Monday, January 24, 2005 +

Robert Conquest: The Dragons of Expectation

Excerpts from Robert Conquest, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (New York and London, W. W. Norton, 2005):

Goethe, a supreme humanist in every sense, wrote of German philosophy that he wondered how English or French people could understand it, when Germans couldn’t.

That a more or less institutional hostility or alienation grows between the intelligentsia and the less progressive ordinary strata of society is clear. Czeslaw Milosz . . . describes how in postwar Warsaw even more or less disillusioned intellectuals felt at home in the left-wing cafés and never thought to consort with the reactionary peasants and colonels or their representatives. This divide was to be found in the West as well—less in Britain, more in America, most in France.

As the Italian philosopher Nicola Chiaromonte put it, the most perverse of all modern ideas (though similar notions go back a long way) is that “the course of things must have a single meaning, or that events can be contained in a single system.”

Victorian legislation in India shows something of the problem of satisfying different, indeed contradictory, habits of mind. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (Calcutta, 1895) provides penalties for “whoever sells or distributes, imports or prints for sale or hire, or willfully exhibits to public view any obscene book, drawing, painting, representation, or figure [etc.].” But then it provides an “Exception.—This section does not extend to any representation sculptured, engraved, painted or otherwise represented, on or in any temple, or on any car used for the conveyance of idols, or kept or used for any religious purpose.” This is a trivial-sounding example, though one showing that intercultural compromises are possible, if concern with compromise is given priority.

In the mid-1960s, some of those shot after the Bukharin trial in 1938 were rehabilitated—though a number were not (which is in itself absurd, since the confessions of all linked them in a single close-knit conspiracy). The question now arose of rehabilitating Faizulla Khodzhayev, the Uzbek Communist leader who had been one of its victims. Meanwhile, a local part history reprinted (well, not quite) a photograph taken in the 1920s. As originally published, in those early days, it showed Khodzhayev sitting in the front row. In 1964, he had not yet been formally rehabilitated, but those in the party machinery were plainly aware that the procedures for rehabilitation were afoot. Thus, to black him out altogether would be politically shortsighted, while to put him in would be in would be to anticipate official action. The decision was made to print the photograph with one small change: the greater part of Khodzhayev’s face was concealed behind a large beard that had not appeared in the original photo. In case readers wish to check, the two versions are to be found in K istorii revoliutsii v Bukhare i natsional’nogo razmezhevaniia Srednei Azii, by F. Khodzhayev (Tashkent, 1932) and Partiinaia organizatsiia Tadzhikistana v 1924–1926 godakh, by A. V. Makashov (Dushanbe, 1946). We chance to know from the literature that Khodzhayev never had a beard (see Dr. Donald Carlisle’s article in Kritika, Fall 1971).

As Orwell pointed out, even mild Western expressions of distaste for Communist actions were almost always called “rabid.”

In 1951, years after the dissolution of the Comintern, Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist Party, was instructed personally by Stalin in the preparation of a new party program. Pollitt then gave his draft to Stalin, who extensively rewrote it, even bothering to rework such sections as that on agriculture, and finally changing the title from “For a People’s Parliament and a People’s Britain” to “For a Progressive Worker’s Government and People’s Democratic England.”

There is much more to be said on the distortions in [CNN’s Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991, by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing], including on muddled or misleading passages on Soviet internal matters, but more especially on such issues as Cuba, where [Ted] Turner personally tips the balance even further. It would be appropriate here to mention that the most dangerous attitudes to nuclear war, as Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev’s son, puts it in his chapter on the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, were those of “Castro and Guevara,” a point worth making when the latter is again being given high praise in the West. Turnerites would doubtless be with those who argue that at any rate Guevara “meant well.” This defense has been, and still is, used of such figures and their actions, from Lenin on—of the whole array of leaders and accomplices who carried out extreme physical coercion and mental constriction in the Communist states, and of the long Soviet effort to transform or subjugate the rest of the world. They demanded not merely absolutism, but even approbation, on “long-term” moral grounds. As Vasily Grossman, the fine Soviet author and co-editor of The Black Book, on the Holocaust (suppressed in the USSR and only published in 1984), wrote of Nazi genocide, “The sun has been extinguished by the smoke of the gas-ovens. And even these crimes, crimes never before seen in the universe, have been committed in the name of good.”

