reading a book of brutal takedowns of left-wing intellectuals

Hello friends, it’s me again. I’ve been reading a few good books lately. On audible, I’m listening to the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. The author is a conservative intellectual, and the book is essentially full of malicious but (I assume) true gossip about leftist intellectuals, beginning with Rousseau, progressing through Tolstoy, Hemingway (though he wasn’t an intellectual, so one wonders why he was included), Ibsen, Brecht, Sartre, etc.

The criticisms in almost all cases were essentially the same: these men were egomaniacs who viewed other people as adjuncts to their own desires. They used and discarded people, including their own children (Marx, Ibsen, and Tolstoy all had illegitimate sons who died in poverty). They treated women badly, not just having affairs but engaging in emotional cruelty, as when Sartre adopted one of his lovers and gave all his copyrights to her instead of to Simone de Beauvoir.

More interesting are the various charges of intellectual laziness. The most prominent amongst them is that these left-wing intellectuals by and large had no real familiarity with the working class. Marx never stepped inside a factory; Tolstoy glamorized his peasants, but grumbled when they didn’t embrace top-down reform efforts that didn’t take into account their real needs; etc, etc.

And then the last and most serious set of charges concern collaboration with and apology for Stalinism. Hardly a Western intellectual didn’t support Stalin at some point or another, but some are fairly egregious, like Brecht, who allowed the East German state to subsidize his theater, in return for supporting Stalinism and suppressing works of his that might be seen as anti-communist, or Sartre, who was still defending Stalin in 1952, long after everyone knew about the Purges.

I assume the writer did not pick intellectuals who did have relatively decent personal live, so I do not see this as an indictment of the leftist intellectual elite en masse (there’s no Shaw, Wells, orwell, Woolf, for instance). And I also assume he didn’t pick conservative intellectuals (i.e. no Eliot, Pound, Celine), which seems a bit unfair, but what can you do? I’ve long been of the belief that the only function conservative intellectuals fulfill (and they fulfill it well) is calling out the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of the left. It’s an entirely destructive role, but some things need to be destroyed.

I enjoy the book as a bit of malicious literary gossip to fill the time, especially since I’ve recently gotten into essay writing myself and now view myself as a bona fide beret-wearing out-of-touch upper-class socialist intellectual.

(Please god, if I ever claim to know the hearts and minds of the working class, someone please take me aside and tell me I’m being absurd.)

Comments (