This is an excellent book that reviews the horrors of the 20th century, the wrack and ruin of competing ideologies of left and right, Communism and Fascism.
He poses the critical question at the very start of the book:
The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. And so history's essential questions must be:His book argues for moderation, a threading of a path between left and right taking the best from both, but no falling prey to the idealized versions used by these factions to mobilize populations into totalitarian states. He argues for realism over idealism.
How do we account for what has been called the "ideological frenzy" of the twentieth century? How did these mental aberrations gain a purchase? Who were the Typhoid Marys who spread the infection?
Chapter 3 looks at Marxism:
Marx was seen, and saw himself, as "the Darwin of society": as the originator of a historical science to match Darwin's biological science. He provided his certainties in terms of proven theory. The contract betwwen his own and Darwin's methods is very striking, and indeed Marx saw this himself -- referring rather patronizingly to Darwin's "crude English empiricism." By this he meant no more than the perfectly true circumstand that Darwin accumulated facts before developing his theory, as against the supposedly superior method Marx derived from his German academic background, of inventing the theory first and then finding the facts to support it.In this chapter he has a number of zingers to expose Marxism for the bankrupt theory that it was:
Marx derived all the evils of "capitalism" -- alienation, exploitation, crises, etc. -- from "commodity" production, that is, from the market system. In fact, the whole history of the USSR testifies to a refusal to face the fact that a complex modern economy cannot operate without a market mechanism. Wehy (even leaving aside economic common sense) Marx thought that a bureaucrat's decision was less alienating than the "unplanned" play of market forces is not clear.And this:
... Lenin saw history was not behaving in accordance with Marxist theory, so he decided to force it to do so by subjective effort [a revolution directed by an 'elite cadre' on behalf of the slumbering proletariat], like some phrenologist finding one of his subjects lacking the right bumps and producing them by clouting him on the head.Chapter 4 looks at totalitarianism:
It has always, even in ancient times, been difficult to remove the leadership of a state. But at least until recently, it was uncommon for a state to be able to ignore, or run wholly contrary to, all economic, social and intellectual trends. The modern totalitarian state suffered few of these limitations.
Totalitarianism is, as Leonard Schapiro notes, "a post-democratic phenomenon," arising in the age of nations and nation-states, the emergence of mass society, "the age of the legitimation of power by a democratic formula," as with other aspects of the modern age, until it became technically possible to control an entire society and eventually to pervade it fully with the regime's propagandas and its terrors.
Chapter 6 looks at the USSR:
It can hardly be maintained that Communisms was no more than a continuation of Russian history. Tsarism may have been the most repressive regime in Europe, but if we take the total executions from 1860 to 1914 (mostly of genuine terrorists in 1905-10) and add in all the other victims of civil repression such as the pogroms, we can hardly reach a figure of twenty thousand odd. The current estimate for excutions along in the two-year period 1937-38 is just under 2 million. In terms of the dialectic, this is surely an overwhelming case of the quantitative becoming the qualitative. And indeed, Lenin's regime was already more violently repressive than anything seen for centuries.I find the above as particularly relevant. Similar to the claims by Communists of an "oppressive" Tsar which justified the gulag in which tens of millions died, the "Islamic Republic" of Iran complained bitterly of the hundreds of deaths under the Shah and his secret police while the ayatollahs have not killed hundreds of thousands in the name of their "revolution".
Chapter 7 looks at how western intellectuals were duped by Communist propaganda. This is relevant for today because all countries manipulate media and "public opinion" to reinforce their power.
Chapter 8 examines the origin of the Cold War and points out it started well before the West was even aware of the manipulations by Stalin.
Chapter 9 looks at how the USSR, even in terminal decay, manipulated Western opinion.
Chapter 10 looks at the rocky situation on post-Soviet eastern Europe and the USSR:
The "creation" of a market economy is, however, to a great extent a misleading concept. Market economies have emerged rather than been decreed. Socialist economies are, of course, consciously set up by the state. The problem in Eastern Europe was to set up the conditions under which a market economy could come into being. First, naturally, the rule of law -- in principle a simple thing, in practice not so.Chapter 11 looks at cultural values and attitudes. It has some gems of wisdom. Here's a taste, the opening section:
It is not as if a country can, as it were, be put in dry dock and equipped with new institutions in a careful and considered way. The whole venture is more like trying to reequip a ship at sea, in stormy waters, with a new engine.
"Western" political cultgure implies nothing remotely resembling perfection, or even perfectibility. On the contrary, we can only look on it as the best and most hopeful arrangement available to us in the world of reality and enormously superior to its competitors past and present.Chapter 12 attacks the shortcomings of "modern" education:
All real societies contain greed, power mania, sloth, incompetence, paranoia. All societies contain special interests, not only material one but emotional ones too. And it may not be going to far to say that every onsensual society experiences cycles of degeneration from which, when the results become clear, it pulls up sharply, often at the last moment -- or fails to do so.
So the free society itself should not be Ideified: it is a system of compromise between the individual and the community, between the population and the state. This endlessly generates fricion, myopia, corruption, faction, and perhaps always will. Nor shall we ever have politicians who understand every problem, who have appropriate plans for solving them, and who are able to put those plans into effect.
Meanwhile, many of our present-day problems arise from, or are greatly worsened by mental attitudes that, though not usually ideological in the totalitarian sense, show a family resemblance. That is to say they are usually the result of giving if not absolute, at any rate excessive, status to political or other concepts.
It has often been said that the "answer" to most problems is "education."This analysis is especially relevant given that Al Qaeda has an inordinate amount of college educated -- mostly engineering students -- at its heart.
But it is obvious that a high level of education in a general sense has often failed to protect twentieth-century minds from homicidal, or suicidal aberrations. As we have seen, these have often been generated by men of high educational standing. And it has often been in colleges and universities that the bad seeds first bore fruit.
In Chapter 12 Conquest skewer's Robert McNamara, the "architect" of the Vietnam war:
An outstanding example of the failure of academic and theoretical expertise was to be found in Robert McNamara's conduct of the Vietnam War. In his recent apologia, he says that he failed to understand nationalism. No, what he failed to understand was Communism (though he no doubt misunderstood nationalism, too). He had no real idea of the motivations of the leadership on the "other side of the hill," that traditional essential to sound strategy. Bertram Wolfe, who worked with Ho Chi Minh in the Comintern in Paris in the 1920s, once told me that Ho never mentioned his home country: we was an international apparatchik with purely Leninist attitudes.
But McNamara's central error, which he still does not seem to understand, was that he undertook a responsibility ... for which he was totally unqualified.