In Search of Central Europe The following is an extract of a speech delivered by our Editor in Budapest

It’s an honour to be in Budapest for the first time, and an even greater honour to speak at a conference regarding one of my predecessors as Editor of The Salisbury Review. My name is Mutaz Ahmed and as well as editing the Review, a role I accepted almost a year ago, I am an opinions editor at The Daily Telegraph in London. I’m proud to say that both publications have a history of standing up to communism in Central Europe, and continue to promote conservatism today. 

I’d like to begin this presentation by going back to the very first edition of the The Salisbury Review, published in 1982. It carried a foundational statement regarding the magazine’s intentions – namely that it will serve to articulate a conservative doctrine. This was always going to be fraught with difficulties given, to quote Sir Roger himself, that “conservatives are not bound to believe that every human value can be analysed and that every tenable conviction can be stated in terms of mathematical or verbal logic”. 

But the Review’s founders recognised that if conservatism is not articulated as precisely as possible our opponents will ultimately be better understood, and that it is therefore our duty to beat them at their own game. Marxism is easy because it is simple to understand, even if it is utterly misguided. Conservatism is more difficult, built on natural emotions. 

The 1982 statement referenced Edmund Burke, a man who articulated classical conservatism more eloquently than almost anyone else. He was responding to events beyond England’s frontiers, opposing the heavy-handed uprooting of traditional Indian society by Warren Hastings, as well as against the Enlightenment ideas that had galvanised the French Revolution. He and others have shown us that while conservatism is rooted in the local – in our communities and families – the greatest lessons can sometimes be drawn from international events. 

That is what drew The Salisbury Review to events in Central Europe. Sir Roger, and the writers he featured in the magazine, hoped to illustrate that the need for a conservative doctrine is as widespread as the civilisation from which it arises, and that the ideas and images of conservatism can be made available in as many ways as there are forms of social existence through which to encounter them. 

The foundational statement came at the time of the post-Afghanistan “peace offensive” launched by the Soviet Union, and while the “Peace Movement” in the West was gathering momentum. I say “peace” in quotes for good reason. Sir Roger had been travelling in Poland and Czechoslovakia for two years and had seen enough to recognise that peace was not, in reality, on the Soviet agenda. 

But while he was learning and establishing his thoughts, the Conservative Party in Britain was not thinking much about the situation at all. It simply toed its usual establishment line, denouncing the Soviet threat while not doing enough to look for sympathisers and to build natural alliances in Central Europe – a complacency for which it would pay a heavy price over the next thirty years. This approach was framed as being “pragmatic”. In reality, it was reckless. 

Sir Roger understood the risks of such complacency better than most. Among the dissident networks in Central Europe, he was “struck by the manifest hunger for anti-socialist arguments and ideas. The intellectuals of Central Europe were searching for a public doctrine; not so much a set of axioms as a language with which to recuperate the human reality that had been stolen by communist dogma… And because, alone among Western politicians, Thatcher and Reagan had shown a determination not merely to confine communism but, if possible, to destroy it, the dissidents looked to the conservative movements in the West to provide the concepts they needed.” 

This is what made the Review so critical not just in the 80s, but in the post-Thatcher era of the 90s. It would serve a double purpose: teaching British conservatives lessons from conservatism in Central Europe while promoting English philosophy to dissidents in communist nations. 

Sir Roger let it be known in the underground networks that the Review would like to publish regular communications from the catacombs, and that it would strive to find a common language with those in the East who shared its conservative convictions. The proximate result would be a regular column entitled “In Search of Central Europe”, which served as a vehicle for reflection, analysis and comment devoted to the living culture of those hidden nations. 

Of course, this was easier said than done. Writers had to use pseudonyms to avoid identification. This included “Petr Fidelius”, whose articles on socialist language in 1984 taught us how to understand not just the rhetoric deployed by the Left-wing propaganda machine in Central Europe, but also the remarkably similar rhetoric deployed by university professors in England. Indeed, we still hear a modern form of this rhetoric in universities across the West today, in the form of wokery. And while I use the term rhetoric, Sir Roger used the more appropriate term, “gobbledegook”. 

