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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

To Encounter Hell on Earth, Read The Gulag Archipelago

Solzhenitsyn’s epic treatise has much to teach us

No one has ever been forced at gunpoint to stay in the casino at the Bellagio.A few months ago I read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago, which is three volumes and about 2,000 pages of sordid memoir recounting one of history’s darker examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

Excused by enthusiasts for socialism as the tragic excesses of Stalin’s rule, Solzhenitsyn shows that the Archipelago predated Stalin and continued after his demise.

To read The Gulag Archipelago is terrifying. It is to be immersed in a world turned upside down, a nightmare in which right is left, black is white, freedom is slavery, war is peace, and ignorance is strength. Here are a few things that struck me.

  1. Free speech and free inquiry are among the first things to go. Solzhenitsyn recounts example after example of scenarios in which the free flow of information is suppressed and in which people’s minds are beaten mercilessly with propaganda.
  2. Those who promised socialist heaven created Hobbesian hell. Demands for denunciation and confession were among the archipelago’s most terrifying pathologies. Trust and norms of generalized reciprocity were destroyed as everyone was turned into a spy: “if you see something, say something,” so to speak—or even if you didn’t see anything, say something anyway.
  3. It’s easy to dehumanize and mistreat the Other. Think about the horrors of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiments on how quick we are to yield to “authority,” but in real life. You will be appalled by the lengths to which the Party went to strip prisoners of their humanity and their dignity—all, of course, in the name of creating a new and great society.

Along the way I also read James Otteson’s The End of Socialism and Thomas Sowell’s Wealth, Poverty, and Politics. The End of Socialism is one of two book-length replies to G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? (the other is Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?).

Otteson points to a section in which Cohen refers to the market as “a casino” which is “difficult to escape,” and he also discusses Cohen’s assertion that the inequalities emerging under capitalism fray the social fabric.

The Gulag Archipelago speaks to Cohen’s argument. First, if there is an environment that is “difficult to escape” it is the non-market societies of socialist countries. Communism produced the Berlin Wall and North Korea.

To the best of my knowledge no one has ever been forced at gunpoint to stay in the casino at the Bellagio.

Second, the replacement of financial with political inequality clearly shredded the social fabric. Cohen’s claim, incidentally, is empirical, and some of my work shows that it is inconsistent with the evidence.

Third, Cohen justifies his endorsement of socialism as an ideal by using a camping trip as a thought experiment. He points out (correctly, I think) that few of us would enjoy a camping trip in which every interaction is market-mediated and in which we are doing for others not because of others’ needs but because of what others will do for us.

As Otteson notes, though, Cohen’s assumption that the camping gear and whatnot are simply there is problematic. It is interesting that Cohen would use a camping trip as his thought experiment: history has shown us that socialist “camping trips” have been far more like the nightmares described by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago than the friendly trip Cohen uses as his thought experiment.

In light of this history, so well documented, we can and should consider socialism as little more than a path to Hell on earth.

 Reprinted with slight modifications from Art Carden’s blog.

  • Art Carden is a Professor of Economics, author, and co-editor of the Southern Economic Journal.