Discover more from Wrong Side of History
‘The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas’
Paul Johnson’s ‘Intellectuals’ chronicled some of history’s greatest monsters
The great journalist, author and historian Paul Johnson has died, aged 94. Editor of the New Statesman in the late 1960s, Johnson was one of the most famous examples of British journalists who moved from Left to Right, part of a club that includes Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips among its number, and in later life he wrote a brilliant column for the Spectator.
But Johnson is best known to many for his history books, one of the most entertaining being Intellectuals. Published in 1989 and structured as a series of – very critical – biographies of great philosophers, poets, playwrights and novelists, Johnson’s book got to the essence of the intellectual mindset in all its worst aspects: their intense selfishness and narcissism, their callousness towards friends and lovers, and their fondness for giving moral support to some of the worst ideas and regimes in history.
Wrong Side of History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
One of the most prominent Catholics in British journalism, Johnson saw secular intellectuals as modern successors to the theologians of the medieval Church, the difference being that, without the restraints of religious institutions, their egotism was uncontrolled.
Writers and artists are often incredibly selfish people, and this is true across the political spectrum, but of course it’s far more satisfying to read about those men who claimed to be the saviour of the poor and humble yet were so relentlessly horrible to actual people around them. That’s what makes the book – published just as the system imagined by one of its subjects came crashing down in eastern Europe – so satisfying.
It begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ‘first of the modern intellectuals’ and perhaps the subject of Johnson’s most intense vitriol.
‘Older men like Voltaire had started the work of demolishing the altars and enthroning reason,’ he wrote: ‘But Rousseau was the first to combine all the salient characteristics of the modern Promethean: the assertion of his right to reject the existing order in its entirety; confidence in his capacity to refashion it from the bottom in accordance with principles of his own devising belief that this could be achieved by the political process; and, not least, recognition of the huge part instinct, intuition and impulse play in human conduct.
‘He believed he had a unique love for humanity and had been endowed with unprecedented gifts and insights to increase its felicity.’ He was also an appalling human being.
Rousseau admittedly had a hard life, his early years dominated by a father whose cruelty helped to shape his anti-authority, patria-phobic worldview. Jean-Jacques’s elder brother was sent to a reformatory ‘at the father’s request, on the grounds that he was incorrigibly wicked’; he ran away and was never seen again.
The philosopher also endured great financial hardship, trying his hand at 13 jobs and failing in all of them; he had problems with his penis, which he referred to as a ‘malformation of an organ,’ and had to use a catheter to urinate (Johnson suggests he had hypospadias).
‘Few men have shed so many tears,’ Rousseau said of himself. ‘What could your miseries have in common with mine? My situation is unique, unheard of since the beginning of time’. Among his other lines, he said ‘Show me a better man than me, a heart more loving, more tender, more sensitive’, ‘I feel too superior to hate’, and ‘I love myself too much to hate anybody’.
‘Rousseau was the first intellectual to proclaim himself, repeatedly, the friend of all mankind,’ Johnson wrote: ‘But loving as he did humanity in general, he developed a strong propensity for quarrelling with human beings in particular.’
Dr Théodore Tronchin of Geneva, a former friend, said ‘How is it possible that the friend of mankind is no longer the friend of men, or scarcely so’? Rousseau even fell out with David Hume, one of the most agreeable and easy-going of men, Hume eventually realising he was ‘a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe’.
But Rousseau said of himself that ‘I have things in my heart which absolve me from being good-mannered’.
Despite all his quarrels, his fantastically optimistic ideas about human nature gathered him a following, who would go along to his salons to hear Rousseau reading extracts of his book – readings that could last between 15 and 17 hours.
Johnson famously turned to the Right during the 1960s, that most revolutionary of decades, and he saw Rousseau as the ultimate proto-60s man. He grew his hair long – ‘my usual careless style with a rough beard’ – and adopted a kaftan, and he eventually realised he could impress upper class ladies by being ‘a brilliant, highly intelligent Brute or Nature’.
Madame Louise d'Épinay, a lover who he treated terribly, said ‘I still feel moved by the simple and original way in which he recounted his misfortunes’. Another mistress, Madame de Warens, effectively supported him in hard times but, when she fell into destitution, he did nothing to prevent her dying of malnutrition.
