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The Legacy of Totalitarianism: An Interview with Alfred Kentigern Siewers

The Legacy of Totalitarianism: An Interview with Alfred Kentigern Siewers

9 Mins
February 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: Alfred Kentigern Siewers is associate professor of English at Bucknell University and 2018–2019 William E. Simon visiting fellow in religion and public life at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His scholarly work and teaching focus on the cultural history of nature from the Middle Ages to the present, its implications for ideas of freedom and justice, and modern literary resistance to totalitarianism. A former journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Christian Science Monitor, he currently also serves as a member of the lesser clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

MM: You edited, along with Alexander Riley, the 2019 book The Totalitarian Legacy of the  Bolshevik Revolution, which is based on a symposium that took place at Bucknell University in 2017. Was this sort of retrospective happening on college campuses nationwide? Were academics saying, “Phew, dodged a bullet there! Thank goodness that’s over!”

AS: There were, surprisingly, relatively few of these kinds of observances that I'm aware of. The one other academic observance of the centennial that was brought to my attention was one that seemed to be along the lines of the good Lenin/bad Stalin model recommending an embrace of the positives of the Bolshevik revolution as a mini-renaissance opening up culture to social justice. When it was anything but that if you're considering social justice as meaning people having dignity and rights. I think the term “social justice” is problematic, but the sort of sentiment behind it is “human beings will have a better chance realizing and flourishing in an authentic life.” That was anything but the case in terms of the results of the Bolshevik revolution.


The lack of a lot of observation of the centennial is maybe not so much related to a feeling of relief that we don't have communism over here as to perhaps the fact that the Bolshevik revolution, if studied in detail, can be a serious embarrassment at best to the left, and it's not something that the left would necessarily want to highlight in the context of American politics today.  Because, if you look carefully at the Bolshevik revolution from the start, including especially Lenin’s role, you recognize easily what Stéphane Courtois, one of our speakers, and who is in the book, calls the “origins of totalitarianism” right there with the Bolshevik revolution. That really gives the lie to the idea that there can be a kind, gentle communism.

It's interesting because on campus the faculty on the left opposed the symposium. When we announced this on campus, we had immediate push back from some colleagues in the history department who are more radically oriented and also some colleagues elsewhere on campus who have a positive view of Marxist-Leninism to one degree or another in the sense that the Bolshevik revolution was part of a progressive narrative of history reaching towards greater social justice and who accept, from my perspective, the good Lenin/bad Stalin narrative.  But their views were not derived from the kind of in-depth scholarship that our speakers practiced.

A lot of recent scholarship, a lot of scholarship based on materials from Soviet archives once those became available and open, really gives the lie to that good Lenin/bad Stalin narrative. That small but vocal handful of colleagues who objected to the symposium really in my view bought into that more superficial older view, which was never really justified by scholarship anyway, but it has certainly been superseded as scholarship has gone more deeply into these issues. 100 years later, we should be able to have a clear perspective on this, and I think that the speakers that we brought offered that.

Still, we were accused of organizing an ideological anti-communist program, and unfortunately very few of our colleagues in history or other related areas showed up for the Symposium.  There were a few colleagues who did, to their credit, and one in history actually help moderate one of the sessions, which was great.

But I think maybe the saddest thing about all that is people just not showing up to hear scholars with whom they disagree, without,  to my mind really understanding what the scholar’s work is about, based on the critical emails that we were getting from colleagues objecting to the symposium. It would be nice to think that people would be willing to show up, and, if they had disagreements with the scholars, and we're talking about serious scholars now, to be able to have a discussion with them and try to make reasonable objections in a civil way during the Q & A would be a great model for the students. Unfortunately that seems to be a difficult thing to pull off today in academia generally.

MM: So there were very few attempts over all to study what was clearly a momentous anniversary.

AS: That sense of amnesia about the centennial, what we were calling “the great forgetting” in the book, it's ironic that there seemed to be such an absence of remembering. Justifiably, we have lots of remembrances around the country, including at college campuses, of the Holocaust and the tragic horrible costs of Nazism as a totalitarian system. But there's very little remembering about the dangers of communism as worked out historically, and that makes it more dangerous in my mind. If we're remembering, then we have a sense of the history, a sense of where these ideas went in terms of human suffering. If we're forgetting all that, then we’re prone to get caught up in the same kind of emotionalism and sentiment about the ideas of communism. And I think that's happening today. I think a lot of young people are getting caught up in that, whether they call it “socialism” or “democratic socialism” and so forth.  A lot of close connections are being ignored. For example, the Bolshevik party in Russia was known as the Social Democratic Party before it went through various name changes around the time of the actual revolution. These things really need to be studied and taken seriously.

