Book review: “The Intellectuals” by Paul Johnson

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Published in 1988, “The Intellectuals” by Paul Johnson (born 1928) is a unique book. Not only for its quality but because there aren’t many like it. There is “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals” (1927) by Julien Benda, “The intellectuals and the masses (1990)” by John Carey, “Intellectuals and Society” (2010) by Thoma Sowell, and I guess “Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith” (1980) by James H. Billington, which also deals with a somewhat similar subject. But, acknowledging these exceptions, one has to admit that there aren’t many books about the “intellectual class”, its origins, impact, and so on. That seems to be changing, but studying the intellectuals is still taboo. Not surprising if one realizes they have become a new kind of priesthood.


“This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.”

That is how The Intellectuals begins, and it does not betray its goal. These are the intellectuals Johnson studies:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Henrik Ibsen, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, and a few more in the last chapter.

As can be seen, many of them are saints to the Left, although not all of them. That should not be surprising, for various reasons: (1) The intellectual, as contemporary society understands him, is a revolutionary even when being a “conservative.” No intellectual exists to “conserve” anything because that would mean he is not needed. They see themselves as the brains behind those colossal societal revolutions and their motto is always this one: “Society is ill, we are its healers.” (2) To a certain degree, the Left (well, part of it) won the intellectual and cultural wars even if its political arm -communism- lost. The “conservative intellectuals” have mostly been forgotten, and the (for lack of a better term) rightist revolutionaries, those who justified racism, fascism, and so on, have been buried, forgotten or whitewashed when they were co-opted by the left.

Nevertheless, I believe that it would be a mistake to conflate intellectuals and “The Left.” In fact, the modern intellectual has no problem being a leftist and, at the same time, embracing Heidegger, who was a Nazi. What drives them is power and narcissistic fantasies, and I’m sure that if the Germany had won the Second World War, people like Jean-Paul Sartre and others would have embraced the New Arian Order. Paris under the Nazis was bliss for Sartre.

That’s why I like “The Intellectuals”, because -although he does not mention it explicitly- I think its author is aware that there is something -psychologically speaking- distinctive about them, and not just ideology or beliefs. That, some of them, were rotten to the core and ideology was the mask of sanity they used to hide their sociopathy and will to domination.

That may seem a harsh thing to say, but reading about them -sometimes in their own words- their hypocrisy, Messianic or god complexes, and their uncaring or cruel behavior towards their friends, colleagues, sentimental partners, or even children, is chilling.

Not all the intellectuals under study are equal in their “wrongness.” Karl Marx and Rousseau are two of the worst while Bertrand Russell is more palatable and he seems a saint in comparison. Still, the book proves something quite disturbing, that you could pick a random person on the street and he would be, morally speaking, way better than the self-elected intellectuals who constantly pontify about morality and how society should be ruled and arranged. Note the word “arranged”, as if it were a machine.

“But why does it matter if they were ‘bad’ people? What matters is what they wrote.” That’s true if we are talking about an engineer or someone who deals with facts. But intellectuals don’t deal with facts, they are moral preachers who talk about how humanity SHOULD behave. I don’t care if they guy who repairs my computer is a psychopath as long as he doesn’t try to scam me. I DO care if the man who is preaching about morality is a psychopath because, no matter what some people believe, one thing will affect the other. You can’t expect good political philosophy from someone who sees the rest of humanity as sheep or barely conscious robots. Sooner or later his mindset will spill into his philosophy, and he will use that philosophy to rationalize his deeper power fantasies.

It should also be noted that many of the intellectuals under study were plagiarizers and manipulators who lied when they had to talk about facts. Karl Marx and Engels, for example, lied and used wrong and outdated data when they tried to prove that capitalism had impoverished the working classes. That’s not a minor issue since the whole legitimacy of Marxism lies in its “scientific” nature and the allegedly inevitable concentration of capital and the decline of working conditions under capitalism, something that will make violent revolution inevitable. But they lied about that since conditions had improved.

Another sad constant in the book is the mistreatment of women (most of the intellectuals under study are men, by the wat.) Almost all of them were philanderers, liars, misogynists, and adulterers. Unacknowledged children with other women are a constant and, in Rousseau’s instance, he abandoned them in orphanages. And this is why the moral quality of intellectuals matters: Rousseau was one of the fathers of educational theory. Not only that, he was the first secular prophet to proclaim himself “the friend of all humanity” and to conceive himself as some sort of moral reformer and social engineer. We have become so used to this kind of intellectuals that we don’t realize they hardly existed before the 18th-19th century. He was also one of the creators of the Ideology of the State, as a totalitarian entity who should control all aspects of society. As Johnson explains it:

“The State must form the minds of all, not only as children (as it had done to Rousseau’s in the orphanage) but as adult citizens. By a curious chain of infamous moral logic, Rousseau’s iniquity as a parent was linked to his ideological offspring, the future totalitarian state.


Hence -and this is the true revolution Rousseau’s ideas brought about- he moved the political process to the very center of human existence by making the legislator, who is also a pedagogue, into the new Messiah, capable of solving all human problems by creating New Men.”

In other words, society as an orphanage, and human morality as a technical issue that could be resolved with a little social engineer or social tinkering. Unfortunately, in practice, that social engineering meant totalitarianism, guillotine, and the gulag.

Nothing the book says is a secret. Biographies and, even, autobiographies are the primary sources. What I said about Marx manipulating economic data was already discovered while he was still alive, and Hume described Rousseau as “a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe.” That makes me wonder how many people we now know are frauds will be, in the coming decades or centuries, worshiped as saints.

Apocalypticism, elitism, and pathological disgust for the middle classes (especially the bourgeois) and lower classes is also a recurrent theme. Marx, for example, had been obsessed with visions of apocalyptical (and imminent) universal destruction since his adolescence, and it’s possible that his political philosophy was a rationalization of those dark teenage fantasies. And, by the way, he had never visited a single industrial workplace in his whole life. He was one of the first “armchair intellectuals.” Not much has changed since those days.

I could go on, but I would end up quoting half the book, and I’ve set as a goal not to write reviews longer than 1000 or so words. A pity, because a book like this deserves a 10.000 words review.

Verdict: 5/5

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