Collectivist Dreams

The Russian Soul – A Turbulent Priest – Marx and Engels – Insouciance and Despair

by David Wemyss (December 2011)

In Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Hermits”, a Russian Orthodox bishop hears rumours about three old hermits on an island. He goes to visit them. His ship drops anchor near the island and a group of oarsmen take him ashore. The three hermits are dressed in rags, with long white beards to their knees. They are theologically and doctrinally illiterate. The bishop sees it as his duty to sort them out.

But on his way back, those on board the boat are startled by the sight of the hermits running on the water as if it were dry land! They have come to ask the bishop to remind them of the Lord’s Prayer, which they have already forgotten. The bishop crosses himself in awe and tells them to continue in their own way. They have no need for instruction from him.  

Now it would be easy to say that this is all about simple faith and humility, but we should look again at just what the humility has to entail. The hermits are not theological modernizers. They are not “death-of-God” religious philosophers. Their simple faith is edifying but they are not bumptious or opinionated. They continue to defer to the bishop. They don’t see themselves as the meaning of their own parable.

Similar to the Russian tradition of the yurodivy – the holy fool – the hermits do not represent a new formulation for which they stand, over and against established authority. Established authority is not challenged in the story at all, even though readers might draw the conclusion that it should be. Indeed, the meaning of the story has to accommodate the way in which the hermits have no impulse to question authority.

Authority might then be taken to have been legitimated by what was eventually seen to be capable of flourishing within its bounds. However, we might not welcome where that leads.

Imagine an organization in the thrall of dismal managerialism. Suppose one member of staff acts imaginatively and creatively, “doing her own thing”. Everyone agrees that she’s a star, and that she represents the virtues which the managerial frameworks are intended to inculcate. Leaving aside the suspicion that managerial claptrap is intended to induce conformity and fear, not virtue, let’s just say that our star employee has no conception of how good she is, and indeed exhibits a certain amount of deferential anxiety that she doesn’t understand all the managerial stuff as well as she’s supposed to, but that she should.

What are we to make of that? A natural reaction would be to say that no imaginative person could be taken in by the managerial nonsense, but of course they wouldn’t have been fooled all at once. Instead they would have been drawn in slowly by a process of social engineering. This is how people – even though they knew once that the language was fatuous – slowly begin to say things like

 . . . of course some of it is a bit silly but you can’t really argue with the bottom line, which is that we need to think better about what our customers want, and so that’s what I take from all of it, and I’m sure we agree about that. In fact I think everyone here in my team is already doing the kind of thing that De Bono’s coloured hats are supposed to get us doing, and so the hats are just a kind of tool, not everyone’s cup of tea, but, hey, once upon a time there was no employee appraisal system, and I think it has to be good that we all get a bit of quality time with our managers now . . .  

As Kierkegaard said, you can lose your soul more easily than a banknote. But this means our star employee has lost her soul. Keeping her soul depended on retaining certain critical faculties, however nice a person everyone thought she was. Similarly, then, we may feel that the three hermits must have lost their souls, even though that is obviously not what Tolstoy intended us to think.

They walk on water, which is presumably an analogy for their enormous insight. Clearly, they are supposed to have kept their souls. But, equally clearly, they haven’t retained certain critical faculties if they can’t see the emptiness of the doctrinal rigidity which the bishop represents. And it isn’t even clear that we are supposed to infer that the bishop has lost his soul, even though he seems bogged down in doctrine.

OK, so it’s not such a good little story after all. And, away from his “big two” novels, Tolstoy’s brand of Christianity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s hard not to infer something very Russian here, a deeply-ingrained collectivist impulse that sees the collective as never wrong, just in need of reinvigoration from time to time by input from powerless and docile reformers who don’t of course see themselves as such. One thinks in particular of Platon Karataev in War and Peace.

The Stanford linguist Lera Boroditsky has said that the Russian language is much more predisposed to collectivist ideas than English is. This doesn’t surprise me. Such insights go back centuries: Charlemagne said that to have a second language was to have a second soul. But the idea went out of favour in the sixties when Chomsky proposed that there was a universal grammar for all human languages, and that languages didn't really differ from one another at all. And so it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. But now the opposite view is gaining ground. And Chomsky, if there is any justice in the world, will be remembered more as an anti-American fanatic than as a linguist.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that, in line with the tradition of the yuvgeny, the Russian mindset can accommodate very well the idea that the reforming individual should not represent a new formulation but simply an unselfconscious source of edification for a collective, a collective that retains its unquestioned authority.

The British cultural historian Lesley Chamberlain (she has a good website; just google the name) has long been fascinated by ideas like this, and, in particular, by the thought that a centuries-old tradition of “the good man” endured through the practice of Communism in Russia, and fused with it – notwithstanding the depersonalising aspects of Leninist ideology. She warms to the idea that even in Soviet Communism – which she acknowledges went disastrously wrong – there were deeper (and once again uncritical) collectivist impulses, and that, in themselves, these were good and decent.  

