- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005



By Robert Conquest

Norton, $24.95, 256 pages


A cliche warns that perfection can become the enemy of the good, and the message beyond this pithy statement underlies the wide ranging analysis that Robert Conquest presents in his latest book, “Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History.” Philosophers have sought to understand the forms expressed in particular phenomena since Plato’s day in ancient Greece, but the search for abstract essence can blind observers to the reality before their own eyes.

If this thought seems no more than a truism, Mr. Conquest sharply retorts that it has escaped the attention of many intelligent people and brought no end of trouble through history. Much of Mr. Conquest’s own career has involved analyzing how the utopian dreams behind communism ended in nightmare.

Author of many important books on Russia and the Soviet Union that include a biography of Joseph Stalin and a study of the famines brought by collectivization, Mr. Conquest became one of the regime’s foremost critics. Although he briefly flirted with communism, Mr. Conquest then turned against communism following experiences as a soldier during World War II and then as diplomat in Bulgaria. He joined the Harvard scholar Richard Pipes in providing an intellectual framework for understanding communism and the Cold War that helped form policies which brought that protracted conflict to an end in 1989.

“The Dragons of Expectation” builds on Mr. Conquest’s decades of experience to consider how certain patterns of thought can lead in misleading and thoroughly dangerous directions. His last book, “Reflections on a Ravaged Century” (2000), looked back at the impact of ideology on the 20th century. Catastrophe, he argued, had followed not from economic or social forces, but from mental distortions produced by Marxism and national socialism.

Similar patterns appear in today’s culture, academic scholarship, and public policy. Civilization faces deeper problems no less serious than war and terrorism, and Mr. Conquest insists that the first step in facing them involves unscrambling a delusional mindset.

What defines that mindset? Broadly speaking, it means privileging theory and abstraction over facts and practical experience. Searching for a system to explain everything inevitably distorts reality to fit the theory.

The Enlightenment epitomized the search for abstract general principles, and it cast a long shadow. Mr. Conquest distinguishes between a British Enlightenment concerned with law and particularity and its French or continental counterpart with its intoxicating generalizations. The British Enlightenment emerged through institutions and public debate where criticism provided informal checks and balances, while French luminaries philosophized in a vacuum where elegant argumentation counted more than how ideas might be applied.

Utopian theorizing has exerted a strong pull since the Enlightenment as a shortcut to perfection, but Mr. Conquest also warns that even non-utopian theories like systems analysis or rational choice models sometimes used to impose rigor on analysis tend to exclude facts incompatible with the system.

And there are other dangers: Theory’s hold on academic culture, for example, means that scholarship only wins acceptance when presented within a theoretical framework and deviance from it provides an excuse to dismiss critics. The result imposes blinkers that allow people to see only what they expect.

History plays an important part in Mr. Conquest’s analysis because viewing the past through a distorted lens means that those lessons will inevitably be wrong. People misunderstood communist regimes largely because they viewed them in terms that distorted the real meaning of what they saw.

Many observers had an ideological commitment to modernization that made them understand the Soviet Union as the wave of the future. The way the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 seemed inevitable afterwards because few saw that any alternative had been possible. In addition, observers misunderstood the nature of collectivization in the 1920s and the development of a planned economy along with the Hitler-Stalin pact because facts the conflicted with expectations.

A different picture emerged only after a reassessment of vital, but unknown or neglected evidence with a different perspective. Far from being a surprise, the Soviet collapse reflected trends and problems that should have been clear from available information.

Mr. Conquest illustrates the pattern with a series of examples drawn from his own experience, and he points to public intellectuals that include C.P. Snow and Simone de Beauvoir who spread misperceptions through society. Snow denied the political aspects of Soviet literature, insisting that writers were devoted to their country’s political system and generally fell into accord with the party.

De Beauvoir, Mr. Conquest notes, believed “that the existence of any false charges against the Maoist leaders clears them completely.” She typically cast debate in a barren dichotomy that equated the bourgeois West with fascism or highlighted the undoubted faults of China’s old regime.

Albert Camus described such intellectuals as having “a passion for slavery.” It wasn’t that they loved totalitarianism, Camus wrote. It was that they had a detestation for many of the traditions of the West and their own societies. Mr. Conquest highlights the consequences their arguments had for the way people saw events at a critical period.

While most books, particularly short ones, start with themes and progressively narrow their focus to specific examples or a narrative, Mr. Conquest deliberately expands his discussion. After articulating the problem of a preoccupation with grand ideas that distorts reality with historical references from his specialty, he applies the critique more broadly to literature, culture, and visionary political schemes.

Far from being a hangover from the Cold War or a tiresome academic fad, he points out that the phenomenon of false nostrums appears in many contexts and reinforces itself widely to exert a subtle influence beyond scholarship or policy.

“Dragons of Expectation” resembles an earlier work by another English writer who opposed the Soviet Union and embraced Thatcherism. Paul Johnson not only broke with the Labour party and Britain’s intellectual left but slammed the door on his way out in 1977 with a slim volume called “Enemies of Society.” The book charted the development of freedom within the Western tradition, and then proceeded to outline a series of current intellectual pathologies that threatened it.

Fashionable theories mounted an assault on value and social order, while the search for novelty subverted beauty and structure in literature and the arts. Mr. Johnson also warned against those who praised violence as a form of social expression. These different phenomena each shared a desire for liberation from the past that presented a seductive nihilism Mr. Johnson saw as a challenge to society.

Mr. Johnson’s analysis offers a period piece for the 1970s, and Mr. Conquest similarly captures a snapshot of the present discontents. Although many in the academy today would condemn Mr. Conquest as a reactionary, he raises important questions in “The Dragons of Expectation” that deserve answers. It will be interesting to see what responses his challenge might draw from those who now dominate the commanding heights of scholarship and culture in the West.

William Anthony Hay, an historian at Mississippi State University and Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830” (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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