Rousseau had a ‘pseudo-wedding’ with his mistress Therese Levasseur where he gave a speech about himself, saying there would be statues erected to him one day and ‘it will then be no empty honour to have been a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’. He later accused her brother of stealing his 42 fine shirts and when he had guests for dinner she was not allowed to sit down. He praised her as ‘a simple girl without flirtatiousness’, ‘timorous and easily dominated’.
This easily-dominated woman gave birth to five of his children, whom he had sent to an orphanage where two-thirds of babies died within the first year and just one in 20 reached adulthood, usually becoming beggars. He made almost no attempt to ever track them down, and said having children was ‘an inconvenience’.
‘How could I achieve the tranquillity of mind necessary for my work, my garret filled with domestic cares and the noise of children?’ He would have been forced to do degrading work ‘to all those infamous acts which fill me with such justified horror’.
He was spared that horror and instead given time to develop his ideas, which were fashionable, attractive and completely unworkable. ‘The fruits of the earth belong to us all, the earth itself to none’, he said, and hoped that ‘the rich and the privileged would be replaced by the state which reflected the general will.’
What would this mean in practice? ‘The people making laws for itself cannot be unjust… The general will is always righteous’.
Despite his ideas veering between woeful naivety and sinister authoritarianism, they proved hugely popular, especially with the men and women who in 1789, just a decade after his death, would bring France’s old regime crashing down — with horrific consequences. As Thomas Carlyle famously said of Rousseau’s The Social Contract: ‘The second edition was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first.’
Rousseau was perhaps the most influential figure of the modern era. In particular his rejection of original sin would become far more popular in the late 20th century; indeed it is at the core of what we call the culture war, and its fundamental conflict over human nature.
The only intellectual to rival him in influence was another great sponger, Karl Marx, although it’s hard not to have a soft spot for him: a rackety journalist who liked a drink and was hopeless with money, always sticking with his political theories even as the countervailing evidence piled up, filled with lazy prejudices against various foreign nationalities and burning with hatred against his own bourgeois class; a relatable figure.
Marx had a particular fascination with cataclysmic social unrest and violence, clear even from his youth, when he began writing poetry ‘around two main themes: his love for the girl next door, Jenny von Westphalen, of Prussian-Scotch descent, whom he married in 1841; and world destruction.’
His book of poetry ‘Savage Songs’ featured the lines:
‘We are chained, shattered, empty, frightened
Eternally chained to this marble block of being…
We are the apes of a cold God.’
Johnson suggests: ‘This apocalyptic vision of an immense, impending catastrophe on the existing system remained with him throughout his life: it is there in the poetry, it is the background to The Communist Manifesto of 1848, and it is the climax of Capital itself.’
There is plenty of similarly destructive language throughout the work of this self-consciously scientific thinker, who reworked millenarian Christianity for people who spent too much time being students. His book The German Ideology talked of ‘the Day of Judgment… when the reflections of burning cities are seen in the heavens…’ while one speech from 1856 contains the lines ‘History is the judge, its executioner the proletariat’.
In this new religion the proletariat were cast as redeemers although, like so many intellectuals who idealised the workers or peasants, Marx never made any effort to meet them, and when he did, such as the working men at the German Workers Education Society, Johnson says he was horrified by how moderate they were. ‘Self-educated, disciplined, solemn, well-mannered, very anti-bohemian, anxious to transform society but moderate about the practical steps to this end. They did not share Marx’s apocalyptic visions and, above all, they did not talk his academic jargon.’
When they formed the First International, Marx made sure that working-class socialists weren’t allowed anywhere near the important positions; he had his one proletarian colleague, Wilhelm Weitling, put on a ‘quasi trial’.
Weitling said he had become a socialist to help working people rather than doctrines thought up in a study, and according to an eyewitness this ‘so enraged Marx that he struck his fist on the table so violently that the lamp shook. Jumping to his feet he shouted, “Ignorance has never helped anybody yet”. The meeting ended with him in a rage.’ (Weitling was a crank, in fairness.)
Marx had a slightly squalid private life. He impregnated the maid while his wife was pregnant, with the son fostered by a working-class family in Hackney. He famously sponged off Engels and even when Engel’s beloved mistress died, Marx wrote him a letter which briefly acknowledged his loss and then immediately asked for more money.
