Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest, New York W.W. Norton & Company, 317 pages, $26.95
It is in the latter part in Evelyn Waugh's novel Officers and Gentlemen (1955) that Guy Crouchback, his disillusionment with the Second World War swiftly mounting, recalls reading "of the Russo-German alliance, when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, when the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms."
For Crouchback, as indeed for Waugh himself, there was something indecent in the Allies' embrace of the U.S.S.R. after Hitler two-timed Stalin. For where there was Stalin there was no God, a point rather more important to the Catholic Waugh than to the utilitarian practitioners of the balance of power who reckoned that wars are won by men, and that Stalin had a great number to offer. Yet Crouchback's ruminations go beyond Catholic spite: Inherent in his thoughts is a striving for a middle ground between the opposing, if never opposite, poles of Nazism and Communism, where the notion of "just war" has meaning, and where an enemy is, reassuringly, unambiguously, the Enemy.
In his most recent book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, eminent historian Robert Conquest often comes across as a latter-day Crouchback. Conquest is someone in perpetual search of the reasonable middle, at ease with the customary—those habits and principles born of experience. After decades spent in dogged investigation of the Soviet Union's more extravagant crimes, Conquest now launches an assault against the tyranny of abstract Ideas, those vindicating the forcible, unnatural shaping of human actions.
More often than not in the past century such Ideas were born of a ruinous conceit "that utopia can be constructed on earth." Conquest's favored path is the evolutionary, not the revolutionary, whose practitioners, in their inability to entertain alternatives, seek to impose dogma through the systematic dismantling of rival beliefs, and, too often, murder. This impulse Conquest describes using a most effective neologism: mindslaughter.
Yet this forms only part of Conquest's meditations, which collectively make up a curious book. Reflections is, in fact, three things: a retrospective, as the title suggests, allowing Conquest to assess, once again, the devastation wrought by ideological excess during the 20th century; an impertinent, at times myopic, interpretation of the global Zeitgeist from someone with a hefty reservoir of outrage; and a pamphlet, with the last segment of the book devoted to pleading the case for a new transoceanic, English-speaking association of states.
In his philosophical approach and in the intellectual markers that he employs, Conquest seems an anachronism. His accounts of ideological confrontations past, which make up a sizable portion of Reflections, may strike younger readers as vintage Cold War posturing. Some may find themselves magnanimously agreeing that Conquest, now in his 80s, should be given his say. After all, he is one of the few who surveyed the gamut of volatile transactions between the U.S.S.R. and the West, and who emerged from the fracas with the verdict of history leaning considerably in his favor. Yet giving Conquest his say need not mean finding him relevant to what lies ahead. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, some may conclude, Conquest has outlived his time.
But such a conclusion would be tantamount to admitting that Ideas no longer affect societies. In fact, Ideas, however vacuous, persist. Conquest is not solely concerned with the mass killings of totalitarian regimes. As he sees it, all-embracing Ideas are everywhere present, and are considered an essential ingredient in innovation. Where Conquest parts ways with the innovators, however, is when they seek to demolish what already exists. His major contemporary example of such behavior? Something as apparently benign as European unity, with its "excessive stress on easily graspable, or generally fine-sounding, ideas and too little on the real structure of our cultures."
Culture is a recurring motif in Conquest's arguments. His obsession is with societies' details, those particulars of cultural expression that partisans of all-embracing Ideas need to expunge in order to triumph. In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, a contributing editor of The Nation, D.D. Guttenplan, wrote of his encounter with Raul Hilberg, the Holocaust historian. Hilberg, defending the importance of accurate estimates of deaths in his research, remarked: "There is ultimately, if you don't want to surrender to nihilism entirely, the matter of a record. Does the record matter? In my judgment it is not discussible. It is not arguable." Conquest, who spent much time having to defend his death figures in The Great Terror, would agree. Without the sanctity of facts, to use Guttenplan's expression, without a record, without memory, what would societies be left holding?
