Upcoming and Recent Events
Past Events
Audio and Video
Buy Event Materials


Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook

Your participation will advance liberty. Join us as an Independent Institute member.

Contact Us
The Independent Institute
100 Swan Way
Oakland, CA 94621-1428

510-632-1366 Phone
510-568-6040 Fax
Send us email

Interested in working with us?  Click here for more information.

Freedom, Terror, and Falsehoods: Lessons from the Twentieth Century
January 19, 2000
G. Robert A. Conquest


Introductory Remarks by David Theroux

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening and welcome to our program. My name is David Theroux, of The Independent Institute. I’m delighted to have you all join with us this evening for the first program in our Independent Policy Forum for this new century. The Independent Policy Forum, as many of you may know, is a regular series of lectures, seminars, debates and panel discussions featuring top scholars and policy analysts, held here in the Independent Institute’s Conference Center in Oakland, California. As many of you know, the Institute regularly sponsors programs such as this, along with many other conference and media projects, and books and other publication programs.

Our program tonight is entitled “Freedom, Terror and Falsehoods: Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” Our speaker tonight is Dr. Robert Conquest, who will be speaking based on his wildly acclaimed new book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, which has been getting extremely good reviews. In fact, Bob was a little nervous that perhaps it’s getting too good reviews.

For those of you new to the Institute, there was information in the packets that you hopefully received when you registered. For those of you joining with us via C-SPAN, you may visit our Web site at www.independent.org for further information about our many books and programs, including our journal, The Independent Review. This is the fall issue, which has been sold out, as I understand, on newsstands. The new issue, that was just published, has special emphasis on Asia, which relates in part to the topics that will be addressed this evening. More specifically, the Independent Institute is a non-politicized, non-profit, academic public policy research organization, and we get involved in virtually any and all kinds of social and economic issues. The results, as I’ve mentioned, are published as books, and the Institute is supported by foundations, businesses, civic organizations and individuals. In your packets, you will also find a schedule of upcoming events. Our next event for the Independent Policy Forum will be held on February 2nd. The program will be discussing “Saving the Environment: Government: Friend or Foe?” The speakers will be Peter Huber, who is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Michael de Alessi, who is director of the Center for Private Conservation, as well as Thomas Graff from the Environmental Defense Fund, and Sally Fairfax from the University of California at Berkeley. The event after that will be held on February 15th, and the topic then will be the issue of “Global Warming: Scientific Fact or Fiction?” The speaker will be Dr. Fred Singer, who is president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project and author of our book, Hot Talk, Cold Science. He was also first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service.

For this evening, we are indeed privileged to have with us one of the great historians, authors, poets, and, quite frankly, literary masters of the twentieth century to reflect on the past 100 years. Many of us have seen discussions of the past century and the millennium in the media. As economic liberalization has expanded around the globe, freeing more and more people to choose their own paths and to work to improve their own lives and futures, this past century has experienced perhaps the most dramatic changes that we’ve seen in the history of mankind. Economic, social, and technological advances have made far more people than ever able to advance on an incredible scale. In fact, the scale is really going off the charts. But the century has also been the home of the greatest horrors and the greatest terrors of human history. It seems to me that it’s interesting that some people have apparently lost sight of this fact, that little more than just 10 years ago the Berlin Wall came down. Indeed the single greatest event of this century, perhaps, has been the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes.

The 20th Century has indeed witnessed government-sponsored carnage on an unprecedented scale. We may indeed recoil in learning of the shootings at schools around the country, but nothing compares with the deliberate and wholesale slaughter of millions and millions of people in countries around the world. In the course of such horrors, literally billions of people have further lived under the yoke of oppression and economic and social devastation of the total state in many parts of the world. Furthermore, this astounding story is not over, as we have witnessed in recent years, the incredible genocides in Africa, in Indonesia, and many other countries.

What made this era susceptible to genocide along the lines of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields,” and other atrocities? Could the answer lie in the rogue ideologies that have been so popular in certain intellectual circles, and not just in those countries, but also in the West? Ideologies that uphold the power of the state over the individual, and the institutions of civil society? How can we understand the rise of such ideologies, and how can we predict the 20th century will not have a return to such destruction?

For decades, many in the West refused to recognize the true nature of either what some have considered to be right- and left-wing collectivism in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. However, in the midst of this ignorance and intellectual fallacy, Robert Conquest worked through his painstaking research and his many seminal books, began exposing the realities of statism. In so doing, Robert Conquest’s lonely pursuit of truth have proven that the power of ideas can indeed triumph over tyranny.

Robert Conquest was born in Malvern, England on July 15, 1917. He was educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Oxford University where he received his MA and Doctor of Letters. During World War II, Conquest served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was under Soviet command against the Nazis in the Balkans in 1944. After the war, he joined the British Foreign Service, and received postings in Bulgaria and New York, the latter as part of the British delegation to the United Nations.

