When describing the state of American politics today, pundits have often turned to the phrase: “partisan trench warfare.” Why has this phrase stuck?
Dostoevsky’s Demons is the most profound 19th century reflection on the problem of modernist ideology. Dostoevsky’s ideologues feel their freedom in angry acts of ridicule and negation aimed at the old order, while indistinctly imagining a future unprejudiced world beyond patriotism, faith, and family. Destruction is the aim of modern ideology—albeit revolutionaries never accomplish enough destruction for the promised construction to begin. Dostoevsky’s ideologists resemble today’s destructive identitarians, just as Dostoevsky’s remedies to the problem mirror conversations about “national conservatism” today.
A revolutionary socialist cell headed by Pyotr Stepanovich is Demon’s centerpiece. Lyamshin, a cell member, confesses that the cell stood for “the systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles in order to dishearten everyone and make hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding idea and for self-preservation” .
Dostoevsky depicts the cell’s farcical deliberations in 2.7—must reading for those who confront modern ideologists today. After several amusing pages deciding, among other things, who has the authority to decide whether they having a meeting (Monty Python has nothing on Dostoevsky), Shigalyov, the thinker of the bunch, announces his principle: “Starting from unlimited freedom I conclude with unlimited despotism.” People can be truly free only when all prejudices are destroyed but destroying prejudice is an unfinishable job. For Shigalyov, one-tenth of humankind reduce the other nine-tenths to “unlimited obedience” in order to re-educate future human beings. Lyamshin suggests blowing the lower 90% “sky high and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way.” A lame man in attendance suggests just slowly transforming Russia through propaganda.
Pyotr Stepanovich resolves the debate, but he refrains from describing the future utopia. He questions the group: “Which is dearer to you: the slow way that consists in the writing of social novels and the bureaucratic predetermining of human destinies on paper for thousands of years to come. . . or do you hold with a quick solution, whatever it may consist in, which will finally untie all hands and give mankind the freedom to organize socially by itself?” The group unanimously votes for the full steam across the swamp, though some blushingly. Internal dissent, which could hamper the revolutionary cells, crumbles before Pyotr Stepanovich’s determined fanaticism. Any means necessary!
Demons presents the escalation of means used to destroy the old order. The cell starts with small-scale profane actions to beat down the confidence of those connected to the old order in preparation for burning the town down and murdering political enemies. Lyamshin sticks racy photos in the Gospels a young lady is handing out; she is arrested for distributing obscenity. He and his ilk intimidate married couples on their wedding nights. Lyamshin desecrates symbols of Mary. Patriotic songs are spoofed into drinking songs (2.5.1). Revolutionary pamphlets—the equivalent to today’s Twitter mobs—are distributed hither and yon to make it seem like the movement has broad support.
Through these actions, revolutionaries create a “general, muddled cynicism” where “everyone was terribly sick of everything”. Terrorists isolate opponents and undermine their confidence. Creating uncertainty and “shame at one’s own opinion” is the “real force” underlying the revolution, Pyotr Stepanovich realizes.
Revolutionaries could not achieve their goals without the acquiescence of fellow-travelling liberals, who aid and abet revolution by what they do and what they leave undone. Both the liberals and the revolutionaries hate the old order (The old order is hardly perfect, as Dostoevsky shows. Husbands beat their wives. Some priests are holy fools.) Neither liberals nor revolutionaries believe in the Christian God. Neither know nor love the Russian people. Liberals lack all conviction, so they give way to the passionate intensity of their revolutionary compatriots.
Liberals agree with the revolutionaries on the ends, but are squeamish about the timing and suspicious of the violence perpetrated under the revolutionary banners. Yet the liberals hate the old order more than they worry about the questionable means that revolutionaries use.
The most curious case of liberals abetting the revolution, among many, is Andrei Antonovich von Lembke, the new governor. Called to reduce the province to peace, he grasps the problem of public order and revolution. Yet his liberalism paralyzes him politically.
Von Lembke invites Pyotr Stepanovich to his study in order to disarm him and show off his collection of revolutionary tracts. Pyotr Stepanovich rudely interrupts von Lembke, asking why he would not take the proffered “invitation to destroy churches” since churches teach truths that “brutalize the people.” Von Lembke “fully agrees,” but thinks it is “too early” for such violence. Pyotr Stepanovich responds bitingly: “What sort of government official are you… if you yourself agree to destroy the churches and march with cudgels to Petersburg, and the only difference is when to do it?” Von Lembke answers with the fellow-traveler’s credo: “We say to you: go forward, progress, even shake—all that’s old, that is, and has to be remade—but when need be, we will keep you within necessary limits, and save you from yourselves.” Von Lembke sees no enemies to the left.
Von Lembke and his fellow-travelers think that they can control and channel the revolution, but it slips their bounds and annihilates them or at least leaves them behind. The liberals plan a fete for the town, but the revolutionaries turn the event into a hilarious mockery of the old order. Liputin, the emcee and a cell member, starts the event with a ribald poem. They plant people in the audience to cough, sniffle and heckle at the serious performances of the liberals. Under the cover of this well-attended celebration, revolutionaries and their henchmen burn down the town and murder inconvenient innocents.
Among those the cell murders is Ivan Pavlovich Shatov, a former member of the revolutionary organization who quit and “converted” to a love of Russia leading to faith in Russia’s Christian God. Shatov’s analysis, vindicated by events, seems to represent Dostoevsky’s alternative to the revolution. Socialism, cosmopolitanism, and atheism go hand in hand, and all point toward the authority of reason and science. The alternative to this modern syndrome is a national horizon, which gives meaning to human life and can connect individuals to eternity. Shatov observes:
If a great nation does not believe that the truth is in it alone… if it does not believe that it alone is able and called to resurrect and save everyone with its truth, then it at once ceases to be a great nation, and at once turns into ethnographic material.
