I was (and still am) a 1960’s radical, radicalized by the Vietnam War. In fact, along with 149 other young Americans of draft age, I signed a statement published in the New York Herald Tribune in May 1964 stating that “believing that we should not be asked to fight against the people of Vietnam, we herewith state our refusal to do so”. This act occurred well before the anti-war movement attained momentum, and it was part of the process which caused me to question my liberal middle-class worldview (as happened with so many youths in the 1960’s),
The Vietnam War was a travesty of everything that America supposedly stood for, and it was clear that its (only) justification was anti-communism. White liberals were gung-ho for the burgeoning civil rights movement at this time, but equally gung-ho for pursuing the war (at least until it turned sour). Even most Black civil-rights leaders supported the war, and Martin Luther King Jr. had to break with them when he opposed the war and stated that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government”.
So, with the Vietnam War, the whole edifice of (political) liberalism in the U.S. came crashing down. Many of us war protesters, seeing the malignant role played by anti-communism, became “Marxist-Leninists” (communists) inspired by the victories of the Chinese and Cubans over Western imperialism. Anti-communism was revealed to function as justification for the brutal exploitation of the underdeveloped countries (the “Third World”) by our own ruling (economic) class. It was calculatively peddled to the American people by politicians, the mass media, the education system, religious leaders – the whole Establishment – for the benefit of our capitalists. And yet, is it possible that there was also rational justification for anti-communism?
Let us consider the career of Robert Conquest, a well-established historian who was also a staunch anti-communist, serving in his later years as Senior Research Fellow and Scholar-Curator of the East European Collection at the (conservative) Hoover Institute of Stanford University. (He died in 2015 at age 98.) He supported the Reagan military buildup and the Nicaraguan Contras. Most of his political analysis and writings concerned the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalin era. (We shall come to these later.)
Conquest vehemently warned us of the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its “anti-imperialist” followers in the Third World, but let us look at his book Reflections on a Ravaged Century (Norton & Company, 2000) at how he considered the actual imperialism which radicalized Americans were reacting to. On pages 251 and 252 he dismisses “anti-imperialism” as well as opposition to “neocolonialism” and to identification of the “American Empire”. As mainstream U.S. ideology portrayed, he viewed the United States (aided particularly by the English-speaking economically developed countries of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) as leading the world to democracy and economic progress – in short, the notion of American exceptionalism.
How does Conquest fare concerning the Vietnam War, in which the function of anti-communism was starkly revealed to be but a cover for outright imperialism? In his book he devotes only a page (p. 234) to that topic, and spends most of it criticizing McNamara’s handling of the war effort, saying that “he undertook a responsibility involving the lives of scores of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese”. Conquest must be referring to people killed in the war – the body count of Americans was indeed almost three score (58,318, to be exact) – but “many more Vietnamese”?? Estimates of the number of Indochinese killed because of the U.S. effort to subjugate them range up to four million persons. This number is on a par with the millions of people killed in the Soviet Union by the Stalin regime during the 1930’s, which Conquest so rightly and usefully exposed, but he betrays no comprehension of the horrific results visited upon the Indochinese peoples by the blind acceptance of anti-communism.
More recently, there was the successful anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Militarily, it was aided (by training and supply of weapons) by the Soviet Union and East Germany, while the United States was the last holdout in supporting this noxious system. Conquest has nothing to say about this in his book, even though apartheid was succeeded by the democratically elected government of Nelson Mandela in 1994, six years before publication of his book. And even in the final years of the 1990’s, it had become clear that the system of capitalist exploitation tied to Western imperialism would continue to immiserate the masses of Blacks in that country.
So what makes Robert Conquest a candidate for the case of possibly supporting anti-communism? It is that he convincingly exposed the horrors of Stalinist society at a time when many American intellectuals ignored or excused what had gone on in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. He wrote two immensely detailed books: Harvest of Sorrow (Oxford University Press, 1986) on the forced collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930’s, focused on the Ukraine; and The Great Terror (1968, Macmillan Company; updated 1990, Oxford University Press) on Stalin’s purges of 1936-1938 of everyone who might oppose him. Many millions of Soviet citizens died – quite unnecessarily – during these times, and Conquest’s reporting and analysis was very thorough and convincing. (The first book had 1537 references, while the second had 2339 references.) It is hardly a wonder that he should be so completely focused on combating the sort of society that arose in the Soviet Union.
With the victory of capitalism in Russia and China, anti-communism has lost much of its energy, although it is still employed as a cover for attacking Venezuela and Cuba because of their efforts to supersede the worldwide imperialist system which systematically transfers wealth from the Third World to the metropolis. However, the remnants of anti-communism are still powerful domestically in suppressing the democratic rights and interests of the working class. (“Universal health care is a socialist measure which will inevitably lead to loss of freedom under big government.”) Fortunately, probably most socialists are now advocating a fully democratic society rather than the one-party state of Leninism. We should emphasize that, unlike the scheming manipulations of the apologists for capitalism, Conquest’s anti-communism is genuine, unlike the scheming manipulation of apologists for capitalism: he has paid his dues.
In spite of his blinders regarding the deleterious effects of anti-communism, Robert Conquest deserves much praise for his historical work exposing the almost unimaginable monstrosity that was the Soviet Union under the Stalin dictatorship, and which other “Marxist-Leninist” advocates of a one-party dictatorship pretending to rule in the name of the working class are susceptible to following. As a staunch anti-communist, he was a highly rational person, and – one must give him the benefit of the doubt – greatly concerned about the welfare of human civilization. On a personal level, I must admit that I feel closer to Robert Conquest than to socialists who, while justifiably being reluctant to have anything to do with the Democratic Party, do not consider it absolutely imperative to prevent Donald Trump from remaining in the White House; as the night descends, they may choose instead to challenge the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee even in electoral swing states where it might make the difference.