Thursday, March 17, 2005

Dragons and Democracy - X

This is a continuation of an overview of Robert Conquest’s book The Dragons of Expectation, Norton, 2005.

The list of works whose authors misrepresented and misperceived the realities of the Soviet state and the Cold War is quite a long one. In Chapter XIV (“A Gaggle of Misleaders”), Conquest examines some of those misleading works, and gives attention to the question of why they were often well received in the West: “We have avoided,” he states at the outset, “the products of a total ignorance, however pretentiously presented – as with the Webbs. And we have stuck to examples with, in each case, heavy intellectual claims to acceptance. It is a vivid haul of misunderstanding and misdirection, at various levels of IQ and influence.”

The examples considered by Conquest include the English writer C.P. Snow. Snow, the essay suggests, “is a stunning example of a deep emotional attachment to bureaucracy, to state supremacy, to quasi-Marxist – and to pro-Soviet – delusions.” Snow’s work shows evidence of a thirst for power. A quotation from one of Snow’s own novels sums up his character: “He longed for all the trappings, titles, ornaments, and show of power… He wanted the grandeur of the Lodge, he wanted to be styled among the Heads of Houses.”

Snow is perhaps best known now for the “two cultures” controversy with the literary critic F.R. Leavis, in the course of which Snow cited the British physicist J.D. Bernal, who in his book The World Without War stated that “scientists have the future in their bones”, against the vision of the future presented in Orwell’s 1984. As Conquest notes, Bernal had urged “an ever-closer understanding between Britain and the USSR”, and his politics were almost totally Stalinist. While Snow, on the other hand, was a “democratic sort of socialist”, he had no qualms at all about visiting, and being put up by, Yuri Zhdanov, the former notorious head of the Soviet Communist Party’s Culture Department, who was now head of a Russian university. Snow also visited and frequented those Soviet writers who toed the Party line, and in 1966 published an anthology of Soviet short stories, in the preface of which :
he argued that we should not look at Soviet literature with any political considerations in mind, accepting as fact such things as that “frontline soldiers in dugouts sang the war poems of Surkov [Stalinist hack]).”

The phrase “cold war” occurred frequently in this preface. It meant drawing attention to any facts or expressing any opinions unpalatable to the Soviet leadership. Snow assured us that it was wicked to look at Soviet literature with any political considerations in mind, since we would not do so with the literature of other cultures. This really is fantastic! Soviet literature, as we were told day in and day out by Soviet politicians, cultural bureaucrats, and orthodox writers themselves, was (or should be) “a weapon for Communism.”

Snow, Conquest suggests, quite consciously aligned himself “not only with the British establishment, which is bad enough, but also with the worst foreign one he could turn up.” Snow’s habit of mind is typical of a certain stratum of British intellectual society, and it is one that still persists today.

The essay continues with a look at some more “misleaders”: there is Simone de Beauvoir, with her abject acceptance of Maoist propaganda: in her book The Long March, she continually justified Communist atrocities “on the grounds that there were abuses in the West, too (on the principles Orwell defined, in The Lion and the Unicorn, as ‘two blacks make a white, half a loaf is the same as no bread’), and pointing to the undoubted faults of the old regime.” There is John Kenneth Galbraith – another, like Snow, from high establishment circles,
accepted, or listened to, because he presents his themes in a way persuasive to such a public, which is not so common among (let alone respected among) the professional economists. To take a pundit seriously on these grounds is (as in a different way in Hobsbawm’s and Snow’s cases) like saying, “This is a beautifully printed and finely bound railway timetable.” Yes, but its train times are wrong.
Conquest also devotes considerable and justified space to an investigation of the CNN documentary Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945-1991 by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, attacking in particular its “assessment of a benign Lenin”, and “its simplification of motive beyond the complexities and contradictions inherent in human character.” Conquest also attacks the documentary’s view of the Soviet spies Burgess, Maclean, and Philby: the documentary tells us that “they acted from political conviction. They believed what they were doing was right.” As Conquest notes, the same could be said of agents of Nazism like John Amery, but goes beyond this rather simplistic argument to quote the poet Stephen Spender, who knew the three spies and so some extent sympathized with them. Spender wrote in his diary:
.. what they all had was the arrogance of manipulators… Perhaps this was in part because they had voluntarily put themselves at the service of their Russian manipulators.. their faith in a creed whose mixture of sanctity, bloodiness and snobbery gave them a sense of great personal superiority.”
A consideration of the documentary’s view of Ronald Reagan (it sees him at hostile caricature level, as a simpleton) is followed by an examination of its treatment of the Rosenberg case (we are told by the CNN work that they were part of “a network of spies who felt uncomfortable that the United States was the sole owner of they key to atomic warfare”), and this, Conquest asserts, “gives an arguably acceptable motive for their espionage activity, though since they never confessed and thus never advanced such a motive, its is one constructed for them by sympathizers.” There is an extensive discussion of the documentary’s handling of the subject of McCarthyism and the workings of the CPUSA. Conquest suggests that there is a glaring and vital omission in the reasons for the Cold War that are given by the documentary and the book: it is
the conception that the Marxist-Leninist creed saw the world as a scene of essential antagonisms and insisted that the conflict must be pursued until the overthrow of the non-Communist order the world over. As we have said, this motivation has been confirmed by former Politburo members, post-Soviet foreign ministers, and others, and was only abandoned by the last Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, in 1990.

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
Dragons and Democracy - IX

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