TWO CRITICS OF THE IDEOLOGICAL “LIE”: RAYMOND ARON’S ENCOUNTER WITH ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN
BY DANIEL MAHONEY
“Two Critics of the Ideological ‘Lie’: Raymond Aron’s Encounter with Aleksandr Solzehitsyn” is from Daniel J. Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. It appears on Voegelinview with the permission of St. Augustine’s Press.
The incomparable force of Solzhenitsyn is connected with his person, to what defines his message: the unconditional refusal of the lie. It can happen that one cannot tell the truth, he repeats, but one can always refuse the lie. The Soviet regime appears to him to be perverse as such because it institutionalizes the lie: despotism calls itself liberty, the press subjugated to a party pretends to be free, and at the time of the Great Purge, Stalin pro- claimed the Constitution to be the most democratic in the world. Solzhenitsyn’s voice carries far and high because it does not weary of calling us back to the intrinsic perversity of totalitarianism. —Raymond Aron, Le Figaro, June 12, 1975.1
Raymond Aron and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are two authors who have been very important to me over the years. The first is a French philosopher turned political scientist or political sociologist who helped shape moderate and conservative opinion in France— and Europe—in the years after WWII. He showed the greatest lucidity in confronting the unique evil that is totalitarianism and was a model of balanced or equitable political reflection. The second, as we have seen, is a world historical figure, a writer of unsurpassed talent who dissected the Lie that is coextensive with ideology like no one else in the twentieth century. While both men were proud and principled opponents of Communist totalitarianism, at first glance they do not appear to be natural interlocutors. Aron was a secular, self-described “de-Judaized” Jew, although one who displayed no hostility to revealed religion. He was an adherent of the moderate enlightenment, preferring Montesquieu and Tocqueville to the theoretical and practical radicalism of the philosophes and the Jacobin tradition. He was a French patriot who carefully balanced liberal universalism with a rational and affective attachment to his patrie. Solzhenitsyn, too, was a patriot who did not feel obliged to lie for his country. In contrast to Aron, Solzhenitsyn combined an attachment to self-government with a sweeping condemnation of the “anthropocentricity” at the heart of enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.2 Yet he, too, was a “liberal” of sorts as Aron fully appreciated. In fact, in the ten years before his death in October 1983, Aron wrote extensively, and always intelligently and sympathetically, about Solzhenitsyn. At a time when American liberals and leftists (and many Europeans, too) were turning vehemently against Solzhenitsyn— accusing him of authoritarianism and worse—Aron remained an unqualified admirer of the Russian writer.
For Aron, Solzhenitsyn was more than a political figure. The Russian zek represented an unconditional “spiritual” commitment to truth and liberty. Solzhenitsyn was the critic par excellence of the modern ideological “lie” that human nature and the laws of social existence could be “engineered” out of existence. Like Solzhenitsyn, Aron denied that some “super-reality” divined by ideology could replace the real world in which human beings live, breathe, and struggle. He understood that Communism had to create a fictive world ruled by ideological clichés, an ideocracy orlogocracy dominated by lies, if it was to obscure the gap between social reality and the pretensions of ideology to remake human beings and society at a stroke. Aron wrote extensively about historical consciousness and endorsed a moderate version of modern “progress.”3 But fundamentally he did not believe that human nature could be changed. He adamantly refused to replace the primordial human distinction between good and evil with the pernicious ideological distinction between Progress and Reaction. He refused to subordinate human beings to ideological abstractions.
Aron was not a religious believer, at least not in any conventional sense, but he profoundly admired the spiritual witness of Solzhenitsyn. He never turned on the Russian writer or allowed their differences to undermine his admiration for him. He did not share Solzhenitsyn’s religious faith, or some of his core ideas, such as the “critique of the whole body of modern civilization since the Renaissance,”4 or his adherence to the theses of the Club of Rome (from 1973) on the immanence of ecological catastrophe and degradation.5 He also did not share Solzhenitsyn’s view from the mid-1970s that the West had lost WWIII in the years after 1945, and was then in danger of losing WWIV.6 At the same time, he shared Solzhenitsyn’s misgivings about détente especially when it was accompanied by ideological illusions about Communism. But Aron never caricatured Solzhenitsyn or attributed to him positions that he did not hold. His treatment of the Russian writer is equitable from beginning to end.
