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How the Great Truth Dawned (newcriterion.com)
122 points by portobello 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

I am Russian, and I consider the author to be mostly right. Indeed, we hold our literature to be the most valued of all arts; there were many Russian painters, and musicians, and architects, but these classical novelists (and poets) will always have a special place in our hearts.

The French have probably the closest level of respect to their men and women of letters, but their ideal is an intellectual in general, not necessarily the novelist. For the Germans, their beacons of culture are their philosophers. For the Americans — their inventors and visionaries, nowhere else they have achieved so much respect and so many accolades. But for us, Russians, — our idols are indeed our novelists.

I hadn't previously read much about Bolshevik ethics. Fascinating and also a bit terrifying. Ideology wholly unrestrained and completely ungrounded is unimaginable thing. Makes me want to read more Soviet history.

I must have had some prior vague sense of the importance of Russian literature and it's place in their culture (faint memories of struggling through Crime and Punishment in high school are coming back to me). But this article put it an entirely different light, which was quite interesting.

However, I did find it strange how the religious belief described in the article was not critically examined in any depth, and was instead simply dusted with this hue of great significance. The only caveat I noticed was the sentence describing how it didn't seem to matter which religious faith the individual had, just that they had some.

> It is worth noting that Russia’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich, also produced literary works that were purely factual.

Alexievich won with "Secondhand Time"[0], which I absolutely loved. It is essentially a transcribed oral history, but composed in such a way so as to become literature. It is particularly admirable for the way in which it allows narratives which contradict each other to stand in adjacent chapters, which is jarring, but also very honest.

Please read it if you have the patience for hard reading and some deeply sad stories.

[0]: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/541184/secondhand-t...

She is Belorussian not Russian by the way.

From the article:

>Alexievich echoed Korolenko by claiming three homelands: her mother’s Ukraine, her father’s Belarus, and—“Russia’s great culture, without which I cannot imagine myself.” By culture she meant, above all, literature.

Tolstoi's "War and peace" is pure literature. It is factually incorrect all over the place, I don't know of anyone claiming otherwise.

Solzhenitsyn's Ex‐Wife Says ‘Gulag’ Is ‘Folklore’:


That doesn't contradict the article. Literary truth is its own thing.

Sure, just weird that everyone is enamored of a "literary" truth at the expense of grown-up historical research.

I think people call it “directionally true” nowadays.

I was really surprised that this article was written by a humanities professor. I understand he's trying to make a point, but the premises in the first paragraphs are indigestible.

> No Westerner would call such a work “literary"

Why? There are plenty of works such as this in western literature.

> Russians revere literature more than anyone else in the world.

Again, I feel this claim is a bit baseless. Let's see why he thinks that:

> When Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina was being serialized, Dostoevsky, in a review of its latest installment, opined that “at last the existence of the Russian people has been justified.” t is hard to imagine Frenchmen or Englishmen, let alone Americans, even supposing that their existence required justification; but if they did, they would surely not point to a novel.

Well, this is the opinion of Dostoevsky, a writer. I'm sure similar hyperbolic comments were made by the french naturalists (Zola about Flaubert... ) or German idealists (about Goethe...)

Then the author proceeds to engage in other baseless generalizations about Russians' attitude to literature compared with other cultures.

I appreciate his insights on Russian literature in general and Solzhenitsyn vision in particular. But I do not understand why he needs to precede his text by such myopic comments.

What a fantastic read. The sad truth is that all countries that have descended into authoritarianism, whatever their preferred political ideology, result in mass murder. Such pain and suffering caused by such misguided beliefs. Just let people be free! Stop controlling other people.

Sure, but can you even count the people killed under capitalism?

Please keep ideological tit-for-tats somewhere other than this site.


Hahaha, I guess you can’t.

Slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, all under capitalist democracy.

> The sad truth is that all countries ...

Probably a [citation needed] for that.

But it is a reminder that just as most people don't really grapple with the amount of good done since the agricultural revolution, they also can't grapple with the new types of evil that have been enabled since the dawn of the 20th century.

It is sunshine and roses this decade, but there are some much scarier threats in the future than, eg, climate change. WWII happened in a climate quite similar to our own.

Counter-examples would be welcome. Was Singapore authoritarian enough?

I don't need a counter example; the original claim was too vague.

