Millennials Should Read Solzhenitsyn

Socialism's March into Utopia

By Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Socialism of any type leads to the destruction of the human spirit.” That premise, that truth, that touchstone, breaks the shackles that define economics as solely a materialist (and thus soulless) enterprise.

Source: Acton Commentary

The appeal of Bernie Sanders’ socialism is a puzzle to many, but it shouldn’t be, not if we understand how most people think about economics. Sanders’ appeal rises when economics is understood mechanistically, subject to impersonal forces and nefarious individuals. As a result, an economy can only be directed by the macro decisions of large and powerful entities like governments. Shallow moral appeals arise to justify socialist policies where success is not measured by the objective results of the policy, but by the moral good they ostensibly foster.

It is easy—very easy—to appeal to free education, the eradication of poverty, unlimited minimum wage ceilings and all the other promises made by those who don’t have any real experience in wealth creation. Most often their supporters don’t either, including the millennial followers of Bernie Sanders. We need to be patient with the ignorance of the young, but we should never acquiesce to it.

Economics is not a mechanistic enterprise. Economics is closely tied to human anthropology—the precepts that define what a human is, how one produces artifacts first for survival and then the building of culture, how one values nature and the principles applied to refashion matter into something new.

You can say that the presuppositions of economic theory draw from the anthropological dimension of human existence and not the other way around. This turns the common wisdom on its head, but historically the assertion finds support. A materialist reading of economics arose concurrently with the rise of the great materialist philosophers, chiefly Marx and the disciples that followed him.

Economics rightly understood then touches on deeper, transcendental truths. And, as the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught, any discussion about materialism and transcendence must answer the fundamental question about whether the final touchstone of truth lies inside or outside the human person. The answer determines how we comprehend the world around us and how we act in it. Here the materialist and traditionalist clash, and the first battleground is always language.

This point is often poorly understood by the traditionalist and contributes to his arguments falling on deaf ears. For example, the words capitalist and capitalism. The trap lies in the word itself. Capitalism sounds as bound to ideology as socialism is, albeit in different dress. It is perceived as a competing materialist economic theory. As a result, the shallow moral justifications of the socialist win the day, and the real and necessary connection between free markets and human flourishing is never comprehended.

The sad reality is that capitalist abuses abound (take crony capitalism for example, which in fact, is a type of soft fascism). Such abuses should not be defended, but using the terms implicitly defends them.

It is difficult to rebut the shallow moral appeals of the socialist. These moral arguments appeal to the young because they are inexperienced. Who can be against the eradication of poverty? This ignorance is aided and abetted by the tenured class who, lacking any experience in wealth creation and the risks associated with it, presume their paychecks appear as a divine right and conclude that the greedy withhold the largesse from others.

An April 2016 article in the Washington Post titled “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows” provides some insights. The article’s author Max Ehrenfreund writes that the rejection of “capitalism” is a view held by a majority of millennials. Ehrenfreund says that millennials see capitalism as crony capitalism, and the lurch from one financial crisis to the next during their short lifetimes affirms it. Unfortunately, Ehrenfreund collapses the term “free market” into “capitalist,” thereby subsuming human flourishing into the same materialist worldview as the people he writes about. This mars his analysis, but the data remains valuable nonetheless.

Human flourishing is an anthropological issue, but if materialism holds the day, the density of economic ignorance will intensify. Christopher Ingraham took a cursory look at the reading lists of Ivy League universities in “What Ivy league students are reading that you aren’t.”

Conspicuously absent are the books that examine economics from the anthropological viewpoint. It would be good if universities added to their reading list books such as Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which rightly perceives socialism as an enslavement of the soul, or even Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which clarifies the relationship between economics and human flourishing.

Ignorance is alleviated by knowledge, but knowledge is more than information. Plato speaks of phronesis, a type of knowledge related to how to act and think in ways related to virtue, a moral understanding that penetrates deeper than immediate practicality and reaches for first principles. These concepts reach deep but appeal to a near universal yearning to comprehend things beyond their immediate appearance.

Unemployed (1930) by Alexander Stavenitz. (Alvia Urdaneta/ Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1993)

Unemployed by Alexander Stavenitz (1930)

This yearning is the reason the banal moral appeals and shallow criticisms of the socialist are so powerful to the inexperienced young and their poorly educated elders. Critics of socialist ideologues can fault the shallow moralism that putatively justifies the soul-crushing bondage of slavery to the state. However, until they recognize and employ the moral dimension of economics in ways that comport to real experience (and thus the soul), they simply will not be heard or comprehended.

