Reflections on a Ravaged Centuryby Robert Conquest
"Illuminates the past with a mighty searchlight and clears away mountains of nonsense."Gabriel Schoenfeld, Wall Street Journal
Robert Conquest has been called by Paul Johnson "our greatest living modern historian." As a new century begins, Conquest offers an illuminating examination of our past failures and a guide to where we should go next. Graced with
"Illuminates the past with a mighty searchlight and clears away mountains of nonsense."Gabriel Schoenfeld, Wall Street Journal
Robert Conquest has been called by Paul Johnson "our greatest living modern historian." As a new century begins, Conquest offers an illuminating examination of our past failures and a guide to where we should go next. Graced with one of the most acute gifts for political prescience since Orwell, Conquest assigns responsibility for our century’s cataclysms not to impersonal economic or social forces but to the distorted ideologies of revolutionary Marxism and National Socialism. The final, sobering chapters of Reflections on a Ravaged Century concern themselves with some coming storms, notably that of the European Union, which Conquest believes is an economic, cultural, and geographical misconception divisive of the West and doomed to failure. Winner of the Ingersoll Prize; winner of the Richard M. Weaver Prize; a New York Times Notable Book. "Provides many glowing embers of reasoned and wise argument."Richard Bernstein, The New York Times "A book that ought to be required reading for everyone about to enter college, and by every member of Congress."Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer
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The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. And so history's essential questions must be:
How do we account for what has been called the "ideological frenzy" of the twentieth century? How did these mental aberrations gain a purchase? What was the sort and condition of people affected? Who were the Typhoid Marys who spread the infection?
We need to develop the history and the nature of the various destructive ideologies in action. We need to consider the history and traditions of the culture that stood in opposition to them.
But before we turn to these broader themes, we need to examine the history and background of the mental arena in which the battle of ideas was fought.
Both scarcely formulated fanaticisms and dosed systems of ideas are, of course, to be found throughout the past. These historical phenomena are full of lessons for our time (indeed ignorance of history is one of the most negative attributes of modern man). The basic characteristic and attraction was and is the archaic idea that utopia can be constructed on earth; the offer of a millenarian solution to all human problems. This central trend has been, at least in vocabulary, modernized. The aspirations which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spoke in the dialect of Theology, in the eighteenth century took up that of Reason, and in the nineteenth century that of Science.
With the twolast, we get the delusion that our knowledge of human society is so complete that we have the power to reinvent it according to the formulae so obtained, that human affairs are in principle fully understandable and fully manipulable: a fetishism of whatever happens, or happened, to be the supposed current state of knowledge about social, economic, psychological and other phenomena.
The origin of the modern era's ideologies lay in John Locke's derivation of scholastic generalities from traditional English understandings of liberty, thus excessively rationalizing and at the same time limiting, or in a sense desiccating, the more complex reality.
At any rate, this, and the success of the physical and other sciences in England in the seventeenth century, gave the French intelligentsia the idea that everything could now be determined by Reasonin whose name the Revolution was madewith the "Romantic" input from Rousseau as part of the meld. The often argued "contradiction" between them may appear valid in a formal way, but in practice they went well together, the perfection sought being both intellectual and emotional. This unfortunate combination persisted. The "Ideas" in this sense were in any case mental, but not primarily intellectual, phenomena. Insofar as one can make the distinction, they seem, rather, to have been the verbalizations of largely emotional content.
As Alexander Yakovlev, the former Politburo member who became a stout proponent of democracy, noted in a speech on the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, "The morbid faith in the possibility of forcing through social and historical development, and the idealisation of violence, traces back to the very sources of the European revolutionary tradition."
Marx himself said that he combined German philosophical, English economic and French political ideas. And it is indeed in France that we first find Revolution in the sense of the complete destruction of the existing order, and its replacement by abstract conceptsthese latter formulated by, and dictatorially enforced by, theorists with no experience of real politics. The Revolution Idea then spread over half the world.
It is sometimes argued that the social strains on the fabric of human culture, of human minds, since the Industrial Revolution have been so intense that all this has been a natural "objective" result. Since the main centers of that revolutionin particular Britain and the United Statesescaped the frenzy, this cannot stand up.
