Robert Conquest: Victory, For Now

Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest

There is something wrong with the political consciousness of the West

We can presumably take it for granted that a real world order can come about only among a community of pluralist nations. We can presumably agree that nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction must, by deterrence or defense, or a combination of these, be denied their ability to ruin the planet. We can see that the responsibility, and the capacity, to cope with all this is largely borne on the shoulders of what we call the West. And we can note that there are weaknesses in Western perceptions and Western political arrangements that arc, in this context, deplorable.

It is urged that the West’s pluralist political and social order won a tremendous victory with the downfall of Soviet Communism. And with this goes the claim that the totalitarian ideologies have similarly, and simultaneously, been exposed and defeated in the intellectual sphere. Well, yes. But the West is still faced with Communist regimes in existence, from the insane Kimocracy that is processing plutonium in Pyongyang, to the shaken but unreconstructed Chinese mainland regime. Nor can we believe that the sensible Western policies that brought down the Soviets are being adequately remembered or applied in these still dangerous cases – which is to say that there is something wrong with the political consciousness of the West.

Once one says that, one opens a whole cask of worms. It implies that delusions and false leads, far from being extinct, are still flourishing. Where should one start? If we consider the climate of intellectual opinion as a whole, we fined, it is true, that not only the Communist myth, but even the Socialist idea in the West is moribund. That is indeed progress. As with the elimination of smallpox, however, it does not mean that similar infection may not emerge. And we find in many Western countries – especially France – that the idea of massive state control is still powerful, both politically and intellectually. The difference between the new étatisme and the old is that the present attitude leaves certain areas of capitalist initiative untouched – like the private plots peasants were allowed to keep under Soviet collectivization.

In any case, at the political level, we see a meld of state and capitalist bureaucracies into something resembling a corporatist society. And it may be noted that this type of corporatism, with a capitalist element merged into (and controlled by) the state machine, is the sort of order that seems to be emerging in China. If so, we see an aberrant and paradoxical confirmation of the old “convergence” theory advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith and others. Such a corporatism, if established in Western societies, is bound to lead to a degeneration of democratic habits, civic relations, and, in the long run, mental independence, and so to an inability to cope with world or other problems.

In its European mode, this corporatism presents something described by French critics as “pink fascism,” enforced by ill-instructed, if well- meaning, recruits to the intelligentsia. This milieu would, in the old days, have become Marxist, and hence largely unassimilable to the Western political world proper, but, divested of ideology proper, it is now scampering through the institutions. Institutions have, of course, to exist, or to be created, in a form suitable for such a cadre, institutions into which this cadre can inject the subjective justifications for the sort of activism previously provided by Marxist, or other, ideology.


The prime example is the European Union. Here we have the case of a bureaucratic drive whose much-needed justification, or false consciousness, is toward a supposedly better, or deeper, or more united political continent – which is to say, a generality that avoids the now obviously untenable complete utopianism of the old ideologies, while still projecting the image, for both addicts and opponents, of a grander, or more progressive, or more important future. The result has been a bureaucratic nightmare, a Brussels that – even after the public scandals of 1999 – still cannot account for billions of dollars in its expenses; that is amenable to no serious control; that inflicts on those under its sway regulations by the thousand, in every sphere from wages to sausages; that seeks to destroy the common-law culture of Britain in favor of continental statist rule.

In the context the natural links of Britain are with the United States and the former Dominions. The international objection to the EU is, of course, that it is divisive of the West. In so far as there is a “European” culture in the sense implied, it subsists also in the “Europe Overseas.” But most of, or the most important part of, that transoceanic transplant is in the sphere seeded by Britain rather than by continental Europe. The links so implied, therefore, must – from a Brussels point of view – be blocked. For, as is now often and openly said in European circles, the aim is to compete with, to exclude, and in general to do down the United States. That is to say, the EU is both implicitly and explicitly anti-American – and this in a world in which a greater closeness, rather than a greater mutual hostility, is needed in the non-totalitarian world.

But there is good news: This EU business is doomed to failure. The “Europe” that is to become a united state has none of the necessary qualifications: shared ethnicity, traditions, economic level, civic habits – nothing. All such unificatory federations of disparate peoples have collapsed (the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, to name two). This is not the place to develop the whole range of arguments against the “Europe” concept – which (amongst other themes) I have dealt with in my recent book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. But still it is appropriate to insist here on the American interest in discouraging its development, and in offering alternative cohesions.

Brusselitis is, sadly, not the only affliction to be found in the West. The atmosphere in which not only this but also comparable international and domestic myopias are nourished is, and can only be, that of what we may call a politically déraciné section of the intelligentsia. Academe, in particular, is still a hothouse for poisonous exotica. Nor does all this remain on campus: It is projected through powerful foundations, and through governmental cliques and committees.

Some university departments indeed arc no longer providing education in any recognized sense of the word. There are now scores of thousands of professors, teachers, long-term “students” who are sometimes even concerned to deny the validity of knowledge, but almost always to portray the Western pluralist order as an object of obloquy. Thus we have to cope with the effect of such excess miseducation in producing an ill-informed caste with an entirely unjustified sense of its splendor and its mission. We need reforms that would at least ensure that universities, to say nothing of primary and secondary schools, are not encouraged to promote agenda other than knowledge and judgment.

Even those in official positions feel obliged to appease obnoxious trends, including the absurd, and indisputably militarily deleterious, feminization of the infantry. The political class, and the political leadership itself, is infected by the surrounding atmosphere, even to the extent of underestimating the real dangers of the still very troubled world, and the necessity of preserving the capacity to cope with them. Nor are reasonable policies in themselves difficult to understand, or repulsive to the peoples of the Western tradition. The problem lies elsewhere -in the vulnerability to unreason of much of the intellectual class and to such of the political class as is influenced, or diverted, by them.


The dismaying results of this surrender are not far to seek: an effectively disintegrative “Europeanism”; an anti-Western intelligentsia, on both sides of the Atlantic, that actively or indirectly opposes, or sabotages, the defense developments required to deter the various nuclear and other threats to us and to the world; and, in the same circles, mindsets tending to disrupt or demoralize the pluralist social and political order.

In fact, in spite of the lessons of the Cold War, there is still a sentiment opposed, in knee-jerk fashion, to the whole idea of adequate defense. Moreover, this is, if anything, exacerbated by the pressures that sane American policy faces from an international establishmentarianism: a resurgence of what one thinks of (remember the Cold War) as Stockholm-style self-congratulatory holier-than-thou attitudes to American plans to defend America (and the rest of the world), and to American reluctance to assent to fine-sounding treaties that many other signatories would not dream of observing. And this “international pressure” is used by the myopic in the United States itself as an argument for debilitation.

It may be said, and rightly, that we have always suffered from these or similar disadvantages, and that they can be overcome, or at least prevented from exercising their full potential of harm. But how? And what can we say that is more positive?

First, that the American political stratum proper is by no means dominated, even if over-influenced, by the chattering classes. And the press proper, even if to some degree skewed, is on the whole more adult, more sane, than the intelligentsia a per se. Furthermore, this cheering picture is – perhaps surprisingly – truer of the United States than of its allies, or supposed allies. Second, there is no overpowering objective reason that the West should not remain the global center of power, with all that this implies for a future world in which pluralist arrangements and peaceful evolution prevail. But we can hardly forget, or fail to face, the internal problems of the West, as well as, and with implications for, its global confrontations.

Mr. Conquest exposed the Soviet Union in his 1968 book, The Great Terror. His latest book is Reflections on a Ravaged Century.

National Review, January 24, 2000

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