Other anonymous writers included “Konstanin and Basil”, who gave a moving description of the underground church in the Czech prison system in 1985, and “Ivan Volgin’s” accounts of homo sovietivus. Sir Roger described these accounts as being “more evocative and penetrating even than those of Zinoviev, its imagery reminiscent of Bulgakov.” 

In fact, such was the anonymity of the accounts that twenty years after publishing them, in the early 2000s, Sir Roger wrote that “even today I am not sure who composed the ‘open letter to the veterans of the white army’ that was smuggled to us from Moscow in 1987, or the letter from Poland protesting against Reagan’s sanctions in 1984.” But there were also those brave dissidents who had no time for anonymity and asked for their articles to be published under real names. These included Vaclav Havel, as well as Gaspar Tamas. 

In some cases, there was a price to be paid. When Jan Carnogursky, then leader of the underground seminars in Slovakia, was arrested in 1989, the indictment mentioned an article of his in The Salisbury Review. His experience highlighted a central point: that the Review was in the crosshairs of real ideological politics, in real time, with potentially dangerous consequences. 

Thankfully, the trial of Carnogursky was interrupted by the collapse of communism itself. Carnogursky went on to become leader of the Christian Democrats and twice prime minister of Slovakia. His career, I think it’s fair to say, was ultimately advanced by his writings in the Review. But we do not take all the credit. 

Such events gave the Salisbury Review a certain notoriety, which in turn boosted our popularity. As a consequence of our giving a voice to dissidents in this part of Europe, they gave us a megaphone – or what those in the marketing world today would call “free promotion”. Even in Prague, the samizdat edition of the Review began to appear by 1986. 

By that point, Sir Roger had already been expelled from Czechoslovakia and regularly followed in Poland. He was having a tough time while the Review he helped found was flourishing. This divided reality was reflected on a broader level. While in Britain, the Review’s commissioners were required to graft hard to attract writers, in the so-called socialist countries of Central Europe, it achieved greater impact than almost any other Western periodical at the time. 

For communists, we were the feared publication. In 1987 the Police Museum in Prague, a propaganda institute, had an exhibit dedicated to the “unofficial secret agent”. There stood a plastic figure, a young man, with a spy camera. And in his briefcase there was – you guessed it – a copy of The Salisbury Review. This was of course a negative gesture. It was designed to make us look bad. We were the home of the traitors. It was the greatest honour we could ever have received. 

The real stories of how the Review got around are rather less glamorous, but even more impressive. Articles were smuggled to commissioners on wafer-thin pages. Copies of the magazines were distributed in prisons and hidden under carpets. That faith in the written word was both inspirational and vital in fighting the omnipotent propagandists. I will come back to this point later. 

But even in non-communist Britain, the task of simply reading the Review was more difficult than it needed to be, and the burden of appearing in it even more so. It was not displayed in many university libraries, and societies in red-brick universities such as Birbeck, where Sir Roger was a professor, took an actively hostile stance. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, for instance, the Politics Society at Birbeck called a meeting to discuss the matter. Naturally, they invited a communist professor of history and the editor of the New Left Review. Sir Roger, who obviously had a vast knowledge in this field, was not invited. Yet this didn’t bother him. 

In fact, he took great pleasure in the knowledge that the students had not even known that the magazine of those who had led the counter-revolution was edited from within their own college walls. Had the students known, one hopes that they might have wanted to hear about it from the editor himself. I think this speaks not just to the anti-intellectual culture within British universities in the modern era, but also to the humility of Sir Roger. 

He only cared that the Review was right, and that those who wrote in its pages would have the opportunity to shape a new Central Europe, based on its own culture and traditions rather than a superseding ideology. 

Reading the archive in preparation for this presentation, one account stuck out to me. It was written by a reader from Czechoslovakia for one of our anniversary editions. He described being handed a monthly supply of samizdat journals and materials. As usual, he had a week to read them and a week to make twelve copies of everything for his own contacts. But this time, it included something new: a copy of The Salisbury Review. It was so different from anything else in the bundle. It was unabashed and unashamed – he called it a “revelation”. 