Not that the advocates of free-market industrialization were exempt from a different, and less total, form of excess ideation: an extreme antiregulatory economic theory was widely held and inflicted. In the mid-nineteenth century in Britain, it was a loose coalition of traditionalists and social reformers who brought in the legislation which curbed the excesses of the first decades of the Industrial Revolution (though the dramatic fall in the death rate was also due to such works as the vast new London sewage system).
Revolutionaries, and some reformers, spoke and still speak of "radical" change. It is worth remembering that such change is not necessarily greater than that associated with the gradualist approach. Cutting the taproot is in one sense a lesser operation than lopping off a number of dead branches. To pursue the metaphor further, it is much easier to kill a tree, and requires considerably less knowledge of dendrology, than to prune it effectively. The English Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution in 1776, both of them undertaken in protection of the legal and civic order, had no connotation of total and utopian changethough Marxists and others have sometimes implied the opposite.
As to the Jacobin claim to absolute democracy (with Marat as l'Ami du Peuple!), Sunil Khilnani writes of its legacy in his Arguing Revolution:
But the Revolutionand the left it createdproved to be the ... worst enemy of these values. Democracy in its constitutional representative formthe only form in which inhabitants of the modern political world are ever likely to be durably acquainted with itremained in quite fundamental respects unpracticed, untheorised and unloved in France. To the intellectual left, constitutional representative democracy, "bourgeois" or "formal" democracy, was a contemptible and mystifying illusion.
And, he adds, "only beginning in the late 1970s did it gradually come to be accepted [in France] as a political form in its own right, and not merely an illicit simulation of `true' direct or revolutionary democracy."
Edmund Burke, in a famous passage (written, moreover, before the worst excesses), pointed out that the French revolutionaries' delusion that force could solve all problems was above all a "slothful" attempt to ignore the complexity of reality.
A century and a half later Orwell similarly remarked on the "mental coarseness" of revolutionaries, who "imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society." He might have added that there is something infantile or childish in the whole revolutionary-despotic approach, which is, in effect, based on the simpleminded attitude "If I were King ...," that it only needs well-intentioned people in power to solve everything by mere decree. Rémy de Gourmont calls the excesses of the French Revolution "nothing but the anger of a disappointed child."
I find that high school students, imbued with or attracted to it, can easily follow the central objection (more than can be said for some at higher, or further, levels of education): How is equality to be attained? Answer: By being enforced. Who is to do the enforcing, and how can the enforcer remain "equal" to the rest? ... And to assume the best of motives even for the initial commitment to an Idea is to be charitable: for in most humans a component of hatred for the designated oppressor has usually been quite as motivating as sympathy for the oppressed. But many, the world over, thought and still think in terms of social revolution, of a judgment against the rich and powerful which will be followed by "liberation"another slippery general term.
"Revolution" has long been a powerful mantra. In her memoirs, Hope against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, the widow of the great poet murdered by the Stalinists, takes the view that a generation of Russian intellectuals was ruined by the word, which none of them could give up, and which prevented them from opposing the dictatorship. For what the Bolsheviks had effected was undoubtedly a "revolution" and not to be resisted.
There are men who are revolutionaries by temperament, to whom in fact bloodshed is natural. Pushkin had understood the dangers: "Those in our midst who plan impossible revolutions are either young men who do not know our people, or cruel-hearted men who place a low value on their own necks, and an even lower value on the necks of others." There were those who came to it entrapped by the Idea, and prepared to destroy "enemies of the people." Even intellectuals who are not strictly speaking revolutionaries, but who claim to speak in the interests of "humanity" as a whole, have taken sinister stands. For example, Bertrand Russell is quoted as accepting "that if it could be shown that humanity would live happily ever after if the Jews were exterminated, there could be no good reason not to proceed with their extermination" (Frederic Raphael, Prospect, May 1996).
The revolutionary believed it to be in the nature of things that dictatorship and terror are needed if the good of humanity is to be served, just as the Aztec priests believed themselves to be entirely justified in ripping the hearts out of thousands of victims, since had they not done so, the sun would have gone out, a far worse catastrophe for mankind. In either case, the means are acceptable, being inevitable that is, if the theory is correct....