Hovering over Reflections as a sustaining spirit is George Orwell. The theme and tone of Conquest's arguments suggest why. Orwell understood the benefits of experience. Never satisfied with mere commentary, he felt an urge to report on his subjects, to become part of them. For Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell lived as a tramp; he dwelled among the miners of northern England to write the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier. Homage to Catalonia, the third in his triptych of reportages, was on the Spanish civil war and was written after a stint in the POUM militia, an escapade that nearly cost Orwell his life.
Conquest also sees in Orwell an early and heroic inquisitor of totalitarianism. This was no armchair activity in the 1930s, when much of the European intelligentsia was red, with avid concentrations of brown and black. Even today, Orwell incites polemics. Most recently he stood accused of having provided a list of communist sympathizers to Celia Kirwan, an employee at Britain's Foreign Office's Information Research Department, which had ties to MI6. An angry riposte came from Christopher Hitchens, who pointed out in the London Review of Books that Orwell's supposed "list" was open, shown to friends, and was included in a quarto notebook at home. Therefore, it could hardly have been prepared by someone "in the service of the secret state."
As it happens, one of Kirwan's colleagues at the Information Research Department was Robert Conquest. That is why the attacks directed against Orwell must also, somewhere, find Conquest as well. They share much: a willingness to subvert conventional wisdom, despite the backlash, if it is shown to be spurious; a disdain for the sanctity of ideology if it violates the better judgments of common sense; and an impulse to focus on people rather than on systems when considering political behavior, since psychological asylum among impersonal forces has habitually been used to alleviate the import of the more monumental human abominations.
A nagging problem in reading Reflections is finding just where the boundary lies between Conquest's frequent appeals to a public common sense safe from intellectual narcissism, and an inherent anti-intellectual populism. Conquest frequently adopts the same lines of attack employed by dime-store demagogues the world over. That is undoubtedly where the link ends, but it is alarming when even thoughtful Burkean conservatives such as Conquest should find themselves so exotically accompanied.
First, common sense. In describing the current schools of art, Conquest writes: "There is no execution unless at a very low and mechanical level. And this is even praised as 'conceptual.' That is, there is no 'artistry' that a bricklayer—or a butcher and a glazier—could not do, assuming they could spare time from their more useful occupations." For Conquest, current art schools, because of their desire to establish closed, unchallenged hierarchies of values and authority, develop art that is inaccessible to the public, which thirsts for skill. In order to justify what Conquest considers an absence of skill—and what art schools would call "conceptual originality"—an intellectual or ideological gloss must be produced, hence a gatekeeper. The stultifying (and eroding) power of art gatekeepers has been a theme repeatedly discussed in REASON, as well as by the likes of Tom Wolfe, most recently in an article on the artist Frederick Hart in The New York Times Magazine. Conquest's instinct to tear at the hollow esoterica sustaining artistic hierarchies is sound, even if, paradoxically, in the back of his mind he accepts an aesthetic ideal set by gatekeepers past.
Conquest's drift into a more cursory populism, appears, oddly for a historian, in a discussion on the international system. In a chapter on nations, he writes: "The world can be seen as containing evolved nation-states and states which, even if in some cases ethnically or territorially based, are not yet mature components of an international order." And then, "there are what amount to pirate states, in effect not recognizing (though sometimes constrained to observe) any rules of international behavior: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and so on." And these "have to be coped with urgently over the interim, but in the long or medium run a really sustainable international order is possible only on a basis of adequate nations and national states."
There are two problems here, one semantic, the other conceptual. The words evolved, mature, and adequate are subjective, yet they presume a priori, objective agreement on their meaning. The criticism is hardly a plea for watered-down relativity: No one can avoid feeling, for example, that Somalia—the example is Conquest's—is at a somewhat earlier stage of national evolution than Switzerland, whatever that may mean. But who formally determines such things? When one resorts to the concept of "adequate nations," there is a discernible sense that someone, somewhere is handing out certificates to those deemed fréquentable. There is a gatekeeper here, and Conquest fails to explain who it is, though anyone can guess.
Then there are those exasperating "pirate states." The "and so on" Conquest tags onto his gallery of rogues is a tad self-defeating, as it implies roughly the same blamelessness as "the usual suspects." It also speaks to a peculiar mindset prevalent in the mid-1980s, when "terrorism experts" roamed the corridors of Washington in search of handouts to finance their ghoulish pseudo-science. That Conquest should find himself in such company is deplorable.
