In a thoughtful essay on the failure of twentieth-century political philosophy to come to terms with that century’s totalitarian assaults on liberty and human dignity, the French political philosopher Pierre Manent suggested that this intellectual and moral abdication could eventually have grave consequences for democracy itself. Totalitarianism simultaneously entailed the radicalization and the subversion of democratic modernity. Its paradoxical lessons therefore needed to be learned and passed on to future generations. Its lies and violence stemmed from an unbounded confidence in “progress,” a facile rejection of the natural moral law, and a blind contempt for the limits and complexities that mark political and human life. A political philosophy truly attentive to the ideological tragedies of the previous century needed to recover a rich sense of the diverse motives that animate the human soul, as well as a realistic appreciation of the totalitarian temptation that haunts modernity itself.
Such a recognition, however, would have demanded considerable intellectual insight and civic courage. It would have required the willingness to recognize that the emancipation of the human will from restraints and the repudiation of traditional philosophical and religious wisdom are premises shared by totalitarianism and powerful currents of democratic modernity. Interpreted in the least wise and humane ways imaginable, Enlightenment and modern progress were complicit in the lies that defined twentieth-century totalitarianism. That is a sobering truth that partisans of democratic modernity have yet to really face.
As Rod Dreher demonstrates in his vitally important new book, Live Not by Lies, no such soul-searching or chastening of progressive illusions followed the anti-totalitarian revolutions of 1989, or the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later. Instead, democratic euphoria was combined with a continuing erosion of the pre-modern moral capital that gives modern liberty a more elevated appreciation of the meaning of life, as well as of the purposes of human freedom. In the last half century or so, a therapeutic culture has replaced the “reality principle” with the “pleasure principle,” as Freud called them. Respect for transcendent principles has also given way to a new cult of the autonomous self.
As moral self-limitation gave way to hedonism and hyper-individualism, and as civic spirit declined, democracy became more and more associated with an assault on all institutions and traditions that connected freedom to spiritual elevation and humanizing self-restraint. New and ever more militant ideological currents demanded social justice (i.e. doctrinaire egalitarianism of the most aggressive sort), cultural emancipation (e.g. same-sex marriage and gender ideology, with more and more exotic forms of “emancipation” to come), and the denial of objective truth. All of this is done in the name of the social construction of human nature and the linguistic construction of social reality. Social-justice warriors, gender theorists, and postmodern theorists of various stripes deny the very idea of a natural order of things and wish to silence or cancel all who continue to affirm its reality.
The demands of the Woke have become increasingly coercive, including the curtailment of the speech—and even employment—of those who question their reckless social and cultural agenda. Dreher speaks freely of an increasingly ascendant “soft totalitarianism.” In the present circumstances, such an appellation does not strike this reader as particularly hyperbolic. Like the totalitarians of old, the new totalitarians wish to erase historical memory and to rewrite history according to the willful ideological demands of the moment. They are cruel, vindictive, and moralistic, and thus incapable of acknowledging human frailty and fallibility. Their worldview in principle has no place for forgiveness, repentance, and civic reconciliation. Politics for them is war by other means—and perhaps not just other means.
As Roger Scruton noted to Dreher shortly before the great English philosopher’s death last January, the “thought crimes” and “heresies” that these militants hurl at those they wish to humiliate and destroy lack any real definition or meaning. Homophobia, Islamophobia, and white supremacy are accusations without real content—unjustly hurled at conservatives and conservative Christians who, in truth, uphold the dignity of all human beings. They are meant to close off necessary conversations about a range of political and social issues. They also aim to annihilate the accused by “throwing electronic stones” on social media where no real defense is possible. Not since Mao’s insidious and cruel Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) have we seen such ritualized displays of hatred and such deliberate efforts to annihilate the personhood of alleged heretics.
Today, as Dreher ably shows, Americans who remain faithful to an older understanding of liberty under God and the law are denounced and excoriated as enemies of progress. No limits, no traditions, no unchosen obligations are allowed to get in the way of the self’s pursuit of a total—and, in truth, totally vacuous—conception of freedom. Such freedom as “pure emancipation” is at war with the moral contents of life: the traditional family, the intellectual and moral patrimony of the ages, the religious wisdom of Judaism and Christianity, property, lawful authority, and our entire Western inheritance broadly construed.
Moreover it is a repudiation of all cultural inheritances, not just Western. This ideology of progress is in the end a project centered on negation and repudiation. It is destructive, not constructive. Its promised freedom is a chimera; its rejection of opposing views is totalitarian in theory and increasingly totalitarian in practice. Not surprisingly, the new totalitarians reflexively indulge and bow before the old totalitarianism. The young, and the self-described purveyors of Woke despotism, combine abysmal ignorance of the true nature of Communist totalitarianism with a tendency to romanticize and even glorify it. They are ignorant of the nationalization not only of property, but of the soul itself, that characterizes “really-existing socialism” in all its forms. They do not know that 100 million souls perished at the hands of Communist totalitarianism in the twentieth century, in no small part because no one has ever brought these facts to their attention.
