The Russian way of lying

A philosophical perspective on post-Soviet propaganda

Perhaps the most famous paradox discovered by the Greek philosophers is that of ‘the liar’. A Cretan says that all Cretans are liars: if what he says is true, then it is false. More simply, consider: ‘This sentence is false.’ If it is true it is false, if false, true. The ancients took this paradox seriously, since if the concept of truth is inherently contradictory, as the paradox implies, then all discourse, all argument, all rational decision-making, takes place in a void. One ancient philosopher, Philetas of Cos, in his despair at finding a solution, committed suicide. More recently, the great logician Alfred Tarski used the paradox to argue that truth can be defined in a language only through a ‘meta-language’ with an outside vantage-point. In Tarski’s view ‘This sentence is false’ is not a possible sentence. But I have just written it!

One philosopher stands out as a traitor to the tradition, and that is Nietzsche, who famously declared that there are no truths, only interpretations. Nietzsche’s declaration, if true, is false. Nietzsche, who was more poet than philosopher, was not deterred by contradictions: it was more important in his view to destroy ordinary discourse than to rescue it. In his wake came the troupes of deconstructionists, post-modernists and relativists, all delighted by the idea that there is no truth, that what I think is as good as what you think — indeed better, because it is ‘I’ thinking it. Should you offer me a professorship despite the fact that my publications contain nothing that you would recognise as either true or meaningful, then that shows you are as hip as I am.

We should not be surprised, therefore, if our humanities departments are now staffed by the ‘post-truth professoriat’, who owe their intellectual status to their proof that there is no intellectual status to be had.

All this has come to mind in reflecting on the role of truth in Russian diplomacy. Communist ideology dismissed the idea of truth as a bourgeois construct. What mattered was power; and you baptised as truth those doctrines which provided it. This invincible way of marginalising reality was exposed for all honest people by Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Havel. Only education in a modern university, with repeated doses of Foucault, Deleuze and Vattimo, could blind one to the dangers of a philosophy that sees power as the real goal of discourse. Unfortunately, that education exists, and we have to live with the result of it.

All who encountered the communist machine were familiar with the abolition of the distinction between truth and power, including fellow travellers like Eric Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband, who approved of it. What mattered to the Communist party was the goal: the installation of communist control over as much of the civilised world as possible. The myth of ‘capitalist encirclement’; the description of Soviet military build-up as a ‘peace offensive’, the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan as ‘fraternal assistance’: all part of post-truth diplomacy. The de-truthing of political discourse extended to fine details. Jews were persecuted not as Jews, but as parts of the Bourgeois-Zionist-Capitalist conspiracy. Catholics went to jail for ‘subversion of the republic in collaboration with a foreign power’. Nato attempts to install anti-missile defences became acts of aggression that were destabilising Europe. And so on. The result was a kind of paranoid discourse that could not be answered with rational argument since every argument was further proof that all who denounced the lies were also telling them. The Soviet propaganda machine faced every fact by crying ‘lies!’ at the top of its voice, like a mad logician crying ‘This sentence is false!’

Institutionalised paranoia did not disappear with the collapse of communism. It could be overcome, but only by a free press, free institutions and universities that protect free speech: things that are under threat everywhere in the post-truth world and which have not existed in Russia for a hundred years. When it was shown that Russian missiles shot down a Malaysian civilian aeroplane over Ukraine the response was again ‘Lies!’ Accusations of doping of Russian athletes, hacking of US emails, mobilisation of troops on Poland’s border, movement of armaments into the Kalinigrad enclave, constant violation of Sweden’s air-space — all have met with the same response. The premise of Russian diplomacy is: ‘There is no truth, and therefore all that you say is a lie.’ Which if true, is false. QED.