There are a very large number of countries, an enormous range of political philosophies and "authoritarian" is a very broad brush that accepts a huge number of government styles (monarchies, churches, dictators, oligarchies, company structures, etc).

And we know that the liberal governments sometimes do horrible things too. America is responsible for vast numbers of deaths in, eg, the middle east.

Letting people be free is a better political ideology than authoritarianism; but claiming that authoritarianism = mass murder needs support. Every successful political ideology leads to some level of mass murder, there isn't a powerful country out there that hasn't initiated a war and suppressed internal dissidents violently at some point. It is a question of relative impact and scope. To support the claim there needs to be evidence.

I will preface this comment by saying that I am sympathetic to the author's criticism of the Soviet system which he has inherited from Solzhenitsyn, but being sympathetic to the communist hypothesis myself, I feel like there are omissions in the article worth picking up on.

The article reads,

>The contrary view, held by ideologues and justice warriors generally, is that our group is good, and theirs is evil. “Evil people committing evil deeds”: this is the sort of thinking behind notions like class conflict or the international Zionist conspiracy.

This is wrong, and a cursory investigation of Marx's late works would show that. Not only does the theory of class conflict not rest on the idea that capitalists are "evil people committing evil deeds", but it does not project Marx's "proletariat" as inherently virtuous. Marx, in fact, takes great pains to avoid this misinterpretation of his work; take for example the 1867 preface to the German edition of Capital[0]:

>To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose [i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses]. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

It is a theory of society, not of some people who, somehow, are evil due to their economic position. Modern commentators on Marx argue that he does not argue for a socialist society on the basis of "justice" or what is "right" - in fact, he does the opposite - his claim is that would be in the "best interests" of the working class to overcome this unintentionally constructed system. Would the author have compared Smith's invisible hand to people doing intentionally good deeds? I don't think it would - so it's a mystery why it feels the need to misrepresent Marx, especially given the fact you can read all of Marx's works online... for free.

Not so with the theory of the international Zionist conspiracy, which is a right-wing idea predicated on the "fact" of Zionists who are intentionally coordinating with each other for malicious purposes. Of course, the article omits Solzhenitsyn's anti-semitism from this discussion. It would be inconvenient to mention it, I suppose.

The article then reads,

>Mercy, kindness, compassion: these were all anti-Bolshevik emotions, and schoolchildren were taught to reject them. I know of no previous society where children were taught that compassion and mercy are vices.

As much as they may have been anti-Bolshevik emotions, they are also anti-capitalist emotions, and this is exemplified on a massive scale in modern society where even in developed ("first world") countries people starve and die because they cannot afford insulin. The compassion, in fact, only comes from people who aren't out to make a profit even if it means the misery of another.


>For a true materialist, Lenin maintained, there can be no Kantian categorical imperative to regard others only as ends, not as means. By the same token, the materialist does not acknowledge the supposed sanctity of human life.

The author is clearly unfamiliar with Marx's own theories of morality (which Sean Sayers elucidates in Marxism and Human Nature[1]) and misunderstands the conflict between materialism and idealism in Marx's sense. The materialist argues that morality derives from actual social formations, the "tradition of all dead generations" - this does not make the morality "invalid" or "wrong", but it is an acceptance of the scientific method as applied to the gaeneology of morals. One can be both a moral realist and a Marxist, since Marxism entails a material analysis of how things have developed in society. In the same way, one can be a moral realist and believe, with Kant's categorical imperative, that it is morally impermissible to lie at any time for any reason, which conflicts with many perspectives on what it is right for a Christian to do.


>They may have insisted that high moral ideals do not require belief in God, but when it came down to it, morals grounded in nothing but one’s own conviction and reasoning, however cogent, proved woefully inadequate under experiential, rather than logical, pressure.

This is simply a re-statement of the old myth that when in mortal danger an atheist will also pray. It's not backed up by anything, but then again - nothing else in the article is either. The author used a pithily inaccurate characterization of class conflict (and failed to link it to the scientific aspect of historical materialism), argued that the core capitalist tenets of thrift and stinginess driving accumulation which are seen so essential to entrepeneurship today are not found in "any previous society", and then tried to reclaim the horrific actions of the Soviet state as being due to atheism while ignoring the fact that it is secularism that brings the tolerance the liberal author is so proud of in Western democracies.

