From the standpoint of a traditional Conservative, Robert Blake looks at two converts
- We and They, Civic and Despotic Cultures by Robert Conquest
Temple Smith, 252 pp, £12.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 85117 184 2
- The Recovery of Freedom by Paul Johnson
Blackwell, 232 pp, £8.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 631 12562 0
In reviewing one of these books, I must ‘declare an interest’. Paul Johnson’s is a volume in the Mainstream Series of which I am an editor, although I have had no connection with this collection of essays other than strongly approving in principle that he should publish some of his most pungent and vigorous articles, which would otherwise have remained buried in journals and newspapers. Mr Conquest and Mr Johnson belonged in their day to the Left. Mr Johnson edited the New Statesman, and Mr Conquest has not always been a Conservative. Both have swung far away from their earlier beliefs, with something of the enthusiasm, fervour, vigour, conviction and single-mindedness of the convert. The traditional Conservative who never has and never could have voted for any other party must firmly suppress a slightly smug sense of having known the truth all along. Just as Anglican converts can be more Papal than the Pope, so too there is a danger that neo-Conservatives will be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, more Reaganite than Reagan.
Vol. 2 No. 18 · 18 September 1980
SIR: We accept that the South African government describes all opponents of apartheid as communists, and we are not surprised when Bolsheviks call others capitalists and fascists. But to find a Conservative in Great Britain, provost of an Oxford college, throwing all non-Conservatives into one bag as ‘Leftists’, and – by a thinly-veiled implication – as sympathisers with despotism, is rather unusual. The London Review of Books should not be misused in such a way. Lord Blake writes in his review of books by Robert Conquest and Paul Johnson (LRB, 21 August): ‘There is indeed an anti-collectivist current running in much of the Western world, and even where the old parties of the liberal Left are still in power they have had to make major concessions to it in order to survive.’ In whatever way we try to understand this assertion, it is definitely wrong. Neither the liberal parties nor the liberal wing of socialist parties have ever supported collectivism or regarded it as acceptable. They have no need to make any ‘concessions’ to any anti-collectivist fashion in politics. It may be that in America some collectivists have been calling themselves liberal leftists but it has never been so in Europe, and to call liberals leftists is only confusing the issues. In the case of my – that is, Latvian – Liberal party, we regard ourselves as ‘the Democratic Centre’, and any attempt to count us part of the Left would be taken as an insult.
Robert Blake writes further: ‘All over the world the Left is bankrupt of ideas, whether in its “liberal” or its social democratic or its communist guise.’ It may be so with socialists at the moment: they appear just now to be rather subdued and bewildered. But there is a profusion of ideas in the field of Communism – wrong and impractical. I think, but rich just the same. As for liberals, we have hardly anything else.
The true Left wants to use the state and its power for establishing equality. The liberals, on the other hand, would like it to develop an order, which would increase freedom in its different forms and aspects – for all, although not necessarily in equal measure for all. Liberals, perhaps, would not demand a ‘strong state’, as Conservatives seem to do, but we want an efficient state, able to increase order and able to defend it. Conservatives ate using the power of the state to secure unity – in time and space – for the community in question.
In one way or another, all political groups recognise some value in all of these ideals. Even Conservatives would at least admit the need for ‘equality before the Law’, as a basic condition of democracy. Communists, where they have gained power, soon sacrifice, not just the ideal of liberty, but even their demand for equality, by subordinating everything to the need for the survival of their regime, and to the need for a ‘unity of socialist states’: so in practice they are more ‘conservative’ than Conservatives.
I am tempted to add that if Conservatives have such a richness of great ideas as Lord Blake pretends, then they have been rather successful in hiding them from others, but I do not want to indulge in an exchange of insults. What I would like to do is to remind ‘rightists’ that, from the standpoint of liberalism, their attempts to strengthen the unity and power of the state sometimes appear to be very close to the collectivism of the extreme Left. Furthermore, it is certainly wrong to give the impression that Robert Conquest regards only Conservatives as able to create, or defend, a ‘civic culture’ and that all others are ‘leftists’ and tend towards despotism.
London SE 20