Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address at Harvard University was a shot heard round the world on June 8, 1978. It shocked many at the time, but was too quickly forgotten. The crowd at Harvard that afternoon numbered about 20,000. Solzhenitsyn was a fervent anti-communist and survivor of the Soviet Union’s murderous gulag labor camps, but that wasn’t what he came to talk about.
The West is spiritually sick, Solzhenitsyn told his audience. Therefore, it is ill-equipped to rescue the oppressed from their captivity, especially those held captive by the tyranny of communism. Our excesses and materialism are doing us in, he warned.
Solzhenitsyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful writing on communist oppression and spiritual emptiness. His 1962 novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” described life in a Stalinist labor camp. By 1973 Solzhenitsyn had published “The Gulag Archipelago,” which exposed the system of labor camps in far greater detail, resulting in his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.
Harvard’s motto is ‘Veritas.’ Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.
Of course, the Soviet Union has since fallen, and some might like to think that Solzhenitsyn’s “bitter truth” is a relic of a happily bygone era. Not so. His speech is even more relevant today.
The ‘Me Decade’ Setting
Solzhenitsyn spoke against a backdrop of social malaise in the West that was fast devolving into a wave of social decay. In 1974, the United States granted him asylum, so he had four years to reflect upon the state of American society and culture by the time he spoke at Harvard.
In June 1978, the Cold War was still in full swing despite arms control talks and work towards a détente with the Soviet Union. The Watergate hearings and Vietnam War were behind us, but not their social fallout. Jimmy Carter, a decent but ineffective man, was in the White House. As he publicly took the Soviet Union to task for human rights abuses, political prisoners there suffered more, and his feckless response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The 1970s also brought seismic changes in American culture. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalized all types of abortions through all nine months of pregnancy. Academia was deep in the process of replacing the humanities with grievance studies (i.e., gender studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, etc.), fanning the flames of identity politics and fueling the metastasis of today’s political correctness.
It was a time of encounter groups, the growth of cults like Scientology and Synanon, and Jerry Brown’s first stint as “Governor Moonbeam” in California. The late Tom Wolfe labelled the self-absorption of the era as “The Me Decade.”
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was at the height of both its military power and the Brezhnev Era’s overall stagnation. Soviet citizens displayed cravings for all things Western: blue jeans, rock and roll, well-made goods, private cars. Soviet citizens spent many of their waking hours standing in long lines for difficult-to-come-by amenities like toilet paper, quality lipstick, or oranges. A malaise was spreading, with food shortages and the economic inertia inherent in communism. The Politburo—the inner circle of Soviet leadership—had become a gerontocracy on virtual life support.
Political prisoners were sent not only to Soviet gulags but to abusive psychiatric wards where they were broken in mind and spirit. Yet a strong resistance to the regime’s oppression was building within the Soviet Union. The Helsinki Accords resulted in efforts to monitor Soviet human rights abuses. Helsinki Watch groups were spearheaded in Moscow by leaders like Nobel laureate in physics Andrei Sakharov and his activist wife Yelena Bonner.
Despite all of the above, and the great split between the Democratic West and Communist East, most American analysts could not foresee the imminent fall of the Soviet Union. All the while, Solzhenitsyn could see that the West’s decadence disqualified it as a liberator capable of binding up the wounds of a post-totalitarian East.
The Split Remains Profound
Solzhenitsyn said this about the nature of the world split apart: “The truth is that the split is both more profound and more alienating, that the rifts are more numerous than one can see at first glance.” They involved a multiplicity of differences between many distinct cultures, including China, India, the Muslim world, and numerous cultures around the globe.
At the time, however, several Western scholars theorized there would be a “convergence,” in which all cultures would accept the Western way of life, a sort of cultural imperialism that continues today as the United Nations bureaucracy seeks to impose ever-devolving Western sexual mores in developing nations. It also gave rise to the idea that there would be a convergence between the West and the Soviet Union.
This sort of utopian vision remains ever the same, although the name today seems to have changed from “convergence” to “globalism.” Its advocates are perhaps even more entrenched today than back in 1978 when they were still dreaming of a European Union, often referring to it as a “United States of Europe”
Today, many European leaders stubbornly continue to insist on encouraging policies such as uncontrolled immigration of populations unable or unwilling to assimilate. They cling perhaps to what Solzhenitsyn called “a soothing theory” of convergence, a theory that “overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all evolving towards each other and that neither one can be transformed into the other without violence.”
