Control Freaks

The American Enterprise, January 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Control Freaks


Robert Conquest traces the history of power plays

Robert Conquest is one of the century's leading commentators on Soviet communism, in such pathbreaking books as The Great Terror (a 1968 account of Stalin's purges) and Harvest of Sorrow (the definitive 1986 chronicle of the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine). His most recent book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, looks at the role utopian centralizers have played in contemporary history.

In addition to his many non-fiction works, Conquest, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has brought out six books of poetry and one of literary criticism, as well as a science fiction novel, a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Prussian Nights, and a novel co-authored with Kingsley Amis.

Conquest served in the British infantry in World War II and thereafter in Britain's Diplomatic Service. Now a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he recently spoke with TAE editor in chief Karl Zinsmeister.

TAE: Where does the centralizing impulse in politics--the desire to have one small group tell everyone else how to live--come from?

CONQUEST: Well, there's a general tendency to increase your power at the center against the interests of everybody else. History shows that unless there is a check on this and society is somehow balanced, centralization will take place. The tendency of bureaucracy to get larger and larger is with us everywhere.

TAE: What are the factors that cause one society to go farther in that direction than another?

CONQUEST: The only societies that have done well in resisting this have been pluralist societies where different interests have kept each other in check, so no central figure could force himself on others. In a few places like England and Switzerland, freer social orders grew up where several different and not readily compatible forces prevented any of the others from getting an upper hand. It was sometimes a close call but in England monopolization of power was repeatedly defeated, so decentralist traditions survived. During the English Civil War, for example, local judges remained, administering ordinary law, while the armies marched to and fro across the country.

This is the model put forth by America's founding fathers, with their promulgation of competing interests and checks and balances. The reason they didn't want pure democracy was that they wanted to prevent any particular section of society from ruling over others.

TAE: Have Catholic and Protestant nations developed differently in this area?

CONQUEST: The mere fact that Protestantism split the church up into smaller parts did provide a notion of pluralism. If the guy in the next city is under a different regime from me, maybe variations are possible. But at the same time, the Swiss developed democracy in the Catholic cantons as much as in the Protestant ones; so this seems not to be a definitive factor.

TAE: Historically, what have been the effective restraints on a centralization of power?

CONQUEST: Well, here we go back to religions and traditions. Back in Saxon times in England, 1500 years ago, there was a balance of power between the centralized state and the many minor nobles. Even representatives of the serfs were included in meetings where decisions were taken. The so-called kings were mainly in charge of war. That sort of arrangement was much less common or non-existent over most of Europe.

One important reason for this is because in England there was always a good deal of economic pluralism, even in the countryside. Lots of people produced stuffs for the market. Unlike in other parts of Europe, land was not divided amongst all the children into tiny, non-economic sizes--instead, one son took it all--and farmers maintained some economic leverage.

There was economic mobility in England. There wasn't a peasantry in the way there was in, say, France.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Control Freaks
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?