Bringing Solzhentisyn into the Torture Debate

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty has started reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Achipelago. If it his purpose would likely be better served by reading The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Mr Solzhenitsyn had a number of polemical points he was making in his three volume of the Achipelago . The purpose of the detailed descriptions of NKVD atrocities was in part to establish scope and then to tie historical threads inescapably connecting those atrocities to the figure of Lenin (still revered in parts of Western Academia and the left) with Stalin whom normally gets the brunt of the blame. Post-Stalin Communist and Soviet apologists attempted to fix the blame for the terror on Stalin and exonerate his predecessors including and primarily Lenin. Solzhenitsyn demonstrated clearly that this was a flawed understanding. Yet, another major theme in these books is one of optimism, of the unquenchable human spirit and the value and perhaps the necessity of the Christian faith in the face of such suffering. It is this last theme that Mr Kuznicki will not find as useful. Mr Solzhenitsyn found the problems of East and West rooted in atheism and “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” … a theme not often found to get a good reception at Positive Liberty.

Solzehnitsyn, born in 1918, was raised and trained in mathematics and he tought for some time. He was a loyal and unquestioning Soviet and fought (and was decorated) in WWII as an artilleryman. He was then caught in Stalin’s web and sent to various work camps, i.e., the gulag. It was there he became Christian (for an excellent example of the epitome of that, this book Father
Arseny
is very inspiring). Somewhat like Edith Stein of whom I’ve written before, it was the example of Christians in response to hardship and loss of life that inspired a person to the faith in the modern world.

I offer this in the light of 9/11, note that this was an address to the AFL-CIO and was given in 1975, which I quote from here. I thought the mention of the towers intruiguing.

“Is it possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer?  Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not?  Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?…  The proud skyscrapers stand on, point to the sky and say: it will never happen here.  This will never come to us.  It’s not possible here…  Humanity acts in such a way is if it didn’t understand what Communism is, and doesn’t want to understand, is not capable of understanding… The essence of Communism is quite beyond the limits of human understanding.  Its hard to believe that people could actually plan such things and carry them out…
    “Communism has infected the whole world with the belief in the relativity of good and evil…  Among enlightened people it is considered rather awkward to use seriously such words as ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Communism has managed to instill in all of us that these concepts are old-fashioned concepts and laughable.  But if we are to be deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left?  Nothing but the manipulation of one another.  We will decline to the status of animals.
    “That which is against Communism is for humanity.  To reject this inhuman Communist ideology is simply to be a human being…  It’s a protest of our souls against those who tell us to forget the concepts of good a evil…
    “I understand that you love freedom, but in our crowded world you have to pay a tax for freedom.  You cannot love freedom just for yourself and quietly agree to a situation where the majority of humanity over the greater part of the globe is being subjected to violence and oppression.
    “Yet when one travels in your country and sees your free and independent life, all the dangers which I talked about today indeed seem imaginary.  I’ve come a talked to people, and I see this is so.  In your wide open spaces even I get a little infected.  The dangers seem a little imaginary.  On this continent it is hard to believe all the things that are happening in the world.  But gentlemen, this carefree life cannot continue in your country or in ours.  The fates of our two countries are going to be extremely difficult, and it is better to prepare for this beforehand…
    “Two processes are occurring in the world today.  One is a process of spiritual liberation in the USSR and the other Communist countries.  The second is the assistance being extended by the West to the Communist rulers, a process of concessions, of détente, of yielding whole countries.

I will add, I think Mr Kuznicki’s program of trying to establish a consequential argument against torture to be flawed in principle as well as in fact. Evidence that the previous Administration was ineffective at getting information from torture is not a good argument. In the early years in Iraq a lot of what we tried to do was ineffective and badly done. A person making consequential argument against Mr Kuznicki has just to reply that “they did it badly” and that Mr Obama’s boys will “do it right.”

