Until quite recently the liberal position was that there are no conspiracies – none, at any rate, of any historical importance. History consisted of long periods of chaos and stupidity, with occasional intervals when rational figures such as themselves were in power. Over time, reason would become ever stronger and the power of liberals would become unchallengeable. Heading all mainstream parties, liberals believed history was a gradual process of incremental improvement. Whether what they desired was a better kind of capitalism or some modernised version of social democracy, they looked forward to the continuing advance of reason – led, of course, by themselves. Though not strictly inevitable, this process was in the long run unstoppable. Even if dark forces were scheming to block the advance of progress, they were bound to fail.
A different liberal view has become influential in the last few years. The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and the advance of populism have shaken the faith in reason, and liberals have invoked concealed forces to explain an ongoing shift in politics that does not square with their view of history. A conspiratorial mindset is now common among bien-pensants who only two or three summers ago would have regarded the idea that politics is shaped by covert actors as a sick fantasy. In this new liberal world-view, progress has not just stalled. It is being wilfully undermined and reversed by clandestine means.
The belief that human events are controlled by hidden forces is the most dangerous toxin in politics. Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide (1967), his canonical study of the infamous 1903 forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, showed how the Protocols – most likely the work of an officer in the Tsarist secret service – fed the delusion of a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy, which by a succession of political upheavals led to the Holocaust. Mass murder is the logic of conspiracy theories of this kind, and the Protocols served to rationalise a campaign of extermination unique in history. As Cohn wrote, millions were murdered in the conviction that “Jews – all Jews everywhere in the world – form a conspiratorial body set on ruining and then dominating the rest of mankind.” The revival of Holocaust denial shows this poisonous fantasy re-emerging not only on the far right – where it never really went away – but also among people who consider themselves progressives.
But conspiracy theory is not limited to the anti-Semitic far right, nor the new generation of anti-Semites that has emerged on sections of the left. Liberals have long discounted reports of mass death in progressive regimes as the work of malevolent propagandists. One such episode occurred in the early 1930s, when revered organs of liberal opinion refused to acknowledge the fact that a huge famine was under way in the Soviet Union. The famine was not a natural catastrophe, but man-made. It was a result of Stalin’s policies – loss of production and livestock during breakneck agricultural collectivisation, extreme requisition quotas demanded of peasants, and large-scale export of grain for foreign currency. The famine of 1932-33 was an artefact of the Soviet state.
“There is no actual starvation or death from starvation; but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” Published in the New York Times on 30 March 1933, this curious statement appeared at a time when millions of people were dying of hunger in the Soviet Union. Since the famine was covered up then and for many years after, it is impossible to know the exact numbers that perished. But that deaths ran into millions was clear to some people at the time, including the American journalist Eugene Lyons, who cites the statement in a chapter of his book Assignment in Utopia (1937) entitled “The Press Corps Conceals a Famine”.
Lyons’s book is remarkable for many reasons. In it he reports everyday scenes in Soviet Russia that he and other correspondents omitted to mention in their dispatches: the “hundreds of bedraggled refugees” from the devastated areas who camped around railway stations faster than the police could clear them; peasants being led by soldiers with loaded revolvers through the Moscow streets, “a spectacle too commonplace to win more than a casual glance from the crowds on the sidewalks”; thousands of homeless waifs, “mere infants some of them seemed”, orphaned by the death of their parents during collectivisation, herded by guards from the security services “like bewildered animals, staring vacantly into space”.
A chapter entitled “Two Plus Two Equals Five” – a phrase that George Orwell used in 1984 – captures the peculiar absurdity of Soviet doublethink. Assignment in Utopia is the most revelatory book ever written by a foreign visitor on the Soviet experiment. But the book’s most noteworthy section today is where Lyons reveals the plot in which he and other members of the foreign press corps successfully conspired to discredit the one journalist who reported the 1932-33 famine and to get him expelled from the Soviet Union.
A radical left-winger who had been active in the defence of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and worked as American correspondent for the Soviet news agency Tass, Lyons took up his post as United Press correspondent in 1928 with high hopes of the Soviet regime. He was the first Western journalist to be granted a personal interview with Stalin. By the time of the famine, his hopes had evaporated. He did not join with other foreign correspondents in covering it up out of any ideological sympathy with the Soviet cause. Like them, he feared losing permission to work in the Soviet Union and returning to the West where – in the midst of the Great Depression – he could face unemployment and poverty. Failing to toe the Soviet line could mean career death. Whatever their political sympathies, very few journalists were ready to incur this risk.