But Marx was also funny, and that went a long way. Perhaps the greatest stain against him is his wholly selective use of evidence in order to back his worldview. This is something journalists are always doing, but Marx’s theory ended up having gigantic, murderous consequences.
For his influential polemics against capitalism, he used sources that were wildly out of date, or that came from Parliamentary inquiries looking into injustices which Parliament was tackling. This is common with the way we view the Victorian era, a black legend that Marx did much to help, fuelled by agricultural romanticism (life for most people before the industrial revolution was terrible); we criticise Victorians for the conditions they inherited, because those conditions were publicised in order so they could be improved. In fact, contrary to Marx’s theory, life was getting much better, even for the poorest.
Marx helped to blacken our idea of Victorian capitalism, while our view of the Victorian family was much influenced by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, of whom Johnson wrote: ‘Whereas Rousseau persuaded men and women to go back to nature and in so doing precipitated a collective revolution, Ibsen preached the revolt of the individual against the ancient regime of inhibitions and prejudices which held sway in every small town, indeed in every family. He taught men, and especially women, that their individual conscience and their personal notions of freedom have moral precedence over the requirements of society.
‘In doing so he precipitated a revolution in attitudes and behaviour which began even in his own lifetime and has been proceeding, in sudden jumps and spasms, ever since. Long before Freud, he laid the foundations of the permissive society. Perhaps not even Rousseau, and certainly not Marx, has had more influence over the way people, as opposed to governments, actually behave. He and his work form one of the keystones of the arch of modernity.’
Which makes it so satisfying to read of his own personal hypocrisy and greed. As Johnson noted, of Ibsen’s claim that the working class were ‘nearest to my heart’: ‘This was humbug. Nothing was near to his heart except his wallet. He never paid the slightest attention to working men in real life or had anything but contempt for their opinions.’
Ibsen’s Brand came out the same time as Capital and served as ‘an attack on conventional materialism and a plea to follow the private conscience against the rules of society, perhaps the central theme of his life’s work.’
His plays from 1877 to 1881 ‘coincided with the breakdown of the long mid-Victorian boom and a new mood of anxiety and disquiet in society. Ibsen asked disturbing questions about the power of money, the oppression of women, even the taboo subject of sexual disease.’
Like many progressives since, he was good at pointing out flaws in the system without offering any alternative except the most vacuous. ‘The state must be abolished,’ he wrote in one letter: ‘Now there’s a revolution to which I will gladly lend my shoulder. Abolish the concept of the state, establish the principle of free will.’ What can go wrong?
Ibsen said that ‘the minority is always right’ by which he meant ‘the minority which forges ahead in territory which the majority has not reached’.
‘It was Ibsen… who first deliberately and systematically, and with stunning success, used the stage to bring about a revolution in social attitudes.’
Another playwright, Bertolt Brecht, comes off far worse, a man who ‘in the two decades after his death, the 1960s and 1970s… was probably the most influential writer in the world.’
Brecht was a leading player in the genre of Schuloper, or school opera, political dramas in which ‘The actors became mere political instruments, men-machines rather than artists, and the characters in the plays were not individuals but types, performing highly formalised actions.’ This genre reached ‘its nadir with the grim opera-dramas staged by Madame Mao’.
Brecht had ‘lefted’ his name from Bertold to Bertolt and cultivated a working-class image, even though he lived in stupendous luxury. ‘He polished his proletarian image as well as his plays. Extreme care was taken in tailoring his worker’s suits.’ Theodor Adorno said Brecht spent hours a day putting dirt under his fingernails to get the effect.
Brecht’s golden rule, Johnson said, was: ‘Be good to yourself’. And, deeply satisfying to the reader, he was terrible to the people around him, controlling and sometimes even spying on girlfriends. ‘Ideas came before people, Mankind with a capital “M” before men and women, wives, sons or daughters.’
Photographer Florence Homolka said of him that ‘in his human relationships he was a fighter for people’s rights without being overly concerned with the happiness of persons close to him’.