Like all paranoiacs, revolutionists legitimized hatred, which they practiced effectively. They claimed to legitimize it in the interests of humanity: in this they were deceived. Or, to put it another way, the primitive search for certainty, of mental submission to revelation, of which we have spoken is melded with the primitive submergence of the individual mind into a supposed mass mind. Something of the sort may also be said of an addict's acceptance of not only terror but also liesthose two characteristics of the absolutist Idea, like Sin and Death in an earlier literature. And when it came to the Soviet Union there was what amounted to an acceptance of the old Russian distinction between transcendent Truth (pravda) and mere factual truth (istina). It was Pushkin, again, who wrote sardonically, "The lie that uplifts us is dearer to me than the mass of petty istinas."
Another great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, points out, in The Possessed, that "causes" are attractive for another reason, because they provide an excuse for behaving badly, giving "the right to dishonor," which, as he puts it, is endlessly fascinating. One of the things that gave even Stalinism its prestige in the West, even (or especially) among those who recognized that its methods were immensely ruthless, was the abstract, utopian notion that there was a certain horrible grandeur in what was going on. Men of ideas, who had profoundly considered the laws of history, were creating a new society and taking upon themselves the guilt of the necessary merciless action. Such an attitude is to be seen even in the interrogators in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and Koestler has recorded that a young Frenchman once wrote to tell him that he had become converted to Communism by that very book.
As its lowest method of justification, the excuse was, in effect, that "you can't make borscht without cutting up beets"to adapt a remark about omelettes attributed earlier to Robespierre.
The point, surely, is to discourage the combination of a vague and self-congratulatory general goodwill towards humanity with an acceptance of systems and, resulting from that, the (often gradual) acceptance of extreme inhumanityand falsificationif done in the name of the supposedly humanitarian concepts.
For as that great historian Norman Cohn has remarked (in his Warrant for Genocide):
There exists a subterranean world, where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when that underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people.... And it occasionally happens that this subterranean world becomes a political power and changes the course of history.
But the world can no longer afford the rise of revolutionary-ideologues, any more than it can afford nuclear warin part because the takeover of states by ideolaters must lead to gross inhumanity, and may lead to nuclear confrontations.
What, then, is the mental material into which they insert their ideas, like certain wasps into certain grubs?
Dostoevsky writes of a human type "whom any strong idea strikes all of a sudden and annihilates his will, sometimes forever." The true Idea addict is usually something roughly describable as an "intellectual." The British writer A. Alvarez has (and meaning it favorably) defined an intellectual as one who is "excited by ideas." Ideas can indeed be exciting, but the use of the intellect might be thought to be primarily one of subjecting them to knowledge and judgmentespecially on the record of our century.
Intelligence alone is thus far from being a defense against the plague. Students, in particular, have traditionally been a reservoir of infection. The Nazis won the German students before they won the German state, and there are many similar examples. In much the same way, a leading scholar of Russian affairs (Ronald Hingley of Oxford) noted during the Soviet period that basic misapprehensions about it in the West were rare among truly serious scholars, and also among ordinary people, being confined to those of fair intelligence. He commented, "For it is surely true, if not generally recognised, that real prowess in wrong-headedness, as in most other fields of human endeavour, presupposes considerable education, character, sophistication, knowledge, and will to succeed."
Eric Hoffer suggests that those who become possessed by exciting Ideas and identification with causes are often "selfish people who were forced by innate shortcomings or external circumstances to lose faith in their own selves." It might be argued that, whether through temperament or accident, some who are simply bored with the quotidian turn to Ideas as stimuli. We are told of hostesses in Berlin in the early 1930s to whom National Socialism gave "meaning to their empty lives."
Boredom is indeed a pitiable condition. And the feeling of meaninglessness, of accidie, can be devastating. Still, to compensate by abandoning reason for ideology is a desperate remedy.
Political opinion seems in fact to be largely a matter of temperament. This is implicitly admitted by Marx himself in that passage in the Communist Manifesto in which, having insisted that in general people act according to their class economic interest, he makes an exception forMarxist intellectuals! "A portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and, in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole." As we know, most Marxist and Communist leaders have been of bourgeois origin. Marx is here admitting that their motivations are not those normally provided for by Marxism. What are they, then? Marx himself would have been the last to say that any of his followers were the intellectual superiors of Darwin or Clerk Maxwell; nor is it likely that a Communist in this century would have claimed that Molotov was the intellectual superior of Ivan Pavlov or Anton Chekhov, or Louis Aragon of Louis de Broglie or Albert Camus. But if not intellect or interest, we are left with temperament.
