There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
—That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Late and unlamented though it now is, the Soviet Union used to be a source of hope and progress in the eyes of many, and perhaps most, intellectuals. That is a truly strange phenomenon. Men and women enthusiastically abandoned the discipline of reasoning and the validation of evidence —logic itself—upon which they relied in their professional careers. Testimony from Soviet defectors and Gulag survivors did not shake them. A variety of self-deceptions were at work justifying well-publicized horrors such as the hounding of Trotsky or the Great Terror with its rigged trials and deliberately induced famine. The damage inherent in this misrepresentation cannot be determined, but this much may be said: on the one hand, apology for the Soviet Union weakened and betrayed democratic values with consequences lasting to this day, and on the other hand the victims of Communism had the added bitterness of knowing that they could not rely on those whose human duty it should have been to speak in their defense.

Something else impossible to determine is the debt that Western societies owe to those who championed democracy when it was imperative to do so, the likes of Sidney Hook and Raymond Aron, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, individuals as courageous as they were exceptional. They challenged the hysterical illusion created by what Koestler vividly called “the thousands of painters and writers and doctors and lawyers and debutantes chanting a diluted version of the Stalinist line.” Soviet spokesmen and apologists worldwide automatically decried critics as “enemies of the people” with no right to their opinion, and used to threaten them regularly with physical elimination.

The limerick above (which has found its way into The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, edited by John Gross) could not have been written by anyone except Robert Conquest. Note its cleverness, its playful insouciance, and above all the central telling direction that Marxism inspires murder, which alone is worth volumes of polemics. Early in the Cold War, Conquest started to expose the Soviet Union and its pretensions. Scrupulously, he weighed the evidence, which was imperfect but still enough for a considered judgment. Here was scholarship of a high order, and that was annoying enough to fellow-traveling opinion-makers and debutantes. Over and above that, he has always displayed an equanimity all his own, compounded of commonsense and humor and the belief that truth must in the end prevail. Nobody else so well conveyed the fact that those putting the Soviet case were absolute clowns, dangerous of course, but pitiful. Conquest was unanswerable. I well recall how bien-pensant intellectuals in the London of the Sixties could only resort to name-calling, habitually slandering him as a “fascist hyena.” Memoirs of a Fascist Hyena was the title which Constantine FitzGibbon, a friend and admirer of Conquest’s, gave to his autobiography in mock tribute.

The Great Terror in 1968, and then The Harvest of Sorrow in 1986, documented the crimes committed in the cause of Stalinism. Contributing as they did to the dissipation of the climate of Soviet apology, these books are historic markers. Now that the Soviet archives are to some extent open, it has also become evident that Conquest had depicted Communism in practice with an almost unerring accuracy. Scholarly scruple had sometimes led him to understate the number of victims and the enormity of what had happened. As a result, in the eyes of Russians he has become a very great man indeed, a rare spirit who cared about them and published their plight to the rest of the world.

Reflections on a Ravaged Century, as its title suggests, is a summation of the thoughts and observations of a lifetime.[1] A wise book, it is marvellously informed and further adorned with apt quotations from wide reading, some of the best from Orwell, obviously a special inspiration to him and the writer he seems closest to. Certain touches have a comic-sardonic ring about them which might have come straight from Orwell. At one point Conquest describes how in Mao’s China acupuncturists stuck needles into deaf-mutes who then shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao!” American Stalinists looked at the USSR from an American point of view, Conquest notes: They did not think “hurrah for the terrorist dictator; they said, look at the Lincoln of today.” Or again, Marxism in its pure form, “may soon only be found, like the spotted owl, in a few sanctuaries on the American Pacific Coast.” Eric Hobsbawm, still an unreconstructed Stalinist historian, justifies himself because “although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right.”

A pragmatist, Conquest holds that proper societies evolve only by means of lengthy and often fraught processes of trial and error. Issues of personality and accidents of all sorts are in play, and politics is the medium by which consensus is reached, and change can be harnessed with as few strains as may be. The French Revolution cut across natural political evolution by introducing the “Idea,” a word to which Conquest grants a capital letter. According to the Idea, utopia was to be constructed on earth by those who were able to envision it. As these select few set about instituting mankind’s happiness, their will self-evidently had priority over consensus. They were to do as they pleased, and whoever stood in their way was unenlighted, therefore disposable.

Communism, like Nazism, had its origins in an Idea of this kind. The means used to institutionalize the Idea might seem rational, but the Idea itself was irrational. As Mandelstam put it in Stalin’s day, “Because the trams are running, they think this is a normal society.” Belief in the Idea had to be a matter of temperament. Confronted by reality in the form of some failure of the Idea, believers instinctively reinforced wishful thinking rather than reassess their motives. From the outset, there was a discrepancy between theory and practice, and over a period of time this was bound to grow more unbridgeable. The effort to unite theory and practice involved more and more deception, and when that proved inadequate for the purpose, censorship, conspiracy, murder, and war. The totalitarian state was the result.