[0] Available here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm

[1] https://books.google.fr/books/about/Marxism_and_Human_Nature...

This is simply a re-statement of the old myth that when in mortal danger an atheist will also pray. It's not backed up by anything, but then again - nothing else in the article is either

True enough. The article, like Solzhenitsyn's own thinking, is an exercise in excluding the obvious middle ground: what if neither sort of God -- neither the patron of Abraham nor the personage of Stalin -- is the answer?

It's amusing to imagine Solzhenitsyn's corpse propped up in a chair, facing the similarly-seated corpse of Giordano Bruno. The two are arguing vociferously over who had it worse, as if it somehow matters.

I totally agree, to me tragedy and misery are not some contest to be won, the most we can do is learn from tragedy.

Especially the last cited paragraph by Solzhenitsyn: he finds the lesson (or Truth) he learned so valuable, it justified his experience! Why not just send a donation to the Party then? (sarcasm)

The article explicitly rejects the utility of logic in discovering our true norms, desires, ... :

>Great novels test ideas not by their logical coherence, as in academic philosophy, but by the consequences of believing them.

But the whole point of atheism, science and philosophy is to not blindly accept statements for fact, but to only view them as justified by evidence or proof.

Solzhenitsyn laments his blind participation in the system, so if anything it seems to me like moving towards a provable and individually verifiable society could improve things. (and indeed many people dream of applying the non-energy intensive decentralized concensus algorithms to constructing such a provable society)

> ... and failed to link it to the scientific aspect of historical materialism...

Um, what "scientific aspect of historical materialism"? To me, the claim that there is any scientific aspect of it requires some evidence, because it seems to be grounded in nothing but ideological belief.

When classical Marxists speak of "scientific materialism" or "scientific socialism" they're using a 19th century convention ... not speaking of Science as we understand it today, the whole toolkit of empiricism and the scientific method. They're talking about science more generally as ordered knowledge, and in contrast to a more 'utopian' socialist view of their French predecessors.

It's an outdated phraseology that doesn't mean what it sounds like in today's context.

It's also not really Marx's term, but Engels', and borrowed from Proudhon.


All right, but it was a post written in the 21st century. If you're going to use a 19th century formulation that "doesn't mean what it sounds like in today's context", then that's not very good communication.

If people like claudiawerner really want to communicate, they ought to rewrite Marx's concepts in today's language. Most of us aren't going to learn Marx's terms in order to examine his ideas.

> This is wrong, and a cursory investigation of Marx's late works would show that.

The focus here is on Lenin and his progeny, particularly Stalin. Marx claimed the discovery of objective laws of reality through generous application of the Hegelian world-spirit concept[1]. The Bolsheviks expanded Marx's ideas.

The expansion was thus: the Party is the agent of the Proletariat. The liberation of Proletariat is the ultimate end of History. The laws of History dictate that this is so. But if there are objective laws of history, someone must explain what those laws are and act on them: this is the Party. And if the Party observes such laws, then the concept of democracy or debate within the Party is nonsensical, so the Party must follow the doctrinal rulings of the Politburo. But it also follows that debate or democracy within the Politburo is also nonsensical, therefore, only one leader may give meaning, purpose and weight to the objective laws of history.

Leninism laid the ideological rails that Stalin used to railroad Russia straight to hell. Marx's work was not sufficient, but it was necessary.

[1] There is a view that Marx's ideas were purely economical in nature. I don't think this holds up. He was a philosopher first and an economist second. The concept of alienation for example is not just about effort or property, it is a quasi-mystical notion of a fundamental schism of persons, from themselves and from each other.

He was a philosopher first, then an economist later -- not second. Later Marx broke with early Marx. Later Marx explicitly critiqued the Hegelian stuff that he started with. You won't find much Hegel in Das Kapital, certainly not 'world spirit' or even a notion of history proceeding in stages -- tho you might find versions of that in his early writings and even in the Communist Manifesto.

Part of the confusion is that Marx's earlier writing didn't become well-known until the communist movement was well underway. But I don't think Marx ever truly threw off his Hegelian roots, even if he criticised himself (he had a wickedly sharp pen and used it on everyone and everything).

Didn't Lenin advocate "freedom of discussion, unity of action" i.e. democratic centralism?

Lenin advocated a lot of things depending on the audience, but in tactical terms he was perfectly happy to advocate what we might today call terrorism.