The problem is that he never really considers the innate abrasiveness of America's global reach. One needn't alight from the left to see that America is the main enforcer of a global status quo, that the ensuing equilibrium often favors it, and that this situation produces disturbing inconsistencies: Turkey can murder its Kurds, but Iraq cannot; Israel and Pakistan can possess atomic weapons, but Iran and North Korea cannot; Russia can ruthlessly crush a domestic national insurrection, but Serbia cannot.
One hastens to append a disclaimer: Avoid drawing policy guidelines from such sophistry. The depravities of some states need not imply that all should be allowed to abuse their powers until universal consistency is imposed. Yet by sidestepping frustration with America's global conduct, by accepting without dissent "we and they" categorizations, Conquest takes the easy route, one that will appeal to those who assume that an international Pax Americana is absolutely divine.
That's a pity because Conquest is, at least culturally, ecumenical: He is ever mindful and tolerant of the effect cultural variances have on political and economic systems. Yet for a rare instance in Reflections we hear the fighter-bombers on a sortie against the pirate state's nerve center, in the background the grunting acquiescence of a Rush Limbaugh.
One of the more engaging sections of Reflections shows Conquest lashing out at the aberration of European unity. Europe, he reminds us, is just another Idea, one that has spawned a tentacular bureaucracy and that seeks to impose on the divergent European states a counterfeit uniformity. Conquest does a service in bringing the debate back to the realm of culture and politics, since the aficionados of Europe mainly use economic arguments to justify what is at heart a political and cultural phenomenon.
Conquest writes, "It might be argued that real knowledge of, even affection for, continental Europe makes one reject a light-minded and premature political unity." What Conquest apparently desires—and the key word here is affection—is a genuine harmony of interests built against the backdrop of a time-tested, historical understanding of Europe's cultural and political diversity.
Where Conquest is unconvincing is in his determination that Europe is "a bloc hindering the development of free trade, being from the global point of view a large-scale special interest (or set of special interests)." Because of this, he continues, the European Union has divided the West and is "in effect anti-American."
The implications are fascinating: Conquest posits a transnational Western interest, but avoids inquiring whether this may, perchance, also represent a "large-scale special interest" of the kind which might hinder free trade. Nor would devotees of the free market understand what is wrong with special interests, since the moment grander motivations, such as Western unity, are injected into the marketplace, there is a distinct possibility that ideology will follow.
To Europe, Conquest prefers a structure which "would be natural rather than artificial, going with the cultural grain rather than cutting across it." His proposal is for an association of English-speaking countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, perhaps Ireland (if the restive Irish agree), the nations of the Caribbean and the Pacific, and maybe a few more. One hesitates to repeat that this too may emerge as a special interest group, though the accusation of divisiveness is easily dispensed with: Conquest considers his Association the first step in the formation of a grander global collectivity bringing together democratic countries. It is too early to outline the degree of unity in such a congregation, Conquest explains, but it would be stronger than an alliance and weaker than a federation.
What is one to make of what seems a harebrained idea? Conquest's tone may suggest to some readers that he is endorsing the notion of a "clash of civilizations." The accusation would be unfair. For Conquest to argue that a "united and peaceful world" is possible suggests that he has a far less Hobbesian worldview than those who believe in the inevitability of cultural antagonism. Indeed one would have thought less fanciful a man who spent such time counting bodies. Yet Conquest's proposal is not self-evidently insensible—unity is always easier, and preferable, among those of like minds and habits.
However, one wonders what would really happen if transnational, culturally homogenous communities begin forming on every side. Would the result be unity and peace, or conflict on an ever grander scale? Nowhere does Conquest explain what mechanism would drive international unification.
It is to Conquest's credit that he casually opens himself up to such reproof. For if his distaste is for transcendent Ideas, he very much fancies the free exchange of ideas. Reflections echoes to the sounds of a thousand controversies, past and future, which Conquest so engagingly distributes as possible guides out of the intellectual labyrinth at this rotation of century. One need not follow his path, nor does Conquest impose one. His is a more benign tyranny: It merely requires a clarification of one's own thoughts.
Michael Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer living in Lebanon.