Grover Furr: Response to the Death of Robert Conquest
By Grover Furr August 5, 2015
Robert Conquest, next to Leon Trotsky arguably the chief anticommunist and anti-Stalin propagandist of the 20th century, has died. Naturally, the capitalist media are fawning over him.
A lot could be said about Conquest. I’ll say a bit at the end.
Here are some facts — I have checked them – concerning Conquest’s most famous book The Great Terror:
Ÿ Robert Conquest has also been identified as having worked for the IRD from when it was set up until 1956. The Information Research Department (IRD), was a section set up in 1947 (originally called the Communist Information Bureau) whose main task was to combat Communist influence throughout the world by planting stories among politicians, journalists and others in a position to influence public opinion. (see http://www.fact-index.com/r/ro/robert_conquest.html )
Ÿ A 1978 story in The Guardian (David Leigh, ‘Death of the department that never was,’ The Guardian January 27, 1978, p. 13) alleged that Conquest’s work there was to contribute to the so-called “black history” of the Soviet Union – in other words, fake stories put out as fact and distributed among journalists and others able to influence public opinion. After he had formally left the IRD, Conquest continued to write books suggested by the IRD, with Secret Service support. The article from The Guardian in 1978 documents the propaganda activities of the IRD
Ÿ His book The Great Terror, a basic anti-communist text on the subject of the power struggle that took place in the Soviet Union in 1937, was in fact a recompilation of text he had written when working for the secret services. The book was finished and published with the help of the IRD. A third of the publication run was bought by the Praeger Press, normally associated with the publication of literature originating from CIA sources.
Ÿ Conquest’s book was intended for presentation to “useful fools”, such as university professors and people working in the press, radio and TV. Conquest to this day remains, for anti-communist historians, one of the most important sources of material on the Soviet Union.
In his Ph.D. dissertation (but not in the book that he wrote from it) Arch Getty pointed out:
“The dominant tendency [in writing the history of the “purges”] has been automatically to believe anything an emigre asserted while automatically denying the truth of everything from the Stalinist side. If one wanted a balanced picture of Tsar Ivan IV, (“The Terrible”), one would not accept at face value the descriptions of the exiled Prince Kurbsky in Poland, during a period of Russo-Polish war. If one wanted a balanced picture of Mao Tse-Tung’s regime in China, one would not accept Chiang Kai-Shek’s version in the early 1950’s as essentially reliable. If one were not interested in such a view, one would. The apparent monstrosity of Stalin’s crimes and a generation of Cold War attitudes have contributed to what would be considered sloppy scholarship in any other area of inquiry.”
Getty also pointed out that Conquest specialized in anticommunist propaganda masquerading as scholarship while working for British intelligence.
“Sometimes, the “scholarship” had been more than simply careless. Recent investigations of British intelligence activities (following in the wake of U.S. post-Watergate revelations), suggest that Robert Conquest, author of the highly influential Great Terror, accepted payment from British intelligence agencies for consciously falsifying information about the Soviet Union. Consequently, the works of such an Individual can hardly be considered valid scholarly works by his peers in the Western academic community.” (Getty, The Great Purges Reconsidered, PhD dissertation, Boston College, 1979, p. 48.
In 1980 I interviewed Professor John Hazard of Columbia University, at the time the world expert on Soviet law. Hazard told me that people in the Soviet studies field had told him that British intelligence was still doing Conquest’s research for him.
“… Conquest (Terror, 754) … makes the astounding statement that ‘Truth can thus only percolate in the form of hearsay.’ And, further, ‘On political matters basically the best, though not infallible, source is rumor … ‘He believes that the best way to check rumors is to compare them with other rumors – a dubious procedure given the fact that émigrés read each other’s works. Of course, historians do not accept hearsay and rumor as evidence in any other field of history ” (Getty, ibid., p. 64 note 57. These passages are also quoted in Getty, Origins of the Great Purges. The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 p. 5 and note 12, p.222).
Already in 1979 Getty concluded:
” The point of view adopted here is that the standard interpretations of the ‘Great Purges’, such as those by Fainsod and Conquest, are seriously flawed, cannot account for the available evidence, and are thus no longer tenable “. (p.53)
A good reply to Conquest’s dishonesty is an article by Robert W. Thurston, ‘On Desk-bound parochialism, commonsense perspective, and lousy evidence: a reply to Robert Conquest,’ in Slavic Review 1986, 238-244.
I don’t know that any other scholar officially in the field of Soviet history ever dared to attack Conquest head-on in print, in a mainstream journal.
Conquest replied in kind, trashing Thurston’s book on the history of the USSR in the 1930s when it was published by Yale University Press in 1996. Thurston’s book was by far the best book on this period up to that point and is still the best because he rejects the knee-jerk anticommunist, anti-Stalin line and sticks to the evidence, with only a handful of lapses.
Thurston also published an excellent article showing the dishonesty of the term ‘Great Terror’ by pointing out that very, very few people were in fact ‘terrorized.’ (see ‘Fear and belief in the USSR’s “Great Terror”: response to arrest, 1935-1939,’ Slavic Review 45 (1986), 214-234.
