Sunday, 6 February 2011

Robert Conquest - a hero of the Right who got up lefties’ noses

In 1968, when Robert Conquest published The Great Terror the masterwork which exposed the full horrors perpetrated upon the Soviet people by their communist regime, it bore the subtitle: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. When, in the Eighties, his publisher asked him to expand and update it, the author suggested a new title: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools!

Indeed he did.

I read the book just before going up to University, and, while I can’t pretend it particularly altered my political views, it certainly cemented them in place. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – and my own common sense – had already convinced me that Communism was as evil as Fascism, but The Great Terror provided irrefutable proof that this was so. (And in case one had had any lingering doubts, later on there would be the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s towering The Gulag Archiplelago.)

I remember a variety of lefties of college – and after – pouring scorn on Conquest’s claims to scholarship. Everyone knew, said one budding lawyer, that Conquest was nothing but a fascist (what a popular and infinitely meaningless word that was back then - and still is). Another legal eagle got up angrily from the dinner table, bellowing “I don’t have to listen to this crap!” (What this says about the ability of lawyers to weight evidence rationally, I’m not sure.)

Of course, we now know that, apart from a few details which emerged in the hiatus between Russia’s emergence from the shadow of Socialism and its takeover by gangsters, Conquest was pretty much right about everything, and I have no compunction in shouting “I told you so, you fucking fools!” from the rooftops. 

As Rush Limbaugh said, if you want to anger a conservative, tell him a lie - if you want to anger a liberal, tell him the truth.

Conquest, an Englishman of American and Norwegian parentage, started out as an Oxford-educated leftie, served as an intelligence officer during the war, and eventually became disillusioned with Communism as the press officer at the British Embassy in Bulgaria during the period when the Soviets were imposing their hateful system there. He later worked for the Foreign office as an expert on Communism, and, from 1956 became a freelance journalist and historian (later giving up journalism to concentrate on serious scholarship). 

Conquest has attracted a positive blizzard of medals and honours from all over the world (including being made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1996 and receiving the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005), and is currently – at the age of 92 – a senior research fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution in California, where he lives (while remaining a British citizen). In addition to a whole slew of history books, he has had six collections of verse published, produced a science fiction novel, and was the co-editor of five collections of science-fiction short stories with his pal, Kingsley Amis, with whom he co-authored The Egyptologists.

Conquest is one of the true heroes of the Right – an indefatigable opponent of left-wing tosh, who has been particularly adept at laying into the British Liberal Establishment’s “useful idiots” who wouldn’t hear a word against dear Uncle Joe in the 30s, and those nincompoops who to this day argue that Stain was somehow an aberration, rather than a  natural heir to Lenin.  

A commenter on this blog recently quoted the third of Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics. Roger Scruton quotes the first law near the start of his brilliant book, The Uses of Pessimism. In case anyone is unaware of them, here they are: 

1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.

2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left 

3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic 
    organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

If anyone feels like reading some Conquest, I can thoroughly recommend his 2004 work, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History – a startlingly sprightly and lucid work for a man of 85.

When he dies (if he ever does) I would suggest a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. He deserves no less.


  1. It’s 43 years since Robert Conquest published The Great Terror, 32 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed in ignominious and total military and economic failure, and 100 years since the birth of Ronald Reagan, happy birthday, Mr President RIP.

    At which point Brown University, the ivy league institution in Rhode Island, issues a press release, Brown University to offer course on conservatism [1]: “Brown University is offering a new course on conservatism this spring that its supporters say will help bring ideological balance to the school's offerings”.

    That’s news? That’s worth a press release? You mean they weren’t already teaching the full spectrum of political thought?

    Yes, yes and no, they weren’t. Still, at least they’re going to correct that omission now, as a genuinely academic institution should.

    Or are they?

    Here’s the entry on the Brown University website announcing the course, Conservatism in America, Spring 2011 [2]: “What are the philosophical foundations of American conservatism? How have religion, economics and modernity shaped the movement? How has conservatism shaped the American polity? Isn't compassionate conservatism an oxymoron? Join us on a titillating journey to unravel these mysteries and more. Send your questions to”.

