“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” With this harrowing quote from the late Soviet dissident, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Rod Dreher, the senior editor of The American Conservative and author of the bestselling Benedict Option, introduces his latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.
Dreher’s analysis of the current state of America is bleak, some would say pessimistic. Said analysis has engendered controversy from the left and right. Perhaps, his assessment is, in fact, overly pessimistic. Perhaps its simply realist. In any case, Dreher gives us much to think about, and we must remember, as the late Roger Scruton taught us, that pessimism can be a virtuous disposition, or at least a very useful one, in that it is preferable to false hope. If nothing else, pessimism of this kind reminds us of the inherent fragility of human nature and human communities. It is not a stretch to say that in Dreher’s estimation, American conservatives, and especially American Christians, are presently inebriated with false hope.
Dreher’s basic contention in Live Not By Lies, to borrow from Sinclair Lewis, is that it could happen here. In fact, it is happening here. But the it is less Orwell and more Huxley—a self-induced, invited, moral and cultural totalitarianism, enforced less by state power and more by social pressure and promises of comfort, a “soft-totalitarianism.” “Hard totalitarianism depends on terrorizing us into surrendering our free consciences. Soft-totalitarianism uses fear as well, but mostly it bewitches us with therapeutic promises of entertainment, pleasure, and comfort.” “Soft totalitarianism exploits decadent modern man’s preference for personal pleasure over principles” (10). And Dreher means transcendent principles (11).
The two totalitarianisms are not mutually exclusive and belong to the same genus, so to speak, and the latter is usually precursor to the former. Yet each possesses an obvious distinction in terms of manifestation. Both are fundamentally coercive, but only one is self-induced. Consent to enslavement to our baser impulses is, in essence, what constitutes the pre-totalitarian culture Dreher thinks we currently occupy.
What’s different about Live Not By Lies, indeed, what makes it so compelling, is found in Dreher’s reliance on the testimonies of Soviet dissidents, which I will not spoil for the reader here except to say that the story of the Benda family of Prague covered in chapter seven (“Families Are Resistance Cells”) presents the most readily applicable instruction for American Christians. Tales of Christian fortitude and small acts of quiet subversiveness in preserving cultural history or maintaining underground religious communities inject Live Not By Lies with an arresting human element and also conforms the prose to his familiar journalistic style. (These stories and their lessons take up the second half of the book; the first half is more in focus here.)
But, again, Dreher is not simply reporting. He is prophesying albeit through the testimony of others. These admittedly anecdotal yet inspiring insights drawn from those who endured real oppression warn of a possible, increasingly likely, totalitarian future for western liberal democracies, a future that Dreher argues is in the early period of gestation, the eventual birth of which may be unstoppable. History is not circular; it does not actually repeat itself. Dreher does not argue that a reincarnation of any historical despotic regime is immanent. But he does direct our gaze toward them for the sake of penetrating, perhaps predictive, analogies.
“Marxism stood for progress. The gospel of Marxism lit a fire in the minds of prerevolutionary Russian radicals. Their priests and the prophets were their intellectuals, who were ‘religious about being secular'” (25). Dreher describes the adoption of socialism in late 19th century Russia as a sort of conversion experience—getting “woke,” you might say. The evangelistic fervor, to borrow from Tocqueville, of early Marxist intellectual elites that Dreher describes is not the effect of reading the present back into the past. Yuri Slezkine’s meaty and celebrated, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, describes the first purveyors of Marx as preachers of a new faith, preying on preexisting Christian forms to propagate their corrupt gospel. Some Christian sects were even targeted as “natural ‘transmission points’ of Bolshevik propaganda.” It was through these means, among others, that the nascent radical convictions of elite culture were disseminated. (The Russian Netflix series, The Road to Calvary, uniquely captures some of this intellectual environment in the pre-revolution days; the 2020 film Mr. Jones features later cover for Stalin provided by the elite of the western Fourth Estate.) But whatever the means employed, Slezkine says, the tenor of the whole affair was fundamentally religious. “To be a true intelligent meant being religious about being secular,” and to embrace conjured doubt under the guise of honesty, all the while projecting boundless confidence in one thing: the coming revolution as a matter of historic inevitability and overdue justice.
Sure enough, when the political conditions were ripe for revolution in Russia, the culture had already been conditioned by Marxist evangelists to accept it. The massacre of competing ideologies swiftly ensued as those who resisted were marked for exclusion. The groundwork was laid some two decades before Lenin’s train left Helsinki. You know the rest. That’s ancient history, right? True enough, the viability of orthodox Marxism petered out even before the fall of the Berlin wall. Only true disciples like the Oxford historian Christopher Hill dared to deny the horrors that the experiment in applied or institutionalized Marxism wrought. At least, no one else was so stubborn as to say so publicly. Most reassessed.
