The Agonist Journal

Freedom is beautiful; collectivism is ugly. We must be willing to say so.

“The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man,” Dostoevsky wrote to his niece, in an 1868 letter, of what would become The Idiot. “There is nothing more difficult in the world,” he continued, “and especially now.” By “positively beautiful man” Dostoevsky meant an infinitely humble, compassionate Christian man. Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a genial, utterly selfless epileptic, the “idiot” of the novel’s title, was Dostoevsky’s effort to envision this being. Ultimately he is too beautiful.

“This contribution needs a pullquote”

As he accelerates toward insanity and destruction, Myshkin becomes perfervid, his soul aflame. The topic of religion is introduced at a fashionable dinner party and, although normally self-effacing and reserved, he launches into a tirade against the Catholic Church. By seeking worldly power and meddling in secular affairs, Myshkin contends, the Western Church generated a backlash against Christianity itself, a reaction that ultimately gave rise to atheism. And not only atheism, he announces, but socialism:

For socialism . . . too, like its brother atheism, came from despair, opposing Catholicism in a moral sense, in order to replace the lost moral force of religion with itself, in order to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind and save it not through Christ, but also through violence! It is also freedom through violence, it is also unity through blood and the sword!

To show that socialism is inseparable from violence, Myshkin invokes the French Revolution. “‘Do not dare to believe in God,’” he proclaims, adopting the voice of a Jacobin, “‘do not dare to have property, do not dare to have personality, fraternité ou la mort, two million heads!’” Only Orthodox Christianity, he insists, can prevent this scourge from spreading. “Our Christ,” he informs the assembled Russian aristocrats, “whom we have preserved and they have never known, must shine forth in response to the West!”

Myshkin’s audience does not take this warning seriously. Nor did those who read The Idiot take Dostoevsky’s warning seriously. Fifty years after it was published Russia embarked on its grand totalitarian experiment, one of the most savage episodes in all human history. “The party denied the free will of the individual,” the fallen and condemned vanguardist Rubashov thinks to himself at the end of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, “and at the same time it demanded that the individual bend his will to the party; it required absolute self-sacrifice.” Do not dare to believe in God, do not dare to have property, do not dare to have personality. Dostoevsky was, to be sure, something of a bigot toward the Catholic Church. He also grasped a fundamental truth: socialism and violence are one.

The United States is a prosperous but deeply divided nation. Many of its people, and many (perhaps most) of its intellectuals, have decided to embrace the strand of socialism Dostoevsky so feared. For “socialism” we may understand “collectivism.” Think not of the high income taxes in a cohesive society like Iceland, but of the demands for cultural conformity, the sanctions for asking uncomfortable questions, and the spiteful confiscations of property that would exist under a dictatorship of the woke.

What happened? How did the spirit of fraternité ou la mort gain a foothold in the world’s most affluent large country? Why have the merits of socialism without solidarity, of socialism as violence, become a genuine topic of debate here?

Decadence. That is the answer Ross Douthat offered in The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, one of the last books published in the before times, pre-pandemic, pre-shutdown, pre-unrest. A decadent society, according to Douthat, is wealthy and secure but spoiled, tired, and nihilistic. It has forgotten the past and fears the future. Its art is uninspired and repetitious. Its young are rootless, bewildered, and cautious. Even the wise can’t legislate; even the upright can’t lead.

Douthat discussed many problems that can only have worsened in the months since he raised them. Productivity growth is slowing; public debt is accumulating. Due to a mysterious decline in fertility (an “inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,” perhaps?), we are growing old. Even the slowing rate at which new cults are forming was, in Douthat’s eyes, a sign of fading vigor and thus of decline. That trend, at least, has perhaps begun to turn.

Six short months ago, Douthat opined that we might stagger on in our decadent state indefinitely. Many of our troubles were in his view illusory, the concoctions of comfortable people who use social media to playact at rebellion, to indulge in displays of purely performative online rage. Douthat was the first to acknowledge that he could be wrong, however, and he noted, presciently, that there would be “nothing decadent” about the mismanagement of a pandemic.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been less sanguine about our growing instability—about the decline of trust, the disappearance of shared rituals, and the loss of a common moral language. Haidt was predicting, even before the late purges and hysteria, that we will in the next decade witness the political collapse of multiple Western democracies. That remains a bold claim. But does it now look any bolder than Douthat’s claim that no illiberal rival of the Western outlook has “the mix of zeal, coherence, mysticism, and futurism” that gives rise to new religions and ruling ideologies? The new Marxists would beg to differ. And we are learning just how little the established liberal order retains of such a mix itself.

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” begins the recent Harper’s letter in defense of free speech. Dozens of leftwing authors, journalists, and professors signed on, affirming their commitment to debate and the exchange of ideas. Perhaps it is too early to say we face a crisis.