Even the philosopher, William James remarks, is really much motivated by temperament:
Temperament is no conventionally recognised reason; so he argues impersonal reasons for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.... Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes any representation of the universe that does suit it.
Pavel Akselrod, one of the leaders of the Russian revolutionary Marxists in the struggle against Eduard Bernstein and "revisionism," remarked (privately, to be sure) that "the whole thing is a matter of temperament," adding that the real objection to peaceful revolution, whatever its advantages, is that it "would be exceedingly boring"once again that dreadful prospect. Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir, in a revealing passage in The Prime of Life, wrote that she and Sartre were "temperamentally opposed to the idea of reform."
Times of stress have produced both revolutionaries and mystics, Zealots and Christians. It would be hard to define precisely the psychological differences between the types. And indeed, there is usually a good deal of movement from one view to the other; even in the United States, one notes some of the political activists of the sixties later becoming involved in strange religious quietisms. Such changes are explicable psychologically, but hardly sociologically.
For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind acceptance of a totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on "The Late Show," 24 October 1994 (see TLS, 28 October 1994). When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership of the Communist Party, he replied: "You didn't have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future."
Ignatieff then asked: "In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?"
Hobsbawm answered: "This is a sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm ... I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, `Probably not.'"
Ignatieff asked: "Why?"
Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."
Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"
Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."
It will be seen that, first, Hobsbawm accepted the Soviet project not merely on the emotional ground of "hope" but on the transcendental one of its being the "only" hope. Then, that he was justified because, although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right (and it was not only a matter of deaths, but also of mass torture, falsification, slave labor). Finally, that he believes this style of chiliastic, absolutist approach to reality is valid in principle.
It might be added that addiction to a historico-social analysis which admittedly proved defective could be taken to cast some doubt on the method, and hence the conclusions, of Hobsbawm's historical worksome of which, on the Bolsheviks, we shall consider in its context in a later chapter.
Again, culturesan inadequate wordhave doubtless produced, or at least selected, personalities with overall results different from those of other cultures. It is not easy to get into another man's skin, let alone that of another culture. In seventeenth-century France the great Condé once remarked to the Cardinal de Retz that the reason why historians got things wrong was that "Ces coquins nous font parler et agir comme ils auroient fait eux-mêmes à notre place." He noted, in fact, that intellectuals of his own culture would not make, or at any rate had not made, the effort adequately.
It is not as if Condé himself was an intellectually muscle-bound thug of a professional soldier. Those who frequented his château when he was in disgraceMoliêre, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Bossuetmake almost a roll call of the genius of the Grande Epoque. But if academics fail to understand the temperaments of the generals of their own culture, they are all the more unlikely to grasp the temperaments producing and produced by other traditions. When it comes to alien cultures, the immodesty of some anthropologists and social historians, who believe that they have got into the essence of a society, is a constant trap.
Louis MacNeice, the poet, who was also a Professor of Greek and deeply versed in ancient Athens, could nevertheless write:
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know.
It was all so unimaginably different,
And all so long ago.
And this is Athens! Incomparably closer to us, in many ways, than most of the other ancient cultures and many modern ones.
And yet the effort must be made. And when it comes to modern alien cultures, no understanding, and so no policy, is worth anything unless academics, statesmen and all others concerned make that effort, to the degree that unreal assumptions are driven even from their almost unconscious first thoughts on affairs. After that they need, it may be suggested, to master the idea that these deep-set historical forces of motivation are not merely very strange to us but cannot easily be changed by argument or manipulation.
The true criticism of Neville Chamberlain is that he could not really imagine a man like Hitler or a party like the Nazis. "He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well" whatever may be said of it as theology, is a parochial and limited attitude when it comes to foreign politics. It is not only on the leftand, of course, many on the left are exemptthat one finds this inability to grasp the totalist mentality imaginatively. The notion that people who raised the alarm about Hitler in the 1930s were being immoderate and unreasonable was found in the Times and at All Souls, in all the blinkered and complacent crannies of the Establishment. The concept of a quite different set of motivations, based on a different political psychology, was absent.