But Fukuyama’s “end of history,” as it turns out, did not usher in the end of Marx-ish infatuation. As Yoram Hazony has recently argued, Marxism, in its various forms (whether classic, neo, or cultural), represents a perpetual challenge for western societies. Indeed, if Ryszard Legutko is right, liberal democracies are inherently inclined toward a totalitarian drift not unlike that of the communist regime that preceded many of them. Dreher sees a form of Marxism, embodied in the social justice movement, as vying for succession to western liberalism—indeed, Wesley Yang refers to the whole thing as “successor ideology.” Someone like Adrian Vermeule might argue that contemporary Marxisms (plural) are the natural outgrowth of liberalism itself, that Herbert Marcuse is the natural and rightful heir of John Stuart Mill. In any case, the same ideological transition is being spotted on the horizon by Dreher, and either way, it’s not a pretty picture.
More accurately, and as mentioned already, Dreher maintains that the west is currently in the throes of a “pre-totalitarian” culture, like what preceded the Russian Revolution. (21-46). That is, emergent vectors of soft-totalitarianism are conditioning society for a harder version yet to come. Though, to be clear, this time it will have “a twenty-first-century face,” and will feed on contemporary problems, namely, the atomization of western society in social life, the erosion of intermediating institutions in civic life, and the secularization of religious life. In short, western cultural decadence. We see too a difference in mood this time. The psychologized, sexualized self is centered, and more and more of human life is mediated through technology—the war on natural limits, as Michael Hanby has aptly characterized it.
In turn, the modern man is thoroughly politicized, or rather is reduced to politics insofar as he is simply a construct of his social relations, which themselves are constructs. This means, as Carl Trueman put it last year,
“that everything that makes me into me is political as well. The notion that some social organisms—say, the family, or the church, or the Boy Scout troop—are pre-political, that they fulfill an important function not directly related to politics and stand outside the scope of political struggle, is thereby ruled out of bounds from the start. Culture—and everything in it—is a matter of politics, of the overall shape of society, of who oppresses and who is oppressed.”
Trueman’s conclusion is inescapable: we all live in Marx’s world now. (See also chapter five of Trueman’s latest bestseller, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, for which Dreher provided a forward.) And Marx’s world is one of conflict.
Hence, the soft totalitarianism Dreher describes entails the “politicization of all aspects of life,” especially history and cultural memory so that shared identity becomes malleable; so too does the shared impression of the world. This, says Dreher, is “what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.” (39). Obviously, then, competing worldviews and mechanisms of bifurcation—things like the church and family that supply identity and foster meaning—must be dispensed with. These things are counterproductive, stiflers of capital “P” progress. Cursed be the ties that bind.
Soft-totalitarianism’s apparatus, per Dreher, includes the social justice movement, on and off campus, and so-called woke capitalism now, thanks to Big Tech, equipped with surveillance capabilities conducive to enhancing ideological conformity. Of course, we are not at this point in a social credit system scenario like China now champions, though, as a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested, it might not be as hysterical as it seems to worry about such a thing anymore. There would be constitutional hurdles for any such system but it’s not impossible.
Shoshana Zuboff certainly thinks that we’ve entered an age of “surveillance capitalism,” and Dreher largely builds off that thesis (69-94), namely, that enforcement of any American social credit system would be Huxleyan, enforced through social pressure and private actors. (Think Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive.”)
Whatever one thinks of this particular threat, these developments are mocked at our own peril, warns Dreher. The infrastructure is in place, he argues. Silicon Valley oligarchs possess reams upon reams of personal data on most Americans via the products they’ve become addicted to. All that is missing is the will and occasion to put it to use. This hegemony (Big Tech and Big Media, not to mention Big Education) is where true power lies, and we have been largely asleep as the long march through the institutions commenced. And the larger point on this front in Live Not By Lies is that technological advances since the Iron Curtain fell have made coercion easier, not harder.
Noteworthy too is that this time around, the proletariat is backed by the capitalists, as it were. Twitter regularly censors conservative and pro-life opinions. Amazon abruptly disappears books critical of transgenderism (e.g., Ryan Anderson and Abigail Shrier). (Just recently a sermon by Carl Trueman was removed from YouTube because of his discussion of biblical sexual ethics.) Corporations fall all over themselves to donate to social justice organizations, and so on. This is bad enough. Facebook has been quite effective at crushing any competition—a monopoly on the new public square. Migrating to alternative platforms has not proven so simple. What was sold as democratized communication is now serving to shape public opinion in shockingly partisan fashion.
