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February 18, 2006

Filed under: Uncategorized — limewoody @ 7:11 pm

Robert Conquest’s realities and delusions

Christopher Hitchens


Robert Conquest
Reality and delusion in the course of history
256pp. Duckworth. £18.
0 7156 3426 7
In 1983, a study of Fascism (Fashizmut) was published in Bulgaria, under the imprint of the People’s Youth Publishing House of the Central Committee of the Democratic Youth Union. Its author, Zhelyu Zhelev, did a thoroughly laudable job of anatomizing his subject. In his section on “The Structure of the Fascist State” he adumbrated the whole “Fascist” totalitarian phenomenon, covering in chapter after chapter the importance of indoctrinating “the masses”, the need to keep out foreign influences, the role of farcical elections and a powerless “parliament”, the necessity of fanaticism, the view that Western “academic freedom” was false. Above all there was the single party and that party’s control of the state, of mass organization, of all opinion, of literature and the arts, of the police, of the courts. Before it was suppressed for its hyper-correct analysis of the problem, Fashizmut had become a minor classic among Bulgarian and even Russian dissidents, with some free spirits visiting the Party bookstore and enquiring for copies of Zhelev’s Kommunismut.
I was annoyed with myself for not having known about Zhelyu Zhelev (later a distinguished post-1989 President of his country) before: he seems like an ironic Swiftian hero in the later mould of Czeslaw Milosz or Milan Kundera. But this is part of the reason why one always reads anything by Robert Conquest, who just happens to speak Bulgarian, to have served with the Bulgarian resistance in the Second World War and to be fairly conversant with most salient points of Bulgarian culture. One of his sidelines, as you might say.
I was reasonably sure that “the dragons of expectation” in the title of his latest would be drawn from William Blake but found instead that they occur in an 1844 translation by Thomas Wright of the Poetic (or Elder) Edda. These dragons come from the west, and “open the way of the fire-powerful” so that “earth and heaven burst”. Conquest is, however, not so much concerned with the apocalyptic as with the danger that attends “expectation” itself: with the hubris of teleology, if I may so phrase it, and with the confident illusions of intellectuals.
This can be considered, therefore, as a rounding-off of its predecessor volume, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest cannot quite resist a few more tossings and gorings of the bloody fools who succumbed so willingly to the totalitarian temptation, and who now rush to embrace it once again. Following Walter Laqueur, he points out that many of those who hailed the atrocities of September 11, 2001, were leaders and spokesmen of the hard-line racist Right in the United States and Europe: nihilistic demagogues who thought that any attack on “globalization” (often itself a euphemism for “Jewish world government”) was better than none. Who has not met a cretinized Leftist spouting similar windy militant trash?
This is all good (and necessary) fun, but some of Conquest’s equivalences still do not quite “work”. Cautioning the reader against any naive enthusiasm for pure “democracy”, for example, he writes that “We will presumably not forget that Hitler came to power in 1933 by election, with mass and militant support”. The last clause there is beyond dispute, but we should certainly not forget that the Nazi vote had peaked by then, that Hitler was outpolled in 1933 by the combined Socialist and Communist vote, and that he was handed victory in the Reichstag by Hindenberg’s reactionary camarilla, legitimized for the occasion by the capitulation of those sensible “centrist” and Christian parties whose shame and disgrace is less well-remembered. Again, Conquest points to recent research that puts Mussolini’s Italy in a minor league for concentration camps and their victims (“a few thousand and in general not very inhumane”) where he is uncharacteristically imprecise about whether he is referring to camps or victims, and where the point only holds if Italian Fascist policy in Abyssinia, Libya, Spain and Albania, and on the Russian front, is left out. He repeats an observation he has famously made before, that Nazi policy is “understandably felt by most of us to be in important ways even worse than those of the Communist rulers”, but he undermines this insight by some easy shots at the idiotic generalization of the word “fascist” as employed by Stalin’s hired propagandists. No mention is made of the devastatingly prescient warning against National Socialism that was written by Leon Trotsky. (This work, with its accompanying contempt for Moscow’s collusion with Hitler, was fairly described by the late Irving Howe as the greatest political polemic ever written.) In a similarly soft-target bombardment, Conquest cites the 1940 Soviet Brief
Philosophical Dictionary, in which the reader was informed that “the corner stone of Marxism is the mass, the liberation of which is the main condition for the liberation of the individual”. This he summarizes as “the opposite of the Western view”. Also the opposite of the view of Marx and Engels – “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – as expressed in the 1848 Manifesto.
Several chapters fill in some of the blanks in Conquest’s previous work on the Gulag, the Terror and the famines. In most cases, the opening of former Soviet archives has resulted in disclosures that make that previous work seem like an understatement. The sheer crudeness and coarseness of Stalinist theory and practice still have the power to stun the mind. So does the amazing gullibility of so many “intellectuals”. In a series of sketches of the credulous, from Simone de Beauvoir to John Kenneth Galbraith, he is careful to make a distinction between those who rather relished the “excesses” of the Soviet “experiment” and those who looked for humane or longer-term excuses. Thus, he identifies the germ of natural power-worship in figures like E. H. Carr and C. P. Snow, whose chief desire was actually to be on the winning side. (“Snow thus consciously aligned himself not only with the British establishment, which is bad enough, but with the worst foreign one he could turn up.” Bang on!) And this is where his warning against teleology really kicks in. Simone de Beauvoir could never have written as brutally as she did about China, unless she had been in some way convinced that the revolution represented the future. Untune that single string, and hark what grim nonsense results. Again, I have some quibbles. It isn’t really true, even when compared to much worse show-trials in the Communist bloc, that “the Rosenbergs had a genuine trial”. Not even J. Edgar Hoover thought so. But this doesn’t obscure the point that Cold War “moral equivalence” was morally null.
Is Conquest really recommending that visions of the future be abandoned? The human desire to imagine a better world may be the root of much idiocy and crime, but it does seem to be innate and it might, like religion, be ineradicable. Having followed Conquest’s work over many decades, and having gathered that he is not himself a believer, I could wish that he had written explicitly rather than latently about “faith”, and about the relationship between secular and theological forms of the millennial. One of his favourite terms of disapprobation is “righteous”, which gives us a clue. But he also coins a useful term – “the nonempirical clerisy” – to encompass that class of intellectuals who seem neither to know nor care what their fellow-countrymen think or feel.
In this respect, it is interesting as well as charming to find him saying kind words about E. P. Thompson. This growling old scholar could never quite abandon his allegiance to the materialist conception of history, but it was in part his respect for that very conception that prevented him from accepting facile conclusions. As Conquest puts it:

