By Julian Markels
This essay attempts to establish both (a) a link between culture and politics and (b) a 150-year progression in socialist theory and practice that can enlarge our understanding of historical process. Dostoevsky and Chávez were nationalists who espoused a singular identity: the “Christ-bearing” of Dostoevsky’s idealized Russia and the “Bolivarian protagonism” of Chávez’s idealized Venezuela. Dostoevsky, despite his frequent repudiations of socialism, also made it the sub-textual “double” of the heterodox Christianity he came to articulate through Alyosha and his mentor Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Chávez, after beginning as the kind of foco vanguardist Dostoevsky would abhor, grew into a democratic socialist motivated in part by his Christian devotion analogous to that of Dostoevsky’s “Christ-bearing” Russian. The sub-textual socialism latent in Dostoevsky’s revised Christianity emerged in Chávez as historically unprecedented Christian socialist praxis.
The link between Dostoevsky and Chávez may seem at first implausible. Christianity’s promise to reward suffering in this life by reunion with Christ in the next, and socialism’s promise to end expropriation in this life by collective action here and now, have been for the most part historically incompatible. Yet while the terrorism practiced for centuries in the name of Christ produced untold human suffering, during those centuries many Christians came to believe in socialism as a fulfillment of Christianity. The fervent Gerrard Winstanley in the seventeenth century was making arguments prophetic of Marx while across the Atlantic his co-religionists were exterminating indigenous peoples in pursuit of their divine mission. Dostoevsky’s anti-semitism didn’t prevent him from claiming that his Russian is endowed with “a sympathy for everything human” (Frank 1986: 55), nor does he ever address class domination as unsympathetic to the human. But as Ivan says to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov,
And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it’s the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end (Dostoevsky 1990: 234).
Those questions are about “God and immortality,” and they entail a choice of redemption between this world and the next. Dostoevsky from his end repudiates socialism in this world while affirming Christianity and the next, yet socialism remains the mesmerizing “double” to which he keeps returning with subterranean longing. Chávez from his end, after waiting six years before declaring Venezuela socialist, had to keep contending with this world’s greed, disloyalty, and corruption among a people newly endowed with housing, literacy, health care, and a voice in its own government. And in coming from opposite ends, both men conceived their goals as nation-building, rather than the obsolescence of nations as currently implied by postcolonial studies.
Dostoevsky has long been recognized in his major works as struggling to emancipate Russia from European cultural imperialism by constituting through his art a new Christian subject, standing in contrast not only to the subject of the European Enlightenment but also to that of European (Roman Catholic) Christianity. We can now also say that Chávez’s project was to emancipate Venezuela from US economic imperialism by constituting through his politics a new “Bolivarian” subject, descended from the European Enlightenment but also from Latin American (Roman Catholic) liberation theology, and imbued with a protagonism parallel to that of Dostoevsky’s subject. Chávez’s socialism is a studied replacement of the socialism Dostoevsky repudiated, and his Bolivarian project extends the mission of Dostoevsky’s Russian as exemplified by the monk Zosima and his disciple Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov.
In a famous 1854 letter upon his release from prison to the woman who had given him a Bible on his way to Siberia in 1849, Dostoevsky wrote that “I am a child of the age, a child of unbelief and of doubt, …and so, I know I shall be to the grave”–and then, one paragraph later, that “if anyone should prove to me that Christ lay outside the truth, and it really was so that He lay outside the truth, I would prefer to be with Christ than with the truth” (Dostoevsky 1987: 68).
As a child of the age arguing for the emancipation of the serfs (and perhaps political revolution), Dostoevsky and his fellow members of the Petrashevsky Circle had been arrested, condemned to death, brought before a firing squad, and had their sentences commuted at the very last minute. Then during four years in prison, as he later described them in The House of the Dead (1861), Dostoevsky’s reflections on his fellow prisoners brought him back to the Orthodox Christianity he had perhaps come to doubt while advocating the emancipation of the serfs. But now he also sensed that this Christianity might be in conflict with the truth, and it can almost be said that he spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile the two by re-imagining Christianity in a heterodox form that substantially incorporates the socialist ideal produced by the age whose child he still remained.
His repudiation of socialism after his release from prison took many forms—snide put-downs, shrill diatribes, and powerful arguments in his notebooks, letters, journalism, and fiction; scathingly satirical portraits of his novels’ liberal and socialist characters; narrative episodes that equate socialism with nihilism and assassination; and tragic plots whose protagonists are unable to overcome their Enlightenment-engendered existential despair. Yet we can also identify in this potpourri a three-stage progression—from a persuasively reasoned yet tantalizingly ambiguous argument against socialism, which I will represent by passages from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862) and Crime and Punishment (1866), to a totally unambiguous, vituperative representation of the liberal, socialist, and nihilist characters involved in the political assassination of Demons (1872), and finally to an accommodation between Christianity and socialism in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), where Dostoevsky’s whole effort is to articulate Russia’s mission, and where he represents this mission in a manner to include the socialist ideal he had ostensibly repudiated.
In the earlier works we can identify a two-stranded, core critique of socialism that foretells Stalinism yet is also ambiguous insofar as it argues both a) that socialism is an intellectual abstraction artificially imposed on living reality, and b) that it is historically premature. An early version of this ambiguity appears in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, where Dostoevsky writes,
What, then, can the Socialist do, if there is no principle of brotherhood in the Westerner but, on the contrary, an individualist, isolationist instinct which stands aloof and demands its rights with sword in hand? Observing that there is no fraternity around, the Socialist tries to talk fraternity into people. To make rabbit stew, you first of all need a rabbit. But there is no rabbit available, i.e., no nature capable of brotherhood, no nature that believes in brotherhood, no nature naturally attracted to brotherhood. The frantic Socialist sets desperately to work on the future fraternity, defining it, calculating its size and weight, enticing you with its advantages…and determines in advance the division of earthly wealth…. But what kind of fraternity will it be if they divide in advance and determine how much each merits and what each must do (Dostoevsky 1955: 114-15).
