although, of course, he does not himself draw that conclusion). To that extent, he manages to be much more realistic than many Marxists, even some anti-Stalinist ones. But in so far as he is also an isolated outsider, his artistic achievements are necessarily limited: in particular, he cannot fully and adequately portray the life of the class which is most exploited by the system, but for that very reason also has the power to change it – the working class in town and factory.

This should be made more concrete. Solzhenitsyn’s best work is set in the restricted environment of closed institutions – prison establishment or hospital cancer ward. It’s striking that when he tries to go out of this setting to portray the world outside directly – as in his novel August 1914 – the result is much less effective. [9] In an acute if often obscurely written study, the late Hungarian critic George Lukacs pointed to Solzhenitsyn’s choice of setting as an essential part of his writing method. [10]

The point here is that the restricted environments allow Solzhenitsyn to bring to concentrated expression the social contradictions of the world outside. He brings together in one place persons who would not normally be put in such direct confrontation. What’s more, they are brought together in an extreme situation, which forces them to come to grips with the basic questions of their lives and answer them in one way or another. Solzhenitsyn’s method is then to develop the situation by means of verbal set-to confrontations of extraordinary dramatic intensity and power.

Take, for example, one of the confrontations in his novel Cancer Ward. [11] There is a heated discussion amongst the patients in the ward centred on wage-differentials and socialism. The rebel and ex-political prisoner Kostoglotov attacks the bureaucrat Rusanov:

‘He says he loves his country, but all he loves is his pension. And here am I, wounded at Voronezh, and all I’ve got is a pair of patched boots and a hole in a doughnut!’

Rusanov is furious:

‘I’ve worked! I’m a worker!’

Rusanov’s thinking is just like his counterparts in the West: in today’s society, everybody works. For example, some people work at producing the wealth, and others work at appropriating it. And of course they work very hard at appropriating it!

But a philosophy professor in the ward, who has been operated on for cancer of the larynx and can only speak by grasping himself round the throat, comes to Rusanov’s defence:

‘Socialism provides for differentiation in the wage-structure.’

Kostoglotov shouts his reply:

‘You mean that to become equal we must first become even more unequal, do you? You call that dialectics, do you?’

The old Bolshevik Shulubin quotes Lenin in support of Kostoglotov:

‘No official should receive a salary higher than the average pay of a good worker.’

The philosopher is non-plussed:

‘Is that so? I don’t remember that.’

Rusanov is speechless. The young geologist Vadim Zatsyrko counsels Kostoglotov to moderation:

‘It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticise a society which is still establishing itself, but you must remember it’s only 40 years old.’

To which Kostoglotov replies:

‘I’m no older than that myself, I’ll always be younger than this society. What do you expect me to do, keep quiet all my life?’

In all this Solzhenitsyn not only raises important political questions, but presents us with a whole complex of human reactions typical of Russian society. He shows us with sharp critical realism what life in the Soviet Union is all about.

Another example, this time from Solzhenitsyn’s other important novel, The First Circle. [12] This novel is more ambitious than Cancer Ward, and in my opinion for that very reason somewhat less successful. All the same it contains many passages of great power. Its main setting is a prison establishment in which various scientists and technicians are forced to work designing an electronic scrambler for Stalin’s personal use. The prison is the main focus, but Solzhenitsyn uses it to depict not just those locked up in it but also those who control it, and in two short chapters even Stalin himself. It’s from them that I shall quote.

In his pen-picture of the dictator Solzhenitsyn again uses the method of verbal confrontation, but this time in the form of an inner monologue in which Stalin muses with himself. Significantly it is first of all with Lenin that Solzhenitsyn makes Stalin conduct his inner argument.

We find Stalin in his sealed study in the Kremlin.

‘Lying on the couch was the man whose image, more than any other human likeness in history, had been graven in stone, painted in oils, in water colour, in gouache and in sepia, drawn in charcoal, chalk and brick-dust, patterned in gravel, seashells, glazed tiles, grains of wheat and soya beans, carved in ivory, grown in grass, woven in carpets, registered on celluloid and outlined by aircraft in the sky. But he was just a little old man with a wizened fold of skin on his neck, which was never shown on portraits.’

Lying there ‘the little old man’ muses over his historic role and heavy responsibilities:

‘Now that he had decided to live to 90, Stalin reflected gloomily that this would give him no personal pleasure and that he would just have to suffer another 20 years for the sake of mankind.’

But he takes comfort from reading the latest biography of himself:

‘A much truer appreciation of the part he had played in the Civil War, not to mention his role in the War for the Fatherland, was emerging. It was now remembered the many occasions on which he had to advise and restrain the over-trusting, impetuous Lenin.’

One of these occasions springs to his mind straight away, on which however he was over-ruled with certain not unimportant historical consequences:

‘When he thought of 1917, he remembered how Lenin had arrived in Petersburg in April and with such self-assurance had completely reversed the policy so that everyone had laughed at Stalin for having wanted to expand legal Party activity and live at peace with the Provisional Government.’