And when she put this to Dr. Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury (Prospect magazine, 26 May 2007, available online), he readily agreed, enthusing over Dostoevsky’s dismissal of western individualism as “wills asserting themselves against reality.”

Are we content to rest with the idea that, say, what is good for Africa and what is good for the west are different? Do we want to say their needs are not interdependent? Surely most people would be outraged to think of them as different. Interdependence is a way through to reality.

This kind of thing always reminds me of an excellent article by Anthony Daniels on the Social Affairs Unit website, in which he makes the cataclysmically telling observation that we wouldn't expect a man in charge of a British hospital to conclude that his budget would save more lives if spent on vaccinations in Africa.

Let us try to think clearly and be honest with ourselves. We care more for the people in our immediate circle than for those who are very distant and whom we do not know, but whose suffering may be infinitely greater. I love my friends more than I love the people of Burkina Faso, and am in practice more concerned for their welfare than for that of millions of people unknown to me. I wish the people of Burkina Faso no harm, of course; indeed I wish them well – but purely in the abstract, because I do not know them and have no emotional contact with them. This is not because I am a wicked, unfeeling person, it is simply because we humans are constituted that way. I don't expect the people of Burkina Faso to care very much about me, either.

But such clear-mindedness will not wash for Dr. Williams, for whom reality is an underlying conviction of harmony – a sense that somewhere every river runs into the same sea. This sounds bogus and sanctimonious to me, but Dr. Williams would no doubt insist that he was trying to speak about how the unfathomable darkness of the human personality may yet be bound up (globally!) by an extrinsic grounding in love. Men and women are the same the world over – mysterious and impenetrable – and so collectivism emerges. On this view, Russian collectivism exhibits a special kind of paradox, signifying reality. So – again – the docility of the yurodivy should not worry us. After all, reality is deeper than “wills asserting themselves” against it, or at least it is if you inhabit the ornate fantasy world of someone who is egalitarian first and Christian second.

Because, if we set aside the niceties, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a Marxist. The Daily Telegraph on 18 June this year (available online) revealed that back in the seventies he was a leading member of the executive committee of the Jubilee Group, a notorious left-wing Christian group operating during his student days at Oxford (and once identified by MI5 as a problematic neo-Marxist organization). He even co-wrote a manifesto that spoke of “knowing what the present crisis of capitalism demanded.”

We are in the death-throes of late capitalism, which threatens to inflict even greater violence on mankind than it has done before. We must make our stand with the oppressed, with the movement for liberation throughout the world.  

According to the Rev. Dr. Ken Leech, the group's founder member, the manifesto was never formally adopted. “It reflected our thinking at the time, but the view was it was too much of a rant. It was a fascinating document, but rather triumphalist, and we rejected it. I would not want to commit Rowan to the language of 1974 . . . but it does really show the heart of the theological focus of the man, and this has not changed.”

Dr. Leech should know, since the Archbishop hosted a 70th birthday party for him at Lambeth Palace last year. Still chums, then. Mind you, we are all capable of being embarrassed by what we wrote or said more than thirty years ago. Nevertheless, there is a lot of even-handed evidence out there that makes it obvious that Dr. Williams had – and retains – distinctive Marxist sympathies.  

He must have loved the most recent offering from the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. In this entertainingly written book – “Why Marx Was Right” – he sets out to correct what he takes to be common misconceptions about his “main man.” In particular, we are reminded that Marxism is a theory of how rich capitalist nations with great writers and composers and scientists might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a theory of how a poor nation with no democratic heritage or educated workforce could modernize itself.

Indeed, Marx thought that some nations, like Britain, Holland, and the United States, might achieve socialism peacefully, and that, contrary to the caricature of a bourgeois/proletarian dichotomy, the middle classes would be prime movers in the transition. And of course the point of it all was to allow men and women to have leisure time, not obsess about tractors, although Eagleton can’t resist telling us how good the childcare was supposed to have been in East Germany.

Such are the advantages of a brutal police state. Would that America had such pleas in mitigation available to it:  

The selectiveness of political memory takes some curious forms. Take, for example, 9/11. I mean the first 9/11, not the second. I am referring to the 9/11 that took place exactly 30 years before the fall of the World Trade Center, when the United States helped to violently overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende of Chile, and installed in its place an odious dictator who went on to murder far more people than died on that dreadful day in New York and Washington. How many Americans are aware of that?

The most interesting thing about that paragraph is the bogus use of the word dreadful in the penultimate sentence.