We are still faced with the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures. The central point is less that people misunderstand other people, or that cultures misunderstand other cultures, than that they have no notion that this may be the case. They assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions. Yet how profound is this difference between political psychologies and between the motivations of different political traditions, and how deep-set and how persistent these attitudes are!
On the confused and complicated mental battlefield where all these issues are being fought out, we must now turn to examine our own record and prospects. What are the resources available to us? What are our strategic and moral advantages? What are our weaknesses and how (and to what extent) have they been overcome?
To repudiate or at least deplore Ideas is not to favor the shortsightedness, the narrow establishmentarian or immobiliste attitudes which are almost as common now as they have been over recent centuries.
The "Western" culture has always implied the absence of absolutes, disbelief in perfect political wisdom, in readily predictable futures. But the avoidance of the extreme, ideologized way of thinking does not in itself save the political entity concerned from a milder, but still potentially dangerous, form of the affliction. And these less malignant varieties have to some extent taken holdwith uncritical devotion to various quick-fix solutions by humans and their states to the problems facing them. As in medical usage we speak of "-itis" in a real ailment and "-osis" in merely a morbid condition, we might speak of "ideitis" in the totalitarian countries and "ideosis" in certain Western cases.
To look at it from a different angle, we may consider if packages of lesser "ideas" are a unity based on reason or a temperamental one. None other than Hobsbawm once penetratingly noted the causes pursued by the typical progressive figure a hundred or more years ago: "natural philosophy, phrenology, free thought, spiritualism, temperance, unorthodox medicine, social reform, and the transformation of the family" (New Statesman, 4 April 1970)each supported with just as much righteousness and certainty as the partially different batch now so much heard of. The point is once again, clearly, that what comes out of the package is not intellectual coherence, or the pursuit of interests, but a cast of mind. There is no logical connection, no overriding ideological connection, between the views noted, but only the accidental one of novelty and unorthodoxy, and the temperamental one of the odium theologicum. (It is hard to exaggerate the element of sheer lunacy in some of the "progressive" thinkers who are still highly regarded. Fourier sincerely believed that under socialism the sea could be turned into lemonade.)
Now, modern men, though they might not agree on every point, would certainly grant that some of the opinions in that earlier package were totally crackpot and that others were not. The difficulty is that one cannot yet distinguish easily between what may prove to be a possibly useful contribution to social or other progress and what will in a century be regarded with amusement as the strangest of aberrations.
Obsessions can cover the whole of society, or can be concentrated on minor pointssuch as the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, or even such lesser matters as the pseudo-Anastasia's claim to be the Tsar's daughter. Concerning the point on which their obsessions concentrate, believers are often very well informed, with a mass of detail not readily available to their critics, though in fact either distorted or meaningless.
It would seem to follow (since political decisions are of more immediate consequence than literary ones) that certain temperaments are unfitted for action or advice in a pluralist order. But in most cases, no doubt, minds are not so rigidly set in their ways as to make them immune to experience and argument. The problem is in their breathing an atmosphere of thought containing at least a trace of noxious fumes. Indeed, in controversies of this sort, and more generally, one seems to see a certain degeneration. Except in admittedly extreme cases, it was usual even among those "committed" to certain opinions to preserve at least the appearance of rationality, balance, objectivity. Even this is often now abandoned.
Even when full-scale ideologies have not possessed human minds, less complete but still dangerously obsessive ideas have thus distorted our societies. Certainty on matters in which our knowledge is inevitably imperfect is the enemy of good understanding and good policy.
We must indeed distinguish between the aim or actuality of the total state, on the one hand, and what are no more than partial, and often hardly intentional, tendencies distorting normal states or systems of states. But even when totalist programs are not in question, the principle of state control and the actuality of bureaucratic power have become excessive even in the Westincluding excessive legislation, excessive regulation, and excessive litigation, often for aims based more on conviction than on knowledge. Misleading general views that perfuse the political class at any given time, whether in the West or elsewhere, are not for that reason sound, or durable. They gain momentum by involvement in state, or international, negotiations and administrations, until they appear unstoppable. But eventually, as often as not, they burn out.
What has suffered in all these cases is a sense of balance, between the proper rights of the individual and the necessary rights of the state, between personal aims and mutual obligations, between the often conflicting claims of liberty and of equity.
