Throughout the history of the U.S.S.R., both before and after Stalin's crimes were exposed, true believers and fellow travelers would insist that the monstrous oppressions committed in the name of communism were only perversions of, or temporary detours from, the march toward a classless society living in universal brotherhood. The cruel treatment of "class enemies" and of insufficiently devoted Communists by both Stalin and Lenin was, according to these apologists, an aberration, in no way intrinsic to Communist ideology, and never intended by the father of communism, Karl Marx. This self-serving Communist myth was refuted by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (1973). In one of the most gripping chapters of that book, titled "The Fingers of Aurora," Solzhenitsyn showed how the foundations of the Gulag were laid at the very dawn of Communist thought, namely in Marx's approval of forced labor for political indoctrination and re-education. Reading Solzhenitsyn's account many years ago was a formative experience for me, as I saw more clearly than ever before the power and consequence of ideas.
Another formative influence was Solzhenitsyn's shattering Harvard Address of 1979, in which he observed the lamentable weakness of liberalism in confrontation with extremism, an idea I've always connected with Melville's Moby Dick. Like the Pequod's well-meaning but hapless first mate Starbuck, cowering before the determined, demented Captain Ahab, the liberal clinging to his watery humanistic values is no match for the strong, determined radical invested in gaining power at all costs and using it for his own ends.
While the women's movement has produced no Gulags--not yet, anyway--it clearly has its tyrannical side. Solzhenitsyn's and Melville's insights into the moral impotence of liberalism in the face of tyranny therefore help us explain the effortless ascendancy of feminist ideology in the modern world. The radical nature of feminism was evident from early in the contemporary movement. In An Old Wife's Tale (2001), Midge Decter recalls her amazement that mid-twentieth century middle-class American women could have in any way considered themselves "oppressed." Studying the literature of the early days of the feminist movement, Decter found herself wading in disbelief through obscenity-marked tirades recasting the elevated situation of the contemporary Western female into an experience of victimization and rage.
Yet alongside this radical call to class warfare in the guise of sex warfare, there was a very different message. We were constantly being assured that the true feminism was sober and moderate, advancing worthy and unexceptionable demands such as "equal pay for equal work," and deserving the support of a society dedicated to justice, fairness, and equality. The anger and resentment ("bitchpower"), the belligerence and hyperbole ("patriarchy requires violence"), the outrageous comparisons and claims ("a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"), were rising only from the ideologues, we were told, from the extremes that perhaps any movement features in order to get attention.
Truth to tell, "equal pay for equal work" sometimes seemed the entire content of the moderate agenda, but it managed to gain support for a veritable revolution that in short order reconstituted women as a separate social and political class. It's possible to imagine that without feminism, things might have turned out better for women and more harmoniously for everyone. The changes in law, policy, habits, customs, and expectations that may have been needed to help women advance into the public sphere would have developed gradually, as a normal part of societal progress, without recourse to a poisonous ideology that separated women's interests from those of society as a whole, and without rewriting the past as one long history of injustice toward the female sex. Women might have grown more naturally …