But the book’s most disingenuous claim is that Marx was no Utopian, all the more so because, strictly speaking, the claim is true. Marx held out no hopes of human perfection. As Eagleton puts it:   

Socialism would not banish rivalry, envy, aggression, possessiveness, domination, and competition. The world would still have its share of bullies, cheats, freeloaders, free riders, and occasional psychopaths. It is just that rivalry, aggression, and competition would no longer take the form of some bankers complaining that their bonuses had been reduced to a miserly $5-million, while millions of others in the world struggled to survive on less than $2 a day. To achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings for Marx must find it in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the ground of one's own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one's own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism.

Actually, I think a lot of people would recognize Marx perfectly well in all of that. Marx was not Rousseau. But it would be fair to say that he was still a fantasist and a dangerous optimist, which may well be worse. And, the last time I looked, his chum Engels seemed to be clear enough that the ascent from socialism to communism entailed a metaphysical change, and that, under the leadership of the proletariat, humanity would achieve true freedom liberated from its animal instincts – the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

But the worst thing about the passage is the bit about how “the other must become the ground of one's own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one's own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism.”

Nothing could be more horrifying to me than this. Without further ado, let me set against it the words of the great English classicist and Parliamentarian, Enoch Powell:  

Compassion is something individual and voluntary. You cannot compel somebody to be compassionate; nor can you be vicariously compassionate by compelling somebody else. The Good Samaritan would have lost all merit if a Roman soldier were standing by the road with a drawn sword, telling him to get on with it and look after the injured stranger. Because there can be no such thing as compulsory compassion or vicarious compassion, therefore it is a humbugging abuse of language, intended to deceive, to talk about a 'compassionate Government' or a 'compassionate party' – or even a 'compassionate society' – unless one simply means by that a society which happens to contain a lot of compassionate individuals. Nor let anyone protest: 'Oh, but when I vote for a party which will “make provision on an unprecedented scale for those in need of help”, it means I too shall have to pay my whack and so I am being compassionate after all'. Nonsense! The purpose of your vote is not to make yourself subscribe – that you can freely do at any time – but to compel others.

In other words, charity and compassion are always the actions of autonomous people acting as individuals. And, however much intellectuals try to argue otherwise, socialism in the end has to trade on envy and resentment, just as surely as tentative lovers discover that they cannot after all confine themselves to just holding hands, or a stolen kiss. Soon enough people are taken to be good or kindly only if they espouse the correct socialist opinions – we see this all around us in the present age – and human sympathy gets redefined in doctrinal terms.  

Yet although left-wing assumptions have captured the intellectual elites of the western world – the humanities are almost dead – they have had limited impact on older people untouched by the bureaucratic and academic caste.

And, cheeringly, children in the UK, who are failed in so many ways by “progressive” education, seem at least to survive the experience to the extent that they sometimes come out of secondary school with a good idea that there has been something wrong with the presuppositions of their teachers. Sometimes. Unfortunately it is a good deal less clear that a young person will survive a modern humanities course at one of Britain’s third-rate universities. The harm done in them is all-pervasive.

For example, we can probably assume that, to a large extent, it has been in our schools and universities that so many people have learnt to parrot the view that society makes men and women worse than would otherwise have been the case, and that, if we could only plan society more imaginatively, we could restore human nature to Edenic goodness (Rousseau) or at least greatly improve its predicament (Marx). In accordance with this assumption, even the most unpleasant people now cultivate the sense of an inner core that is still somehow good, or at least better, so that, whatever they've done, they just say “that's not the real me.”

In The Wall Street Journal of 30 July this year (available online), Theodore Dalrymple related the story of a prison inmate who had thrown ammonia at his girlfriend's face because he was jealous. He denied he had done it. But the evidence was overwhelming that he had done it, so why had he insisted upon protesting his innocence.

“Well, I'm not like that,” the man replied. “I don't do them things.” In other words, his supposed spark of inner goodness – an expression commonly associated with Dostoyevsky’s “From The House Of The Dead” – was more real to him than what he had actually done. Then it turned out that he had been to prison before – for throwing acid in his girlfriend's face.

It would be easy to luxuriate in skepticism here, or even topple over into cynicism. But goodness and kindliness are still real and true, even if the rich panoply of human sympathy has been flattened out into featureless uniformity by fantasists hammering away at ersatz morality. Sometimes, at the age of fifty-seven, so bewildered by collectivist dreams that wakefulness can seem like wickedness, I waver between insouciance and despair. Happily, though, insouciance seems to be winning.

As I said in one of my other essays in the New English Review, shades of the prison house have fallen across western civilisation, but the sunlight is still there. We should be careful we don’t shut out more of the sun by means of our own vexation.

David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011 at the age of 56. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having had four academic papers published in the British theology journal Modern Believing between 2003 and 2008, he is now developing a portfolio of essays in cultural and political criticism.

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