“People do not truly want an end to suffering in all cases…They need challenges in order to feel the thrill of victory, guilt over their actions to have a chance at redemption, and the possibility of rejection and hatred to feel any deep form of love.”
Editor’s note: Following this piece, Matt McManus will on vacation until mid-August. As such, his next column will be published in around a month’s time.
“’Plato, Rousseau, Fourier, aluminum columns—all that is good only for sparrows, not human society. But since the future form of human society is needed right now, when we’re finally ready to take action, in order to forestall any further thought on the subject, I’m proposing my own system of world organization. Here it is!’ he said, tapping his notebook. ‘I wanted to expatiate on my book to this meeting as briefly as possible, but I see it’s necessary to provide a great deal of verbal clarification; therefore my entire explication will take at least ten evenings, corresponding to the number of chapters in my book..’ (More laughter was heard) ‘Moreover I must declare in advance that my system is not yet complete.’ (Laughter again). ‘I became lost in my own data and my conclusion contradicts the original premise from which I started. Beginning with unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I must add, however, there can be no other solution to the social problem except mine.’”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils
In his great if overlong book The Devils, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky weaves a black comedy about a group of radicals who want to take over a small Russian town as a stepping stone to a general revolution. Most of them parrot various platitudes about how their coming utopia will be best for everyone, expressing universal compassion and sympathy for the poor and dispossessed. But in their personal behavior, none of these conceits bear out. In their meetings, the radicals are vain, overestimate their abilities, and constantly seek to one up one another. Far from really believing in equality, each radical tries to outdo the others with their affectations about how much they care or by developing ever more radical “systems” to prove their genius. The parody reaches its pitch with the intellectual Shigalyov, who is the groups unofficial philosopher in chief. He gives a speech at their meeting expressing his alleged desire for the perfect society, but admitting that his original desire to achieve unlimited freedom ended with calling for “unlimited despotism.” It turns out Shigalyov’s system, the only “solution to the social problem” according to him, is about taking all freedom away from 90 per cent of the population and vesting power in the hands of a small group who is to organize everything. No credit for guessing who is to make up this group and lead the masses.
They are led by Peter Stepanovich, who is the unloved son of a low-level academic who has enjoyed some minor celebrity in the small town. Stepanovich is charismatic and manipulative, constantly agitating for revolutionary violence. In a moment of weakness he admits that ultimately his goal is not to bring about a utopian society. Driven by resentment at his father and the gilded life he embodies, Stepanovich ultimately wants power and violence for their own sake. He and his followers mask such demonic impulses under the guise of pleasant and smart sounding egalitarian platitudes and self-aggrandizing statements of compassion for the world. Dostoevsky ultimately compares these progressive radicals to the swine described in the Gospel of Luke, who were possessed by devils, ran into a lake and drowned. Dostoevsky predicated that the Satanic ideas propagated in 19th century Russia would lead to the destruction of their adherents and many other victims. Many regard this as prophecy, given what eventually happened once the Bolsheviks seized power.
Rather than regarding his aesthetic mission as drawing attention to the unnecessary suffering in the world, he came to see pain as a potentially purifying experience.
Unpacking Dostoevsky’s Critique
What gives Dostoevsky’s critique of radicalism its real bite is it comes from a knowing place. Early in his career the great novelist flirted with socialism and other kinds of utopian political projects. His early novel Poor Folk at points outdoes Dickens in its searing denunciation of a social order which would allow wretched poverty to exist in the midst of affluence. But Dostoevsky never cared much for the personalities of the socialist and utopian radicals, particularly their frequent emphasis on atheism and their attacks on the Orthodox Christian religion. After being arrested, nearly executed, and sent to Siberia for his radical associations, Dostoevsky experience a profound change of heart. Rather than regarding his aesthetic mission as drawing attention to the unnecessary suffering in the world, he came to see pain as a potentially purifying experience. Darker still, he pointed to how deeply many individuals actually crave suffering for themselves or others, whether out of feelings of guilt, resentment of the world around them, or simply to experience powerful emotions. The first of his great novels, Notes from the Underground, describes a very modern individual in the midst of an existential crisis. The titular underground man constantly tortures himself in part to give some sense of significance to his life, which he regards as meaningless and comical:
“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!”