Solzhenitsyn’s Look at the West’s Shortcomings
The Harvard speech is a must-read for our times, a diagnosis of what ails us, whether or not you agree with all of it. Below I’ve listed some of the symptoms and concerns that Solzhenitsyn shared in it. We ought to consider them thoughtfully and address them, because I fear they’ve gone without treatment and are even more ingrained today.
The decline in civic courage was the “most striking feature” of the West, to Solzhenitsyn’s eyes. He could see it happening in Western countries, political parties, and the United Nations. Moreover, he said, “Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.” Along with this is a loss of will in the West. We can’t defend ourselves if we are not willing to die for anything: “there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.”
Dependency. The welfare state and our ever increasing desire for material goods doesn’t bode well for anybody, Solzhenitsyn noted. He made an analogy with the biological reality that “a high degree of habitual well being is not advantageous to a living organism.” Our declining self-reliance, consumerism, and material cravings have eroded our capacity to develop and grow.
On hyper-individualism: “Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives towards further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames . . . I have spent all my life under a communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man.”
When laws are passed without regard to virtue, there will be Hell to pay. We end up in what Solzhenitsyn called “an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.”
Our excessive and unchecked freedom is leading to evil. When individual rights become extreme, taking precedence over human obligations, we end up in a situation in which certain individuals accrue so much power that society becomes defenseless against them.
This tilt towards evil has come about gradually. Its source is the humanistic idea that human beings don’t have any evil within themselves. So we end up shifting blame to a political system, or claiming that it’s all society’s fault. Solzhenitsyn’s most profound expression of this point comes from “The Gulag Archipelago”: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Media as unelected arbiters of our society and culture. Solzhenitsyn called out the carelessness and superficiality (“psychic diseases of the twentieth century”) that he saw in the Western press. Obviously, when journalism becomes propaganda, we’re in deep trouble. He stated: “the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Yet one would like to ask: According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”
Political correctness. In 1978, the term “political correctness” hadn’t yet come into circulation. But he talked about it, referring to it as a fashion in thinking, or a prevailing fad in how we’re supposed to think. He challenged the way political correctness prevents true scholarship and independent thinking, warning us to shun it because it only creates “dangerous herd instincts.”
Political correctness functions as “a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds,” he warned. That, of course, sets us all up for collapse. The illusions of political correctness will be broken as all illusions are: “by the inexorable crowbar of events.”
Socialism is death. Solzhenitsyn made sure we understood that his criticism of the West was by no means intended as a defense of socialism. In the Harvard speech, he cited the now out-of-print book “The Socialist Phenomenon” by the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, and condemned socialism completely with this: “Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”
The West is no model for growth. It’s in a state of “spiritual exhaustion.” Its mass commercialism, technologies, and mass living habits have produced in us a stupor, disqualifying the West from being a model to the rest of the world. Solzhenitsyn contrasted the effects of our complacency with the effects of the suffering that victims of totalitarianism endured. He observed how such suffering tempers the human spirit, and produces “stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being.”
Solzhenitsyn also remarked on the political short-sightedness in the West, especially in the case of moral relativists who open the door to totalitarianism. “Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria.”
He actually mentioned American historian and political advisor George Kennan by name, condemning his advice to unilaterally disarm. “If you only knew how the youngest of the officials in Moscow’s Old Square roar with laughter at your political wizards!” In the shadow of the Vietnam War, he called out antiwar activists as “accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there.”
Secular Humanism and Its Consequences
The Harvard Speech also sheds light on the source of our ailments: the secular humanism that came out of the Enlightenment, along with its celebration of material and technological progress that moved us away from faith, and set us up to be our own gods.
All of a sudden, after we “recoiled from the spirit and embraced all that is material,” the West “found itself in its present state of weakness.” It’s logical then to look at the foundation of our humanistic thinking. If we couldn’t or wouldn’t admit to any intrinsic evil in man, if our whole and only goal was to gain happiness on earth, then what?
Well, this creates a vacuum, or as Solzhenitsyn put it: “gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today.” As we achieve the “rights of man” our responsibility to God—and therefore also to our fellow man—continues to grow dim.
