EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Conquest, the great British historian and man of letters, who in 2005 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, died this week. In the December 9, 2002, issue of National Review, Jay Nordlinger wrote the following appreciation of him.
We’re in something of a Robert Conquest moment — but then, we’ve always been in such a moment, at least since 1968, when Conquest published his book on Stalin’s rule, The Great Terror. That was the book that shut them up. Well, many of them, anyway.
Currently, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens both have books out. Who are they? They’re two of the jazziest British writers of their generation, and they’re great friends of each other, as well as great rivals. Amis’s book is called Koba the Dread: It’s about Stalin (Koba was a nickname) and the failure of Western intellectuals to come to grips with Communism. It also touches on several personal matters. Amis addresses Hitchens directly in the book: “Comrade Hitchens!”
The latter’s book is on Orwell: Why Orwell Matters. Part of Hitchens’s project is to claim the great man for the Left, or for some sort of Left, in any case.
Robert Conquest must be one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century, producing a string of books that — like Solzhenitsyn’s — put the lie to Communism, in particular to Soviet Communism.
Other than being popular, probing, and stylish, these books have one thing in common: They’re dedicated to Robert Conquest.
This is not only interesting, but also somewhat awkward, at least for the dedicatee. Amis and Hitchens have been sparring, making for a nice public show, though with a serious side. Each claims Conquest as a guiding light, and each is surely right. He has been that for many thousands, who, unlike these two authors, never met the man.
He must be one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century, producing a string of books that — like Solzhenitsyn’s – put the lie to Communism, in particular to Soviet Communism. In the early 1990s, Richard Nixon — a fair judge of world events — said, “[Conquest’s] historical courage makes him partially responsible for the death of Communism.” Another high tribute came from a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party — who denounced, and immortalized, Conquest as “anti-Sovietchik Number One.”
Martin Amis’s father, the novelist Kingsley, was a close friend of Conquest’s, although they often had rows. Kingsley liked to make up stories about Conquest (and others, of course). Perhaps the most famous is: “When asked whether he’d like to retitle a new edition of The Great Terror, Bob said, ‘How about, I Told You So, You F***ing Fools?’” That sounds like Conquest, but it wasn’t. Could have been. Another time, as Conquest relates — I rang him up — Kingsley published “a totally untrue story about me and a girl.” When Conquest got cross with his friend, Kingsley simply transferred the tale to someone else.
At one point, exasperated, Conquest cut him off entirely: “but I gave him a general amnesty on the occasion of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Martin Amis begins Koba the Dread by quoting from Conquest’s 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow, which documents the Soviets’ terror-famine in the Ukraine. As he comments on Conquest’s findings, Amis is in a kind of shocked awe. He is also gloriously, almost sputteringly, indignant, wondering how the Communists got away with it. Later in the book — taking up an old theme — Amis writes, “Everybody knows of the 6 million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the 6 million of the Terror-Famine” (get those capital letters).
The junior Amis seems to have come rather late to a realization of the horrors of Communism, and of the horrible Western tolerance of it, even celebration of it. This has caused some veteran anti-Communists to guffaw. But a writer of Martin Amis’s skill and influence should be welcomed into this company, rather than scorned. He might be thanked for joining. A great many people in the Free West were raised on lies, or half-truths, or apologias — and when they encountered Conquest or Solzhenitsyn or somebody else, they saw.
Conquest has known Martin Amis since he was a child, and he has known Christopher Hitchens a long while too. He is sometimes tried by them — particularly by the latter — but his affection is obvious. Hitchens, for example, is always “Hitch” from Conquest’s mouth.
The dedication in Why Orwell Matters is rather unusual. It begins, “Dedicated by permission.” It’s not uncommon for a writer to seek permission before dedicating, but hardly anyone has seen such permission stated. It’s as though Hitchens is saying, “No, this is for real — and he doesn’t mind!” The dedication continues, “To Robert Conquest — premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of the ‘united front against bulls**t.’”
A couple of points here, already. First, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr published a peculiar, fascinating, and demolishing piece in the September 2002 New Criterion called “The Myth of ‘Premature Antifascism.’” American Communists and leftists have long liked to say that the U.S. government labeled members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain “premature anti-fascists.” This is complete rubbish. The Communists, self-congratulatingly, attached the phrase to themselves. Second, Conquest was not merely an “anti-Stalinist,” but an anti-Communist, period: in Russia, in Vietnam, in Europe, in the Caribbean — everywhere.
Hitchens’s dedication to Conquest has amused some conservatives and irked others. Perhaps the right response is to be heartened by it. Someone remarked, “Robert Conquest is the angel sitting on Christopher Hitchens’s right shoulder; Gore Vidal is the devil sitting on his left one.” Indeed, the back cover of Why Orwell Matters contains three blurbs under the heading “Praise for Christopher Hitchens”: from Vidal, Edward Said, and Susan Sontag. Those are three funny names alongside Conquest’s. Vidal says, in his blurb, “I’ve been asked whether I wish to nominate a successor, an inheritor. . . . I’ve decided to name Christopher Hitchens.”
