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We’ve Seen This Transformation Before: From Today’s Cancel Culture To Stalinist Russia

By Guest Author Ron Nutter.

“Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But this must happen in such a way that no one become aware of it,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince. It is this advice on political matters that I once used to describe the machinations of Bill Clinton during his presidency, and it is also the central idea at the heart of Russian Stalinism as explicated in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

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Leo Strauss wrote of Machiavelli that he developed “a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends.” The question I have today, surveying the political landscape in America, is whether we are becoming a latter-day reincarnation of Stalinist Russia.

My first inclination is to say, “No, of course not.” But then I start looking around.

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon tells the story of a lifelong Bolshevik, Nicolas Rubashov, who served his Party well for 40 years. Having participated in the Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, he rises to be a leading member of the Party, sitting just two seats down from Lenin himself at the first Party Congress. Stalin is way down at the end of the table.

But that was then. The narrative opens with the arrest of Rubashov for crimes against the State. It is a story about the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. In the novel, Stalin is referred to simply as “No. 1.” Rubashov, according to Koestler, is a composite character of the many who ran afoul Stalin and were “liquidated,” including such leading figures as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bucharin.

The animating ideology of the Communist movement under Stalin is a deified notion of History. Recollecting a conversation with a German communist he would later denounce, Rubashov tells him that “The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal…. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party’s ranks.”

For his part, Rubashov is accused of being susceptible to “sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance, and atonement,” all well-understood dispositions from before the Revolution. For Ivanov, his interrogator, they represent a “metaphysical brothel of emotions [that] are for us repellent debauchery.” Instead, it is History that must rule: “History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience.”

One day, when taken to be interrogated again, Ivanov is absent. In his place is Gletkin, who uses more strenuous methods, like sleep deprivation, to break down prisoner Rubashov. In the eyes of Rubashov, Gletkin is a part of “the generation which had started to think after the flood. It had no traditions, and no memories to bind it to the old, vanished world. It was a generation born without an umbilical cord.”

There is a Biblical image that is alluded to that is made explicit at the end of the novel. The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering and conquering Canaan. Early on, the Israelites are fearful of entering the Promised land. 

Moses then begins their wilderness wanderings in order to slough off that generation who think like slaves. What is needed is a new generation of kick-ass Israelites that will enter Canaan and bring about the promise that was made long ago.

Russia, to Stalin’s way of thinking, needs to liquidate the Old Bolsheviks of pre-

Revolutionary Russia in order to create a society of Gletkins, a society of unquestioning true believers. At the end of the novel, before he is executed, Rubashov ponders what has happened after the 40 years of “threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards.” And he is left wondering, “where was the Promised Land?”

A major element of Stalinist Russia represented in Darkness at Noon is the act of denouncing others. For a variety of reasons, people would denounce others which leads to executions and banishment to the Gulags of Siberia. It is a harsh, fearful environment in which people must live.

Another Russian novelist, Vasily Grossman, who first made a name for himself as a war correspondent writing for Red Star during World War II, has written a novel about the culture of denouncing, titled Everything Flows. It tells the stories of Gulag prisoners who returned to Moscow during the post-Stalin thaw under Khrushchev. 

Suddenly, denouncers are being confronted with those whom they denounced. The novel was originally published in heavily censored form, not getting a full unexpurgated treatment until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the novel, Grossman categorizes the motivations of the denouncers. A “Judas I” denounces another out of fear, trying to improve their own hazardous situation by bringing down others. A “Judas II” denounces in order to advance professionally by getting rid of the competition. This was rampant in Stalinist Russia, including the sorry affair of Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics for a Lemarckian approach. He denounced the leading Mendelian geneticist at that time, Nikolai Vavilov, who was then removed and imprisoned. Lysenko had Stalin’s ear, and that is all that is needed. It sets Soviet science and agronomy back generations.

Grossman describes the “Judas III” as the most monstrous. They are the true believers, the Gletkins of the world, who investigate and denounce hundreds of fellow citizens. This was the professional security apparatus in the Soviet Union, identified with agents of the NKVD led by Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, and Lavrentiy Beria

The “Judas IV” types are the most common and, in many ways, the most repulsive. These are the ones who denounce others in order to gain goods that would become available once those denounced were gone, like apartments, cars, clothing, stoves, etc.

These novels and this subject have been on my mind after reading an article in the Washington Free Beacon about a well-known clarinetist being fired at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra after being denounced by a couple of seemingly politically correct diversocrats.

The clarinetist, James Zimmermann, has national stature as a musician. Regardless, he runs afoul the powers-that-be when the Nashville Symphony, responding to calls for more diversity, hire on a temporary basis Titus Underwood as the principal oboist. In order for Underwood to gain the chair on a permanent basis, he’d have to compete in a blind audition.

Blind auditions are currently a source of controversy in many orchestras. Originally designed to make sure hires were based on merit rather than some other criterion, like race, it resulted in even fewer musicians of color and more Asians being hired than before. Thus there is a current movement to eliminate blind auditions and actively hire through affirmative action. That approach is anathema to those who regard quality in symphonic music as sacrosanct.

