Dostoevsky on Socialism
By Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky
Translated by Mark Hackard
Translator’s Note: Philosopher Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky (1870-1965) gives us a fine analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s complex views on socialism. While Dostoevsky supported just economic arrangements for workers and the peasantry, he also vehemently rejected the atheism and materialism that underpinned so many socialist ideals. Russia’s great writer was truly a prophet, right down to foreseeing famine, cannibalism and the deaths of 100 million people that would characterize twentieth-century Communism. Let it be noted that the sponsors of this “experiment” were the forces of international capital, the same liberal oligarchs who control the West to this day.
“I could never understand the notion,” says Dostoevsky, “that only one-tenth of people should attain higher development, and the remaining nine-tenths should serve only as a means and material to that goal while themselves remaining in darkness. I don’t want to think and live in any way but with the faith that our ninety million Russians (or however many will be born) will all someday be educated, humanized and happy.”(Diary of a Writer, 1876, Jan.) In Dostoevsky’s notebooks, the thought of these unhappy nine-tenths of humanity is repeated many times. From the years of his youth to the end of his life, he was concerned over questions of social justice, the necessity of securing every person the means for developing a spiritual life, the protection of the dignity of the human person and a defense against arbitrary rule.
In his novels, Dostoevsky speaks much of the wounds inflicted upon man’s soul by the offenses resulting from social and economic inequality. In Diary of a Writer, he write much about the cruel force of capital, about a proletariat exhausted by poverty and labor, etc. Dolinin says that “Like a true follower of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky dreams of achieving harmony on earth through love,” but he himself “stirs up class struggle in his every stroke whenever he begins to speak of the oppressed past and present, in the West and in Russia.”
The most influential movement from the nineteenth century to our day, one that has tried to enact social justice in full measure, is socialism. And Dostoevsky’s attitude to socialism will be the subject of our chapter. Dostoevsky himself was a participant in the socialist movement as a member of Petrashevsky’s Circle, and for that he was almost subject to execution and endured eight years of hard labor and exile. Inasmuch as Dostoevsky spiritually matured, within him there developed an ever-growing hatred for that type of socialism which was most widespread from the second half of the nineteenth century up to our time, a hatred namely for revolutionary atheist socialism based upon a materialist worldview morally and religiously unfounded. For Dostoevsky the highest value was the individual human person and his free spiritual development. Yet revolutionary socialism focuses all its attention upon material goods and neither values the individual person nor cares for the freedom of spiritual life.
In Dostoevsky’s reading, the spiritual makeup of the bourgeois and the materialist socialist is homogeneous: both value material goods above all else. “The present socialism,” write Dostoevsky, “in Europe and here in Russia, removes Christ everywhere and cares foremost about bread, summons science and asserts that the reason for all human calamities is one – poverty, the struggle for existence, ‘society.’” These socialists, “in my observation, in their expectation of a future arrangement of society without personal property, love money terribly in the meantime and value it even to the extreme, but namely in accordance with the idea they attach to it.” (Dostoevsky’s wonderful letter to V.A. Alekseev on the three temptations offered by the devil to Christ, June 7th, 1876, No. 550)
Beforehand there was a moral formulation of the matter: “There were Fourierists and Cabetists, arguments and debates over various quite refined things. But now the leaders of the proletariat have already done away with all this” and the struggle is governed by the slogan, “Ote-toi de là que je m’y mette” (“Get out of here, I’m taking your place”). Any means therein are counted as permissible: the ringmasters of materialist socialism say they do not consider them, the bourgeoisie, capable of becoming brothers to the people, and therefore they simply move against them with force, while brotherhood is denied outright:
‘Brotherhood will be formed from the proletariat later, and you – you are one hundred million souls condemned to extermination and nothing more. You are finished for the sake of humanity’s happiness.’ Others among the ringmasters directly say that they need no brotherhood whatsoever, that Christianity is nonsense and that the future of humanity will be designed on a scientific basis. (Diary of a Writer, 1877 Feb.)
If the moral foundations of society’s structure are rejected, then social unity will prove unachieveable. “How shall you unite men,” asks Dostoevsky, answering Gradovsky with regard to the latter’s article containing criticism of the author’s Pushkin Speech, “to reach your civil goals if you have no basis in a great and initial moral idea?” Dostoevsky at once points to this initial great idea: all moral principles, he says, “are based upon the idea of personal absolute self-perfection ahead, in the ideal, for this holds everything within, all aspirations and all cravings, and, it would be, thence derive all of our civil ideals. Just try and unite men into a civil society with the only goal of ‘saving our tummies.’ You’ll get nothing but the moral formula of Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous. With such a formula, no civil institution will last long.” (Diary of a Writer, 1877, Feb.) On the contrary, Dostoevsky’s short formula composes the whole essence of the Christian worldview. The Christian ideal of personal absolute self-perfection leads to the Kingdom of God, in which every member loves God more than himself and all people created by God as himself.
