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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37 No. 3. March 20, 1974

In Defence of Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Dissident Movement

In Defence of Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Dissident Movement

Dear Sir,

Hopefully, Terry Auld's recent article on the exile of Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union will provoke some discussion and debate in the pages of Salient. Given Auld's erroneous ideas, which he attempts to bolster with factual inaccuracies, I should certainly hope that a number of people take the trouble to reply. This is one attempt at doing just that, while aiming to provide added information on the Soviet dissident movement, and elaborating on some of the areas which Auld passes over with too much haste.

The emergence of a number of outspoken dissidents in the Soviet Union is a relatively recent phenomenoh, dating back to about the mid-1950s. Prior to that, the system of terror instituted by Stalin and the bureaucracy which he led had effectively frozen Soviet political life. Auld briefly refers to this as "alleged 'Stalinist' terror", and in effect denies its very existence. The facts, of course, totally refute his view, and it is these same facts which are indispensable if we are to understand anything about the dissident movement today.

Stalinism maintains itself by instituting a system of monolithism. There is one line, that of the leaders, and all who deviate from it automatically become "capitalist agents" and are purged. Hence, the slaughter and imprisonment of millions during the 1930s, the construction and maintenance of an elaborate secret police apparatus, and the rigid control of the supply of information to the Soviet people.

When faced with critics, the Stalinist system does not debate with those critics' ideas, and engaged in open discussion; it launches a campaign of vilification and slander, usually based around the most preposterous assertions. Trotsky, when exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, became an "agent of the Gestapo". In China — to cite a more recent example — Lin Piao fell from being Mao's "heir and successor" to a "counter-revolutionary conspirator " who sought to turn the Chinese Communist Party into a "Fascist Party".

This same strategy is being employed today by the Soviet bureaucrats against the dissident movement. Those who disagree with their line must be either "mentally ill" (an excuse for imprisoning them in mental asylums), or "in league with the imperialists".

Terry Auld exhibits a similar sort of sick thinking in his article. To him, Solzhenitsyn is a "fascist", the other dissidents are at best "bourgeois democrats", and Socialist Action (the socialist newspaper which defends Solzhenitsyn's right to speak his mind without per-secution) becomes a "bourgeois" newspaper.

To understand the Soviet dissident movement, we must bear in mind that the individuals concerned are themselves products of this system of monolithism. As the first small group of Soviet citizens to begin re-acquiring the habits of critical thought, they are to a large extent isolated from the still docile masses. They have difficulty discussing and debating ideas among themselves — a fact which obviously compounds their isolation. The Soviet regime monopolises the flow of information on such delicate subjects as international events, the revolutionary heritage of Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks, and the ideals of the Russian Revolution.

The only Marxism to which these people can gain easy access is in the perverted forms dished up by the bureaucrats — a "Marxism" reduced to never-to-be-questioned "articles of faith", rather than a living science which can give a crticial appraisal of societies (Soviet society included) and strives above all for objectivity.

The only "socialism" which these dissidents know is that which they experience in their own daily existence — a noteworthy fact being that many of them have experienced the labour camps at some point in their lives.

If, in this terrible context, some of these people end up rejecting Marxism and socialism, that can hardly be blamed on the individual dissident. Solzhenitsyn, who rejected socialism after his long imprisonment in labour camps, clearly falls within this category. The blame for this rejection falls squarely on the methods of the regime itself.

Terry Auld claims that Trotskyists (meaning the Socialist Action League and the Young Socialists), in defending Solzhenitsyn, have "hailed" his "firm commitment to socialism". That is a lie. For someone who quotes so liberally from Socialist Action, and has therefore presumably read it, Auld somehow missed the fact that two of the last three issues have carried articles on Solzhenitsyn, and each of these specifically refers to his rejection of socialism.

What Auld fails to comprehend is that Socialist Action defends Solzhenitsyn against the repression of the Stalinist system despite this rejection.

Some well-known Soviet citizens who have issued statements protesting the persecution or exile of Solzhenitsyn have themselves expressed this extremely well.

Roy A. Medvedev, an historian and dissident who still adheres to Marxism:

"Before the arrest, Solzhenitsyn considered himself a Marxist. After he went through the cruel tests described with such merciless truthfulness in the 'Gulag Archipeligo', Solzhenitsyn lost his belief in Marxism.....

"Marxism will certainly not perish for loss of one of its former adherents. We even think Marxism will only benefit from debate with such an opponent....."

And Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a leading Soviet poet, wrote:

"No, I do not agree with many of Solzhenitsyn's views in 'Gulag Archipelago', which I have read.....

"But in this book there are terrible documented pages about the bloody crimes of the Stalinist past. However great the mistakes of Solzhenitsyn, the bloody blunders of the Stalinist past are beyond comparison with him."

Indeed, when we look back at the horrifying legacy of Stalinism, it is in many ways amazing that any of the Soviet dissidents continue to maintain their belief in socialism. Yet despite the pressures exerted on them, many courageously continue to declare their allegiance to Marxism and to the socialist movement generally.

Medvedev: "Stalinism in many respects negates — and is a bloody annihilation of — Bolshevism and all revolutionary forces....the development of Marxism and scientific Communism will allow the creation of the most just human society."

Yevtushenko: "I have proven my adherence to the ideas of socialism not only by my verse but also in public appearances abroad, when young fascist thugs attacked me...."

Grigorenko and Kosterin, two men who have probably gone further than any of the dissidents in criticising the bureaucracy from classic Leninist positions, have claimed that the Soviet leadership is following policies that are "anti-socialist and contradictory to the fundamental ideas of Marxism and Leninism". They have openly characterised the Soviet leadership as a highly privileged bureaucracy.

