Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards:
Spencer J. Quinn
Revisiting Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard in June 1978 (video here), which was initially entitled “The Exhausted West” before being renamed “A World Split Apart” when it was published in book form, caused quite a stir among the Americans. Solzhenitsyn had recently been exiled from the Soviet Union for his dissident and subversive writings (not least his sprawling Gulag Archipelago) and had taken up residency in the United States in a small town in Vermont: Cavendish. One would think that while addressing his host nation through the conduit of the Harvard graduating class that he would have expressed gratitude and admiration – not just for what it had done for him personally, but also for its much-celebrated freedoms without which countless people would not have been saved from tyranny across the world. Had he done this, his address likely would have been praised and then forgotten.
Thankfully, Solzhenitsyn did not do this. Instead, he used his Harvard pulpit to criticize not just America, but Americans for, in effect, believing their own hype. Americans, in Solzhenitsyn’s austere opinion, had become enthralled with the freedoms allocated to them by their Constitution, and had grown soft and weak as a result. Only bad things can come from this, he prophesized. He called for a world in which human obligations rather than human rights were defended, and bemoaned that in the West:
. . . destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
Solzhenitsyn’s major complaints against the West and America in particular could be itemized as follows:
- Westerners arrogantly measure non-Western civilizations (including Russia) “with a Western yardstick,” and refuse to accept that fundamental and often quite baffling differences exist between them. (Samuel Huntington echoes this point in his classic The Clash of Civilizations.)
- Westerners have suffered a decline in civic courage and a loss of will. He refers disdainfully to how “political and intellectual functionaries get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.” For Solzhenitsyn, the biggest example of this seems to be America’s then-recent capitulation in Vietnam, a war he fully supported.
- Westerners have become obsessed with materialism, which harms their psychological well-being and limits spiritual growth. This has degraded Western society, art, and statesmanship to the point that the West has been surpassed by Eastern Europe in “spiritual training” against evil. He believed that this would eventually make Eastern Europe, rather than the West, the leading model for civilization.
- Western societies have become too “legalistic,” which places the technical legality of an action on a higher plane than whether it is morally right or wrong.
- Western societies are too free, which has facilitated their descent into socialistic evil in the guise of correcting “misguided social systems.”
- The Western press shows no obligation to its readers to report the truth, but instead distorts and embellishes its news coverage to be as sensationalist as possible in order to “miseducate” public opinion and thus garner profits and influence. Solzhenitsyn avers that the press “has become the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.”
- Westerners have exchanged God for humanism, the rot of which goes back to the Enlightenment. Solzhenitsyn states this much better than I can:
The humanistic way of thinking, which has proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshipping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today.
In leveling such a broadside against his American hosts, Solzhenitsyn seems on one hand to be blaming humans for being, well, human. How else could the freest society in history possibly be? Human beings have weaknesses, and in any free society those weaknesses will necessarily be exposed. Many commentators at the time noticed this as well and used it as a tack to refute Solzhenitsyn or, at least, to resist him. After all, isn’t living with the negative aspects of freedom better than having no freedom at all? The Americans seemed similarly annoyed when having to unruffle their libertarian, freedom-loving feathers:
William McNeill (historian): “My problem is that I do not see how to impose my own or anyone else’s standard of taste upon the rest of society without becoming as tyrannous as the Soviet authorities are.”
Richard Pipes (historian): “Society is not an association for the joint pursuit of virtue, since one man’s virtue is another man’s iniquity; such a conception inevitably leads to despotism. Rather, society is an environment for the mutual tolerance and restraint of human weaknesses.”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (historian): “Knowing the crimes committed in the name of a single Truth, Americans prefer to keep their ears open to a multitude of competing lower-case truths. Ours has been a nation of skepticism, experiments, accommodation, self-criticism, piecemeal but constant reform – a mixture of traits repugnant to the authoritarian and messianic personality, but perhaps not too bad for all that.”
Archibald MacLeish (poet): “. . . we put our freedom first before our responsibility because we are a free people – because a free people is a people that rules itself – because it must decide for itself what its responsibilities are – because there is no one else to decide this for us – neither the state police nor a state church nor anyone.”
James Reston (New York Times columnist): “But at least [Solzhenitsyn] was allowed to say all these things. On commencement day at Moscow University, if they have one, the ‘spiritual superiority’ of the Soviet Union probably wouldn’t have allowed it.”
The point of Solzhenitsyn’s address seems to have been missed in all the jingoistic bluster. If all humans have weaknesses, and if a free, humanistic society like in the West necessarily nurtures these weaknesses, then the decadence, arrogance, and complacency Solzhenitsyn finds in the West can appear anywhere, at any time, with anyone as long as they are free and humanistic. He’s speaking to the inherent problems of the Human Condition: This is what relativistic humanism does and why it is so dangerous, he says. He could be right or wrong, but he was clearly speaking of Man rather than men. So if this is the case, why did so many of Solzhenitsyn’s contemporaries react as if he were imprecating them personally or engaging in gross cultural chauvinism?
Because writers always need something to write about, and it’s easier to write about people than about ideas. Suddenly, Solzhenitsyn’s personal status as a Soviet exile became relevant to the text of his address. So did his time in a gulag, his history as a dissident writer, the quality of his novels, and the convenient fact that he was criticizing the very country that offered him sanctuary. Of course, none of this matters. What matters is whether the ideas he expressed in his speech are right or wrong. And in sussing this out, it was too tempting for many not to remind their readers that totalitarianism – like the kind from which Solzhenitsyn escaped – is worse than the troubles he finds in the free West. It was also too tempting for many of them not to point out the obvious irony of a man who escapes one kind of totalitarianism only to espouse another.
