Over the last couple of months I have been reading three distinct books that uniquely and richly deal with a societal and political challenge that is ever before us: the tendency of mankind to place too much hope and power in class of rulers, and the tendency of those rulers to work to assume more power and decision-making authority over the ruled. The books are 19th Century French Economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. The three books represent authors of different time eras, professional and political experiences, and in a couple of cases, imprisonment and exile. Each powerfully attacks these aforementioned societal and political challenges in such a way that still resonates in the modern Western era given our constant flirtation with socialism and of socialism’s growing popularity as a political response to Trumpist populism. I also find it fascinating and tragic that early prophets such as Bastiat and Dostoevsky foresaw the catastrophes that socialism would bring while Solzhenitsyn lived them. They key question for today is: are we still listening?
I begin with Bastiat from a chronological perspective as well as the fact that he served as an early prophet to the ills of socialism. Bastiat, as a French economist, philosopher, and statesman in France in the mid-1800s, is mostly known for his remarkable intellectual stands against mercantilism and protectionism. He also had to contend and argue against pervasive French dirigiste statism and had plenty of exposure and debates with leading philosophers and legislators who espoused Socialism. As such, he forewarns us of the ills of Socialism extensively in his book The Law. Here are a few notable excerpts:
How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain – prosperity, in a positive sense, wealth, science, religion – should ever have gained ground in the political world? The modern politicians, particularly those of the Socialist school, found their different theories upon one common hypothesis; and surely a more strange, a more presumptuous notion, could never have entered a human brain.
They divide mankind into two parts. Men in general, except one, form the first; the politician himself forms the second, which is by far the most important.
In fact, they begin by supposing that men are devoid of any principle of action, and of any means of discernment in themselves; that they have no initiative; that they are inert matter, passive particles, atoms without impulse; at best vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected….
…the Socialists look upon mankind as a subject for social experiments…the relations between mankind and the legislator appear to be the same as those that exist between the clay and the potter. Moreover, if they have consented to recognize in the heart of man a capability of action, and in his intellect a faculty of discernment, they have looked upon this gift of God as a fatal one, and thought that mankind, under these two impulses, tended fatally to ruin.
Whilst mankind tends to evil, they incline to good; whilst mankind is advancing towards darkness, they are aspiring to enlightenment; whilst mankind is drawn toward vice, they are attracted by virtue. And, this granted, they demand the assistance of force, by means of which they are to substitute their own tendencies for those of the human race.
Bastiat has a number of retorts to this tendency of politicians to want to treat mankind as their own science experiment:
Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves, the task would be arduous enough for them…
…One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine that is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind – the omnipotence of the law – the infallibility of the legislator: this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic: It is true that it professes to be social. So far as it is democratic, it has unlimited faith in mankind. So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.
Bastiat’s prescience is a marvel to behold, with the tragic exception to date on the part that descendants would scoff at, rather than continually marvel at, the impossible notion resting upon the triple hypothesis that we can achieve utopia through democratic socialism.
As a French statesmen, social scientist, and economist, one might expect Bastiat to have a great amount to say about the subject of Socialism. I am perhaps even more intrigued by what a 19th Century Tsarist era Russian novelist, once imprisoned and then forced to live in exile for “radicalism” (he joined a circle advocating for abolishing Russian serfdom), had to say on the subject given the horrors that would beset Russia a few decades after his eminence. The themes of anti-radicalism in general is a prominent theme throughout Dostoevsky novels. Recency of reading is perhaps the only reason a certain setting within Crime and Punishment resonates with me at present. The setting itself is the makings of high drama – an investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, has suspicions of the main character, Raskolnikov, as a committer of a recent murder and is feeling him out in a normal social setting. One particular scene that helps Porfiry set the stage for a line of questioning on who has rights to judge and oppress whom on earth is set up by a debate between the investigator and Raskilnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, in which Porfiry goads him into attacking socialist thought in an attempt to get Raskilnikov’s own thoughts on the matter. It was common for Dostoevsky to speak through his characters. I believe Razumikhin speaks for Dostoevsky when he states this regarding socialists:
Their views are well known: crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social set-up – that alone and nothing more, no other causes are admitted…Hence if society itself is normally set up, all crimes will at once disappear, because there will be no reason for protesting and everyone will instantly become righteous. Nature isn’t taken into account, nature is driven out, nature is not supposed to be! With them, it’s not mankind developing all along in a historical, living way that will finally turn by itself into a normal society, but, on the contrary, a social system, coming out of some mathematical head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless.
