Conquest's 'Ravaged Century': comfort of power

October 31, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"Reflections of a Ravaged Century," by Robert Conquest. W.W. Norton. 317 pages. $26.95.

In his latest book, eminent British historian Robert Conquest, the current Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, presents a 342-page editorial that maps out conservative positions on literally dozens of contemporary issues. While provocative and always readable, he only occasionally bothers to cite sources or engage in serious historical analysis.

Conquest's central point is that modern history has been plagued by totalistic ideologies, starting with the French Revolution, and achieving their most hideous form in 20th century National Socialism, to which he briefly alludes, and communism, with which he is preoccupied. These ideologies justified every excess in service of the ideal, while hiding barbarisms of torture, concentration camps and Gulags, and masking their incapacity to deliver promised reforms.

Conquest's alternative to totalistic ideology is the acceptance of a traditional civic society, as in England or the United States, in gradual evolution. Here Conquest takes the view that the English- speaking world has a unique lock on democracy and social justice. But in considering English or American history, or the history of other nations, he downplays the role of class as a disruptive element in society. Revolutions that attempt readjustments of benefits are, in Conquest's view, inevitably wrong. It is a view that is comfortable for those in power.

Conquest's analysis of Marxism is highly selective and shallow: labor value theory is a myth, class is a myth, exploitation is a myth. What Conquest focuses on is Marxism's utopian aim -- the overthrow of the bourgeois state by a proletarian revolution and the establishment of a stateless and classless society. As he believes, perhaps correctly, that such a society is impossible, what results, necessarily in Conquest's view, is a perversion -- the Stalinist state.

In his best chapter, Conquest brilliantly describes how Western intellectuals, enamored of the revolutionary idea of communism, failed to see or to acknowledge the excesses and failings of Stalinism, and to condemn the Soviet Union. Despite the merits of this position, one cannot help but feel Conquest is also settling some old scores here.

Conquest has little of interest to say about the Cold War and offers only the sketchiest analysis of the current crisis in Russia. Several other chapters covering contemporary politics and social movements are marred by his tendencies to label anything he dislikes as an "Idea" associated with the abhorrent excesses of Stalinist totalitarian thought.

His opinions on education and literature ("Arnold Bennett ... is now recognized as a better novelistic than Virginia Woolf [who survives largely on her letters and criticism].") seem simplistic for a writer of Conquest's reputation.

The book ends with a thoughtful summary of the Conservative critique of the European Union. The alternative Conquest proposes is a much looser federation that embodies his notion of gradualism developed earlier in the book, and an oceanic alliance, essentially of the English-speaking nations, which perpetuates his enthusiasm for what we used to call in the U.S. State Department the "Old Commonwealth."

Craig Eisendrath is an American historian and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. He has been a foreign service officer as well as a scholar and playwright. His book "National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War" will appear in December.

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