Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918—2008 August 3) was a prolific author, primarily of fiction, whose account of suppression, corruption, and evil in the USSR’s prison system—the Gulag, through which uncountable millions were moved over the decades—exposed the deep rot at the core of socialist thinking. Here we present an excerpt from the first of three volumes, in which text Solzhenitsyn expresses how so massive an evil could be accomplished; namely, through ideology.
Expedited Evil: For the Cause
It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the greater world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.
But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.
Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short ad a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the [Petrograd and Odessa Cheka, the secret police organization which preceded the KGB—among others] did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or if there were any such cases, how many there were… How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?
That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, i.1958–68: The Gulag Archipelago, 173-74.
A Brief Commentary on Ideology and Justification
Though we stand fifty years removed from the first publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it seems the lessons have not yet been learned. Indeed, if anything, we seem even more ignorant. Human beings seek justification for their actions. This universal truth applies no less to evil actions. If anything, the evil action stands more obviously in want of justification. But an ideology—the more its doctrine abstracts from life, the better—can give justification to any act. Marxism and its derivatives, with their grand and sweeping historical narratives, sweep high above the facticity of real living. Believing in a system based upon such thinking, therefore, makes one especially prone to justifying unjustifiable acts.
This paradox—justifying the unjustifiable—requires a peculiar habit of mind. I will not dwell on this habit here (though it was discussed in this seminar). Suffice it only to say that appeal to vague or nebulously-defined causes as justification for any action merits suspicion of the actor. Such appeal demonstrates a readiness to do evil. I do not mean that evil follows inevitably. Indeed, the cause may even be a worthwhile one, only poorly understood. Nevertheless, we should be on the lookout for patterns of such appeal.
In short, the possession of an ideology—any belief in what ought to be irrespective of understanding what is—allows malefactors to perform the worst actions and yet maintain untroubled consciences. Look around at the world today, and ask: are we free of ideologies, today?