Solzhenitsyn was aware of all this; he indicated as much in his speech and elsewhere. To dwell on it is trivial. Yes, the Soviet gulag system, the Great Terror, the Holodomor, and all the atrocities of the past, as well as the repression that still existed in the Soviet Union in 1978, were far worse than the worst of the West. But that does not make Solzhenitsyn wrong in his Harvard address. Truth is not a relative thing.
Rereading his address reveals not a call for the West to abandon its democratic governments and adopt political systems in which enlightened autocrats venerate God and benevolently repress their peoples into living honorable lives. Nor does he offer “a political cure or alternative” to what ails the West, as Sidney Hook asks of him. Solzhenitsyn rather seems to initiate a conversation with millions of people, soul-to-soul, as he always did with his writing. He calls for a “freely accepted and serene self-restraint” on the part of the individual. He wishes to convince people of the precarious position the West had found itself in, and warn against the devilish pitfalls of freedom. It’s up to them to look into their hearts and make improvements. His “authoritarian and messianic” stance may seem extreme to the freedom-loving West, but it would be most useful to view it not so much as Solzhenitsyn’s attempt to drag Americans by their noses into his theocratic and traditionalist haunts (or shame them for resisting), but to stake out a place on the Right and say, “This is where I stand. These are my reasons. Judge for yourself, and join me if you wish.” In doing so, Solzhenitsyn, as a man with tenacious literary genius, a historic reputation, and impeccable credentials, broadens our field of discourse and helps us remember aspects of our souls that have been largely forgotten since the Enlightenment.
“A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today,” he warns (perhaps with a smidgeon of understatement), “but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.” One can’t help but think that this was just as bitter for him as it was for his audience. One of his more approving contemporaries, Charles Kesler (who was present at the Harvard address, standing in the rain) quotes Tocqueville: “Enemies never tell men the truth.” He then goes on to say (emphasis his):
Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard struck this senior as a reminder of what I see the West as having lost, and what it must regain, if it is to survive “the trials of our time”; his message was part warning, part prophesy, but also part encouragement. Though the “moral heritage of Christian centuries” has been attenuated, natural right and natural law neglected, voluntary self-restraint abjured – still, Western man may have time to learn again the lessons of self-government. If Solzhenitsyn is more insistent about those lessons than the politic Tocqueville, that is because “the forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive.” And time, for the West, is running out.
Solzhenitsyn asks, “Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?”
Kesler was right to describe Solzhenitsyn’s address as “part prophecy.” Yes, Solzhenitsyn offers arguments and evidence to support his positions. He also places his ideas along a centuries-old continuum and makes an effort to disarm them for a modern audience. But Solzhenitsyn is at his most persuasive when he’s prophesying. It’s as if he’s staking out his place on the traditionalist and theocratic Right because he knows that, thanks to the weakness and fecklessness of the West, history will ultimately meet him there. Of course, prophecies require time to come true (or not), and thus in 1978 nobody could judge the accuracy of what he said. Over forty years on, however, we can ask, with the benefit of hindsight, how many of his prophecies have come to pass.
Early in his address, Solzhenitsyn made the following observation which, according to my sources, few people commented on at the time (emphasis mine):
Relations with the former colonial world now have switched to the opposite extreme and the Western world often exhibits an excess of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account.
Of course, he was right, despite looking through his glass darkly. It wasn’t exactly a bold prediction, but Solzhenitsyn at least had the presence of mind to make it. And while his contemporaries were busy managing their patriotic indignation or weaving intricate counter-arguments against his theistic morality, or nitpicking his use of this or that technical term, or quibbling over the historic context of his ideas, his one deadly prediction continued to silently snowball. Today, the West is facing not only the very real possibility of this coming true in a few years, but the possibility of its most dire incarnation: losing “everything it owns.” This may have sounded like alarmist fantasy to the nabobs of 1978; but, forty years on, in the face of mass Third World immigration, only the willfully ignorant or the perniciously selfish could still feel this way.
Viewing Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address as a dusty Cold War text rendered irrelevant by the breakup of the Soviet Union thirty years ago will limit its power, and also causes one to miss its profound point: that our downfall will not be caused by our external enemies, but by our own cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness – all of which stems from a loss of faith in ourselves and in something greater than ourselves. This is why we blink in the face of Evil. While for Solzhenitsyn, this Evil took the form of Communist and totalitarian governments which were mostly outside the West, today it appears as the equally-totalitarian anti-white Left which lurks among us and has laid claim to our universities, our media, our corporations, and nearly all of our institutions. It is this Left that has imported its shock troops from the Third World, and it is this Left which which the West’s conservative leadership continually bows to and appeases.
“Nothing is left, in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal,” Solzhenitsyn warns. As it was then, here it is now – only with greater concessions, greater betrayals, and less time to gain. Taking Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s warnings to heart and resolutely acting upon them has become more than just an act of spiritual survival for the West. Its literal survival depends upon it as well.
Berman, Ronald (ed.), Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980).
Ericson, Jr., Edward E. & Daniel J. Mahoney (eds.), The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2012).
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.