This is not government censorship or nationalization of industry. This is not China or any other Soviet dystopia. But it should concern us. Largely unregulated, the most powerful people in the world are not content with producing timewasting apps or streamlining at-home food delivery. They’re interested in the realm of ideas too and have proven wildly susceptible to toxic ones. But most of all, they’re interested in feeding the self-destructive, self-enslaving habits of modern, therapeutic man. The rest will follow.
As in 19th century Russia, the purveyors of the new ideology are the intellectual elite. To invoke Slezkine once more, “A conversion to socialism was a conversion to the intelligentsia, to a fusion of millenarian faith and lifelong learning.” Sound familiar? Privileged, capable, and zealous but alienated people can accomplish quite a lot when equipped with an ideological sense of purpose, a mandate for change, an awokend utopian imagination. Dreher rightly discerns in chapter three that what America is currently facing is the advent of a new religion. The woke, the critically conscious, are not actually “nones,” as Tara Isabella Burton so artfully demonstrated in Strange Rites. Critical social justice at least functions this way—understanding it any other way is to misunderstand it. John McWhorter and Andrew Sullivan, neither of which share Dreher’s alleged pessimism (or at least haven’t been accused of “fearmongering” and “alarmism”), have both argued as much.
Media, legacy and social, as circulators alternative narratives, is key as well to revolutionary operations. These are the messengers of the new order, the butchers of the alleged oppressive lies that prop up the old. (Even the old critical theorists knew that this is how media socially functions.) All these forces are invariably hostile to traditional Christian commitments and lifestyles. In any case, a robust, public Christianity has no place in their vision for a future “equitable” society. In Dreher’s estimation, things are about to get uncomfortable for the anachronistically minded, we enemies of progress.
Assuming all of this is true—and the reader needn’t fully agree with Dreher to benefit from him—what, then, is the antidote? For this Dreher, again, turns to Solzhenitsyn for inspiration. In his last speech delivered to the Russian people before his exile, Solzhenitsyn inveighed against the chief deception of the Soviet regime; the lie which gives all other subservient and resultant lies their force is that conformity is the only option, that powerlessness must be accepted. The old dissident’s method of combating this lie was surprising but no less brave. “We are not called upon to step out into the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think—this is scary, we are not read,” he wrote. “But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think.” That, according to Solzhenitsyn, is to live not by lies.
Accordingly, whereas the first part of Live Not By Lies is taken up with the lies, the latter half focuses on the living—survival and resistance. Here it becomes a sort of Benedict Option demonstrated and applied. Truth (at all costs), cultural memory, and religion are the proffered solutions. Families are “resistance cells.” But most of all, recovering the Christian virtue of suffering is the recommended preparation for weathering the gathering storm. All of this is intricate to the refusal to live a lie. That is, clinging to the only sure life rafts in the midst of a storm of deceit that insists such outdated beliefs lack any buoyancy.
It must be said that Dreher has taken a lot of flack for his newest book, and surrounding commentary. He’s regularly called an alarmist or crank. Maybe he’s dead wrong. (I don’t think so, but the validity of his predictions remains to be seen. Read Live Not By Lies for yourself. What should also be noted is that, as he said in an interview with Mortification of Spin, he considers himself joyful and hopeful despite the bleak picture he often paints. That is a rare talent, to foresee a desperate future and not despair.
Whether Dreher’s gloomy outlook is accurate his model for Christian living is universally applicable. In a very real sense, Christians are always dissidents, especially in late modernity, whether the burden of tyranny is heavy or light; purely moral and cultural or more tangibly manifested. If The Benedict Option urged Christians to, in some respect, withdraw from society, Live Not By Lies informs them that they are already being ostracized. Underlying this is an implicit suggestion that the Benedict Option is, to some degree, inescapable.
But this central thesis of Dreher’s book is also the hardest for western Christians to embrace. Cultural and material comfort have lulled us to sleep. Our muscles for suffering have atrophied. The sad irony, of course, is that suffering is modeled for us by our Savior and we are called to follow suit.
If evangelicals are to persevere through the onslaught of soft-totalitarianism, the shifting socio-political landscape that bodes ill for Christian ways of living, then they must begin to develop theology and practice of suffering. What Dreher, though himself a member of the Orthodox Church, has provided is, indeed, a manual for all followers of Christ in this regard. The question is whether we are too wedded to the treasures of this world to heed it before it is too late. We needn’t be facing down dictators or the madness of the mob to entertain that inquiry. If that is all Dreher’s book accomplishes in the reader, then it is worth it. To quote Solzhenitsyn once more, from Dreher’s conclusion, “[Suffering] is a gift from God that invites us to change. To start a revolution against the oppression.” And Solzhenitsyn reminds us that the revolution against totalitarianism begins first with the greatest oppressor of them all, “myself.”
Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo Magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.