When Shigalyov, one of the revolutionaries in Dostoevsky’s Demons, lays out his “system of world organization,” he admits that he got “entangled in my own data.” Confronted with the brutal logic of his idealism, he is forced to concede that his conclusion “directly contradicts the original idea from which I start.” His starting point, familiar to generations of revolutionaries, is the idea of “unlimited freedom.” Rather than taking Shigalyov to the Utopia he imagines, it leads him down a path that ends in “unlimited despotism.” Far from being disturbed by this unpalatable discovery, Shigalyov resolves his cognitive dissonance with a deepened sense of the correctness of his vision: “apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.” The revolutionary agitator sees his ideals collapse into their opposite, but even this does not damage the certainty with which he clings to them.
A hundred years after the publication of Demons, a different group of revolutionaries stormed the gates of the ancestral home of Confucius in Qufu, China. In July 1966, Red Guards desecrated the graves of Confucius’s ancestors. They smashed coffins, plundered them for jewels and relics, and hung human remains from trees. One witness recalled the “stench of the corpses. It made you want to vomit.” The Red Guards decapitated statues of Confucius’s friends and family, before toppling the statue of Confucius himself, placing a dunce’s cap on his head and dragging him through the streets to the accompaniment of the humiliation and beating of his followers. This gruesome procession ended when the revolutionaries threw the statue onto a fire. Mao’s Cultural Revolution—with its promise to eradicate Old Habits, Old Customs, Old Culture, and Old ideas—had begun.
Two events. One fictional. One historical. The same idealistic descent into tyranny. What Shigalyov described in Demons is the Platonic transformation of freedom into bondage. In The Republic, Plato described how, in democratic societies, the “insatiable desire for freedom ... prepares the ground for tyranny.” The more free people become, the more they resent limitations on that freedom and condemn the always insufficient progress already made as oppression. As hierarchies collapse and order breaks down, people lose structure and meaning. The parent fears the child, the old fear the young. A tyranny of silence suffocates free speech as citizens self-censor out of fear that their views may be seen as “disagreeable or despotic.” It’s in this climate that the tyrant emerges with the promise that he alone can deliver Shigalyov’s “unlimited freedom,” the people willingly fall into the embrace of “unlimited despotism.”
In Spider Eaters, a remarkable memoir of her role in the Maoist Cultural Revolution, Rae Yang describes how students at the most elite schools, colleges, and universities attacked and killed their teachers. In 1966, as the statue of Confucius was being desecrated and destroyed, Yang was a 15-year-old pupil at an elite school in Beijing. As part of China’s elite, she was aware of her status and contemptuous of those who did not share her privilege. She boasted that only two pupils in her school were from worker’s families and mocked students who failed to get into the best schools, describing them as “definitely inferior.” However, Yang’s teachers often refused to validate her self-image. She received this as a humiliation, and when the Cultural Revolution broke out, she vowed to “have my revenge.” That revenge took the form of Struggle Sessions, beatings, and support for the murder of class enemies, including her teachers.
The explanation for this descent into tyranny is to be found in our nature. Today, as human bodies appear to be little more than abstractions, it is impolite to discuss the nature of our species. However, as Shigalyov and Rae Yang discovered, the desire for an ideal to be true does not make it so. In his remarkable book, Hierarchy in the Forest, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm reflects on the inevitable failure of the Communist ideal. In his exploration of dominance hierarchies among chimpanzees, human foragers, and tribal societies, Boehm concludes that Marxism led to terror because its “social engineering was inept: the blueprint was not laid out with an accurate view of human political nature.” Human beings, he went on, have always lived with “some kind of hierarchy,” and the desire to erase them misreads our nature. When this ignorance is tied to an ideology that essentialises group identity and collectivises guilt, the result is the tyrannical exercise of power clothed in the garments of freedom and justice. Such ideologies are always accompanied by an eschatology of liberation—when class enemies, the bourgeoisie, white supremacists, or patriarchs are defeated, perpetual peace will reign on Earth.
As Boehm notes, despite its disastrous impracticality and scientific naivety, this collectivist ideal captures “the hearts of resentful underdogs everywhere,” who imagine that, by casting off their oppressors, they can end oppression itself. A glance at any moment in history should be sufficient to refute that assumption. To take one of countless examples, a 2,000 year old Vedic text known as Manusmriti divides people into four castes—Priests, Warriors, Merchants, and Servants—and more than 30,000 sub-castes. Beneath these castes lie the Dalit (literally, the “crushed” or the “broken”). They are the wretched foundation upon which the entire edifice of caste is built. Yet even the lower will, when opportunity arises, exact vengeance on the lowest. In 2002, inter-communal violence in Gujarat led to a massacre of Muslims by Hindus. Dalits and members of indigenous tribes were bussed in to participate in the massacre. Reflecting on these events in Field Notes on Democracy, Arundhati Roy observed that those who have been “despised, oppressed and treated worse than refuse by the upper castes for thousands of years, have joined hands with their oppressors, to turn on those who are only marginally less unfortunate.”
