When Ideology Turns Pathological – OpEd


By Phil Duffy

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may be the 1970 Nobel Prize winner for literature, but that does not make his work The Gulag Archipelago enjoyable reading. The detailed description of the methods of torture employed within the Soviet system alone will turn many readers away. Beyond the interrogations are the trials based upon a mock-legal system epitomized by Soviet jurist Andrei Vyshinsky’s theory that truth is relative and that evidence can be ignored, to be replaced by forced confessions gained under torture.

Beyond the nightmare of the Soviet judicial system, Solzhenitsyn described what he called “the ships of the archipelago,” the means of transporting the convicted to their final place of incarceration and enforced labor. The conveyances were called “Stolypin” passenger train cars, designed during czarist times to accommodate, at most, eleven prisoners per compartment. During the worst times, according to Solzhenitsyn, a Stolypin car might take seven days to reach its destination, stuffed with twenty-five prisoners.

In the best of circumstances, the compartments would be filled with political prisoners. However, thieves—or blatnye, as they were called—were transported with the political prisoners, and these thieves enjoyed a higher position in the dystopian Soviet hierarchy. They occupied the better places in the Stolypin compartment, continuing to pursue their trade by victimizing the political prisoners. The blatnye were not punished for having a weapon: “Their thieves’ law was respected (‘They can’t be anything but what they are’). And a new murder in the cell would not increase the murderer’s sentence, but instead would bring him new laurels. . . . Stalin was always partial to thieves—after all, who robbed banks for him?”

Solzhenitsyn, no doubt, was referring to Joseph Stalin’s role in planning the great robbery of the State Bank of Tiflis in Stalin’s Georgia. The purpose of the robbery was to finance the revolutionary efforts of the Bolsheviks, a plan allegedly approved by Vladimir Lenin.

How is it that a nation turns over its system of justice to its criminal class? In the case of Russia, the reasons are multiple and complex. Part of that phenomenon relates to its history and the class divisions that resulted from that history. However, there was another factor that played a role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular—ideology. Solzhenitsyn had an interesting perspective on this:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short of a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.

According to George F. Kennan, who had been a part of the ambassadorial team of the United States to Moscow between 1933 and 1953, the West—from the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917—had difficulty comprehending the motives of the revolutionary regime:

There was . . . an important substantive difference between the issue that interested the early Bolsheviki and that which interested the warring parties in the West. The first was ideological, with universal social and political implications. The Bolsheviki believed that questions of social organization—in particular the question of ownership of the means of production—had an importance transcending all international rivalries. Such rivalries were, in their eyes, simply the product of social relationships. This is why they attached so little importance to the military outcome of the struggle in the West.

Western politicians, by comparison, were focused on national interests and the maintenance of a balance of power among those nations.

As Marxists, the Bolsheviks were convinced that backward Russia’s achievement was an exception to Karl Marx’s rule that a socialist revolution would occur first in the most advanced industrial societies, particularly in Marx’s homeland, Germany. While anxious for Western credits that would allow them to acquire equipment from the West for industrial growth, the Bolsheviks simultaneously conducted propaganda campaigns in the West designed to bring down those economies and political structures.

Ideology thus formed the social justification for not only the violent overthrow of the czarist regime, but also for a continuing “purification” of Soviet socialism leading to Stalin’s infamous purges, which sent millions of Soviet citizens to their deaths. While there is little doubt that the purges were designed to eliminate Stalin’s political rivals, they were sold to the Soviet people as a part of a purity spiral, in which the ideals of the Russian Revolution—and classical Marxism—were being preserved.

Ideology had a particular grip on the Russian people at the outset of the February and October revolutions in 1917. Life under the czars had created a rigid feudal society that survived beyond Czar Alexander II’s freeing of twenty million serfs in 1861. There was no significant movement toward liberalism in that period as there was in Great Britain and other Western European nations.

Some of these differences were based on the physical nature of Soviet land and its cold northern climate, which produced short growing seasons. Its railroad system lagged far behind the West, hampering the movement of goods and services to markets. Jerome Blum, in “Russian Agriculture in the Last 150 Years of Serfdom,” observes: “During the 150 years from Peter to Alexander [II), when so many innovations were introduced into other sectors of national life, agriculture remained all but unchanged from what it had been for centuries.”

Daniel Field has noted in A Companion to Russian History: “The agricultural revolution, which began in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, had some admirers in rural Russia, but no practitioners.”

Russia was remote from the effects of the Age of Discovery, the British agricultural revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.

