My foray into Rod Dreher and the culture war that follows him like his own personal raincloud began with this post from December, where I recorded Dreher’s engagement with several so-called “leftist Orthodox brigade.” These Orthoprogressives, warned Dreher, are on the march. In my initial post in this series on Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, I wrote about the concept of “social justice,” asked whether it constituted “the spirit of the age,” and asked why conservative Christians are so incensed by a topic like race that, from a purely Christian perspective, should be relatively uncontroversial (unless one’s Christianity is tied to a national mythology where racial purity is a central component). My initial post was “meant to offer a framework, a preamble, for my discussion of Live Not By Lies. I’ve said here many of the things I’d want to say before talking to Rod Dreher, if I ever had the chance to meet and talk with him.” (Chances are good I’ll never get the opportunity to talk with Dreher, who famously refuses to engage in dialogue with progressives and who would undoubtedly count me as one.) In my first official post of the series, I examined the Alexander Solzhenitsyn essay that inspired Dreher’s title: “Live Not by Lies.” In my last post, I turned to Dreher’s book and offered a cursory analysis of its most general claims.
In my next post, I will continue the analysis I start today of Dreher’s historical analysis. After that, I intend to explore the contours of Dreher’s Christian faith, to attempt to answer the question I posed in the first link above: namely, why are conservative Christians so paranoid about critical race theory? Why is that the hinge on which the future of Christianity in the West seems to depend for commentators like Dreher? Is there something about race and race dialogue that is central to the conservative’s conception of Christianity? These are the questions I will explore in the most generous possible terms. In my final post, I’ll explore the points of agreement between me and Dreher. But in today’s post, I want to look at some of Dreher’s history in Live Not by Lies.
Dreher is not a great historian. He describes Solzhenitsyn as a devout Orthodox Christian, when the late writer’s relationship with the Church was complicated at best (not a major point; Solzhenitsyn did identify as a Christian later in life). He describes the admirable Hannah Arendt as “the foremost scholar of totalitarianism,” a claim that would certainly be contested by most scholars of totalitarianism. (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is probably the hardest work of scholarship he cites; he also quotes a tweet by Yascha Mounk). He describes all his non-American sources in superlative terms: everyone is a “leading” historian in Poland or a “famous” leader of the anti-Communist underground in Hungary, nations far away from Dreher’s (predominantly American Evangelical and Catholic) readership, among whom these superlative claims are likely to go unchallenged. As a general rule, Dreher’s sources tend away from the scholarly toward the literary and the primary. When establishing how totalitarian control functions in a society, he cites Solzhenitsyn, Czesław Miłosz, Stanisław I. Witkiewicz, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley but no historians, political scientists, or journalists who work on totalitarianism. Philip Rieff, author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, makes an inevitable appearance, as does the distinction between “authoritarian/autocratic” and “totalitarian” regimes (a nod to Jeane Kirkpatrick). Dreher describes the batty Twitter personality James Lindsay, who is certainly an intellectual with a public Twitter account and a scholar of mathematics, as the “public intellectual [who] has thought [most] deeply about the fundamentally religious nature of these progressive militants….”
So right off the bat, we know that Live Not by Lies is not a scholarly book for a scholarly audience. But as a work of popular religious non-fiction making an essentially historical argument, how does its historical argument hold up?
In many instances, Dreher ignores history completely. His second chapter, which is meant to describe our “pre-totalitarian” moment, opens with an elderly Russian man offering Dreher a lecture in three hundred years of Russian history…except that Dreher doesn’t describe those three hundred years of Russian history, only the fact that the lecture happened (“it was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites,” he assures us, sounding more like a Fox News commentator than a journalist or historian). He does offer an account of the famine of 1891, which “shook the nation to the core and revealed the weakness of the tsarist system, which failed miserably to manage the crisis” (this famine, he writes later, was analogous to the current coronavirus pandemic and the crisis of leadership it has created or, more accurately, revealed). Meanwhile, “Russia’s intellectual and creative classes fell under the sway of Prometheanism, the belief that man has unlimited godlike powers to make the world to suit his desires”—a massively general claim but true enough as such claims go. But among which nation’s intellectuals did such a progressive Prometheanism not hold sway in the heady years between 1890 and 1914?
To take just one example: in the United States, the 1890 census revealed that the frontier was closed, and the nation’s sense of manifest destiny quickly turned from its own continent to a massive progressive-imperialist project both at home and abroad. A Promethean spirit took hold. The U.S. shifted focus toward foreign adventures, waging wars against Spain in Cuba and the First Philippine Republic in the Philippines. The Panama Canal became a prioritized endeavor: the nation that had subdued North America would united the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, facilitating global trade to its own advantage. The elimination of poverty and gross economic inequality became a serious campaign for national politicians of all major parties. Capitalism was no longer viewed as a natural force that must be allowed to run wild across the marketplaces of the world, but rather as a technology that could be shaped and tuned to our needs. Eugenics, the racist pseudo-science, seemed to confirm that man could achieve supremacy even over the random processes that governed his own generation. The results of the Progressive Era were decidedly mixed, but did not result in the kind of totalitarianism witnessed in Germany and Russia, in large part because factors were at play in those nations (the First World War, the peasant economy, full-fledged socialist revolutions in both nations, Russian autocracy, weak German republicanism) that were not at play in the United States (and are not at play today). Dreher largely ignores these factors.
