Several years ago, R. J. Rummel’s book Death by Government documented the horrifying numbers of people killed by government during the twentieth century—more than 100 million. Governments have always been the leading cause of violent death, but in the last century, the toll far surpassed anything previously. Why?
In his new book Reflections on a Ravaged Century, historian Robert Conquest tries to find the answer. Ideas motivate men, and the terrible fact is that, as he writes, “humanity has been savaged and trampled by rogue ideologies.” The author sets out to show “how and why these disastrous mental distortions arose, how and why they came to motivate movements, parties and states.” One can scarcely imagine a more important project, and Conquest has performed brilliantly.
Conquest is best known as a historian—arguably the historian—of the Soviet Union. Most of his 20 books have been devoted to a clear-eyed exposition of the facts about the regimes of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors. While others were evading the facts or making excuses for the unspeakable barbarity of those tyrants, Conquest insisted on the unvarnished truth. Read, for example, The Harvest of Sorrow for his account of the deliberate famine Stalin brought about in the Ukraine, which claimed several million lives without firing a shot.
Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and dozens of other villains brought misery and death to millions. They did it by exploiting the power of ideas. Conquest writes, “The book’s general theme is that any concept given anything like absolute status becomes not a guide to action but an abstraction whose imposition on reality reveals an incompatibility, as engineers say of parts that do not fit, and that can only be made to fit by main force, and even then ineffectively or ruinously.” The sword and gun alone do not enable tyrants to kill and enslave on a vast scale. Ideas, very bad ideas, are necessary. The title for the first section of the book sums things up beautifully: Mindslaughter.
But what accounts for the ideological frenzies of the twentieth century? Conquest’s insights are legion.
Part of the explanation is that “great causes” provide many people with “an excuse for behaving badly,” giving the actor “the right to dishonor” (here quoting Dostoyevsky). Sadly, civilization is a thin and uncomfortable veneer that is easily cracked, releasing the most vicious behavior. Marxism, fascism, and the like provided the necessary excuse, and the KGB, Gestapo, and similar organizations had no trouble filling their ranks.
Another element of mindslaughter is the idiotic idea of collective guilt. When not in the thrall of some ideology, most humans would laugh at the idea that people can be guilty of something simply because of some characteristic of theirs. But during the twentieth century that idea took root and grew profusely. Stalin ordered the arrest and deportation of millions of peasant farmers (the kulaks) for no other reason than that they owned some private property and therefore were the “class enemy.” The servile Stalinist writer Ilya Ehrenburg explained that “Not one of them was guilty of anything; but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.” Lots of “useful idiots” (to use Lenin’s phrase) fell for that line.
Among the intellectuals, totalitarian arguments were especially potent. Conquest writes with contempt for the American, British, and French writers and academics who served as unpaid propagandists for the tyrants. In an especially penetrating chapter titled “The Answer Is Education,” he bemoans the tendency among bright young people to become unthinking devotees of those rogue ideologies: “Often at the age of eighteen or twenty, a student meets a glittering general Idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother.”
Reflections is not just a backward-looking book as its title would indicate. Conquest also peers into the future and is not altogether pleased with what he sees. In the chapter “The Europe Idea,” he examines the mania for a European megastate. He envisions no benefit but the considerable cost of another layer of bureaucratic intervention. “More rules mean more bureaucrats,” he observes, and that “the more numerous the bonds, the more difficult they will be to get out of.” Exactly.
The only part of the book that I find unconvincing is the final chapter, “A More Fruitful Unity.” Here Conquest proposes a hazy English-speaking “unity” encompassing the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Why we need a supra-national entity is never explained. Free people will form whatever “unities” suit them. It’s hard to see how an “English-speaking Union” could do anything to expand the liberty of the people living under it. Almost inevitably, it would diminish liberty as still more officials do what officials do: spend other people’s money and invent more work for themselves.
Despite that quibble, this is a book to savor.