Letter to the Soviet Leaders
Aron was one of the few commentators in the Western world to appreciate the fundamentally “libertarian” character of Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 Letter to the Soviet Leaders. Where others wrongly attributed to it a theoretical endorsement of authoritarianism, Aron saw an admirable effort to free the people of the Soviet Union from the stranglehold of ideocracy. Aron fully appreciated the subtlety of Solzhenitsyn’s Letter. The carefully crafted Letter aimed to persuade men shaped by fifty-five years of ideological despotism that it was in their interest, and in the interest of the Russian people, to begin the long descent from the “icy cliffs”7 of totalitarianism. Aron saw that Solzhenitsyn was asking for nothing less than “ideological surrender”8 on the part of the Soviet leaders. When he told them that they could hold on to political power as long as they jettisoned the official ideology, respected private property, allowed freedom of thought and speech, decollectivized agriculture, and stopped persecuting religious believers, many thought they had discerned a weakness for authoritarianism.9 They did not read the Letter with care or with the slightest sense of the rhetoric one might use in speaking to the morally unscrupulous caretakers of an ideological despotism. In contrast, Aron knew that Solzhenitsyn was striking at the very foundations of the ideocratic regime. He appreciated that Solzhenitsyn was writing for the future, when a new generation of pragmatic and public-spirited leaders might be willing to make a clean break with ideocracy. As Aron astutely observed in In Defense of Decadent Europe, “By inviting the Soviet leaders to give up militant atheism, Solzhenitsyn is asking—and knows he is asking—for ideological surrender. The leaders would gain millions of good citizens, but not good Soviet citizens. There cannot be two metaphysics of salvation. Stripped of its atheism, Marxism- Leninism would lose the principle of authority on which its visionary super-reality rests and on which it relies for its judgments upon profane reality.”10 By becoming one ordinary regime among others, the Soviet regime would make its peace with profane reality and thus prepare the way for the definitive end of totalitarian- ism and a return of basic human liberties.
Aron also noted that Solzhenitsyn preferred “liberalization” to revolution for wholly humane reasons—in the multinational U.S.S.R. violent revolution risked tearing the nation apart, setting one nationality against another, and creating the possibilities of a new despotism.11 But Aron saw what few readers of the Letter appreciated: Solzhenitsyn nowhere endorsed authoritarianism as choice-worthy in itself. Aron even compared Solzhenitsyn’s choice for liberalization over revolution to Friedrich Hayek’s well-known preference for liberalism over democracy.12 Aron acknowledged Solzhenitsyn’s dislike for the “lack of restraint, the exhibitionism, and the vulgarity of Western electoral warfare”13 but he never confused that dislike for a systematic condemnation of political liberty.
In his critique of Marxist “prophetism” in the opening pages of In Defense of Decadent Europe, Aron draws on the Letter’s denunciation of a “decrepit” and “hopelessly antiquated doctrine,”14 Marxism-Leninism, one which does not begin to speak to the needs of modern men and women. In Aron’s view, Solzhenitsyn’s Letter had powerfully exposed the bankruptcy of “two pseudoscientific myths: Marxism (the destruction of capitalism by its internal contradictions) and Marxism-Leninism (the transformation of society—or even la condition humaine—by the abolishment of private ownership of the means of production.”15 Solzhenitsyn pointed out that “even during its best decades … [Ideology] was totally mistaken in its predictions and was never a science.” It was terribly mistaken when it forecast that the “proletariat”—a mythical or ideological category in itself—would be endlessly oppressed in capitalist society. It “missed the point when it asserted that the prosperity of the European countries depended on their colonies.” Its prediction that the state would “wither away” under the auspices of Communism “was sheer delusion, ignorance of human nature.”16
In the great debate between Solzhenitsyn and his fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov over “the function of ideology”17 Aron sided with Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn had argued in the Letter that it was the “same antiquated legacy of the Progressive Doctrine” that endowed the Soviet leadership “with all the mill- stones” that were dragging them—and the country—down. Solzhenitsyn argued for the systematic de-ideologization of the Soviet state and subtly showed how ideological tyranny and ideological skepticism coexisted in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Ideology did nothing but “sap the strength of the Soviet people.” It “clogs up the whole life of society—minds, tongues, radio and press—with lies, lies, lies.” Solzhenitsyn brilliantly highlighted the paradox at the center of decayed Sovietism: “everything was steeped in lies and everybody knows it.”18
The distinguished Soviet physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov shared Solzhenitsyn’s opposition to Communist ideology—to the institutionalized lie—but believed that ideology was merely a cover for the cynical self-interest of the Soviet leadership. Aron believed that Solzhenitsyn had a much more profound grasp of the coexistence of faith and skepticism in the minds and hearts of the Soviet leadership and homo sovieticus more broadly. Marxism-Leninism was much more than a superficial and cynical cover for despotism of a tradition- al sort. It had created a web of mendacity about the past, the present, the future, and the human condition itself, that was the key to unraveling the Soviet enigma. The Letter to the Soviet Leaders was for Aron the clearest and most penetrating analysis of the mixture of violence and lies that defined ideological despotism. Aron was sensitive to Solzhenitsyn’s “art of writing”— his seemingly modest “pragmatic” advice to the old men of the Politburo to abandon ideology even as they held on to power masked his genuinely radical intentions—and his fundamentally “libertarian” aims as a writer and thinker. At the end of part 1 of In Defense of Decadent Europe (“Europe Mystified by Marxism-Leninism”) Aron attacks the conformism of intellectuals who had already begun to murmur about Solzhenitsyn’s conservatism and his suspicious attachment to Old Russia and to the religion of his forebears. Citing the distinguished political theorist Claude Lefort, a man of the anti-totalitarian Left who admired Solzhenitsyn, Aron comments on the “anti-authoritarianism” evident in Solzhenitsyn’s writings such as The Gulag Archipelago.19 Reading the Letter in continuity with the broader anti-totalitarian vision of Solzhenitsyn, Aron rightly saw in it the same love of liberty and intense but moderate and humane patriotism that informed Solzhenitsyn’s other writings. Aron’s reception of the 1973 Letter still stands out for its lucidity and for its rare willingness to understand Solzhenitsyn on his own terms.
