Communist Ideology Roars Back
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
By Rod Dreher
Review Author: Renato Cristin
Communism has two histories: its history as an idea and its history of regimes. Both are centered on a crucial point: the persecution and elimination not only of political opponents but also those who may represent even a vague threat merely by affirming their religious freedom or their freedom of expression in art or literature. The communist regimes of the past systematically applied the Marxist thesis that religion is an obstacle to be eliminated, and they actively persecuted those who testified to a transcendent faith bigger than that in the communist party and its ideology.
Communists consider Christians particularly dangerous because they are more closely attached than other religious believers to the Western tradition, which communists see as the bearer of bourgeois and capitalist values and want to overthrow. So, communists have always persecuted Christians, millions of them, most of whose names we will never know. The Nazis hated Jews and killed at least six million in a decade. The communists hate Christians and have killed, in a century, tens of millions more.
Reflection on this aspect of communist ideology, according to Orthodox author and conservative public intellectual Rod Dreher, is necessary not only to understand the past but also to predict the future. Dreher’s extraordinary book Live Not by Lies raises a clear warning, not in a simply prophetic key (which would be enough to take such a warning seriously) but with an argument rooted in documented historical fact. This warning is eminently timely. Dreher tells us that in the United States, and the West more broadly, communist ideology — which has never been eradicated — will again become a political and social reference point for subversives who are even now rending the civil fabric of Western societies. Mindful of Jesus’ teaching that “the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32), Dreher admonishes his readers to “live not by lies” but to live in the truth because truth is closely connected with freedom.
Communists have imposed ideologically motivated lies in various forms, in various places, and at various times, from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and the murderous theories and practices of Vladimir Lenin to Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, Che Guevara’s diary, the meticulous social control carried out by communist secret police across the world, and the proclamations of various revolutionary movements of the global Left, right up to the shameless lies of the communist-inspired American terrorist group Antifa. Living not by lies means rejecting a tremendous part of modern history and current events.
Over and against communist lies, Dreher contrasts Christian testimony of the truth, showing how in totalitarian communist regimes, the voice of Christianity is always silenced. Religious repression is a modality of social repression, and regimes founded on lies cannot do otherwise than to muzzle those who are speaking what is really and importantly true. Dreher presents, as examples, the cases of Tomislav Kolaković, a persecuted Jesuit priest who essentially founded the Slovakian underground church in the former Soviet Union, and Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Russian dissident who was incarcerated and tortured by the Soviet regime for his Christian faith. Dreher’s title is borrowed from the farewell message of the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, before the Soviets expelled him. It is also, in a sense, an homage to those who lived not by lies and who paid, often with their lives, for refusing to speak other than God’s holy truth.
The history Dreher describes is, of course, past. Except it also isn’t. Such could happen again and, in fact, already is. Today, Dreher writes, those who are most aware of the risk of the recrudescence of communism are the citizens of Eastern Europe who met communist terror face to face. A survivor of communism needs no convincing that the danger is real. However, much of the Western world seems to have forgotten what happened under communism, preferring comfortable oblivion to a clear-eyed appraisal of the reality that communism is again advancing.
Here we must face a difficult question. If Christians are the first to be persecuted, why does the Church not stand up in their defense? How can we explain the fact that the current Pope has an almost collaborative relationship with neo-communist movements scattered throughout the world? When it comes to communism, does the Vatican take “live not by lies” to heart?
Part of the appeal of Dreher’s book is that it indirectly limns the present crisis of Christianity. The Catholic Church has always had a close and fruitful relationship with the West, understood not only as a spiritual and cultural but also a concrete political and social space. Today, however, Pope Francis has linked Rome to communist China and supports subversive communist “liberation” movements in Latin America. Francis’s Vatican has become a vocal opponent of the capitalist socioeconomic system and seems to be sprinting in the opposite direction of that indicated by Pope Leo XIII in his clarion encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti (2020) is a manifesto of Christian socialism, the fluttering standard of the Bergoglio papacy.
By recounting what happened to Christians under communist regimes, Dreher shows what could happen to Christians (and Jews) today. Where communism moves unchallenged, those who worship at the altar of the living God do so under the shadow of persecution and death. We see this in our midst already. Political correctness, the totalitarian spirit of which is readily evident, acts always as a precursor to physical persecution. As Dreher writes, “The dictatorship of thought and word under construction by progressives is a regime based on lies and propaganda.” This dictatorship feeds on the blindness of the people, and it blinds them further in turn. “Political correctness,” Dreher warns, promotes lies that “corrupt one’s ability to think clearly about reality.”
The rise of “cancel culture” is another signal of totalitarianism. By “canceling” those who speak the truth, progressives cleverly conceal historical reality. This leaves unlimited space for anti-Westernism, anti-Christianity, and anti-Semitism — all specialties of communists — as well as the new genre of anti-white racism, meant to anesthetize Christians, coupled with the standard Marxist mythology and hagiography of communism’s glory. The lie is a business tool for the communist, and it is fundamental to his theory as well.
What Dreher suggests to Christians as a counter to the regime of lies is simple: “See, Judge, Act.” Clear sight and prudential judgment lead to acts of “cultural self-defense,” such as building strong communities, schools, and apostolates. Families can be natural “resistance cells,” if the young are intentionally exposed to examples of virtue and courage. Young Americans today, Dreher explains, are attracted to communism because they have never known communism or even heard stories of it. A 26-year-old Californian who tells Dreher she feels like a communist, for example, had never heard of the gulags. Therefore, large-scale educational action is necessary to turn back the progressive tide in communist-breeding universities not only in America but throughout the West.
Resistance is possible. We can “cultivate cultural memory” of our Western identity, because great danger consists exactly in the “collective loss of historical memory, not just memory of communism but memory of our shared cultural past,” Dreher writes. If we forget who we are, we are lost. “The act of forgetting itself makes us vulnerable to totalitarianism in general.” In this broad action of resisting by remembering, Christians have a fundamental role to play. We must also be at the front of the fight against political correctness, “not only to resist soft totalitarianism but also to transmit the faith to the coming generations.” Dreher treats at length the project of constructing a resilient Christian counterculture in his previous bestseller, The Benedict Option (2017).
Live Not by Lies confronts us with an alarming scenario. Current Western weakness, both toward communist ideology and toward what Richard Millet called angelic totalitarianism, is the premise for an illiberal and anti-Christian future. That Western civilization is going through a historical phase of crisis has been well documented. No one who lives his faith in public can be unaware that being a Christian in the modern world can mean a slow martyrdom of encroaching pariahdom. It is not precisely the “sunset” of the West theorized by Oswald Spengler; the sun is not all the way below the horizon, at least not yet. But certainly we are living in an era of decadence, a fatal decline if we fail to defeat the most dangerous enemy of the West: communism and all its lies and empty show.
“The truth will set you free.” How little we remember what Jesus said; how quickly we forget that communism has insinuated itself deep into the social and cultural body of the West. Every inch communism gains comes from truth’s being exchanged for an expedient lie. Rod Dreher is to be thanked for sounding the alarm, with clarity and courage, that the biggest lie of all is poised once more to swallow the West.
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