Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Solzhenitsyn: Democracy Cannot be Legislated

October 1, 1991 -

The collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union has unleashed great potential for the good of its long-suffering people. At the same time, these dramatic changes now underway in that vast collection of disparate republics also pose immense dangers. The danger signs are many and obvious, including an institutional vacuum due to the breakdown of the old regime; the flourishing of corruption, crime, and joblessness; the prospect of hunger; and general destitution in the absence of a functioning institutional basis for an orderly and civil society.

There is much soul-searching about the right way to rebuild the ruined institutions, especially those of governments. Solzhenitsyn has written a thought-provoking article about this subject in which he forcefully argues that democracy in Russia must have local roots and people to tend it.

Warning against the "ultimate peril" of anarchy, Solzhenitsyn reminds his readers that after three-quarters of a century of what he describes as "a cannibalistic period" and "a state of semi-barbarity," the solution will not be found in a hasty adoption of new government systems, nor by simply "adopting the way it is done in the West" as quickly as possible. While the entire state structure must be reshaped, Solzhenitsyn insists this rebuilding can only be done by careful, step-by-step measures. He makes the following points:

  • The destruction of souls by communism cannot be cleansed away without repentance by those who have devoted their lives and careers to serve an evil totalitarianism.
  • The future Russian union will need democracy. But democracy is accompanied by a tendency toward superficiality, manipulation, and abuses of many kinds. Therefore, it requires for its success a certain level of "political discipline."
  • Democracy cannot be established from above but must be established by patient and careful construction, beginning at the local level. It is at this level that voters can be informed and able to check on the character and performance of the elected officials. 

The crux of this brief article by Solzhenitsyn concerns the truth that we in the West are in danger of forgetting. He reminds us that true freedom and a just society cannot exist merely by means of technical and structural changes. Instead, a just and free society depends on the moral and spiritual calibre of its people. Thus, democracy cannot thrive in the absence of a willingness to serve a greater good than our own selfish appetites.

Solzhenitsyn is a prophetic figure because he has understood the truth that has been cruelly suppressed under Communism for all these years. The danger facing the Western democracies is that the suppression of this truth is taking place here as well, although more gradually and subtly. Solzhenitsyn's message, summarized in the following quotation, is equally valid for the emergence of democracy in Russia as for its survival in the West.

The strength or weakness of a society depends more on the level of its spiritual life than on its level of industrialization. Neither a market economy nor even general abundance constitutes the crowning achievement of human life. If a nation's spiritual energies have been exhausted, it will not be saved from collapse by the most perfect government structure or by any industrial development: a tree with a rotten core cannot stand. This is so because of all the possible freedoms the one that will inevitably come to the fore will be the freedom to be unscrupulous; that is the freedom that can be neither prevented nor anticipated by any law. It is an unfortunate fact that a pure social atmosphere cannot be legislated into being. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "Our Own Democracy," National Review, September 23, 1991, p.44) 

Could it be that Solzhenitsyn's observation about the indispensability of a "nation's spiritual energies" is very much pertinent to the present debate on constitutional reforms in this country? Something to think about.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment