From the standpoint of a traditional Conservative, Robert Blake looks at two converts

Robert Blake

  • 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.

The traditional Conservative must, however, welcome these new adherents. Their move is a symptom of the times. 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. Four years ago I ventured to write: ‘There are signs of one of those rare and profound changes in the intellectual climate which occur only once or twice in a hundred years, like the triumph of the entrepreneurial ethos in 19th-century England, or the rise of Voltairean scepticism in the 18th century, or the disappearance of Puritanism after 1660. There is a wind of change in Britain and much of the democratic world – and it comes from the Right not the Left.’ This still seems to me a reasonable judgment. All over the world the Left is bankrupt of ideas, whether in its ‘liberal’ or its social democratic or its communist guise. The Democratic party, America’s nearest equivalent to the Left, must, if it is to have a chance of winning the next election, adopt a ‘conservative’ line. Edward Kennedy is not being repudiated only because of his morals. The liberals of the eastern seaboard are in a defeated state of chaos and confusion. The socialist parties of Western Europe rely for their support on mindless trade-unionists or equally mindless anti-clericals, or, as in Germany, solve the problem by not being socialist at all. As for the countries east of the Iron Curtain, they have for many years ceased to have even a flicker of ideological magnetism in the world outside. But for fear of Russian arms, the non-Russian Eastern states would eject tomorrow the cliques of time-serving toadies who govern them.

The regime in Russia itself, once the Utopia of Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, not to mention the Philbys, Macleans, Burgesses and Blunts of the Cambridge intelligentsia, is regarded today with detestation by all except a few fellow-travelling left-wing hacks. What possible attraction can there be in the rule of a brutal and blighting bureaucracy whose inherent nature makes economic prosperity, political liberty and moral freedom alike impossible? Mr Conquest analyses brilliantly the contrast between the ‘civic’ society based on consensus and rights and the ‘despotic’ based on force and terror; and he examines with equal acumen that strange phenomenon, the intellectuals who, till quite recently, fell for the arch-despotism of our time. Modern Moscow could be described as Gladstone described Bourbon Naples: ‘the negation of God erected into a system of government’. But at least no Victorian intellectual became an aficionado of King Bomba.

The general collapse of the credibility of the Left in all its manifestations may seem to make much of what is said in these two books unnecessary. Are not the authors pushing at an open door? Is not much of what they say common knowledge or a sermon to the converted? This would be a superficial assessment. It is important that those who have vague, inchoate, instinctive ideas should, if those ideas are well-founded, be fortified by their clear and vigorous articulation. If, as I believe, the West has been criminally complacent about Russia, and if far too many people have, like President Carter, engaged in a ludicrous degree of wishful thinking about the intentions of the Kremlin, it can do nothing but good to publish the sort of analysis Conquest provides. It is a wholesome refutation of the liberal view that the development of industrial society involves in Russia, as in America, social and economic changes which are bound to lead to the emergence of a more open society and thus to a regime of a more peaceful nature. Mr Conquest is excellent on Professor J. K. Galbraith’s doctrine of ‘convergence’. The nature of technology, Galbraith argued, causes ‘a convergence in all industrial societies’. He was asked: ‘Are you suggesting that as the two societies converge, the Communist society will necessarily produce greater political and cultural freedom?’ He replied: ‘I am saying precisely that.’ This was in 1966, and the 14 years since then have shown precious little sign of it.

The truth is that there is no obvious prospect of liberalisation in Russia. The regime is basically Stalinist. Even the Khrushchev interlude was not ‘liberal’ in the sense that intellectual figures like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn might be thus described. The change was tactical. ‘We must,’ writes Mr Conquest, ‘distinguish between those who would wish the apparat to get off Russia’s back and those who merely think its rapport with the horse would be better if spur and whip were used less frequently.’ Stalin nearly flogged the wretched creature to death, but Khrushchev’s slackening of the reins was soon regarded as far too dangerous. Today the sullen animal plods on under a rider who uses the whip less often than Stalin did but who has no more intention than Stalin had of ever dismounting. If Russian society were a purely internal affair, the West could be content to pity the victims and do nothing. But it is not. Its nature affects Russian foreign policy and is a matter of vital concern outside. Mr Conquest argues that the system is so incompetent that if nothing is done Russia will gradually deteriorate into a second-class power. The ruling class has the alternatives, neither of them very plausible, of accepting relegation or changing the system. There is, however, a third possibility, which is the traditional device of an authoritarian regime anxious to distract attention from domestic problems: an expansionist foreign policy. If Russia really did dominate the world, the disruptive loadstone of Western freedom and prosperity would no longer exist, and the masses would have nothing to contrast with the dreary prison lives they lead.

Mr Conquest believes that a decision on these lines was taken in the 1960s, and that it explains the huge build-up in nuclear and naval arms, but he also believes that the Russian leaders are still unsure of themselves and that the policy has only gradually gathered momentum because of the absence of any credible opposition. No one can be sure about the motives of the Kremlin. The new Right may be over-dogmatic about the logic, consistency and hostility of Russian policy, just as the old Left (including some of the same people) was about its enlightenment, liberalism and benevolence. But it is also true that no one was absolutely sure of Hitler’s motives from 1933 to 1939, and who can now doubt that the policy of the Western powers would have been wiser if they had assumed the worst? Mr Conquest may be wrong, but nothing can be lost by assuming that he is right and by pursuing a policy of rapid rearmament and relentless hard-bargaining, never giving anything away except for a tangible quid pro quo. It would be the height of folly to assume that the Russian rulers do not mean what they say about non-Communist regimes, just as it was the height of folly not to believe that Hitler meant what he said in Mein Kampf. Perhaps the invasion of Afghanistan will have something of the same effect on soft-centred credulity as the occupation of Prague in 1939.

Mr Paul Johnson’s collection of articles is largely a sparkling attack on two different but, at the time of which he was writing, closely associated institutions – the state and the trade unions. There is no inherent connection between them, and what connection there was has vanished for the time being. The peculiar structure of the Labour Party put them together, and it was Mr Johnson’s disgust at the closed shop which finally brought him to repudiate that party and all its works. He was right. The concept is tyrannical and illiberal. It cannot be defended in a free society, and Britain is one of the few countries where it prevails. The influence of the trade unions is now almost wholly pernicious. Like the Russian apparat with which some of their leaders get on so well, they stifle freedom in the name of liberty, curb growth in the name of progress and create a sort of fossilised feudalism which their earnest forebears would have repudiated with indignation. Moreover – and this is also a common feature with the Russian apparat – many of their leaders would, as Mr Johnson puts it, ‘rather have power in a bankrupt nation than impotence in a prosperous one’. Mr Conquest says of Russia that ‘the ruling class prefers to retain its position in a comparatively inefficient system than be out of power in a more efficient one.’

I am not sure that Mr Johnson is quite so right about the state. That its frontiers should be rolled back and its functions diminished is now common ground all over the Western world. In Britain the Keynsian consensus is as dead as the dodo. In America, there is little enthusiasm for the Great Society, the New Frontier and the War on Poverty; and the numerous bodies with alphabetically abbreviated titles which doled out taxpayers’ money are seen less as engines of progress than as rest homes for well-heeled bureaucrats. With all these sentiments a traditional Conservative like myself can wholeheartedly agree. The sooner some of the more parasitic features of the modern state are eliminated, the better it will be for everyone – except for the parasites.

But it is possible, even for a neo-Conservative, to go too far on this course. Mr Johnson, who ‘once regarded the state as a means by which the less fortunate among us could be enabled to achieve the self-expression and moral fulfilment which is their right as creatures made in God’s image’, now writes: ‘Of all lessons the one which history most earnestly presses upon us and which we most persistently brush aside is “Beware the state!” ’ And he ends his paragraph: ‘the state is as greedy and unfeeling as it was when man invented it in the third millennium BC, with its cavernous mouth, its lungs of brass, its implacable appetite and unappeasable stomach, but with no heart, no brain and no soul.’ This is a characteristically splendid piece of rhetoric from the best journalist of our day, but I cannot regard it as being, even from a Conservative standpoint, a balanced judgment. Conservatives ought, in one sense of the expression, to be in favour of a ‘strong state’: that is to say, a state which can defend the country, keep law and order, crush terrorism, put the trade unions in their proper place and preserve the value of the currency. Lord Hailsham, a traditional Conservative, suggested in The Dilemma of Democracy (1978) that the public ‘wants stronger government but much less of it’. This seems to me profoundly true, and government can only be strong if it does less. Strength is what is needed to combat the external menace of Communism and the internal threat of trade-union anarchy. Patriotism and order – Conservative concepts if ever there were any – require more from the state than mere negativity. The neo-Conservatives have been right to focus on the abuses of étatisme, and they have won the intellectual battle on that front. The case for ‘limited government’ has been made and is overwhelming. What now requires thought is the proper role of the state within those limits. Even neo-Conservatives cannot do without it altogether. It was the medieval state that in the end crushed the feudal barons, and it was the Victorian/Edwardian state that kept the currency sound for three-quarters of a century.