    It doesn’t have an entirely serious ring to it, does it. What are the university offering by way of lectures in this course? Enter “conservatism in America” into the search box and you find the following upcoming lectures are on offer, among others:

    • Black Women in Land Rights Struggles in Colombia and Brazil: Libia Grueso and Ana Caminha
    • Local Governance and Environmental Change in Latin America
    • Before Columbus Discovered Chocolate—Cacao Cultivation and Courtly Appetite in the Classic Maya Lowlands
    • William D. Hartung -- Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex
    • Monica Prasad -- The Credit/Welfare State Tradeoff: A Demand-Side Theory of Comparative Political Economy
    • Free Open Hip Hop Dance Workshop with Juan Martinez
    • Human-Climate-Ecosystem Interactions: An interdisciplinary research program in climate and global change
    • Ethno Colloquium: James Bau Graves (Old Town School of Folk Music)

    There is some way still to go before Mr Conquest’s meaning has been understood, at least in Rhode Island.



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    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 01:01 PM

  2. I think the problem is that the Left, who completed a wholesale takeover of Academia many decades ago (God alone knows how this was allowed to happen), look upon Conservatism as a symptom of mental illness (as is Christianity, apparently – Islamo-Fascism is fine)): I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s offered as a Psychology course in some American and UK colleges.

    What’s so odd about all this is that conservatism has been the default setting of mankind at least since we began writing stuff down. Life is conservative because any properly understood experience leads us to this conclusion. Lberalism/Leftism is never ever based on experience – it’s based on wishful thinking: wouldn’t it be great if human beings were like this! I know, let’s just pretend they are – what could go wrong? Everything liberals believe in never works in practice, and yet they think conservatives – who believe in things that have been shown to work - are mad! I recently read The Conservative Mind (1953) by the Anglophile American writer, Russell Kirk, which re-ignited American conservatism after WWII, and which, one would have thought, should form the backbone of any American course in the subject, as it provides a magisterial account of right-wing thinking from Burke onwards. But, no – some drippy leftie fantasist thought it would be a better idea to airlift in a load of incomprehensible, lying, lazy tosh from those pitiful non-disciplines, Black, Gay and Feminist studies: I doubt if anyone at Brown has even heard of Kirk’s magnificent book, or would understand a word of it in any case.

    I was thinking about doing an OU degree in Art History about 18 months ago, and checked it out online. One of the courses was on Art & Slavery and another was on 19th Century Wimmin artists. Nuff said.
    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 01:03 PM

  3. Search for Russell Kirk on the Brown University website and you get just four hits:

    • one new 2007 catalogue entry in the University Library which turns out to be a broken link, nothing on the end of it
    • a 1967 edition of the Pembroke Record, the house journal of the time, which makes a passing reference to a reference to Kirk in the previous issue
    • a reference to a 1978 book of his, Decadence and renewal in the higher learning : an episodic history of American university and college since 1953
    • and he gets a mention in a 1991 paper by Richard A. Melanson*, in which the visiting professor tries to predict the future of US foreign policy by examining the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War

    Or to put it more briefly, Kirk doesn’t exist.

    How was this allowed to happen, you ask? How has Brown University, a latter-day monastery in our latter-day Dark Ages, failed to keep the candle of learning alight? I have no idea, of course, but four theories:

    1. The abbot isn’t up to the job, over-promoted.

    2. Like in The Name of the Rose, there’s a blind librarian who believes that authority cannot survive satire, authority must survive, therefore any literature with any sense of humour must be destroyed.

    3. Far from conservatives being mad – the allegation you mention – it is actually the “liberals”, the people who cannot accommodate any contradiction by the Russell Kirks of this world, who are off their chumps, potty, barking, loony, loose-screwed nutters some not inconsiderable number of sandwiches short of a picnic.

    4. Or maybe it’s something else.


    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 01:11 PM

  4. I have a feeling it might be No. 3, DM!

    The interesting thing about Kirk's book is that traditional Conservatism appears to have almost died out in America by the early 1950s - thank goodness they managed to rekindle it!
    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 01:12 PM