Conference on Communism and Liberal Democracy
From Kensington bunker
Timothy Garton Ash
Will you speak?' Mr A asked Mr B over a scrumptious breakfast at the Royal Garden Hotel.
'Yes, I'm going to talk about the impos- sibility of the immaculate victim,' said Mr B. 'Victims of communist totalitarianism . . . the contras in Nicaragua . . liberty . . . democracy . . . Marxist-Leninist sub- version . . . Grenada . . . terrorism . . Reagan . . . the free world . . .' and so on for several minutes.
Did you have kippers?' asked Mr A.
It was a strange affair, this '1985 London Conference on Communism and Liberal Democracy', with its combination of lux- ury and the language of the front line, high seriousness and hype, stout British lords and lean exiles from communist lands, all assembled, beneath Kensington's unsus- pecting feet, in an air-conditioned, terrorist-proofed, windowless, subterra- nean banqueting suite, just a few hundred yards from the Soviet Embassy. (An architectural metaphor for the embattled Free World?) It was, in the end, more like a party conference than an academic one; a rallying of the troops. Not all of us were either neo- or conservative, but the domi- nant voices were those of American neo- conservatism — Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter — and it was a marvellous oppor- tunity to look at the world through neo- conservative spectacles. (They are horn- rimmed bifocals.) There is much to be said in favour of this exercise, particularly for the short-sighted, and especially with the arrival of Mr Gorbachev. It was good, at this moment, to be reminded by Vladimir Bukovsky that Gorbachev began his communist career by actively joining, as a student at Moscow University, Stalin's last campaign against 'cosmopolitans', intellectuals and Jews. Commenting on Western media adulation of the Soviet John F. Kennedy, Bukovsky said, 'I am afraid even to use my vacuum cleaner, for fear that it might start babbling about a new Soviet leader as soon as I switch on.' It was good to be instructed by Professor Leszek Kolakowski in the re- sidual political significance of that 'eclectic beggar's soup' which is the contemporary Soviet version of Marxist-Leninist ideo- logy. What Soviet leaders do still want people to believe in, Kolakowski argued, is the historical inevitability of the triumph of communism — because this belief will lead to that resignation and despair which is all communist rulers can now hope to instil in their subjects. In order to do so, however, they need victories for Soviet socialism abroad (since there are no more to be had at home). In this sense, Soviet expansion- ism is itself historically inevitable.
Christopher Donnelly of Sandhurst gave us a masterly analysis of the significance of Soviet military power. 'It's not that the Soviet Union has a war machine,' he observed; 'the Soviet Union is a war machine.' For historical as well as ideolo- gical reasons, the military plays a central role in every main area of Soviet life. Beside five million people under arms, there are another five million people mak- ing arms. The defence industry is the best industry. The military's health care is the best health care. Most Soviet universities depend on the army for the largest part of their research money. And so on. Other speakers pointed up the Soviet role in international terrorism and subversion.
By this time, as a Polish participant commented, one felt rather like the War- saw schoolboy who was told to write an essay on 'Why I love the Soviet Union'. He asked his father, who exclaimed: 'What do you mean! Love the gangsters who mur- dered your grandfather, and occupied Po- land?' His mother, aunt, uncles, friends, parents, the neighbours and the newsagent all gave similar answers. Finally he wrote: 'I love the Soviet Union because nobody else does.'
Yet most of what was said about the East, including much of what Richard Perle said about the Soviet attitude to detente and arms control, seemed to me both true and salutary. It was when we looked West that I found myself with the kind of headache you get rather quickly if you put on somone else's spectacles. I had assumed that the conference title, 'On Communism and Liberal Democracy', sug- gested we are against communism and for liberal democracy. After listening to Midge Decter, of the original (American) Com- mittee for the Free World, and the inimit- able Dr Scruton, I felt a truer reading might be: 'against communism and liberal democracy.' Miss Decter's theme was the way in which the Free World in general, and the Reagan Administration in particu- lar, has been 'hamstrung' by an excess of liberal democratic scruples about the use of American military might etc. It is precisely `1 still think five billion unemployed is immoral.' the liberal and democratic 'virtues' which have been the root of America's weakness. 'We are positively sunk in virtue.' Mean- while, West European liberal democracies have sat around criticising US policy to- wards Nicaragua 'like a group of long- nosed duennas'. West Europeans should know that America has a new mood of national pride, and will not stand for this kind of criticism: nor of 'Star Wars' either. Our own Dr Scruton, for his part, candidly admitted: 'I myself believe neither in tradi- tional liberalism, nor very much in demo- cracy.' One sensed a certain embarrass- ment in the hall at this moment. People don't say things like that. In short, as in so much neo-conservative discussion of foreign policy, there was a tension — if not an outright contradiction — between the commitment to defend and spread democracy and the readiness to espouse undemocratic means to defend and spread it. The justification emerges clearly from the undergrowth of military metaphors. If most conflicts in the world are part of the global struggle against Soviet communism, and if the struggle against Soviet communism is like the war against Nazi Germany, then we cannot afford to be wimpish about it. In wartime, truth must be guarded by a bodyguard of lies, as Churchill once remarked. In war- time, you must use force. . Now there is a real argument here. It may just be that considerations of the global struggle against Soviet communism, and US national security, do impel — and even justify — the United States in it support for the contras in Nicaragua. That is not my view, but it is a rationally defensible view. What is obviously inde- fensible, however, is the proposition that the contras, because their fight is arguably in the long-term interests of democracy, are themselves model democrats enjoying the support of the majority of Nicaraguans. Yet this is the proposition which American neo-conservatives apparently feel bound to defend. And Reagan with them. On the second day of the conference, the Interna- tional Herald Tribune reported the Presi- dent as saying the contras are the 'moral equal of our Founding Fathers'. This sug- gests a pretty low opinion of the Founding Fathers. By talking like this you devalue the very currency you are trying to defend. Several speakers wondered aloud why there is so much criticism of the United States from younger, university-educated West Europeans. The main explanation offered, to applause, was that they are infected with a half-digested, lumpen- polytechnic quasi-Marxism. No doubt some of them are. But many more are infected with a much more powerful and contagious ideological bug — the spirit of liberal democracy. I have to report that, despite the valiant efforts of the security men, the air-conditioning and Dr Scruton, this virus even affected parts of the audi- ence in the banqueting suite under the Royal Garden. Where will it go next? Who can stop it?