Literature exists for the ordinary educated man, and any literature that actively requires enormous training can be at best of only peripheral value. Moreover, such a mood in literature produces the specialist who only knows about literature. The man who only knows about literature does not know even about literature.

The crux, the main and major disjunction in all fields, was when the artist took the decision to abandon the laity. As Pasternak wrote later, “All this writing of the Twenties has terribly aged. They lacked universality. I have never understood these dreams of a new language, of a completely original form of expression. Because of this dream, much of the work of the Twenties which was stylistic experimentation has ceased to exist.”

Lionel Trilling noted how a demand excessively catered to in his time was for verse that advertised itself as being under high pressure. Some verse of that type may indeed be successful. But mere groaning and sweating and thrashing around, with adjectives to suit, simply begs for D. J. Enright’s comment: “the effects may be striking buy they don’t strike very deep.” And this is, or can easily become, bad taste—as Wordsworth put it, a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” Nor will it do to attribute this sort of thing to a more “primitive”—and therefore more true and real—depth of feeling. Yet, as I write, I come across a poetry reviewer in the Economist praising “a raw vigorous celebration of instinctive animal energy.” (The cave paintings were subtle and civilized compared with what is now exhibited in the Royal Academy.)

There are, of course, many people on all sides who are in one way or another interested in poetry but not for poetical reasons. Kingsley Amis once wrote to me, “The trouble with chaps like that is that they have no taste—I don’t mean bad taste, just the mental organ that makes you say This is bloody good or This is piss is simply missing, and they have to orientate themselves by things like ‘importance’ and ‘seriousness’ and ‘depth’ and ‘originality’ and ‘consensus’ (=‘trend&rsquo).”

The relationship of art and corporatism strikes one very much in looking at photographs of, for example, the newish Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. In a modernized version, it strongly recalls the look-at-me-being imposing efforts, or plans, of the Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin regimes.

Political totalitarians wish writers to follow rules laid down by Central Committees. Bureaucratically minded “liberals” do not go so far, but just the same, a wish to turn literature into a social service is implicit in much of what they say. Theologians wish to impress their conceptions upon literature. Moralists insist on its performing a role in accord with their systems (and we must consider as moralists those po-faced puritans who insist that the avoidance of obscene words and of explicit descriptions of sexual activity is a literary offense).

When it comes to French poetry, to which I am addicted, it would never occur to me to venture a critical opinion (remembering how Baudelaire and Mallarmé misevaluated Poe!). There is said to have been ten Frenchman by the first decades of the nineteenth century who had perfect, as against excellent, English (including the poet Valéry Larbaud)—that is, were qualified to judge English poetry.

Anyone who is not genuinely addicted to the search for knowledge is unlikely to have the psychological energy to be a true scholar in any field. But in history this work clearly resembles more that of a detective than that of a scientist—a search for and judgment of particular evidence rather than of repeatable experiment. This detective side of historical research needs skill, background, and intuition. As Jacques Barzun put it, historical verification is “conducted on many planes, and its technique is not fixed. It relies on attention to detail, on common-sense reasoning, on a developed ‘feel’ for history and chronology, on familiarity with human behavior, and on ever enlarging stores of information.” And, “No interesting or important question . . . can be settled without detailed knowledge, solid judgment, lively imagination, and the ability to think straight. What to do and how to go about it comes with practice; to enumerate rules would be endless and of little use.” This is, in fact, the crux: that judgment is needed, that it is a delicate matter, and that no mechanical criteria for validating or rejecting evidence exist.

In a couple of centuries, let alone a couple of millennia, the world will be looking back on us in a historical mode. What will their research and assessment show? One thing seems fairly certain: our assorted idea-driven credos will appear to be primitive delusions, and much of our culture’s output of sophisticated argument will seem absurd.