All of these faults, though, pale compared to his slavish devotion to Stalin. When told about the purges being carried out in Soviet Russia, he replied: ‘The more innocent they are, the more they deserved to be shot.’ When his former girlfriend Carola Neher was arrested in Moscow, he said ‘If she has been condemned, there must have been substantial evidence against her.’ She died in prison a couple of years later, having done nothing wrong.
Brecht even wrote a eulogy for Stalin, lamenting upon the mass murderers’s death that: ‘The oppressed of all five continents… must have felt their heartbeats stop when they heard that Stalin was dead. He was the embodiment of their hopes.’ Two years later he was awarded the hilariously named Stalin Peace Prize, and ‘most of the 160,000 roubles went straight into his Swiss account.’
Like so many communist sympathisers, Brecht was keen to label any opponent a fascist, a tactic that has proved very effective these past few decades. During the East German strike of 1953 Brecht wrote a letter to the party-controlled Neues Deutschland saying: ‘Organised fascist elements tried to abuse this [economic] dissatisfaction for their bloody purpose… It was obvious that the intervention of the Soviet troops was in no way directed against the workers’ demonstrations. It was perfectly evident that it was directed exclusively against the attempt to start a new holocaust.’ He wrote to a West German publisher, claiming that the strikers were ‘a fascistic and war-mongering rabble’.
Again, Brecht didn’t much meet the redemptive force of Marx’s imagination, and when he spoke to a plumber who said he wanted free elections, the playwright was horrified: ‘In that case the Nazis will be elected.’
‘He did not trust the German people,’ Johnson reflected, ‘and he preferred Soviet colonial rule to democracy.’
But even Brecht is vaguely human compared to Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the most appalling of Johnson’s subjects. ‘Nothing is so powerful, Victor Hugo has laid down, as an idea whose time has come,’ and Sartre’s vision of freedom, mixing sexual freedom and socialism and prefiguring the progressivism of our age, was ideally placed for the post-war era.
Like Marx, he had a difficult relationship with workers, and on one occasion when Sartre went to a Renault factory to preach his radical leftist message, ‘the workers were not having it,’ as one witness recalled. Instead, ‘Sartre’s congregation consisted entirely of the few Maoists he had brought with him.’
Sartre was perhaps the most notorious apologist for violent dictators. He visited Russia in 1954 where he gave the ‘most grovelling account of the Soviet state by a major Western intellectual since the notorious expedition by George Bernard Shaw in the early 1930s’.
He spent the 1960s travelling in China and the developing world, where his lover Simone de Beauvoir wore ethnic skirts and scarfs, a pair of proto-gap yah travellers. He called Castro’s Cuba ‘a direct democracy’ and lavished praise on Mao’s regime, while comparing America to the Nazis (of course).
A huge admirer of Frantz Fanon, Sartre urged that black men should ‘shoot down a European,’ which ‘is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.’ He ‘invented the verbal technique (culled from German philosophy) of identifying the existing order as “violent” (eg “institutionalised violence”) thus justifying killing to overthrow it.’ This misuse of ‘violence’ would of course become even more widespread in the 21st century.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was in Cambodia, whose communist leaders had all studied in France and became fans of Sartre’s philosophy, before taking control of their homeland and killing a quarter of the population.
Edmund Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Gollancz and Kenneth Tynan also feature. Of Wilson, Johnson wrote that men of literature ‘and those who consecrated their lives to it — the priests who tended its altars — should never go whoring after the false god of politics.’
Of course, it’s a timeless source of fascination that some of the most articulate and brilliant thinkers the world produces also support the most obviously appalling systems and governments, long after the sentimental, optimistic theory has given way to bloody reality.
‘Taken as a group,’ Johnson wrote, intellectuals ‘are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. That is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which themselves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action.’
‘The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas,’ he concluded.
Johnson was a great figure in his field, a journalist and popular historian whose books and columns informed and entertained huge numbers of people. I hope they are read in years to come, and that his work has a lasting legacy — but Intellectuals should be read by anyone who places too much faith in ideas.
As for his legacy, I recall reading long ago a column in which Johnson wrote that, were he a wealthy benefactor, the first thing he’d fund is an art school to teach religious painting, the loss of which has been an enormous blow to western civilisation. I don’t know if anything came of that, but it stuck with me for some reason, and the more I thought about it, the wiser it seemed: I hope that someone, somewhere takes up the idea.
Wrong Side of History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.