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At the start of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle, a Soviet diplomat on home leave in Moscow tries to make an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy. His purpose: warning the Americans of a Soviet theft of atomic secrets. But he gets a dull-witted, indifferent embassy staffer on the line, and the call goes nowhere. Or almost nowhere. The call is monitored by Soviet security. Arrested and imprisoned at the end of the novel, the diplomat’s final thought about Americans is that “prosperity breeds idiots.”

Solzhenitsyn’s diplomat channels views that were clearly held by the author himself. Comfort and safety, enjoyed too long in the West, invite complacency—and complacency leads to stupidity. As a gulag survivor, Solzhenitsyn had a barely disguised disgust for Western elites with little experience of political murder and repression. Nor could he abide the legion of fools who seemed fascinated, from a secure and prosperous distance, with socialist thought. In his foreword to The Socialist Phenomenon—an extraordinary book by his friend Igor Shafarevich—Solzhenitsyn noted “the mist of irrationality that surrounds socialism,” and stressed that

The doctrines of socialism seethe with contradictions, its theories are at constant odds with its practice, yet due to a powerful instinct, [these contradictions] do not in the least hinder the unending propaganda of socialism. Indeed no precise, distinct socialism even exists; instead there is only a vague, rosy notion of something noble and good, of equality, of communal ownership, and justice . . .

[In its reality, socialism] seeks to reduce human personality to its most primitive levels and to extinguish the highest, most complex, and “God Like” aspects of human individuality. And even equality itself, that powerful appeal and great promise of socialists throughout the ages, turns out to signify not equality of rights, of opportunities, and of external conditions, but equality qua identity, equality seen as the movement of variety toward uniformity.

Solzhenitsyn focused in his foreword not just on Marxism, which he felt “lacks even the climate of scientific inquiry,” but on socialist thought in general: socialism as an emotional impulse with a long genealogy. That genealogy is the substance of the Shafarevich text. The Socialist Phenomenon, published in English by Harper & Row in 1980, is now out of print. But it’s in the public domain and available free on the web in multiple formats. In a time when presidential candidates blather smoothly on about “democratic” socialism, it makes for useful reading.

A Lenin Prize-winning mathematician and a Soviet math genius of global standing, Shafarevich (like his friend Solzhenitsyn) eventually turned to Russian Orthodox Christianity. He became a leading Soviet dissident, and was a vocal supporter of Andrei Sakharov. He divides his thinking in The Socialist Phenomenon into three parts.

Part One, “Chiliastic Socialism,” traces the early roots of socialism to Jewish and Christian apocalypticism and millenarianism. Primitive forms of socialist thought appear with special force throughout the Christian epoch in heretical groups like the Cathars, Waldensians, Anabaptists, and Ranters.

Part Two, “State Socialism,” deals with proto-socialist regimes and experiments in ancient China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Inca Empire, and the Jesuit state in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Paraguay. Fans of Roland Joffé’s film The Mission may be surprised to learn that the Jesuit-run “reductions,” or communities, created by the Society of Jesus for the Guarani Indians were not quite as idyllic as the screen story suggests. 

As one Jesuit at the time wrote of the compulsory Guarani dwellings, “the stench is unbearable to someone unaccustomed to it.” Most Guarani housing lacked windows and any means of ventilation. Shafarevich notes that despite its significant positives—rest on Sunday, a hunger-free existence, protection from colonial slavers, guaranteed dwellings and clothing—life in the reductions was highly regimented. Discipline was rigorous. Work on communal lands was obligatory. Private ownership and money were virtually non-existent. Flight was forbidden. Travel without an accompanying priest was banned, and the Jesuits controlled marital matches. 

In the words of the author, the Jesuits’ “almost-successful attempt at reducing hundreds of thousands of people to a life as lived in an anthill seems far more terrible a picture than that of a hard labor camp.” Ironically for a paradise, the Guarani birthrate actually declined in the reductions. As a result, “the Jesuits were compelled to resort to various means of pressure on the Indians in the hope of increasing the population.”

In Part Three, the author analyzes what he sees as the four essential features of socialist thought: abolition of private property, abolition of the family, abolition of religion, and a relentless quest for communality or equality. These features appear in different ways and degrees in different socialist experiments, but—so Shafarevich argues—they’re nascent in all socialist thought.

The heart of the socialist impulse, for the author, is a structural hostility to the idea of human individuality and an almost suicidal nihilism toward the future of the species. None of this is explicit or even dimly perceived by most of the faithful of the many socialist variants—least of all, perhaps, by comfortable and secure American “democratic” socialists. But in the end, all streams of socialist thought flow in the same direction. “Socialism,” writes the author, is that “which remains of the spiritual structure of mankind if the link with God is lost.” And consciously or (more often) otherwise, it finally “aims at organizing human society according to new principles which are compared to the instinctive actions of insect societies.”

Shafarevich, who died in 2017, was not without critics. He was accused of anti-Semitism, an allegation he vigorously denied. In his later years he was also criticized for a perceived drift into far right politics and excessive Russian nationalism. But this does nothing to lessen the provocative power of The Socialist Phenomenon.

As Solzhenitsyn wrote in his foreword, Shafarevich’s text “convincingly demonstrates the diametrical opposition between the concepts of man held by religion and by socialism.” The bitter irony is that “it was written by a mathematician of world renown,” because in a world where true scholars of the humanities had been crushed in the name of a perverse socialist humanism, “practitioners of the exact sciences must stand in for their annihilated brethren.”

Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia. 

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