So what happened? Well, according to Solzhenitsyn, there grew “an unexpected kinship” between the Enlightenment and the forces of totalitarianism. The West succumbed to the temptations of material progress, and the appetite for shiny objects grew while eating. As we reached towards material progress, we lost our moorings and forgot about God.
So, as humanism became more materialistic, socialists and communists could easily apply those ideas to suit their own agendas: “Karl Marx was able to say, in 1844, that ‘communism is naturalized humanism.’ . . . It is no accident that all of communism’s rhetorical vows revolve around Man (with a capital M) and his early happiness. Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition.”
As Solzhenitsyn describes it, the process has become ever more acute: “Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. The Communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism’s crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes.”
Is the West Dying Out—and Why?
So, is the West committing suicide or dying of natural causes—or by serious accident? The West continues to suffer from the maladies that Solzhenitsyn described so well. We’re sick. Some think we’re dying.
Recently, Federalist author John Daniel Davidson challenged the thesis of Jonah Goldberg’s book “Suicide of the West,” which argues the great prosperity and freedom we enjoy is a miracle produced by capitalism and constitutionalism, which took off at the dawn of the Enlightenment. But the miracle is threatened by many social forces, including tribalism, nationalism, populism, and identity politics.
Davidson responds that if the West is dying, it is of natural causes. The very forces that gave rise to our material wealth and well-being planted the virus: the Enlightenment and its siren song to materialism. (For an excellent summary of some current debate on the Enlightenment today—and age-old commentary as well—see Ben Domenech’s recent Federalist article.)
Davidson’s argument is in sync with the Harvard speech, while Goldberg’s is not. It is interesting to note that in the index of Goldberg’s book, there are zero references to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and perhaps that is intended, for whatever reason. But I think the omission also reveals some fault lines since Solzhenitsyn was such a powerful twentieth-century voice on the diseases that afflict the West. Of course, many took offense at Solzhenitsyn’s speech back then, and perhaps still do.
Davidson echoes Solzhenitsyn in his critique: “Maybe the only way forward is to go back and discover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment,” things he says Goldberg is not very interested in. Our wayward path, says Davidson, was all spelled out in one of the most prescient of all writings of the twentieth century: C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man.” Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech seems infused with the spirit of Lewis’s essay.
Davidson notes: “Lewis’s larger argument in “The Abolition of Man” is that man’s conquest of nature is chimerical; it ends with nature’s conquest of man. Having debunked all tradition and morality through the wonders of applied science, having succeeded in reducing all of human life to mere biological functions that can be precisely manipulated, mankind will ‘be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.’”
It’s all there in Solzhenitsyn’s iconic speech: our path away from God, our worship of technologies, our addictions to pleasure and leisure that atrophy our capacity for growth, our spiritual void—all leading inevitably toward death. The disaster was inside each one of us, he says, because we refused to see it when we made man the measure of all things, “imperfect man who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey.”
Not that we weren’t warned.
Is This the End—Or a Major Turning Point?
Solzhenitsyn suggested that even though our species is imbued with disaster, perhaps today’s crisis does not signify the end. Maybe instead we are at a watershed moment in history, akin to the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
It’s easy to discount this optimistic idea today, knowing that Solzhenitsyn spoke 40 years ago. The world has since gone through many more convulsions technologically, socially, culturally, and spiritually. On the other hand, maybe the slope we’ve been on has been so slippery that we have no choice but to hit rock bottom before we can get up and come to our senses.
There’s no predicting when “the end” will come. So perhaps we’ve spent these 40 years wandering in the wilderness. I believe that in 2018, just as in 1978, there is great hope as long as there are enough people with the spiritual courage, vision, and the will to prevail over evil.
They may be unsung, but there are many more than we know, certainly far more than enough to make a difference. They need only speak out to one another within the hidden sphere that Czech freedom fighter Vaclav Havel spoke of in his essay “The Power of the Powerless.” Expanding that sphere builds a ripple effect of freedom.
At the end of his speech, Solzhenitsyn advised that if we are to get through such a massive shift, we must rise to the occasion. The times demand a rebirth of spiritual fervor and a strong sense of vision in which we achieve a new equilibrium. This means, he says, that we do not curse our physical nature, as was done in the Middle Ages and among today’s transhumanists. But neither will we allow the trampling of our spiritual being, as is being done in the Modern Era.
In the end: “This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but upward.”