Since 1956, Dr. Conquest has pursued a largely academic career. Congruent with the publication of books, such as The Great Terror, Stalin: Breaker of Nations and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, he held positions in the London School of Economics, Columbia University, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He now resides in California where he is a senior research fellow and scholar-curator at the Hoover Institution and deals with the Russian/CIS collection. In addition to his achievements as an historian, Dr. Conquest is also a respected poet and writer. He’s been the literary editor of the Spectator magazine, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the British Interplanetary Society. Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, selected him to translate his book-length poem, Prussian Nights. We’re very privileged to have him as a member of the editorial board of advisors for our journal, The Independent Review. So I’m very please to introduce, Dr. Robert Conquest.

Robert Conquest

Well, that was very kindly put. Unfortunately you gave about half my speech already, but that’s all right, there’s always more to say on these subjects. The last time I spoke at The Independent Institute, you very kindly gave me an award, and I didn’t have to speak much, because they had several people speaking for me. And they included both conservatives and others, and Czeslav Milos came down, and he said, “I don’t usually come to ‘conservative’ institutions. I just come because I agree with Robert Conquest on so much.” And, as with yourself, David, I’m not even sure I’m conservative myself, to tell you the truth. But I think what does arise is that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t call themselves conservatives, who nevertheless agree on a great deal of what I shall be saying, and a great deal of what I’ve been writing about the Soviet Union and elsewhere. One of them expressed it to me roughly as follows. “With all our disagreements, we form a united front against nonsense,” and I think that’s true.

As David Theroux said, the horrors of our time have been very remarkable. The Soviet writer Vassily Grossman had some of the essentials when he wrote that “the extreme violence of the totalitarian systems proved able to crush the human spirit throughout whole continents. It wasn’t merely killing people, it was crushing their independent thought. And that, of course, is not simply lying, it is forcing you to believe and assert what you don’t believe. Not just lying to you, but forcing the lie deep into your soul. And that, I think, was one of the main points of the ideologies.

Now, I’m supposed to be, in a sense, talking about this century. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Los Angeles Times. They had a piece where people gave their opinions of the most neglected book of the century. And I put in, perhaps a bit strangely, Norman Cohn’s, The Pursuit of the Millennium, which is about the millenarian sects in Germany and elsewhere the late 15th century and early 16th century, but he makes it perfectly clear, that he’s talking also about Chinese and Russian Communists. Because the first thing to ask about the totalitarian ideas, these destructive ideas which have wreaked massive horror on our century, is: how did they spread? Who accepted them? And he describes the stratum that did accept them. Back in those days, it was a rather low-grade intelligentsia. People who had somehow got a priestly education without becoming priests, odd dropouts from the gentry’s younger sons and, among the poor, not the poor as such, but people who didn’t fit in any particular category of poverty or anything else. And he makes the point that this was just the sort of “intelligentsia,” as it were, which behind what happened in China and Russia and elsewhere, fanatical about the idea, the capital-I idea.

And the capital-I idea then and now had the same basic notions: first that heaven can be constructed on earth. Secondly, that you merge your identify with the movement, with the party or the sect, or whatever it happened to be. And thirdly, that you want it all at once. It is Kirkegaard who says somewhere that the two great mental faults are laziness and impatience. And I think these are the two things which mark, not the actual ideology, but the type of mind which is going to take on an ideology. Laziness, means being unable to bother to cope with the complications of reality—trying to get it all done in one smart fix; and impatience means, you want to have it now. I think this is extremely important to try and get some feel, in this sense, for the sort of people who took on these ideologies. Now, ideologies, you may say, are dead. But this mindset is not dead. It still exists around the world.

After making these rather saddening remarks, we can nevertheless ask ourselves: how did we manage to avoid all that? They didn’t come to power in the West. And what is more, the Western society proved, in the long run, both stronger and more effective, and in a general sense, more adjusted to the future than these alleged super-futurologists. I think we ought to look at Western society from the point of view that it doesn’t seek perfection. It’s evolved for over a thousand years—in the English case, at least, from tribal times, with a certain balance between various parts of society, with overpowering centralists never getting acceptance, except for very short periods, not enough to destroy general feelings, the culture never accepting that the executive can do what it likes, or that compromises mustn’t be reached, and not always looking forward to a distant future. If we can cope with our present problems, that’s pretty good. You can’t see very far into the future. You can see dim shapes a few years into the future. You can see dangers which must be coped with now. But neither the absolutist concept nor the Utopian dream had any but slight and temporary effect on real politics in Britain. That is what is meant, I think, by the Open Society in its historical roots.

Now in later years, the world over, what approaches challenged this on a big scale, and to some extent penetrated the Western mind? First, and it’s still a most powerful trend: Marxism. You may say that Marxism is dead. In a sense, intellectually, it is dead. I did remember writing a piece some years ago, saying it’s now only found in its pure form, like a spotted owl, in a few enclaves in California. But nevertheless, its principles exist still: the principle of “perfectionism” and the principle of an enemy who must be destroyed before you get the perfect society, which was the other great center of all ideology.

How did this all start? My way of looking at it is that you go back to John Locke theorizing about the free, open society. But he’s theorizing in the context of a public which knows what he’s talking about and takes for granted the semi-democratic traditions of a liberty-and-law society, which was already in existence. But when he was transferred to France, the French didn’t know about that. They thought the theory was all you needed. What was taken for granted in England was simply omitted in France, and you got the beginnings, the first roots, of both Marxism and Nazism. On the one hand, you have got the idea that Reason will triumph, that Reason can tell us everything. There were people like Condorcet, a mathematician, who thought that you could probably in the long-run predict society by theory, by mathematics, which I fear is a heresy still around these days in a different form. So they produced the notion of the Rational, the triumph of Reason, a totally rational society. Chesterton once said a lunatic is a man who has lost everything except his reason. And this is what you got in France. They came to power thinking that first of all they represented the Truth, Reason, so everybody else was going against the light became an enemy of the people—this was an invention of the French Revolution, the idea of “the enemy of the people.” And of course, this failed; and, as a French writer put it, the excesses of the Revolution were nothing but the tantrums of the disappointed child. That’s one way of looking at it. But anyway, in France they declared both for the People, and for the Nation, One and Indivisible.

And so, from them you get Marx, who took the People idea, rather than the Nation idea, and he provided, of course, the extra ingredient “Science.” I think it’s difficult to remember now, or to think now, how extraordinary were the 1840s and ’50s. There was a huge industrial expansion. There were railways, there was science, there was biology, there was physics. There was an enormous boom in knowledge and power, especially economic power, and it did look as though, somehow, the future was in that. And I think if you look back on Marx now, it’s extraordinary how what you might call “temporally parochial” he is. He saw the industrial working class, he saw the steaming factories, and he thought: This is the future; the working class is a special grade, unlike anybody else before, who will be the future, who will take over—(and destroy the wicked, the capitalists, of course). And he looked forward to a vast array of heavy industrialization. As I put it in the book, in one sense the victory of the West in the Cold War was the victory of Silicon Valley over Magnitogorsk. Because the Russians went on investing in steel and coal. What I find about Marxism is that it’s got a musty taste, a musty smell about it.

Well, I don’t want to simply develop an analysis of Marxism, although I have a chapter on its various faults. Its predictions all failed. And it’s rather odd that: Marx was an alleged great philosopher, great historian, great economist, but practically no philosophers or historians or economists have followed him. There are some, but not very many; real professionals don’t.

But we should trace (before going on to the real excesses of Marxism) the National side, which also derived from the French Revolution. The original nationalist movements in Europe, were usually of a Jacobin type—revolutionary in the old sense. But there again, the Scottish and the English, and the Swiss and so on, had an advantage, I think, over the French and even more over some of the other countries in Europe. The nation evolved in (for example) England. It wasn’t created from above by the state or by agitators saying, “Hey, you’re an Englishman.” But in other countries, for instance in Eastern Europe, the nationalities were, to a great extent, the creation of the state and the intellectuals. The “nation” didn’t have the settled-down-ness which would have given it keel as well as sails.

A crucial moment came, of course, when Mussolini, who had been a left-wing Marxist, decided that the people must merge themselves, not with the “masses,” but with the “nation.” He switched. Fascism and later on National Socialism, derived from that switch, the identification, again, with a huge, non-personal phenomenon, and a great social or ideological group, but a different mode. And it’s very striking, incidentally, how many Communists became Fascists in the ’30s and vice versa. Hitler always said you could turn a Communist into a Nazi; he couldn’t turn a Social Democrat into a Nazi. The wish to get absorbed in an ideology was there, and it just changed focus.

Well, we at least lost Nazism some years ago, and it was not quite that great international bane that Communism has been. But one ought to say that nowadays there are many countries in the world where there is something like a National Socialist regime, that there is a ruler and a ruling party who are ruling “from the people’s point of view, to put down the bad rich and the wicked foreigner.” There’s a dozen countries in the world that this obviously applies to. So, though National Socialism as a dogma has gone, practical National Socialism still exists—though not of the same type, naturally.

When we turn to Leninism, we ask why was Russia its focus? Well, first of all, there’s a country which had no political experience at all. They had none of the political reality of what went on in the West, and so they developed the intelligentsia, which remember, is a Russian world, imported, unfortunately, into this country, not only the word, but the thing, I fear, to some extent—and not only to this country. They were a stratum without no experience whatever of real politics, of society, of community. I’ve always thought the anarchist Bakunin back in the 1870s got the Marxists right in a way, when he said what they want is a pedantocracy. What he meant was they wanted rule by a group of intellectuals consisting of them, although they wouldn’t call it the rule of intellectuals. They had their ideas, but above all they had the notion they wanted to rule. And this applies in a number of countries today. There are many countries where they have twice as many lawyers as can get jobs, so what are they going to do? Throw off the regime, take on an ideology, and then you’ll be the Minister of Justice in the next government. I mean, one doesn’t want to dismiss these irrational or hidden motives.

So in Russia then, we come onto the real center of our problem, the question of falsifications, which I think in the intro, you called it lies do you—

David Theroux


Robert Conquest

There were two methods, of course. One is to say, “I’m very sorry,” and resign. The other one was to say, “Well, we succeeded.” And that is what they choose to do. In the individual cases, there were similarly two ways of doing it. When an industry failed, you either shot the Commissar of Transport, or Industry or whatever because they’d failed. Or you say nothing had failed.

In general you then had two Soviet Unions. There was the real one, which nobody was allowed to refer to at all, and an entirely fantasy one, which had terrific successes, both economically and spiritually, and everything else. In the one which actually existed, everyone was in a terrorised state. Lies were being spread and nothing could be done about it, and nothing could be said against it, not a word.

In the middle of the Terror Famine in 1933, if you said there was a famine, you were arrested. If you said it was the government’s fault, you were shot. That solved the famine, apart from the 10 million-odd who died. But this applied throughout the Soviet period. They maintained that they had correctly put into practice Marxist views. And so they had. They had done what Lenin and Marx—Lenin’s Marxism—had foreseen. And they’d also maintained the other part of that view that everybody who didn’t accept their opinions, both foreign and home, were enemies. They maintained a state of permanent total enmity to the whole rest of the world, including Communist regimes which didn’t agree with them, which they counted as fascist, as with Yugoslavia.

It’s almost unbelievable, the amount of extreme falsehood that was imposed upon the population. The census figures were faked by several million, and of course there were the fake trials. And the expression of individual opinion could easily get you into trouble, and many writers were shot, or otherwise crushed. Then as Anna Akhmatova, the poet, said, nobody could understand Russia who hadn’t listened all the time to the Soviet radio blasting from every lamppost. It was hammered in, and even people like Sahkarov felt that they’d been beaten about the head . It took even them years to come out from under Stalinism, and of course, in the whole terror, which we have not even hardly talked about, the millions who were shot or died in camps, were tried and tortured to produce false confessions. There was not only a false, wonderful Soviet Union, there was also a myth of horrible internal enemies. It was all a total and vicious fantasy right from the start.

Well, bad enough, you may say. But then we come around to what happened to the lies when they reached the West, and this is a tale of horror for all of us, when you think of what was said or written in the 1930s by Westerners, who weren’t under any compulsion to do so, about the Soviet Union. They believed almost anything. They believed the truth of the faked great public trials of the ’30s. They believed in some cases that collectivization had been a success. They even believed there wasn’t a famine. Remember, these were partly reporters like Walter Duranty who sent the New York Times his accounts of how the peasants were flourishing (although he told other people he estimated about 10 million dead) and they were printed in the West. There were two stories available in the West; one that there was a famine, and one that there wasn’t. And many in the West just accepted the first story without checking.

I’m tempted to go on forever on that one, but I can’t stop without mentioning Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the heads of Western social science, the founders of the London School of Economics, he a former Labour Minister. They wrote this huge book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?—with a question mark in the first edition that they took out in 1937, the worst year. It entirely presents the official story. “They have elections and trade unions.” Well, they had “elections” and “trade unions” on paper, but that was good enough for the Webbs. And the Webbs were not unique. There were quite a few other people who did the same. People like H.G. Wells met Stalin and was so charmed by him he said, this guy wasn’t a dictator, he was just loved by the people—without Wells checking at all.

This died out a bit, well, a lot, when the Nazi-Soviet pact came in in 1939, but it revived later. Even in the ’80s, there were academics in the West who were more or less in denial of what had happened under Stalinism. The academics who came up during the war didn’t—they’d seen what had happened; they’d probably been in the army or in political affairs somewhere and had firsthand experience. And then you got a new lot who never left their corner of the university, and I can understand why they couldn’t believe the truth. It’s difficult to believe what happened under Stalin; but still, if they didn’t know, they shouldn’t have spoken, and there are books still coming out which are highly deplorable. (And when you say that I haven’t had any bad reviews yet, I’m looking forward to a bit of a fight, to tell you the truth, I’d be happy with something more hostile). Well, at any rate, much of the effect of Communism is still with us.

Now it’s also been said, to change the theme slightly, that the intelligentsia, in the sense we’ve been speaking of, has emerged to some extent in the West, and that they maintain what you might call a certain similarity. They tend to accept certain matters without checking on them, and also to accept quick theories on the part of how the state can manage everything. And, once more, there is the idea that we are in possession of enough understanding of the human condition to mould according to formula. May I quote a couplet from another recent book of mine, a collection of poetry called Demons Don’t:

Age that thinks it knows, what’s known to none
Just how societies and psyches run

Of course, the state must have certain powers, and the free market needs the state to have certain powers. There’s always a borderline fighting area where statists strive to advance. As I think Robert Michel says, its failures, in a state project, doesn’t affect bureaucracy. They have another shot and recruit more people. And bureaucracy also, to some extent has, I think to have justification in the same sense as the Soviet bureaucracy had justification, not quite ideological, but an idea-type justification to give it drive. The idea of simply having good administration, all we used to need from a bureaucracy in the old days, nowadays isn’t good enough. You’ve got to be cutting edge, and going across frontiers and such.

And that, of course, applies in particular to the federal Europe idea, because there you have an idea which sounds fine—a big idea, capital-I idea, gives them justification. We are going forward into the highlands of whatever it is, and what happens? You get, as you did in Russia, huge corruption, with millions of dollars disappearing in Brussels. You get an incredible interference in minor matters. The British are told how their beer should be brewed, what strawberries they should have, that sort of thing. In fact, in some respects, the European countries have less liberty in these matters than the American states do. This monster has developed on a false basis, because there are several objections to Europe: one of them is, as I say, super-bureaucratization, but the basic one is that Europe is not a potential nation. It has none of the qualifications which go to make a nation, or indeed even a group of nations. It doesn’t have any ethnic or legal or historical background to cope with it. And all these unified states like Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union, have proved non-starters, and I’m sure that Europe, in the end, is going to give trouble. But more importantly, it’s divisive of the West, and is implicitly, and often explicitly, anti-American.

Now, I think this is of major importance from the point of view of coping with the world as it is today, because if we look at the world today, we cannot say we’re out of danger. In my view, progress to a peaceful world is dependent on the eventual—victory isn’t the word I’m after—prevailing of the American, British, and so on, culture the world over. But that isn’t going to be a short business. This is one of the things that affects (for example) modern Russia. There’s a very good book on the difference between the provinces of Italy, Making Democracy Work by Robert Putnam. They had different historical experiences, and they still have different attitudes to the state and to personal cooperation and so on, and of course in Russia this is far more so, to take Russia alone. It’ll take a long time. We think very often, particularly in spheres like political science, in terms of democracy and institutions promoting Open Societies. But it’s not just democracy and institutions, it’s habits of mind. It’s custom; and these things take a long time. It can be done and will be done, no doubt, but it’ll take some time, and meanwhile we are faced with great dangers.

Now how do we cope with those dangers? Well, I’m trying to stop myself from saying too much about education. But we do need to understand our own and the outside world in a way that I don’t feel that the academic world here, the academic order here, has fully grasped, and the political order has also not fully grasped, and has indeed been mis-educated. And as Jefferson said, history should be the center of one’s studies of the world, because at least you can see what happened when certain things were done. I’ve found that this route is not followed, and if it is, the history is often distorted.

And then, of course, the notion that all progress is a matter entirely of conflict between various groups is not conducive to the flourishing of the Western community. Nor is the combination, I would say, of state and big capitalism into corporatism, which of course was objected to by James Burnham. It’s not so much the forms as the actual eroding of the consensual state which is in question here. But when it comes to foreign affairs, we find ourselves, as I say, in the long term trying to prevail, and a lot of danger meanwhile.

The first thing, I think, should be obvious—it doesn’t seem to be obvious to everybody—is that the Western advantage in technology, and particularly in this case, in arms technology, should be maintained, and unmistakably maintained. That is to say that any technological advances should be developed and made available to the Western governments. It’s not much good making your advances if you don’t translate them into weaponry, because the next guy will make them. And so, my view of the West is that it should have weapon systems unmistakably capable of preventing attacks from anybody. And it also should follow that our policies, should be clear and unmistakable. I don’t see that’s happening now, though there’re certain trends in that direction. It also carries with it the notion that we are not yet in a truly international balance; that we cannot trust everybody in the world to do the right thing. We can sign treaties but, the signature of useless treaties is one of the most misleading matters before us. If America signs a treaty, it keeps it. I mean, the Soviet Union had treaties of non-aggression with all its neighbors and aggressed against practically all of them at various times. We’re inclined to sign a treaty and think it sounds good, but the other people aren’t going to obey it, and they wouldn’t dream of keeping a treaty. And there is an agitation, from feel-good Europeans more than Americans, I would say, who argue that the Americans are being wicked, they’re defending themselves. You remember the famous remark,

Cet animal est très méchant
Quand on l’attaque il se défend

So the world we’re in is not yet safe either physically or mentally, and we can do something about improving its physical safety, and we do a great deal about improving its mental safety, which I’ve tried to do to some extent in this book.

David Theroux

So we’d like to open it up for questions from the audience. Please raise your hand and wait for Carl, who’ll be bringing the microphone. Any questions for Dr. Conquest? I guess we have right up here on the right.


So if you normalize the situation in the 20th century for the population increase, it seems that the world is probably safer for the individual now than it was in 15th century Scotland or the time of the Roman Empire, I would think. Do you want to comment on that?

Robert Conquest

I don’t have the figures, but there were periods then, the Black Death was as much trouble than any of the genocides here of course, on the health side, but there were ups and downs then. We too have had ups and downs. The first part of the century was far better than the second part, the second 50 years. Well, health, yes, sure. But it’s not so much good being healthier, being 90 years old, if you’ve got an atom bomb dropped on you. Health is extremely important, and again, it does come into foreign policy, vis-à-vis Africa, for example. This raises a lot of issues, which I don’t really deal with.


I read The Great Terror many years ago, probably when it first came out, or very close to when it first came out. And I’m wondering what you have learned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a lot of the archives have opened. What new things have you learned since then that you can add into The Great Terror!

Robert Conquest

Well, I did a second edition about 10 years ago, and there’s quite a lot of new material. We know a lot more about the inner workings of the secret police and who they were. There‘s a great deal of detail. I don’t know if there’s anything really essential, but I do mean to do another edition, a definitive edition. We’ve got enough to be definitive.