“When he develops the historical data, he is clear and unanswerable on the developments of Chartism. He notes (as others did even at the time) that there was no armed force in Britain that could have put down any serious uprising. (The French had used overwhelming armed force to suppress trouble in Lyon.) And he shows, from contemporary sources, that in the suffering industrial areas the economic crises had, far from leading to class struggle, brought workers and their employers closer together, from their mutual interest in the “factory

From this reflection on what Thompson himself once called “the peculiarities of the English”, it is a short step to saying:

“Engels, of course, rode to hounds – and it was thought remarkable that this odd foreigner had been accepted by the Hunt. One wonders how he would feel about his House of Commons descendants voting for the abolition of his sport but not for socialism.”

What Conquest appears to be offering, in place of ideological enthusiasm, is the kind of “English liberty” that was admired by Voltaire and others before 1789 began to spoil things. Indeed, he closes the book with a detailed blueprint for an “Anglosphere” alliance, that would formalize relations between the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the associated Caribbean and Pacific islands.
The sort of people who would be quickest to sneer at this are exactly the sort of people who see nothing incongruous in the maintenance by the Elysée of “La Francophonie”, but it is useful to note that Conquest himself – an Anglo-American of partly French provenance – is not immune from the desire to put a slightly Utopian scheme before a wondering world. It turns out that the Utopias proposed in the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions have essentially come to naught, and that by an almost Hegelian turn of history there are now Iraqi and Afghan and Syrian Communists and ex-Communists, taking part in rather bizarre revolutions from above that have been ignited by the superpower heirs of 1776. It would have been absorbing to see him step outside his Anglosphere to consider this in more depth and detail.
The remainder of the book is chiefly taken up with defences of culture and excellence from the usual host of contemporary fads. In a tiny but amusing slip, he describes as “fictional” the “old-time Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee”, with its legendarily forbidding chairman Alderman Foodbotham; it would surely be better to describe the world of “Peter Simple” as fantastic, or satirical. The late Michael Wharton himself might not have been able to conjure the tins of excrement, labelled as “merde de l’artiste”, which not even Manzoni’s self-satirizing motive sufficed to prevent the Tate Modern from taking with costly seriousness and solemnity. I once heard Conquest say that the need of the hour was for “a united front against bullshit”: those who declare such wars must always be aware that their enemies will continue to outpoint and astonish them.
This is a book, plainly written largely for his own enjoyment, by one of the last century’s great polymaths. In his time, and in addition to imperishable works of modern history that asserted truth against the Big Lie, he has been one of our most distinguished poets (and critics of poetry) and has written essays on everything from the illiteracies of Ezra Pound to the finer points of science fiction. I would venture to add that he has also kept the limerick form alive, and demonstrated how muscular and sinuous its capacities can be. A few months ago, together with Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin, he was invested with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I possess a photograph of this event, with Conquest sitting next to the Queen of Soul. She looks lachrymose and overcome: he is dry-eyed and quizzical. She really wanted it. He could perfectly well have done without it. Throughout this text, he veers in a sometimes redundant way between saying “I”, and “we”, and even “our”, when summarizing his conclusions. I found I preferred it when he alluded to “the present author”. Robert Conquest is “present” all right, and always will be as long as people of irony and scruple and detachment have anything to talk about.


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