Lyons’s account of the conspiracy is presented in matter-of-fact terms. The first reliable report of the famine was published in the Manchester Guardian by the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, a former secretary to Lloyd George who secretly travelled to Ukraine while staying in Moscow and recorded what he saw. Walking alone through villages and collective farms, he met with the cry: “There is no bread; we are dying.”
A crust from his own supplies that he tossed into a spittoon during a railway journey was immediately fished out and consumed by another passenger. Jones’s reward for his reports was to be barred from entering the Soviet Union ever again. The pretext for his expulsion was that he was an unreliable reporter whose veracity could not be trusted. This was the message purveyed by Lyons and the rest of the press corps after they met with a senior Soviet press officer in a hotel room and were persuaded to collude in destroying Jones’s reputation. Lyons writes: “Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes – but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation… The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka… the party did not break up until the early morning hours.”
Following his expulsion from the Soviet Union Jones worked as a local reporter in Cardiff, then managed to resume a career as a foreign correspondent as a result of a chance meeting with the press magnate William Randolph Hearst, who had a country house near the city. In the course of his work Jones went to China to report on the Sino-Japanese conflict, and while travelling in a remote part of the country was kidnapped and killed by bandits. There has been speculation regarding Soviet involvement in his death, but no clear evidence. He may have been simply unlucky when travelling through lawless territory.
However he died, Jones was a casualty of the conspiracy Lyons records in his book. Lyons and his fellow correspondents helped obscure for decades the scale of the man-made Soviet famine of 1932-33. Discrediting Jones was a necessary part of this operation, but the deception was assisted by the attitudes of liberals at the time.
The influential American journalist Louis Fischer, who visited the Soviet Union in 1932, promoted the official line that any disruption in food supplies that may have occurred – Fischer denied categorically that there was any starvation in Russia – was the result of bad harvests and a wrecking campaign directed by anti-Soviet forces. Never a Communist Party member, Fischer belonged in the large community of interwar left-liberal fellow travellers who believed the Soviet Union embodied the cause of human progress and must therefore be shielded against any damaging reports. Only when the Cold War had taken hold and legions of sympathisers recanted did Fischer shift tack and admit to what he must have known all along. Until then he seems to have regarded the human cost of the Soviet experiment as a price worth paying.
This was also the view of a wide range of Soviet sympathisers who held to what George Orwell, in an essay in 1945, described as “catastrophic gradualism” – the theory that human progress advances through cataclysmic events, often involving dictatorship and mass murder. Some of these people were socialists, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, others – including Conservatives such as Anthony Eden – favoured capitalism in their own countries but communism in Russia. All of them viewed the Soviet Union as an essentially progressive, though occasionally overambitious regime. Catastrophic gradualism was, in effect, an application of liberal meliorism to what was regarded as an exceptionally backward section of humankind.
The campaign to hush up the Soviet famine worked because it told these liberals what they wanted to hear. Ironically, a part of its success was due to a conspiracy – organised by Lyons and his colleagues in Moscow – of the sort liberals used to insist does not happen. At the same time, an intimation of a conspiratorial turn in the liberal mind was revealed when reports of mass death from hunger were dismissed as the fabrications of a right-wing cabal. For these liberals, the Soviet famine was fake news.
The definitive study of conspiracy theory in politics is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. First appearing as an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, Hofstadter’s analysis showed how a mindset shaped by paranoid suspicions fuelled not only the supporters of the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater but other movements on the further reaches of the American right. Hofstadter’s justly celebrated essay contains vital insights into politics today. But they apply with equal force to liberals, among whom belief in the covert orchestration of the recent political upheavals in Europe and the United States has become widespread. Former president Jimmy Carter stated flatly in June of this year that Trump won the election of 2016 because of Russian interference. Somewhat similar claims have been made in Britain about the Brexit referendum by Ben Bradshaw MP and the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, among others. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that theories of this kind are the closest liberals have come to explaining the political metamorphoses of the past few years.
Of course there is a grain of truth in these theories. No one who knows anything about Vladimir Putin’s Russia can seriously doubt that it has tried to meddle in Western politics. There are well-evidenced links between Russia and far-right European parties, including funding arrangements, and signs that Russia used social media to target potential Trump and Leave voters. The Russian state has been a pioneer in developing information warfare. Yet none of its interventions, separately or taken together, come anywhere close to showing that Russia engineered the sea-change that has occurred. The scale, depth and longevity of popular mistrust in liberal ruling elites are simply too great for any such account to be credible.