Here the critique of socialism as an artificial contrivance imposed from above is introduced by an equally harsh critique of Western liberalism, the liberalism of human rights for each person, and then by extension our identity categories–serfs, women, students–all aspiring, in today’s parlance, to “inclusion” rather than “brotherhood.” If for Dostoevsky there is “no nature capable of brotherhood” for the socialist to appeal to, that is not because socialism is incompatible with human rights, but because the Westerner is acculturated in an individualism that demands its rights with sword in hand and, in so doing, disables itself for brotherhood. This then leaves socialism only two possibilities, either that it might succeed at some future time when individualism has laid down its sword and brotherhood has become possible, or that it can never succeed because calculating in advance the division of earthly wealth can never produce brotherhood.
The ambivalence reflected by these two possibilities is elaborated in Crime and Punishment, where the character Razumikhin interweaves them in his denunciation of socialists:
With them [the socialists] it’s not mankind developing all along in a historical, living way that will finally turn by itself into a normal society, but on the contrary, a social system, coming out of some mathematician’s head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless, sooner than any living process, without any historical and living way! That’s why they have such an instinctive dislike of history…That’s why they so dislike the living process of life; there’s no need for the living soul! The living soul will demand life, the living soul won’t listen to mechanics, the living soul is suspicious, the living soul is retrograde! And it turns out in the end that they’ve reduced everything to mere brickwork and the layout of rooms and corridors in a phalanstery! (Dostoevsky 1993: 256; italics in original).
This paragraph’s overall insistence on a historical, “living process of life” could be endorsed by any marxist as reflecting Dostoevsky’s commitment to a historical materialism in which socialism remains both desirable and attainable. Yet woven into this insistence are some contradictory assertions—that the living soul will not submit to mechanics, or that the living soul is retrograde—which imply a human nature endowed with rights that will always refuse submission to any system devised in a mathematician’s head.
In passages like these we can see Dostoevsky as still a child of doubt, on the one hand attracted to the ideal of brotherhood in a society capable of becoming righteous and sinless, and on the other repelled by the mechanical (and far from sinless) effort to impose brotherhood from above. This fecund ambiguity then lapses into tortured contradiction in his response to the Nechaev affair of 1869, a political murder that prompted the novel Demons, along with the letters and diaries surrounding it. In November of that year at the Petrov Academy in Moscow, the student Ivan Ivanov was killed by a revolutionary group led by the well-known nihilist Sergei Nechaev, and this murder horrified Dostoevsky as a symptom of Russian youth’s fatal embrace of European liberalism with its twin offspring of socialism and nihilism. His reaction caused him to set aside the notes for his long-contemplated “Life of A Great Sinner,” to think at first of writing a pamphlet explaining the historic significance of the Nechaev mentality, but then decide to depict this mentality in Demons as part of that novel’s rendition of “The Life of a Great Sinner” (Frank 1995: 397; Pevear 1994: vii-xi).
While composing Demons, Dostoevsky wrote his friend Mikhail Katkov that “…although the whole incident [Shatov’s murder] forms one of the main plots of the novel, it is, notwithstanding, only an accessory and a setting for the activities of another character [Nikolai Stavrogin] who could actually be called the main character of the novel. (Dostoevsky 1987: 340-41). The magnitude and cognition of Stavrogin’s tragedy in Demons have led many readers to regard this novel as second only to The Brothers Karamazov among Dostoevsky’s works, and here I must ignore this tragedy while focusing on its accessory incident, which marks a new phase in Dostoevsky’s engagement with socialism.
The plot to kill Shatov comes to a head in Chapter 7 of Part Two, “With Our People.” This chapter depicts the meeting at which the murder is decided upon, and in representing the assorted liberals, socialists, and nihilists who agree to the murder, Dostoevsky creates a monolithic gallery of vituperative caricatures. The occasion of the gathering is the character Virginsky’s name day, to which he has invited some two dozen people who “represented the flower of the most bright red liberalism in our ancient town,” including some who also represented “the type of first and noblest impulse of fervent youth” (Dostoevsky 1994: 390, 392). But in the nasty, stupid, inchoate bickering of this assembly there is not the faintest trace of any noble impulse, least of all in the high school student and college student who are its only candidates for fervent youth, and whose exchanges sound like this:
The girl student drew herself up.
“I wanted to declare to the meeting about the suffering and protest of the students, but since time is being wasted on immoral talk…”
“There’s no such thing as moral or immoral!” the high school boy could not bear it, once the girl started.
“I knew that, mister high-school student, way before you were taught such things.”
“And I maintain,” the boy flew into a frenzy, “that you are a child come from Petersburg to enlighten us all, when we know it ourselves” (Dostoevsky 1994: 398).
Then, immediately following such vitriol within months after Demons was published, Dostoevsky defended the novel by arguing that he himself could have been a Nechaevist imbued with noble impulse in his youth as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle:
…probably I could never become a Nechaiev, but a Nechaievetz—for this I wouldn’t vouch, but maybe I could have become one… in the days of my youth…And in my novel I made the attempt to depict the manifold and heterogeneous motives which may prompt even the purest of heart and the most naïve people to take part in the perpetration of so monstrous a villainy (Dotoevsky 2009: 65 passim).
Here he is in denial of what happens in his novel. His genuine empathy with the pure-hearted and naïve children of the age, which will soon materialize in the figure of Kolya Krasotkin in The Brothers Karamazov, has been given lipservice but no actual voice in Demons’ monophonic caricature of the Nechaev affair.
Instead, the presiding voice at the meeting is given to the scholar Shigalyov, who has written a book on “the social organization of the future society which is to replace the present one,” a book of which he says, “I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” Then someone familiar with his manuscript goes on to summarize its conclusion:
He suggests, as a final solution of the question, the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One tenth is granted unlimited rights over the remaining nine-tenths. These must lose their person and turn into something like a herd, and in unlimited obedience, through a series of regenerations, attain to primeval innocence, something like the primeval paradise…. (Dostoevsky 1994: 402, 403-4).
