Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest; drawing by David Levine

One of the few unalloyed pleasures of old age is living long enough to see yourself vindicated. Robert Conquest is currently enjoying this pleasure. He is eighty-two years old, a British historian, poet, and political writer, and longtime research fellow at Stanford. His best-known works—Kolyma (1978), The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), The Great Terror (1990)—laid bare the system of terror and extermination at the heart of the Communist state. He wrote them at a time when détente with the Soviet Union was the fashion, when even conservative opinion no longer believed that the Soviet sys-tem was propelled by murderous and expansionist energies. Soviet communism, Conquest argued, must either live by expansion or die of its contradictions. It remained inherently Leninist in its hostility toward bourgeois liberal democracies, and as such could not be treated as a normal state within the international system.

This was not a popular view when these books were published in the 1970s and 1980s. Liberal opinion—including, truth be told, that of this reviewer—assumed that the Soviet regime was an uncompromising defender of its interests rather than an expansionist menace. Liberals also assumed that Stalin’s campaigns of murder and repression were excesses that the system had left behind. Conquest disagreed. He stubbornly documented the Communist holocaust of the 1930s and argued that extermination had never been a lurid excess of the system, but was the true expression of its nature. Exterminatory policies flowed ineluctably from Leninist doctrine: from its definition of politics as war against the class enemy, its idolization of power as the dictatorship of the proletariat, and its scorn for moral scruple as bourgeois hypocrisy.

Even when, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet system appeared becalmed or stagnant, Conquest argued that it continued to be a clear and present danger. Conquest insisted that even détente’s major achievement—the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—would not tame an expansionist system. Quiet diplomacy on human rights, he also insisted, was no substitute for public expressions of outrage on behalf of people persecuted and exiled. Kosygin and Brezhnev, he reminded Western readers, were ruthless survivors of the “political slaughter pens” of the 1930s. These apparently somnolent survivors went on to crush the Prague Spring, deploy SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and embark on brutal expansionist adventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Many liberals were surprised but Conquest was not.

In 1979, he warned that the West and the Soviet Union were on a collision course, like two liners in a “fog of ignorance…fallacy [and] factiousness.” The factions responsible for Western fog, of course, were the Euro-communists and the fellow travelers in the socialist and social democratic parties who preferred rhetorical denunciations of Western, i.e., American, imperialism to a truthful recognition of the tyrannical realities to the East. Influenced by these voices, European leaders of détente were in danger of colluding with tyranny and presiding over the slow Finlandization of the continent. In We and They (1980) and The Present Danger (1979) Conquest sought to warn Reagan and Thatcher to steer a different course. Far from rejecting the label of “Cold Warrior,” he reveled in it, taking pride in being one of the main intellectual sources of the “evil empire” rhetoric of British and American conservatism in the 1980s. He was, of course, not the only intellectual to make such arguments. Martin Malia, Adam Ulam, Richard Pipes, and an earlier generation of English specialists on the USSR like Leonard Schapiro also shared the same intransigent views as Conquest, and their writings had an effect along with his.

All this is liable to convey the impression that Conquest is a hectoring old cold war fossil. In fact, he is an urbane English liberal and his best books—especially Harvest of Sorrow —are not ideological or polemics; they are distinguished and documented studies of the still-unmeasured horrors of “our ravaged century,” tracing in detail the processes by which millions of Ukrainian Kulaks were sent to Siberia to die in the 1930s, followed by large numbers of loyal Party members a few years later, and then by many thousands more who, often quite arbitrarily, were selected for punishment.

At the same time, his moral contempt for communism was always qualified by a willingness to admit Soviet achievements. In an early book, Common Sense about Russia, published in 1960, he praised the quality of its primary and secondary education system and its scientific research. The Soviet Union was never Upper Volta with rockets: communism left behind a literate and numerate society. This is the principal usable legacy of Soviet times as Russia today struggles to resume the road it left in 1917. In looking to Russia’s future, Conquest is optimistic. “Russia,” he writes, “has now had eight years of pluralistic politics. This is not as good as a thousand years, but much better than none.” Unlike many anti-Communists, he did not explain Soviet tyranny as a result of Russia’s autocratic political heritage. Russia’s history of liberty may have been short, but there is no reason to believe that its past condemns it to a dictatorial future.


The secret of Conquest’s prescience seems to lie in the fact that he actually took the Communist system at its word, paid close attention to the wooden rhetoric of self-justification, and understood that, until its dying years, its elite remained true believers. Furthermore, he never lost sight of the insupportable moral quality of the system itself. His work vindicates the proposition that a regime cannot be understood in its essence unless its underlying moral reality is seen for what it is. And this reality was, in the final analysis, terrible.

