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The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and…

The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2005)

by Robert Conquest

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What a curious book.

In it, veteran historian Robert Conquest endeavours, so far as I can determine, to put the world to rights; nothing more, nothing less. Disappointingly, it transpires that his grand scheme, announced portentously and not a little pompously (Conquest adopts the royal "we", no less), is to be achieved by mostly re-hashing his own, previously published, accounts of the atrocities committed under the Soviet regime (almost half the book is given over to this endeavour) and then grumbling randomly and vaguely about the unappealing aspects of modern art.

In short, it sounds rather like a curmudgeonly old duffer - an articulate one, I grant you - having a bit of a moan.

Now I am not short on sympathy for some of Conquest's complaints, but his manner of addressing them is less than persuasive. Yes, Socialism is a silly idea, but we've known that since Mark Twain, or Winston Churchill, or whoever it was, made his pithy comment about socialists at 40 having no brain. Over a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, it is no longer news that the Communist experiment went badly wrong. Indeed, we've been on notice about that since Orwell. Nor is it a new idea that the liberal western intelligentsia, all the while, has maintained a rather rose-tinted view of the Bolsheviks. Indeed, one of the leading presenters of that view has been one R. Conquest, Esq. So, while the facts Conquest presents are interesting, no new ground is being broken.

Along the way, Conquest ducks some mighty issues. Derrida (and therefore all of relativism, by implication) is deemed "unreadable" and a "freak fashion" from the "silly-clever corner of academe", and therefore dismissed out of hand. Purely in terms of readability, the pot is calling the kettle black here. Take the following:

"We are concerned here to present, rather than to vindicate, arguments and facts. They are accompanied by illustrations and illuminations, rather than 'proofs.' I have, as far as possible, rid them of excess complexity or coruscation or incrustation. Inevitably, anyone who, as here, covers a wide field must accept and show that in some cases new data can bring fuller understanding. And I suppose it is necessary - though it should not be - to disavow anything like an 'ideology.' As has been well put by that fine political thinker Maurice Cranston, one can have a worldview in a broad and general sense without falling into such uncivilized frigidities."

If you have any idea what Conquest is talking about, give yourself a star. That's the very first paragraph of the book. On reading it, I considered abandoning the book at once.

More critically, though, however irksome it might seem, you cannot, with any credibility, just write off relativist thought. Derrida might be a slog, but there are writers who are beautifully clear on the subject - "illuminating", if you will - like Richard Rorty. Their very point is that this talk of "facts" is very convenient when you're giving the assembled cast the benefit of your view, but it's quite indefensible as a matter of logic against those who construe them differently.

The fact that there's even a debate for Conquest to contribute to is evidence enough of the multiple, and irreconcilable, perspectives on any political issue. It just isn't possible to king-hit them; to settle the argument for once and for all, in the way that Conquest would like to. Those who don't like the message can just write this off as "right wing screed" (see, for example, the first review below) and no amount of facts that Conquest can point to will change that. A little more time spent with Messrs. Derrida and Wittgenstein might have helped Mr Conquest understand that.

Ultimately, I don't think The Dragons of Expectation comes anywhere near to achieving what it says on the tin - and this is from a reader whose political and economic perspective is more or less aligned with the author's. Not much hope of convincing any doubters with this entry, I am afraid. ( )
  ElectricRay | Sep 30, 2008 |
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From the west I saw fly

the dragons of expectation,

and open the way of the fire-powerful;

they beat their wings,

so that everywhere it appeared to me

that earth and heaven burst.

--from a translation by Thomas Wright (1844) of the Poetic (or Elder) Edda
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393059332, Hardcover)

FROM THE AUTHOR OF "The Harvest of Sorrow and one of the world's most respected humanists comes this long-awaited work of history and philosophy. "The Dragons of Expectation--in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin's "The Crooked Timber of Humanity and George Orwell's "Essays--brilliantly traces how seductive ideas have come to corrupt modern minds, to often-disastrous effects. From the onset of the Enlightenment to the excesses of democracy, Stalinism, and liberalism. Robert Conquest masterfully examines how false nostrums have infected academia, politicians, and the public, showing how their reliance on "isms" and the destructive concepts of "People, Nation, and Masses" have resulted in a ruinous cycle of turbulence and war. Including analyses of Russia's October Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War that challenge common historical views. "The Dragons of Expectation is one of the most important contributions to modern thought in recent years.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:28 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Aware of the "primitive delusions" that have attracted people to rogue ideologies over the past century, Robert Conquest has devoted a lifetime to exposing the political and mental distortions that have spawned or appeased implacable regimes and led, all too often, to death and destruction." "Here, in The Dragons of Expectation, whether discussing the political thinking of ancient Greece, the corrosive effect of ideological socialism, or the inanities of the European Union, Conquest assesses the ravages of our past, the absurdities of our present, and the pitfalls that lie in our future." "As Conquest observes, the early part of the sixteenth century "saw what appeared to be, or foreshadow, the rise of a tolerant order on the Continent." Yet it was not the heirs of Montaigne or Erasmus who prevailed, but the fanatics and dogmatists, whose ideas plunged Europe into a downward track with a series of internecine programs the likes of which had never been seen before."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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