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Book Review: The Dragons of Expectation (Robert Conquest)

“The Dragons of Expectation,” subtitled “Reality and Delusion in the Course of History,” is a strange book. Basically, it’s a series of musings by the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, made toward the end of his life. It ranges from the use of words, to the Cold War, to art and the humanities, all united by the general theme of human susceptibility to irrationality. The resonant title, taken from Norse myth, refers to how ideas (or ideologies, to use a more precise term) lead to radical visions which generate expectations that can never be fulfilled, but which create chaos and destruction as their adherents attempt to force reality into conforming to their vision. It’s an interesting, if meandering, ride, though one that largely covers topics about which Conquest had written before. But the book peaks with its title. After reading the book, I still can’t say what it was really about, and I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything at all.

The book is divided into three major sections, each containing a series of loosely joined short essays. Part I is titled “Through Reefs and Riptides.” One frustration I had with this book is that it’s not easy to parse out what topics Conquest intends to cover, and this problem starts at the very beginning. It appears this section is meant to be organized around dispelling “mind-mists” that have developed around much of modern discourse. The primary “mind-mist” is socialism and its variants, to include farther flung variants like Islamic terror, with the common denominator being “an enmity to established thought and its institutions.” From an initial discussion on this, Conquest turns to a discussion of words, or as he puts it typically and floridly, “Harpooning Some Word-Whales.”

Among targets here are uses, or misuses, of the words “democracy,” “fascism,” and “totalitarian.” Conquest’s objection is to language that is used without precision, or with deliberate attempt to obfuscate. In this, of course, he follows Orwell, whom he cites repeatedly. What Conquest does not note is that in Orwell’s time, mendacity in language was common, but the traditional logical and rhetorical forms were observed, because if they had not been, the liars would have been ignored. Even ten years ago, in 2005, when Conquest wrote this book, this was largely true.

Unfortunately, in past ten years, corruption of language, together with its evil cousins, suppression of speech not desired by those in power, and irrationality masquerading as insight, have all reached a frenzy. It’s like going down a greased slide—eventually gravity and momentum take over, finishing the trends that began tentatively not so long ago. Conquest, though, did not live to see this, or to predict what comes next. He seemed to think there was a way back. Unfortunately, today, the real choices are either to retreat from engaging the Left, or to have hard men engage in a gutter struggle, hoping that once the serpents have been strangled by means fair or foul, men of equipoise and virtue will come forth to retire the hard men and rebuild a new polity.

Or, on the other hand, are those the real choices? Could our society be changed back to value rationality, precision in language, and freedom of speech? Peaceful change of a modern society has been done before. Conquest notes “In the late nineteenth century, the English economist and socialist Sidney Webb wrote that to change opinion in England it would only be necessary to win over a few thousand key figures.” The Webbs, of course, were the founder of the Fabians, early socialists who achieved great success in this regard. As Conquest notes, they wrote books, and more importantly, they sponsored the “great Fabian efforts of conferences, summer schools, pamphlets and more permanent measures such as the founding of the London School of Economics.”

The difference, though, is that it’s easier to change public policy towards the Left. First, those on the Left seek transcendence through political action in a way uncommon among conservatives. They define the value of their life through their achievements, whereas conservatives tend to focus on home and hearth. (This is the same reason why Communists after the fall of Communism were left alone by the Right and frequently acceded to power and wealth; while even minor functionaries in any fallen right-wing government are always hounded by the Left across the globe for their entire lives.) The dragons of expectation seize the mind in a way that incremental improvement in the human condition and a focus on common, homely things can never do. This gives them a vigor and staying power lacking on the Right. Second, the modern Left never permits backsliding. Any leftist success is viewed as permanent and is defended to the last gasp with all means available. The Right lacks this tenacity and focus. Thus, peaceful change of our society back to a rational, balanced society is unlikely, even if wealthy elites were to make such a project their focus—and the few wealthy elites interested in conservative positions, such as the Koch brothers, are largely elitist conservatives, socially liberal and more interested in electing politicians than creating beneficial social change through changes in broad public opinion.

In subsequent chapters in this section, Conquest attacks a range of targets, ranging from leftist elites (“What one finds too often is an ‘educated’ class—particularly but not only in Europe—which is simply not aware of any general attitudes but its own”) to corporatism, to bureaucratic bloat and temperament (“There is a great emotional difference between ‘I am doing a useful service’ and ‘I am fulfilling a sublime mission’”), to the European Union. Though the impact and coherence of much of this is reduced by the elliptical, musing nature of its presentation, a lot of it is prescient about today. Conquest predicts exactly the current condition of the EU, as well as the multitudinous creeping deficiencies of the elitist classes. And he ends this section with “The downward slope, unless interrupted, can scarcely lead to anything but corporatism. The only probably interruption would be due to a buildup of resentment against the system. That is to say, this etatism may itself produce the catastrophe from which is purports to save us.” As of October 2016, this seems eerily prescient, though we’ll see soon enough if the desirable catastrophe arrives.

Part II, “Horrible Examples,” is a review of the Cold War, basically to again dispel myths Conquest disposed of decades before, and to note reasons for the ultimate Soviet collapse. Here, again, there is a lot of opaque musing. There’s also an entire chapter devoted to attacking four people or things not obviously linked: the historian C.P. Snow; Simone de Beauvoir; John Kenneth Galbraith; and CNN’s show “The Cold War.” No doubt each of these was an odious liar and Communist apologist. And yes, this does fit into a discussion of the Cold War. But still, it feels disjointed.

Part III, “Harp Song of the Humanities,” covers, unsurprisingly, the humanities—more art than education. Though what, in this context, is a “harp song”? Maybe a reference to Kipling? The general point seems to be that the humanities suffer in the modern world. True enough, but there’s nothing really notable here. Following this is the “Epilogue,” a poem written by Conquest, which I frankly didn’t understand. This is followed by an Appendix solely devoted to citations of Conquest’s own work, to prove that he, at least, foresaw the collapse of the Soviet system, against claims that nobody did. A second Appendix provides a detailed organizational blueprint for an Anglosphere political system, a concept barely touched on in the main text. One gets the impression that Conquest was allowed by his publisher and editor to simply write a book as he wanted, and he wanted to ramble. So the book is disjointed, and that makes the book ultimately very unsatisfying.

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