Behavior is right only inasmuch as it consciously or instinctively is guided by such a love, with which is closely connected love for impersonal absolute values – truth, beauty, etc. Not only personal individual relations, but also social ties, any social hierarchy, and any social subordination and command carried out in good conscience, should in finality ascend to the ideal of absolute good under God. This notion was naively but correctly expressed by Dostoevsky’s Captain Lebyadkin, who responded after listening to the arguments of the atheists: “If there is no God, then what kind of captain am I after this!” (Demons) In Russian philosophical literature, thought on the religious basis of social life is especially well developed in Vladimir Soloviev’s The Justification of the Good and in S. Frank’s book The Spiritual Foundations of Society.
Atheist socialists, having rejected the idea of unselfish moral duty and counting the drive for advantage and self-preservation as man’s only motive of behavior, at the same time demand that the citizen of the future society renounce “rights to property, family and freedom.” “Man can only be so designed through terrible violence, his placement under dreadful systems of spying and the continuous control of a most despotic power.” (Diary of a Writer, 1877, Feb.) In a society deprived of the spiritual ideal, people are such that, “give them bread, and they will become enemies to each other out of boredom.” (Letters, No. 550) “Never shall they be able to allot amongst each other,” says the Grand Inquisitor, and even the bread acquired by them will turn to stone in their hands.
Dostoevsky compares the project of building a society without a moral foundation, a society based only on science and upon imaginary scientific axioms like “the struggle for existence,” to the construction of the Tower of Babel; attempting to design something along the lines of an anthill, men will not create wealth, but rather will come to such ruin as to end in cannibalism. (1877, November) In Demons Shigalev developed the program for his anthill. “Proceeding from limitless freedom, I conclude,” he says, “with unlimited despotism.” Pyotr Verkhovensky relates that “he has every member of his [secret] society watching over the other and obligated to inform.” “All are slaves and in slavery are equal. In extreme cases, slander and murder, but mainly equality.”
Shigalev’s project seemed a caricature created through Dostoevsky’s antipathy toward atheist socialism. Now, however, we must admit that the Bolshevik Revolution enacted the Shigalev system and even very likely surpassed it. In Bolshevik socialism, spying has been reached the point that parents and children often do not trust one another. The Bolshevik despotism is more multidimensional and petty than the despotism of some African potentate; slander and murder are applied on the widest scale. There is not the slightest freedom of conscience under the Bolsheviks (for a teacher there is not even freedom of silence on religious matters), nor is there freedom of thought, freedom of print or legal guarantees defending the individual from arbitrary rule; the exploitation of workers by the state is carried out to a degree undreamed of by capitalists under the bourgeois regime.
Dostoevsky insistently repeats that revolutionary atheist socialism will lead to such devastation as to bring about anthropophagy. His prophecy was realized literally: in the USSR there were at least two periods of cannibalism, in 1920-21 as a result of famine caused by “War Communism,” and in 1933 as a result of famine caused by the rapid shift from individual agriculture to collective farms. A shocking picture of cases of cannibalism can be found in Soviet literature, such as in Vyacheslav Ivanov’s short story “Empty Arapia,” for example.
Conceiving clearly by which paths it’s likely impossible to arrive at the establishment of social justice, Dostoevsky himself neither developed a specific positive ideal of social order, nor did he adopt one from other thinkers. In 1849 during his interrogation, Dostoevsky confessed that socialist “systems,” just as Fourier’s system, did not satisfy him, but alongside this announced that he considered the ideas of socialism, under the condition of their peaceful achievement, “sacred and moral, and most importantly universal, the future law of humanity without exception.” Such a conviction Dostoevsky preserved until the end of his days. This is clearly visible from his article on the occasion of the death of George Sand in 1876. With deep emotion, Dostoevsky touchingly speaks of George Sand’s socialism, which was seeking to secure the spiritual freedom of the individual and was founded upon moral principles, “not upon the necessity of the anthill.” (1876, June) But at this time of his life, Dostoevsky required that social order definitively was based on Christ’s testament. He wrote to V.A. Alekseev in June of 1876:
Christ knew that by bread alone, one cannot bring man to life. If there will be no spiritual life, the ideal of Beauty, then man will languish and die, he will go mad and kill himself or descend into pagan fantasies. And as Christ in Himself and in His Word bore the ideal of Beauty, He then decided it better to imbue in souls the ideal of Beauty; having this at heart, all men will become brothers to one another and then, of course, working for one another, they will be wealthy. (No. 550)
Dostoevsky was by all appearances a supporter of a type of “Christian socialism,” but he says nothing specific about its economic and legal structure. He has only one mystical-economic position announced by him through the name of some kind of interlocutor of his, the “paradoxalist,” and it is a position he obviously approves. “A nation should be born and rise, in its vast majority, on the soil from which the bread and trees grow.”
