Peregrine Worsthorne

Blindfolds and mindmists

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The Dragons of Expectation

Robert Conquest

Duckworth, pp. 256, £

Without the existence of ‘apparently [my italics] sophisticated circles’, which the great historian and poet Robert Conquest also calls ‘an intellectually semi-educated class’ (soon abbreviated into just ‘cerebral jellies’) his latest book would never have been written. For its express purpose, he avers, is to tease ‘these misinformed strata’ — yet another description — into abandoning the ‘brain blindfolds’ and ‘mindmists’ which have robbed them of all sense of present realities and future possibilities. Since it goes without saying that Spectator readers, never having been seduced by Stalin, tempted by communism, or by any of the other Utopianisms of the 20th century, come into none of these derisive categories, it might be thought that this chasteningly, sardonic book is not for them.

No so, however, for two reasons. First it is always enjoyable to watch a master dialectian scoring knockouts, in Conquest’s case without ever hitting below the belt, particularly when the targets include world-revered left-wing icons like the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and Nobel Prize-winner Dorothy Hodgkin. A more substantial reason, however, is that by showing lucidly and fairly how other clever and well-meaning people have allowed themselves to be misled in the past, Conquest’s new book may help to deter today’s generation of well-meaning intellectuals — some of whom may be readers of The Spectator — from falling into the same kind of trap.

The ever-recurring danger, as Robert Conquest makes clear, springs from a natural human tendency, to which idealists are most prone, to feel so strongly about present evils, the evils which are to be seen before their eyes, that their brains entirely fail to register the potential evils — so much less easy to discern — of the panaceas being peddled to replace them. Thus it was that so many of the West’s best and brightest between the wars, horrified by the evils of American capitalism in the Depression, refused to recognise the far worse evils of their favoured cure, Soviet communism. European federalism also falls into the same category in Conquest’s book. For it was because European idealists after the second world war had their minds full of the vices of the nation state that they entirely lost sight of its invaluable virtues. Another example, of course — which Conquest does not mention — was the postwar obsession of the high-minded, particularly in America, with the evils of colonialism, quite regardless of the calamitous consequences, at least in Africa, of putting an end to it.

Not surprisingly, Mr Conquest, the world’s most authoritative authority on the evils of Stalin, is keener to highlight the ‘mindmists’ of the Left rather than the Right. As a result, those which encouraged neo-conservative ideologues to invade Iraq in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ get overlooked. Of course, outrage over the Twin Tower attacks was completely understandable, but to allow that outrage to obscure the far greater dangers to America, and to the world, likely to arise from the lawless invasion of Iraq was a ‘mindmist’ of the worst sort, as was the unbelievably naive belief that Iraqis would welcome the American invaders with open arms.

Not the least interesting part of this book, however, is the long appendix entitled, ironically, ‘No One Foresaw the Collapse of the Soviet System’. For here the author reminds us with justifiable pride that he and others saw that the Soviet system was doomed as far back as 1960. One quote, from his Commonsense About Russia, will suffice: ‘The progress of libertarian ideas... is heartening proof that they are ineradicable’ [my italics]. But if that was so — and it is now clear that it was — surely the worst fears about the Cold War, the fears that had fuelled its apocalyptic nature, no longer applied. For those fears had sprung from the belief — set off by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — that Soviet Communism constituted a uniquely awesome danger. Whereas previous tyrannies had threatened only to lop off a branch or two from the Tree of Liberty, communism threatened to pull it up by the roots: destroy, that is, the very idea of liberty. That was why it was better to be dead than red; better for mankind to perish in a thermonuclear exchange rather than to tolerate, say, a Soviet missile base on Cuba. But by the 1960s, as Stalin’s severest critic saw, those apocalyptic Cold War fears were out of date. Yet under Reagan and Thatcher, instead of a cooling down, there was a hotting up. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) became even madder, and to my mind this failure by the Right to recognise the reduced dangers of post-Stalinist communism may come to seem quite as bad an example of an ideologically induced ‘mindmist’ or ‘brain blindfold’ as that earlier failure of the Left to see the evils of communism in the first place.

The truth is that ‘cerebral jellies’ come in all colours, and my very old friend’s latest book, by shining the torch of his formidable mind on one lot, doubtless unintentionally has helped to throw an equally lurid light on another.