Again the better argument is that, torture is wrong. We don’t do it because it is un-American and unethical. We understand that there may be real costs in setting this aside. We have to say that we accept those costs. America is fond of the free lunch. Alas, in the real world, there is no free lunch.

One final note, a politicial thesis of Solzhentisyn has been argued by Mahoney that it is not out of touch with modern Libertarian or Conservative thought:

Mahoney locates a crucial element of Solzhenitsyn’s political teaching in his analysis of Peter Stolypin,
the Prime Minister of Russia from 1906–11. Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation of Stolypin has been largely unknown because it appears in the second
edition of August 1914: The Red Wheel I (1989), which few have read. What Solzhenitsyn claims in the Stolypin chapters is that a
moderate alternative to Tsarist autocracy existed in Russia in the early twentieth century—namely, a peaceful evolution toward a
European–style constitutional monarchy under the enlightened statesmanship of Prime Minister Stolypin.

The main features of Stolypin’s plan were the
preservation of the Romanov dynasty and Orthodox Church, combined with economic and political reforms—reforms that would have given land to
peasants and established local self–governing councils. Tragically, Stolypin was assassinated by terrorists who feared the success of his
plan (which Solzhenitsyn estimates could have created an independent peasantry in twenty years and prevented Communist revolution).
Mahoney’s analysis shows Solzhenitsyn to be a Burkean–style admirer of constitutional mon archy that gradually evolves toward ordered liberty
while preserving his nation’s distinctive traditions.

It is in part from this that my personal ideas of the coming collapse of freedom in this country and the need for localization, the “local self-governing councils” in early 20th century Russia, are required to be started and fostered here or we too will lose our liberty. It can happen here.

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11 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    It is in part from this that my personal ideas of the coming collapse of freedom in this country and the need for localization, the “local self-governing councils” in early 20th century Russia, are required to be started and fostered here or we too will lose our liberty. It can happen here.

    And yet a nation of ‘local self-governing councils’ didn’t seem like much of a check on the rise of Lenin and then Stalin. Do you find it ironic that the medicine for preserving freedom you recommend is that which was taken right before the biggest collapse in freedom in recorded history? Kind of like someone witnessing the execution of Socrates and then writing that hemlock is the healthiest herbal supplement ever discovered.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Ah, but the changes Stolypin began to implement caused the Bolshevik’s to assassinate him halting that program. The “medicine” was started, was seen to be working and that caused those to think it dangerous to halt it.

  3. Boonton says:

    The main features of Stolypin’s plan were the
    preservation of the Romanov dynasty and Orthodox Church, combined with economic and political reforms—reforms that would have given land to
    peasants and established local self–governing councils.

    This does not sound like your ‘local council’ idea. This sounds like two complementary conservative institutions holding onto national political power while, maybe, local institutions operate on the local level. It sounds maybe like a variation on the separation of powers idea that the US was founded upon, but lacking the liberal impulse the Founders had to reject monarchs and state churches.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Well, you might consider reading this book (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (Twentieth-Century Political Thinkers), likely obtainable from your library. It’s short and readable. Actually, if you do want to engage or understand conservative thinking in general, the whole series “20th Century Political Thinkers” is excellent. It might disabuse you of the notion that conservatism is intellectually vacant … and the books are all short and readable.

    Stolypin was the Prime Minister for Emperor Nicholas. He was treading a tightrope. For quite some time, arguably since Alexander’s assassination after the defeat of Napoleon, there was unrest in Russia.The attempt to pass to a stable regime was one which was not successfully threaded, as the events of the Bolshevik uprising and subsequent Soviet state demonstrated. Stolypin’s policies ranged from oppressive to those which I noted above, the establishment and yielding of authority to local peasant/town councils (oddly enough called in Russian “soviets”). Solzhenitsyn argued that it was this latter move that the Bolsheviks found threatening and why they assassinated him, which has support in the notion that empowering the peasants and lower classes would serve to defuse the defuse the unrest on which they depended for their power base.

