Control Freaks

The American Enterprise, January 2000 | Go to article overview

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. …

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