CONQUEST THE DRAGON
I'm starting a new book review series, mostly the odd assortment that have crossed my nightstand table recently but also a few timely public policy books. I'm going to begin with Robert Conquest's
newest work, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History
I very much enjoys books by scholars of the old type, rarely seen in universities today, who command not just depth in their field or subspecialty but real breadth of knowledge as well. Men of Letters and not mere writers. Robert Conquest, is of course, most famous for his seminal work, The Great Terror
, on Stalin's crescendo of systemic mass-murder in the Soviet Union during the 1930's. At the time of publication, Conquest was savaged by those in academia sympathetic toward the USSR or at least uncomfortable with any manifestations of anti-Communism and the critics said that Conquest's figures couldn't possibly be right. To an extent, the critics were correct... but only in the sense that Conquest had underestimated
Stalin's crimes. When the Soviet archives briefly opened and vomited forth long-concealed horrors, Conquest issued a reassessment of The Great Terror
to examine the greater orders of magnitude of Stalin's institutional state terrorism .
Since then the academic Leftists have not forgiven Conquest for being right and Conquest, for his part, refuses to let them forget it either. That legacy forms the raison d'etre of The Dragons of Expectation.
Conquest has penned a withering critique of 20th century Western intellectuals as prisoners of a delusional mindset that prevented them from acknowledging the full reality of Soviet conduct or the motivational roots from whence such behavior sprung. Conquest is unsparing in his judgement and explains in detail why that should be so. Eric Hobsbawm
and Beatrice Webb
, John Kenneth Galbraith
, E.H. Carr
, Ted Turner
, Simone de Beauvoir
, C.P. Snow
and others are quite mercilessly ( and often deservedly) savaged with their own words by Conquest, who approaches his task with a hint of glee.
Conquest, who is a poet as well as a historian, remains an artful turner of phrases ( though I'm sure his targets were less than enchanted with his prose) . Some samples:"Their establishment of a state inherently hostile to all others in a country as large and powerful as Russia was a main factor in destabilizing the world: it started in Lenin's time - but went on long after what a frivolous historian might call the elimination of Germany in the semifinals ""One of the oddest of the verbal expressions is the condemnation often to be found in the West of ' Triumphalism'. This strange term is used to deplore any sign of being glad that the Soviet Union failed and that the Western world 'triumped '. It seems to imply, above all, that such an attitude is in bad taste. The poor, unfortunate totalitarian anti-Western regimes collapsed, but one shouldn't crow ""More generally,at the highest levels, academic writing-in English - is stupefying in two different, though often complementary,ways. First, we everywhere find a groteaque vocabulary held together by a tangled syntax, if such it can be called. But second, going a leap further, we get theory""But, as has been rightly commented,if you know no other language than your own, you really don't know your own. You have no perspective in which to see it."
Conquest probably did not expect to win over many opponents with his arguments and, in light of his long careeer and numerous clashes, there is an a strong air of score-settling and " I told you so". However, if you are going to read books launched as intellectual attacks it makes sense to read well-written and thoughtful ones rather than the hamfisted, political Don Rickles acts between two covers, pumped out regularly by lightweight Cable TV/Talk Radio wingnuts.