The day comes and Underwood performs in a blind audition. The hiring committee is not impressed. As it discusses the matter, it is leaning toward offering the auditioner a two-week temporary status to show he/she can perform at an adequate level meeting their standards. What they don’t realize, of course, is that they would thus be replacing Titus Underwood with –Titus Underwood. Before they made that final decision, a violinist let slip that it is Underwood behind the blind. Immediately, the hiring committee leans toward rejecting him outright. They’d already seen his work the past year and had had enough.

It is then, ironic in hindsight, that Zimmermann says they should do what they originally were leaning toward doing when the audition was still “blind,” giving him a two-week trial to prove himself, at the end of which there would be a vote to decide if he would be given the position permanently. He is persuasive, and that becomes the decision of the group.

There never was a vote.

It seems pressure is applied by the symphony board and HR muckety-mucks that Underwood must be hired. So without a vote, the orchestra conductor announces that decision. That does not sit well at all with other members of the orchestra. But it is a done deal.

Then things take a turn for the worse. As lead oboist, Underwood is responsible for the work of the entire woodwind section. Zimmermann, the perfectionist clarinetist, seeing Underwood struggling with his work, would often keep Underwood overtime to work out rough sections of a composition. Underwood sees it as racial harassment. 

He complains to HR.

After hiring an “equity officer” the orchestra is put through a workshop on the “racial power dynamics in American orchestras.” On a tape of the session, Underwood can be heard saying that all Americans “live in a system of white supremacy” that’s existed since the time of the Founding Fathers. The orchestra then hires a close friend of Underwood’s, Emilio Carlo, who himself has been a beneficiary of several diversity-hiring programs with orchestras. Underwood and Carlo turn into a tag-team working against Zimmermann, including complaints to HR that Zimmermann is a threatening presence to them.

Bottom line, Zimmermann is fired. He is just another bit of flotsam subject to informant complaints to the bureaucratic fussbudgets in HR. Now, in defense of HR departments throughout the land, their primary concern has to do with avoiding at all costs confrontation with lawyers. Anything, anything at all, to avoid a possible lawsuit. Underwood presents that possibility. Given that, Zimmermann has to go.

But look at where we are. Many today remark on a “cancel culture” in which those able to manipulate the system are able to clear the path of competition, rigorous standards and criticism by playing the “aggrieved” card to improve and enhance their own position, much like the Judas II informers of Grossman’s Everything Flows. It does have a Stalinist stench to it. Anti-Stalin, prepare to be shot. Anti-Diversity, well, we won’t shoot you – yet – but we will eliminate you.

Go back to that notion of Stalinism deifying History. His name is unspoken, but G.W.F. Hegel has his fingerprints all over this. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel develops his “dialectical method” to map out the entire history of human thought and development over time. History has a direction, he writes, and the ultimate goal, the telos, of this ongoing movement is to achieve “absolute Geist,” which can be translated as “mind” or “spirit.”

For the theologically-minded, this absolute spirit is God. For the atheistic-minded, it is the State. The philosophy of Hegel is at the root of both communism and fascism, both state totalitarian systems. The contrast is not between communism and fascism, but between those two totalitarian systems on the one hand, and a Western legacy that prizes the individual, and liberty, and free-thinking, and self-control, and economic independence.

Hegel has a helpful aphorism in Phenomenology of the Spirit: “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real.” There is a sense in which, both partaking of statism, the communists emphasized “the rational is the real” while the fascists focused on “the real is the rational.” That is what led to the distinction between “right-wing Hegelians” (i.e. fascists) and “left-wing Hegelians” (i.e. communists). The social philosopher Sidney Hook once remarked that the two wings of Hegelian theory met in mortal combat on the fields of Stalingrad.

In addition to fascists and communists, a Hegelian notion of History also pervades the Progressive movement in the United States. Every time you hear Obama speak of the need to be on “the right side of History,” that is what stands behind his thinking. 

There is an inexorable thrust to History such that one either joins in or is relegated to that proverbial dustpan of History. You hear it in the language of Progressives all the time. There is no legitimate opposition or oppositional opinions. We’re right. You’re wrong. No argument. Period.

Kind of like the Gletkins of the world. Though seriously limited in knowledge and experience, some are emboldened and feel perfectly fine informing on those who stand in the way of their self-proclaimed righteousness, their diversity, equity, inclusion and “wokeness” in general. In short, those seen as “enemies” stand in the way of History. And if they lose their jobs or are otherwise castigated and destroyed, hey, as Ivanov told Rubashov, “History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience.”

It puts me in mind of William Butler Yeats’ prescient poem “The Second Coming”:

         Turning and turning in the widening gyre
         The falcon (i.e. We, the People) cannot hear the falconer (i.e. God);
         Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
         Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
         The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
         The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
         The best lack all conviction, while the worst
         Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem ends with a trenchant and worrisome question: “What rough beast, its time come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” What, indeed, is coming.

So, are we becoming Stalinist Russia? I guess at this point I would say: No – at least not quite yet.

Ron Nutter is a retired professor of Philosophy and Religion who lives in a North Carolina mountainside cabin with his retired physician wife.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay