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You’re reaping what you sowed, liberals

A monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky: Alexander Aksakov/Getty

A monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky: Alexander Aksakov/Getty

February 7, 2019   6 mins

The revolutionary theorist Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoevksy’s novel Demons sums up the progress of his thought: “Starting with unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”

This celebrated sentence has long been read as Dostoevsky’s prognosis of the terrorism that plagued Russia in the late 19th century. Aiming to achieve an unprecedented freedom, small groups of revolutionaries denied freedom and life itself to their own members.

The same transformation occurred on a vast scale when terror was practised by a revolutionary state. Understood as a critique of communism, the formula Dostoevsky put into his character’s mouth was prophetic. Wherever the communist project has been attempted, the result has been the same: an eclipse of freedom more complete than any that existed in the tyrannies the revolutionaries overthrew.

Yet the ideas that are the true demons in Dostoevsky’s novel are not only those that fuelled late 19th-century terrorism and 20th-century communism. They are found among liberals today, who are ready to dissolve religion, family, nationality and the practice of tolerance in order to bring into the world a kind of freedom that has never before been known. Some on the ‘Right’ believe this freedom will come from unfettered market forces, while others on the ‘Left’ favour using education to deconstruct practices and institutions that have held societies together in the past. Like the Russian revolutionaries, these liberals are possessed by a vision of ever-increasing human freedom that can only end in tyranny. If Dostoevsky was a prophet of 20th-century totalitarianism, he also foresaw how 21st-century liberalism would undermine itself.

It is easy to forget that Dostoevsky began as a liberal himself. When he was arrested in April 1849 as a member of a group of dissident intellectuals he shared the beliefs of the progressive Russian thinkers of his day. Passionately promoting what they perceived as the most advanced European thinking, they rejected religion and any morality that was based on it. Society had to be founded on scientific materialism and governed by an ethic based in science. Several intellectual movements came together in this mishmash of ideas.

Some favoured the roseate visions of French utopian thinkers such as Charles Fourier, who envisioned society reorganised into ‘phalansteries‘, ideal communities where work would become a type of play and the task of rubbish collection assigned to dirt-loving children. (Another side of Fourier’s thought is shown in his proposal that Jews be confined to duties as farm labourers.) Others were more drawn to hard-headed English Utilitarianism or the radical humanism of the German thinker Ludwig Feuerbach, who interpreted the idea of God as an image of the unlimited possibilities of the human species. All believed that human beings must fashion their own values and make a new world.

By the 1860s, these ideas had come to be called ‘nihilism’, a term made popular in Russia by Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862). Today, nihilism means the denial that human life or history have any meaning. In its mid-19th century meaning, however, nihilism accurately describes our contemporary liberal consensus. Like the progressive Russian intelligentsia to which Dostoevsky initially belonged, early 21st-century liberals believe the human future will be shaped by science and values that are somehow derived from science. Religion and everything connected with it must be rejected an obstacle to progress. A naïve version of this sort of nihilism is presented in the writings of Steven Pinker.

After his arrest and exile, Dostoevsky rejected the liberal ideas of his day forever. Condemned to death – a sentence commuted to hard labour in Siberia after a mock execution by firing squad – he returned to St Petersburg in 1860 a lifelong enemy of the ideas for which he had been exiled. His own ideas – a murky mix of Russian messianism with a rather dubious version of Orthodox Christianity – do not amount to anything much. But his subsequent writings, above all Demons, reveal an astonishingly prescient insight into the liberal mind today.

Published in 1872, the book tells how an ideal in which human beings are freed from any authority or constraint morphs into squalid violence and pervasive repression. Based on an actual incident in which a student who had questioned the leadership of the terrorist Sergei Nechaev (1847-1882) – who argued that any means were justified if they contributed to a progressive transformation in society – was murdered with Nechaev’s complicity, the novel provides a pitiless and extremely funny account of the self-immolation of liberalism.

Demons has often been attacked as being didactic in tone – a criticism that misses the dark humour that runs throughout the novel. But it is true that Dostoevsky aimed to teach a lesson. Revolutionary radicalism in politics has its ultimate source in atheism. Dostoevsky conveys this lesson through the character of Kirillov, an engineer and member of the radical group, who contends that if you do not believe in God you must become God yourself:

“To recognise that there is no God, and not to recognise that at the same time you have become God, is an absurdity… I have found it: the attribute of my divinity is – Self-will”

Kirillov believes that in order to demonstrate his divinity he must kill himself. By doing so, he would prove that human beings are not ruled by mechanical laws but possess a god-like freedom to do as they will. The core of his atheism is the assertion that without God human beings are free do whatever they chose. Exercising his freedom as a “god-man”, Kirillov shoots himself.