It’s frustrating to me that such a well written and informative comment has been downvoted. I understand that it’s a touchy subject but this is an interesting perspective that is worth sharing and reading.

I, for one, downvoted it because at some point it becomes really tiresome to see the same stale apologia of "baaah, you all just don't understand Marx properly" (and neither, apparently, did any and all leaders of any and all countries where marxists of any ilk ever came to power, because it always ended up the same) from people who had never seen it up close and personal. And this being HN most likely enjoying the lifestyle that is only enabled by "capitalists" willing to pay quite ridiculous amounts of money for poking at the keyboard all day...

Calling it well-written and informative is very much akin looking for kernel of truth in whatever logorrhea comes out of Stomfront or that Flat Earth Society.

Please don't post generic ideological flamewar comments to HN; they're beyond tedious.


Interesting that you can mentally step over the literal industrial scale evil done on people in the name of communism and make an argument for it from an academic standpoint. Does it really matter at what fork in the road led to the atrocities of Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin if they all came from the same starting point. People deserve to be free to make their own life outside of government interference which may or may not be benevolent, that is the foundation of America and is the system most proven to provide the most benefit to people without discrimination or coercion. Anything else is just going down the same dead end.


Does every discussion of Christianity have to mention the Spanish inquisition and the Crusades? Does every discussion of Islam have to mention suicide bombers? Does every discussion of America have to mention Guantanamo bay?

You can't reduce broad groupings down to the few evil things people may have done in the groups name.

And then there's "that is the foundation of America and is the system most proven to provide the most benefit to people without discrimination or coercion"

Are you aware of the history of slavery in the US? Of segregation? Or are you "mentally stepping over" that?

Not to mention the mass genocide of indigenous populations across the whole of the Americas. Amazing how many people 'mentally step' over that, too.

In the context of what happened to the millions of people who lived here prior to colonization, documents like the Declaration of Independence read like delusional toxic propaganda.

Keeping people aware of that context is absolutely important.

Please don't take HN threads into generic ideological flamewar. The GP may have been tediously ideological but at least it wasn't generic.


> I don't think it would - so it's a mystery why it feels the need to misrepresent Marx,

Are you under the impression that a thing wrote this, or are you attempting to dehumanize your opponent?

Fins 20 days ago [flagged]

This might be also because while our writers (I am not really sure about poets (Pushkin just does not seem to travel as well as Dostoyevsky, or Shakespear) from the 19th century on actually are "world class" so to speak, Russian painters, composers and architects up until early 1900s were really quite derivative and second rate. With all the complexes Russians tend to have aboutr being compared to Europe, or being considered (or not considered) a part of Europe, idolization of writers is quite understandable.

> With all the complexes Russians tend to have

Adding nationalistic flamebait to ideological flamebait is not the way to make HN threads better. Please don't.


Well, there was certainly much more great writers at the same time, but composers like Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin were first class by any measure... and those are two I could recall from the top of my head, with my very limited knowledge of 19th century Russian culture, I'm sure there's more...

Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky

totally, now I feel like an idiot for forgetting Tchaikovsky :)

They are good composers, no doubt, but probably not quite in the same league in, if anything, importance (not going to argue personal preferences in music) as, say, Beethoven earlier or Stravinsky later.

Very few countries had composers comparably famous as Beethoven or say Mozart or Bach are nowadays to the general public - and none had them throughout the different periods all the time. However, considering the social situation in Russia of the 19th century, proportion of urban vs. rural living people, proportionally smaller and less educated middle class than in West, IMHO there was actually quite a lot of top-notch artists and fine craftsmen.

Germany or Italy did pretty well, though. And Russia never considered itself just some one other country. Comparisons have always been with "Europe".

Not to say that say Mussorgsky (as mentioned somewhere above) isn't a top-notch composer, but if you have, as your comparatives, Dostoyevsky vs. Dickens (for example) or Mussorgsky vs. Wagner, you'd probably pick Dostoyevsky...

It's so hard to read literary criticism with its deluge of questionable logic in every sentence. Whatever Russian word appears in the subtitle and was translated as "literary", how am I supposed to know how the semantics/implications compare between (then) Russian and (then) English? Obviously that is to miss the point of the essay. But my point is I never found out what the point of the essay was because literary criticism is such torture to read.

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