General ideas, general concepts, general principles, interpreted as absolutes rather than approximations, are mere kindling wood for a new conflagration. But of course we must use general ideas and general concepts. General words are necessary and naturalas long as those who use them understand that their generality is a convenience, bringing together certain phenomena for certain purposes, but not a monolith. We must keep a balance, and not allow these to get out of hand and take over. They must be our servants, and not our masters. In fact, as in all our arrangements, we must once again seek a balance. We must learn from experience, yet not believe we can see far into the future. We must take short views, but not too short. We must allow the state a role in social affairs, but not a dominance. We must grant the legitimate claims of nationality, but reject its extreme manifestations. This undogmatic type of approach has been among the essentials of the civic and pluralist culture.
There is no formula that can give us infallible answers to political, social, economic, ecological and other human problems. There is no simple concept which will answer such questions as how much the state can do (though we have learned that to give it too much power is disastrous), or how far market forces can give positive results (though we have learned that their abolition is disastrous). Nor is there a simple guide to the conduct of foreign policy.
What does not need to be done needs not to be donethough, of course, there are things that need to be done, and situations so dangerous that quick and major action is required. But it is not enough to show that a situation is bad; it is also necessary to be reasonably certain that the problem has been properly described, fairly certain that the proposed remedy will improve it, and virtually certain that it will not make it worse. This requires thought, common sense, careful judgment, and above all no untested, or ill-tested, all-purpose solutions. All that sounds obvious and indisputable. It has not been the usual practice in the twentieth century.
In part this is because, as we have suggested, many cannot admit that the condition of humankind in all its vast complexity is not to be understood by formula, and that in any but the short run its developments cannot be predicted by theory, or otherwise. The future appears to us neither as impenetrable darkness nor as broad daylight, but rather in a half-light, in which we can descry the rough form of the nearest objects, and vague outlines farther off. We cannot do without ideas: but we should not make ideas into Ideas. We should note the catastrophes due to fascination with fantasy, addiction to absolutes.
Generally speaking, the political virtues of free discussion, political compromise, plural societies, piecemeal practicality, change without chaos, and market economics have triumphed. But it was a near thing, and we are still beset by a whole array of great dangers.
What we call "democracy" is far less a matter of institutions than of habits of mind. It is vulnerable to various weaknesses and always needs adjustments and improvementsbut if these are to be helpful, they need to go with the grain of, and be within, the established order. The stresses and strains that affect the democracies and the minds of their citizens today need not be overestimated, but they must be taken into account in any survey of the world as it is, and as it may be.
It is in this context that we must emphasize the measure of success totalitarian ideas had in the minds of citizens of the pluralist countries. Many in the West gave their full allegiance to these alien beliefs. Many others were at any rate not ill disposed towards them. And beyond that there was, as we have said, a sort of secondary infection of the mental atmosphere of the West which still to some degree persists, distorting thought in countries that escaped the more wholesale disasters of our time.
For example, we still find, even in the West, especially in parts of academe, the idea that everything is a struggle for power, or hegemony, or oppression; and that all competition is a zero-sum game. This is no more than repetition of Lenin's destructive doctrineWho-Whom? Intellectually, it is reductionism; politically, it is fanaticism. Then again, much policy-determining "research" is based on supposedly indisputable statistical data, which economists at least are now beginning to abandon but which are widely used in other contextsthe nombre fixe being almost as hard to uproot as the idée fixe.
It was basically common sense that kept the mass of the people in Britain and America less liable than the intelligentsia to delusion about the Stalinists. As Orwell said, they were at once too sane and too stupid to accept the sophistical in place of the obvious. But common sense by itself has its vices, or inadequacies. First, it can go with parochialism. Chamberlain was not alone in failing to understand that Hitler was capable of acts incredible to his Birmingham City Council or other "plain, shrewd Britons." Similarly, this philistine "shrewdness" inclines to the view that there is "something to be said on both sides" in international disputes. (In the Nazi case, the Germans of the Sudetenland had a legitimate wish to join Germany; but to put this in the scale was to unjustifiably counterbalance the essentials of National Socialism.) And then, common sense can decline into muddleheadedness if it is not well integrated with the critical faculty, with an open-ended fund of knowledge and with a breadth of imagination adequate to unfamiliar phenomena.
