Beyond Counter-Ideology

“Demons is a book for East and West alike, one for all those who wish to rescue the soul of modern man,” Daniel Mahoney rightly maintains. It is especially pertinent today when many Western intellectuals seem ready to repeat the mistakes of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. We know where that led.

So, indeed, do some of those Western intellectuals. Unlike the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia, who could not be sure where their ideas would lead, those who embrace Marxist-Leninist tenets today do. The question arises: Do they want to eliminate those with whom they disagree? Do they actually approve of the Gulag, the Soviet terror famine, and the Cambodian killing fields? Or have they simply learned to deflect mention of those events without even considering what they actually think about them—as Leninist training would instruct?

When such questions occur to me, I turn to Dostoevsky’s fiction—and to Solzhenitsyn’s novels August 1914 and November 1916. I wonder that Bernie Sanders, to take one example, twice endorsed the presidential candidate of the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Workers Party and in 1980 belonged to its slate of presidential electors. He took a honeymoon in the USSR, which no one visited for the weather. I wonder still more at his journalistic and intellectual supporters who do not find these facts troubling. Perhaps they are simply “inebriated by the cult of revolution” (in Mahoney’s words) and by the pleasure of going along with the progressive crowd?

Dostoevsky claimed special insight into the radical mindset because he had once shared it and been exiled to Siberia for it. He identified among the supporters of revolution a spectrum of understanding and a variety of motives.

So far as I know, Dostoevsky was the only nineteenth-century thinker to have foreseen totalitarianism in detail. Uniquely, he guessed that the twentieth century would not be one of increasing humanitarianism and benevolence but of unprecedented tyranny. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane famously wiped out whole cities and left behind mountains of skulls, but the Marxist-Leninist regimes committed murderous atrocities on their own people, including countless ones they knew to be the regime’s fervent supporters.

As Mahoney points out, Dostoevsky outlines such horrors in chilling detail when presenting the meeting where Shigalyov proposes them and when Pyotr Stepanovich spells out their implications to an amazed Stavrogin. Mahoney quotes Pyotr Stepanovich’s unforgettable lines: “Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned … [in the name of] complete equality!” I cannot read this comment without recalling that during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s Chopin-competition-winning pianist had his hands smashed.

How did Dostoevsky anticipate what would happen? For one thing, he took the beliefs of intellectuals seriously. It is one thing to have ideas, it is quite another to define oneself and others by them (and that is what the Russian word intelligent—not exactly “intellectual”—suggests). Dostoevsky asked: what would people who defined themselves by ideology do if given the absolute power a revolution confers? Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the answer, asked a related question: why were previous evildoers, like those in Dickens and Shakespeare, content with a few murders whereas Bolsheviks executed millions? “The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses,” Solzhenitsyn explains, “because they had no ideology. Ideology—that is what … gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.” The sort of ideology Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn had in mind displays two essential attributes: absolute (“scientific”) certainty and the division of people into purely good and purely evil. One does not break bread with someone from another political party. Once one thinks this way—as ever more people do—literally anything is possible to those commanding sufficient power.

Dostoevsky argued, and Solzhenitsyn agreed, that the ideologues’ key mistake lies in their failure to recognize blameworthiness in themselves and their own group. But no one is blameless, Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima repeats, and “everyone is responsible.” Solzhenitsyn insists: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Mahoney stresses Dostoevsky’s idea that liberal “fathers” share responsibility for the crimes of their radical “sons.” If anything, Demons satirizes liberals more harshly than revolutionaries, because liberals should know better. If they refused to go along with horrendous ideas contrary to their own beliefs, revolutionaries could not succeed. So the key question is: why do they?

In the decades preceding 1917, Russian liberals, as Dostoevsky foresaw, not only defended terrorists but even financed them. Amazingly enough, even wealthy capitalists financed communist revolutionaries! Within days of taking power, Bolsheviks started exterminating both groups. And liberals keep making the same error!

Although Dostoevsky’s journalism sometimes descends to counter-ideology, his novels prove wiser. As his greatest critic Mikhail Bakhtin observed, the genre of the realist novel is counter-ideological to its core.