Even the distribution of land to the peasants that had resulted from their emancipation had its dark side:

Impressive though these freedoms first looked, it soon became apparent that they had come at a heavy price for the peasants. It was not they, but the landlords, who were the beneficiaries. This should not surprise us: after, it had been the dvoriane [courtiers] who had drafted the emancipation proposals. The compensation that the landowners received was far in advance of the market value of their property. They were also entitled to decide which part of their holdings they would give up. Unsurprisingly, they kept the best land for themselves. The serfs got the leftovers. The data shows that the landlords retained two-thirds of the land while the peasants received only one-third. So limited was the supply of affordable quality land to the peasants that they were reduced to buying narrow strips that proved difficult to maintain and which yielded little food or profit.

Moreover, while the landowners were granted financial compensation for what they gave up, the peasants had to pay for their new property. Since they had no savings, they were advanced 100 per cent mortgages, 80 per cent provided by the State bank and the remaining 20 by the landlords. This appeared a generous offer, but as in any loan transaction the catch was in the repayments. The peasants found themselves saddled with redemption payments that became a lifelong burden that then had to be handed on to their children.

In 1917, compounded by its participation in World War I, Russia was ripe for a revolution based upon Marxian ideology. However, the term ideology requires clarification to understand its impact in Russia. Britannica describes the evolution of the term:

The word first made its appearance in French as idéologie at the time of the French Revolution, when it was introduced by a philosopher, A.-L.-C. Destutt de Tracy, as a short name for what he called his “science of ideas” . . . Destutt de Tracy and his fellow idéologues devised a system of national education that they believed would transform France into a rational and scientific society.

Britannica adds:

Ideology in the stricter sense stays fairly close to Destutt de Tracy’s original conception and may be identified by five characteristics: (1) it contains an explanatory theory of a more or less comprehensive kind about human experience and the external world; (2) it sets out a program, in generalized and abstract terms, of social and political organization; (3) it conceives the realization of this program as entailing a struggle; (4) it seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment; (5) it addresses a wide public but may tend to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.

The broader definition of ideology, described by the first criterion above, is too general to be useful in understanding the contention that gave rise to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. The remaining four criteria, however, explain the gulf that exists between the broad definition of ideology, which can encompass classical liberalism, and the stricter definition that is the essence of violent Marxism. It is the latter definition that demands our attention because it represents a thorough rejection of morality and thinking that has been the engine of human flourishing in the Western world.

One can speculate about Stalin’s career absent his adoption of Marxism, but it is clear that by 1907—when he engineered the Tiflis bank robbery—he was already committed to a life of crime that included robbery, murder, kidnapping, and extortion. This raises a question about the role of ideology in all collectivisms: To what extent are collectivist dictators dogmatically committed to the original ideology after it has benefited their rise to power? Certainly, Stalin used Marxian ideology as a cover to remove any opposition to his regime, and he employed his military to coerce other nations to become a part of his Soviet empire. Other dictators employed the same strategy, from Mao Zedong in China to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. All used the Marxist playbook while it served their purposes but ignored it to brutally eliminate opposition. The people in these countries, who were supposed to have benefited from Marxian socialism, universally suffered economic deprivation and a loss of liberty.

That raises the ultimate question: To what extent does ideology, strictly defined, result in a loss of liberty and economic opportunity within all collectivisms, to include non-Marxian socialism, fascism, progressivism, and even social democracy? Collectivists abandon the principle of nonaggression while justifying governmental violence based upon the false idea that the ends justify the means. As more and more power is concentrated in the United States federal government, the coercive nature of government is increasingly being used to enforce politically defined goals such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; gender identification “rights”; and questionable climate control strategies. Universities, once the bastions of free speech, now tolerate violence against those who oppose programs promoted by the collectivists. The key difference between the strict definition of ideology, which describes collectivists’ beliefs, and the broad definition, which describes the beliefs of the classical liberal, is the coercive social engineering conducted through the government.

In the realm of reason, collectivism can never win over classical liberalism and free-market economics. However, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ideology trumped reason in the years following the Russian Revolution. George Kennan’s containment policy was reasonably successful in quarantining virulent Marxism behind the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet system ultimately failed of its own contradictions.

However, that was thirty-three years ago, and the lessons of history have since been lost in the West. Classical liberalism and the free-market system can never be packaged into an ideology to counter collectivism. Reason must prevail, but we must avoid the kind of shallow thinking that prevailed among the Allies in World War I. The survival of Western morality is at risk. While all generations will lose, younger generations have the most to lose under collectivism because they will have to suffer longer under it.

  • About the author: Phil Duffy is a regular contributor to WFYL’s We the People, the Constitution Matters , and a lifelong student of history.
  • Source: This article was published by the Mises Institute


The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, the Mises Institute seeks a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order. The Mises Institute encourages critical historical research, and stands against political correctness.

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