To quote the reader, “it made conservative themes the most potent inspiration for thought and action in the Czech clandestine circles in the latter half of the 1980s, just before the fall of communism.” Its text exposed the lie of the “new Left” and its thinkers – something the Czechs had always known, or at least suspected, but with their lack of data and reliable information would not have been able to demonstrate in such a well-documented way. 

He described the need for a language to replace the rhetoric – to replace what Sir Roger called gobbledygook. They needed this language to be able to speak about the human condition again, to fight propaganda with reality. And that ability – that language – could not be taken for granted. Indeed, it was almost lost under two socialist experiments carried out in this part of the world over fifty years, from German national socialism to Soviet international socialism. But like a super-powered excavation machine, the Review empowered people like this reader to find answers within their own human reality. Put more simply, it encouraged them to call a spade a spade. 

I spoke a moment ago about the faith of conservative writers in Central Europe in the 80s; the belief that the written word is a powerful tool, and that articulating conservatism is a vital task for those of us who want it to spread. Sadly, I fear that faith is being lost today, even among those with conservative minds. There is a feeling that the battle is being lost so thoroughly in Western Europe that there is no point in arguing or writing. 

Conservative magazines in London now feel the need to publish wokery in order to reflect the dominant narrative in the public sphere. Traditional newspapers feel the need to move Left in order to maintain an audience. Some conservative thinkers have gone silent for fear of being cancelled – or having already been cancelled – even if their career depends on their conservative thoughts. Universities, which were once a home of conservatism, have been turned into nationalised industries churning out worthless degrees, used essentially as welfare machines for the mediocre. They now embody the decline of intellectualism, original thought, and conservative argumentation. 

Finally, and this is a personal point, the expectation that the growing ethnic minority communities in the West will inevitably support Left-wing politics – the belief that all black people, for instance, must be woke – means that there is little effort among conservatives to build natural allies across the religions and races. Where conservatism, as I said before, is rooted in the local, multiculturalism is rooted in nothing. Yet we conservatives increasingly defer to it at our own expense. 

I will not pretend that The Salisbury Review today is what it was in the 80s and 90s. It is a much smaller magazine. In recent years, before I took over, I feared that it was losing its way. The decline of communism and then socialism in this part of the world meant that it lacked purpose. 

In 1993, on the tenth anniversary of the Review, this is what it looked like [hold up blue copy]. It was simple, clean and filled with words. It focused on educating and delivering a message. Most importantly, it did not try to be a mainstream periodical. It still carried the “In Search of Central Europe” column. It still focused on ideology; it still caricatured Left-wing propaganda, and it still cared for this part of the world. A statement on the very first page deconstructed communism, which had derived, to quote the editorial, “from its ability to induce the psychic state of war in the absence of war, to cancel the forms and procedures of peaceful bargaining and to conscript its followers to a ‘struggle’ that embraces all mankind”. 

In 2002, on the twentieth anniversary of the Review, this is what it looked like [hold up yellow copy]. You will notice that nothing much had changed. Again, it carried the “In Search of Central Europe” column. It featured an article by Jessica Douglas-Home on examples of English art in Central Europe, Mervyn Hiskett on Bosnia, Chandler Rosenberger on Kosovo, and continued in this light. 

By 2015, however, the look and feel had begun to change. By now, “In Search of Central Europe” was only carried from time to time. Other, more transient topics took priority. 

When I became editor, I saw it as my first task to return it – gradually but definitively – to what it once was. The original front page is back. The simplicity has returned. It is once again gripped by text, even if that text is of a larger font to accommodate an older readership. “In Search of Central Europe” will soon be a regular column again and it will feature a new writer for every edition. We will also have a regular Letter from Budapest, focusing on conservative Hungarian politics, for which we are currently in search of a writer. 

I’d like to say that The Salisbury Review is back, returning to the roots set down in this soil by Sir Roger and others over 40 years. But I will let you be the final judges of that. 

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