Demons shows how this happens. When the radicals gather and discuss the proposal to remove “a hundred million heads,” the most chilling line belongs to the mild-mannered major: “‘I confess, I am rather in favor of a more humane policy,’ said the major, ‘but as all are on the other side, I go along with all the rest.” Can it be that easy to persuade kindly people to sign on to mass murder? Pyotr Stepanovich replies that that is how it always is: “Liberal eloquence, and in the end you vote the same as the rest.” If they hesitate, he advises, just accuse them of not being progressive enough.

The most cold-blooded of Pyotr Stepanovich’s followers could just as well have joined any ideological movement directed by a charismatic figure. Erkel represents a type we often encounter among followers of ideologists and politically committed officials. “Carrying out orders was a necessity for this shallow, unthinking creature, who always yearned to submit to someone else’s will—not, of course, for any reason other than the good of the ‘common’ or ‘noble’ cause.” We expect all such “little fanatics” to be consumed with anger and spite, and some are, but many more resemble Erkel. “The sensitive, affectionate, and kind-hearted Erkel was perhaps the most callous of the murderers planning to kill Shatov; he would be present at the execution without blinking an eye and without feeling the least bit of personal guilt.” Without people like Erkel and the major, Dostoevsky recognized, Pyotr Stepanoviches never flourish.

Mahoney rightly observes that “Dostoevsky’s positive vision or alternative to the regnant nihilism is perhaps less convincing or compelling than his unerring diagnosis” of it. “His Slavophilism,” Mahoney continues, “is questionably and incompletely Christian” because it contradicts Christian universalism. Like Shatov, who voices some of Dostoevsky’s most cherished beliefs, Dostoevsky sometimes represents God as “an attribute of nationality.” This dangerous idea inspired generations of Russian anti-Semites, who still cite Dostoevsky’s most deplorable journalistic assertions.

Shatov undergoes two conversions. The one before the novel’s beginning led him from nihilism to Slavophilism. The second provides the novel’s most poignant scenes. When Shatov’s wife, about to give birth to Stavrogin’s child, unexpectedly returns, Shatov experiences an ecstasy leading to true wisdom.

“There is undoubtedly much Dostoevsky in Shatov and much Shatov in Dostoevsky, too,” Mahoney observes. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky’s thought “cannot be summarily reduced to Slavophile ideology. The literary Dostoevsky, the spiritual Dostoevsky, is never a counter-ideologist.”

Precisely: although Dostoevsky’s journalism sometimes descends to counter-ideology, his novels prove wiser. As his greatest critic Mikhail Bakhtin observed, the genre of the realist novel is counter-ideological to its core. Novelistic truth is always more complex than any theory, and people retain the capacity to render untrue any simplistic definition of humanness.

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov adopts several conflicting ideologies. After the murders, he wonders which one actually motivated his crime and faults himself only for not having the strength to live up to his chosen theory. His real error, as he eventually learns, lies not in the theory he picked, but in seeing the world in theoretical terms. When this anti-theoretical insight comes, Dostoevsky explains, “life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.” Or in Mahoney’s terms, Raskolnikov learned not to answer ideology with “counter-ideology” but to overcome the ideological mindset itself.

That is what happens to Shatov. When his wife returns, “this strong, rough man. . . had suddenly softened completely, and was now radiant. Something extraordinary and completely unexpected stirred in his soul.” He recognizes that people and morality transcend theory. He reflects: “Convictions and human feelings—it seems they’re two very different things. . . We’re all to blame, all of us, if only everyone could be convinced of that.” Ideology leads us to blame others. But realist novels allow us to identify with characters unlike ourselves and, placing ourselves in their position, to recognize our own imperfections. We, too, are “to blame.” The genre’s implicit moral governs readers’ response: There but for the grace of God go I.

Since Shatov’s Slavophile beliefs largely coincide with Dostoevsky’s, this passage represents Dostoevsky’s self-transcendence. What Mahoney calls “the literary Dostoevsky” proves wiser than the ideological one. The name Shatov, as critics have explained, means the “waverer” and refers to Shatov’s wavering between belief and disbelief. Perhaps we may also apply the term to Dostoevsky’s wavering between “counter-ideology” and a Christian faith altogether wiser.