I never heard before of the guy who coined my title quote, I must confess. From the sound of it, it appears I’ve been missing out on something wonderful.
Paul Johnson will be 90 on November 2nd. He is one of the most prolific British writers of the last half-century and a superb chronicler of the past. He deserves the honors and plaudits coming his way as he crosses the threshold of his tenth decade.
Johnson’s perspective is often described as “conservative,” but I find his work simply good, factual reporting of history, unvarnished by ideology. He doesn’t cherry-pick the evidence to support a preconception, let alone a misconception. Conventional wisdom (which is to say, “left-leaning”) suggests you’re “mainstream” and “objective” if you claim with the flimsiest of documentation that Franklin Roosevelt saved America from the Great Depression and that you’re a “conservative ideologue” if you just report the facts. Johnson reports the facts, so he gets the label his “progressive” critics hope will deter readers rather than enlighten them.
In his early days, Johnson’s political outlook was, by his own admission, leftist or “progressive.” But this is a man who not only writes history, he learns from it. The more Johnson learned, the less credible the progressive perspective was. By the mid-1970s, he was a cogent critic of the Left and its union allies, who were bringing Britain to its knees. He later became a friend, advisor, and speechwriter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson is himself a consummate intellectual, the honest and scholarly kind committed to truth for the sake of it—unlike the charlatans, hypocrites, and monsters he writes about. He proves that you can be an intellectual without falling hopelessly in love with yourself, tossing self-awareness to the wind, or fancying yourself God’s gift to a stupid humanity in need of your wisdom. Of the more delusional ones, he offers a cogent insight:
What conclusions should be drawn? Readers will judge for themselves. But I think I detect today a certain public skepticism when intellectuals stand up to preach to us, a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that skepticism. A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia. But I would go further. One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is—beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.
Heady stuff for sure. But now we get to the part I most wanted to excerpt.
None of Johnson’s subjects can match Karl Marx for sheer loathsomeness and shameless fakery. He was a virulent racist and anti-Semite with a vicious temper (“Jewish n****r” was one of his favorite epithets). On a good day, he enjoyed threatening those who disagreed with him by blurting, “I will annihilate you!” His personal hygiene was, well, suffice it to say he had none. He was heartlessly cruel to his family and anyone who crossed him. This is the same man who postured as a thinker whose ideas would save humanity.
We learn in (Johnson’s book) Intellectuals that the chef who cooked up communism professed to be “scientific.” In reality, Johnson argues, “there was nothing scientific about him; indeed, in all that matters he was anti-scientific.” His most famous lines—including “religion is the opiate of the masses” and workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”—were flagrantly ripped off from other authors. He “never set foot in a mill, factory, mine or other industrial workplace in the whole of his life,” steadfastly abjured invitations to do so, and denounced fellow revolutionaries who did. He never let a fact or a glimmer of reality stem the flow of poison from his pen. He had no money because he refused to work for it, then cursed those who had it and didn’t share it with him. His own mother said she wished her son “would accumulate some capital instead of just writing about it.”
Johnson’s lancing of the suppurating boil on the ass of humankind that was Karl Marx is appropriately merciless, and, as Reed says, “that’s for starters.” Read all of it. As mentioned in the article, Johnson also has a website which looks to be chock-full of more rich buttery goodness (“from 1971 onwards,” according to the archive page), which I’m definitely bookmarking for further perusal as and when I get the op’ratunity.