In my 20s, I managed shelters for the homeless—my first experience working with severe poverty and deprivation. My first job was in a “wet shelter” which meant that residents were allowed in if they were under the influence of drink or drugs. They couldn’t “use” on the premises, so they went outside to take their drug of choice and then came back in again. On the streets, the homeless appeared to me as an undifferentiated mass of misery. Every one of them had a tale of abuse, deprivation, self-destruction, or bad luck to tell. At night, they slept in a dormitory and their sleep was punctuated by groans, screams, and nightmares. Yet, life in the shelter was defined by its dominance hierarchies: who got to sit on the best chair, who had their social security money taken, who was beaten and humiliated. When I went on to work with younger groups, dominance was marked by even greater aggression and violence. Order in the shelter was maintained by an alliance between those lowest on the dominance hierarchy (the majority) and workers such as myself who acted as law enforcers. The stability of the shelter depended on this fragile coalition being strong enough to protect the weakest and most vulnerable whilst also providing the possibility of employment and housing for those capable of finding a way out. This is a microcosm of the task we face in liberal democracies.
This thirst for dominance is universal, which its why such societies live in a state of perpetual siege. For Christopher Boehm, the way to prevent this thirst becoming tyrannical is to turn to what Steven Pinker called “the better angels of our nature.” In practice, this means creating what Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which subordinate groups form coalitions to curb the power of despotic individuals. However, Shigalyov, Rae Yang, and generations of idealistic revolutionaries focus their rage against individuals only insofar as they represent groups defined as “oppressive.” When the struggle for freedom is framed in this way, it inevitably sinks into vengeance, collective violence, and—if left unchecked—genocide. As Yang’s own elite status within Maoist China showed, members of the cultural elite will readily identify as underdogs in order to exact retribution against real or imagined enemies. And when they get their hands on the levers of power, it is inevitable that they will repeat—and sometimes intensify—the very forms of oppression they once fought.
If Shigalyov marked the path from “unlimited freedom” to “unlimited despotism,” the Grand Inquisitor in The Karamazov Brothers, Dostoevsky’s last great novel, highlights the weakness in the human soul that makes such a journey possible. Ivan Karamazov tells the story of a Grand Inquisitor who visits Jesus in prison. Mocking Jesus’s belief that “man cannot live by bread alone,” and that people desire, above all, to be free, the Inquisitor says, “I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born.” If a tyrant relieves us of the burden of seeking liberation, and if we surrender our individuality to the will of the group, the rewards of that submission and the vengeance we can wreak upon real or imagined enemies will be worth the price of liberty. Currently, historically marginalised groups are attempting to restrict free speech, which was instrumental in elevating them to a position of cultural dominance. Freedom is easily discarded when power beckons.
The antidote to the temptations of tyranny cannot, warns Boehm, be built on an identitarian ideal. It can only be achieved through “the glorification and empowerment of the ordinary individual.” This does not require a perpetually static status quo or the toleration of rigid dominance hierarchies. Rather, it means the ongoing evolution of those hierarchies as they become more open, more tolerant, and less despotic over time. This is the incremental change that defines the improbable and fragile success of liberal democracies.
However, the more tolerant we become, the greater the temptations of tyranny. These temptations led James Madison, the fourth US President, to ask in Federalist No. 51, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
After emigrating to the United States, Rae Yang learned to “cherish freedom and value human dignity.” Imagine, then, how disheartening it must be for many Chinese Americans, who followed Yang’s path in fleeing the Cultural Revolution, to find its impulses replicated in a free society. In February 2021, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York criticised the drift towards authoritarianism in American education. In an open letter, they denounced demands that third-graders “check themselves off on a list of victimisation categories,” a requirement that reminded one Chinese parent of “Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution.”
As illiberalism sweeps the Western world, we would do well to bear in mind how readily we can succumb to Shigalyov’s “unlimited despotism.” The eschatology implicit in the revolutionary overthrow of an entire social order tempts us with its promise of unlimited freedom. But it takes only a shallow excavation to uncover what Nietzsche identified as “the blood and horror at the bottom of all ‘good things.’”
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