Let’s go back to Solzhenitsyn. He writes, “Socialism of any type leads to the destruction of the human spirit.” That premise, that truth, that touchstone, breaks the shackles that define economics as solely a materialist (and thus soulless) enterprise. It warns of the nascent totalitarianism lurking in the heart of socialism. It opens history, the real experience of real men as judges of the moral claims that hold the imagination of the socialist in paralytic thrall and seduces the inexperienced and uneducated.

Moral claims, then, are important—a point the socialist implicitly understands, but the free marketer/capitalist often overlooks. Stories must be told that deal with the real experiences of real people. The publication of Solzhenitsyn’s multi-volume Gulag Archipelago decimated the Marxist intellectual establishment of Western Europe. These books chronicled how destructive the materialist economic theories were in practice. Socialism destroys the soul and nation. Stories revealing that destruction can penetrate seduction and lies. As Solzhenitsyn puts it, “One word of truth outweighs the world.”

Closer-to-home moral arguments could be marshaled in events such as the collapse of Venezuela, where a once-thriving culture has been brought to its knees by socialist doctrine.

One impediment stands in the way of the needed clarity. If the defender of free markets does not comprehend the need for a transcendent touchstone, if they believe that human flourishing will simply emerge as a functioning of free agents left unfettered, then they are constricted in the same way as the materialist and will fail. Economic freedom is predicated on more than “self-interest.” It comes only when we see that our neighbor’s flourishing is also our own.

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse is a priest at St. Peter the Apostle Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida, and president of the American Orthodox Institute. He is currently launching Another City: A Journal of Orthodox Culture with other Orthodox writers.


  1. Michael Bauman says

    Unfortunately, the type of capitalism you suggest exists nowhere in reality. Given the sinfulness of we humans even if it did greed, avarice and sloth would soon take in the direction of either fascism or communism or some other stated dominated mixture.

    Economics and politics are the fruit of the human soul not it’s formative agents. Too much political economy ignores that which is why political economy policy always becomes ideological in its essence and therefore destructive to truth.

    It is not just language that is crucial but the understanding that all grand economic theories are lies. Even when they purport to be observations of human behavior they always are about control.

    Take two words: creation and wealth. Both in the above discussion are assumed to be good but they are left undefined. The consequences left in the realm of assumption in much the same way as those critiqued.

    Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will he added to you.

    We humans in our disordered state can never achieve the good by our own means.

    The more people practice what is necessary to conquer sin the better order there will be. Anything else is futile if not destructive and tends toward participation in the myth of progress perpatrated by the nihilist modern mind.

    I vote none of the above.

  2. Scott Kenworthy says

    Indeed, not only millennials, but all should read Solzhenitsyn, and not just Sanders supporters but also Trump supporters. Solzhenitsyn believed that 20th-century American capitalism shared the same foundation as Soviet-style socialism: that physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods was the key to human happiness. Here are just a few quotes from his 1978 Harvard address:

    “The persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all those other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in that direction. But in fact such a conception is a fruit of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, a result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development bears little resemblance to all this….

    Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)

    The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of the people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, preparing them for and summoning them toward physical bloom, happiness, and leisure, the possession of material goods, money, and leisure, toward an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures….

    Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic….
    If one is risen from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames. (An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to purchase it.)…

    Should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our own country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just enumerated are extremely saddening….

    Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtle and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today. Mere freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones….”

    • Cynthia mae Curran says

      Probably true, in the 19th century workers were making some progress but there was a lot of long hours, still high poverty and the beginnings of the Welfare state was created in England and Germany like state pensions, workers comp because people wanted a higher material well being. Also, Trump followers want welfare for senior citizens like Medicare and social security but damned young people.

  3. James Bradshaw says

    “Economics is closely tied to human anthropology”

    Material comfort is a necessary but insufficient requirement for worldly happiness. America’s failure is in our belief that it is also sufficient.

    The problem is that it is difficult to seek higher values when one is consumed by the fear and despondency that comes from being unable to acquire the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter. I know some folks who make slightly above minimum wage, and while some are students, some are not. Without the benefit of food stamps, some of these folks would simply not make it. We don’t have a culture where one can grow their food and live off the land or where you can live in the same immediate vicinity one works at (at least usually). Food costs. Rent costs (even in the poorest of areas).

    It isn’t “socialism” to insist that people who have chosen to work should not suffer the indignity of still being in dire need. The policies required to address this would be complex as the cost of living varies with region, but it seems that making government smaller and doing less is not really a viable or just option.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

      Socialism is not the safety net. Socialism is state control of production, the soft fascism I mentioned. In America increasing socialism has led to an increased poverty of spirit evident in such things as collapsing inner cities.

      • Cynthia mae Curran says

        Sometimes to increase poverty in places like California which recently rise the minium graduallyto 15 an hour but has expensive housing which is not address.

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