May 16, 2022


Fyodor Dostoyevsky Was an Anti-Socialist

By: Christina Grattan

Lately, Russian culture has been “canceled” in response to Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine. From a lecture series on Dostoyevsky at the University of Milan to “avoid controversy” to a Stravinsky concert in the Netherlands and a Tchaikovsky one in Britain, the literary and symphonic heart of Russia is dissipating from the human soul. As a lover of Dostoyevsky and the melody of Tchaikovsky’s Slavonic March, it is disturbing to hear how some assume silencing these prolific writers and musicians would diminish the human suffering in Ukraine. 

In reality, the demands of modern life need more Dostoyevsky, not less. And Dostoyevsky has great insight into the depth of human misery inflicted by governments since he understood its barest particle: man himself. Due to this, he was an ardent anti-socialist. He grasped the true yearnings of humans in accordance with their proper nature and its conflict with the utopian and revolutionary sentiment socialism cultivated in his time.

Socialism is posited on the Rousseauian notion that humans are born innocent, good, as a “noble savage” in isolation. The philosophy argues that outside societal forces corrupt humans, which creates the agony, poverty, and misery the world endures. One has to create the right conditions for them to resist the corruption of their nature. In Wealth and Justice, Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks, state that socialists believe human nature is perfectible and can be shaped like hot wax to create a new theory of human nature, aiming toward “the universal regeneration of mankind” and a “new man.” (2)  Only then can one reach a state of enlightenment that will transcend the wretchedness of humanity through communal life, free from private property and inequality produced by society. (2) This objective is carried out through revolutionary means. 

Dostoyevsky originally displayed socialist sympathies in short stories like Poor Folk, which emphasized “the misery of the impoverished” with an appeal to social justice. In the biography, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work, Konstatin Mochulsky shows how Makar Devushkin, a poor civil servant, is scorned by many, and revolts against his master, Alekseyevich, who vies for his beloved Varenka. (29-30) The struggle between the poor working class in Russia and the landed class is epitomized here as the love, suffering, and ruin of Devushkin unfolds.(29-30)  

The foreword to Dostoyevsky’s work, Notes from a Dead House demonstrates how his affinity for socialism and the suffering of the impoverished eventually entangles him with a “secret utopian socialist society” that adhered to the teachings of the French Socialist leader, Charles Fournier. (viii) However, Dostoyevsky’s involvement almost cost him his life. He is arrested as a “radical intellectual” and is subjected to eight years of back-breaking labor as a prisoner in the frozen wasteland of Siberia. (viii) 

During Dostoyevsky’s time as a prisoner, his faith in Rousseau’s view of human nature, which emphasizes the perfectibility and innate innocence of man, is shattered. Notes from a Dead House records his transformative and harrowing account through the eyes of the character Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov. As he is forced to view public executions and prisoners who unceasingly beg for mercy from the soulless guards who beat them, his hope of forging a new order of humanity comes apart at the seams. The innate depravity of humans reveals human nature for what it truly is, fallen, and it cannot be molded like wax by creating the right conditions. The dehumanization of prisoners and the lack of a human conscience he experiences is too much for him to bear. Gone is the innocent dreamer in Poor Folk who wallows in his poverty. 

In novels succeeding his prison sentence, Dostoyevsky writes against the spirit of socialism, most ardently in The Devils. Socialism is now not in accord with human nature but a rebellion against it. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky critiques the communal form of socialism he once revered: 

“Human nature is not taken into account; it is excluded, it’s not supposed to exist…they believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organize all humanity at once and make it just and sinless in an instant… That’s why they so dislike the living process of life; they don’t want a living soul…but what they want, though it smells of death and can be made of India-rubber is at least not alive, has no will, is servile, and won’t revolt…but human nature is not ready for the [commune]- it wants life.” (219) 

To assume that one person could shape the rest of humanity into what they please as a socialist would be antithetical to the human experience. One would have to be determined and lifeless to be able to meld into a new order of humanity. Yet, man is much too nuanced and depraved to fit into this mold. Like Plato’s ideal city, the socialist commune would be a false utopia that could never be actualized in reality due to the demands of human nature. 

Moreover, to Dostoyevsky, socialism was a rejection of God which made it even more utopian and unattainable. In The Brothers Karamazov, a story of spiritual redemption, Alyosha, the most pious of his three brothers, understands how socialism is a world without God. 

“For socialism is not merely the labor question; it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from Earth but to set up Heaven on earth.”

The socialist would have to believe that they could take the role of God himself and be able to establish heaven on earth. It would require the presumption that no benevolent God rules over the universe and that man must assume his place. Hence, it is like building the tower of Babel, believing one could end all suffering and create paradise without recognizing the true source of human life, God himself. To Dostoyevsky, such an idea is an illusion that can never be realized if one has faith in God. 

Furthermore, Aloysha admits that if he did not believe in God, then he would have become a socialist to discover the most fundamental answers to human life. Yet, his belief in God prevents him from blindly submitting to socialism to fulfill his need for transcendence. 

As Gary Saul Morson, a renowned scholar of Russian literature, once wrote, “[Father] Zossima says, that ‘everyone is responsible for everyone and everything.’ Above all, we must never place our faith in revolutionary violence or any other secular miracle. Instead, we should discover real life, and the genuine opportunity for goodness, in the prosaic.”

Individual action matters, and humans cannot be forced into a monolith of humanity promised by socialism. Dostoyevsky understood that one could not put all of their being into forging the regeneration of humanity that would overturn the old order and reject God. Human nature must be embraced for what it is, not what it ought to be, since the latter will never reflect reality due to the fallenness of humanity. Goodness is possible within the human spirit, but it will never be innate. 

Dostoyevsky knew socialism must be rejected in virtue of his profound grasp of human nature. Therefore, we should read and celebrate him, not erase him due to the misdeeds of one ruthless fallible Russian leader.