In the land, in the soil, there is something sacramental. If you want humanity to be reborn for the better, almost making men from beasts, then endow them with land, and you shall achieve your aim. At the very least we have the land and the commune.
Speaking on France, the paradoxalist directly clarifies his thinking: “In my opinion, work in a factory: the workshop is also a legitimate business and will always be born alongside already cultivated land – such is its law. But let every worker know that he has somewhere a garden under the golden sun and grapevines, his own, or more likely, a communal garden, and that in this garden lives his wife, a glorious woman, not one picked up off the road.” “Let him at least know that there his children will grow with the earth, with the trees, and with the quail they catch; that they are at school, and school is in the field; and that he himself, having worked enough in his age, will arrive there to rest, and then to die.” The bases for development of such a system he located in Russia. “The Russian factory worker has still kept a connection with the countryside, and the Russian peasantry has the village commune.” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, July-August)
As is known, love for the village commune among Russian populists was tied to the dream that the habit of communal land ownership would ease the enactment of socialism for the Russian people. This dream was hardly reasonable, as land in the village commune was divided into plots cultivated by each family individually. At the present time under the Bolshevik regime, the shift from a family’s individual work over a delegated plot of land to the collective labor of the kolkhoz in communal fields is being accomplished extremely painfully.
Besides notions of each man’s connection to the land, Dostoevsky also has many considerations on a just social order, but they all concern only the moral and religious conditions for the appearance and preservation of such an order; on its actual structure he provides no information.
In the West, Dostoevsky says in his “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” liberty, equality and fraternity are declared as principles upon which life should be built. But where the bourgeoisie holds power, freedom is in the possession of the millionaire: he does as he wishes, and those without any millions are at their mercy. Such criticism of the bourgeois regime is expressed in various forms by Marxists and especially Bolsheviks. And Dostoevsky recognizes that in the capitalist system, freedom provided by the law to the citizen remains without the possibility of its realization among those classes of the populace who do not have the material means to enjoy it.
Dostoevsky characterizes the equality that concerns people in modern society as envious: it is comprised of the wish to degrade those spiritually superior. (Diary of a Writer, 1877, February) Instead of fraternity, Dostoevsky finds everywhere only fighting for one’s own equal value; genuine brotherhood, meanwhile, exists where the ego sacrifices itself for society, and society itself gives over all rights to the person. Such a genuine brotherhood exists foremost where internal freedom is achieved through overcoming one’s will, and there will be a noble equality free from envy for others’ spiritual gifts. In a society guided by such principles, there is no necessity to sacrifice all one’s property for the common benefit, even more so as even the renunciation of property by all the rich would be only “a drop in the sea” and would not destroy poverty.
One must do “what the heart orders.” If the heart “orders you to give away your estate, then give it away,” but there is no need for dressing up in homespun coats or adopting the “simple life” for this; “it is better to raise a peasant to your level of refinement.” “Only your resolve to do everything for the sake of active love is obligatory and important.” “We must be concerned more about light, the sciences and strengthening love. Then wealth will grow as a matter of fact, and genuine wealth.” Dostoevsky calls such a solution to the social question the Russian solution; it is based on the Christian ideal of life, and he considers the spirit of the Russian people that developed Russian Orthodoxy to be Christian in its preponderance. (Diary of a Writer, 1877, February)
Having become acquainted in Dostoevsky’s Pushkin Speech with similar thoughts of his on the conditions for resolving the social question, Professor Gradovsky penned a critical article; he said that Dostoevsky put forth a “mighty propagation of personal morality, but no hint of social ideals.” In other words, Gradovsky understood Dostoevsky as a follower of the notion that only “personal improvement in the spirit of Christian love” is needed, while forms of social order are irrelevant, for kind and loving people will fill any social form with good content.
Such a unidimensional social philosophy exists. In this sphere, there are two opposed doctrines. According to one, all of man’s shortcomings, his vices and crimes, are conditioned upon the imperfection of the social structure; it stands to perfect the social structure, and man’s behavior will become good. According to the other doctrine, quite to the contrary, correct behavior both in individual and social relations depends only upon personal morality, and forms of social order are irrelevant. Dostoevsky harshly rejected the first of these one-dimensional theories, and Gradovsky assumed that he must have been a representative of the opposite and also unidimensional doctrine. Vladimir Soloviev termed this one-sidedness “abstract subjectivism in morality.” In The Justification of the Good, he clearly and convincingly proves that subjective good is insufficient, and in addition a “collective incarnation” of good made from the perfection of the social order is necessary – and so human society would become “organized morality.” The state is never solely comprised of good people, and therefore it is necessary to organize such a social order that would promote the restraint of evil and the achievement of good.
