Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that great documenter of the twentieth century’s “other Holocaust” in Soviet Russia, was born the year after the Bolshevik Revolution, in December 1918. Somehow he lived to the ripe old age of ninety, despite enduring the travails that he described with such vim in his three volumes of the The Gulag Archipelago. Having just finished wading through an abridged version, I can’t really say that its easy going, even in this shorter format. Of course, one can hardly blame Solzhenitsyn for that; as he admits in the afterword, at no stage did the whole work ever lie on the same editing desk or in the same place at the same time – it really is a “true mark of our [Russian] persecuted literature”, as he describes it.
Mixed in with all the horrors and the anecdotes, there are little bursts of broader insight that bear some musing. Take this cut, for example (p.385):
This is surely the main problem of the twentieth century; is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! These solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people!
There’s certainly something to that observation. Which leads us to an obvious question along the same lines: what will the “main problem” of the twenty-first century be?
It’s early days at this stage, but in the developed world at least, it seems to me as though the triumph of egocentrism (“me-ism”) and the implied supremacy of the individual as actor in the global political economy will pose some serious questions of our civilisation. The wealthy individual today is powerful – in several senses more powerful than governments; in the developed world, even the moderately wealthy individual today is relatively comfortable. Information is more freely available to individuals everywhere than ever before, and yet in some respects, it has a greater level of paucity than it did prior to the Internet, when serious newspapers were king. Our greater access to information means we tend to take less time to digest individual pieces of information, meaning there is less reason for information producers to publish information of any significant intellectual depth. This trend has also of course spread to the communication technology space, through technologies like SMS and Twitter. It seems likely that the great philosophical dialogues of the future will be a rapid-fire succession of brainfarts. Erm… LOL?
More broadly, today’s implied equivalences between wealth and achievement and hedonism and success leave something to be desired of human society, I would have thought. Particularly if some peculiarly global problems (e.g. climate change, the ethics of inequality) prove to dominate the political discourse of this century. In embracing the power of “me”, I really hope we don’t all forget that people can do some fairly amazing things when they work together.