Rose-tinted view: Nick Clegg and David Cameron face the press at Downing Street, May 2010
The mistrust began with disinformation surrounding the Iraq War, increased with the global financial crisis and reached a recent peak with successive iterations of “Project Fear” in the Brexit information war. In Europe, distrust of liberal elites is reflected in the continuing advance of populist parties in Italy and Hungary, among other countries. In all these cases, such elites are being rejected because of their inability to handle crises seen to be of their own making. The near-meltdown of the financial system and chronic difficulties with immigration have all but destroyed the credibility of the liberal centre. No external intervention could have inflicted anything like the damage these episodes have done in undermining its authority. But it is a safe bet that plenty of liberals will continue to believe that outside forces have masterminded the decomposition of the political order they once believed permanent. Nothing will induce them to accept that they have authored their own undoing. With typically unthinking brio, David Cameron has explained Brexit as being a result of “populism”. His partner in the coalition government of 2010-15, Nick Clegg, seems to think much the same. Neither of them seems to have considered the possibility that their policies might have produced the populist reaction.
This is why liberals find conspiracy theory attractive. It serves to exonerate them from responsibility for what has gone wrong. Supported by liberals in all parties, a decade of austerity produced cuts in public services and infrastructure that damaged much of the British population. Liberals in all parties also promoted large-scale immigration. Anyone who suggested it might have costs as well as benefits, especially for the working poor, was denounced as racist. The rise of Ukip, and then of the Brexit Party, was the predictable result. Populism is the creation of a liberal political class that blames its decline on the stupidity of voters. If the liberal idea is dead, as Vladimir Putin has claimed, it is liberals who have acted as his useful idiots and killed it.
To be sure, liberals will reject any idea that they have brought about their downfall. If they were ever at fault, it was in not being liberal enough. The remedy for the failings of liberalism can only be more liberalism. To think otherwise would be to accept that their view of politics is fundamentally flawed. How could the most rational ruling elite in history – as liberals perceive themselves to be – fail to comprehend the world around them? Like the nativists they attack, liberals find a strange comfort in the belief that their societies are being subverted by external forces.
The fellow travellers of Lyons’s day believed the spectacular achievements of Soviet communism were being undone by anti-Soviet wrecking gangs. Similarly, liberals today like to think that steady progress in the West is being sabotaged by meddling foreign powers and posturing figures such as Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser. Deep-seated problems in market capitalism are being ignored, and popular discontent viewed as the result of sinister manipulation rather than being the unsurprising consequence of a dysfunctional economy and political system.
With large sections of the public suspicious of liberal elites and liberals themselves gripped by visions of dark plots, we have entered a new age of conspiratorial thinking. The paranoid mindset is not confined to politics. Anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers regard well-founded science as fraud perpetrated by sinister interests. Equally, conspiracy is perceived where there is none. The credibility given by senior politicians and police officers to fantastical allegations of an elite Westminster paedophile ring is significant not only because it ruined the lives of those wrongly accused. It betrays the spread of the mentality of the witch-hunt.
The persecution of academics who depart from prevailing intellectual orthodoxies on race, gender and empire, for example, is rightly condemned as a denial of free speech. More fundamentally, though, such persecution is an attempt to root out evil – to identify, punish and anathematise thought crimes that supposedly prop up structures of repression. In what is by now a familiar irony, ultra-liberals often lead the Inquisition.
It is hard to envision an end to this new era. Rather than being a disorder of those who have lost their reason, paranoia is a state of mind that afflicts people with nothing left but their reason. Very often it is a protest against unimportance: believing you are being persecuted feels better than knowing you are being ignored. In its role as a psychological defence mechanism, paranoia shows a failing mind projecting its own twisted patterns on to an indecipherable world. In periods of political upheaval paranoid suspicion can become a contagious disease. Nothing better illustrates this than the rise of the language of the Protocols in one of Britain’s historic parties. Though the Corbyn project may now be broken, the fact that it could conquer Labour’s political heights is a mark of how quickly liberal societies can descend into a politics of hate and delusion.
The danger is that new technologies can make chronic suspicion seem a rational way of living. “Deepfake” videos that use artificial intelligence to create images of actual people in fabricated situations will make the media environment even more treacherous. The widespread use of virtual and augmented reality technologies may blur the distinction between actual and imaginary worlds to a point at which it becomes almost invisible. One of the deeper paradoxes of our time is that a post-truth culture is coming about as a result of accelerating progress in science and technology.
If there is a remedy for this predicament, liberals cannot supply it. Detecting the fingerprints of conspirators in the disarray of their societies, they are possessed by the pathology they rage against. Unwilling to admit why progress has foundered, liberals have embraced the worst kind of magical thinking. The dark forces they see conspiring around them are shadows of a resistance to reality that exists in themselves.