Have the scales changed at all in terms of the number of people that were killed, the number of people that were incarcerated?

Robert Conquest

There’s still argument about that. Some figures have gone up, and others have gone down. I mean, we certainly overestimated certain types of figures. My figure, for example, for the number of executions under Stalin is about right: now I would increase it slightly, whereas there are probably fewer in some of the other categories. But that’s a very difficult one to get right. There was a demonstration in Washington. One side says there are 100,000, another says there are 200,000. These are very difficult things to get correct. When I wrote, the census of that year had been suppressed, the census takers had been arrested, shot in fact, for lowering the figures of the population. So Moscow suppressed that census, and took another one in 1939, and we know now that this 1939 census has at least three million people on paper, non-existent—(and probably more, actually). And so that sort of thing is input, new input.


You mentioned the eroding of the consensual state through big corporatism. I wonder if you could expand somewhat on those thoughts.

Robert Conquest

Well, this is not more than a general feel. But I get the impression that if we take an example. We can take an example of a country that is now producing a mixture of state and semi-free enterprise, China. America and Britain aren’t quite going that way. But there’s an enormous amount of intervention by the state, and the acceptance of intervention by big companies, even here. To take a sort of minor example, it discourages smaller companies if the big company accepts a foolish charge of some sort, and pays a million dollar fine, which they do. Remember that curious thing with Texaco, where a director was accused of having made a racist remark, which he had not really made it turned out, and they just paid up. A big company can afford to bribe the liberals, to put it in a coarse fashion. That’s only a minor side of it. I don’t think that here it’s anything like as powerful as it would be, say in Japan, or to some extent in France, of course. In France, they now talk about “pink fascism.” What they mean is that the deputies, quite a few of the deputies, are still bureaucrats. They’re allowed to keep their jobs. And the state overlaps very much with the trade unions and with the big corporations, because only the big corporation can afford to exist and be, in effect, I won’t use the word bribed, but let’s say fixed a bit, when the unions are demanding more than the country can really afford. There are several ways one can go on about that, but it’s worth looking at. I expect you’ll do it.


You mentioned the importance of the American/United Kingdom model for humankind and the future and also the consensual society as a model. What do you see in your years of observation of the United Kingdom and America as far as the trends in moving forward in the right ways to bring about this model throughout this world?

Robert Conquest

Well, I think it’s fair to say they’re not going backwards at least, and there is encouragement in various ways. I have a chapter on imperialism and anti-imperialism. If the world is now a single world, it is due to Western expansion and now retraction—principled retraction—while a new political class emerged in the colonial countries. But this varied very much from empire to empire, and then from country to country. But even in the former colonial countries, they still talk in Western terms, even when they’re doing the bad stuff. (They took Marxism from the West). There is a sort of level at which most countries’ politics are Westernized. Not everywhere, but in a very large part of the world. And of course, English is the international language, and this will be increasingly so with new communications and so on. There’s a book coming out by a guy on an English and Anglo-American approach on this matter of communications and the monetary side, and he uses the word “Anglosphere.”


In our present time, the revolution that is taking place in communications through the coming of the Internet, I would assume, would be a great barrier for totalitarian governments. They have always relied upon the control of communications in order to foster an acceptance of their policies and of their authority. How can they do that in a nation where there are millions of Internet users? It would seem to me that this might be an impossible task for a totalitarian government to achieve and that the free communication of ideas which destroys them; they will not be possible to hold that back. I hope I’m right, am I?

Robert Conquest

I think you’re right up to a point, because this was true, even in Russia during the crisis of 1991, when fax machines all over Russia produced posters to go on the lampposts, which 50 years earlier, would have been impossible, but on the other hand, there are regimes which seem to manage. Iraq. I don’t know how you get your message into Iraq. I mean, it’s more difficult for them, but they still have certain powers to resist the outside. It’s hard to say. Let us say, there’s still a struggle afoot.


Yes, in the 18th and 19th centuries we saw the demise of Christianity, the rise of Darwinism and so on, and the rise of humanism and relativism. What are your thoughts on that? Maybe Communism’s gone, but incipiently you have multi-culturalism and so on in the United States, and you have the rise of egalitarianism and group rights. If you can’t base it on an objective truth, does not that in a way threaten freedom? What do you have to say about that?

Robert Conquest

Well, assault on objective truth, of course, is one of the educational errors which we see a lot of now. The Derridaism and so on, is of course, a lot of nonsense and all these things of that type. A French historian, an old friend of mine, was at a conference with me. They were talking about the bad effects on European culture of Hollywood films. The French in particular were objecting, and he got up and said, “A hundred soft porn Hollywood films do less damage in France than one French philosopher has done in America.” I don’t think one can answer all the questions about the nature of religion and science and philosophy and so on, and I haven’t really tried to answer those. Faith is one thing and religious organization is another, and some nations are less religious than others, without being worse than others, and with others you can’t tell.


It seems to me that a federal Europe kind of copycats the United States system of federalism in two major ways. First, the centralization of political power, and, second, the redistribution of wealth from more wealthy states to less wealthy states. I remember when I was in the Irish countryside several years back, you would drive along the freeway and see all these signs talking about the structural funds. This highway brought to you by the EC Structural Fund for this or that, or what have you. And what do you think is the future of the British pound?

