I finished John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, in a cover to cover reading lasting about four hours. Take this as a compliment if you like. Indeed, by way of getting necessary flattery out of the way, there is no denying that Gray’s impressively free-wheeling prose can with ease keep you turning the pages. His is a digestible literary form, intricately spinning together biographical vignettes in order to build up thematic momentum seemingly on the sly. As one might expect, and as with all of Gray’s post-Hayek-disillusionment works, the guiding motif is of the dangerous deceptions cast by ideas of progress or utopian schemes to bring about change for the better. And to his credit, if only the book ended at the close of part one on page 104, he would have succeeded in presenting his case with the kind of light touch pessimism and sense of wistful tragedy befitting of a card carrying cynic. Yet inevitably, as if unable to resist the force of his even more deeply rooted conservative convictions, in part two the Procrustean labour of forcing the history of the Soviet Union into his cynical worldview throws into question whether Gray is really a man without a faith of his own.
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Gray’s book concerns the ill-fated quest to conquer death. Its broader theme, however, is that of the responses to nihilistic materialism enjoined by the discomforting revelations of Darwinian evolutionary science – humankind as a purposeless accident – and astrophysics – knowledge of the inevitable extinction of the species. Gray approaches the matter by focusing on a milieu of esoteric thinkers spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first section looks at the donnish British figures connected with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization established for the purpose of scientifically investigating the paranormal. The second section, more loosely, with the Soviet project to remake humanity and conquer death.
For obvious reasons, Gray is at his best in the first section when discussing the gentle lives of Oxbridge alumni and co-founders of the SPR like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, blending an evident sympathy for his protagonists’ personal lives with a taste of the spiritual angst and esoterica of the Victorian era. Here, the book skillfully intertwines his characters to build up a sense of the motivations for the Society’s investigations into the afterlife, so that what could have been an easy set of targets for abject mockery, or simply ciphers for the delusions of an era, are instead taken as characters whose responses to the revelations of 19th century science whilst wrongheaded at least demonstrate a sensitivity to the shocks of scientific-materialistic disenchantment unacknowledged by the anachronistic persistence of Christian moral certainties amongst their peers.
In part two of book, on the other hand, Gray loses his way. Without the closely knit intellectual scene which provides a fulcrum for part one, the very terms in which Gray announces his thesis – the success of part one is in some measure because there is no thesis – poses a challenge that his book could not possibly live up to. In Gray’s narrative, Bolshevik ideology was driven by the desire to remake humanity and conquer death, a predictably doomed enterprise “that required killing tens of millions of people.” (p.5) Now, whilst there is certainly an interesting history of cosmism and futurism within Russia, influencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, and contributing the weight it attached to space exploration (see the BBC Storyville documentary ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’), to claim that these ideas assumed an integral part of communist thought, and moreover were responsible for the failings of the Soviet Union in some overarching manner, announces a major project of ideologiekritik which common sense suspects could not be advanced within the sixty or so pages Gray devotes to the subject. These suspicions would be correct. For in fact, there is no real argument advanced in these pages. Rather, the section rapidly degenerates into an anti-communist screed only distinguishable from run of the mill revisionist historiography by its more feckless attitude towards standards of argument and evidence, and its reliance upon tenuous allusions uphold his conclusions.
On Stalin’s White Sea Canal, for example, Gray says: “Like much else in the Soviet Union, this was authentically Marxian. For Marx the natural world had no intrinsic worth. Only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth acquire value. The White Sea Canal embodied this philosophy. A useless monument was erected (the Canal would in fact be hardly used) while the scarred and poisoned land was filled with the bodies of prisoners. A human meaning was imprinted on the earth!” (p. 148)
One hardly knows where to start with this. A vague allusion to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (an analytic for understanding the source of capitalist profit) is offered as the driving concept behind Stalin’s ideocratic canal project, with needless deaths labelled as authentically Marxist. This is a type of argument that is difficult to refute precisely because there is no argument; and this is only one example of a persistent tactic Gray employs. On Lenin, particularly, neither quote nor reference is deemed necessary, when conclusions can simply be stated on force of conviction. In terms of his connection with the ‘God-builders’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, et al. – “He too [Lenin] aimed to realize a myth – the earthly paradise in early Christianity – using the power of science.” (p. 168) A quote? A reference? Not necessary. Assertion is apparently enough to line up the dots of Gray central argument of Bolshevik ideology being in thrall to esoteric philosophy. The claim is repeated on page 181: “from its beginnings Bolshevism was a variant of Gnosticism, a modern rebirth of one of the mystery religions of the ancient world.” A reference this time, surely? Again, no. The entire case for Bolshevik ideology being under the preeminent sway of the immortalist ‘God builders’ comes down to a few letters by Gorky – hardly a pivotal Bolshevik figure – and beyond that solely unsubstantiated assertion on Gray’s part that Lenin was guided by their principles.
What of the more damning charge that it was the Bolsheviks’ Promethean futurism which accounts for the bloodletting in the Soviet Union? After spending many pages relishing in the details of the horrors of the Russian Civil War, in order that these not be considered exigencies of the conflict, Gray remarks, “Actually the Bolsheviks welcomed the Civil War, since it gave them the chance to finish with the old order.” (p. 185) As fragile as the connection with Russian futurism might be, given this represents the lynchpin of his entire argument, here at last we will find the quotes and references to indict the unholy alliance between Russian cosmism and Bolshevism with a criminal hunger for terror. . .right? Unfortunately not. Once more, at what is a critical moment for Gray’s argument, he declines to make the case. We must apparently take his world for it that the Bolshevik’s were itching for a devastating civil war to wipe the slate clean in Pol Pot year zero fashion.
This takes us to the central problem of Gray’s book, and of his mature oeuvre of writing as a whole. For a sceptic and cynic who claims to believe in nothing, as The Immortalization Commission demonstrates Gray clearly does believe in something: that a unique evil was unleashed on our godless earth by the Soviet Union. Gray may not believe in heaven, but like a medieval fire and brimstone preacher, he dangles the threat of communist hell to frighten his readers away from ever diverging from his conservative amalgam of nihilism and reformism.