Solzhenitsyn: Postmodern Moralist

by Robert Inchausti

Dr. Inchausti is assistant professor of English at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  November 14, 1984, p. 1066. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Solzhenitsyn seeks to recover human integrity by attending to the particulars of history as part of a larger, if hidden, spiritual drama. It is as a moralist that he may have most influenced the thought of our time, for he has invented an aesthetic that recoups the traditional Christian verities on the other side of literary modernism.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row, 1974) has been celebrated as a refutation of Marxism, a revision of Russian political history, a warning to the West, even a tour de force of literary realism. Rarely has it been recognized as a contribution to moral philosophy. And yet. In other words, he has reinterpreted the traditional Christian truths in a work of art whose poetics is more philosophically inclusive than that of either dialectical systems or modernism.

Solzhenitsyn’s moral and aesthetic contributions have been difficult to gauge in part because we have no one to compare him with. His roots are idiosyncratic, and few contemporary novelists are as thematically ambitious. But if we read the Gulag as an antitext to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. the unique qualities of Solzhenitsyn’s moral genius become more apparent This may seem like a peculiar way to proceed, since Sartre’s text is itself eccentric. Yet Sartre’s Critique does present, with unusual fullness and systematic purity, the sweep and power of what has come to be called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” His work epitomizes a peculiarly modern way of dealing with moral problems: debunk, deconstruct and dissolve them by treating them as products of sociological pressures and ideological mystifications. The Gulag Archipelago is the antithesis of this form of moral reasoning. Solzhenitsyn debunks, deconstructs and dissolves “the hermeneutics of suspicion” by demonstrating how its assumptions lead to a misreading of the empirical realities of history. Then he goes beyond this deconstruction to found a postmodern ethic that affirms human dignity in the face of state terrorism. The two works treat the same philosophical problems in opposite ways.

Like the Gulag, Sartre’s Critique is an encyclopedic work that examines the foundations of social order and attempts to think beyond cultural relativism to a new ethic based upon a universal conception of humanity. But Sartre’s book seeks a sophisticated aesthetic frame for its attempt to revolutionize human experience by exposing class distortions. Solzhenitsyn’s work takes such sweeping dialectics to task as symptomatic of the modern predilection to reduction through abstraction.

But unlike many contemporary structuralist and deconstructionist thinkers, he does not move behind Sartre’s Marxism to reveal its disguised conventions. Instead, he presents the perspectives of those people imprisoned in the Russian labor camps who have resisted the triumph of dialectical thinking as it is embodied in the Soviet state philosophy. Thus, Solzhenitsyn’s work offers a plurality of insights into the metaphysical hegemony embodied in the Soviet system. But more than this. Solzhenitsyn argues that the general overview -- born from this witness -- is more highly logical than dialectics because it contains more “reality.” That is to say, it is more inclusive and offers a more compelling explanation of how the world really works.

Both Sartre and Solzhenitsyn agree that Marxism is the philosophy of our age, but each sees quite different reasons for this. For Sartre, Marxism provides the most reasonable framework for articulating a universal history. He admits that it lacks a coherent theory of human subjectivity, but his Critique is designed to help correct this deficiency. Similarly, for Solzhenitsyn, Marxism is the philosophy of our time because -- unlike most other modern philosophical schools -- it has remained true to the Enlightenment quest for a universal history. Fidelity to this quest provides a context within which modern humanity can work out its own self-definition. But Solzhenitsyn sees this quest as tragically flawed.

Because the idea of a universal historical perspective leads to a totalizing role for philosophy, any search for a world-historical philosophical order contains the seeds of a secular state religion. Georg Lukacs’s claim that dialectical materialism is the culmination of Western humanism would strike Solzhenitsyn as all too true, for dialectical materialism makes explicit post-Enlightenment humanity’s quest to remake the world in people’s false self-images as creatures of reason. Thus Solzhenitsyn believes that to remain intellectually honest, humanity must find some way of understanding its place in history without basing that understanding upon any world-historical absolutes. In other words, we must seek to order history without letting history order us.

To show how this might be done. Solzhenitsyn attempts to rewrite the Russian people’s history from the point of view of those banished from it -- the political prisoners and victims of the totalitarian state. In the process he discovers that such a counterhistory is possible only as literature. Or to put it in more contemporary language. “literariness’’ becomes his counter to dialectical reason. He tells the stories of hundreds of lives in order to bring home in a way that outstrips any ideological explanation the complex meaning of what has taken place. Moreover, he builds his art upon a vision of humanity’s capacity for fellow feeling -- what he calls the “solidarity of solitudes.” This solidarity, by its mere expression, supplies its own critique of dialectical reason.