    As for separation, for discussions on that matter (church and state) I refer you to the AFL-CIO or Liechtenstein addresses which you can find online. He is quite critical of the naked public square found in modern democracies.

  5. Boonton says:

    I will add, I think Mr Kuznicki’s program of trying to establish a consequential argument against torture to be flawed in principle as well as in fact. Evidence that the previous Administration was ineffective at getting information from torture is not a good argument.

    I would point out that the consequentialist argument can be salvaged. Torture is flawed not because it can never ‘work’ but because it can. Stalin, Hitler, etc. used torture not just to obtain information (in fact, obtaining accurate information was probably of secondary importance). They used torture for ‘institutional’ purposes. To ensure conformity among the population, to secure ‘confessions’ that supported the party line etc.

    Roughly we have 15,000 people taken to ‘black sites’, 5,000 tortured and 100 killed. We hear that much of the torturing was to try to obtain ‘links’ between Saddam and 9/11 in order to help justify the Iraq War. A real consequentialist issue is not just whether torture will ‘work’ to solve the ticking time bomb problem but whether it works to help gov’t agencies fulfill their political agendas too much….

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    First, can you back up your statistics, the numbers I’ve heard of are less.

    For Stalin, “obtaining (real) information” was never the goal. For Hitler in occupied territories suppressing various insurgencies was, and in that case torture had a dual role.

    I’m unclear how a success for torture makes the consequential argument weaker. Unless here you are arguing for a limited government role and just on the other page, regarding education, you regard the government role to be expansive.

    Actually, I offered long ago that Petraeus and COIN demonstrated (in Iraq) that revolution against a well prepared modern state is impossible by succeeding.

    One (consequential) argument used is that imprisonment and maltreatment creates enemies. However, that doesn’t jive with the accounts from Solzhenitsyn and others from the Terror. The zeks didn’t think of revolt, during or after. Survival and personal misery dominated their imaginary.

    On the other side of the coin, during the Revolutionary war Hessian prisoners were treated well enough that many of them stayed afterwards to make a life here. However I find it unlikely today that cushy treatment of Islamic radicals will enact a change of heart. Those were different times and a different war (and mercenaries to boot).

  7. Boonton says:

    I’m unclear how a success for torture makes the consequential argument weaker. Unless here you are arguing for a limited government role and just on the other page, regarding education, you regard the government role to be expansive.

    So we have two governmental organizations. One cannot even suspend your kid from school for a day without a formal hearing (which can then be challenged by lawyers if you’re willing to go that far). Every book they choose, every rule they impose is subject to scrutiny by thousands of parents anyone of whom can make a big deal (let alone media blowhards like O’Reilly looking to drum up a big story when some empty air needs to be filled). The other is subject to almost no oversight, no appeal, no checks or balances. Which one do you worry about? The first. Go figure.

  8. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You have a starry eyed idealism about government schools. Do you have any idea how much corruption goes on at school boards of medium sized towns not to mention large cities. That is a scandal nobody talks about.

    … still waiting for your data.

  9. Boonton says:

    I’m using the numbers that Mr de Long used as a very rough estimate (http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/05/questions-of-fact.html). This would include not only Gitmo but all the various ‘black sites’ around the world. While rough, I don’t see any reason to doubt the magnitutude…if you would like to argue the numbers please don’t bother unless you care to assert that he is off by at least an order of magnititude.

    “corruption goes on at school boards” Well so much for your belief in ‘self-governing councils’. The local school board is probably as close to local gov’t as you can get in the US. But more importantly WTF! ? I never said that local schools were perfect or that local politics was nothing but sunshine and sweetness. When was the last time, though, you heard of a local school board waterboarding a teacher to get her to give all the kids A’s or to testify that the school really needed a new football field rather than a library?

