Violence, the Lie and Today


Who remembers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? The 20th Century had no shortage of great minds, but the greatest of them can make us uncomfortable. Solzhenitsyn's truths about the Soviet system got him exiled, they didn't dare try to kill him but even as an exile he made Westerners uneasy... so we buried him in obscurity by ignoring what he had to say.

Like the greatest of artists, Solzhenitsyn challenged us, and probably never more so than in his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which he could not deliver in person, thanks to the fear his message instilled in Soviet leaders. The speech is little studied today but that message can still burn in an open mind.

Given the news of this season of protest, riot and clamour, it is worth revisiting Solzhenitsyn's words: These should leap from the page into every mind, especially these days:

  • "Violence, less and less embarrassed by the limits imposed by centuries of lawfulness, is brazenly and victoriously striding across the whole world, unconcerned that its infertility has been demonstrated and proved many times in history."
  • "Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE."
  • "At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood."

Lawless violence, especially in urban societies has been seen many times before. Take, for example, the Nika Riots that faced Justinian, the Gordon Riots that faced George III's London, or the Anti-Draft Riots that nearly consumed New York in 1863; they have meant nothing in the end.

However, a government and a society that intends to survive must put riots down forcefully then examine itself. The rioting gangs of the Nika Riots were told they had won, gathered together in Byzantium's Hippodrome, and were massacred by Justinian's troops. In the Anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, 285 Londoners were shot in the streets by troops, and 20 were hung afterwards. After several days of arson and the lynching of 11 Blacks in New York City, 4,000 Union Army troops were diverted to the city and returned it to order at bayonet point.

In almost every case of major riots, the rioters indeed had real grievances, but their leaders were hucksters, hustlers and opportunists. The Demagogues of BLM and Antifa might have begun with real issues... but they have gone far beyond them and give every appearance of playing to other agenda. There are plenty of lies in modern society, but the rioters have embraced some real whoppers. As Solzhenitsyn points out, violence is the end result when a lie tries to become the truth.

Solzhenitsyn knew more than a little about this point. As a young man, he was a decorated officer in the Soviet Army in the war against Hitler... then his private opinions about Stalin landed him in the Gulags for eight years. He knew in his bones how the ideologue must lie, and dedicated his art and life to the struggle against them.

In his exile, Solzhenitsyn also saw the vapidity and ugliness of our own society and gave a clear warning of where we were going. Politics and protest in 2020 is the result of a 30 year decline as 'Political Correctness' (and much of the reaction to it) has wrapped our own society in a fog of confusion and debasement.

Righteousness, not rioting and rabble-rousing, is what we need. Law and legality, not license; order not anarchy. If we must debate who we are and where we need to go, we need a return to rationalism, real freedom of speech, political pluralism and a real commitment to justice. We have strayed for 30 years and need to find our way again.

The rioters who feel they are advancing a revolution of some sort are strongly invited to back down and reconsider. Our societies are far from perfect, but the solutions proposed in the last two months are intolerable. No civil society can long withstand this sort of disorder.

As for the debates we must have, blocking social media, shouting down unwelcome perspectives, and screaming in opposition are the tactics of the Nazis and the Soviets... Civil discussion needs civil attitudes, which is a point we all need to remember. We have been warned about what the alternatives can be, not least by such great artists as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John Thompson

June 13, 2020