Robert Conquest's critique of the theory and practice of socialism in its various forms is a defence of the open pluralist society against its enemies. Conquest argues that "the twentieth century's dangers and disasters were largely attributable...to the specific insane ideas or mind-sets that took control of certain parties and populations". The young people who committed terrorist acts were inspired less by ideals as by "the abstractions of fashionable academics".
He identifies those academics as "a gaggle of misleaders" who include C P Snow, Simone de Beauvoir, John Kenneth Galbraith and CNN's television documentary Cold War. He accused Snow of failing to deal with Soviet writers objectively or recognising the repressive conditions under which they wrote. De Beauvoir is berated for justifying the controlled press in China as a means of educating the uninformed population while Galbraith was criticised for imagining, less than four years before the fall of communism, that Western and Soviet economies were converging. He contrasts these with George Orwell who recognised the true nature of Soviet rule long before he wrote Animal Farm. In particular, he reminds his readers that as early as the 1960's he was predicting the inevitability of the fall of communism, citing the inefficient management of society that came with the planned economy so beloved of left wing Western intellectuals.
Almost a third of the book is devoted to "horrible examples" of the reality of revolutionary rule which he contrasts with the idealistic view of communism held by prominent historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E H Carr. Accusing Hobsbawm of "a massive reality denial" he notes Hobsbawm's "factually and intellectually disorienting account of the modern world" has not undermined his position as a favourite amongst the British establishment. The Russian revolution was not "made by the masses" as proclaimed by Hobsbawm but by a small group of professional revolutionary imposing their ideology on the masses by means of political terror. Conquest goes on to explain how the increasing availability of documents since the collapse of Marxism-Leninism reinforces the correctness of his own studies of the Great Terror of the 1930's during which time many Westerners, including Ambassador Davies of the United States and the Webbs in Great Britain became misinformers of the realities of Soviet life.
Neither was the Soviet hierarchy content to suppress democracy at home. It provided vast amounts of money for Communist parties throughout Europe to maintain a barrage of propaganda on its behalf. As early as 1921 the Communist Party of Great Britain received £55,000 per annum at a time when its own income was around £100. As such it created a false language which still permeates the far left of the political spectrum where "fascism" is a catch all term to describe non-Communist movements. Conquest attributes Soviet failures during the second world war to Stalin's inadequate grasp of Hitler's intentions and his irrational executions of Red Army generals both before and during the War. He criticises the Allies for not dealing honestly with the Katyn massacre which they allowed to be attributed to the Nazis when the evidence pointed to the Soviet Union as the guilty party (a fact which the Soviets admitted fifty years after the event).
Conquest emphases the failure of Western commentators to recognise that "the Marxist-Leninist creed saw the world as a scene of essential antagonisms and insisted that the conflict must be pursued until the overthrow of the non-Communist order the world over." This policy was only abandoned by the last Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1990. He points to the success of the United States' policy of containment and accuses those who labelled the West as being aggressive as being in favour of the suppression of open societies. In the long term, of course, those societies freed themselves from the oppression of communist rule with the notable exceptions of North Korea, Cuba and China.
Conquest concludes that in the future, "our assorted idea-driven credos will appear to be primitive delusions and much of our cultures' output of sophisticated argument will seem absurd." In this volume, at least, Conquest has brought that day forward by ensuring that "our powers of dupe-detection (are) up to scratch. Ultimately, that is the power of the free society and the reason why it should be defended against all those who seek to destroy it.