Thursday, March 10, 2005

Dragons and Democracy - IX

In the short essay “Cold War: Heated Imaginations”, Conquest turns his attention to the concepts, actions and motivations of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union. To present them, he remarks,
is not to say that America, or the West, or its allies were angels facing demons. They were more like human beings facing monsters, with the human capacity for error and sin. It seems best to get that out of the way. And to note that to describe Hitler’s war on Poland in 1939 by selecting a few successful Polish counterattacks, ignoring all other data, and thus proving Polish aggression, is more or less what is done vis-à-vis the West and Moscow on the Cold War.
Where Soviet motivations are concerned, the essential point to grasp, Conquest argues, is that right up to the eve of its collapse, the Soviet Union was committed to “the concept of an unappeasable conflict with the Western world”, and to the notion that this conflict could only be resolved by world revolution. It has been rather usual for Western academic observers and historians to play down this crucial aspect of Soviet policy, under the pretence that such Soviet phantasmagoria as “socialism in one country”, and later “peaceful co-existence” somehow negated it. Yet it was clearly formulated and stated as late as 1975 by Andrei Gromyko in his book The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, which spoke in unambiguous terms of “further developing and deepening the world revolutionary process.” Basing his arguments on recently discovered letters written by Stalin to Molotov in 1945-46, Conquest shows how even the hard-line stance of Molotov (or “Stone-Bottom” as he was known in diplomatic circles) was not hard enough for Stalin: when Molotov allowed Pravda to publish a speech of Churchill’s praising the Soviet war effort and Stalin personally, the leader accused him of “servility towards foreigners” – for which he received a formal reprimand from a commission of the Politburo. In fact, Conquest notes, so much power was concentrated in the leader’s hands, that Stalin had the personal ability to make the post-war world uninhabitable if he so wished - and he very nearly did.

Conquest shows that the rhetoric and heated language of postwar Soviet propaganda was much more than mere linguistic posturing: its extreme and fanatical dogmatism – as George Orwell noted, “even mild Western expressions of distaste for Communist actions were almost always called ‘rabid’ – in fact, a useful marker word” – was designed to create an alternative international reality, in which “frenzied” “Anglo-American imperialists” were constantly on the point of launching a new world war. The democracies of the West were “Fascist gangs”, and their leaders “warmongers” and “lackeys of imperialism”. The violence of the language used, and the repetition by dint of which it was to permeate human consciousness, carried the authentic hall-marks of totalitarian conceptual "mind-bending".

In Western left-wing political circles, those who questioned Soviet motivations were accused of harbouring a “Cold War mentality”. In fact, however, the left-wing view of the post-war world looked something like this:
In the late 1940s… we see a Russia with a free press, the open advancing of pro-American views, a multiparty system; in America, a rigid dictatorship. The governments of Western Europe are run by members of the American Fascist-Capitalist Party, though after a few years many of its British, French, and Italian leaders are accused of being agents of Russia and executed after torture. In 1952, America’s leading Jews are tortured, then executed without publicity. In 1953, demonstrations in favour of Russia are put down by American troops in Paris. In 1956, a socialist rebellion in Belgium is similarly suppressed. In 1968, the Capitalist Party in Italy, hitherto loyal to Washington, moves to a more humane capitalism; troops from the United States and its European satellites intervene. In Germany, the American foothold in Berlin is surrounded by a wall, to prevent people escaping to the liberal East German Republic… and so on and so on.
Remnants of such inverted vision and historical perspective still linger on in Western left and liberal circles even today. The charge of “Cold War thinking” levelled at those who attempt to deconstruct the Soviet Union and show it for what it was, constitutes only one of those remnants – there are also the charges of “demonization”, of “subjectivity” and “judgmentalism”. One of the most recent accusations is that of “triumphalism”:
This strange term is used to deplore any sign of being glad that the Soviet Union failed and that the Western world “triumphed”… It seems to imply, above all, that such an attitude is in bad taste. The poor, unfortunate totalitarian anti-Western regimes collapsed, but one shouldn’t crow.
While one may agree that it us more important to reform the methods of those who were wrong than to rebuke them, Conquest asks: “how can it be done without some public analysis of their errors, which, after all, had a very deleterious effect on part of the Western mind? Let’s not be smug; but let’s be rigorous."

See also: Dragons and Democracy
Dragons and Democracy - II
Dragons and Democracy - III
Dragons and Democracy - IV
Dragons and Democracy - V
Dragons and Democracy - VI
Dragons and Democracy - VII
Dragons and Democracy - VIII

Robert Conquest's The Dragons of Expectation - Reality and Delusion in the Course of History is published by Norton, and can be purchased from

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