A new edition of “Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was published earlier this month. Whenever one of Solzhenitsyn’s books is rolled out, one must ask what the political reasons are for doing so. The publishing history of Solzhenitsyn’s work is closely tied to major historical developments of the last half century, and this new edition is no different.
Peculiar to this moment is a new foreword, written by alt-right celebrity Jordan Peterson. This may come as a surprise to some. When it was first published in 1973, and still to this day, many on the left thought that “Gulag Archipelago,” which claims to document life in the Soviet labor camps during the Stalin period, played a progressive role in exposing the undemocratic nature of the Soviet Union.
How, then, could someone like Peterson — who advocates enforced monogamy, refuses to recognize trans people and believes the eugenicist lie that there are inherent IQ differences along racial and ethnic lines — also claim Solzhenitsyn as his own? What could Solzhenitsyn and Peterson have in common?
A lot, actually.
To understand the political significance of this new edition, it is necessary to go over the details of Solzhenitsyn’s life, many of which are left out of the introductions in high school and college textbooks of this author who, of all people, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. The first part of this series will cover Solzhenitsyn’s life and his views. The second will analyze the political significance of the new edition.
Who was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918, came from the class of rich landowners whose property was expropriated during the Russian Revolution. His father, a tsarist officer, took his own life when the Red Army confiscated his large estate.
Solzhenitsyn was then raised by his mother and aunt and received an advanced education before being drafted into the Red Army during World War II. He was promoted to captain and participated in campaigns to repel the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
As the tide of war changed and Soviet forces moved swiftly through Poland toward Berlin, KGB officers discovered documents on Solzhenitsyn suggesting he was part of a conspiracy to subvert the war effort. Solzhenitsyn, throughout his life, denied this. In fact, his whole subsequent career as a writer was built on the idea that he was unjustly imprisoned and that his arrest was a clear sign of a despotic regime.
Later biographers corroborate Solzhenitsyn’s claim, insisting that while he was deeply critical of the Soviet Union and the evidence found by the KGB reflected that, he had not organized any conspiracy, which was the main crime that led to his imprisonment. It is also clear from his later works, however, that Solzhenitsyn sympathized with Soviet citizens who collaborated with the Nazis, as his glowing portrait of Lieutenant General Andrei A. Vlasov in “Gulag Archipelago” indicates.
Whatever the case, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a political labor camp, or gulag as it later became known, and upon release never ceased to criticize the Soviet Union.
What many leftists don’t understand, however, is that this criticism was consistently from the right, not the left. Criticisms of the excesses of the dictatorship of the proletariat during the Stalin period are certainly merited. The best of them can be found in Trotsky, Che and Sam Marcy, the founding chair of Workers World Party. But they cannot be found in Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn takes advantage of the situation, exaggerating the crimes in many cases, in order to completely discredit the idea of socialism and communism.
This is where the relationship between Jordan Peterson and Solzhenitsyn becomes clear. What was Solzhenitsyn’s solution to the ills of Soviet society? Essentially, a patriarchal ethno-state.
In his 1978 “Letter to the Soviet Leaders,” Solzhenitsyn claimed that the Soviet Union’s commitment to communist movements abroad had come at the expense of “national interest.”
Not only did he advocate abandoning the global proletariat, but he envisioned Russian nationals within the Soviet Union splitting off to form their own homogeneous ethno-state. He argued that the republics and autonomous regions of the Soviet Union — the “Central Asian underbelly,” as he called it — were living off the hard work of the Russian people. This parallels right-wing lies accusing immigrants of leeching off the U.S. “welfare state.”
Women and the patriarchal ethno-state
He also had much to say on women’s role in this new society. Instead of “financing South American revolutionaries,” he advocated that the Soviet Union use that money to ensure that women wouldn’t have to work — since their “natural” place is in the home. He thought that the workers’ state was merely a substitute for the family, the natural unit of society, and that the degeneration of Soviet society resulted from the breakup of the family.
This vision, of a patriarchal ethno-state, is the exact same idea promoted by the alt-right, including Jordan Peterson. That Peterson was asked to write the introduction should come as no surprise to those familiar with the real Solzhenitsyn.
For the most part, Peterson fails to bring out this side of Solzhenitsyn in his forward. Instead, he zeroes in on Solzhenitsyn’s attack on socialism. He invokes the slander that “100 million people or more” were killed by communism, even though historians have disproved this number, and asks why expressing admiration for Marx and professing socialism is still acceptable in polite company.
Of course, Peterson can’t help but try to slip in some eugenicist racism for good measure. Toward the end, Peterson invokes Solzhenitsyn’s own belief that perhaps inequality is intrinsic to all social orders — that some people will always be more able and more wealthy.
In his time, Solzhenitsyn used this idea to question the merits of universal suffrage. Today, Peterson uses his belief in inequality to criticize “social justice warriors” who don’t buy into his racist rant that whites are a biologically superior race.
Suffice it to say, that if we are to build a revolutionary socialist movement in the U.S., the left would best be served by learning the lessons of previous struggles. But we have to be careful about who we draw those lessons from. A proper analysis of what happened in the Soviet Union is in order, but the right wing never had this.
The next part will cover how Solzhenitsyn’s critique has been used in the past by right-wing forces inside and outside the Soviet Union. It will also offer an analysis of how Solzhenitsyn is being used by right-wing forces today.