Most of the reviews of Reflections on a Ravaged Century have congratulated Conquest on his having been right about what is now past. Less attention has been paid to Conquest’s ideas about the future, about what new alliances among states and new political configurations might emerge in the West now that it has lost the identity and cohesion provided by the cold war. For fifty years the West defined itself against the Rest. Now that the cold war is over, what remains of the West? What remains of its common institutional and moral commitments? Conquest’s answer dissents sharply from two types of globalizing cliché. Technological determinists claim that global markets, the Internet, and e-commerce are dissolving the West’s distinctive identity altogether. The global economy of the future will render all the old political lines on the map obsolete. A global ruling class will speak English and its identity will be capitalist. The pessimists respond that this globalism will simply re-frame the old West versus Rest division along new lines of digital exclusion, with billions of people in Africa and Asia unlikely to benefit from the increased productivity that will emerge from Bangalore to Berlin. What these two positions ignore—and Conquest usefully brings back into discussion—is the possibility that the elective affinities of the future may be driven not by new technology but rather by political culture.

As an Englishman who has lived much of his life in the United States, Conquest argues that both America and Britain belong together at the head of an alliance of English-speaking democracies. Only in “English-speaking countries,” he argues, has a genuinely democratic culture taken root. Elsewhere, in Europe, democracy was a frail plant: “I took hold, flickered, faded, failed….” Liberty, he believes, is an “Anglo-Celtic” invention. The Founding Fathers were faithful children of England’s Glorious Revolution: checks and balances, separation of powers, common law, and representative democracy remain the shared heritage of the Anglo-American peoples.

Britain and the United States, he argues, have more in common with each other than either have with continental Europe. The alliances embodied in the European Union and NATO made sense when the enemy was Russia but they no longer represent genuine affinities of political culture. NATO is liable, he writes, to the perils of European apathy or parochialism. Conquest doesn’t want to do away with NATO altogether, but he thinks the best way to prevent American isolationism and detachment from Europe is to anchor the US in a global alliance of democratic states in which Britain would play Greece to America’s Rome.

Conquest does not have in mind a white person’s club, a sort of latter-day Raffles Bar for Brits and Yanks. In place of the West versus the Rest, in place of North versus South, Conquest envisages a multiracial order of nations who can trace their political traditions back to the common law and the Mother of Parliaments. In Conquest’s view, South Africa, India, and democratic Nigeria share more with Canada, the US, and Britain than they do with African and Asian neighbors with political cultures of non-English origin. Common institutions—liberal constitutionalism, the rule of law, checks and balances, and common values like tolerance and individual rights—as well as a common language provide the basis for “a more fruitful unity” than, for example, common membership in the divided and generally impotent United Nations.

Conquest is vague about what form this “association” should take. It should, he says, be “weaker than a federation, but stronger than an alliance.” Not much pooling of sovereignty is envisaged; sovereign states with common traditions would work together, with a small secretariat to foster their interconnections. All this sounds like the Commonwealth plus the United States, and seems harmless enough. But haven’t we been here before? Has Conquest forgotten about the English-Speaking Union and similar worthy but rather dusty attempts to keep alive the memory of the glory days of Roosevelt and Churchill?


Conquest’s specific proposals for an association are less interesting than the arguments he makes for it, and the ways these arguments question the assumption of a common institutional heritage linking America with its European allies. European readers will be insulted that he gives their democratic traditions such short shrift, while both British and American ones may feel that his ideas seem stuck in the cold war clichés he wants to transcend.

Seen from the United States, Conquest’s proposal for an English Heritage Union ignores the ways in which immigration to the United States—from the Hispanic and Asian worlds—has transformed American identity. Millions of new American citizens simply do not look east across the Atlantic for their ancestry but south across the Caribbean and west across the Pacific. Their origins are in civilizations and cultures that are far from being “Anglo-Celtic.” These citizens of the republic certainly believe in its institutions just as much as people of European origin; but they would think it odd to be told that their natural allies lie north of the border with Canada and across the sea with the UK.

Seen from Britain, Conquest’s suggestion that the British destiny is Atlanticist and American plants him firmly in the conservative Euroskeptic camp. He is anything but a little Englander or a chauvinist and makes rather a display of his love of things French, but this love does not extend to France’s democratic traditions. The French Revolution, he insists, was a continental attempt to imitate England’s Glorious Revolution, and as soon as it went beyond installing a constitutional monarchy and descended into Jacobinism it drowned democracy itself in blood. Jacobin democracy—populist, egalitarian, naturally inclined to see Marx as the heir of Robespierre—is European. Real democracy—an independent civil society, rule of law, constitutional checks and balances—is an invention of “Anglo-Celtic civilization.”

This is an unfortunate formulation, implying as it does some culturally encoded genius for liberty in the various British peoples. Conquest dissociates himself from such implications, arguing merely that Britain was lucky, rather than predestined, to be free. Liberty, he argues, is a happy accident of England’s history: “Since the collapse of Rome, there has never been any significant period in Britain when the state was strong enough to enforce its will without considerable concessions to the rights and liberties of important sections of its subjects and without reliance upon consent.” In Britain—and in America—society created and controlled the state. In continental Europe, the state created and controlled both society and nation.