Like Pushkin, Dostoevsky strikes us not only with the force of his artistic creation, but also with the force of his mind. Therefore it’s difficult to permit that he fell into such a crude unidimensional theory of “abstract subjectivism.” And he in fact was indignant over Gradovsky’s criticism and wrote him an answer in Diary of a Writer, in which he attempted to prove that he was free from the one-sidedness ascribed to him. Nonetheless, Dostoevsky is interpreted as a proponent of abstract subjectivism in our time, as well. We shall examine this question in detail.
Answering Gradovsky, Dostoevsky clearly says that religious and moral ideas, along with the improvement tied to them, serve as a point of departure in the search for a corresponding organization of society: due to these ideals, men will begin to search for “how they should organize themselves to preserve the jewel of great value they received, not losing anything from it, and find such a civil formula of common living that would help them advance to all the world the moral treasure they’ve obtained in all its glory.”
If the spiritual ideal of any nation begins to “shake and weaken,” alongside it “the entire civic rule” collapses. (1880, August) Not only that, even with the existence of well-organized social forms, morally unsuitable men contrive in certain cases to find the means to bypass the law and distort the spirit of social forms, from which, of course, it does not follow that these forms have no meaning. Dostoevsky therefore resolves to say that personal improvement is “not only the beginning of everything,” “but the continuation of everything and its outcome.” (Ibid) However tempting it may be to interpret these words in the spirit of abstract subjectivism, we must remember that they were written in the response to Gradovsky, where Dostoevsky removes himself from the professor’s reproach over one-sidedness, and by these words he only wants to express the notion that “social and civic ideals” are connected “organically to moral ideals,” and that it is impossible to divide them into “two halves” isolated from one another. (Ibid)
Consequently, Dostoevsky did not deny the necessity of a certain ideal of just social organization. Without a doubt, he had such an ideal or was searching for it. In which direction? By all appearances and as in his youth, in the direction of socialism, though neither revolutionary nor atheist, but Christian. As has been said, he hoped like the populists that a perfected order would evolve from the Russian village commune. He considered it necessary that every worker, and especially his wife and children, keep their ties to the land and have a garden, whether personal or communal. Especially valuing freedom, he was confident that the social ideals developed by Russia and deriving from “Christ and individual self-perfection” would be “more liberal” than those of Europe. (Ibid)
Dostoevsky also considers possible the preservation of property rights, and apparently even land and production rights, in the future order. It will be said, of course, “What kind of socialism is this?” In answering, we will remind the reader that there exist attempts to develop the ideal of a socialist order in which the right of personal property to the means of production would be preserved, though subjected to legal restrictions, due to which the economy would serve not the goal of personal enrichment, but the needs of society and the state. We shall point, for an example, to the work of Professor S. Gessen, “The Problem of Legal Socialism.” (Contemporary Notes, 1924-1928) One hardly has to keep the word socialism for signifying such a complex social order that combines valuable, practicable dimensions of the socialist ideal with valuable dimensions of individual management. However, we will not argue over words. It is only important that the creative efforts of many states such as the United States and Great Britain are directed toward the development of such a complex social order.
Looking at how difficult this process of developing a new system is and what kind of special knowledge, both theoretical and practical, it demands, we fully understand why Dostoevsky has no defined teaching on it. As a religious thinker and moralist, he confidently spoke of the religious and moral bases of a just order, but as a man of extraordinary intellect, he understood perfectly well that to elaborate a concrete doctrine on a new economic system and its legal forms was a matter for politico-economic specialists and practical social agents. Besides that, the actualization of these problems was premature in his time. Only fifty years after his death, due to the extreme primacy of technology, the rationalization of production, and the ever-decreasing number of workers needed for physical labor, the development of a new economic system became urgently necessary.
We examined Dostoevsky’s most important literary creations and became acquainted with his thoughts on central questions of worldview. Everywhere with him, we found as the basis Christ and His two commandments that compose the essence of Christianity – love for God more than for oneself and love for one’s neighbor as oneself. Therefore, we can call his worldview authentically Christian.
Lossky, Nikolai Onufriyevich. “Dostoevsky on Socialism [Parts I and II].” The Soul of the East, 30 May & 7 June 2014. <http://souloftheeast.org/2014/05/30/dostoevsky-on-socialism-pt-i/ >; <http://souloftheeast.org/2014/05/30/dostoevsky-on-socialism-pt-i/ >.