Left and Right

The Persistence of the Lie

One must begin at the beginning—the personal decision not to live by lies. From that wise and liberating decision, all else will flow.


Editor’s Note – This essay was originally published at Law & Liberty on February 17, 2022.

As the great anti-totalitarian Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) noted time and again, violence and lies were the twin pillars, the soul-destroying foundations, of communist regimes in every time and clime, from Moscow to Beijing to Havana. In the words of Martin Malia, the author of the magisterial The Soviet Tragedy, communism had a recognizable nature, one incompatible in any time or place with liberty and human dignity. As for Solzhenitsyn, he knew of what he spoke. He had spent eleven years in prison, camps, and internal exile where, thankfully, the scales of ideology fell from his eyes. He experienced the ideological Lie from within. As a result, he became one of the most courageous and consequential moral witnesses of the twentieth century.

Through bitter experience, Solzhenitsyn arrived at this firm conclusion: The communist regime and ideology were in decisive respects at odds with the deepest wellsprings of human nature and with the moral norms that constitute a free and decent society. How can one attain liberty worthy of human beings when private property is summarily abolished or dramatically curtailed, the traditional family is assaulted and its prerogatives radically circumscribed, religion is cruelly persecuted, and humane national loyalty and traditions are replaced by an abstract and coercive utopianism based on contempt for the cultural and civilizational inheritance? Contrary to legend, communism was never good “in theory” as so many are wont to say today (including almost all the students I have taught in recent years). The theory itself demands this violence against human nature since communism’s four “abolitions,” that of property, the family (bourgeois or otherwise), religion, and the nation, are profoundly at odds with the nature and needs of human beings and the very structure of social and political reality.

But the truly dramatic implosion of European communism between 1989 and 1991 has not led to the “end of History”(far from it) or even the cessation of ideological politics. New forms of ideological mendacity have risen in the place of the totalitarian Lie precisely because that Lie has never been truly and widely understood or repudiated. This essay will trace the movement from ideological mendacity in its classic totalitarian form to the new forms of ideological despotism that today threaten Western liberty, the search for truth, and the integrity of human souls. As I will show, the two forms of the Lie are by no means unrelated.

Solzhenitsyn on the Ideological Lie

As Solzhenitsyn himself testified in one of the most profound and soul-shaking books of the twentieth century, the three-volume Gulag Archipelago, the great ideological Lie “gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and justification.” “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him,” he famously observed. In their guilt and moral derangement, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth still bowed before the requirements of conscience and literally went mad as a result of their crimes.


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