Reflecting that the people at least love and respect him, he recalls nevertheless their need for firm leadership:

‘It was a lot of nonsense, of course, giving them all secondary education and sending all these cooks’ sons to university. This had all been Lenin’s fault, though it was still too early to say so out loud. "Any cook should be able to run this country." What had Lenin actually meant by this? A cook is a cook and his job is to get the dinner ready, whereas telling other people what to do is a highly skilled business.’

Well, there’s no denying that Lenin had some pretty half-baked ideas and left him with a real mess to deal with. But with firm, incisive policies unheard of in Lenin’s time he had been able to clear up the mess and save Russia:

‘The deportation of whole peoples, for instance, had been an important theoretical innovation and a bold experiment, to which there had been no alternative.’

He has indeed, as they say in the newspapers, an iron will, and unshakeable resolution. But today, he is tired. He is an old man, and he wants to live to be 90.

These barbs hit home. In his official doctrine, Solzhenitsyn blames the Bolshevik revolution for the crimes of Stalinism. But in his work, he returns again and again to their complete incompatibility.

As far as the depiction of Stalin itself is concerned, apart from a few rhetorical lapses, Solzhenitsyn’s artistic skill comes out in the fact that his Stalin is not simply a monster, responsible by his individual evil for the evils of the regime. On the contrary, he is portrayed with some pathos as the creature of this regime itself: his individual qualities are the effect of the system as much as its cause. Or more exactly, he is portrayed as the individual par excellence required at the top of that system, embodying in his own person and to the highest degree the qualities engendered and required by it. Like Rusanov he is a philistine, but the philistine in chief.

Solzhenitsyn’s Stalin is of course in many ways a caricature, though an artistically brilliant one. Perhaps a figure like Stalin could not be depicted in any other way, but this tendency to caricature is not confined to Stalin. To a greater or lesser extent, all Solzhenitsyn’s main characters are caricatures or eccentrics. This in fact seems to be a result of his whole method, and expresses both its strengths and its limitations.

Without any doubt Lukacs was on to something when he pointed out the importance of the setting for Solzhenitsyn’s positive achievements. But what must also be pointed out is its other and negative side: such a setting not only permits Solzhenitsyn’s achievements, it also fixes their limitations. Because in such restricted environments, the social contradictions in the outside world are not only brought to concentrated expression, they are also and of necessity environments which distort them. Within them, the great social battles of the outside world can be fought out only by more or less isolated individuals, and in a more or less spiritualised way.

As such, they tend to lead to exactly that sort of power-encircled inwardness characteristic of Solzhenitsyn himself and his politics. And of course, it’s quite impossible to portray within them the situation and the struggles of workers in their full reality, as they take place in the world outside. At best, they can be portrayed only indirectly, through the work of convict labour or in the context of an argument. Hence also, the caricatural or eccentric nature of Solzhenitsyn’s main characters. There is direct confirmation of this in the text of the novels themselves: at the end of Cancer Ward, the rebel Kostoglotov undergoes an inner collapse upon his release from hospital – he cannot cope with the outside world. Here again, Solzhenitsyn’s art belies his politics.

All this leads to some flaws even in Solzhenitsyn’s best work. Most of all, a certain intellectualisation and spiritualisation which tends to dissolve the concrete, real struggles that his work is actually about into abstract, artificial struggles of the eternal good against the eternal evil. But this isn’t done without some partisanship on the author’s part: in spite of everything, the reader sometimes cannot help feeling that Solzhenitsyn is plugging a line, a line that does not emerge naturally and organically out of the material. The method of restricted environments makes it easier for this partisanship, with its accompanying crudities of language and characterisation, to get in the way of what Solzhenitsyn is saying.

Sixty-odd years ago Lenin wrote about Tolstoy that

‘his doctrine is certainly utopian and in content is reactionary in the most precise and most profound sense of the word. But that certainly does not mean that the doctrine ... did not contain critical elements capable of providing valuable material for the enlightenment of the advanced classes.’ [13]

Similarly, although Solzhenitsyn’s politics are even more reactionary than Tolstoy’s his best novels with their searing indictment of the Soviet state-capitalist regime are politically progressive. Politics is never directly a criterion for judging art: good art is not good because it is politically progressive, it is politically progressive because it is good art. And at his best, Solzhenitsyn is very good indeed.



1. See Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize speech One Word of Truth, The Bodley Head, 1972, p.4.

2. See for example Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to Soviet Leaders, Fontana 1974, p.52.

3. Ibid., pp.42-3, p.47.

4. Ibid., p.7.

5. Ibid., p.18.

6. Ibid., pp.12-3.

7. Ibid., pp.52-3, p.56.

8. Ibid., p.54.

9. In the case of August 1914 what makes things even worse is that he is trying to describe pre-revolutionary Russia instead of the present. His politics, reactionary as they are, allow him to deal with the present. But they completely ruin his portrayal of the pre-revolutionary past.

10. George Lukacs, Solzhenitsyn, The Merlin Press, 1970.

11. Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, Penguin 1971, pp.435-40.

12. Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle, Fontana 1970, pp.109-25.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.17, pp.51-2.

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