The history of the Soviet Union, as Conquest resumes it here, was a sustained pretense that the Idea was reality. Two Soviet Unions thus came into existence, the official one in which everything was agitprop make-believe around non-achievement, and the actual one in which real life was suffered by ordinary people unable to bring anyone to account for anything. Fellow traveling and apology grew roots and flourished between these ever-widening extremes.

Did it have to turn out like this? Yes, Conquest answers, on the whole it did. Marx’s Idea was false, but attractive enough to ensure that the falsity would have to be proved through general experiment. Institutionalizing Marxism, Lenin wrenched Russian society away from what would otherwise have been its natural course. Under Stalin, the Russian people had to pay the price for this. After the victory over Hitler, Stalin was in a position to force other nations, and perhaps even his former wartime allies, to pay the price too. Granted Stalin’s belief in the Idea, and then his ruthless exploitation of it, the Cold War became a certainty. The Soviets might very well have won it too. Détente as they practiced it was a strategem for advancement by other means. Among useful allies, they could count on the Sartres and the Brechts, the whole choir of lesser Hobsbawms, and “peace” movements too gullible to realize that they were subsidized puppets of Moscow. On the Western side, as Conquest stresses, the problem was an inadequate conception of Soviet psychology, a lack of imagination with which to perceive what their Idea was leading them to do to themselves and to others.

In a thoughtful chapter, Conquest dissects nationalism and the forms it can take. As one among other components both of Communism and of Nazism, nationalism is an expression of “We” against “Them,” allowing nationalists to switch easily between extremes which were compatible and not really in competition as they seemed to be. To the extent that nationalism glorifies the state and its nation, it destabilizes the neighbors, but Conquest approves of cultural nationalism on the grounds that it is a reinforcement of identity.

Faulty balance between nations and nationalisms disturbed the past century, and was among the factors which brought down the Soviet Union. But by the time of Gorbachev, the two Soviet Unions could anyhow no longer be reconciled, either in the mind, or by the deployment of terror. The divergence between the Idea and reality was now so absolute that it revealed how much lying there had been by everyone at all levels. Glasnost allowed Russians to say so, like the boy in the Hans Andersen tale pointing out that the emperor wore no clothes. Either from above or below, violence proved superfluous, because the Idea, collapsing, could at last be seen for what it was.

Welcome and wonderful as this reprieve was, Conquest continues in the final part of his book, the response of the West has been muted and unsure. Victory in the Cold War coincided with decadence. So many Westerners have internalized the accusations consistently levelled against them by the Soviets and their apologists that Western civilization and culture are altogether demoralized. Past contacts between the West and other nations in the world spread the rule of law, trade, and universal values, but these achievements have been sloganized into “imperialism” and “colonialism,” with the consequence that what ought to be a source of pride appears instead to be something guilty in need of atonement. Art is at a dead end. Literature is an academic plaything at the mercy of political correctness. Education proved no shield against the Idea in the past, and in any case it is now more an instrument of social engineering than the end in itself which it ought to be if civil society is to continue. Clowns are again at work. Gloomy as the theme is, Conquest’s humor will out, and he summons in aid a spoof study of Kingsley Amis which he published in the prestigious Critical Quarterly, with references to such unlikely books as The Phallus Theme in Early Amis, only to receive numbers of letters from English teachers and students taking all this at face value.

More dire still, an Idea is once more on the loose. The nations of Europe are engaged in some sort of union. A federation is in the making, and beyond that an empire. Another intellectual betrayal is at hand. Historically, Europe has not been a single political entity since Roman times, and hardly then. Its nations are divided by language, religion, law, custom, and long memories of bitter warfare among themselves. The conceivable overcoming of division gives this latest Idea its attraction, but it is based on exactly the same false lure of utopia as Communism and Nazism. The consent of its different peoples is not driving events. Wrenching aside natural political development, the will of the few is once more attempting to create a reality through the institutionalization of a bureaucracy. As in the Soviet Union, the bureaucrats themselves form a privileged nomenklatura and the electorate do not have the means to call them to account. Representative democracy and established identity are both under threat. The balance between nations and nationalisms is swinging wildly, with instability and potential violence already visible in the offing. Identity is under threat.

To avoid the further horror so evidently in store, Conquest recommends an association of the United States, Britain, and those countries which share in their language and culture, and would be willing participants. Race is no consideration. The Caribbean countries are obvious candidates. All may join who wish to. Not an Idea at all, this would be a practical measure involving no loss of sovereignty or identity, but serving to strengthen the democratic center for purposes of reviving confidence and unity, and preserving the precarious peace of the world. Such is the lesson this gifted and humane man has drawn from the past century and the evils which it leaves to the historical record. If nobody learns it, well, you have been warned.

Go to the top of the document.

  1. Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest; W. W. Norton, 336 pages, $26.95. Go back to the text.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 6, on page 69
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now