Episode 5: A Prophetic Warning
Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Some of you might be skeptical that today’s topic really belongs in this podcast. On the other hand, one might argue that this topic is absolutely essential. I’m talking about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic 1871 novel, “The Possessed”, sometimes also translated as “The Demons” or “The Devils”. You’re probably aware that Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, but most of his writing occurred around half a century before the Russian Revolution. So how does Dostoyevsky fit into a podcast about Communism?
Actually, the Communist movements that culminated in the Russian Revolution had begun around Dostoyevsky’s time, starting in the first half of the 19th century. When Marx’s
Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, it was just one of many revolutionary “manifestos” describing how a perfect society could be obtained by replacing current unjust governments with various forms of socialism. A young Dostoyevsky was caught up in one of these radical movements, and was arrested in 1849 for spreading subversive literature. He spent several years at hard labor in a Tsarist prison and exile as a result— a few episodes ago, you may recall that we mentioned his memoir of this period, “The House of the Dead”.
But by the time Dostoyevsky wrote “The Possessed”, in the 1860s, he had started to see a number of dangers inherent in these movements. Young “nihilists” were so sure of their ideas that they would stop at nothing to implement them, and could justify any act of destruction or violence. This novel contains a number of shockingly accurate predictions about how these Communist revolutionaries would come to power, and what they would do with this power once they obtained it. That’s why we believe it fits nicely into this podcast’s topic: Dostoyevsky was one of the first witnesses to clearly depict the philosophy and mindset of those who would, only a generation after his death, control the fate of the Russian people. He predicted the fomenting of chaos, the destruction of existing institutions like churches, the use of fear and mutual suspicion to control the population, the cults of personality, and the ultimate necessity of mass murder to cement the Communist system in place.
Summarizing the plot of The Possessed can be a bit tricky. Like all great novels, it has many layers, and here we’re trying to concentrate on one specific aspect: its political predictions about Communism. Also, as is common in 19th-century Russian literature, there are dozens of active characters, again far too many to accurately summarize in this podcast. At its core, the novel describes a presumably typical Russian town full of ordinary people, with a sparkling of well-meaning liberals and socialists hoping to bring about change. Cynical, manipulative revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives in town, and quickly starts working behind the scenes to cause chaos and tension, while quietly assembling a small group, a “quintet”, of dedicated revolutionaries. At the climax of the novel, he arranges for the quintet to participate in an act of murder.
The desire to foment chaos was apparent in Verkhovensky’s followers from the beginning, and they are not shy about admitting it.
“…it was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing every one and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and sceptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out the weak spots which could be attacked.” [p.631]
As one would expect, this general idea to destroy society and build it anew would require, among other things, the destruction of the churches, ironically out of fear that religion would “brutalize” people:
"But here, for instance, is an incitement to destroy churches… you know perfectly well that you need religion to brutalise the people. Truth is honester than falsehood... ." ...""And how can you be an official of the government after that, when you agree to demolishing churches, and marching on Petersburg armed with staves, and make it all simply a question of date?"
With the original institutions of the nation destroyed, Dostoyevsky’s revolutionaries would be faced with the question of how to influence and control the people. One aspect of their solution would be to use mutual fear and shame to keep people under control:
Every member of the society spies on the others, and it's his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality. [p.384]
…And the most important force of all— the cement that holds everything together— is their being ashamed of having an opinion of their own. That is a force! And whose work is it, whose precious achievement is it, that not one idea of their own is left in their heads! They think originality a disgrace.” [p.363]
This method culminates in Verkhovensky’s murder plot. While he claims the murder is necessary because their victim, Shatov, is planning to inform the police about their movement, he reveals a more important motive to a confidante:
“All that business of titles and sentimentalism is a very good cement, but there is something better; persuade four members of the circle to do for a fifth on the pretense that he is a traitor, and you'll tie them all together with the blood they've shed as though it were a knot. They'll be your slaves, they won't dare to rebel or call you to account. Ha ha ha! “
When people are tied together in this way, it’s not a surprise that the most manipulative and bloodthirsty ones would end up in control. Dostoyevsky eerily predicts how in the name of ‘“equality”, the vast majority of the population will effectively become slaves:
…The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we'll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we'll make use of incredible corruption; we'll stifle every genius in its infancy. We'll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality! … But it needs a shock. That's for us, the directors, to look after. Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality, but once in thirty years Shigalov would let them have a shock and they would all suddenly begin eating one another up, to a certain point, simply as a precaution against boredom. [p.395]
.… In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case. [p.432]
At one point, Dostoyevsky might arguably be predicting the eventual rise of Stalin’s and Mao’s cults of personality, as he describes the mindset of Erkel, one of Verkhovensky’s followers:
A craving for active service was characteristic of this shallow, unreflecting nature, which was for ever yearning to follow the lead of another man's will, of course for the good of "the common" or "the great" cause. Not that that made any difference, for little fanatics like Erkel can never imagine serving a cause except by identifying it with the person who, to their minds, is the expression of it. [p.540]
In addition, the expectation of mass murder as a necessary tool to truly destroy the old institutions and put the new system in place is a theme that recurs several times in the book. You have to enjoy the typical Communist doublespeak of the need for mass murder being part of a “Peace Congress”:
“And, indeed, he rejects morality itself altogether, and holds with the last new principle of general destruction for the sake of ultimate good. He demands already more than a hundred million heads for the establishment of common sense in Europe; many more than they demanded at the last Peace Congress.” [p.79]
“It's urged that, however much you tinker with the world, you can't make a good job of it, but that by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one's burden, one can jump over the ditch more safely.” [p.383]
Several other well-known flaws of the Communist system are also predicted in the novel. He accurately foresees that the idealists who supposedly fix society by removing greed and materialism will themselves end up closely guarding their perks, including property and material privileges, under the new system:
”Why is it, as I've noticed," Stepan Trofimovitch whispered to me once, "why is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more socialistic, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property ... why is it?” [p.64]
Dostoyevsky also shines a critical eye on the idea that Communism is somehow “scientific”, and that logic and reason demand its implementation as the next stage of societal progress:
Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot .. such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way. [p.233]
It’s pretty amazing to us that all these words, which might be said to accurately describe events and philosophies of the Communist regimes of the 20th century, were written almost fifty years before the Russian Revolution. And it’s especially important in light of the arguments we hear about discussions like this podcast being “unfair” to Communism, due to stressing examples of particular corrupt, failed implementations of the system. Some say the problems are not with the system or ideas, but just with particularly poor implementations of Communism in the 20th century. But ask yourself this: if destructiveness, totalitarianism, bloodthirstiness, and human cruelty were not inherent to Communism, but just were the faults of particular leaders, how is it that Dostoyevsky was able to predict all these abuses, purely based on his experience with Communist and socialist philosophy, half a century in advance of them actually being implemented?
As biographer Ronald Hingley wrote in 1978, The Possessed was “an awesome, prophetic warning which humanity, no less possessed of collective and individual devilry in the 1970s than in the 1870s, shows alarmingly few signs of heeding.” Seeing recent news reports, there’s no doubt that the 2010s could fit just as easily into that sentence.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.