Needless to say, the dissidents' theoretical analysis of Soviet society, and their elaboration to a programme of action to combat the repression which they face, is generally at a very rudimentary and confused level. This is hardly surprising. As sort of "pioneers" of critical thought in contemporary Soviet society, they face immense obstacles. They encompass not only the Stalinists legacy and all its ramifications, but also the "usual" day-to-day difficulties of living under constant persecution.

Terry Auld uses the fact that most of these dissidents have concentrated their struggle on the question of democratic rights in the Soviet Union as a sign that they are a "sorry lot" who can be mainly classified as "bourgeois democrats". But democratic rights have tended to become the centre of their activity simply because it is the first obstacle which confronts them whichever way they turn, it is the total lack of these rights which inhibits their communication with wider sections of Soviet society, and severely limits the amount of reliable information which is available to them.

In discussing the Soviet dissident movement, there is one key question that must be answered: Who will gain, and likewise who will lose, from the struggle for real democracy in the Soviet Union and the other workers states?

Only the socialist cause can gain from a free discussion of the past (of the crimes of Stalinism and why they occurred), of the nature of the workers states today, and of the way forward in the future. Only the bureaucratic leaders of the workers states have a vested interest in stifling and repressing such a free flow of ideas. We only have to recall the events in Czechoslovakia during 1968, where one of the central demands to emerge was for "socialism with a human face", to sec who gains and who loses from such discussion and debate, especially once the working masses begin to participate in it.

Certainly, the capitalists do not gain from this movement, as Auld implies throughout his article. The capitalists gain, and indeed have already gained, from the repression of democratic rights in the workers states. Gleefully pointing at the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, as the bloody purges of the 1930s, at the exile of Solzhenitsyn, they are able to hypocritically moralise about "freedom" and "democratic liberties". You have only to talk to a few ordinary people in this society to understand just how well the capitalists have used such outrages in an attempt at inoculating people against the "evil" of socialism.

Auld's article has an interesting twist to it which warrants further investigation. While he attacks these first manifestations of a dissident movement in the Soviet Union, and offers no opposition to the exile of Solzhenitsyn, he nevertheless criticises some aspects of Soviet society. He points out for example, that a "privileged stratum" dominates this society, and that a process of "degeneration" has taken place. Typically, he cites the situation in China as a far more healthy alternative.

Why is this? For an answer to this we have only to look at the Moscow-Peking split.

For several decades Stalinism was a monolithic system not only within the Soviet Union, but it also totally dominated the international communist movement. Once again, there was one line: Moscow's. The communist parties Of the world became more than apologists for every policy and action of the Soviet leadership, from "justifying" Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939, to "explaining" the Hungarian invasion of 1956. Those who disagreed or wavered along the way were expelled and had the usual venom heaped on them.

Therefore when differences developed in the world Stalinist movement — between Moscow and Peking — a split became inevitable. But with this split we see no fundamental transformations in this movement. It is now simply divided in two, with one side slavishly apologising for Moscow, the other for Peking. Instead of one Pope (Stalin), there are now two (Mao and Brezhnev).

By understanding this context, we can now see why Auld can criticise certain aspects of Soviet society. Just a few years ago he would have been accused of being a "capitalist agent" — or perhaps even a Trotskyist! — for casting the vaguest hints of critcism in that direction; today, the struggle between Moscow and Peking makes such attacks allowable.

But notice how Auld imposes certain limits on his criticism:
1)He refers to the "privileged stratum" in the Soviet Union, but does not care to cast his critical eye on a similar bureaucracy which exists in China.
2)He criticises certain aspects of the repression in the Soviet Union but refers to the crimes of Stalin (who obviously instituted some of the bloodiest repression of all time) as "alleged". The reason for this is that the Chinese leaders still uphold Stalin as a great revolutionary leader. Their criticisms of Moscow date back a very short time, to around the Kruschev period; before that, they knelt before the dictates of the Kremlin like all other Stalinists.
3)Auld attacks the current dissident movement in the Soviet Union in terms that are not dissimilar to those of the Soviet leaders. Why is this? You do not have to be very farsighted to see that the future growth of such a movement could very well precipitate some "unhealthy" developments within China itself. Such movements have a habit of flowing over national boundaries. And where will Auld stand when a similar movement begins to emerge in China? We can be confident the persons involved will have the usual epithets hurled at them — "capitalist agents", "fascists", etc.

It is safe to predict that this article will cause a how to go up in some quarters about "lining up with the capitalists". Auld has already set the pace in this regard through the manner in which he attacks Socialist Action's defence of Solzhenitsyn. This is simply a reflection of the Stalinist method of thinking which I described earlier: if you don't subscribe to the official line, then you can't be anything else but "pro-imperialist" and certainly not a socialist.

This method represents an implicit rejection of critical thought We see here people who attempt to make merciless criticisms of capitalist society, but then put blinkers on when it comes to the Soviet Union and China. Like a scientist who is also a devout Christian, these people seek a scientific analysis of capitalism, and then fall on their knees, like the faithful before the Vatican, whenever China or the Soviet Union comes up.

Revolutionaries have nothing to gain by adopting this semi-religious attitude. Marxism is based first and foremost on a thorough going objectivity, and a critical appraisal of all societies and regimes in the world. As soon as some people grasp this elementary fact, certain aspects of the socialist movement will be in a far more healthy state.

Peter Rotherham