Robert Conquest

The Irish are doing fine. They’ve boomed. It’s one of the few countries in Europe that’s really boomed, and in part because they quite sensibly took advantage of European funds. But of course these funds came from countries that did not particularly want to have given them. But the pound? Well, the betting is the government and the political class in England are so vague and wimpish about Europe that they will try to drift into the euro...But there are two very interesting polls. One of them shows that the English are about 60 percent against the euro. The other one was even more interesting. It was in The Economist about three weeks ago, and it asked—in a crisis, what ally would you rely on? It came out some 60 percent America, some 16 percent Europe, and that’s when you get down to the real rock bottom is what the feeling is in Britain. I think that the whole European thing—it started off, as you know, to stop the French fighting the Germans. Well, they should manage that on their own. We don’t fight the Scottish. Or the French. Basically, the other thing about Europe economically is that they cannot carry out their supposed policies, Germany and France in particular are stuck with inadequately free market arrangements—this is not so true of England. It went through the Thatcher revolution, which did destroy the total power of the unions and the welfare state. Germany cannot afford its welfare state, and it can’t get rid of it, because it can’t win an election if it does. That at least is gone in England.


Mr. Theroux mentioned at the beginning that the main gist of the talk was going to be what caused the ravages of the century. It’s always been the thought of mine that mere affluence creates these problems, and that all the other things can sort of come from the fact that we have come in the last thousand years, into making a lot of money. Money tends to be concentrated in a specific area, and that people of a certain ilk tend to be drawn to where there are large amounts of money to be controlled. What is your opinion of that particular idea?

Robert Conquest

Well, looking from the Soviet point of view, they weren’t getting any real money, except from oil. They had a country that was very poor, and they made it twice as poor. It may be that they probably wanted the money of the West, but they weren’t prepared to go through with it, to make any changes which could make them prosperous. They did everything they could to ruin their economy, which wasn’t rich to start with. Andrei Sakharov says that they wanted a rich state with a poor population. They didn’t even have the rich state. I think a certain sort of money culture does encourage people to think over their priorities. But look at academe. Academe, remember, is not part of capitalism. It lives on capitalism, it’s parasitical on capitalism. They’re paid large sums, but they’re allowed to denounce capitalism and say, “One thing I can’t stand is all this capitalist stuff,” and capitalism is supporting a huge group of such people. I was reading about a professor and his wife who now both get between about $300,000, and he writes books not only praising Stalin and Mao, but actually saying they succeeded. And he hates capitalism.


It’s pretty much conceded that this last century, with the slaughter of innocent men, women and children, was just unprecedented. Rome and Johnson talk about 170 million people. What is, in your opinion, the main reason why that took place in this last century?

Robert Conquest

My theme really is that all the major slaughters were carried out by people who had accepted certain ideas, accepting the rule of totalitarians, identifying themselves with the totalitarian party, and putting these ideas into practice. Hitler and Stalin, they did what they planned to do, what they were happy to do. It was not an accident. There are academics in Germany who would try to “institutionalize” Nazism, and saying, “Well, it was just a matter of institutions.” It wasn’t a matter of institutions, it was the matter of human motives and actions. Institutions were there, but they only used them. I put the major blame on the people who accepted these maniac ideas, and that’s been basically the main context of my book. I go into some detail.


I’m asking for clarification. My interpretation of the statements you made about the importance of British and American approach. I’m interpreting that you’re meaning the American and British historical experience with classical liberalism, but perhaps you mean more than that, or perhaps you mean something different. I’m assuming that you don’t mean either the experience of George Bernard Shaw or Neville Chamberlain as being part of that tradition, but does the English language play a big role in what you’re thinking of, and do descendants from either America or Britain? I’m thinking for example, of the Koreans and the Korean experience. Is that part of what you would see as the positive future?

Robert Conquest

When I say British and American, I’m not meaning anything racial, I simply mean the tradition, particularly the common law, and not so much democracy as liberty, political liberties, which are found in England, Australia, America, and so on, but also in the Caribbean countries and the Pacific Island countries. They have the same thing. There was a very good interesting speech at the recent legal conference here. After the Chinese took over Hong Kong, a Hong Kong lawyer at this American conference said, “We want to keep the common law, because we still can refer to cases that took place in Wales in 1790. We can talk about what happened in New Zealand last year.” He wanted the common law as sort of a general unification thing. You could also argue, of course, and I think, it should be argued, not that I do it really well, is that there is a falling off from the common law culture in both England and America and elsewhere in favor of too much continental style legislation.


So the Marxists said, “Give us power and we’ll make everybody equal,” and all the intellectuals in the world bought it, and then the Fascists said, “Good enough; give us power and we’ll make Italy greater, Germany greater.” Some high percent of the intellectuals bought it, and now all the intellectuals have bought another big idea, that we’re going to save the earth, give us power. And do you want to comment on that? Is it going to do as much damage as the fascists?

