Law and Revolution

Gulag Archipelago

I’ve been reading the Gulag Archipelago on and off for a while. Solzhenitsyn wittily lances the Soviet insanities while recognizing that the problem is not mainly with a particular government but with the human condition.

I credited myself with unselfish dedication. But meanwhile I had been thoroughly prepared to be an executioner. And if I had gotten into an NKVD school under Yezhov, maybe I would have matured just in time for Beria.

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

Gulag Harper & Row, 1973 page 168

But whereas one can’t lay all the blame at the feet of social institutions, neither is an unjust society simply the fault of the individuals it comprises. A particular culture can encourage or discourage various virtues and vices. The problem with the Soviet culture, Solzhenitsyn seems to suggest, is that it deliberately unmoored itself from any cultural tradition. The result was that when it came time to make legal rulings or set public policy, those in charge acted on what was most expedient for them at the moment. Solzhenitsyn quotes from a 1919 trial transcript:

Accuser: “This tribunal is not supposed to concern itself with any nondescript criminal actions but only with those which are counterrevolutionary. In view of the nature of this crime, I demand that the case be turned over to a people’s court.”

Presiding Judge: “Ha! Actions! What a pettifogger you are! We are guided not by the laws but by our revolutionary conscience!”

Gulag Harper & Row, 1973 page 304

Note how the judge glosses arbitrariness and expediency as a “revolutionary conscience.” The October Revolution overthrew not just those in power but centuries of Russian legal tradition, tradition which had ended the death penalty and restricted torture. “Revolutionary conscience” allowed the Soviets to sneak them back in.

The court must not exclude terror. It would be self-deception or deceit to promise this, and in order to provide it with a foundation and to legalize it in a principled way, clearly and without hypocrisy and without embellishment, it is necessary to formulate it as broadly as possible, for only revolutionary righteousness and a revolutionary conscience will provide the conditions for applying it more or less broadly in practice.

With Communist greetings,

Gulag Harper & Row, 1973 page 353

Solzhenitsyn comments:

With the exception of a very limited number of parliamentary democracies, during a very limited number of decades, the history of nations is entirely a history of revolutions and seizures of power. And whoever succeeds in making a more successful and more enduring revolution is from that moment on graced with the bright robes of Justice, and his every past and future step is legalized and memorialized in odes, whereas every past and future step of his unsuccessful enemies is criminal and subject to arraignment and a legal penalty.

Gulag Harper & Row, 1973 page 355

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. Take the American Revolution. Although the United States overthrew the British rule, it did not abandon the authority of British legal precedent, some of which is cited still today. Moreover, to justify their actions many of the the American revolutionaries appealed to what they saw as over-arching principles in natural law, law which theoretically included the British as well as the Americans. So while the Americans revolted and seized power, they didn’t try to create legal principles from whole cloth, as did Lenin. And I don’t think the United States is exceptional in that regard. The Soviet Union invited the kind of injustice Solzhenitsyn describes, not simply because its founders overthrew the government but because they overthrew moral and legal authority as well. By trusting in “revolutionary conscience,” they allowed the sinful human heart alone to cut the public line between good and evil, with terrible consequences.

One Comment

  1. Greetings, Austin,

    Just surfed onto your blog while googling Solzhenitsyn. It led me to read through some of your other articles and info. I appreciate the lucidity of your thoughts and writing.


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