Here Dostoevsky anticipates not only Stalinism but also the Grand Inquisitor’s Christianity in The Brothers Karamazov, and then, within a year after Demons was published, he writes a letter to the Tsar commending his novel’s rendition of socialism/nihilism as “one of the most dangerous cankers of our present civilization, a civilization which is strange, unnatural, and alien but which thus far has maintained its sway over Russian life” (Dostoevsky 1987: 370).
Meanwhile, he had been trying for a decade to articulate a Russian alternative to the European canker of socialism, and in the continuing ambiguity of his efforts we can discern an intellectual drama that anticipates the situational politics of Hugo Chávez. At first Dostoevsky tried to fuse the liberalism of his youth, which he said made him capable of becoming a Nechaevetz, with “the principle of the people’s life” (Frank 1986: 35) which he had seen among his fellow prisoners in Siberia and which he says saved him from becoming a Nechaevetz. But when he tries to specify what this principle might actually be, at first he wavers between an “enlightened” Russian humanism and a return to Christ. Then when his response to the Nechaev affair makes him choose Christ, he proceeds to waver between a reified Christ of the church and a humanist Christ who still walks among us.
Joseph Frank characterizes one of his early attempts to articulate Russian identity as “alluringly obscure,” and this pretty much applies to them all. Here is a sampling, beginning with the idea of Russian “pan-humanism,” one version of which Frank elucidates as follows: the history of Western European nations is characterized both by internal class conflict, through which each nation had to “conquer all of your progress, your rights, and your privileges,” and also by recurring conflicts with other nations. This multi-layered history of conflict produced “the sharp-edged, closed off, stubborn quality of the European,” whereas in Russia the classes have always been “united peacefully,” so that the Russian sympathizes with everything human, independently of all differences of nationality, blood, and soil. He finds and instantly acknowledges everything reasonable in whatever is, from any point of view, universally human. He has the instinct of the universally human (Frank 1986: 55).
There is no talk here of fusing “enlightenment” with Orthodoxy but of a totally secular Russian exceptionalism. Then during the 1860s, as Dostoevsky turned to Orthodoxy, he also modified it into a principle that partakes of “enlightened” in the manner he first called for.
He wrote to his friend Apollon Maikov early in 1868 that “our people are infinitely superior, more noble, more ingenuous, more gifted, and are imbued with a different idea, the loftiest Christian idea, which Europe, with is moribund Catholicism and stupidly self-contradictory Lutheranism, doesn’t even understand” (Dostoevsky 1987: 265.) Three months later he wrote Maikov that
a great renewal through Russian thought is being prepared for the world as a whole (that thought, as you correctly point out, is closely tied up with Russian Orthodoxy), and this will come about in a century or so—this is my impassioned belief. (Dostoevsky 1987: 276).
And then in an oft-cited letter to Maikov of 1870 written while he was composing Demons, Dostoevsky wrote:
And another potential source of strength is our own faith in our individuality, in the sacredness of our destiny. The whole destiny of Russia lies in Orthodoxy, in the light from the East that will spread to the blinded mankind of the West, which has lost its faith in Christ. All of Europe’s misfortunes, all of its ills, without exception, harken back to its loss of Christ with the establishment of the Roman church, after which they decided that they could manage just as well without Christ. Now, just imagine, my dear friend, even among such eminent Russians as the author of Russia and Europe, for example, I have not come across this concept of Russia, that is, the idea of her exclusive, Orthodox mission among men. And since this is so, it is still too early to demand self-reliance from us (Dostoevsky 1987: 344-5, italics in original).
For my purpose here, two things stand out among these alluring obscurities. The first is that the “Russian Christ, whom the world does not know,” is not recognizably embodied by contemporary Orthodoxy, but only that its “principle is embedded” within it. The second is that if such informed people as the author of Russia and Europe have failed to dis-embed this principle for all to see, “it is too early to demand self reliance from us” in attempting our mission, whose “light from the east” can then only dawn “in a century or so.” Or in other words, just as Razumikhin said of socialism in Crime and Punishment, this light cannot dawn even in Russia “with greater speed than any living process, and without the aid of living historical development.”
Dostoevsky was at the same time deeply aware that a living process of historical development would require the Russian people to begin by regenerating themselves. During all the years he was trying to articulate Russia’s spiritual mission, he was also documenting its moral degeneracy, above all in regard to the sadism inflicted on (and perpetrated by) its children. From his 1861 account in The House of the Dead of a fellow prisoner who took pleasure in murdering children, to his 1876 articles in The Diary of a Writer on the rehabilitation of depraved children, to Ivan Karamazov’s 1880 account of parents sensuously torturing their children simply because they’re defenseless, he was absolutely clear-eyed about the challenge to Russia’s “sympathy with everything human” in attempting to establish its “Orthodox mission among men.
In this context The Brothers Karamazov can be seen as a thought-experiment in which Dostoevsky dramatizes the Karamazov family history as a living process through which Russia’s mission can be entered into as if for the first time. Here again I cannot do justice to the scope and depth of this novel but just sketch the manner in which its three brothers enact the historical process it depicts—Ivan as a protagonist of the West’s “loss of faith in Christ,” Alyosha (inspired by Zosima) as a protagonist of Russia’s “potential strength” in reconstituting that faith, and Dmitri as a protagonist of existing Russia in trying to actualize this strength.
Ivan’s trajectory begins with his article on the ecclesiastical courts, ends in his “brain fever” conversations with Smerdyakov and the devil, and crystallizes along the way in three chapters that define him as the person to whose inner struggle Zosima has given his blessing: “The Brothers Get Acquainted,” “Rebellion,” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” These depict the conversation with Alyosha in which Ivan explains what he calls his “essence”–that while he does accept God, “it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot accept” (Dostoevsky 1990: 235). He begins their conversation with the tantalizing link between Christianity and socialism quoted above,
And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it’s the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end (234).
In this he begs the question why, if the questions are the same for both socialists and believers, he is himself a believer who even so can’t accept God’s world for the “same damned” reasons the socialists can’t accept it. Then he uses the Russian people’s sadism toward their children as evidence against our capacity to love our neighbors as ourselves, and proceeds to the Grand Inquisitor’s condemnation of Jesus as evidence that Western Christianity requires a form of spiritual enslavement equivalent to that proposed by Shigalyov in Demons.