One can sense not only Dostoevsky’s cynicism related to the “mathematical head” but also skepticism regarding the desire to use government means and rulers to try to reform and direct society in a vain attempt to eradicate human flaws.
Despite the prophecies of Dostoevksy, one can’t imagine he would have foreseen just how pernicious these “mathematical heads” would become in future Russian generations. These molders of mankind into lumps of clay would, to use Bastiat’s phrase, truly place man into the mud. Or as the statement attributed to Stalin goes, more than treating men as clay, men were treated as millions of broken eggs in a tragic attempt to create an omelette concocted in a “great” mathematician’s head. This tragic reality is captured throughout the corpus of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works with such masterpieces as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Perhaps there is no work in which Solzhenitsyn displays such profound sadness at a vain attempt at utopia gone horrifically wrong combined with clarity of moral purpose and tragic irony and wit as in his novel, In the First Circle.
The epic novel is far too rich and deep for me to describe in detail here (for a great podcast introduction to the book, visit EconTalk), but some key context: the novel’s name itself belies the artist’s craft and wit – the concept of the “First Circle” was adopted as a literary device from Dante’s Inferno. The first circle of hell was the highest and most painless level of hell in which philosophers and other world notables who did good but without knowing the true God were relegated. Similarly, the novel’s prison settings is the sharaska – a forced work-camp for those Russian political prisoners who had some particular skill (engineers, physicists) that allowed them to serve prison sentences in relatively livable conditions compared to the deprivations of the Siberian gulags.
There is a common chilling theme throughout the book, at one point expressed by one of the free women workers who toil alongside the male prisoners by day – “they (the state) can do anything they want to us.” But specifically to the point in my title, there is a powerful and pithy statement made by one of the prisoners that succinctly captures the essence of the horrors of communism. In this context, as new prisoners are brought into the camp, the speaker says to a fellow prisoner who happens to be a still committed communist:
What century are we living in? Numbers sewn on human beings? Tell me, Lev Grigorievich, is this what you call progress?
Indeed, a broader theme of the book is that everyone is trapped in this system – it is a prison to all, and all within the country are mere numbers, whether one was officially in prison or not. One diplomat in the book tells his sister-in-law:
You see this circle? That’s our country. That’s the first circle. Now here’s the second. A circle with a large diameter. That is mankind at large. You would think that the first forms a part of the second, wouldn’t you? Not in the least! There are barriers of prejudice. Not to mention barbed wire and machine guns. To break through, physically or spiritually, is well-nigh impossible. Which means that mankind, as such, does not exist. There are only fatherlands, everyone’s fatherland is alien to everyone else’s….”
I love when I see parallels of themes between books, and indeed, within In the First Circle Solzhenitsyn echoes the point in the novel made (and captured above) by Bastiat about “reforming society” and whether we should focus on ourselves or of society:
Where should you start reforming the world? With other people? Or with yourself?
In summary – what I find so moving and powerful about the connections between these works of art from great authors is the healthy and much-needed skepticism regarding whether legislators or autocrats will solve humanity’s ills, that these ills are impossible to remove completely, that the best way to reduce them is setting men at liberty, and the captured fear and progression of what men will do to one another once they hold unrelenting and unlimited power over others – man turns into clay, mud, mathematical, numbers, slaves…
It also goes without saying that I recommend all three books for reading.