Robert Conquest, who died on Tuesday at 98, was a historian, a novelist, a literary critic and a poet, although his genius (I use the word as discriminatingly as possible) was that he managed to exhibit the qualities of all four roles simultaneously. In a century of overspecialization, he partook of many subjects expertly, usually outclassing those singularly dedicated to one.
Consider this passage from his seminal study of the Stalinist purges, The Great Terror, which first appeared in 1968, when establishing the facts about a closed society was as much a matter of decryption and deduction as of research and recordation. (The book would be reissued in 1990, and then in 2007, as a “reassessment” which mainly reassessed just how prescient and correct the author had been before the opening of the Soviet archives). Conquest is describing the early internal opponents of Stalinism, all of whom would be jailed, shot, or exiled under varying circumstances:
“In fact, courage and clearheadedness are admirable in themselves. And if they do not rank high among the moral virtues, we can see in some of the Soviet oppositionists something rather better. It is true that those who did not confess, and were shot secretly, demonstrated not merely a higher courage, but a better sense of values. In them, however touched by the demands of Party and revolutionary loyalty, loyalty to the truth and the idea of a more humane regime prevailed. But even among those who confessed, we can often see the struggle between Party habits and the old impulses to justice which had originally, in many cases at least, been one of the motives for joining the Party…If the oppositionists were not spotless, it is at least true of their conduct during the Civil War that to have acted right or wrong Within that furious age was different from planning the cold-blooded Terror shortly to be launched.”
Few would think to repurpose a stanza from a 17th-century ballad sung by a disabled Red Coat to describe the nobility of pitiable Reds after their own liquidation by the Politburo.
Note, too, the generosity of motive—“old impulses to justice”—Conquest assigns to Old Bolsheviks who were devoured by the very regime they helped create. He could distinguish the ardent but lethally misguided true believer from the mere hack or apparatchik. The happy Cold Warrior born in 1917 who advised Margaret Thatcher and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and was denounced in 1990 at a plenum of the Soviet Central Committee as “anti-Sovietchik number one,” still outshines the younger revisionists who have argued that there was little choose between and amongst a Stalin, a Bukharin, a Trotsky or a Rakovsky. (Some have gone so far as to claim that worse tyrannies would have been birthed had the Georgian monster not taken over the Kremlin.) Conquest, without any hint of apologetics, exaggeration or recourse to revolutionary romanticism, could argue persuasively that this simply was not the case even while maintaining throughout his career that the core problem with the USSR began with Marxism as a mode of political economy, which he considered fraudulent and discredited.
As he did much of modernist literature. “Though there are praiseworthy exceptions, the great fault of the academic Anglo-American taste in poetry,” he observed mordantly, “has always been to take as aesthetic the thrill of penetrating novelties of vocabulary, contortions of syntax and general oddities of language. Mary had a little lamb, put into Sanskrit and read backwards, not only does not gain, but actually loses the one quality of the original.”
This insight came in a justly celebrated disembowelment of Ezra Pound, whom Conquest showed, against the canting fashions of the day, to be a poseur of the highest order, not to mention a lousy poet who garbled his own allusions to classical mythology and did so without any redeeming ingenuity or creativity. Also, Pound’s notorious fascism and egoism only added to his artistic debit. This paragraph, for instance, reads rather like the inverse of Orwell’s famous defense of P.G. Wodehouse, a sometime detainee of the S.S., but one was only ingenuous in the face of World War, whereas Pound was downright sinister:
“It is politically and morally relevant that we are called upon by admirers of Pound to find the Pisan Cantos a moving expression of the poet’s suffering. In fact, people go so far as to imply that the American army behaved with disgraceful brutality in keeping him in a wired camp without adequate protection from the weather. One may regret all the suffering, or even discomfort; but this took place at a time when the smoke had scarcely ceased to rise from Auschwitz, and millions were still in a far worse case than Pound’s. He had supported the anti-Semitic policies of the Axis (and even now when the facts have long been available to him, I do not think that he has shown much sympathy or pity for the victims of the gas-chambers). In the circumstances one may feel, in one’s heartless way, that having to sleep out in the rain for a bit was a suffering he might have done better to keep quiet about. And in any case, a humanity and sympathy which is mainly expressed for oneself can seldom be particularly moving.”
