Blogs > Cliopatria > Rosemary Righter: Review of Robert Conquest's The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History

Dec 2, 2005 10:48 pm

Rosemary Righter: Review of Robert Conquest's The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History

LIKE CAESAR’S GAUL, Robert Conquest’s world is divided into three parts: “the civilised, the semi-civilised and the uncivilised (or decivilised) countries”.

It is an oddly cut-and-dried categorisation from a scholar whose exposure of the evils of Soviet communism has been informed by a steadfast belief in tolerance, pluralism and the open society. It may seem to sit oddly, too, with his insistence that a tolerably accurate guess at the future is possible through informed understanding of “the intricate, interweaving complexities” of our historical inheritance, including its “incendiary powers and movements”. Neat patterns tend to dissolve under the researcher’s microscope.

Yet the bald, bold, politically incorrect distinction captures, in its deliberate provocativeness, the two overarching themes of these essays.

The first is that tolerance and openness to argument must not slide into relativism and moral equivalence. When tolerance becomes a pretext for condoning “governments largely or totally opposed to their own citizens’ liberty”, we devalue the pragmatically tested convictions that are shields against extremism and we narrow the avenues of escape for those trapped in such hellholes.

Here Conquest speaks with the authority of a scholar who spent decades uncovering the hideous truth about the Soviet Union, setting out compelling, detailed evidence in such masterworks as The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrows — while being furiously denounced for his pains by Western intellectuals who didn’t want to know. Some were true believers, such as Eric Hobsbawm, others merely “useful idiots” who were, he writes, “deficient in judgment and in curiosity — gaps in the teeth and blinkers on the eyes”.

They were quite often vindictive. He quotes Orwell: “If from time to time you express a mild distaste for slave labour camps or one-candidate elections, you are either insane or actuated by the worst motives.”

The apologists include such establishment figures as C. P. Snow and even John Kenneth Galbraith who, as late as 1985, was writing of the Soviet Union’s “great economic progress” and, viewed no doubt from behind the darkened windows of a Zil limousine, the “solid well- being of the people in the streets”.

Even now, when the opening of the Soviet archives has revealed that matters were even worse than Conquest could prove, one strand of “liberalism” continues inexcusably to treat the Cold War as a battle not between free societies and totalitarian dictatorship, but between “ideologies” that, it is implied or even stated, should be seen as morally equivalent. ...

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