It was, in fact, what might be called imaginative realism.
On these matters, as we have said, the inexplicit habits of mind of the public are often more sensible than the prescriptions elaborated in the minds of the intelligentsia. Understanding of the complications and contradictions in life implies that all ideas, but particularly those carrying a high emotional charge, should be critically examined in the main areas where they are generated and transmittedthat is, at a superficial level in the media, and at a more responsible level in education.
We may here take note of what we may call Ismology. It has long, though not all that long, been a custom to use the termination "-ism" to validate one's own opinion or to demonize another's.
In the latter case, a crude effect is obtained by the use of the grab-bag term "fascism" not to specify a form of state or of state theory, but, often enough, to object to the use of any form of authority or discipline. Indeed George Orwell noted (as early as 1944) that he had heard the word "Fascist" applied to a list of targets including farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox hunting, bullfighting, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, homosexuality, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs.... He also pointed out that at a more serious level, "conscription and a professional army are both denounced as Fascist phenomena." But more usually (and less absurdly) ism-ing brings together under one term a complexity of examples, or a variety of phenomena, phraseologically obliterating the often crucial contexts or differences, as with "capitalism" or "imperialism" (see Chapter XIII).
Using the termination positively, though equally concretizing a fluidity, we find such concepts, or banners, as "feminism" and "environmentalism" where long-standing and broadly accepted attitudes take onor often take ona good deal of the intensity and lack of proportion of ideologies proper, and some of the viral qualities of an Idea. Nor should we perhaps forget the strange usage "activism" almost always a favorable word, though the Nazis (for example) were at least as "active" as their bettersindeed deserving of the label "hyperactivist."
Though only peripherally within the scope of this book, we must also note that acceptance of Freudian and other more or less deterministic psychological theories was also an example of the attractions of a pseudoscience, with enough intellectual complexity and a mission in human life. The result was a culture of, or tendency toward, tout comprendre c'est tout pardonnerand, in conjunction with social determinism, of distorting the legitimate claims of social order.
Nevertheless, as J. A. C. Brown remarks at the end of his book Freud and the Post-Freudians, "The explanation of the irrational is a special task of the twentieth century." We shall not attempt an explanation properly speaking, but a mere examination of the phenomenon may be helpful in understanding and avoiding it.
As we have said, intellectual errors in general are often due to ignoring the fact that the human being is both social and individual. To conceive him as solely, or preponderantly, one or the other leads to distortions of policy. The normal human being is motivated both by a desire to improve his own lot and a desire to conform to certain social or moral principles; and in normal life there is mutual adjustment of these urges, sometimes in makeshift fashion.
Hypostatized ideas lead to a lack of balance in this and other respects. In fact, we may see the essential of the civic society in its preservation of balancebetween the individual and the community, between the desirable and the possible, between our knowledge and our imagination.
The balance implies that we should neither accept solutions, however fashionable, however much supported by narrow-gauge experts, nor deny or minimize the problems. What one might call the nonideology of moderation.
Our purpose is not so much to condemn as to understand the negative phenomena, and especially in the context of helping to prevent such misconceptions in futurenot as matters of mere mental improvement in the abstract, but more importantly in warning against the huge disasters lying in wait for the unaware.
We have developed what is often left implicit, the positive characteristics, though also the weaknesses, that have arisen in our own social and political order. We should now consider how such orders have emerged.
Meet the Author
Robert Conquest (19172015), author of Reflections on a Ravaged Century and The Great Terror, was a Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
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A sophisticated narrative that whilst comprehensive is never verbose. Conquest has the foresight that predicted the final collapse of the Soviet Union as a function of its philosophical contradictions and for the same his appeal at suggesting the next likely steps that could unfold make for compelling reading. Whilst his critics before were certainly vocal then they seem to have misunderstood the clear essence of his hypothesis that is so calmly based on the underlying philosophical tenets. And it is with that appreciation that one can see how easily a future alignment between the US, UK, Australia. Canada and New Zealand (Anglosphere) can take place as we recently bore witness to as Saddam's regime was removed from power as a function of US, UK and Australian forces. Some may critique this, but as a brave historian who got it right before Conquest cannot be dismissed so easily. I look forward to more of the same.