It pays to remember that Conquest was himself, briefly, a Communist. He always maintained that the best anatomists of this particular malady were recovered sufferers of it. He joined the Party while at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1936 but only belonged for a mere 18 months—while also being a member of the Carlton Club. He professed that “girl trouble” took up too much of his time at university to preoccupy him with surplus value; also, he thought zealous adherents to the god that would eventually fail to be “bloody fools.” What turned him definitively against Marxism-Leninism was a firsthand encounter with it in practice, in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe. In 1944, Conquest served as a British liaison officer for the Bulgarian army, which was fighting the Nazis under Soviet command; he enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 1939, the year the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, which does show his sensibleness overriding ideology early on. “If you’d been [in Bulgaria] in 1944-45,” he said, “you became anti-Communist in a shot. They were dreadful and got worse and worse.”
The experience hardened him to all forms of what he later called “mindslaughter,” broadly defined as the attempt by well-educated bourgeois (seldom does the affliction seem to befall the actually existing working classes) to deceive themselves into believing arrant or fashionable nonsense, especially when it contradicted their own stated principles. How was it, Conquest once teased his friend Kingsley Amis—whose affiliation with the CP lasted embarrassingly long, until 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary— that the author of Lucky Jimcould be quite so “progressive” about colonialism, of which he knew little, but quite conservative when it came to modern British education, about which Amis was exasperatingly well-informed. This insight led to Conquest’s First Law: “Generally speaking, everyone is reactionary on subjects he knows about.” (His Second Law is equally useful: “Every organization appears to be headed by secret agents of its opponents.”)
It was Amis who invented the most oft-cited story about Conquest, that he’d told his American publisher that the first reissue of The Great Terror be titled, “I Told You So, You Fucking Fools,” a legend which stuck as plausible because it was in keeping with the satirical bent of both men of letters. They came to know each other through poetry, having hit it off at a PEN party in 1952, and bonded over shared artistic judgments, including an obsession with science fiction, not to mention their mutual enlistment in the genre of postwar English literature known as the “Movement.” It was Amis, too, who did us the favor of collecting several of Conquest’s limericks in the New Oxford Book of Light Verse, even if the contributions were given under pseudonyms such as “Victor Gray” and “Ted Pauker.”
This comic form was, Conquest noted, the “purest, if not the highest creation” because “[n]o consideration of money or publication apply” and whereas the “meaningless, and the structureless can now pass for serious verse” (again, see Pound), “the limerick remains a voice of talent and common sense.” Some examples were even fit for public consumption, such as:
When Gaugin was visiting Fiji
He said, ‘Things are different here, e.g.
While Tahitian skin
Calls for tan spread on thin,
You must splosh it on here with a squeegee.
And the famous parody of Shakespeare’s “Seven ages of man” monologue from As You Like It:
Seven ages: first puking and mewling;
Then very pissed off with one’s schooling;
Then fucks; and then fights;
Then judging chaps’ rights;
Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.
Though many fell under the category of what Conquest liked to call “bawdy”—he wrote learned essays on the genre—the limericks were exchanged vigorously over the years with Amis and their other great friend and pen-pal Philip Larkin, who came in for much denunciation by the commissars of political correctness in the late ’90s when his Selected Letters were published. Many were conceived as verbal fusillades against assorted bores and enemies of the intellect and spirit, though today I suppose they require “trigger-warnings” for the tender-headed.
Of one unfortunate novelist-critic who had been rude to Amis in print, Conquest lampooned:
The first man to fuck Brigid Brophy
Has just won the Krafft-Ebing Trophy,
Plus ten thousand quid,
Which, for what the chap did,
Will be widely denounced as a low fee.
The communist president of the Oxford Union when Conquest joined the Party was Philip Toynbee, later the chief reviewer for the Observer, best described by another British journalist as an “ex-alcoholic who became a heavy drinker.” Even the quarry might have appreciated the artful use of enjambment here:
One cannot when dealing with Toynbee
Just pay him back in his own coin be-
Cause talking such piss
Would come rather amiss,
And so how would a kick in the groin be?
There were “Fascist” lunches with Conquest’s Thatcherite set, including Kingsley and the great Soviet-Hungarian historian Tibor Szamuely in the ’70s at an Italian restaurant called Bertorelli (since shuttered, alas) on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia. An occasional attendee of these was Christopher Hitchens, then a radical scribbler at The New Statesman and a friend of Martin Amis, who had an obvious filial in. It was at Hitch’s Menlo Park home where I met Conquest in the summer of 2007. Now happily ensconced for decades at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the Grand Old Man had just entered his 90th year and had recently been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom alongside Alan Greenspan and Aretha Franklin. (“Bob and the Queen of Soul” was the title of a photograph that got emailed around, with Conquest looking on quizzically at Franklin as she wept with apparent pride).
