Lafayette, CA. “The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man,” Dostoevsky wrote to his niece, in an 1868 letter, of what would become The Idiot. “There is nothing more difficult in the world,” he continued, “and especially now.” By “positively beautiful man” Dostoevsky meant an infinitely humble, compassionate Christian man. Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a genial, utterly selfless epileptic, the “idiot” of the novel’s title, was Dostoevsky’s effort to envision this being. Ultimately he is too beautiful.
As he accelerates toward insanity and destruction, Myshkin becomes erratic, inflamed, perfervid. The topic of religion is introduced at a fashionable dinner party and, although normally self-effacing and reserved, he launches into a tirade against the Catholic Church. By seeking worldly power and meddling in secular affairs, Myshkin contends, the Western Church generated a backlash against Christianity itself, a reaction that ultimately gave rise to atheism. And not only atheism, he announces, but socialism:
For socialism . . . too, like its brother atheism, came from despair, opposing Catholicism in a moral sense, in order to replace the lost moral force of religion with itself, in order to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind and save it not through Christ, but also through violence! It is also freedom through violence, it is also unity through blood and the sword!
To show that socialism is inseparable from violence, Myshkin invokes the French Revolution. “‘Do not dare to believe in God,’” he proclaims, adopting the voice of a Jacobin, “‘do not dare to have property, do not dare to have personality, fraternité ou la mort, two million heads!’” Only Orthodox Christianity, he insists, can prevent this scourge from spreading. “Our Christ,” he informs the assembled Russian aristocrats, “whom we have preserved and they have never known, must shine forth in response to the West!”
Myshkin’s audience does not take this warning seriously. Nor did those who read The Idiot take Dostoevsky’s warning seriously. Fifty years after it was published Russia embarked on its grand totalitarian experiment, one of the most savage episodes in all human history. “The party denied the free will of the individual,” the fallen and condemned vanguardist Rubashov thinks to himself at the end of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, “and at the same time it demanded that the individual bend his will to the party; it required absolute self-sacrifice.” Do not dare to believe in God, do not dare to have property, do not dare to have personality. Dostoevsky was, to be sure, something of a bigot toward the Catholic Church. He also grasped a fundamental truth: collectivism and violence are one.
It can be counted as a small blessing that unlike, say, Russia, which appears to have no time for fretting over its headlong dive into the brutal leveling Dostoevsky so feared, America has an awareness of its sins—not to mention its citizens’ smallness before the eternal—woven into the fabric of its history. “If God wills,” Lincoln warned, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” What’s more, he taught, that fate would, were it to come, be a just one. “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
A confident society can, or rather should, be alive to its flaws. Yet “something else,” writes the author Paul Kingsnorth, “is surely going on in the West”:
Over the last few years, a new and still-coalescing ideology, which has been gathering steam in the post-modern catacombs of America for decades, has burst out onto the streets and into the studios, and is now coursing through the culture, overturning what was until recently uncontroversial or unquestioned. The energy around it is not that of the self-declared love and justice. It tastes of deconstruction, division, intolerance, hatred and rage.
So triumphant has this movement been—so sure of itself, so adept at sweeping all before it—that it has rapidly shifted from a stage of revolution to a stage of consolidation. It demands conformity from those who fear it, suspicion of those who question it, and vengeance upon those who oppose it.
The West, and the United States in particular, is witnessing the rise of a new collectivism.
What happened? How did the spirit of fraternité ou la mort gain a foothold here? Why is the spirit of socialism without solidarity, of socialism as violence, spreading unchecked?
Decadence. That is the answer Ross Douthat offered in The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, one of the last books published in the before times: pre-pandemic, pre-shutdown, pre-unrest. A decadent society, according to Douthat, is wealthy and secure but spoiled, tired, and nihilistic. It has forgotten the past and fears the future. Its art is uninspired and repetitious. Its young are rootless, bewildered, and cautious. Even the wise can’t legislate; even the upright can’t lead.
Douthat discussed many problems that can only have worsened in the year or so since he raised them. Productivity growth is slowing; public debt is accumulating. Due to a mysterious decline in fertility (an “inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,” perhaps?), we are growing old. Even the slowing rate at which new cults are forming was, in Douthat’s eyes, a sign of fading vigor and thus of decline. That trend, at least, has perhaps begun to turn.
Sixteen months ago, Douthat opined that we might stagger on in our decadent state indefinitely. Many of our troubles were in his view illusory, the concoctions of comfortable people who use social media to playact at rebellion, to indulge in displays of purely performative online rage. Douthat was the first to acknowledge that he could be wrong, however, and he noted, presciently, that there would be “nothing decadent” about the struggle to manage a pandemic.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been less sanguine about our growing instability—about the decline of trust, the disappearance of shared rituals, and the loss of a common moral language. Haidt was predicting, even before the riots, purges, and panic of mid-2020, that we will in the next decade witness the political collapse of multiple Western democracies. That remains a bold claim. But does it now look any bolder than Douthat’s claim that no illiberal rival of the Western outlook has “the mix of zeal, coherence, mysticism, and futurism” that gives rise to new religions and ruling ideologies? The new collectivists would beg to differ. And how much of that mix, it must be asked, does the established liberal order retain itself?
“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” begins last year’s Harper’s letter in defense of free speech. Dozens of leftwing authors, journalists, and professors signed on, affirming their commitment to debate and the exchange of ideas. Perhaps it is too early to say we face a crisis.
Or perhaps it is too late. Decay is a process. Despite being “oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption,” Gibbon informs us in the Decline and Fall, the noblest Romans of the first century AD “for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas, of their free-born ancestors.” Although they lived and acted decadently, they still professed to believe in freedom and the civic religion. But what cannot go on will end. Authority was increasingly “prostituted to the vilest purposes of tyranny”; despots came to be “adored with the most abject flattery”; and in time “the last of the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues.” The accusers clothed the betrayal of their countrymen in the language of patriotism. They were “rewarded by riches” for their efforts.