Sartre’s Critique is essentially modernist. Following Pound’s dictum “Make it new,” he refurbishes Marxism from the inside -- exploding its formal categories while recovering its aims. He seeks a new formulation of an old program, a more experiential definition of a familiar revolutionary project. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, has given up seeking the theoretical high ground from which to build a new philosophical system and instead articulates a strategy of resistance against any and all metaperspectives. Sartre asks, “Can there be any ethical action in a world divided by class?”; Solzhenitsyn asks, “Can there be any ethical action in a world dominated by a global philosophy?” While Sartre ponders the fate of ethics should revolution fail to eliminate class distinctions, Solzhenitsyn ponders the fate of ethics if revolution succeeds. Sartre’s theory of essembles, so deftly spelled out in the Critique, reflects the radically determined historicity of perception and meaning; Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag embodies the search for an ethics after history has been exposed as a power play. In this sense, Solzhenitsyn’s work parallels prehistorical thought (myth) and extrahistorical thought (mysticism), and yet it is neither because its main concern is with particular, concrete events in all of their manifest historicity. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s writings are based on his life experiences, showing how he has moved from a theoretically tainted world view to a more direct perception of the truth. He traces the process of suffering that has made him into an artist. As with most modernists, Sartre’s work, on the other hand, derives from his belief in the power, genius and virtuosity of his system.

While Sartre attempts to explain the mechanisms of dialectical reasoning in its social context, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag sets a limit to dialectical thought by demonstrating its ultimate moral failure. Unlike Samuel Beckett or Jorge Luis Borges, who provide a modernist critique of dialectical hubris by parodying the infinite regress of its logic while never going beyond that logic themselves, Solzhenitsyn claims to have learned how to move beyond the absurdities born of an unbridled rationalism, since he, and the rest of his fellow zeks (prisoners), have suffered dialectic’s most extreme miscalculation. In the Gulag, the dialectical imagination was given power to bend and shape not only literary form, but society itself. In the Soviet state, the excesses and amorality of the ideological imagination are revealed.

In contrast to the European avant-garde, which Sartre once led, Solzhenitsyn does not seek out the “cutting edge” of thought as a way of situating himself intellectually. After all, the latest aesthetic journals seldom make their way into the Gulag. Instead, he looks to the “ordinary brave man’s” active and ideological resistance to the state philosophers in order to discover for himself what progressive values are. Marxism, according to Solzhenitsyn, blinds humanity to authentic moral illumination because, like many other modern aesthetics, it values experience primarily as food for theory, and it values theory primarily as a means to progress. Such thinking does not esteem life as an end in itself, nor can it account for the human being’s irrational will -- what Sartre might call his or her “thrownness.” This will, Solzhenitsyn argues, cannot find happiness in serving any abstraction, even one so grandiose as heaven on earth. Marxism only links people’s personal ambitions to a global drama, and so inflates their own neuroses under the cover of moving toward moral perfection.

But the surprising truth revealed to Solzhenitsyn in the camps was that one can harness the will through a process that reverses this movement. One can have the worldly significance of everything one does taken away. One can have one’s pride and future annihilated. One can become ahistorical and politically anonymous -- erased from society by those in power. When this happens, one’s will is no longer fueled by personal ambition or the demands of the historical moment. Instead, those who survive become quiet, solitary resistance fighters -- combating the universal internal evil that wants to subject life to its own tedious projects. Solzhenitsyn even blesses his prison cell for having purged him of the confusion of his age, for once on the other side of history -- free from the petty progressive notions of one’s time -- one enters history in a new way, as a witness to the inner force that intuitively resists oppression born of the human will to power.

Solzhenitsyn does not celebrate suffering as a good in itself; he merely appreciates its purging effects. His message is that human beings will not, perhaps even cannot, attend to the world without petty self-seeking until all their illusions and ambitions are stripped away. Once people give up, or are forced to give up, their pride, they acquire a strange new fearlessness, and life partakes of a new presence or grace. This new presence can make us brave, and bravery -- even more than theoretical acumen -- is the antidote to oppression because acts of bravery lead to new perceptions; in contrast, acts of shrewdness, even when they are subject to correction, lead only to new tactics and so cannot adjust their essential aims or lead to new empirical discoveries about the world.

