How can humankind avoid another century like the 20th? Blind devotion to obscene ideologies--Communism, Nazism--made the final hundred years of the millennium the bloodiest in human history. As Robert Conquest
, author of Reflections on a Ravaged Century
, notes, "Over this century the human race has survived experiences that, to put it mildly, should have been instructive. Scores of millions have been slaughtered, and it cannot be said that the avoidance of the even worse catastrophe of nuclear war was foreordained." Might it happen again? As Conquest is the author of The Great Terror
, a devastating account of Stalin's crimes (and widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most important and influential works of history), any reflections he may have are worth noting. He's clearly worried, quoting, for example, the astonishing statement by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm
in 1994 that the construction of a Communist utopia can justify the murder of 20 million people.
Reflections on a Ravaged Century is primarily focused on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, but he remains consistently forward-looking. "The power of fanaticism and of misunderstanding is by no means extinct," warns Conquest. The 20th century will be a prelude to even greater evils unless intellectuals engage in "a careful consideration of what needs to be learned, and unlearned." This book, both wise and accessible, is a good start. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In a book that is as cantankerous as it is insightful, historian Conquest (The Great Terror, etc.) takes grim stock of the bloody fruit of 20th-century political ideology. "We cannot do without ideas; but we should not make ideas into Ideas. We should note the catastrophes due to fascination with fantasy, addiction or absolutes." Accordingly, he offers withering critiques of Marx, Lenin and anybody who took seriously the idea that the complexities of human social life could be adequately explained by any one theory. With great passion and a formidably wide array of references, he describes the intellectual mediocrity of Marxism and Marx: "outside his sect few serious philosophers accepted his philosophy; few economists accepted his economics; few historians accepted his theories of history." To the extent that his target is not just communism but the very notion that any theory could explain and predict human social behavior, Conquest aspires to the same kind of humanistic perspective championed by Isaiah Berlin or Hannah Arendt, and, like Berlin, he celebrates pluralism and civil society as the sane antidotes to ideological purity. But both Arendt and Berlin took account of the idealism that led so many people who should have known better into complicity with evil regimes. These authors understood that the road to hell could be paved with the best of intentions, and they managed to honor those intentions while still calling hell, hell. They were thus able to convey the moral tragedy of the 20th-century romance with ideology. In these pages, Conquest often writes with such contempt for those who seized on Ideas that, in the end, he doesn't so much analyze history as scold it. (Oct.)
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