While Shatov believes in a “new beginning” for Russia, he promises he “will believe in God”. His belief comes near the novel’s end. His estranged, free-thinking wife returns (they were married while Shatov served the revolution abroad), pregnant with someone else’s child. She gives birth after a trying labor and Shatov announces God’s wonderful goodness and looks forward to a “new path” with his Marie.
Pyotr Stepanovich plans to murder Shatov for betrayal and insult—and because Shatov and his way of thinking pose the strongest challenge to Pyotr’s revolutionary ambitions. Pyotr invents a story that Shatov is preparing to denounce the revolutionary group to public authorities. Members of the cell object. Some, “knowing the human heart” suddenly, cannot believe that Shatov would ever betray the group now that he has happiness in marriage and fatherhood. Soon after the murder, Shatov’s wife dies, as does their child. Shatov will tell no tales and take no action against the revolutionaries.
All members of the cell, taken with pangs of conscience, confess to the crime after authorities discover the body. Pyotr Stepanovich, the only genuine revolutionary in the bunch, thinks of his former cell as “scum” for their pangs; he escapes to carry on his destruction. Perhaps revolutionaries will be so stricken with conscience that they will limit their own activities and methods. Perhaps, that is, they will come to believe only means consistent with conscience are necessary. This reading reflects Dostoevsky’s deepest Christian hope.
Two important facts speak against the hopefulness that conscience itself can limit revolutionary ambitions. First, Shatov and his family are all dead. Second, the revolutionaries did not feel guilty about the other murders (including the murder of a lame woman and an innocent housekeeper) or the burning of the town itself. Conscience is muted in those taken with modern ideology. Ideology itself seems to be a demon. “In later times some will . . . follow deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons,” writes Paul in 1 Timothy 4:2, “influenced by the hypocrisy of liars, whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” Consciences of ideologues have indeed been seared, yet few are willing to speak out, much less act, when they commit obvious injustices. Revolutionaries feel the pull of honor from adhering to their ideology and they fear being left behind; they see what can happen if they show insufficient zeal for the cause. Under this pressure, they will do things that they know are wrong.
Only scattered commoners in the novel—those uncorrupted by the ideology and unblinkingly confident in their attachment to country and God—offer an effective if unsystematic and apolitical check on the socialist revolution.
Dostoevsky believed that Europeans lost a sense of their nation and God as a result of the ways that reason and science delivered material plenty and comfort. Science alleviates human physical suffering. Forgetting eternity and mortality, people cease to understand or concern themselves with their spiritual sufferings. Rich people can afford liberalism and a little revolution (their prosperity comes from this progressive movement, after all), but they cannot know where it will all lead. Dostoevsky’s peasants reject science in the modern sense and its promise, mostly delivered, of wealth and ease. Living with physical suffering, Russian peasants see their spiritual suffering as well and work together as a community to love others in suffering till each tear they cry becomes a rose.
Dostoevsky’s peasants offer hospitality, healing and love to suffering strangers displaced by the revolutionary actions and bring not a few to an appreciation of the Russian way of life and the Russian God. Several peasants and simple women unsuccessfully attempt to redeem those taken with modern ideology, so hard are the hearts of those nihilists.
The most crucial example is the conversion of Stephan Trofimovich, a Russian liberal and absentee father of Pyotr Stepanovich. The biography of Stephan Trofimovich literally frames the book. After the humiliation at the fete, Stephan leaves town to wander. On his sojourn, Russian peasants give him a lift and one peasant woman, an aspiring nurse and Bible-hawker, Sofya Matveevna, nurses him and preaches him the Gospel. His soft heart accepts the words—and for the first time he identifies with the Russians and loves the people. Before dying, he confesses to a priest and takes last rites within the Church (3.7.2). Stephan’s conversion, akin to Dmitri’s in Brothers Karamazov, is the result of being brought low through unmistakable suffering before seeing God’s redemption.
This way hardly promises redemption for the political community as such. Genuine revolutionaries like Pyotr Stepanovich cannot be softened, it seems. Their relentlessness makes them a difficult political challenge for liberals—and perhaps only genuine severity suffices to prevent them from organizing. The use of such force requires confidence though—just what officials lack because of Pyotr’s successes. Liberal societies, taken with humanitarian impulses, are ill equipped to resist ideology, since they oppose traditions to some extent and create private space within which modern ideologies grow. Some greater idea of a nation or a God worth dying for must inform violent actions of preservation. Liberalism, for Dostoevsky, lacks the nobility necessary for sacrificial and bold action. (For this reason, America, the land of liberalism, is a land of shame and thievery in Dostoevsky’s novels.)
The Christians of Dostoevsky’s imagination underestimate the challenge modern ideologies pose, showing mercy and forbearance to their enemies and failing to organize themselves politically to stop their opponents.
While his diagnosis is spot on, Dostoevesky’s recourse to patriotism and Christian love and suffering proved insufficiently political to resist modern ideology in Russia. Dostoevsky imagines, it seems, a greater union between church and state to defend the old order—and this requires a level of appreciation and strength beyond what liberals can provide. A connection between place and faith, in ways that Western Christians often resist, also seems necessary to political action. An appeal to a national conservatism untouched with a concern for eternity itself will prove insufficient to beat back the destruction endemic in modern ideology.
 All quotations are from the Volokhonsky and Pevear translation (Vintage, 1994). I relay in-text citations by Part.Chapter.Section (when there are sections) so readers with other translations can find them in the text.