In the early pages of the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn asserts that he is not the author of this book; he has merely compiled, from many sources, the true history of the philosophical and political occupation of his people. He recounts one concrete event after another. Rather than combining to form a single plot, these stories resist any thematic appropriations, demanding to be taken on their own terms as special instances. Each one is a unique testimony to the many faces of oppression, to the many modes of moral and spiritual resistance, and to the many brave men and women who died standing up to the tyranny of an empowered dialectical scheme.

By contrast, Sartre’s text is a structure made up of coined abstractions and stipulative definitions. His sentences turn themselves inside out in order to express the most subtle revolutions of reflection upon reflection. He searches for the most inclusive -- and therefore the most theoretical -- generalizations. His is the rhetoric of a policymaker or administrator.

Sartre’s work embodies the modernist notion that the thinker must stand outside the immediacy of life, viewing it from invented aesthetic frames that remake, renew and redeem it from bourgeois existence. Solzhenitsyn’s work, on the other hand, expresses the artist’s capacity to stand in the shoes of others. Where Sartre seeks to recoup humanism through a methodology that allows him to debunk any competing ideology, Solzhenitsyn seeks to recover human integrity by attending to the particulars of history as part of a larger, if hidden, spiritual drama that must be lived to be understood. This, however, is not the premodern story of a humanity redeemed by the church, but the postmodern drama of a humanity whose redemption is still in the balance. Strange as it may seem, on this point Solzhenitsyn is the more existential of the two thinkers. He admits, for example, that we do not yet really understand grief or happiness. Both works contain glossaries: Sartre’s is a listing of all his invented terms and their relationships to one another; Solzhenitsyn’s is a list of names.

The philosophical foundation of Solzhenitsyn s Christianity is the plebian’s mythopoetic conception of religion as the practice of virtue (as opposed to Sartre’s modernist idea of it as a kind of mystified ideology). Plebians, like primitives, believe in the transcendent as a way of making sense out of their own resistance to the ways of the world -- not as a means of justifying their privileges, indulging in the irrational, or dismissing contemporary problems. For the common people, beliefs are survival techniques (necessities), and the incredible premise of a prime mover is their trump card against all the power brokers and social Darwinists of this world who would define them in terms of their own projects and ambitions.

This is why Solzhenitsyn finds the inspiration for his postmodernism in the zek of the Gulag, not in the West’s modernist masters. In creating their new mythologies, the modernists did not begin with the plebians incredible premise of a divine order behind the flux of experience. Instead, they moved further into the flux itself in order to destabilize the tottering status quo. For Solzhenitsyn, such a strategy played into the state philosophers’ hands and proved too thin to deal meaningfully with the reality of the camps and the triumph of dialectics. The magnitude of the suffering he witnessed demanded an aesthetic which could somehow break through both the intellectual impotence of the dying order and the reductionism of the ascending methodologies. What was needed was a new expression of moral presence. To allow us to pull free from the ascendant nihilism, someone had to testify to the presence of something outside dialectical redefinition.

In the camps, Solzhenitsyn discovered the absolute upon which to found this moral presence: the sanctity of individual conscience. But personal integrity was no longer considered a birthright, and could not be assumed to belong to every mortal soul. In Solzhenitsyn’s postmodern world, integrity had to be won back, earned and re-created. The experience of the camps taught him this shocking truth. Just as Heidegger argued that the real problem of modernity is not that we have forgotten the question of Being but that we have forgotten that we have forgotten the question of Being. Solzhenitsyn came to the equally startling conclusion that not only has modern humanity lost its moral center, but it has lost its awareness that it has lost its moral center. In other words, the triumph of dialectics has established amorality as a form of higher consciousness, although it actually represents the triumph of the will to power over the intellectual conscience. In the West many critics assume modernism to have won out over the positivisms of the early 20th century. But modernism itself may simply be another manifestation of the positivist desire to conquer life via theory -- only now theory masks itself as art.

For Solzhenitsyn, moral reasoning can be won back only by those forced through suffering to perceive the lie that forms and ideas, not people, are the ultimate reality. Both dialecticians and modernists like Sartre possess a misguided commitment to formal principles in a world in which ideas are at best, tools -- at worst, traps. Solzhenitsyn respects and uses ideas to further a truth that, for him, must always remain beyond ideas and, therefore, forever outside philosophical regimes. For Sartre, thinking is the way to ground the ideal in the real. And though he would never put it so crudely, thought as theory is his true absolute. It explains power, regulates actions and dictates morality. In its rhetoric and in its themes, the Gulag attempts to refute this presumption; to the extent that it succeeds, it is postmodern.