At the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, we find a moment when the main character (and at this point, our friend) Raskolnikov dreams about the international. He is in prison, paying for his crime. He is alienated from fellow convicts. Before committing murder, he had developed a theory of crime whereby he divided humanity into two sections: the really great people, geniuses like Napoleon, who were allowed their share of crimes and unconventional behaviour for the greater good; and the common people, those who had no choice but submit to positive law and, more importantly, to the restraints of social convention and morality. The former should be allowed to proceed, the latter should be duly punished. Having committed a crime himself, Raskolnikov increasingly (and reluctantly) realises that the theory is problematic, or perhaps that he belongs to the second kind of people. His formulation, his reasoning, his ‘realist’ and hyper-consequentialist ethics cannot anymore make sense of what he did. He refuses to take up the blame until the very final scenes of the narrative. Instead, he makes a very conventional move and tries to evoke the subject of social structure in order to justify himself. He does not manage to. And here we find him in prison, isolated, looking down upon others and in extreme confusion, having his ‘logic’ challenged in his dreams and eventually getting ill and suffering from illusion.
Throughout the book, fever and illusion are a temporarily insane reaction to reality. Dostoyevsky’s realism sets the crudeness of certain events in the plot against the idealism of several characters who suddenly have a fever and must lie down, often speaking about an imaginary situation in which all is well. Contrasts between good and evil, in different measures, abound in the story. Even Raskolnikov, otherwise cynical, has to face bad-character Svidrigailov at some point, and conclude that this vile man is much worse than himself. And in several cases the escape from such contrast (when better things are thought of those on the evil side of the antithesis), is found in dream and delusion. If this ‘inverted mirror’ is taken to a higher level, one arrives at that extreme polarisation between Raskolnikov’s mother, who always thinks the best about her son, and the main character himself. When she increasingly learns about his misdeeds, by reading his essay on crime, by learning bit by bit about where he is and what he did, she decides not to proceed any further and falls extremely ill. She eventually dies, following months of fever and illusion, unaware of the full story. Such is the suffering of those who imagine the best possible world and are, then, faced by what actually is the case. However, Dostoyevsky is not only a ‘moral realist’ who acknowledges the good and the bad side of reality. He is also an ‘idealist’ of some sort and refuses to congratulate cynicism and to reproach idealism. To the contrary, the ‘utopian’ moments of every character are portrayed in the best possible light.
‘Utopia’ in Raskolnikov’s case comes in a feverish dream in order to invert his ‘insane rationality’, his theory of crime. Dostoyevsky prepares us for the account of the dream when he briefly brings up the theme of world politics in order to describe our character’s alienation from his cell mates:
He certainly did not notice much of the life around him in prison, and he did not really want to notice (…). What surprised him the most was the terrible, impassable gulf between himself and the others, as if he and they were of different nations.
What is the international here? The author avoids much explanation for the metaphor:
He and they looked at one another distrustfully and with hostility. The main reasons for this cleavage he knew and understood; yet formerly he would not have admitted these reasons were so profound and powerful.
For us it is enough that we treat the international as a gulf, as alienation, as discontinuous from the domestic. In fact, it is such discontinuity itself that renders the metaphor pregnant with meaning.
The sharp dichotomy between domestic and international is now synthesised again, so that Raskolnikov’s dream may confront him with his realist ‘logic’ by pointing out in a quasi-Kantian way what would happen if society in general subscribed to his doctrine. The conclusion, which bridges between the domestic spread of Raskolnikov’s realism and its international effects, is that his theory would be catastrophic. The dream’s description begins by turning Raskolnikov’s stubborn self-justification into a disease that spread across the globe:
While sick, he had dreamed the whole world was condemned to suffer a terrible, unprecedented, and unparalleled plague (…). Except for a small handful of the chosen, all were doomed to perish (…). Those infected were seized immediately and went mad. Yet people never considered themselves so clever and so unhesitatingly right as these infected ones considered themselves. Never had they considered their decrees, their scientific deductions, their moral convictions and their beliefs more firmly based. Whole settlements, whole cities and nations, were infected and went mad.
The outcome of this situation is portrayed in terms of a world operating under a Hobbesian-like state of nature. Yet, at the same time, the picture is one that accurately describes Raskolnikov’s overall state of mind at that point:
Everybody was in a state of alarm, and nobody understood anybody; each thought the truth was in him alone: suffered agonies when he looked at the others (…). They did not know whom to bring to trial or how to try him; they could not agree on what to consider evil, what good. They did not know whom to condemn or whom to acquit.
This absolute relativisation of standards derives, of course, from the reasoning that perhaps a great number of people – all those contaminated by the virus of Raskolnikov’s doctrine – could well fall within the category of the special ones who have their own standards and should be allowed to carry on. Here is its international extension:
People killed each other in a senseless rage. Whole armies were mustered against each other, but as soon as the armies were on the march they began suddenly to tear themselves apart. The ranks dispersed; the soldiers flung themselves upon each other, slashed and stabbed, ate and devoured each other (…). The most ordinary trades were abandoned (…). Agriculture came to a halt.
If there is any Hobbesian nightmare, this is it – rewinding the tape that recorded the social contract and going back to the state of nature. But, then, this is exactly the movement of which we read in realist international theory.