In all of this Ivan re-enacts Dostoevsky’s ambivalence as a child of doubt who now hopes that Alyosha can heal him by showing him how to prefer Christ to the truth. He began explaining his “essence” with a disclaimer—“not that I want to corrupt you and push you off your foundation; perhaps I want to be healed by you” (236). Yet despite several interjections in which Alyosha passionately affirms Christ, and despite Alyosha’s finally kissing Ivan just as Jesus kissed the Inquisitor, their conversation ends not with Alyosha healing Ivan but with Ivan pushing Alyosha off his foundation. When Ivan asked him whether he would shoot the landowner who set his dogs on a servant boy, Alyosha replied, “‘Shoot him!’… looking up at his brother with a sort of pale, twisted smile” (243, italics mine). When Ivan asked whether he’d agree to sacrifice just one little girl tortured by her parents in order to secure everlasting human happiness, he replied, “No, I would not agree” (245). And when Alyosha now rushes back to the monastery after they part, it is not just to be with Zosima before he dies but also to have Zosima re-establish his shaken commitment to Christ—“he [Zosima] will save me from him [Ivan], and forever!” (264).
The Christian sense of human evil to be redeemed by Christ in an afterlife couldn’t be more different from the socialist sense of human exploitation to be abolished by us in this life. Yet Alyosha agreed with Ivan that “the questions are all the same, only from the other end,” and as Dostoevsky now dramatizes his alternative to socialism in the next two books of The Brothers, beginning with Zosima’s life and teachings and culminating in Alyosha’s epiphany in “Cana of Galilee,” his Christianity can sound quite harmonious with socialism.
In Book Six, “The Russian Monk,” we get an account of Zosima’s teaching whose overarching theme that each of us is “guilty for everyone” (300) can sound like a Christian platitude. Yet in one of this argument’s iterations, Zosima is challenged by an acquaintance who is deeply moved by his doctrine but who also sees that Zosima is not quite convinced of it, and who argues that the time is not yet ripe for people to act on it:
This is a matter of the soul, a psychological matter. Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood. No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense… For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes from all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation… But there needs must come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves from one another. Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light. Then the son of man will appear in the heavens (303-4).
If I understand it, this is not an argument for individual redemption through Christ in an afterlife but for collective redemption through brotherhood in this life–and our being confirmed in that by a Second Coming which is no longer necessary on earth but occurs in the heavens as a sign of divine approval.
This man goes on to reveal that he is a murderer who has kept his crime secret for years, during which his guilt and suffering have prevented him from loving not only his neighbor but even his children, and who now feels moved by Zosima to confess. He wavers even so until Zosima reminds him of “the magnanimity in your great resolution” (308), and when he does confess, it is not privately to a monk standing in for Christ but face-to-face to the community of his family and friends in his home on his birthday. He soon dies, and Zosima concludes his autobiographical chapter by saying that “every day, down to this very day, I have remembered the long-suffering servant of God, Mikhail, in my prayers” (312).
He then proceeds in his “Talks and Homilies” to endorse this Mikhail’s idea:
But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs (313, italics in original).
And he goes on to invoke what he repeatedly calls, not “Christ” but “the image of Christ,” as a guide to Russians in finding their mission. In a passage of wishful thinking that dwarfs everything Dostoevsky had been attributing to the socialists for decades, Zosima predicts that the Russian monks who have kept Christ’s image “pure and undistorted” (313) for centuries will soon come out of their monasteries and impart this image to the people, so that
it will come to pass that even the most corrupt of our rich men will finally be ashamed of his riches before the poor man, and the poor man, seeing his humility, will understand and yield to him in joy, and will respond with kindness to his gracious shame… Where there are brothers, there will be brotherhood; but before brotherhood they will never share among themselves. Let us preserve the image of Christ, so that it may shine forth like a precious diamond to the whole world…(316).
Then in Book Seven, “Alyosha,” Alyosha arrives at a personal “essence” parallel to Ivan’s as the brother through whom the image of Christ can shine forth. Zosima had instructed him to leave the monastery for the world, and by the time Alyosha does that, he is able to perform, and to elicit from others, the justice and mercy jointly required for loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. In “The Odor of Corruption,” when Zosima’s corpse begins to smell immediately instead of remaining odorless as the sign from God expected by the village’s Orthodox believers, Alyosha is pushed still further off his foundation. The smelly corpse “influenced in the strongest and most definite way the soul and heart of the main, though future [italics in original], hero of my story, Alyosha, causing, as it were, a crisis and upheaval in his soul, which shook his mind but also ultimately strengthened it for the whole of his life, and towards a definite purpose [italics mine]” (329). Alyosha dashes out of the monastery, encounters Rakitin in “An Opportune Moment” where Rakitin mocks his misplaced devotion to Zosima and Alyosha replies “I believed, I believe, and I want to believe”–and then, quoting Ivan, “I do not rebel against my God, I simply ‘do not accept his world’” (341). The vengeful Rakitin invites him to Grushenka’s to be seduced, and then in “An Onion,” the great chapter parallel to Ivan’s in “Rebellion,” Alyosha and Grushenka redeem and empower each other in an encounter that can elicit the image of Christ.
When Alyosha arrives, Grushenka is pushed off her foundation by his charismatic presence–she tells Rakitin sotto voce that her intention to seduce him has evaporated–and when she sits on his lap she also offers to get off if that makes him angry. But it doesn’t, because Alyosha is experiencing “a new and strange sensation…: this ‘horrible’ woman, not only did not arouse in him the fear he had felt before…., but, on the contrary,… aroused in him quite a different, unexpected, and special feeling, the feeling of…pure-hearted curiosity, and without …a trace of his former terror…” (349)
His curiosity is rewarded by Grushenka’s confession that she was a “bitch” with Katerina Ivanovna two days ago in his presence, that she is a “low woman,” and yet also one who sometimes sees Alyosha as “my conscience” and feels “ashamed of myself” (350). Alyosha responds in kind, at first to Rakitin:
…don’t taunt me with having rebelled against my God…You’d do better to look here, at her: did you see how she spared me? I came here looking for a wicked soul—I was drawn to that because I am low and wicked myself, but I found a true sister, I found a treasure—a loving soul…She spared me just now.… I’m speaking of you, Agrafena Alexandrova. You restored my soul just now (351).