We planned and  announced our symposium because there wasn't anything going on at the university to mark the centennial. Besides my academic interest in this––I write about literature and totalitarianism and teach Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writings and other literature of resistance to communism––I'm also in the clergy in the Russian orthodox church in America.  In the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, which has a tradition of anti-communism, the group of bishops who fled with the white army when the Bolsheviks took power were always very fiercely anti-communist. So that’s in my background and my tradition.

For both of those reasons, the academic side and the religious side, I was interested in marking that centennial somehow on campus. My colleague and co-author Alexander Riley, a conservative sociologist, has studied a lot of sociological analyses of communism and what happened with the Bolshevik revolution, and he was very interested in this too. So we got together to invite these scholars, starting with Stéphane Courtois, because we both agreed that The Black Book of Communism was a definitive study which really indicated the scope of the destructiveness of communism emerging from 1917. Courtois had also been working on a new biography of Lenin, which has since been published in French, but not translated into English yet.

But my colleague Professor Riley reads French and studies French historians and sociologists, and thought that Courtois’ work was really important. We then got the two American scholars, Hollander and Radosh, to come as well because of their expertise studying the effects of communism and also why communism was so attractive to intellectuals in the west despite being a totalitarian ideology.

MM: Have you read Ayn Rand's novel We the Living?

AS: Years ago, and I don't remember very clearly. I remember Atlas Shrugged much more clearly because I read that a few times.

MM: Well, because you teach anti-communist literature, We the Living  takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia for the most part.  It is an account of life there, as Rand witnessed it, for nearly ten years after the revolution.

AS: Right!  I should include that in my syllabi, as I'm teaching courses on this in the future. That's a great idea. We the Living would fit well.

MM: Let's go back to what you were saying about Lenin. I think that this is really interesting because there is this narrative that claims that Lenin was a gentle, benevolent person who advocated “real” communism and unfortunately Lenin was outmaneuvered by Stalin. According to Stéphane Courtois, this narrative ignores Lenin’s role in state terror, concentration camps, mass murder, and forced starvation––that those practices are in fact baked into Lenin’s theory of communism.

AS: Right. I've just been re-reading parts of Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, where she looks both at communism and Nazism. She was writing that in the early 1950s, and it's part of her thesis that communism in Russia as it emerged from the Bolshevik revolution was not only a totalitarian movement, it was a totalitarian regime pretty much from the start. Whereas even with Nazism, she argues it was a totalitarian movement, but it didn't really get fully geared up as a totalitarian state until around the time that World War II broke out. The Nazis did study concentration camps in Russia, and they had a lot of admiration for the oppressive aspects of communism. Even though the Nazi ideology was anti-communist, it was anti-communist mostly in terms of viewing communism as a competing totalitarian movement.

MM: Isn’t Hitler on record as saying that he learned a lot from the communists?

AS: What Lenin originated, in his ruthlessness, Hitler picked up and carried along. And of course it was the secret alliance between Stalin and Hitler, between communist Russia and Nazi Germany to divide up Poland and the Baltic states and Finland, that enabled the start of World War II, and that enabled Hitler then to invade the west.

But to go back to Lenin, the ways that we regard Hitler today for those who study history,  students coming up in K - 12 learn about the evils of Hitler. They agree you shouldn't be displaying swastikas because it's seen as a political evil symbol–– for understandable reasons.

But none of that gets connected with Lenin, and yet Lenin was the originator of the totalitarian approaches that Hitler developed in his own related way in Germany later. What Lenin developed, which from the start involved mass killings of people and government-engineered famines and oppression, all that continued to move along and across decades and ended up in the deaths of far more people than Nazism did.

So really in lots of ways Lenin should be studied as a figure at least on a par with Hitler in terms of illustrating the evils of totalitarianism. Yet very few young people get that perspective from our educational system.

The way that faculty operate at many universities in the United States, it would be unthinkable for a faculty member to have some kind of Nazi propaganda poster on their office door. Yet I have seen Soviet communist propaganda posters on office doors of faculty, not widespread, but I can think of one case in my building where that happened and nobody said or thought anything about it as far as I could tell. I think I was the only one who noticed that and cringed every time I walked by.

MM: According to Courtois, individual life lost its meaning during Lenin’s regime. I’ll quote: “Man was nothing more than material that could be used as they saw fit for the creation of the communist society, their murderous utopia.” Why do you think this kind of mindset was able to gain traction?

