Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn and the right.

You can be sure that the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn is going to be celebrated in the most nauseating fashion in the mainstream press. Somewhat less importantly, the remaining supporters of the late USSR are going to waste some sorely needed energy laying a boot or two into the corpse of this "slanderer". There is plenty to criticise. Solzhenitsyn was notable for his reactionary pro-Tsarist politics, and for his concessions to antisemitism. And, as just as many of his criticisms of the Stalinist terror were, they were both exaggerated and conjoined to a paranoid view about the supposed menace posed by the USSR.

But this, threat-exaggeration and concomitant calls for a more aggressive US posture, was what he was loved for. The extraordinary atmosphere of hysteria The Gulag Archipelago unleashed once published in Paris served notice that he could be extremely useful. Solzhenitsyn was already extremely popular in the Western press for his earlier works, The Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He had received the Nobel Prize in 1970, and his struggles to get his writings published in Russia had been detailed in a biography by Z A Medvedev. His eventual expulsion from the USSR in 1974 would have ensured a rapturous welcome for him even if The Gulag Archipelago had not been published. But the cult of Solzhenitsyn would not have become what it did without the publication of that three-volume opus in the Autumn of 1973, whereupon portions were serialised in the New York Times, and translated into French in June 1974. The drearily predictable attacks by the French communist party (PCF) and those intellectuals in its orbit can only have intensified the mystique. What followed was a curiously contrived affair, as formerly left-wing intellectuals who were apprised of the horrors of the camps decided that Solzhenitsyn's text was a revelation that, not only were Stalinist politics corrupted (they had already made that decision years before) but that the whole arcanum of Maoisms and Trotskyisms that stood as alternatives to those politics were also corrupted at source. Marx was the evil seed of a diabolical utopianism that could not but result in total slavery. Solzhenitsyn, who blamed Marx for the killing fields in Cambodia, could have found nothing objectionable in that. Yet, those leftists who had been acquainted with the texts circulated by David Rousset, Ante Ciliga and Victor Serge, all from the anti-Stalinist left, could hardly pretend to be shocked by revelations of the barbarism of Stalinism.

Solzhenitsyn's reputation as a novelist became secondary to his status as an anti-communist ideologue in the West. Thus, the refusal of Gerald Ford to meet the dissident in 1976 infuriated the neoconservatives, and raised the ire of one Ronald Reagan. He was championed by Jesse Helms, welcomed by rightist think-tanks such as the Hoover Institute (he actually stayed in Hoover Tower for a while, and contributed to their publications), and received an honorary degree from Harvard University. He was the right man for the post-detente period, precisely the sort of person the Reaganites sought. Though credited as a defender of human rights, he defended the Franco regime in its dying days, making a series of broadcasts on Spanish television demanding to know if Spaniards really knew what a dictatorship was like (yes, he was that kind of 'anti-totalitarian'). He attacked detente, and supported the UNITA in Angola (Jonas Savimbi admiringly referenced his denunciation of the 'Western disease' that he said was behind its inadequate vigour against the communists). He was also scathing about human rights organisations that he saw as insufficiently anticommunist (Amnesty International, in particular), and described Western peace campaigns as fronts for Russian ends, using "Russian means and Russian money". He attacked the Western left and the movement against the Vietnam war in particular, just as the fate of the 'Boat People' was becoming a global issue.

But his usefulness to the American empire was limited, and definitively reached its sell-by date by 1990. Neoconservatives might have appreciated his critic of the degeneracy of the West and its failure to defend itself by being more God-fearing, but he was a Russian nationalist and this stance made him unpopular with some of Reagan's advisors, who presumably hoped to turn the country into an IMF basket-case. In fact, his argument against communism was by no means a defense of liberal universalism. Instead, he appealled to Americans to understand the 'West' as a distinct cultural entity which, while it had to be defended both against its communist opponents and its internal decadence, had little applicability to other societies. He wrote to Reagan to explain that once the putative threat from the USSR had gone, the US should pull out of every country it was involved in, from Central America to Africa to South-East Asia, and leave the world to its own devices. Once he was able to return to Russia in 1990, his austere conservative criticisms of the decadence of Western society, long articulated but generally glossed over by his supporters, came to the fore. He became rather unfashionable at this point. By the time he was castigating US military interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and defending the Putin administration, the American right had no more use for him.

Even so, reactionaries will surely find it in their hearts to forgive his later meanderings and remember instead the bold anticommunist who defended NATO's favourite fascist, worked to undermine detente, attacked the antiwar movement, and generally called for America to be far more aggressive than it was even prepared to be.