Rakitin of course feels cheated by all this, and the narrator says that “he should have realized that everything had just come together for them both in such a way that their souls were shaken, which does not happen very often in life” (353).
This shaking of souls does not lead to Alyosha’s and Grushenka’s falling in love with each other but to their learning individually to enlarge their humanity by loving their neighbors as themselves. Grushenka responds to their encounter by recognizing Dmitri’s love for her that now enables her to love him. Alyosha responds by learning to take responsibility for others through helping them become their best selves in engagement with one another. We socialists can hope that the rough-and-tumble of these characters’ everyday life, with its greed, envy, pride, and rejection, may soften with the advent of socialism. But it is unlikely to disappear altogether, and Dostoevsky from his end is dramatizing the personal relations through which we learn to become responsible for each other in a manner appropriate to socialism.
Grushenka tells Alyosha that “All my life I’ve been waiting for such a one as you, I knew that someone like that would come and forgive me…someone would love me, a dirty woman, not only for my shame” (357); and her shaken soul responds to their encounter by rejecting the returning suitor who first “ruined” her and coming to love Dmitri with all his faults (thus confirming Zosima’s bow to Dmitri in the beginning), as one who embodies what Dostoevsky had called long ago “the principle of the people’s life.” Some 150 pages after “An Onion,” when Grushenka is asked in “The Evidence of the Witnesses” whether she had ever heard Dmitri threaten to kill his father, she replies “He mentioned it several times, always in a fit of anger.” When asked whether she believed him, she replies, “No, I never believed it! … I trusted in his nobility.” And when Dmitri then swears to her his innocence before all assembled, she crosses herself and says,
“Glory be to God!”…in an ardent, emotional voice, and…she added “What he has just said, you must believe! I know him: when he babbles, he babbles, whether it’s for fun or out of stubbornness, but if it’s something against his conscience, he will never deceive you. He will speak the truth directly, you must believe that!” (506)
They don’t believe that, and when they take Dmitri away, she tells him “I’ve told you that I am yours, and I will be yours, I will go with you forever, wherever they doom you to go. Farewell, guiltless man, who have been your own ruin” (510).
Alyosha’s shaken soul is meanwhile restored to its foundation in “Cana of Galilee,” where, upon returning from Grushenka’s to the monastery, he submits to Zosima’s “putrid odor” while listening to Father Paissy read the story of Jesus turning water into wine for poor people who can’t afford it. He dozes and dreams of Zosima telling him it is now time, “my meek one, to do your work!” (361). He rushes outdoors, and the chapter concludes with the famous passage where “the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars” and Alyosha kisses the earth and then rises ready to “forgive everyone and for everything” (362). He feels “almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul…He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life…” (363).
What I think this comes to is that Alyosha, beginning in his conversation with Ivan and culminating in his kissing the earth, has found his “essence” and been transformed from a weak youth to a steadfast fighter with a purpose; and that the rest of his life is not being put on hold for a sequel Dostoevsky didn’t live to write but substantially begins in the remainder of The Brothers. He now disappears for 150 pages while Dostoevsky evokes Dmitri’s “essence,” but when he does reappear, it is as confidant and healer to all of the principal characters—Kolya, Grushenka, Liza, Dmitri, Ivan, Katya—whose trust in his charisma, empathy, and wisdom is rewarded by (except for Ivan) their deepening as human persons. That can make him look pale beside his flamboyant brothers, but it does not disqualify him from reflecting the image of Christ in a novel that is not a scattershot theodicy but an organic narrative of human solidarity striving to overcome human alienation.
Dmitri embodies Russia’s spiritual potential in conflict with its Karamazov sensuality, and he is the subject of Book Seven, where his “essence” becomes manifest in his response to the authorities following his detainment for murdering his father. The evidence against him is massive but circumstantial—his widely heard threat to kill, the blood on his clothes, the pestle he left behind, the alleged 3,000 rubles in his hand after redeeming his pawned pistols, and the 3,000 missing from his father’s envelope. He explains that he had often threatened to kill his father but was saved by God from doing it; that the blood on his clothes belongs to his father’s servant Grigory, whom he did kill with the pestle and for which he should be convicted; that he redeemed the pistols so that he could blissfully shoot himself in the knowledge that Grushenka had loved him for one hour (but not before treating her and her returned suitor to champagne and chocolates); and that despite appearances, the money in his hand was only 1,500 rubles, which he’d kept from the 3,000 Katya loaned him so as to return it as a pledge on the balance, and thus to remain in his own eyes not an outright thief but only the scoundrel he knew himself to be.
Unbeknownst to Dmitri, Grigory has survived his blow, and he is absolved of that murder. But what now tips the scales against him for his father’s murder is his statement that after striking Grigory he bent over in the hope of seeing him still alive, which the reader knows to be true but which convinces the prosecutor that he wanted to make certain he had killed the sole witness to his parricide. During the interrogation Dmitri sometimes babbles,
It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person, above all—do not lose sight of this—a man who has done a world of mean things, but who was and always remained a most noble person, as a person, inside, in his depths, well, in short, I don’t know how to say it…. This is precisely what has tormented me all my life, that I thirsted for nobility, that I was, so to speak, a sufferer for nobility, seeking it with a lantern, Diogenes’ lantern, and meanwhile all my life I’ve been doing only dirty things…(462),
but never at the expense of his conscience:
Yes, gentlemen, I too had that thought during this cursed month, so that I resolved to go to Katya, so base I was! But to go to her, to announce my betrayal to her…and for the future expenses of that betrayal, to ask money from her…and immediately run off with another woman, her rival…—my God, you’re out of your mind, prosecutor!” (495).
