I’ve always thought that stories carry much more power in the minds of men than cardboard tomes full of equations. “What Is To Be Done,” juxtaposed against “The Communist Manifesto”; “Atlas Shrugged” against “Wealth of Nations”. It is said that “What Is To Be Done” is the book that radicalized Vladimir Lenin. Let that sink in for a moment; a simple (if long) novel about a young girl who wants to find peace and a measure of prosperity and independence in Tsarist Russia is responsible for the extermination of 100,000,000 souls.
And there are people who deride fiction (insert scoffing sound here)…
Occupied as my mind has been for many years with the struggle between liberty and collectivisim, what struck me was of course the contrast between “What Is To Be Done” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Because if Chernyshevsky is the author of the story of modern totalitarianism, Rand is the dramatist of modern Liberalism’s heroic saga. As literature, “What Is To Be Done” is extraordinarily well written. Having struggled for a long time through Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I was impressed by how naturally Chernyshevsky’s writing flowed – how easily the plot developed and held together and how he weaved in ideas of revolution and socialism. I can only imagine how eloquent it must read in its native Russian, especially 150 years ago when a young and impressionable Lenin found it. “Atlas Shrugged” is also extremely well written – Rand’s mastery of emotions and momentum in her epic tale of destruction and rebirth is also brilliant and I cannot help but think that it too, in Russian (Rand, though Russian by birth, actually wrote in English – making her feat that much more impressive) would be electrifying. Of course Chernyshevsky wrote in 18th century floury Russian prose that was Tsarist Russia’s response to England’s Victorianism, full of sentimentality and the inner lives of the characters; whereas Rand wrote a century later and her work has a binary and perhaps two-dimensional feel to it, perhaps as a response to soviet ‘Socialist Realism’ (something I’m going to explore further, stay tuned). Rand’s belief that “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Compared to the idea that by depicting “the perfect person” (New Soviet man), art could educate citizens on how to be the perfect Soviets – as Anatoly Lunacharsky, perhaps the father of ‘socialist realism’, believed.
Naturally, the difference between the two portrayals of communism’s nightmare could not be more striking.
“We entered the workrooms; the girls who were occupied there seemed to be dressed like daughters, sisters, or young wives of these same officials. Some wore dresses made of the plainest silk, others wore barege or muslin. Their faces reflected the gentleness and tenderness that can come only from a life of contentment. You can imagine how all this surprised me. (…) I’d been told that I’d see a workshop where seamstresses live and I would be shown their rooms; also that I would meet seamstresses and would share their dinner. Instead I visited apartments of people who were reasonably well off, united in one establishment. (…) I shared their dinner which, while not lavish, certainly satisfied me. What was all this about? How could it be possible? (…) Instead of poverty I saw contentment; instead of filth, not merely cleanliness, but even some luxury in their rooms; instead of crudeness, considerable education.” Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done.
“…the first house in sight (…) showed a feeble signal of rising smoke. The door was open. An old woman came shuffling out at the sound of the motor. She was bent and swollen, barefooted, dressed in a garment of flour sacking. She looked at the car without astonishment, without curiosity; it was the blank stare of a being who had lost the capacity to feel anything but exhaustion. (…) There was a useless gas stove, its oven stuffed with rags, serving as a chest of drawers. There was a stove built of stones in a corner, with a few logs burning under an old kettle, and long streaks of soot rising up the wall. A white object lay propped against the legs of a table: it was a porcelain washbowl, torn from the wall of some bathroom, filled with wilted cabbages. A tallow candle stood in a bottle on the table. There was no paint left on the floor; its boards were scrubbed to a soggy gray that looked like the visual expression of the pain in the bones of the person who had bent and scrubbed and lost the battle against the grime now soaked into the grain of the boards. A brood of ragged children had gathered at the door behind the woman, silently, one by one. They stared at the car, not with the bright curiosity of children, but with the tension of savages ready to vanish at the first sign of danger.” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Friends with whom I discuss these things (there are not many) often accuse me of being ‘too Austrian’ in my approach to economics and market interference, especially by governments. I am after all in favor of that elusive 28th Amendment ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the free trade of ideas and goods or regulating the free operation of the market’. They see ‘Austrianism’ as a fantasy, and humanity as fundamentally in need of supervision (of course those who believe such things usually believe that it is they who should do the supervising, but I digress). “Just like communism,” they say, “too much liberalism will make people vulnerable, and they will be taken advantage of (because the North Koreans never do that…); and might lead to economic Darwinism (as if that was a bad thing, cue ‘creative destruction’) which will be hard for those who cannot compete (always thinking about the people who sell the inferior product, not those forced to buy it). We just need balance.” ‘Hadn’t we heard it all our lives – from our parents and our schoolteachers and our ministers, and in every newspaper we ever read and every movie and every public speech? Hadn’t we always been told that this was righteous and just?’ as Rand says. My response is to try and point them to the end results of even the most well-intentioned plans. “But how did that work out?” I ask, a large glossy picture of the Gulag framed on my desk. North Korea’s death camps where people are tortured unto the third generation. Bonfires of human flesh beside a bread line in Venezuela. Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ where starved inhabitants of that imprisoned island contracted rickets and went blind. “The road to hell is paved by good intentions,” ya, I think I heard that somewhere. And communism is certainly hell. “Now consider Argentina in the 20s,” I say, though most don’t listen, “the United States even today though we are losing our ‘invisible hand’; Friedrich Hayek’s England. The luxury of Adam Smith’s world. The closer you get to socialism, the more miserable; the closer you get to ‘spontaneous order’, the better off.” Or maybe I just shrug and channel Ayn Rand again, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromise is the transmitting rubber tube.”
Its an important lesson, which is why I read Chernyshevsky, and Rand – after all someone has to. Humanity appears to need to re-learn our lessons one generation after another in an endless closed loop, which is why books are so important. Because unless we keep pointing out that “They work for themselves; they’re the real owners (…)” invariably becomes, “What is it that hell is supposed to be? Evil – plain, naked, smirking evil, isn’t it? Well, that’s what we saw and helped to make – and I think we’re damned, every one of us, and maybe we’ll never be forgiven…”, it will all happen again, as it has so many times before.