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Book Review: Reflections on a Ravaged Century

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Reflections on a Ravaged Century
by Robert Conquest (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000); 317 pages; $26.95.

When the 19th century was ending, there was a great sense of optimism and confidence. The December 31, 1899, issue of the New York Times had devoted practically its entire editorial page to a summary of the magnificent achievements of the 19th century: the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph and the telephone, ocean liners, and the electric light bulb. Even the cash register! The Times editor concluded: “We step upon the threshold of 1900 which leads to the new century facing a still brighter dawn of civilization.”

There was also a belief that wars – at least great wars – were a thing of the past. Books such as Gustav de Molinari’s The Society of Tomorrow and Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion argued that wars and arms races were becoming too costly for the peoples of the world to be willing to bear. Besides, the growth of international trade and investment were rapidly making the entire world one interdependent global economic community. Rational men would not threaten to break it asunder and divide it along battle lines soaked with the blood of men who could be otherwise employed improving their mutual material circumstances through peaceful industrial labor and exchange.

As the English historian G.P. Gooch said in the 1930s:

“Only men and women who, like myself, were adult citizens at the turn of the century can realize the enormous contrast between the years preceding and following the [First] World War…. Civilization was spreading across the earth with giant strides; science was tossing us miracle after miracle; wealth was accumulating at a pace undreamed of in earlier generations; the amenities of life were being brought within the reach of an ever greater number of our fellow-creatures…. Nations were on the march toward larger freedom and a fuller humanity…. No one spoke of a possible return to the Dark Ages or wondered whether we could keep civilization afloat.”

The reality of the 20th century

How different this century that is now just ending actually turned out for hundreds of millions of people around the world! While scientific progress has continued and many tens of millions of us increasingly enjoy a standard of living that was unimaginable at the start of this last 100 years, it has also been a time of wars and civil wars, brutal communist and fascist tyrannies, two devastating world wars, nearly half a century of Cold War, and the growth of an intrusive and often suffocating interventionist-welfare state.

Why has this come about and what have been its effects? And what are the prospects for the future? These are the questions insightfully analyzed by Robert Conquest in his recent book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest has been one of the leading authorities on the realities of communism in the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalinist period. He now offers an interpretation of the reasons for these global tragedies of our times.

The battle of ideas

The growth of freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries, Conquest argues, required an admission that a humane society could not be built on any absolutist dogmatism. A peaceful, civil society of tolerance, diversity, and respect for the individual and the market economy was based on the premise that while there are many competing ideas about truth, goodness, virtue, and value, there is no single Idea to which everything can be reduced and to which everyone must be made to conform.

But beginning in the second half of the 19th century, there arose men and movements who made claims to having discovered the one, single truth, the grand Idea, that explained everything and according to which a new and better world could be constructed. Socialism, especially in its Marxian form, was that all-encompassing Idea. Its only rival in the 20th century was the unifying idea of nationalism and the mythologies of national and racial identity. These created the monster states of Soviet communism and German Nazism. In place of the world of international peace and harmony that was the hallmark of classical liberalism and capitalism, communism and Nazism divided the world among the lines of class and national conflict. Millions upon millions of people were broken and murdered in the name of the Idea.

Explaining communism

What made communism such a danger in the 20th century, Conquest explains, was not merely any possible military threat from the Soviet Union but the enthusiasm with which so many intellectuals in the West embraced the vision of a socialist utopia and naively and self-deceptively accepted the propaganda and misinformation of the Soviet government. A “new civilization” of peace, prosperity, and brotherhood was being built in Soviet Russia and only the ignorant or the apologist for an unjust capitalism could deny or cast doubt on this. And when the “imperfections” of the Soviet experience could no longer be denied, then allegiance could always be transferred to a new hope for the future, whether it be Mao’s China, or Castro’s Cuba, or the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua.

Looking ahead

Now in the face of communism’s demise, the 20th century is ending with only a partial turn back towards freedom. The intellectual community and the educational establishment, Conquest warns, are still dominated by the same quest for a remodeled world according to a grand design. There is still the unwillingness to accept that men are imperfect beings, that wisdom resides in no one mind or even any single generation, and that attempting to reduce man and society to stylized ideological formulas and quantitative models can only lead to disaster. These perpetual proponents of the grand Idea refuse to accept the fact that modern society is too complex for any social engineer to be able to successfully manipulate and remake it according to design.

Conquest argues that an example of this pretension is the “Europe” idea, in place of the plurality of historically distinct peoples, cultures, and traditions. What is being politically imposed is a “creeping federalization of Europe” under which the European Union bureaucracy “now has or claims larger powers over its members in some fields (such as labor law) than the federal government in Washington has over the states.” And he warns, “The European Union … constitutes a bloc hindering the development of world free trade, being from the global point of view a large-scale special interest (or set of special interests).” And “its runaway bureaucratism must surely be confronted as best we can as unlovely in [itself] but also as distortive – even corruptive – of the West’s culture.”

Conquest’s own political ideal is for a temperate and modest state, in which there may be debates about the legitimate functions and limits of government power and intrusion, but where the underlying principle has to be a fundamental regard for the dignity and freedom of the individual, an appreciation for the superiority of the free-market order, and a respect for the evolved traditions and institutions of the free society. If this were to become the basis upon which political discourse was undertaken, then the 21st century would have a greater chance to escape the ravages experienced in the century now ending.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).