His honesty and forthrightness lead him to reveal the most intimate complexities of his struggle to overcome his inner scoundrel; and then as the interrogation winds down and he is emotionally spent (also hung over), he falls asleep and dreams, not of his father or Grigory or Grushenka but of a burnt-out poor family whose baby is freezing to death. In this dream he “feels a tenderness such as he has never known before surging up in his heart,… he wants to do something for them all, so the wee one will no longer cry…so that there will be no more tears in anyone from that moment on, at once, without delay and despite everything, with all his Karamazov unrestraint” (508); and he tells Alyosha later that he is a different person for having dreamt of that baby. Like Russia in its destiny to become a “light from the East,” Dmitri remains a work in progress, and the next step in his progression will come predictably through Alyosha.
While Dmitri is experiencing the raptures and torments that converge in his arrest, Alyosha is persuading Russia’s new generation to follow Zosima’s doctrine that just as each of us is guilty for all, each must also be responsible for all. Under Alyosha’s influence the cruel tormenting of Ilyusha Snegiryov by his schoolmates, above all Kolya Krasotkin, is transformed into communal support during Ilyusha’s fatal illness. Then after helping the 14-year-old Kolya to redirect his life as they leave Ilyusha’s bedside, Alyosha visits Grushenka at her request, Liza at hers, Dmitri at his, Katya at hers, and, coincidentally, Ivan along the way. All when he encounters them are in conflict, just like Kolya, between their worse and better selves, and what the narrator tells us of Grushenka–that at such a moment “she opened her heart to him alone” (564) – is echoed by them all. Alyosha reassures Grushenka that Dmitri never loved Katya and loves only her; Liza, that he will always come to her; Dmitri, that he has never doubted his innocence; Ivan, that he is not responsible for Smerdyakov’s crime; and Katya, that she is responsible to make peace with Dmitri. Everywhere he goes, Zosima’s “meek one” takes responsibility while forgiving everyone for everything, and in that process performs an alternative morality to that of the judicial system that convicted his brother falsely. The prosecution and defense arguments at the trial constitute an indictment of Enlightenment legal reason as fatally out of touch with the vexed relationships and inner conflicts of everyday life, and Alyosha rescues justice and mercy from this reasoning above all in the tormented lives of Katya and Dmitri. Katya in her conflict, having doomed Dmitri by bearing false witness at the trial, now wants Alyosha to persuade him to adopt Ivan’s plan for escape. She is worried that Dmitri, in his thirst for nobility, will reject this plan:
That is why I sent for you today, so that you would promise to convince him yourself. Or do you, too, consider it not honest to escape, not valiant, or whatever you call it…not Christian, or what?
To which Alyosha replies “No, not at all” (760). But he also insists, not at all meekly, that Katya visit Dmitri in prison so that they can forgive each other face-to-face, which they do. Then Alyosha closes the circle by persuading Dmitri to escape:
…unready as you are, you don’t need such a great martyr’s cross. If you had killed father, I would regret that you rejected your cross. But you’re innocent, and such a cross is too much for you. You wanted to regenerate another man in yourself through suffering; I say just remember that other man always, all your life, and wherever you escape to—and that is enough for you (763).
Alyosha’s protagonism aspires to create an alternative community to that which convicted his brother, which is not in itself equivalent to ending class exploitation; nor do Zosima’s and Dmitri’s sporadic visions of classlessness re-shape The Brothers’ central narrative of love and money, crime and punishment, responsibility and salvation. Even so, Alyosha’s vocation reaches from one end—from the everyday relations and events of private life—toward what Jose Marti, the great forebear of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, called “with all and for the good of all” (Blanco and Benjamin 1997: 11).
Chávez left no paper trail comparable to Dostoevsky’s, and without a series of texts to analyze we can only construct him from what he said to interviewers and what others have written about him. But his book-length interviews with Aleida Guevara and Marta Harnecker, along with documentaries by Oliver Stone, enable us to hear him at length in his own words, which can then be put in the context of a vast secondary literature, from which I draw mainly on Richard Gott’s Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution and D.L. Raby’s Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. These sources enable us to narrate Chávez’s career as a Bildungsroman parallel to that of the Karamazov brothers where Ivan represents the Enlightenment rationalism to be outgrown, Dmitri Russia’s potential for outgrowing it, and Alyosha the image of Christ through which Dmitri can be led to actualize this potential. Just like them, Chávez had to outgrow the philosophy he began with, to sort out the means for replacing it, and to become the improvisational protagonist of an identity equivalent to that of Dostoevsky’s Russian in practicing sympathy and responsibility for everything human.
Two of Chávez’s anecdotes can illustrate his sympathy as inseparable from his leadership and the impatience he acknowledged made him hard to work with. When as president he was kidnapped, taken to an offshore island, and ordered to be killed in the coup of April 2002,
I carried a crucifix in my hand; I thought of Christ and of Che. I was surrounded by kids whose minds had been poisoned, soldiers and mercenaries, armed with machine guns…. At that point a helicopter flew in. The waves of the sea were crashing loudly, a star was shining, and men had their weapons aimed at me. I was ready to die. But suddenly one of the young soldiers… guarding me, rifle in hand, said, “If we kill the president, we’ll all die; he is the president of Venezuela.” Chaos broke out and that is when I turned the tables and took control, saying “Calm down, calm down, you are my men.” I began talking to them and managed to get their cooperation and take control. I said, “Listen, I am a prisoner, treat me as a prisoner, but take into consideration that I am the president.”
So they took me away and we went to sleep, almost all of us, to rest a little. I said, “Tomorrow will be a new day, let’s see what happens, but please stay calm, don’t start killing each other here” (Guevara 2005: 56-7).
Whatever allowance we might make for self-serving in a passage like this, we can only suppose that the chaos breaking out in response to the helicopter involved those who wanted to kill him as ordered and those who supported the one who spoke up. Then after he was rescued, “many of his supporters and even some opponents were dumbfounded by his failure to take reprisals against the golpistas” [coup mongers] (Raby 2006: 170).
A year later, when asked about the Revolution’s vulnerability to defection by its supporters as it became increasingly radicalized, Chávez said
There are people who go along with you through one phase…but who later fall behind for any number of reasons. I have always tried to be thankful for that. I even thank those who are no longer with us because they helped at one stage. Their inability to move forward is no reason to condemn them. No, they just broke down, fell behind, or walked away for different reasons (Harnecker 2005: 100).