    But more importantly, take it as a given that school boards are horribly corrupt. Given how easy it is to scrutinize their actions, how easy it is to mount protests or demand oversight from higher levels of gov’t, how much worse would things be if none of that was a viable option for checking their baser instincts? There you get the practical reason why torture ‘doesn’t work’. The ‘valuable information’ or ‘ticking timebomb’ hypotheticals take place as totally sterilized ‘thought experiments’. This is like asking whether socialism could work if the central planner has actual demand and supply functions for each member in the economy.

    The question is how does torture work if you cannot divide torture for ‘valuable information’ from torture for ‘justify our department’s budget’ or torture for ‘get me the promotion over that other director whose an idiot’ or torture for ‘my friend died in Iraq and I’m pissed’?

  10. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You’re confusing me with someone who thinks torture is a good idea I think. I’m firmly against it, always have been. I just question the usefulness of a consequential argument. For example, I’m guessing that neither you or Mr Kuznicki would approve of torture if the consequential argument was open and shut.

    On the other hand, from a political ethical framework, I think it is clear that right now the American people by and large are not in agreement with me, that is they don’t feel troubled by it and have indeed “granted authority” to the government to torture minimally as long as plausible reasons for doing so remain and the scope remains “small”. It might be noted however, that I think the only argument against not executing illegal combatants (for example no uniform) is the tactical consequence of doing the same.

    On the numbers, I question their validity, and I notice that Mr De Long who as I’ve noted before is prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, does not attribute his sources … which very well might just mean he pulled them out of his, uhm, the air.

    As to your objection of dividing this between “valuable information” vs other less justifiable criteria. How might this “work”? Well, it might if integrated into the larger intelligence gathering scenario. All intelligence is an exercise in trying to extract a weak signal from a very noisy environment. Information theoretic criteria exist which would indicate when, what to seek/ask, and how to best maximize signal from sources. What I’m suggesting is that the question of “how to divide” might be a mathematically tractable question to which an answer can be found.

  11. Boonton says:

    1. Numbers, I don’t think they are that far off. I believe Gitmo alone has seen at least a thousand people so 15,000 as the total number of those detained around the world and since 9/11 is probably reasonable.

    2. Tortured – Well we have not only Gitmo but also what was sold as the ‘few bad apples’ in Abdu G…..which really weren’t bad apples but soldiers following policies that were put in place from the top. That is not debatable at this point nor is the fact that they were hung out to dry by the previous administration.

    3. Killed in torture, well we know the number is more than 0, more than 10…I’ll leave it to someone else to find better sources to target 100 but as I pointed out you haven’t shown reason to think the estimates are off by an order of magnitutude.

    All intelligence is an exercise in trying to extract a weak signal from a very noisy environment. Information theoretic criteria exist which would indicate when, what to seek/ask, and how to best maximize signal from sources.

    But this is hardly ‘all’ that intelligence is trying to do anymore than ‘all’ a school board is trying to do is get the local kids a good education. Even if that was all there was to it, how much abuse happens not because the abusers are not sincere but simply because they are committed to bad ideas, group think etc?

    Intelligence not only wants to extract a signal (weak or strong) but also to create signals. There are signals designed to appease higher ups (“Iraq may have WMDs”), there are signals to advance personal agendas and vendettas (“My predecessor missed major signals that 9/11 was going to happen”) to the simple abuse (“I’m pissed, I’m taking it out on you”)

    I suppose in theory one could design torture to be part of our system so that such problems would be checked the way the justice system checks the police’s ability to use certain tools lilke arrests, searches etc. Alan Des. I believe, one wrote a book advocating a system where judges could grant ‘torture warrents’ for ‘ticking bomb’ cases. But if we are going to play with the consquentalist argument then we have to confront that a consquence of permitting torture is that it will ‘work’ for goals that are counterproductive to our national ones just as much as it might ‘work’ in favor of our goals in the highly nuanced ‘timebomb’ hypothetical.