Dreher quotes Laura Nicolae, the daughter of Romanian parents who witnessed the horrors of Communism. Lamenting this falsification of history and truth on our college campuses, she wrote in the Harvard Crimson in 2017: “Depictions of communism on campus paint the ideology as revolutionary or idealistic, overlooking its authoritarian violence. Instead of deepening our understanding of the world, the college experience teaches us to reduce one of the most destructive ideologies in human history to a one-dimensional, sanitized narrative.” Except for the misuse of “authoritarian” instead of “totalitarian,” this young woman perfectly captures the rehabilitation of communism on our campuses and in a large part of the culture.
This leads to one of the most important contributions of Rod Dreher’s book. This admirable work of high-level popularization—haute vulgarisation as the French put it—provides a much needed and most welcome education in the nature of Communist totalitarianism. The young in particular are ignorant of the “essential imperfection” of that regime and ideology, in Raymond Aron’s fine phrase. Dreher has attentively read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973–76). He relates their underlying messages with clarity and fidelity. Whether discussing the role of loneliness and social atomization in paving the way for totalitarianism (a quintessentially Arendtian theme), or in relating the role of ideological mendacity at the heart of Communist theory and practice (an insight at the core of The Gulag Archipelago), Dreher allows his readers to understand what we might call high totalitarianism: totalitarianism at its most insistent, aggressive, and ideologically pure.
Drawing on his interviews with the widow and children of Czech Catholic dissident Václav Benda, Dreher expertly conveys how one Catholic Czech family maintained its integrity. They refused to allow propaganda and the lie to insinuate themselves in the souls of the members of the family, parents and children alike. The Bendas experienced something between hard totalitarianism and the soft totalitarianism that confronts us, what we might call a decaying but still virulent form of ideology and totalitarianism (Václav Havel called it “post-totalitarianism”).
From Czeław Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate and author of the anti-totalitarian classic The Captive Mind (1953), Dreher introduces his readers to Milosz’s phenomenology of ketman, the various forms of accommodation that intellectuals and others make to a totalitarian order, while convincing themselves that they somehow still remain “free” inside. Milosz and Dreher warn against “metaphysical ketman” in particular, where people choose to work within the new order, deluding themselves that they can mouth the platitudes and follow the orders of a totalitarian order while maintaining internal resistance to it. In truth, metaphysical ketman “represents the ultimate victory of the Big Lie over the Individual soul.”
Following Solzhenitsyn’s great manifesto, “Live Not by Lies!” which gives his book its title, Dreher recommends that we who confront a new soft totalitarianism follow Solzhenitsyn’s injunction not to compromise our souls by “participation in the Lie.” The Soviet Union, like all Communist ideological despotisms, was a logocracy—one that ruled through violence to be sure, but more fundamentally through participation in a web of lies. Solzhenitsyn asked his Russian compatriots not to say, write, or affirm anything they knew to be false. He asked them to leave any meeting where shameless propaganda was being shoved down their throats. Solzhenitsyn did not, however, ask those who repudiated the lie to shout the truth from every hilltop. Prudence and discretion might demand keeping quiet at moments when an open proclamation of the truth might undermine other important ends or goals, or put one’s family at risk. But what remained unacceptable was saying or doing anything that would strengthen the ideological clichés that deformed every aspect of Soviet life. The path Solzhenitsyn puts forward is the path of self-respect and honesty, the refusal to be complicit in the mendacities on which totalitarian regimes are built and sustained.
Dreher shows how others—for example, the underground Catholic circle around the esteemed Father Kolaković in Slovakia—followed this path over the course of many decades. Why, a reader might ask, is the existential choice of what Solzhenitsyn called “a personal non-participation in lies” necessary in the West today? Because without it, historical memory will be effaced and metaphysical ketman will win out over personal integrity and true courage. On these points, and at this moment, Dreher’s argument is both persuasive and liberating. But I must add one very important caveat: Political and intellectual freedom are by no means expunged in the United States. Strenuous efforts must be made at the civic and academic levels to resist the assaults on historical memory, intellectual diversity, and religious liberty in this still great Republic of ours. Dreher’s perspective, which leans toward the apocalyptic, must be supplemented by tough-minded thinking and prudent action. I do not believe Dreher’s perspective is unduly alarmist, but I do believe it needs to be leavened by a sense that civic deliberation and action can help us resist the totalitarian tide. Alarm should give rise to spirited thought and action in the service of the common good.
I end this review with a quotation from René Girard that stood out as I read Rod Dreher’s timely book. As many readers know, Girard had famously written on the mechanisms of scapegoating and victimization built into the structure of “mimetic desire,” as he called it. Near the end of his life, he gravely noted that, “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill . . . has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.” Girard thus provides an exact, lapidary description of our new situation. This striking formulation helps illumine the timeliness of Live Not by Lies. Not only Christians, but all “dissidents” and men and women of good will need to give serious thought to the ways they might resist the regnant ideological lies all around us. In this task, Rod Dreher’s “manual” will remain indispensable for what might be a long time to come.