In a wide range of circumstances he could identify with his adversaries’ situation and point of view, which can remind us of Alyosha “forgiving everyone and for everything,” even if in doing so he opened the revolution to further setbacks. His failure to punish the golpistas promptly in 2002 emboldened them to attempt a massive shutdown of the country’s economy later that year, and some defections among his supporters turned into betrayals that also slowed the revolutionary process.
This dimension of Chávez’s protagonism is politically rare and may not have come to him easily but, if anything, cut across the grain of his temperament. He appears to have acquired it from both his Christian devotion and his years of study enabled by historical circumstances specific to Venezuela. Just like Fidel, his boyhood ambition was to become a baseball player; unlike Fidel, his only way out of the poverty he was born into was to join the army; and unlike most Latin American armies, Venezuela’s had not been modeled, nor its officers trained, by the US’s infamous School of the Americas. Venezuelan officers got bachelor’s degrees before entering the military academy, and Chávez’s liberal education familiarized him for life with the writings of Bolivar, Cervantes, and Simon Rodriguez. Then in the academy he studied political as well as military theory, and read not only Clausewitz and Napoleon but also Heller’s The Army as an Agent of Social Change and the writings of Mao Tse-Tung, from which he later often quoted “The people are to the army as the water is to the fish.”
His first revolutionary project after leaving the academy was to lead a 1992 armed uprising for whose failure he took full responsibility after calling it off when he saw it had not gained enough popular support. For this he was sentenced to prison for two years during which he kept on reading—Rousseau, Lenin, Toni Negri, Plekhanov’s The Role of the Individual in History. That continued throughout his presidency, during which his knowledge as an intellectual constantly informed his political strategy and tactics. In one Oliver Stone documentary, Chávez ushers Stone into an inner sanctum of the Miraflores Palace, a bare room furnished with only a table and chair, and explains that on nights when he can’t sleep he comes here to study. Here he reported studying, along with works by Noam Chomsky, Marx’s The Civil War in France and István Mészáros’s Beyond Capital, which in a 2012 speech he urged his associates to read (and which I have failed to read twice because of its length and turgidity). He later sought advice from Mészáros, and meanwhile he routinely quoted John F. Kennedy’s “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
Having called off the armed uprising of 1992, and having read what he read, when Chávez became president in 1998 he was committed to finding the means of peaceful revolution without renouncing arms. While capitalism took centuries to grow piecemeal in the interstices of feudalism, once it passed a tipping point its “logic of process,” as E.P. Thompson called it, impelled it to fill every nook and cranny of social and personal life, and thereby to prevent socialism from incubating in the same way it had done. Chávez had come to believe that this could only happen if his government used its power not to overthrow capitalism but to seed and nurture alongside it an alternative logic of process—what Mészáros calls a “socialist metabolism”–through the newly enabled protagonism of the masses from below rather than that of a vanguard from above. During Chávez’s first six years of redundant re-election, 1.2 million people learned to read and write, 250,000 entered secondary education, and 11,000 health clinics provided 21 million consultations to 2.5 million families most of whom had never seen a doctor (Raby 2006: 173). It was only after all this (among other things) that he proclaimed what he called a “search for…the Socialism of the 21st Century” (Raby 2006: 177, my italics).
This preliminary enabling of the masses was facilitated by another distinctive feature of Venezuelan history, its already nationalized oil industry, and one of Chávez’s first official acts was to persuade the OPEC countries to maintain the oil prices from whose profits he could keep financing his programs. These programs were designed to foster both a) the “endogenous development,” beginning with food sovereignty, through which a newly literate, healthy, and motivated people could create a national economy, politics, and culture; and b) the democratic processes by which it could make the decisions necessary to do that.
Like many postcolonial countries, Venezuela was then importing 75% of its food despite having enough fertile land to feed itself, and its rural people were moving to cities in unmanageable numbers. The 2001 Land Law provided for the distribution of over 2 million hectares of public land to 117,000 agrarian families and cooperatives (Raby 2006: 178)–and, instead of a wholesale expropriation of feudal landowners, compensated expropriation of only the uncultivated land on their estates. This agrarian reform honored the use-value produced by existing feudal property relations while also advancing socialist food sovereignty and repopulation of the countryside, and another quotation from Chávez illustrates the hands-on give-and-take that aspired to make it a communal process:
You saw that they are planting crops in the hills. It is not that the land there is particularly good for agriculture, but they say it is good and that means it is good for them, so we are not going to undo their work. We cannot decree from above that they cannot plant in a certain area. An agricultural technician should come and ask them what they have produced and they should carry out a scientific study on the ground there to find out how good the soil is and if it is better for rice, squash, or watermelon. Then, on that basis, they are given a microcredit. Sometimes they aren’t given money because people have so many needs they spend it on other things, so instead they are given tools for their work—rakes, hoes, machetes—and they get a course that orients them toward cooperative work (Harnecker 2005: 175).
In similar fashion, closed factories were re-opened and staffed by worker communesarHarHarneckerHHHH, and in some episodes Chávez turned the tables on the golpistas. When they tried to shut down the country in the paro (general strike) of 2002, he effectively re-nationalized the oil industry by replacing 18,000 workers who’d agreed to strike, and he had the army buy and distribute food to people whose supermarkets had been closed, which led to the establishment of worker-run markets to compete with the re-opened capitalist supermarkets.
