Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s socio-economic thought is found in his books, Rebuilding Russia, From Under the Rubble, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, and his address to the 1978 Harvard graduating class. As Solzhenitsyn relayed to author Joseph Pearce in his book Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, he arrived at his conclusions unaware of the early Distributist movement or E.F. Schumacher’s neo-Distributism. Nevertheless, his vision is complimentary to the Distributist thesis.
Our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, spawned endless debates between conservatives and progressives each painting two incompatible portraits of Soviet life. For some Communism was a worker’s paradise of egalitarianism, liberty, and democracy. For others Soviet life meant being under the thumb of “Big Brother”; a tyrannical force in control of every aspect of society and guided by the materialist myth created by a few well-to-do bureaucrats. One man’s underground publications settled the debate, shocking the naïve Western world and sparking outrage in his native country. Through books like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn exposed the cold realities awaiting those willing to stare down the Soviet regime. And he did not fail to deliver. Solzhenitsyn described the human cost of Communism: detentions, murders, lies, and forced labor camps for the innocent and the brave, including the author himself.
For Europeans and Americans, Solzhenitsyn was a hero.
But when Solzhenitsyn committed the sin of criticizing the West in front of the 1978 Harvard graduating class, and dismissed Western social and economic policies as false alternatives for the world, those same European and American thinkers once cheering Solzhenitsyn as a champion for freedom consequently berated his scrutiny and ignored Solzhenitsyn’s social, political, and economic analysis, as well as any of his proposed reforms. This was particularly true of proponents of neoclassical economics and market deregulation, as Solzhenitsyn, once crushed under the boot of massive centralized government, was expected to applaud economic non-interventionism. Instead, he predicted disaster for institutions apathetic to economic and social involvement. After all, government regulations—within limits—serve to protect the common good and to keep fallen man in check. What’s more, public institutions are tasked with recognizing man’s requisite for spiritual development and should generate provisions for this, neither opposing nor ignoring these needs.1 Pope John XXIII, in the encyclical Mater et Magistra, called this task of the State its reason for being (raison d’être), as government bodies are responsible to oversee the common good and cannot afford to be “aloof from economic matters.”2
Like Solzhenitsyn, G.K. Chesterton was a celebrated dramatist, political analyst, and unapologetic Christian. Along with Hilaire Belloc and Dominican friar Fr. Vincent McNabb, Chesterton conceived a movement to incarnate the social vision of Holy Mother Church. After all, the social encyclicals were the first to tackle the economic tug-of-war between capital and labor from the highest ecclesiastical position: the Papacy. Under the name “Distributism,” these men sought to counter the socio-economic system in place by subordinating the economic order to the higher sciences, reincorporating justice as an integral component to the marketplace. Distributists supported subsidiarity, the strengthening of local economics, and the widest diffusion of land ownership. Laws favoring self-ownership for the common man and for the propertyless were perceived as instrumental in reaching equilibrium both for the family and the community, as property freed them from the dependence on Big Business and Big Brother, who are essentially one and the same. The author of Rebuilding Russia was also suspicious of both Capitalism and Socialism, and perceived them as co-dependent rather than distinct economic theories.
But just as we feel ourselves your allies here [in the West], there also exists another alliance—at first glance a strange and surprising one, but if you think about it, one which is well-founded and easy to understand: this is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists.3
For Solzhenitsyn and for the distributists, the demise of these two systems didn’t lay in their misuse. Their failures were an organic consequence of the penchant for the cult of man. As Solzhenitsyn astutely wrote,
I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the very basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.4
It was intuitive for Solzhenitsyn that the relationship and function of central and local governments is dynamic and cooperative; both spheres address matters in accord with their competence. A policy of subsidiarity effectively met the challenges of security, stability, and accountability for the nation as a whole and the smaller communities in particular.5 It was the latter Solzhenitsyn turned his attention to when reflecting on popular modes of governance in the tradition of the Russian zemstvos.
Created under the reforms of Alexander II in the 19th century zemstvos disappeared with the advent of socialist uprising, effectively ending any form of independence for the yeoman in lieu of the concentration of power at the central level. Zemstvos were a form of self-government consisting of elected boards and councils made up of large land proprietors, small landowners (including clergy), wealthy townsmen, urban classes, and peasants. Elected individuals representing these distinct groups of owning classes would determine the economic needs of any given locality. In Solzhenitsyn’s mind zemstvos would be instrumental in restoring post-Communist Russia. With the easing of concentrated power, Solzhenitsyn believed the just wage and local craftsmanship would “come to light,” restoring an economy of permanence, instead of mindless consumption. This would shift the focus from desire to need, and subordinate the material to the spiritual.
In Joseph Pearce’s biography Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, we learn of Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation for Distributist thought included Catholic convert and German economist E.F. Schumacher. Schumacher, author of the book Small is Beautiful, spent most of his life crusading for small-scale economics, intermediate technology, and an humane economy of use as an alternative to exhaustive expansion and economic license. Just as the Distributist movement did before him, Schumacher urged the restoration of local—decentralized—economics and farming, combined with responsible eco-friendly development to end the depletion of natural resources.
Likewise, Solzhenitsyn argued for a sane economy providing civilization with stability, instead of an “uninterrupted rise in the level of material existence.”6 Solzhenitsyn spoke favorably of traditional, repairable, crafts replacing shoddy manufactured goods intended for consumers to replace at the slightest defect.7 Products and technology, he argued, should be measured by how well they serve our needs, particularly our spiritual ones, as our primary concern must be for our inner development, which frighteningly had shifted at the hands of a society bent on material acquisition or outer development. Production should flow as an agent which is subordinate to our inner development within a society sheltering the soul first and foremost.8
No greater example could be given than his famous book Letters to the Soviet Leaders, where one can quickly view his closeness to Small is Beautiful and his distance from modern economic theory.
What must be implemented is not a ‘steadily expanding economy,’ but a zero-growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous…we must renounce, as a matter of urgency, the gigantic scale of modern technology in industry, agriculture, and urban development…9
It should give any reader pause how a man whose life began in the midst of Communist culture could condemn not only the Soviet way of life but ours as well. Dismissing the criticism, embracing Western materialism as a “better” alternative to Communist materialism is to avoid the elephant in the room. For some, being in a pit without snakes is better than being in a pit with them. Solzhenitsyn brilliantly asked us why we should be in a pit at all.
- Solzhenitsyn criticized the view that the State focused on exchange and ignored our higher calling as individuals, leaving this, “…outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense.” [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart, June 8th, 1978. Retrieved October 22, 2008 from The Augustine Club: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html.].
- Mater et Magistra, no. 20.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, 10-11.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart, June 8th, 1978. Retrieved October 22, 2008 from The Augustine Club: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html.
- Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul In Exile (Baker Books, 2001), 219-220.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble (Bantam Books, 1976), 19.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1991), 37.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble (Bantam Books, 1976), 136-137.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders (Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1974), 22-23.