But it was in Russia, the bastion of the old Christendom, where socialists would find conditions most favorable for resuming the liberating and violent march of progress.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
I have recently purchased part four of Stickland’s four-part examination of the rise and fall of Western Christendom, and when preparing to begin writing on this book I discovered I did not complete my work on volume three. So, contrary to my uninformed plans, I am going back to this prior volume.
The time is the mid-nineteenth century; the place, as you see, is Russia. The Russian Empire was the first to defeat Napoleon; further, it did not succumb to the various revolutionary subversions of 1848. Grounded, as it remained, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it had a stability and unity that began coming apart in the West since at least the Enlightenment, if not the Renaissance.
This united culture would begin to be penetrated by the secular humanism of the West. Strickland introduces two figures, each representing a different side in the developing cultural divide, each living and dying in the first half of the nineteenth century.
First is Alexander Pushkin. As a child, he learned French before he learned Russian; he would write plays in the style of Voltaire; he would advocate for a westernized reform of the Russian language, as against those who held ties to the old Church Slavonic.
Exiled to the Caucasus for praising liberalism, he would conduct affairs with married women, declare himself an avowed atheist, and hold a complete disdain for the Christianity that surrounded him. He would write blasphemies against the Eucharist, the Resurrection, and the Virgin Mary. He would somewhat modify his views once he was allowed a return to Petersburg.
Pushkin would die as a result of a duel. This time, instead of Pushkin dueling the husband of a woman with which Pushkin was conducting an affair, it was the other way around. While both men were wounded, Pushkin’s wound at the hands of his lover’s husband proved fatal. He was thirty-seven years old.
The second figure was a monk, St. Seraphim of Sarov. As should be obvious, he was basically the opposite of Pushkin. He was a man whose life was centered on traditional Christianity. He spent his time in the Scriptures, supplemented by reading early Church Fathers. Progress for him meant a spiritual transformation – call it sanctification.
Noting the benighted rather than truly enlightened character of secular humanism, Seraphim insists that humanity can find its proper fulfilment only through “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”
Where Pushkin’s life ended via an act of violence provoked by adultery, Seraphim’s life would end kneeling before an icon of the Mother of God.
Likely neither man knew of the other’s existence, but these two men marked the roots of the two trees that would come to tear Russian society apart.
There were others, the “intelligentsia.” Educated regarding their civilization, and critical of the forces that brought it about. Their solutions were maximalist; universal if you will. Russia was decried as an ecclesiastically isolated and a cultural onlooker to the events unfolding elsewhere in the world.
Out of this would come two groups – the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Both were radically critical of the status quo. Tsar Nicholas I would react with what he called official nationality, made up of Orthodoxy, autocracy, and Russian nationality.
This at the time when the West was aflame in uprisings, in 1848. Not a ringing endorsement of western ideas and ideologies. Mikhail Bakunin would enter the scene, traveling throughout western Europe in 1848/9 looking for a revolution to lead. He would embrace atheism, and use Hegel’s method to work toward a theory of revolution – ultimately advocating for violence and destruction.
Wanted by three different governments (those of Russia, Austria, and Saxony), Bakunin was passed from one prison to another until he found himself back in Petersburg’s Peter-Paul Fortress for political prisoners.
Which brings us to the key figure, Karl Marx. The failure of these mid-century revolutions left Marx deeply disillusioned. A disdain for reality, a defiance of the world’s creator, he would write poetry such as:
Then I will wander godlike and victorious
Through the ruins of the world
And, giving my words an active force,
I will feel equal to the creator.
His doctoral dissertation was so radical that it bought him a terrible reputation with the authorities; it barred him from a teaching position in Prussia. But it brought him credibility with the radicals, who considered him the greatest and only real philosopher of the time, one who will give medieval religion and politics their death blow. From one such admirer:
He combines with deepest philosophical earnestness the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel united in one person. I say united, not thrown together – and you have Dr. Marx.
His wit was so biting that many socialists were as alienated from him as were conservatives. A contemporary would describe him as a man whose bearing was provoking and intolerable. Any opinion differing from his would not be given even condescending consideration. Every contradiction was met with abject contempt. With as much disdain as he would use when spitting out the word “bourgeois,” the same would be shown when denouncing anyone who opposed him.
Sounds like Ayn Rand’s emotional and psychological and immature twin.
Marx would settle in England, doing his most important work there. In poverty most of the time, he lived on the generosity of Engels. While tied to the bourgeoisie, his work would be the most effective argument for its destruction in history. Marxism would promise worldly transformation for those who had lost faith in Christianity or in idealism.
Christianity was a ripe target, as it appeared to many to be only a defender of the well-to-do: “The people in our street, especially our own family, have been overlooked by God.”
Leo’s successor, Pius XI would later acknowledge the loss of the working class to socialism, calling it “the greatest scandal of the nineteenth century.”
Marx would never befriend a worker or spend time among the poor. He held the suffering of the masses only in the abstract. The closest he came to any of this was through his maid, an impoverished German peasant through whom Marx would release his sexual desires – and who then gave birth to a son who was immediately sent away to a foster family.
Socialism became the prevailing ideology of the Russian intelligentsia. Even the Great Reforms would not stem the tide. The great liberator of the serfs, Tsar Alexander II, was only repaid with several assassination attempts by the socialists – each one miraculously failing…until the last one.
In the wake of his assassination, the government killed all reform programs. Peasants in the countryside, never big fans of the liberalizing ideologies, turned against the socialists and turned them in to the police.
In their place within the intelligentsia, by the end of the nineteenth century, would step the Marxists.