These are familiar arguments, but they ground the Euroskeptic case against further European integration in the irreducible distinctiveness of English liberty. The crux of Conquest’s case is that continental and Anglo-American institutions don’t mix. His argument is strongest when it comes to the law, where habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the adversary system of cross-examination often seem alien to the continental system, which puts power in the hands of examining magistrates. Even here, however, the differences are not easily summarized. For example, in the recent article in these pages on the trial of the Vichy official Maurice Papon, Robert Paxton described how, over a period of months, the jury was presented with detailed evidence from a variety of perspectives while the presiding judge gave Papon ample chance to refute the arguments against him.*

Moreover, at exactly the moment when Britain is incorporating the European Human Rights convention into its own domestic law, it seems old-fashioned to harp on the gulf between Anglo-American and continental jurisprudence. Differences certainly remain but thirty years of membership in the European Union are blurring them, and for the better. For a generation now, British citizens have been taking their authorities to court for violations of European human rights, including the rights of people arrested and mistreated by police in Northern Ireland. The victories in these cases have increased rather than diminished the margins of British liberty. Conquest’s conclusion—that Anglo-American and European democratic traditions are just too different to mix together—underestimates the degree to which Britain has become a European state, increasingly integrated into the institutional structure and norms of its continental partners. This doesn’t mean it is too late to resist further political integration, but it does mean that it is wrong to do so on the basis of the irreducible otherness of English institutions, especially since Scotland and Wales are becoming more autonomous and establishing their own relations with Europe.

If Britain’s political culture is closer to the European model than Conquest implies, it is also farther apart from the American than his cozy vision of an Anglo-American global alliance suggests. British social democracy always diverged from the American liberal tradition and was closer to its European counterparts. The British welfare state and national health service are unthinkable in current American political culture. A common legal and political heritage has not prevented substantially different types of capitalism from emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps in the alliance of English-speaking countries he envisages, all the participating states would converge around the American capitalist model—low social welfare spending, private health insurance, relatively low taxes. This would be as unlikely as it is undesirable. Indeed, it poses just as gloomy a prospect of conformity as the one proposed by the hot-gospelers for global economic convergence. But if there isn’t such convergence of social models, what clear identity, what common purpose, will hold Conquest’s alliance of English-speaking peoples together?

Conquest might have paid more attention to the ways in which British and American cultures now diverge over questions of rights. In Britain, the right to bear arms is a dimly remembered vestige of eighteenth-century constitutionalism, while on the other side of the Atlantic, it remains the slogan of the most relentless and effective political lobby in American politics. Similar examples—from the cam-paign in the US against abortion to the popularity of the death penalty there—could be multiplied to show that a common rights tradition does not prevent America from clinging to practices that are radically different from those of the British, not to mention the Canadians, Australians, South Africans, and other children of “Anglo-Celtic” constitutionalism. Indeed, on matters of practical policy it is the Americans who are often the exception when it comes to Western liberal rights.

The same American tendency to follow its own direction surfaces with respect to reforms in international law. The US was one of the last countries to ratify the Genocide Convention and one of the few that still have not ratified the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. The US has also been a leader in attempts to restrict the jurisdiction of the proposed International Criminal Tribunal; it objects to the very idea that American citizens, including American military personnel, should ever be tried, or even have to explain themselves, before international tribunals or rights bodies. This adamant defense of American national sovereignty has broad bipartisan support in American culture, but it puts the US increasingly at odds both with nations, like Canada and Britain, which have supported international criminal jurisdiction, and with European states that have accepted limited abrogation of their sovereignty since the Treaty of Rome in 1956.

The profound differences among English-speaking cultures are further illustrated by the contrast between Canada and the United States. Parliamentary democracy gives a prime minister much more power than Madisonian checks and balances would allow an American president; sovereignty vested in the Queen makes Canadians into subjects rather than republican citizens; and Canadian federalism accords power to national linguistic communities such as Quebec in a fashion unthinkable in the US. North of the border there is a national health care system; south of the border, HMOs. Such differences are not minor ones. They are central to Canadian identity. Canada remains British North America, a peaceable federation that has always stayed apart from the Madison-Jefferson experiment. It is not the narcissism of minor difference to insist on these variations within the Anglo-American institutional tradition—they are the very heart of the identities of nations.

Conquest’s vision of a global associations of English-speaking peoples has the merit of seeking to ground long-term alliances in shared political culture rather than the fleeting language of interests or the advertising babble of globalism. But the political cultures of the English-speaking world are not necessarily converging. Indeed, the differences among them are beginning to trouble America’s relations with its allies, as the cold war antagonism used to trouble its relations with its enemies. With the prescience that has marked Conquest’s work he has asked the right question. Now that the cold war is over, now that the enemy no longer defines us, who exactly are the English and the Americans? And who are their true friends? His answer is unsatisfying, but as usual he has forced us to realize none of the other answers are as clear as we thought they were.

This Issue

March 23, 2000