The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History
By Robert Conquest
272pp | Duckworth | 2005 | ISBN 0393059332 | £18 rrp

Looking at the title of this book, I assumed it referred to the Book of Revelation. Thus I was surprised to discover it is taken from the Old Norse Elder Edda, though from an apocalyptic-sounding passage. This demonstrates how universal certain symbols are, an idea that would not be alien to Robert Conquest. Currently a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Conquest has long cast a critical and prophetic eye over the political ideologies of the twentieth century. An expert on Soviet Russia, he wrote The Great Terror in 1968, a seminal work on the atrocities of the Stalinist years.

This book, subtitled Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, is a series of ruminations in short, numbered sections (the shortest only three lines long) on the best and worst government systems that men have devised. “Our world can be divided into the civilised, the semi-civilised and the uncivilised (or de-civilised) countries” he suggests, indicating that by “civilised” he means Western democracy – “the plural tradition”. I suspect that his outlook has been sharpened by the events of 9/11; he sees the enemy of today as the kind of fanaticism which loathes the open, pluralistic society.

Conquest’s strength lies in his constant reappraisal of words we take for granted, like “democracy”, “liberalism”, “imperialism”, showing how they can be misapplied or twisted.. He quotes Goebbels’ glib untruth that “in Germany there is true democracy, in which the whole nation can freely express its will”, to make the point that democracy can only flourish in a healthy way when it has emerged from the “law and order liberty tradition”. This takes many centuries and has to be guarded vigilantly so that it does not slowly shrink under creeping state control; “ossification”, he calls it. Again, the word “socialism” has meant different things for different people: to George Orwell it meant justice and liberty, combined with independence of thought – the antithesis of Soviet “socialism”.

The author is clear about the real meaning of fascism. Having often heard the word bandied about inappropriately – not least, having one of my favourite authors, Kipling, branded a “fascist” by an Oxford history professor – it was enlightening to read that for Conquest it means the indoctrination of the masses, isolationism, farcical elections, fanaticism, a powerless parliament, a single party and its control of the state. The word “liberal”, too, has undergone an unhappy sea-change. Today it means espousing an inhumane agenda, deeply intolerant of anything that thwarts it and destructive of true civilisation – rather than a defence of political liberty, freedom of thought and social justice.

When it comes to deriding emperors and their new clothes, in whatever shape or form, Conquest is at his best. For him, Hegel has “befuddled minds over six or seven generations”; post-modernists, such as Foucault and Derrida, belong to “the sphere of the unreadable”; the European Union is riddled with “bureaucratic extravagance and decadence”; current academic writing often evinces “grotesque vocabulary held together by a tangled syntax”. Naturally, given his special interest, he is eloquent on the criminal follies of communism and the power it exerted over party cadres throughout the world in its heyday. Huge sums of money were sent by Russia to party workers abroad; for instance. As early as 1921 the Communist Party in the UK was getting £55,000, at a time when its own annual income was around £100.

It is strange, in retrospect, to think that the Soviet Union, despite its horrors, remained “acceptable or even praiseworthy” for so long. In the world of the socialist intelligentsia of the time, which included well-known Marxists such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm or the physicist J.D. Bernal (who was given the sobriquet “Sage” because he knew so much), this may have been true. However, such delusions were not universal. My own primary school was an unremarkable little convent in an English provincial town. I was aged seven when Stalin died and our teacher, a nun neither well-educated nor worldly, told us what a wicked man he had been. She mentioned “brainwashing”, a new and dreadful word. I remember putting my hand up and asking, to general approbation: “Will Stalin go to hell?” I cannot now recall her reply to this – but Conquest, who said of Churchill that he “understood the Nazis better than Chamberlain because he had some knowledge of history and of evil”, would have been proud of our acumen.

For a writer so determinedly at odds with the unthinking prejudices of the liberal establishment, he betrays a few unwitting prejudices of his own, referring casually to the “Inquisition’s burnings” and describing the Albigensians as a “higher and tolerant civilisation… brought down by more fanatical invaders from the north”. It reminded me of the recent Aztec exhibition in London, depicting an advanced and exotic race (who unaccountably made a habit of human sacrifice), brought low by Spanish freebooters and missionaries.

In conclusion, Conquest warns that the future “teems with urgent problems” though he is optimistic that the “law and liberty cultures” – what he calls “the Anglosphere” – may flourish. “Let us hope”, he says, in a book that struck me as redolent of a muted pessimism. Given that the “Anglosphere” tradition includes the concept of habeas corpus, juries, the rule of law and that elusive sense of “fair play” (which he says has been a general feature of British imperialism, now so denigrated), Conquest is vague or silent as to their origins. Yes, they evolved over centuries – but how and why?

A short answer is given by Charles Francis QC in a recent paper delivered at a seminar of the Christian Legal Society of Victoria, NSW: “It is important to remember that in the Western world the roots of our individual rights and freedoms and the recognition of the rule of law had its origins in Christianity… It was in Christian countries that democracy first developed and the two are intimately linked. When Christianity withers, democracy tends to wither with it.” That Conquest, so sane and civilised a voice in many ways, takes no account of this is a large lacuna in an otherwise stimulating book.

As an afterthought I would advise readers to leave aside the epilogue. This is a poem; a series of 3-line stanzas called “Reconnaissance” in which the author, a published poet as well as a one-man think tank, grapples with man, cosmology and “the immensities of the universe”, referred to as “the All”. William Blake, tackling a similar theme, achieves it with the magnificent simplicity of “To see a world in a Grain of Sand”, but Conquest isn’t a second Blake. I would counsel him to stick to prose.

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.