This article elicited a hostile but very weak response by Conquest, to which Thurston replied with the article about “lousy evidence,” quoted above.
After Conquest’s book on the Ukrainian famine, Harvest of Sorrow was published in the 1980s, the anticommunist experts in the Soviet history field universally rejected it.
You can read some quotations from them in the article by Jeff Coplon, ‘In search of a Soviet Holocaust – a 55-year-old famine feeds the right.’Village Voice, January 12, 1988. Coplon’s article, with quotations from the anticommunist scholars, is at https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/vv.html).
Of course there was no “deliberate famine.” Quite the opposite: Collectivization put an end to famines in Russia/Ukraine. Conquest later retracted his view that Stalin had deliberately caused the famine.
” Our view of Stalin and the famine is close to that of Robert Conquest, who would earlier have been considered the champion of the argument that Stalin had intentionally caused the famine and had acted in a genocidal manner. In 2003, Dr Conquest wrote to us explaining that he does not hold the view that ‘Stalin purposely inflicted the 1933 famine. No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it, but put ‘Soviet interest’ other than feeding the starving first – thus consciously abetting it ” (R. W. Davies & Stephen G. Wheatcroft. ‘Debate. Stalin and the Soviet famine of 1932-33: A reply to Ellman.’, Europe-Asia Studies 58 (4) June 2006, 629; also in Davies & Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p.441 n.145).
For all these quotations and more see my book: Grover Furr , Blood Lies – the evidence that every accusation against Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is false. (Red Star Publications, New York:, 2014, Chapter 1 and ‘The ‘man-made famine’ and ‘Deliberate famine’ arguments in Bloodlands, Chapter 1).
After my book Khrushchev Lied was published in Russia I was interviewed by Literaturnaia Rossia, a literary-cultural journal. The interviewer asked me some tough questions, which was fine!
Part of my reply was about Conquest’s book The Great Terror:
” As a graduate student from 1965-69 I opposed the US war in Vietnam. At one point somebody told me that the Vietnamese communists could not be the ‘good guys’, because they were all “Stalinists”, and ‘Stalin had killed millions of innocent people.’
“I remembered this remark. It was probably the reason that in the early 1970s I read the first edition of Robert Conquest’s book The Great Terror when it was published. I was shaken by what I read!
“I should add that I could read the Russian language since I had already been studying Russian literature since High School. So I studied Conquest’s book very carefully. Apparently no one else had ever done this!
“I discovered Conquest was dishonest in his use of sources. His footnotes did not support his anti-Stalin conclusions! Basically, he used any source that was hostile to Stalin, regardless of whether it was reliable or not .” (see ‘The sixty-one untruths of Nikita Khrushchev at https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/research/litrossiainterv0608_eng.html )
Conquest – with the help of the British intelligence service – took the lies about the Stalin period concocted under Khrushchev and by him, added more lies from anticommunist sources in the West like Alexander Orlov and Walter Krivitsky, and presented this as ‘history.’
Conquest’s The Great Terror has lots of footnotes, which are intended to fool the educated but naive reader. But those same footnotes made it possible for me to discover that Conquest used phony evidence and never proved any of his anti-communist, anti-Stalin claims.
25 years later, when Gorbachev took up Khrushchev’s anti-communist and anti-Stalin lies, repeated them, and added more lies of his own, Conquest issued a new edition of The Great Terror and told everybody “I was right.”
He wasn’t “right.” Gorbachev was simply telling the same kinds of lies, and often the very same lies, about the Stalin period that Khrushchev and his people had told.
Conquest got a lot of honors from the mass-murdering imperialists – from Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan and beyond. He earned their praise. He also got a cushy, high-paying post at the Hoover Institution.
Such are the rewards for telling lies on behalf of the anti-communists.
We should realize that no one so honored by the chief mass murderers of world history can ever be telling the truth.
Those of us who want to struggle for the better, communist world need to learn from the successes, as well as from the mistakes, of the Stalin-era Soviet Union and the worldwide communist movement of the 20th century, so we can imitate what they did right while avoiding what they did wrong. So, let’s redouble our commitment to doing just that.
LALKAR would like to add to this that while it is certainly essential to learn from mistakes in order to avoid repeating them, what people consider to be Stalin’s ‘mistakes’ are usually not specified with the result that one could, with the best will in the world, never learn a thing. It has been fashionable for a long time even among people who consider themselves supporters of Stalin to talk about his ‘mistakes’ in the abstract (EVERYBODY makes mistakes, don’t you know) without identifying what these mistakes are supposed to be – making it impossible either to find out if Stalin actually made some mistakes, if so what these mistakes were, and what lessons to draw therefrom, or whether it is his critics who are mistaken in making these assertions.
All that is achieved by such hints about Stalin’s ‘mistakes’ is to make people dubious about learning from the invaluable Marxist-Leninist practice of this great leader and teacher, especially about the conduct of the class struggle under dictatorship of the proletariat. In other words, to talk of Stalin’s ‘mistakes’ in the abstract is an unpardonable concession to bourgeois liberalism. We are certain that it is not the intention of Comrade Furr, who has made an extremely valuable contribution to exposing the lies about Stalin by people such as Khrushchev, Timothy Snyder and Robert Conquest.