Or perhaps it is too late. Decay is a process. Despite being “oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption,” Gibbon informs us in the Decline and Fall, the noblest Romans of the first century a.d. “for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas, of their free-born ancestors.” Although they lived and acted decadently, they still professed to believe in honor and freedom. But what cannot go on will end. Authority was increasingly “prostituted to the vilest purposes of tyranny”; despots came to be “adored with the most abject flattery”; and in time “the last of the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues.” The accusers clothed the betrayal of their countrymen in the language of patriotism. They were “rewarded by riches” for their efforts.

Blessed are the merciful, Jesus declared, for they shall obtain mercy. The reciprocal truth is implied. When denunciation forms the core of a culture, those who denounce will be denounced in turn. Rubashov was a model party member. He fought for the party, suffered imprisonment and torture abroad for the party, gave all he had for the party. Time and again he informed on those who were impure, who fell into error, who deviated from the party line. But at length he started to doubt. He watched as “the shelves in the library were thinned out”:

The disappearance of certain books happened discreetly, usually the day after the arrival of a new directive from above. . . . Most of the works on foreign trade and currency disappeared from the shelves—their author, the People’s Commissar for Finance, had just been arrested; also . . . treatises on trade unionism and the right to strike in the People’s State; practically every study of the problems of political constitution more than two years old, and, finally, even the volumes of the Encyclopedia published by the Academy—a new revised edition being promised shortly. New books arrived, too: the classics of social science appeared with new footnotes and commentaries, the old histories were replaced by new histories, the old memoirs of dead revolutionary leaders were replaced by new memoirs of the same defunct.

Decades of radicalism, violence, suffering, and death, meanwhile, had brought society no closer to utopia. Rubashov and his fellow revolutionaries had “dreamed of power with the object of abolishing power; of ruling over the people to wean them from the habit of being ruled.” And so they had toppled everything. They had fulfilled their dreams—and where were they?

Like most of the others, Rubashov lands in prison, awaiting execution. During an interrogation, his old friend Ivanov tries to coax him into confessing to treason. There are, Ivanov says, only two conceptions of ethics. The one is the humane Christian ethic, which upholds the sanctity of each person. The other is the collectivist ethic, which in every way subordinates the individual to the whole. Rubashov’s treason lies in his failure fully to embrace what Ivanov labels the “vivisection morality” of the second ethic.

What is to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind? The collectivist poison is, at the outset, a bracing and heady brew. And the other jug may have run low. Our traditions are largely inertial and residual, Douthat proposes. It is a suggestion of cultural exhaustion. “They ceased to be driven on by their idea of their position in the world,” V. S. Naipaul says, in A Bend in the River, of the Arabs of post-colonial East Africa. “Their energy was lost; they forgot who they were and where they had come from.” Their authority “was only a matter of custom. It could be blown away at any time.”

Yet there remains what Naipaul called the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. The cause of the Enlightenment remains the cause of America, the cause of America in a great measure the cause of mankind. There is much to fight for.

Those who believe in openness and skepticism will always find it hard to challenge those whose minds are tainted with fanaticism. To adopt the unswerving (and invariably humorless) certainty of the zealot is to forfeit the contest. To show bottomless understanding, on the other hand, is to lose it inch by inch. Aside from his awkward and ineffectual outburst at the dinner party, Myshkin displays his faith only as a mode of withdrawal. “The essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning,” he says. “There’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off.” It is a pretty thought in the abstract. In practice it is a defensive crouch. Myshkin retreats to the utmost end; he retreats into madness. He appears to forgive the murderer of his fiancée on the day of the murder. This is the last we see of him.

“If the nobility denounces the national dogmas,” Joseph de Maistre proclaimed in his reflections on the French Revolution, “the State is lost.” Like Dostoevsky’s beautiful man, Maistre was appalled by the revolution. Like the idiot saint, Maistre veered toward the mystical. But Maistre was not one to retreat. Battles, he said, are won not by rational calculation but by an irrational inner conviction. They are won by acts of faith. “Life itself is a battle of this sort,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, rephrasing Maistre’s beliefs, “and any attempt to describe it in rational terms is a dreadful distortion.” This is to say little more than that you cannot derive an ought from an is. Others besides Maistre have remarked the paradox that it takes more than logic to press the case for reason. Tolerance, humanism, and free inquiry are useful—oh how they are useful! To endure, however, they must be made to inspire. Down with grievance, simplicity, vilification, critical theory, and collective guilt. Be brave enough to call them ugly. Up with joy, complexity, charity, wonder, liberty, and exploration. Have the courage to extol their beauty.

Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. But never bow to the mob.