Reflections on a Ravaged Century

Robert Conquest, Author, Conquest, Author, Weil, Author
Robert Conquest, Author, Conquest, Author, Weil, Author W. W. Norton & Company $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-04818-6
Reviewed on: 11/01/1999
Release date: 11/01/1999
Paperback - 317 pages - 978-0-393-32086-2
Hardcover - 332 pages - 978-0-7195-6041-5
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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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