Well, Lenin was an advocate of the vanguard model of communism, in which elites would lead the way as revolutionaries who were willing to do anything. The ends justify the means. Part of that philosophy then extended to having opinion makers, that is educated people who would mold the culture, be part of that vanguard. These would be the people operating the secret police ruthlessly, but also the people establishing control over education, media, and professions. That understanding that Lenin had of controlling the levers of power, taking them over, on the one hand we may think that that's unlikely in society today. But certainly the technologies that we have for surveillance and for influencing people are even greater today. So while on the one hand people have greater freedom in terms of access to information through the internet, on the other hand there is also greater opportunity for control of people too. That sense of using human beings for a greater purpose, it certainly could come back, in certain ways today, in the control of the key centers of ideas in the country.

If you think about how fast things flipped, if you look at the Bolshevik revolution, if you read Solzhenitsyn, people were surprised at how fast things slipped away into the Bolshevik regime. There's a danger that we could flip around quickly and be in a situation where there could be some really terrible things. God forbid hopefully that that doesn't happen. I don't want to be overly alarmist, but you know there's no guarantee from generation to generation that people are going to keep their freedom, and it's very concerning to me.

In the book we talk about Solzhenitzyn who said that two principles of communism in the Soviet Union were survive at any price and only material results matter. That means that there's no sense of ideas or principles beyond that very ends-justify-the-means type of ethics. People don’t take ideas seriously, they just take seriously that they want to survive within the reality of the communist system––which is not a reality. It's a virtual reality.  But they become so enmeshed in it that it becomes what Solzhenitsyn called “the permanent lie.” People just accept the system that they’re in. They want to survive at any price within that system.

Only material results matter within that system, so other people just become pawns or pieces that you use to try to achieve your gains. Hannah Arendt said the two qualities of totalitarianism are isolation and terror. So you have that combination of people becoming more and more isolated from each other, their only connection is to the regime and they're willing to ultimately engage in anything necessary, including murder, to be able to survive and advance within the system that they're part of. It’s a terrifying situation.

MM: Paul Hollander points out that in the Soviet Union human attitudes and behavior were politicized. The personal became political, as the state actively worked to shape a “new type of human being.”  How does this work? Does this sort of thing still happen?

AS: I think so. Even in the relatively benevolent United States, and I'm grateful to live in the United States (most of us are), but the whole K-12 public education system and the woke capitalism advocate for more social justice positions and socialism today.  

The influence of those ideas on professions, they all tend to mold a sense of who is the ideal type of human being who can survive and thrive in a system dominated by the government. That's an effect that we've been seeing partly from public education, the professions, the spillover into younger corporate leadership today, and of course government and political leadership.

This new type of person–– people jokingly would talk about the pajama boy from the Obamacare ads. So that becomes the reality, the framework that people are working in. It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be benevolence. The problem is that you shape a whole sense of false reality for people in which they're objective sense of being able to make choices is taken away from them over time and they don't even realize that that's going on.

MM: That reminds me of Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem.  It starts with the main character in a dystopian collectivist society. He is considered deviant because he keeps thinking, even when he’s warned not to. He keeps using his head and his senses, and he realizes that the reality imposed on him by the government isn’t actually real. He goes on to rediscover the laws of nature and of human nature. It is a very interesting book.

AS: That’s another book I can add to my syllabi.

MM: You mentioned just a little while ago the idea that ‘only results matter,’ and I'd like to conclude with that. It’s an important point. I often hear that only the results matter.

AS: And the ideas don't matter. This is the argument. Don’t worry about the ideas or thinking about virtues or things like that.  This is why literature resisting totalitarianism is so important, especially today. You can think of great writers like Solzhenitzyn, and going back to the nineteenth century Dostoevsky, yet another Russian writer very prophetic about totalitarianism. Whittaker Chambers writing Witness. George Orwell writing 1984 and Animal Farm–– just some really wonderful and important literature. Certainly Ayn Rand is someone who took ideas seriously and wrote novels that were very important and influential in resisting totalitarianism.

Art and writing and research and history matter. Many of the writers I mentioned  combined either fiction or literary memoir reflection with historical research like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It's enormously important. It’s the way to combat this idea that ideas don't matter–– which is a communist notion. And it's a lie! And it's a paradox, because of course communism is advancing its own ideologies. So of course communism has ideas that it is taking seriously.  But I think one of the ways that it operates is to try to discount serious discussion of ideas and say let's just look at the results, what we want to accomplish in a pragmatic material way, and in doing so, then it's able to manipulate and try to gain more power.

MM: Thank you very much, Alf.

AS: I enjoyed talking with you.


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

History of Philosophy