From Appendix A, “‘No One Foresaw the Collapse of the Soviet System’ [Not]”—Excerpts from excerpts from Robert Conquest’s writings:

Human nature being what it is, the power of the Party to impose conformity is in practice a highly qualified one. This failure is a radical one, and relevant to both the strength and the permanence of the grip of the regime’s ideas upon the population. (Common Sense about Russia, 1960)

The regime will either evolve peacefully or it will perish. . . . Ideological formulae are not an adequate subsitute for examination of the facts. . . . Those who rise to the top under the present Communist system are not likely to be the best judges of realities, let alone ideas, in spite of their skill at manipulating the political machine. (Common Sense about Russia, 1960)

No system of human thought, or of human organization is immutable. . . . The progress that libertarian ideas have so far made should not be exaggerated. But the fact that they are there, ready to emerge, even after long years of Stalinism, is heartening proof that they are ineradicable. (Russia after Khrushchev, 1965)

We are all liable to exaggerate the stability of that which exists. . . . But when the stability of a regime depends on the formal power of the government in being, when it is evident that the social, economic, and intellectual tides have set in firmly against the system, then, in the long run, the apparent and visible stability is misleading. The Soviet Union must now be regarded as being in a most unstable condition and subject to extreme change over perhaps quite a short period. (Russia after Khrushchev, 1965)

[Russia’s] colonial problem . . . is critical, and not only is it unsolved, but it is probably insoluble under the present system. . . . [It] could lead to future changes which may now appear remote or extravagant. . . . Any too cautious or conservative view of its potentialities is certain to be wrong. (Russia after Krushchev, 1965)

At some stage . . . the power of the bureaucratic integument which at present prevents development to sanity must be eroded or broken. . . . We might conclude that some such development—and in the fairly near future—is not too unlikely. (Russia after Khrushchev, 1965).

The Soviet system . . . has entered into a general crisis from which it can only emerge, if it emerges at all, transformed out of all recognition. . . . As George Orwell could write flatly, as long ago as 1946 (in his “Second Thoughts on James Burnham”), “The Russian regime will either democratise itself or it will perish.” (Russia after Khrushchev, 1965)

The recourse of the present rulers is further to strengthen the integument, rather than to understand and come to terms with the vital forces involved. In the short term, we cannot say what will happen. In the long term the policy cannot work. (Studies in International Communism, July 1968)

The country is now stuck in a situation in which revolutionary change is called for by all the social, economic and intellectual forces, and opposed and aborted only by a political machine specially constructed for the purpose. It is a highly artificial situation, resembling that of Mr. Waldemar in Poe’s story. [“It seemed clear to us all that to awaken M. Valdemar would be merely to insure his instant, or at least his speedy dissolution.” Edgar Poe (“as he was known to his contemporaries and in Europe to this day. The form Edgar Allan Poe was imposed by his posthumous editors." Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence), “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”] (Review of Michel Tatu’s Power in the Kremlin, 1969)

The question that remains to be answered is whether the politial integument will be destroyed explosively or will erode away gently. (“Immobilism and Decay,” in Dilemmas of Change in Soviet Politics, ed. Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1969)

All the thought in Russia has long been in intellectual opposition; and most of the feeling too. By most standards, the regime has long since lost the mantle of heaven. It is not merely ripe, but greatly over-ripe, for major change. (Review of The Chronicle of Current Events, 1972)

In anything recognizable as liberalization, even in the narrowest sense, the major non-Russian republics would almost certainly opt for independence. (We and They, 1980)

Conquest concludes the appendix:

Others . . . took much the same view—in particular, Michel Tatu (Moscow correspondent of Le Monde, Hugh Seton-Watson, Ronald Hingley, Roger Garaudy, Andrei Amalrik, Anatole Shub, and K. S. Karol (New Statesman correspondent). What they had in common was a clear view of, above all, the movements and mentalities of the Soviet leadership cadres.