The Fall of an Intellectual

[amazon 1933633514 full] Paul Berman, The Flight of the Intellectuals (New York: Melville House, 2010), 304 pp., $26.00.

IN 1927, the French writer Julien Benda, then best known for his formidable critique of the “intuitionist” philosophy of Henri Bergson, published a short, polemical book called La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). In it, Benda excoriated the leading French intellectuals of the day, accusing them of having forsaken their duty to dispassionate thought in favor of polemics in the service of political passions. His principal targets were thinkers on the French right—figures like Charles Maurras, the leader of the monarchist Action Française movement, and the writer Charles Péguy. But Benda’s polemic was directed at all politicizations of the intellect, and he attacked Marxists and Zionists, whom Benda, a Jew himself, called “idolaters of their blood.” Famous in its own time, his book itself is little read today, but the expression “treason of the intellectuals” as a shorthand for intellectual cowardice is now as embedded in the language as “Brave New World” is for repressive utopian societies or “1984” for totalitarian ones.

Norman Podhoretz staked his claim on Orwell on behalf of his fellow neoconservatives back in the early years of the Reagan administration, writing that had the author been alive, he would have been “with [us] and against the left.” From the opposite shore politically, Patricia Williams, a Columbia law professor and columnist for The Nation, wrote in 2007 that “Orwell would have had no trouble cutting through the cowpokey folksiness and spewed malapropisms of President George W. Bush.” Such exercises are invariably adventures in special pleading. It is wholly impossible to know what Orwell, who died at the beginning of 1950, would have made of the decolonized, U.S.-dominated, far more gender-equal world of our time. The landscape is so different from his own that surely his first challenge, before choosing a political side, would have been to get his bearings.

Benda produces a similar response. A number of European and North American intellectuals—some self-identified neoconservatives, others “reformed” leftists who would of late call themselves antitotalitarians—have found in The Treason of the Intellectuals a template for explaining what they view as the incapacity of their contemporaries to stand up for the Enlightenment values currently under assault by a resurgent Islamism. As Roger Kimball, a coeditor of the neoconservative magazine The New Criterion, put it in his preface to a 2006 edition of Benda’s book, this betrayal has rendered us powerless against the “depredations of intellectuals who have embraced the nihilism of Callicles as their truth.” And claims to be the inheritor of his mantle have come from the Left as well. For example, Edward Said, toward whom neoconservative intellectuals bear more animus than perhaps anyone except my late mother, was a huge admirer of The Treason of the Intellectuals and discussed it at length in his 1993 Reith Lectures for the BBC. It is by no means clear why polemicists on either the left or the right believe that they can discern what Benda, with his idealization of dispassionate, “universal” thought at odds with political passions of every kind, would have made of the attitudes of Western intellectuals confronted by militant Islamism in their own countries as well as in the Muslim world itself.

Nevertheless, Paul Berman, a writer who, having started on the Democratic left is by now probably America’s best known and certainly its most unrepentant liberal interventionist, clearly believes that he can. For, though he mentions Benda only once in his new book, the title he chose for it, The Flight of the Intellectuals, is such a clear echo of Benda’s own. Berman’s mimicry has the added advantage of being an I’m-assuming-the-mantle-of twofer in that it also echoes, though he mentions neither the book nor its author, the great French political theorist Raymond Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals, published in 1955, which Roger Kimball (again!) accurately summarized as being an indictment of leftist intellectuals who were “merciless toward the failings of democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines.”

Aron’s theme would be taken up more than two decades later by the so-called French New Philosophers. Although they were mostly former members of the Far Left who had become anti-Marxists, their energies were principally directed not against Communism itself but rather, in Berman’s own apt formulation, the Western intellectuals who had “kept on deluding themselves about the Soviet Union, and then about communist China, Cuba, and other such regimes,” even in the face of “ever-growing mountains of evidence over the course of the twentieth century” about the terrible reality of these societies. In much the same way, Berman’s aim in his book, as he remarked recently in an interview with journalist Michael J. Totten, was to analyze why so many “intelligent people [in the West] are running away from looking at some very influential and pernicious doctrines of our own time.” That doctrine, of course, is Islamism.