Shafarevich Revisited: Individuality and Dostoevsky’s Ant Hill

It may be imprudent to refer to the work of a Soviet mathematician in these days where even the Slovenian flag cannot be flown for its use of Russian colors. Nevertheless, recognizing that a truth doesn’t cease to be true when it crosses a border, it is worthwhile revisiting the insights of Igor Shafarevich. 

Like Noam Chomsky, Shafarevich is popularly regarded for his socio-cultural and political insights rather than his core expertise. (Whereas Chomsky helped revolutionize the field of linguistics, Shafarevich contributed greatly to algebraic geometry and algebraic number theory.) His political insights (i.e., Shafarevich’s takeaways from his firsthand experience of totalitarian socialism and his historical investigation of the “socialist phenomenon”) are the focus of what follows, as they shed a great deal of light on pernicious trends now underway in the West. 

In The Socialist Phenomenon, an incisive book published in 1980 for which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn penned a foreword, Shafarevich looks at the genesis of socialist doctrine. In many respects, this Russian Orthodox Christian’s analysis complements Catholic conservative arch-liberal Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s in Leftism (1974), and enjoys the heightened awareness of someone who spent a lifetime steeped in socialism’s consequences. 

Towards the end of the book, Shafarevich contemplates the socialist ideal’s relationship to individuality. He writes: “all elements of the socialist ideal—the abolition of private property, family, hierarchies; the hostility toward religion—could be regarded as a manifestation of one basic principle: the suppression of individuality.” This may seem an obvious claim: that a collectivist, materialist ideology motivated by a death instinct would find an enemy in the individual, in individuality. What may not be so obvious are the tactics and lengths to which the socialists would go to grind their enemies down to level—how socialists would ultimately dynamite the mountains to fill the valleys.

Shafarevich identifies some of the ways that socialist society would remedy that pesky individualism. 

People would wear the same clothing and even have similar faces; they would live in barracks. There would be compulsory labor followed by meals and leisure activities in the company of the same labor battalion. Passes would be required for going outside. Doctors and officials would supervise sexual relations, which would be subordinated to only two goals: the satisfaction of physiological needs and the production of healthy offspring. Children would be brought up from infancy in state nurseries and schools. Philosophy and art would be completely politicized and subordinated to the education goals of the state. All this is inspired by one principle—the destruction of individuality or, at least, its suppression to the point where it would cease to be a social force.

Shafarevich saw in socialism what Kuehnelt-Leddihn observed generally manifesting in leftist movements: the drive for sameness.

“Where differences exist,” Shafarevich wrote, “they are declared to be meaningless. Where they cannot be ‘explained away’ and when they cause trouble to The Plan, they call for enforced standardization, expropriation, demotion, exile, and, in the more extreme cases, execution.”

Much can be said about demands now for the sameness of clothing and faces  (especially in lieu of recent calls for masks to remain on), for segregated graduations at colleges, for segregated “safe spaces,” and the general increase in identitarianism (which considers persons first and foremost as members of groups rather than on their own terms) everywhere from human resources departments to the moon. Even more could be said about socialist designs to regulate our procreative functions or gloss over individual differences compounded by sex in professional sports or standardize language and morality through low standards, again to achieve the kind of sameness seen in other animal species. Nevertheless, among the ways detailed by Shafarevich above, I want to focus briefly on two: the regulation of mobility (i.e. the need for passes conferred on condition of conformity) and the state or community’s appropriation of parental responsibilities; and the politicization of artwork. 

In recent weeks and months, we have seen statists captive to socialist doctrines hinder the movement of what were previously imagined to be free peoples. In the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, citizens were required to produce passes to go outside. It didn’t matter if you had natural antibodies from a previous infection. It didn’t matter if you were immuno-compromised or had moral qualms with the use of aborted fetal tissue in the manufacture of the so-called vaccines. Your individual rationale was of little importance. What mattered was whether you were obedient or disobedient, as indicated on a pass by a number or a QR code. 

Even with that pass handy, other restrictions were applied. Consider the most universal pass to get around, ever more tightly controlled by the state, i.e. money: cash, crypto or credit. Under the Trudeau Liberals and their NDP bulwark in Canada, protesters’ bank accounts were frozen, just days after police went around confiscating truckers’ gas cans to literally freeze them out. 

Americans have seen the state threaten this mobility pass, too. One memorable instance was Barack Obama’s weaponization of the IRS to freeze the assets of members of the Tea Party movement, not only because they criticized establishment Washington but because they disagreed with the Democrat’s agenda. The digital ID that Klaus Schwab and friends in big business are keen to implement globally, like the punitive carbon tracker some banks and credit card companies have teased as an opt-in feature (at least initially), is a similar means to constrict movement and control action, greatly resembling in effect both the Communist Chinese Party’s social credit system and its interrelated digital currency. If you don’t think and act the way you’re supposed to, your pass to go outside or anywhere in particular will be restricted. Manifest a personality at odds with the collective, then remain forever idle. 

The impact on individuality is this: individuality requires that a person be able to [publicly] make and execute choices, whether about his health, about those with whom he consorts, where he can go, what he can purchase, what religion he will practice, and so forth. G. K. Chesterton reminds us that the free man “can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.” Even a dog might exhibit too much personality as far as the socialists are concerned. 