Bob could still recite 1930s trade union ballads word-perfectly as if he’d learnt them yesterday, and I was impressed by his opinion that a lot of the better stuff written on the Soviet “experiment” was done closer to the experimenters’ own time, such as Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution.
I have a photograph I took of him smiling as Hitch, hand on the elder writer’s shoulder, wears an expression of solemn reverence. This was just so. The younger polemicist’s Trotskyist groupuscule had, back in London, made The Great Terrorrequired reading and Hitch was also one of the few leftists to both understand the seriousness of Conquest’s contribution to anti-Stalinism—of which the Trotskyists were some of the earliest and shrewdest subscribers—and to see the purpose of the unleaded laddishness of his latter-day right-wing milieu. “[I]n my experience,” he wrote in a terrific defense of Larkin for the New Left Review, “when men like Conquest came across a real, one-dimensional, humourless bigotry they were bored by it… It all seemed so… pointless.”
The struggle against pointlessness or frivolousness, as Conquest often termed it, taking care to differentiate a genuine sense of humor from mirthless idiocy, was a hallmark of his moral style. In one of his later books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, he reminded us that many of the modern era’s purveyors of “scientific” political theories held the least scientific beliefs. French collectivist Fourier, for instance, “sincerely believed that under socialism the sea could be turned into lemonade.” Marx was no exception. The Communist Manifesto contains unintentionally hilarious commentary on the supposedly predatory sex lives of the middle-classes when he was the one humping the help. The grey-beard Rhinelander also had more than a passing fondness for phrenology and at one point became “enthusiastic about the theories of the adventurer Pierre Trémaux, who held that the distinction between the races were attributable to the different soils on which they lived.”
Closer to our own time, Conquest noted the rotten core of so many fellow travelers and excuse-makers for the longer-lasting totalitarianism. Sartre, he pointed out, had but two objections to unearthing the whole sordid truth about the Gulag: “First, that the evidence was unofficial (though he accepted precisely similar testimony about French misconduct in Algeria); second, that such evidence would throw the French proletariat into despair.” Yet where the proletariat was thrown into genuine revolutionary ferment was also interesting: “It is an ironic commentary on this that the great workers’ risings took place in countries where capitalism had been overthrown, in cities like East Berlin, Poznan, Budapest, Gdansk.” Quite.
Conquest’s bête noire, however, was his exact contemporary, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whom he outlived by a few years (which fact I’m sure gave him some satisfaction) and who in an interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1994 said that had the utopian dreams of Communism been realized, then the death of 15 or 20 million people would have been worth the price. Hobsbawm was made a Companion of Honour in 1998.
For these and other reasons, Conquest believed, the priesthood of academics who were taken in by propaganda or machiavellian flattery were so much worse than ordinary men and women who took Occam’s razor to bullshit. The greatest compliment he paid to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was to note that it gave a better justification of Stalinism than any that could be found in the official communist literature, which Conquest had read in multiple languages. Orwell was indeed the thoroughgoing model for saneness and good sense, distinguished in his acuity by apprehending that the barbarism first inflicted by the Soviets (and their surrogates in London) was upon language, which one needn’t have any Potemkin tours of Moscow or Siberia to know spelt further trouble ahead. Winston Smith idly observing that Big Brother’s claim to have manufactured 50 million pairs of boots last year might be a wholesale fabrication made Orwell, in Conquest’s judgment, more adept at understanding Stalinist statistics than many academic economists who were taken in by pieces of paper. Conquest was a fierce foil against the deceptions and self-deception of les clercs.
“Even today,” he wrote in an essay on 1984 in 1984, “the greatest hurdle to understanding the Soviet Union or similar regimes is the unthinking and inexplicit assumption that the basic motivations of the Soviet leaders differ little from our own. It was an advantage to Orwell that he knew nothing of one sort of ‘political science’—a supposed discipline which to this day, by concentrating on forms and structures, removes the essence of a given polity from active consideration. It is a notable fact that Orwell, like Koestler, was a novelist and journalist, and that in general, the record of such writers is far better than that of many ‘serious’ students. Perhaps the reason is that to understand the Stalin regime took an effort not only of the intellect, but also of the imagination.”
This judgment can have easily been applied to the man who made it, even if Conquest would have bridled at such a comparison to his hero. To think, though, that not 72 hours ago, there lived another public figure who helped bring down a totalitarian empire with an uncanny combination of historical imagination and old-fashioned English empiricism.