A Parisian Encounter
I will now turn to three articles from 1975, 1976, and 1980 respectively, that reveal the extent of Aron’s admiration for and agreement with Solzhenitsyn. The first is a beautiful text on “Solzhenitsyn’s Message”20 that appeared in the Parisian Le Figaro on April 18, 1975, two days after Solzhenitsyn had appeared on Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophes program with the ex- communist Pierre Daix, the conservative-minded essayist and novelist (and Figaro contributor) Jean d’Ormesson, and Jean Daniel, the editor-in-chief of the left-of-center newsmagazine Le nouvel observateur. Aron notes in his Mémoires that the personality of the zek had touched him deeply: “coming from another world,” he found in Solzhenitsyn “an extraordinary man, whose like would be difficult to find anywhere in the world.”21 Aron comments that neither Daix nor d’Ormesson had made much of an impression that evening precisely because neither had tried to. But Daniel adopted a confrontational stance toward Solzhenitsyn, comparing his own “fights against French or American imperialism to the struggle Solzhenitsyn carried out against the Kremlin.”22 Daniel also lamented the absence of a representative of the French Communist party on the Apostrophes panel, thus reinforcing his ideological fidelity to his Communist “comrades.” Aron concedes in his Mémoires that he was irritated and even embarrassed by Daniel’s performance. But he denied, quite rightly in my view, that he had exceeded “the bounds of legitimate controversy” as Daniel would suggest a few years later in his book L’Ere des ruptures. In that work, Daniel suggested that Aron had “abandoned reasoned argument and waxed indignant, with uncharacteristic violence, because I had not bowed before an exceptional man.”23 An examination of Aron’s column tells another story.
Aron begins by saying that if Dostoevsky had come back from the House of the Dead, from his years in a Tsarist prison camp, no one would have “proposed a tsarist bureaucrat or a lackey of this bureaucracy as an interlocutor.” But by “regretting” the absence of a French Communist on the Apostrophes panel, Daniel had “condemned himself to a thankless role.” He had reduced Solzhenitsyn to the status of a mere politician or political partisan. Aron did not deny that Solzhenitsyn’s “intentions, works, and life constitute political realities possessing all the weight of suffering and genius.” But Daniel had failed to see that Solzhenitsyn’s convictions ultimately “transcend politics because they animate an exceptional personality, because in the last analysis they are spiritual.” Eschewing every reductive or materialist explanation, Aron saw at work in Solzhenitsyn nothing less than a spiritual “faith in liberty and an unconditional devotion to the truth.” “By asking the author of Cancer Ward to express opinions on the events of the day, the editor-in chief of Le nouvel observateur lowered the dialogue to the level of ordinary political debates.”
Aron also denied that anyone in the West was fighting the same battle as Solzhenitsyn. No one on the Right or Left in the West had taken “the long journey through the concentration camp world and drawn from these same trials the invincible strength to resist the infernal machine.” Aron did not regret writing books and articles on Algerian independence. But he could not compare his struggles and sacrifices with the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. When Daniel put himself on the same plane as Solzhenitsyn, he falsified reality and failed to recognize the terrible uniqueness of totalitarianism. Such moral equivalence was possible only among those who benefited from the unfettered freedom of the Western world and mistook that freedom for oppression.
Aron did not deny that Solzhenitsyn’s judgments about cur- rent events (for example, his views about Vietnam, Portugal, or Chile) were open to challenge. “Salazar’s regime has left a population that is half illiterate; the Chilean generals use and abuse repression and torture… The Communists of North Vietnam will at least end the war.” But Solzhenitsyn is right about the essential point. He challenges the “lie” that allows ideologues in the West to excuse the “huge Gulags” of the totalitarian East while expressing indignation about the smaller ones in right-wing dictatorships. He reminds us of the immutable truth that “camps remain camps whether they are brown or red.” Solzhenitsyn challenges the self- satisfaction of “progressive” intellectuals who found reasons to excuse the “good camps” that were sanctified by the socialist cause. For decades, they saw in the homeland of the gulag archipelago the most “humane” political order in the world.