In drawing parallels between the late Tsarist era and modern America, Dreher drinks a little too deeply from the Bolshevik’s own self-flattering propaganda, painting their brand of radical leftism as mainstream among the pre-revolutionary intellectual elite. In his account of the years prior to 1917, “far-left radicalism” spread throughout the Russian intelligentsia like a contagion. And true, many Russian elites were well-versed in Marx and eventually became hardened Bolsheviks. But the overwhelming majority did not. They were better represented by middle-class parliamentarians in the provisional government that followed the February revolution and in reform-minded socialist parties like the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, or Mensheviks. (The name Menshevik is a bit of Bolshevik propaganda in itself: Menshevik derives from the Russian word for “minority” whereas Bolshevik derives from the word “majority,” when in reality the Mensheviks possessed by far the stronger claim to majority representation.)
As the preceding sentences suggest, the scene in pre-revolutionary Russia was politically complex. But for Dreher, the narrative logic is relatively simple: “Once they had captured Russia’s universities, the radicals took their gospel to the factories. … These proselytizers spoke to the suffering of the people, to their sense of justice, to their often-justified resentment of their exploiters. … The evangelists of Marxism issued forth prophetic revelations about the land of milk and honey awaiting the masses after the revolution swept away the ruling mandarins.” This is actually a very good account of what happened in 1918…in Germany. There, intellectual elites subscribed to Marxist ideology. There, these ideas were transmitted into the nation’s industrial heartland and into the ranks of the military. The subsequent revolution came days before the November 11 armistice and shocked the world. The result, however, was not a soft totalitarianism of progressivism or Communist dictatorship but republicanism, followed by a hard-right totalitarianism backlash and Nazism. Elites may have determined much of history in autocratic Russia; it was much more difficult for them to stop Hitler in Weimar Germany, where elites held less control on power.
Indeed, Dreher ignores Nazism, its origins, and its legacies time and again. Even the hero of Dreher’s book, Father Kolaković, had a history of active resistance to Nazism that Dreher completely ignores; it serves as mere background material to his resistance against the Soviets. This lack of coverage has serious consequences for Dreher’s thesis. (Will Cohen wrote about this in his review.) Every so often, Dreher himself breaks into fascistic exaggeration of the socialist threat posed by Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). At one point, he claims (one can imagine his voice cracking as he reads these lines aloud): “Social justice warriors and the theorists of their cause are not ‘normal people’ who live by common sense.” If SJWs are not normal people, can’t we justify taking abnormal measures to stop them?
Dreher’s insists that a situation that parallels the United States in 2021 existed in Russia before the revolution. “The parallels between a declining United States and prerevolutionary Russia are not exact,” he admits, “but they are unnervingly close.” The vastly different and historically contingent conditions are more or less overlooked in Live Not by Lies. Instead, the final pages of chapter two are peppered with the words “Bolshevik” and “SJW,” usually side-by-side, comparing one to the other without drawing much contrast. Dreher goes so far as to describe pre-revolutionary Russia as a period of sexual experimentation and decadence among both the elites and the peasants, which was certainly news to me: it turns out Russia had their own 1960s, and it ruined everything there, too! In reality, a certain libertinism was fashionable among Russian elites in the decades preceding 1917, but nothing like Dreher suggests. (His source for this idea is James Billington 1966 survey of Russian history, The Icon and the Axe, a decent work for its time, but not particularly representative of Russian studies today.) Dreher pushes the narrative that the “desire to transgress and destroy” that marked Modernist art and literature was a central factor in the rise of totalitarian regimes: the From Caligari to Hitler thesis. This narrative has been thoroughly debunked by scholars from across the ideological spectrum.
And as for the nations that fell to Communism after World War II, Dreher maintains the same narrative. Yes, he admits, the enormous Red Army was a factor (he refers to “Soviet bayonets” spreading Communism; it would have been more accurate to say that Soviet tanks and artillery did the bulk of the work). But Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Poland had their universities, too, and their elites had long swallowed the Marxist gospel. Once again, the elites are to blame. He quotes Patrik Benda, who blames “artists and intellectuals” in the decades prior to World War II for Czechoslovakia’s decline into Communism (“if you didn’t agree [with them], you were marked for exclusion”…cancel culture had arrived!). By 1941, the decay of progressivism had already set into those nation’s universities, governments, and civil societies, and all Stalin had to do was tip over the first domino (or, more accurately, wage an apocalyptic war throughout eastern Europe that cost 30 million lives) for the Communists to dominate the region.
I understand that Dreher does not like academia in the United States, that he views it as a pernicious influence. And there is plenty of research that shows how elites in a society do help determine the parameters of political debate. But to argue that leftwing journalists and academics are ruining American society, one need not completely distort the history of Communism’s rise and spread throughout eastern Europe, as Dreher does. In my next post, I will explore in greater detail how Dreher’s historical instincts fail him not only in his account of eastern European history during the spread of Communism, but how they betray him in his attempt to consolidate simple narratives about eastern Europe and the United States in the years since Communism’s collapse.