The Distributist Thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

(A short draft of an upcoming lecture)

In this talk, I will cover an aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s writing which has generated “embarrassment” for the intelligentsia of the West, who have overlooked, distorted, and criticized Solzhenitysn’s social and economic thinking. Throughout the course of this lecture, we will see how well Solzhenitsyn’s social thought compliments distributism, the economic movement founded by writers Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.*

Russian literary figure Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exposed the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain. Many paid the price for staring down the Soviet regime, including the author himself. The cost included detentions, murder, lies, and forced labor in gulags for those courageous enough to speak or act against the Red State.

Here at home, our Cold War enemy spawned endless debates between conservatives and progressives. Each painted two incompatible pictures of Soviet life. Some insisted it was a worker's paradise and others claimed it was a tyrannical force, paralyzing the individual under the thumb of bureaucracy. However, while our country became infatuated with Solzhenitsyn’s testimony about Soviet realpolitik, our media, politicians, and academics from both sides of the political aisle dismissed valuable criticisms and solutions proposed by a man experienced in the horrors of Lenin’s Revolution, and banished to the West.

Like Solzhenitsyn, G.K. Chesterton was a celebrated dramatist, novelist, and unapologetic Christian. Along with Hilaire Belloc and Dominican friar Fr. Vincent McNabb, he conceived a movement to implement social conditions inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (and later Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno). The social encyclicals were the first to tackle the economic tug-of-war from the highest ecclesiastical position: the papacy.

Distributists sought to counter the socio-economic systems in place by subordinating the economic order to the higher sciences, reincorporating justice as an integral component to the marketplace. Distributists supported subsidiarity, the strengthening of local economics, and the widest distribution of land ownership. Laws favoring self-ownership for the common man, the needy farmer, and the small business (individually and worker-owned) were instrumental in reaching equilibrium for the family and the community, and these freed them from the corruption of socialism and capitalism.

The author of “Rebuilding Russia” was also suspicious of capitalism and socialism, and perceived them as co-dependent rather than distinct.

“But just as we feel ourselves your allies here [in the West], there also exists another alliance - at first glance a strange and surprising one, but if you think about it, one which is well-founded and easy to understand: this is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists.”1

For Solzhenitsyn and the distributists, the demise of these two systems didn't lie in their misuse. Their failures were an organic consequence due to their penchant for the cult of man.

“I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the very basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.” 2

Proponents of market deregulation believed Solzhenitsyn, crushed for so long under the boot of centralized government, would champion their proposed Non-interventionist State. Instead, he predicted disaster for institutions apathetic to economic and social involvement. Government regulation —within limits— existed as a response to man’s fallen nature. Public institutions should recognize man’s need for spiritual development and assemble provisions for it.3 Pope John XXIII called this task of the State its reason for being, as government bodies are responsible to oversee the common good and cannot afford to be “aloof from economic matters.”4

It was intuitive for Solzhenitsyn that centralized government acted as an organism attentive to the needs of its citizens for those matters local government could not address. Subsidiarity (government at the smallest level) effectively met the challenges of security, stability, and accountability for the community.5 Solzhenitsyn believed a popular local government should oversee the common good in the tradition of the Russian zemstvos. Historically, Zemstvos were a form of self-government consisting of elected boards and councils made up of large land proprietors, small landowners (including clergy), wealthy townsmen, urban classes and peasants. Elected individuals, representing these distinct groups of owning classes would determine the economic needs of a locality. Created under the reforms of Alexander II in the 19th century, zemstvos disappeared with the advent of socialist uprising, destroying any form of independence for the peasant in lieu of the concentration of power at the central level. In Solzhenitsyn’s mind zemstvos would be instrumental in restoring Russia.

With the easing of concentrated power, Solzhenitsyn believed the just wage and local craftsmanship would “come to light,” restoring an economy of permanence, instead of mindless consumption. This would shift our focus from desire to need and subordinate the material to the spiritual.

In Joseph Pearce’s biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, we learn of Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation for distributist thought included Catholic convert and German economist E.F. Schumacher. Schumacher, author of the book Small is Beautiful, spent most of his life crusading for small-scale economics, intermediate technology, and a humane economy of use as an alternative to exhaustive expansion. Just as the distributist movement before him, Schumacher urged the restoration of local economics and farming, combined with eco-friendly development to end the depletion of natural resources.

Likewise, Solzhenitysn argued for a sane economy providing civilization with stability, instead of an “uninterrupted rise in the level of material existence.”6 In his famous book Letters to the Soviet Leaders, he concurred with Schumacher.

“What must be implemented is not a ‘steadily expanding economy,’ but a zero-growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous…we must renounce, as a matter of urgency, the gigantic scale of modern technology in industry, agriculture, and urban development…”7

Solzhenitsyn spoke favorably of traditional, repairable, crafts replacing poorly manufactured goods intended for consumers to replace at the slightest defect.8 Products and technology, he argued, should be measured by how well they serve our needs, as we are spiritual beings with a primary concern for inner development, which frighteningly shifted at the hands of a society bent on material acquisition (or outer development). Production followed as an agent subordinate to our inner development in a society sheltering the soul first and foremost.9

As we shall see in part two of this piece, for distributists and Solzhenitsyn alike, two key components were necessary for the stability of the family: Property and thrift.

*Solzhenitsyn’s socio-economic thought can be found in his books, “Rebuilding Russia,” “From Under the Rubble,” “Letter to the Soviet Leaders,” and the 1978 Harvard graduation address. As he later relayed to author Joseph Pearce in his book “Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile,” Solzhenitsyn arrived at his conclusions independently of Schumacher and Chesterton. He did nonetheless arrive at them.

1.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976) 10-11.
2.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart, June 8th, 1978. Retrieved October 22, 2008 from The Augustine Club:
3.Solzhenitsyn criticized the view that the State focused on exchange and ignored our higher calling as individuals, leaving this, “…outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense.” [Ibid.]
4.Encyclical. Mater et Magistra §20.
5.Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul In Exile, (Baker Books, 2001) 219-220.
6.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble, (Bantam Books, 1976) 19.
7.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, (Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1974) 22-23.
8.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1991) 37.
9.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble, (Bantam Books, 1976) 136-137.


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