When I tell Conquest who the blurbists are, he laughs heartily. These guys aren’t exactly members of the “united front against bullsh**,” are they? I inform Conquest that some fear that Hitchens is trying to co-opt him — perhaps claim him for the Left, same as he’s doing with Orwell (more plausibly, to be sure). Conquest answers, “He won’t get very far.”
In a recent discussion on Andrew Sullivan’s (great) website — www.andrewsullivan.com — Hitchens said that Conquest “might not want to be identified as a full-out conservative, because he is an ex-Marxist and was a committed social democrat — and even voted for Clinton in 1992! — but he has found a sort of home on the civilized Right. . . . ”
On hearing this, Conquest half-chortles, half-explodes: “Ex-Marxist? Oh, come on! I was a Marxist when I was 20, and I wasn’t a committed social democrat ever.” As for Clinton, “I don’t vote! I might have said something in Clinton’s favor, knowing nothing about him in those days. I didn’t think the Bush administration was doing very well. I might have hoped that Clinton was a Scoop Jackson type. And, it’s true, I’d like to see at least some Democrats who’d be solid, in the Jackson way.” Wouldn’t we all.
He’s a famously amusing, fun-loving person, Conquest: full of jokes and quips and apercus, ready to recite any number of limericks.
Well, then, how would he describe himself, politically? One writer, in Reason, described him as a “Burkean conservative.” Conquest would allow that. He says, “I’m an anti-extremist. And I’m for a law-and-liberty culture. Those are Orwell’s words: law and liberty. I don’t regard the EU as being any good for that. I am strongly against the EU. I’m against regulationism and managerialism. I’m against activism of any sort.” Remember, he says, “the Nazis were keen statists, and keen on socialism: ‘national socialism,’ they called it.” And when it comes to “conservatism” — that murky term — “I feel that, when other people and nations are veering from civilization, I would prefer to conserve. I certainly prefer Burke to Locke — but, of course, there’s overlap of various sorts.”
Hitchens is inarguably right to compare Conquest to Orwell, as he has. In fact, he begins his new book with a poem that Conquest wrote about Orwell in 1969. Its first lines are, “Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly / Betray the influence of his warm intent.” More than a few have observed that this applies to the poet himself.
Conquest is now ensconced at the Hoover Institution, casting his eye on the world, writing his books as usual. We should have his memoirs before long — but first he’s doing a book on the gross miseducation of the young. He’s a famously amusing, fun-loving person, Conquest: full of jokes and quips and aperçus, ready to recite any number of limericks (a specialty). For someone who has spent his life immersed in the grimness of mass murder — and the reluctance of free people to face up to it — he is astoundingly merry. According to his wife, Elizabeth, as Martin Amis tells us, Conquest simply “wakes up happy.”
He was born in 1917 to an American father and an English mother. Even today he holds dual citizenship. At Oxford, he was a Communist party member, but an open member, not a secret one, which somehow is typical of Conquest — more honest. It didn’t take long to shake off his Communism. He would later write, “Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother.” Conquest was not a duckling.
During the war, he was in the Balkans and saw exactly what the Communists were up to. He has always insisted that the facts about the Soviet Union were always available, for anyone interested in them. Trouble was, too few were interested. Everyone was in the thrall of “socialism” (though not of the “national” variety). If Idi Amin had only called himself a socialist, Conquest once said, he’d have been all right — no matter how many people he ate. Even today, they’re still swooning over most any tyrant and torturer who calls himself “socialist” or “progressive.” A couple of weeks ago, Steven Spielberg was held spellbound by Castro in Havana for eight hours — the “most important” in his life, said Spielberg after.
If Conquest now enjoys vindication, there’s still a lot of stubborn revisionism going on in the universities, a refusal to see clear. “They’re still talking absolute balls,” says Conquest. “In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’” Furthermore, “They say [disapprovingly] that we were Cold Warriors. Yes, and a bloody good show, too. A lot of people weren’t Cold Warriors — and so much the worse for them.”
The present war — that against Islamic extremism — is a different kind of war, yet with similarities. There are myths to be fought against here, too. Shortly after 9/11, Conquest wrote (for National Review Online), “[There is little] knowledge about the mental world of those outside the American, or Western, experience, and in particular about the mental world of the enemies of the democratic way of life. One result [is] the assumption that the enemies of Western culture can be won over by goodwill; and that the West is to blame if such approaches do not work.”
Robert Conquest has never been unclear about the “mental world” of anti-democratic and murderous forces. Those who endured the Soviet Union, above all, will never forget him for it. In 1989 — the super-thawing days of glasnost — Conquest returned to the Soviet Union for the first time since he was a student. Practically everyone in the Soviet Union had read The Great Terror, under the pillow, as it were. One man asked to pinch Conquest, just to reassure himself that he, Conquest, was really there, on Russian soil. And another man — a poet — came up to him on the street and, wordlessly, handed him a rose.
That, we’re still doing: handing Conquest roses.