Solzhenitsyn turned his formidable skills as a prophet of doom first upon the Soviet Gulag terror system, and then when invited to Harvard to address the graduating class of 1978, on the American society of “despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness,” “TV stupor,” and “intolerable music.” In a post-9/11 world his criticisms of the loss of courage of Western elites, of the incorrigible mendacity and self-loathing of the Western press, and of the Soviet-style legalistic crusade against religion appear newly relevant. But his assignment of blame to the free market and humanism itself for these failings strikes a wrong note for (at least) two reasons.
First, the claim that the humanistic Renaissance inevitably led to classical liberalism, which inevitably led to Jacobin-style radicalism, which led to Prussian-style socialism, and finally, inevitably to communism, is a Marxist analysis of history. Those who reject Marxism do not have to accept such an analysis. They certainly need not accept the claim that a society cannot stop at classical liberalism or turn back from socialism to a less-intrusive, classically liberal government of, by, and for the people.
Second, Solzhenitsyn’s claims that corporations are at fault for Western failings such as excessive legalism, the welfare state, and the war against the soul are obvious nonsense. How exactly can corporations be responsible for legalism, the welfare state, or the government and legal repression of public religion? All three are expressions of state power. The common law is not determined by corporations but by the judiciary’s interpretation of traditional rights, while legislative law is determined by the sovereign government. The welfare state speaks for itself. And the legal repression of public religion is not the sort of thing any company seeking to please the mass of its customers would endeavor upon.
So while I cannot agree with Solzhenitsyn blaming humanism for modern, shallow materialism, or his prescription of a traditional, religiously anointed monarchy for what ails Russia and the West alike, I agree with his observations about the increasingly dangerous moral weakness of the West. And I suspect others will too.
Without any further ado let’s get into the speech.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises
Thursday, June 8, 1978
I am sincerely happy to be here with you on this occasion and to become personally acquainted with this old and most prestigious University. My congratulations and very best wishes to all of today’s graduates.
Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. Continue reading