Dostoevsky, whom Shafarevich echoes, suggested that socialism, having set for itself “the task of solving the fate of mankind, not according to Christ but outside of God and outside Christ,” pressed its adherents to “create something like a faultless ant hill.” Not men, not dogs, but de-individuated, indistinguishable, and therefore interchangeable ants are what the socialist doctrine prescribes we become.

Parameterizing that individuality beyond fundamental laws (e.g., do not kill; do not steal) is another way of suppressing the expression of difference, of transforming icons of the Living God into ants. Now all these contemporary calls for equity—which means uniform outcomes—make more sense.

Consider further the socialist desire to usurp the rights of parents—to have the state or society-at-large raise children. This is a key element of the ongoing effort to abolish the family, and individuality by extension.

The majority of socialist doctrines proclaim the abolition of the family. In other doctrines, as well as in certain socialist states, this proposition is not proclaimed in such a radical form, but the principle appears as a de-emphasis of the role of the family, the weakening of family ties, the abolition of certain functions of the family . . . [and] the destruction of all ties between parent and child to the point where they may not even know each other.

The goal is the “transformation of the family into a unit of the bureaucratic state subjected to its goals and control.” Two centuries before Shafarevich made this observation, the not-so-moderate Marquis de Sade denounced the family as “an ‘individualistic’ cell that tries to separate itself from the state and society.” This separation can only be prevented with coercive and totalizing pressure. The family’s hierarchical features must be flattened so that parents and children both, if permitted to remain together, are horizontally arranged, sharing the state as the singular authority in their lives. 

Kuehnelt-Leddihn explains the rationale behind this subjection and flattening: the family acts as a closed and emotionally marked-off unit, and is therefore “an obstacle to total sameness.” It hinders the socialist design to coddle the worst and stultify the most talented, and counters efforts to impress the same outlook on every child and to rid them of whatever fanciful notions might be assimilated at home. The family must be broken up. Children must be made the property of the state—a view held not just by de Sade but also by Rousseau and many proto-totalitarian leftists since. 

The recent controversy over Governor Ron DeSantis’ anti-grooming bill in the state of Florida and Glenn Youngkin’s late-2021 gubernatorial win in Virginia relate to the intense efforts of those possessed by the socialist spirit to attack the family and undermine parental rights. In the case of the former, many of those opposed to the Parental Rights in Education Act believe that maladjusted indoctrinaires ought to be teaching six-year-olds social constructivist notions about sex, among other things. 

Whether it was opportunism, plain common sense, or an admixture, Glenn Youngkin is the 74th Governor of Virginia primarily because he stood up for parental rights. But of course, his defense would not have been meaningful absent an attack. Teachers were caught peddling identitarian race theories and other leftist propaganda, which drew the concern and ire of parents statewide. 

Beyond what precisely constitutes the perverse material being taught, the more pressing question is whose role it is to choose what a child is to be taught in the first place? Or better yet: Do children belong to the state after all, as de Sade and Rousseau argued? (It is worth pointing out, as Paul Johnson did in his book, Intellectuals, Rousseau’s advocacy for this position was probably self-justification for abandoning the five children he fathered with Thérèse Levasseur, not one of whom he even bothered to name.) Or do they belong to their parents? While not yet advocating for the creation of phalanstères per Charles Fourier’s designs, it is clear how socialists today will answer these questions if they were ever to answer honestly.

Teaching math, science, and literacy are aids to individuals—to help them navigate the world as they themselves see fit. Propaganda of the kind we see now in schools and colleges, on the other hand, is a means of undoing a person’s cultural inheritance; of relegating parental responsibilities to the state and its agents; of transforming students into tools of the state. 

While Florida and Virginia woke up to this socialist phenomenon—which seeks again to deform every child to fit the mold and eliminate otherwise distinguishing familial thinking, all in service of the leveling socialist state—elsewhere in America, individuality continues to be suppressed in the classroom. Here is G.K. Chesterton to once again illuminate the enemy’s target and the consequence: “This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” If our civilization seems particularly precarious right now, we’ve arrived at another reason explaining why. The socialist prefers horizontal lines to triangles, and flat plains to mountains and valleys.

The West is not explicitly socialist as was the regime under which Igor Shafarevich toiled. Nonetheless, in its present weakened state, it is especially susceptible to the aforementioned anti-individualist trends. Mobility rights are incredibly important because they relate to one of the principal ways human beings can differentiate themselves: with action, adventure, and friction, each of which requires movement. 

Parental rights, particularly regarding their children’s education, are incredibly important because cultural inheritance greatly impacts an individual’s development. Extra to providing a connection with the past, which socialists would have severed, parents’ instruction of their young serves as a check on the leveling attitudes and newspeak peddled by agents of the state. (Pope Paul VI’s Dignitatis Humanae makes clear that these parental rights cannot be violated, not the least because the family “is a society in its own original right.”) Micromanagement and indoctrination by levelers are together a recipe for destruction, first of the individual, and then of our civilization. 

These two anti-individualist trends, coupled with the ongoing war on the working- and middle-class’ economic autonomy, the digitization of religious community, the politicization of all art, and Big Tech censorship, are part of the socialist design to build high a “faultless ant hill.” Any effort to reduce us to animal sameness is de facto dehumanization and should not be tolerated. Technocrats, politicians, teachers, and whoever else seeks to combat true diversity—which is important only at the level of the individual—are enemies of humanity. Any faultless ant hill is still infinitely less than the most flawed human being, and it is the latter that our society and institutions should empower at the individual level rather than seek to engineer en masse

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