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Blessed are the merciful, Jesus declared, for they shall obtain mercy. The reciprocal truth is implied. When denunciation forms the core of a culture, those who denounce will be denounced in turn. Koestler’s vanguardist, Rubashov, was a model party member. He fought for the party, suffered imprisonment and torture abroad for the party, gave all he had for the party. Time and again he informed on those who were impure, who fell into error, who deviated from the party line. But at length he started to doubt. He watched as “the shelves in the library were thinned out”:
The disappearance of certain books happened discreetly, usually the day after the arrival of a new directive from above. . . . Most of the works on foreign trade and currency disappeared from the shelves—their author, the People’s Commissar for Finance, had just been arrested; also . . . treatises on trade unionism and the right to strike in the People’s State; practically every study of the problems of political constitution more than two years old, and, finally, even the volumes of the Encyclopedia published by the Academy—a new revised edition being promised shortly.
New books arrived, too: the classics of social science appeared with new footnotes and commentaries, the old histories were replaced by new histories, the old memoirs of dead revolutionary leaders were replaced by new memoirs of the same defunct.
Decades of radicalism, violence, suffering, and death, meanwhile, had brought society no closer to utopia. Rubashov and his fellow revolutionaries had “dreamed of power with the object of abolishing power; of ruling over the people to wean them from the habit of being ruled.” And so they had toppled everything. They had fulfilled their dreams—and where were they?
Like most of the others, Rubashov lands in prison, awaiting execution. During an interrogation, his old friend Ivanov tries to coax him into confessing to treason. There are, Ivanov says, only two conceptions of ethics. The one is the humane Christian ethic, which upholds the sanctity of each person. The other is the collectivist ethic, which in every way subordinates the individual to the whole. Rubashov’s treason lies in his failure fully to embrace what Ivanov labels the “vivisection morality” of the second ethic.
Collectivism and violence are one.
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Our traditions are largely inertial and residual, Douthat proposes. It is a suggestion of cultural exhaustion. “They ceased to be driven on by their idea of their position in the world,” V. S. Naipaul says, in A Bend in the River, of the Arabs of post-colonial East Africa. “Their energy was lost; they forgot who they were and where they had come from.” Their authority “was only a matter of custom. It could be blown away at any time.”
Those who believe in openness, tolerance, and free inquiry will always find it hard to challenge those whose minds are tainted with fanaticism. To adopt the unswerving (and invariably humorless) certainty of the zealot is to forfeit the contest. To show bottomless understanding, on the other hand, is to lose it inch by inch. Aside from his awkward and ineffectual outburst at the dinner party, Myshkin displays his faith only as a mode of withdrawal. “The essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning,” he says. “There’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off.” It is a pretty thought in the abstract. In practice it is a defensive crouch. Myshkin retreats to the utmost end; he retreats into madness. He appears to forgive the murderer of his fiancée on the day of the murder. This is the last we see of him.
“If the nobility denounces the national dogmas,” Joseph de Maistre, arch reactionary, proclaimed in his reflections on the French Revolution, “the State is lost.” Like Dostoevsky’s beautiful man, Maistre was appalled by the revolution. Like the idiot saint, Maistre veered toward the mystical. But Maistre was not one to retreat. Battles, he said, are won not by rational calculation but by an irrational inner conviction. They are won by acts of faith. “Life itself is a battle of this sort,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, reframing Maistre’s beliefs, “and any attempt to describe it in rational terms is a dreadful distortion.” Others besides Maistre have remarked the paradox that it takes more than logic to press the case for reason.
What is to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind? The left is circling an answer. Sure enough, it was they, as Douthat observes, who used the “acid” of postmodern theory as “a solvent for the old regime” of “white heteronormative Christian patriarchy.” Having used problematics, decentering, perspectivism, deconstruction, and the rest to such great effect, however, their use for skepticism is at an end. They are now building “new rules, new hierarchies, new moral categories to govern the post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-cis-het world.” They are creating, preaching, and imposing the creeds and litanies of the new religion—of the new collectivism. And they expect obedience. Like many young religions, theirs does not play well with others.
And it must be asked again: in what condition are the old gods, the old altars, and the old temples? “It is no longer possible,” Evelyn Waugh believed, “as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests.” He wrote those words in 1930, in an essay in which he went on to propose that Christianity “is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries.” More than ninety years later, institutional churches are no “basis” for much of anything, and what pockets of “combative strength” exist among the laity seem less a force for civilizational renewal than a loud, performative, impotent rabble shaking their fists at the weather.
To one side, an intolerant new faith. To the other? No one seems to know. “The Right,” laments the author Rod Dreher, no longer has “a concept of sacred order to defend.” “And this,” adds Paul Kingsnorth, “is a dangerous place to be.” Indeed it is. Especially when every form of recusant is being defenestrated from institutions and centers of power. The faction known as “conservative” has next to nothing to conserve. It now stands, above all, for opposing that which it fears. A group that defines itself solely by what it opposes is destined to grow frustrated, cynical, and even paranoid.
The left is collectivizing, the right falling apart. Can a pragmatic, humanist center hold? Does liberalism need a replacement for Christ—a new faith; a new source of enchantment and purpose—to survive? Or perhaps it can yet stand on its own two feet? New faiths are a matter for saints, geniuses, and firebrands; if one is needed, the rest of us must simply wait and hope. In the meantime, however, there remains what Naipaul called the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. For those who would despair, there remains a simple belief that the cause of the Enlightenment is still the cause of America, the cause of America still in a great measure the cause of mankind.
Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. But never bow to the mob.