Reconciling (get ready) Solzhenitsyn & Ayn Rand

(’76 Contributor) As I wrote in a previous post,”Memo to Cuomo,” I do not believe that there is any philosophical inconsistency within American conservatism. I would even submit that Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and so-called social conservatism are substantially closer than some of their respective advocates realize or care to admit.

It is true that Ayn Rand’s idiosyncratic use of the word “selfishness”, defined, to add conceptual insult to injury, as a “virtue”, has historically raised quite a few socially conservative hackles. Indeed, if you take as an example Anthem, Rand’s novella published in the United States in 1946, you find the main protagonist breathlessly seeing “the face of god (…), this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy, peace and pride, this god, this one word ‘I’”. Rand doubles down when she ends the book with one final incantation to Ego, “the sacred word”.

Now contrast Rand’s superficially self-centered revelation with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s use of the word “we” in The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1973. In chapter 5, Solzhenitsyn, whom American conservatives intellectually and morally embraced on his visit to the United States in 1975 and held up as a diplomatic martyr when he was snubbed by Republican President Gerald Ford amid illusory hopes of détente with the Soviet Union, graphically describes the effects of solitary confinement on victims of the communist regime and emphasizes, for his part, the virtues of “we” as a source of human solace and hope:

“The cells were all built for two, but prisoners under interrogation were usually kept in them singly. The dimensions were five by six and a half feet. (…)There were two guards for each block of seven cells, so that was why the prisoners could be under almost constant inspection through the peephole, the only interruption being the time it took the guard to step past two doors to a third. And that was the purpose of silent Sukhanovka: to leave the prisoner not a single moment for sleep, not a single stolen moment for privacy. You were always being watched and always in their power. But if you endured the whole duel with insanity and all the trials of loneliness, and had stood firm, you deserved your first cell! And now when you got into it, your soul would heal. (…) Now for the first time you were about to see people who were not your enemies. Now for the first time you were about to see others who were alive, who were travelling your road, and whom you could join to yourself with the joyous word ‘we’.”

At first sight, you might justifiably draw the usual conclusion that Rand’s egotistical aspirations and Solzhenitsyn’s kind of fraternal relief are diametrically opposed and inexorably irreconcilable. After all, in Anthem, Rand describes “we” as “the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages”. “If placed first within man’s soul”, [“we”] becomes a monster, the root of all evil on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie”. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn concedes that “we” contextually connotes collectivist liberticide. Yet he immediately points out that the word simultaneously encapsulates some seeds of salvation: “Yes, that word which you may have despised out in freedom, when they used it as a substitute for your own individuality (“All of us, like one man!” Or: “We are deeply angered!” Or: “We demand!” Or: “We swear!”), is now revealed to you as something sweet: you are not alone in the world! Wise, spiritual beings— human beings —still exist”.

The anthropological distortion of “we” by communism and its ideological offshoots goes to the heart of misinterpretations about Ayn Rand’s provocative advocacy of self-assertion and the perceived incompatibility of her views with religiously-inspired beliefs about self-discipline and community as conveyed by traditionalists like Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, when Solzhenitsyn speaks of “others (…) travelling your road, and whom you could join to yourself with the joyous word ‘we’”, Ayn Rand’s hero in Anthem similarly looks forward to a time when “I shall choose my friends among men (…) and we shall join our hands when we wish”. (Italics added).

It seems to me that what it all boils down to in both Rand and Solzhenitsyn, in both Objectivism and social conservatism, is the same sort of yearning for covenantal unity. “I” is indeed singular and unique as it refers to purely individual distinctions. At the same time, some might argue that “I” is an eminently anti-social word. “I” cannot be used except in reference to the existence of others as well: “I” as opposed to “you”, “I” as opposed to “they”. But the very same opposition can providentially foster unity. In both Rand and Solzhenitsyn, “I”, as part of a community of kindred spirits who share unconditional respect for basic human individual and communal dignity and flourishing, is logically indistinguishable from “we”. And the conjoining that both Rand and Solzhenitsyn invoke as the essence of authentic human interaction only comes from mutual agreement.

Now if man was uniquely made in the image of God, which Rand lamely disputes, might not this sort of agreement at least also be made in the image of Abraham’s covenant with the Lord in Genesis?

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Paoli is the nom de plume of a conservative political scientist who did graduate work in Colorado before taking up an academic post in his native France.

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