In all this activity—missions, agrarian reform, electoral campaigns—two features of Chávez’s protagonism stand out. One is his relentless pressure to decentralize government to local and occupational face-to-face communities—rural villages, slum neighborhoods, college faculties–whose members can learn responsibility for each other (and ultimately their counterparts in other constituencies) by participating directly in community decision-making. The other is his personal charisma in bypassing the labor unions, the chavista political parties, and the government itself in enlisting the people by appealing to them directly. When at the outset he established the “Bolivarian circles” (community organizations devoted to caring for the elderly, fighting crime, planting trees), he did not offer them government funding: “I have suggested that they take collections, [find] ways to finance themselves, perhaps through production and consumption cooperatives. They should invent some way…because the people’s greatest power is their own intelligence, force, and energy” (Harnecker 2005: 161). Two years later, when the golpistas followed their failed coup and failed strike with a petition for Chávez’s recall (as authorized by his new Constitution!), he called on the people to form their own organizations to oppose the recall, and,
as on other occasions, the Chávez-people dialectic worked wonders: scarcely had Chávez spoken than UBE’s began to spring up like mushrooms in the cerros (slums), the towns and villages of the Andes mountains and the llanos (interior plains). Members of each UBE undertook to go out individually to talk to their neighbors and convince them of the importance of turning out and voting “NO” (Raby 2006: 173-4).
The recall was defeated, 59+%-40%, and, as Richard Gott puts it, “With Chávez firmly in the saddle, seducing more than half the country to accompany him on a journey toward an obviously positive though uncertain destiny, the need for separate political organizations was no longer self-evident” (Gott 2000: 137).
Above all else, this “Chávez-people dialectic” that bypassed existing institutions can remind us of Dostoevsky’s Alyosha dialectic. Early in his presidency Chávez was warned by Fidel not to let himself become “mayor of Venezuela,” but that is what he did. He instituted a weekly TV question-and-answer program, Aló, Presidente; he listened to people in the streets and established new missions to meet their needs; he loaded Oliver Stone and his cameraman into a Jeep and personally drove them into the countryside to show them what he meant by endogenous development. As many supporters and critics have pointed out, there was something improvisatory, scattershot, and wasteful in all this, just as there was in Alyosha’s meandering from Kolya to Grushenka to Dmitri to Katya while also pleading with Ivan along the way. Both were practicing an impromptu protagonism inspired by Christ in everyday human engagement, and imparting this to others in a process that both Dostoevsky and Chávez viewed as one of nation-building.
Dostoevsky, as we have seen, believed that Russia could become a “light from the east” by rejecting Enlightenment rationalism and practicing a Christianity in which each is responsible for all, while Chávez believed that Venezuela could become a nation for the first time by embracing socialism:
For a long time the Venezuelan people did not have a consciousness, they were divided, they did not have a common project; they were a people without hope, without direction. More than being a people, we were a collection of human beings, but then, as a result of the historical process that our country has undergone over the last few decades, a people has been formed. We are talking about awakening a giant… (Harnecker 2005: 157-8).
The difference between them is not only that Dostoevsky from his end focused on crime and punishment while keeping socialism alive down in the hold, and that Chávez from his end did the opposite. It also manifests a “living process of historical development” during the 150 years separating the two. We can see in retrospect that while people have been dreaming of socialism for centuries, all attempts to establish it until now have been either cruelly suppressed or disablingly perverted. Dostoevsky in Demons prophetically condemned the Stalinist perversion as the failure it turned out to be, yet in Zosima and Dmitri he indirectly endorsed a Christian socialism. By now countless scholars have shown how enormous were the odds against this socialism materializing, with a metabolism all its own, sooner or elsewhere than it is now doing in Latin America, where Chávez could claim, crucifix in hand, that Venezuela’s postcolonial identity is inseparable from its socialist project.
But what can it mean to say that a nation’s identity arises from a political project rather than a common territory, language, history, and culture? When we socialists claim as our goal the full development of every human being, achieved by all and for the good of all, we do not foresee entire nations of political junkies devoting their lives to contesting elections and legislation. We foresee instead a personal morality of taking responsibility for each other day-by-day, of being our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers in a long-term process that eats away at institutional politics. In a world metabolized by this morality, Dostoevsky’s rationalist prosecutor would not conclude by crime-scene reflex that Dmitri’s bending over Grigory’s body is evidence that he was making sure the sole witness to his parricide was dead. Instead he would have listened to Grushenka when she said she knows Dmitri and that when he babbles he babbles but would never be capable of killing his father. Since the prosecutor doesn’t listen, Alyosha must take responsibility for him, first by urging Katya to do the right thing by Dmitri and then, when she also fails, by taking responsibility for her (as she asks him to do) in urging Dmitri to subvert the Enlightenment justice through which he was convicted. Alyosha is able to rise to his occasion, just as Chávez rose to his by forgiving his deserters and would-be assassins, because both acted in what they felt as the spirit of Christ and, in so doing, attempted to fulfill the still empty third promise of the rationalist Enlightenment–Fraternity in addition to Liberty and Equality.
Today’s postcolonial theory, like the feminist, multicultural, and LGBT theories that paved its way, has done indispensable work on behalf of Liberty and Equality, in which its keywords, like theirs, have been diversity, heterogeneity, and human rights. Millions now experience the flesh-and-blood enlargement of everyday life that these words helped to produce, but even more millions do not. The Charlie Hedbo assassins’ postcolonial identity forbids them a human future, let alone human rights, and so might the identity of millions championed by the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” whose focus on police violence obscures the post-diversity, post-human rights exploitation in which Black lives remain stunted by a soulless capitalism. The possibility of becoming each responsible for all, of rainbow-hued police and citizens becoming to each other like the water to the fish, shows no sign of being realized through identity theory or human rights practice, and in fact can be squelched by the diverse identities in the tunnel vision of their practices, which invite reification just like the tunnel vision of capitalism.
Might a similar tunnel vision also now characterize the present-day pursuit of national identity? As I write, Greece’s identity is threatened from one side by Europe’s capitalist overlords who void its elections and from the other by Islamic immigrants who might diversify its consciousness, while the US is being torn apart by Donald Trump’s promise to erect barriers to immigration, both literal and legal, that will enable us to recover our national identity. And if all this is happening to the mother of all nations and her once historic child, might it be time to merge postcolonialism’s heterogeneous identities with socialism’s homogeneous fratority? In any event, the history in which Dostoevsky and Chávez are linked as protagonists is not only a living process we’ll have to repeat if we ignore it; it might also betoken a new possibility for the evolution of Life, like the Cambrian explosion or the dinosaur extinction, which itself can be a motive for further reflection.
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