During my junior year in college, I took two semesters of Russian history. The second semester focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the books we read was a really, really bad 1863 novel called What Is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It was a political novel, written by a member of the Russian intelligentsia (he was a literary critic, among other things), and it sought to explain why intellectuals needed to take the lead in the struggle between socialism and capitalism. Surprisingly for the time, its lead character, a woman, advocated free love, an end to marriage, an end to private property, and creation of socialist industrial communes.
In response, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground, which ridiculed Chernyshevsky’s book. Later, Leo Tolstoy wrote a response as well. Intellectuals, however loved the book, not least for how it cast them as social and political heroes. One person completely impressed by the book was Vladimir Lenin, who went on to implement much of what What Is to be Done?advocated. And we know how well that worked out.
Two years ago, Northwestern University professor Gary Morson gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, speaking on this 19thcentury “great authors versus intellectuals” battle. He likens it to contemporary American society, but he points out that we have no great authors – no Dostoevsky, no Tolstoy, no Anton Chekhov – to engage the battle today. What the lecture does tell us is that all this stuff flying around about socialism, green new deals, soaking the rich, and ending capitalism is nothing new. We’ve seen it before, and we know exactly where it will lead.
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Life and Culture
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Three Sonnets on the Temptations of Christ – Malcolm Guite at The Imaginative Conservative.
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James Tate’s Last, Last Poems – Matthew Zapruder at The Paris Review.
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The Surprising Humanity of the Westminster Confession – Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.
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It is Well with My Soul – Audrey Assad
Painting: Woman Reading, oil on canvas by David Park (1911-1960).