Robert Conquest

There’s nothing ethically wrong in a Marxist who says, “I would like a society where everybody is happy.” It wasn’t the ethical basis of Marxism that was wrong. You could say that even the Nazis, as the great Jewish writer Vasily Grossman says, even the Nazis thought they were acting in the name of good. They thought it was good for the world to have the Germans running it, and good for the world to have the Jews killed. So their motives can be called, according to him, good. I don’t think motives are quite the point. I have a piece on “-ism” in general, which I call ismology, in the book. And, at a different level of course, you have environmentalism and feminism and various things of that sort, which may contain good points but which were taken to extremes. This raises a question rather similar to the one about corporatism. I was quite astonished at the attempt to feminize the infantry, because then they can’t march as fast, or as far, or carry out other physical tasks. The same applies to the fire brigades. And then when they tried to put women into men’s barracks, which is a different point, Cohen, the Secretary of Defense, opposed it. But his generals accepted it. They’d been so buffaloed and bullied by activists,. They were just like these Texaco people, they wanted to give in. They felt they wouldn’t get promoted if they didn’t. Even the present government’s Secretary of Defense was against it. This is a horrible thought. Sorry, I could go forever on that one.


One of the sections in your book deals with education. And I don’t know if you spend much time thinking about younger people, but could you, off the top of your head, throw out some books that you would like to see high school age students in Britain and the United States reading? I’m thinking of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and maybe Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Things that you think students in high school should be reading.

Robert Conquest

A very good idea, though Darkness at Noon itself doesn’t force its point home. A French student once wrote to Koestler saying, “Your book converted me to Communism.” But still, I think the first thing is to stop them reading nonsense, because there’s such a lot of nonsense taught. Maybe not from books! I don’t know if it’s done by sign language or something, but if they just could learn a certain amount of tolerable history. Even certain types of Marxist history would be better than no history, which is what they get. Mind you, they get also sub- and pseudo-Marxist histories, which are worse than Marxism, but I don’t know what kids read. We were forced to read. I suppose at 12 I read the whole Dickens. I can’t say I’ve read him much since. You know that feeling?


Well, books that would illustrate the theme in your books, the slaughter of the 20th century. How you could interest younger readers. I know that’s not your main audience, but people that work in high schools, and who have read your books, want to know how they can interest young people, who often are not interested in what they should be.

Robert Conquest

I think it’s very difficult in general to interest them. When I was young, to get me to look at something that I didn’t want to was really hard going. You had to force it. I won’t go on, but I remember the worst book I was forced to read, when I was doing Greek, when I was about 16, Attic Orators—legal speeches in Ancient Athens. The most boring speeches I have ever read in my entire life. (laughter) They make our lawyers here look good. Sorry, I shouldn’t take up your time.

David Theroux

One more question.


Do you place Fidel Castro in the same class as Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin, and do you have any explanation of why Mr. Castro has been able to survive all these years?

Robert Conquest

Well, I place him in the same category. And he has managed to ruin his country pretty well. I don’t know how you account for his survival. It’s a strange phenomenon, and what is more, you’d have thought he would have laid off, and cooled it down, and he hasn’t really. It’s a very extraordinary phenomenon. I knew an Englishman, who was an ambassador in Cuba for a bit, who thought of Castro as quite a genial rogue, (though he thought Che Guevera was a cold-blooded hypocrite). Nowadays everybody there knows it can’t last forever. They think, organizing is very difficult. We were speaking about such things as communications. It‘s very difficult to organize, if the regime isn’t on the point of collapse. But for all I know, it will collapse tomorrow. The Sandinistas thought they were in forever, and they made the mistake of having this public election. A point I mention in my book—I will try to end on this. A friend of mine was in Managua when they had the election in which the Sandinistas lost, and he said that in the hotel he was staying at, several Western European left-wingers burst into tears. So let’s hope for something in Havana.

David Theroux

Thank you, Bob. It‘s a real pleasure to have Bob Conquest speaking here. For those of you who have not read his books, I certainly hope that you will do so. Incidentally, for those of you who were having difficulty getting a copy earlier, we do have some additional copies now, and I know that Bob would be delighted to autograph copies if you would like to get a copy. This is a real treat, I believe. One thing that I might add to what has been discussed is that The Independent Institute is an organization that is really not interested in politics. It really is inspired by the kind of scholars like Bob Conquest who spent most of their life dedicated to pursuing truth, regardless of left and right, or the prejudice of the moment, or the biases, or even the claims that are made from officialdom. We don’t think truth has a political position, but we do think that science and scholarship is an essential way to get to the truth, and the kind of things that we continue to see in the world today, the kind of xenophobia, the kind of nation statism that you find in too many places, is only able to endure when people simply do not have the facts. So I want to thank everyone for joining with us. Again, if you’d like to get a copy of Bob’s book, there are copies upstairs, and we hope you will join us again at our next program. Thank you and goodnight.


Home | About Us | Blogs | Issues | Newsroom | Multimedia | Events | Publications | Centers | Students | Store | Donate

Product Catalog | RSS | Jobs | Course Adoption | Links | Privacy Policy | Site Map
Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook
Copyright 2015 The Independent Institute