This theme continues down through Crime and Punishment where the anti-heroic protagonist, Raskolnikov, becomes influenced by a mishmash of modern radical ideas and decides to murder a vindictive elderly woman to take her money. Raskolnikov invokes utilitarian doctrines about the need to ameliorate his own suffering, that of his family, and ultimately all the people he intends to help once he gets himself settled. The woman he killed exploited the poor and was generally despised by all, meaning her death had little negative consequences for anyone. Raskolnikov also invokes proto-Nietzschean ideas about being a great man with a superior intelligence, which entitles him to take the steps he needs to achieve his ends. Much as Napoleon felt little problem with snuffing out the lives of whole armies on his road to power, why should Raskolnikov feel guilt at taking the life of a wicked old woman who the world is better off without? As in The Devils, Dostoevsky argues that things are not so simple. The guilt he feels over his actions makes Raskolnikov unable to relate to his friends and family—and more importantly to sincerely love the sacrificial and deeply spiritual Sonya. He tries to avoid getting caught for his crimes but is constantly told that the only way to actually relieve his deep suffering and guilt is to confess and accept punishment. In the end he chooses to willingly go to prison in Siberia accompanied by Sonya, in shackles but with the possibility of redemption held out.
Dostoevsky’s point in all of these works is that the influence of modern radical ideas is having a corrosive effect on Russian society. The most dramatic example is the way they are both undermining faith in traditional practices and religion, while driving intelligent individuals to embrace ever more outrageous and transformative ideologies which it will require immense bloodshed to enact. In this respect, Dostoevsky’s work is a powerful iteration of the conservative argument that permissive liberal modernity is undermining the stability of the world. But his position runs deeper than the usual traditionalist critique. Dostoevsky is arguing that the efforts of radicals to end suffering and bring about a utopian society—even if enacted in good faith—do not have a deep understanding of the real drives in the human heart. People do not truly want an end to suffering in all cases and will even bring pain into their lives simply to feel something. They need challenges in order to feel the thrill of victory, guilt over their actions to have a chance at redemption, and the possibility of rejection and hatred to feel any deep form of love. Like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, Dostoevsky is powerfully arguing that progressive utopianism isn’t just doomed to fail but misguided.
Moreover, he points out that oftentimes the efforts of these radicals and reformers are not carried out in good faith. They are actually driven by a resentment of the world and a deep sense of arrogance. Raskolnikov and Peter Stepanovich invoke modern radical ideas to justify a belief in their own superiority and to avenge themselves against a world which has fundamentally let them down. Both consider themselves men of great intellect who should be entitled to kill as needed to achieve their goals. The superficial platitudes they invoke are lies told to others (and just as often to themselves) to mask a demonic impulse under the veil of compassion and modernization. They will bring ruin to themselves and anyone they come into contact with.
It is not difficult to draw parallels between Dostoevsky’s critique of radicalism in the 19th century and the arguments directed against so called social justice activists today. Figures like Jordan Peterson revere Dostoevsky because they see him as unmasking the dark truths behind both progressive doctrines and personalities. Much as the petty bourgeois radicals in The Devils sit around demanding people address them properly and policing the terminology used by their peers, today’s social justice activists demand censorship of ideas they dislike and invoke politically correct tropes to bully people into accepting their worldviews. And as with Peter Stepanovich, these actions belie a deeper and darker impulse to take revenge on the world by seizing control of it. This is why Peterson can say that the “philosophy” which guides the utterances of a Maoist and a trans-rights activist is effectively the same.
Dostoevsky’s critique of the Left is among the most powerful and knowing ever put forward—probably because unlike, say, those in the Intellectual Dark Web , he actually knew the positions of the Left well and had once deeply empathized with them. But I also believe it is highly flawed in a very deep respect. Dostoevsky was hardly a man lacking in compassion, as his staggeringly beautiful portrait of Christian love in The Brothers Karamazov proves. But his understanding of compassion is also highly individuated and personalized. Dostoevsky constantly emphasizes the small scale acts of mercy and generosity in life which give it meaning and their dialectical relationship to the suffering we must endure to have our attention drawn to the good. Yet, there can also be great and sincere love behind actions to make the world in general a better place.
Dostoevsky’s contemporary Leo Tolstoy knew this well, and his epic works like War and Peace offer a scathing criticism of aristocratic society and its indifference to the plight of the least fortunate in Russia. Tolstoy knew, as did Martin Luther King Jr., that though the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, that we have an obligation to help it along through creating just social conditions. This is an insight found in Tolstoy that is occasionally lacking in Dostoevsky and has bearing on his critique of progressive activism today. While it may be true that some activists are driven by resentment and a desire to revenge themselves on the world, countless more are giving of themselves to take incremental steps to eliminate the most pressing social ills of our time. These ills are exacerbated by political and economic indifference, which generate not just great suffering but also much evil in the world. We should do whatever we can to eliminate it.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.