In classical political realism as applied to world politics, the reason why domestic society does not degenerate into the situation suggested by Raskolnikov’s nightmare does not have to do solely with the projection of government power within the territory of a certain state. To be sure, the lack of an overarching force between nations is a major explanation for the so-called ‘tragedy of great power politics‘. The reason for the discontinuity between domestic and international, however, is also that people in general, as Reinhold Niebuhr argues, are able to draw a line between individual or private morality and that which should apply to someone in office, representing and pursuing the national interest. Hans J. Morgenthau goes even further and affirms that morality and nationhood are so interconnected that one cannot think of any absolutely binding standards between states. In Crime and Punishment, the discontinuity is broken down so we can actually see the ‘tragedy’ very close to us, so we can feel what the international (which we sustain by legitimating our leadership and its approach) is like.
It is, however, E.H. Carr who makes Dostoyevsky’s discussion more interesting when he argues that absolute ‘utopianism’ or ‘idealism’ is actually immoral in a sense, because of its insistence on calling right right and wrong wrong and in trying to apply this to the international sphere. On ‘utopianism’, writes Carr (The Twenty Years Crisis, Chapter 4):
What confronts us in international politics today is, therefore, nothing less than the complete bankruptcy of the conception of morality which has dominated political and economic thought for a century and a half. Internationally, it is no longer possible to deduce virtue from right reasoning, because it is no longer seriously possible to believe that every state, by pursuing the greatest good of the whole world, is pursuing the greatest good of its own citizens, and vice versa. The synthesis of morality and reason, at any rate in the crude form in which it was achieved by nineteenth-century liberalism, is untenable. The inner meaning of the modern international crisis is the collapse of the whole structure of utopianism based on the concept of the harmony of interests.
In Carr’s view, the discontinuity between the domestic and the international means that we must yield to a new standard, in the Machiavellian style. This, according to Carr, must be the paradigm that “the present generation” should use in order to “rebuild from the foundations” (Ibid). Although Carr’s proposition is not one of absolute and unmitigated relativistic ‘realism’, his new ethics of discontinuity must nevertheless be the core of a new international morality. If we ‘grow up’ and adopt reason and ‘logic’ instead of “alchemy” we must agree with him. So it goes.
The irony of Raskolnikov’s dream in prison is that the dialectics between Carr’s ‘realism’ and ‘utopianism’ occurs in a reverse way, perhaps even upside-down. Carr mocks liberal ‘utopianism’ with its absolute values and insistence that the international operates under the restraints of such values. He thinks that a utopian world has led, or will eventually lead, to a situation in which the pursuit of the absolute virtuous good of humanity places the good of the nation in risk. A possible alternative to such world is that of cynical ‘realism’ – if you want, that of Raskolnikov’s essay on crime. The statesman, the great leaders, the great powers as collectivities are perfectly entitled to their share of atrocities, domestic and international, for the sake of their national interest. There is no such a thing as non-national morality in such world. Therefore, one must not treat ethical values as universally binding, at least when the environment of operation is the realist international system. Carr is also not very impressed with the absolutisation of realism. However, it is here that his narrative and that of Dostoyevsky differ. Whereas for Carr the superior ‘rational’ properties of this (yet faulty) extreme form of realism makes us realise the insanity of a utopian approach to political decisions at the international level, our Russian novelist emphasises the madness and unthinkability of cynical realism, Raskolnikov’s theory of doing-evil-for-the-greater-good, as the epiphany that displays its flaws and vices. Such is the difference between Dostoyevsky’s own ‘moral realism’, in which good and evil are real and we must acknowledge their antithesis, and that of Raskolnikov’s (and perhaps Carr’s).
Raskolnikov’s dream about the international help him wake up, as it were, for the absurd consequences of a world created after his theory’s image. Who is the utopian here? It is Raskolnikov himself, following his own ‘logical’, ‘rational’ approach to permissible crimes in the special case of a genius who would do evil in order to do good. A realist utopia based on such logic would, according to his dreams, be the most wretched of worlds. “People killed each other in a senseless rage”. In Crime and Punishment the authentic realist solution is not that of Carr’s realism. Carr wants to affirm realism but balance it by sprinkling some utopianism on top. Dostoyevsky, in turn, acknowledges a world in which good and evil, at several measures, do struggle, but he ultimately refuses to yield to Raskolnikov’s realism. Instead, he calls evil evil and good good. When someone like Raskolnikov finally realises and admits his guilt, he is “born again” and feels “completely renewed in his very being”. Having considered going through meaningless death after a meaningless life, he now knows what to live for. As for the process, Dostoyevsky goes at length to clarify that there was not “any conscious decision”. Instead, “he had merely become aware, Life replaced logic”. This is no ‘idealism’ as mocked by Carr. It is a matter of personal inclination in the deepest sense of the term – replacing the object of one’s faith and trust.
Raskolnikov’s journey, one from stubborn theorisation to humble repentance and new life, is “the story of a man’s gradual renewal and rebirth”. The “transition from one world to another” is enabled not by self-justification, but rather by an increasing awareness, like the prodigal son, that he was wrong and that he must change his ways. Regardless of whether such radical change at that level is possible in our anarchical international system, it is certainly the case that the tragedy of great power politics can only be reversed if we dispose of cynical apathy, the very attitude we now try to rationalise and justify when we talk about the international.
Exeter, 6 Sept. 2011
All Crime and Punishment quotes here were extracted from the 1968 translation by Sidney Monas, Chapter 2 of the “Epilogue”.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.