Kirillov is possessed by the idea, which Dostoevsky explored in Crime and Punishment (1866) and Brothers Karamazov (1879), that if there is no God everything is permitted. Generations of secular thinkers have attacked this as nonsense, and it is true that ethical life can be understood in strictly naturalistic terms. Morality is as much a part of what it means to be human as language. But in a naturalistic perspective, a liberal way of life is only one of many the human animal has invented. The belief that only one morality is ordained for all is a relic of monotheism, and Dostoevsky presents a compelling account of how an idea of unlimited freedom derived from Christianity became the inner logic of liberal humanism.

Among Russian nihilists, atheism meant the replacement of God by “humanity” – a universal subject that shapes its own future by deploying the power acquired by growing scientific knowledge. In this version, atheism is a project of collective human self-deification. Though they are careful to avoid such language, today’s liberal humanists pursue the same project. Claiming for the human species the freedom that Christianity attributes to God, they believe humankind can fashion a good life for all of its members.

According to Dostoevsky, however, the end-point of this kind of atheism is each human being acting just as they please. Nechaev justified terror on the ground that it is necessary in order to create an earthly paradise. But if human beings can adopt any means to achieve this end, why can’t they also chose their own ends? Why should anyone serve “humanity” – an entity as elusive as the Deity – or concern themselves with something as nebulous universal freedom? If any means is allowable, so too is any end. The attempt to create a new world collapses into Kirillov’s self-will. It is not surprising that Nietzsche recognised in Dostoevsky one of his predecessors.

Historically, liberal humanism is a footnote to theism. John Locke grounded human rights in duties to God, while Kant argued for the immortality of the soul as a necessary basis for human freedom. Here again, generations of secular thinkers have insisted that liberal values do not depend on religion. Yet liberal humanists continue to rely on the belief that human beings are by nature freedom-loving – a view that is certainly not based on empirical observation. Liberals might respond by asserting that human nature is not fixed – it can be transformed by political action. But if human beings are free to alter their nature, what is there to say they will remake themselves as free beings? They may prefer the tranquillized peace of a society like that imagined in Huxley’s Brave New World. Or decide that the freedoms of the past are relics of oppression, which must be swept away for the sake of social justice.

The liberal mind at present divides into two schools. One is composed of people who call themselves classical liberals, unwitting disciples of the Russian nihilists that believe human progress is ensured by the continuing advance of science. The other comprises postmodern liberals, who view science as little more than congealed ideology. The two are very much at odds, and yet both are possessed by an idea of unfettered freedom.

If classical liberals believe human beings can use the laws of nature formulated in science to make a new world, postmodern liberals believe scientific laws – including those that apply to human nature, a concept they reject – are no more than cultural constructs. The upshot is the same. Humankind can shape its own future unconstrained by any external force or authority. But if freedom is unlimited it is also empty. Whatever latter-day nihilists may say, science cannot supply human values. There is nothing in the laws of physics that prohibits the Holocaust. Equally, deconstructing science cannot validate whatever values are currently regarded as progressive. If science is ideology and human nature a fiction, anything goes. The alt-Right is as much a product of postmodernism as the alt-Left. Either way, the practices of tolerance and free expression that used to underpin liberal values are consumed in culture-wars between rival mobs.

Among western traditions, there are some that limit human freedom without invoking theism. Ancient Greek drama and Shakespeare show human beings are trapped by their own deeds and characters whatever they may will. A sceptic like Montaigne used reason to humble the human mind, not exalt it. The implication of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is that freedom is situated in particular forms of life. When all the ways of life humans have fashioned for themselves are rejected as exercises in repression, nothing remains but the assertion of will or feeling. That is pretty much where we are now.

If liberalism were a scientific hypothesis, it would have been falsified many times over. But for its disciples, it is far from being a mere hypothesis. As the ex-liberal Dostoevsky understood, liberalism is nothing if not a religion. In the past, this may have been a strength. Today it is a weakness, and possibly fatal. Shigalyov was right. Trashing old freedoms in order to bring about a new state of unbounded freedom can only lead to despotism. Liberals cannot stem the on-going retreat of liberal values because it is they that are driving it.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.

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