Robert Conquest, the Anglo-American historian whose works on the Soviet Union, most importantly The Great Terror (1968), confronted useful stooges on both sides of the Atlantic with facts that severely hobbled their efforts to whitewash Stalin, is dead at 98. From his London Times obituary: “The leftwingers who denied the crimes of Stalin did so, Robert Conquest always maintained, because the truth of his terrible purges was “beyond the capacity of their provincial imaginations.”
The Spectator today reprints a 1961 essay in which Conquest, responding to a letter to the London Times from many bien pensant British cultural types who were exercised about the recent Bay of Pigs invasion, wrote, in his powerfully understated way, “There is something particularly unpleasant about those who, living in a political democracy, comfortably condone terror elsewhere.” And the New York Times quotes Stanford University historian Norman M. Naimark: “His historical intuition was astonishing….He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”
The New York Times also cites a limerick that Conquest wrote in reply to those critics who, accepting his verdict on Stalin, still sought to salvage the heroic image of Lenin and to paint Uncle Joe as a deviation from Leninism:
There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
Here, from his 1999 book Reflections on a Ravaged Century, is a passage that exemplifies the effectiveness of his cool, analytical approach to the mentality of the useful stooge:
For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind acceptance of a totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on “The Late Show,” 24 October 1994….When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership of the Communist Party, he replied: “You didn’t have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn’t going to be a future and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future.”
Ignatieff then asked: “In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?”
Hobsbawm answered: “This is a sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm … I don’t actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, `Probably not.'”
Ignatieff asked: “Why?”
Hobsbawm explained: “Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.”
Ignatieff then said: “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?”
Hobsbawm immediately said: “Yes.”
It will be seen that, first, Hobsbawm accepted the Soviet project not merely on the emotional ground of “hope” but on the transcendental one of its being the “only” hope. Then, that he was justified because, although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right (and it was not only a matter of deaths, but also of mass torture, falsification, slave labor). Finally, that he believes this style of chiliastic, absolutist approach to reality is valid in principle.
R.I.P. Robert Conquest: scourge of useful stooges everywhere.