Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (2)

In an old post on Trotsky on religion, a quote from Trotsky mentions Dostoevsky. Here I will extract a short quote from the longer quote:
Religion is a sop and a leash. Religion is a poison precisely during a revolutionary epoch and in a period of the extreme hardships which are succeeding the conquest of power. This was understood by such a counter-revolutionary in political sympathies, but such a deep psychologist, as Dostoevsky. He said: ‘Atheism is inconceivable without socialism and socialism without atheism. Religion denies not only atheism but socialism also.’ He had understood that the heavenly paradise and the earthly paradise negate one another.

-- Leon Trotsky, The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers, Report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (1922). Published in the Bulletin of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1923). Translated by R. Chappel, published 1972.
The sentence about negation reminds me of Bakunin. The contrapoised perspectives of Dostoevsky and Trotsky in this passage are abstract schemata. The Russian context and the particular struggle of the revolution against the clerical despotism of a peasant society give flesh to these schemata. Trotsky doesn't mention specific works, but he acknowledges Dostoevsky as a ‘deep psychologist’, all the more reason to push back against religion.

I am not going to comment further on the argument, except to note that my other posts on Trotsky highlight more of his perspective, which harkens back to Marx and reveals a more subtle conception of how to deal with religion than what was eventually practiced in the USSR, especially under Stalin. Trotsky recognized that irrational ideas germinate and prosper in an irrational society, and hence the social basis of irrationality must be undermined, not just the ideas. But here is the catch: the balance of forces (and I don't mean only opposing political forces) undermine the process of instituting reason in the world. And the pretension to reason itself becomes undermined by a dark irrational undercurrent.

Dostoevsky’s schema, as presented in the first part of Notes from Underground, is as abstract as any rationalism. Yet the underground consciousness must be reckoned with, for even reason, which is already disrespected everywhere, can be irrational. This was the rationale behind Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was also conceptualized too abstractly, alas.

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