“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” – from The Recovery of Freedom (1980).
The paragraph you just read is typical of its author, British historian Paul Johnson: immense wisdom distilled concisely into beautiful prose. In a few weeks, he will mark as many years of life as books he’s written.
It sure seems that way, anyway.
A Prolific Historian and Intellectual
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.
My good friend Burton Folsom, author of The Myth of the Robber Barons, opines that “Paul Johnson approaches history with a storehouse of knowledge, unfailing wisdom, and sound judgment.”
Visit Johnson’s website, and you can spend weeks reading just his columns and interviews. Some of his many books are masterpieces of epic proportions, including Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s; Ireland: A Concise History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day; Art: A New History; The Civilization of Ancient Egypt; The Renaissance; A History of Christianity; A History of the American People; A History of the Jews; A History of the English People; biographies of Mozart, Napoleon, Washington, Churchill, Socrates, John Paul II, Jesus, and God knows who else (because Johnson wrote a book about Him, too). You name it, there’s a good chance Johnson has written a history of it.
He doesn’t cherry-pick the evidence to support a preconception, let alone a misconception.
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.
Challenging the Left
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.
My favorite of the Johnson books I’ve read is unquestionably his 1989 classic, Intellectuals. It’s an insightful examination of the personalities and behavior of more than a dozen left-leaning thinkers—the super-pontificating, state-worshiping types that are full of prescriptions for the rest of us. Among the better-known of them are Rousseau, Marx, and Sartre; the less well-known include Bertolt Brecht, Victor Gollancz, and Lillian Helman.
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.
A Masterful Take-Down of Karl Marx
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 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.”
And that’s for starters. Read Johnson’s chapter on Marx, and you’ll begin to understand the connection between the evil within the man and the evil his gibberish wrought. The Black Book of Communism estimates the death toll from attempts to put the rantings of this detestable lunatic into practice at minimally 100 million.
“What emerges from a reading of Capital is Marx’s fundamental failure to understand capitalism,” writes Johnson.
He failed precisely because he was unscientific: he would not investigate the facts himself, or use objectively the facts investigated by others. From start to finish, not just Capital but all his work reflects a disregard for truth which at times amounts to contempt. That is the primary reason why Marxism, as a system, cannot produce the results claimed for it; and to call it “scientific” is preposterous.
Many people who don’t know better, and an awful lot of those in “intellectual” circles who should, still think Karl Marx was some sort of prescient genius motivated by compassion for workers. Some even disgrace themselves with T-shirts bearing his unkempt image. They really ought to thank Paul Johnson for doing the thinking they themselves never made time for.
Actually, we were warned about people like Marx 2,000 years before Johnson. Matthew 7:16 wisely counsels:
Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will know them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
Karl Marx was one hollow and rotten tree, inside and out, from beginning to end.
Within what passes for “higher” education these days, Marx still has lots of avid disciples. Carnegie-Mellon University, for example, recently hosted a “celebration” of the man at which speakers praised the bohemian quack variously as a “great man” and one with “an incredibly optimistic vision.” To genuine intellectuals, such subsidized and tenured nonsense must be infuriating, but Paul Johnson offers the best antidote. In an August 2010 column, he suggested what true higher education should look like:
Indeed, the study of universities and the great men and women who have attended them leads me to think that the best of these schools are characterized not so much by what they teach and how they teach it but by the extent they provide opportunities and encouragement for students to teach themselves. The best also help to instill certain intellectual virtues in young minds, including respect for the indispensable foundation of democracy, the rule of law; the need to back up opinions with clear arguments, empirical evidence and hard work; the varying importance of resolute conviction and friendly compromise, when appropriate; open-mindedness at all times; and the perpetual need for courage in the pursuit of truth.
Thank you, Paul Johnson, for decades of invaluable scholarship and clear thinking. And best wishes for your 90th birthday!