The Intellectual Left’s Treason of the Heart

It is a striking fact that throughout the Anglophone world, most academics have left-wing political views. In the United States, for example, eight or nine professors out of ten in Arts and Social Sciences will be Democrats. This fact is striking because the actual politics of the United States oscillates between Democrat and Republican, both in the presidency and in Congress. We thus have the interesting problem of a conflict between academic and popular opinion. How might we explain it?

Given that since professors are in some sense to be considered the most intelligent people in any modern society, left-wing politics might be the most intelligent way of dealing with the public business of liberal democracies. On the other hand, it is far from obvious that left-wing administrations have been better for any country than so-called right-wing governments. Australians have been able to get along no less under Howard than under Keating. For good or bad reasons, electorates choose different parties at different moments. Hence it might be that we need to distinguish between theoretical and practical intelligence. In the spirit of 1066 and All That, we might suggest that academics are right but impractical, and that ordinary electors are wrong but pragmatic. We might ring many changes on this formulation, but first we should ask: does it matter that professors lean to the left?

Part of the answer is that in our opinionated times, many people are impressed by those they imagine might know better than they do. In the middle of the twentieth century, communists invented an interesting new figure in politics, generally called a “fellow traveller” (and by Lenin a “useful idiot”). Such a person supported many of the high-toned aspirations of communist doctrine without actually being a communist. Professors were often trumps in this propaganda contest—not indeed as important as actors and other entertainment celebrities, but still significant, especially in bulk. And academics still occasionally, in bulk, bring their wisdom to bear upon current affairs by signing up to collective positions. Back in 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s stiff medicine for the travails of welfarist Britain was attacked by a cohort of no fewer than 364 economists. Who could stand against such massed ranks of intelligence? Fortunately Thatcher did, and she was right to do so.

And this, I think, is where the problem becomes interesting. If it is the case that academics often get practical matters wrong, we are confronted with a remarkable juxtaposition of—to put the matter brutally—intelligence and stupidity. One sub-set of academic opinion, for example, goes by the name of “intellectuals”. These are people who have read a lot of books and take up positions on public affairs. Their opinions are often interesting, but inevitably look superficial when illuminated by hindsight. In particular, intellectuals have often exhibited an undiscriminating passion for the idealism (or even worse, the realism) attaching to the political fashions of the moment.

Sometimes, illusion leading to superficiality results from a rhetorical game in which intellectuals must exhibit their identity as above all “critical” thinkers, and this is done by indulging in a merciless view of what has been set up as “conventional wisdom”. “Conventional” is the academic opposite of critical, and is basically instantiated by anything that might locally in Western states be seen as patriotic or “ethnocentric”. In a recent book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, Richard Landes, whose theme is the down-playing of apocalyptic and millennial experiences in Western understanding, considers that the postmodern rejection of local loyalties is a transposition of millennial themes. As he remarks: 

Modern, and even more so, postmodern modes of interpretation emphasize both self-criticism and empathy with “the other”. Whoever is right, my side or not, us and them, win-win, war is not the answer. “We can work it out …” Western progressives favor this essentially active transformational apocalyptic mode … There is even a post-modern, post-colonial school of alterity that gives epistemological priority to the “other’s” narrative. In its most extreme form it starts from the position: “their side right or wrong”.    

Misplaced enthusiasm is always a subject for comic treatment, and no one looking for comedies of misplaced enthusiasm could find better illustrations of it than in another recent book, Treason of the Heart: From Thomas Paine to Kim Philby, by David Pryce-Jones. His account of the strange propensity of some academics to salute the public relations of dodgy regimes, is certainly a notable exhibition of comic gullibility in politics. Foreign despotisms only have to declare their passion to improve the condition of the poor, and many an academic is lying with his back on the floor waving his paws in the air. A related academic mood is less comic: the bold embrace of murderous methods if they are wrapped up as “necessary” for achieving the greater good. The ideal academic moral posture, in other words, often combines a besotted political idealism with an ability to swallow some pretty gritty realism about method. It is this combination of folly and insight, stupidity and intelligence, which makes this phenomenon so interesting.

Pryce-Jones’s account of British enthusiasm for foreign causes stretches over two centuries, from the American War of Independence to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Very many of those in his vast cast of the foolish are notably intelligent people. Here we have an abundance of empirical materials for looking into the foolishness of the bright. Pryce-Jones’s archetypal “traitor of the heart” is Tom Paine, who supported the American colonists against England. Paine would not be my choice of the iconically foolish, nor was his support for American independence especially remarkable. Supporting the Americans against George III hardly counted as an eccentric foreign enthusiasm because many Britons did the same thing, but Paine gets his place in this gallery because he so clearly illustrates the point that enthusiasm for the foreign generally results from hatred of the local. I’m not sure even this is always true, but Paine’s combination of alienation from the British and consistent support for the enemies of Britain was remarkably consistent.

Britain in the late eighteenth century does seem to have been experiencing what we might call “revolution envy”. The excitements of Paris in the 1790s contrasted with boring Britain, stuck with a ghastly establishment that hardly seemed to have changed for a century. It was, of course, creating the modern industrial world, but that did not rate a headline. The real action was happening across the Channel where the world was being turned upside down. Many felt with Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.”

An advanced thinker like the anarchist Godwin (who had been married to Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneer of women’s rights) could dream of a world without the “rooted insolence” he detected in his fellows, and his friend Shelley (along with Leigh Hunt and other enthusiasts) came to advocate a radical doctrine of “sociability” which entailed sexual liberation. Much of it resembled our own dear 1960s, opening up an exciting sense of possibility. It took some time to taste the fruits of all this enthusiasm, but in the case of Shelley and the poetic liberation of that circle, the bitterness of those women who didn’t commit suicide as a result was still being expressed decades after Shelley, Hunt and other plausible seducers of those days had died or moved on.

The French experience exerted a magic spell on the educated classes—and indeed not merely the educated—of England. The revolutionaries were creating a better society, and later Napoleon was the model of modern efficient administration—a kind of European Union with teeth. It was not only a bonfire of conventions, but was rationalising Europe by replacing the inherited tangle of dukes and monarchies with competent administration. And in the case of many of Pryce-Jones’s cast, foreign enthusiasm unmistakably tottered over the line into treason: it was siding with the country’s enemies. Virtually the whole class of English intellectual celebrities were affected in one way or another.

At the heart of the enthusiasm was a dream of social perfection. Lord Stanhope wanted to give up his title and be called “Citizen Stanhope”, a step that goes rather beyond even champagne socialism. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Mary Wollstonecraft accused Edmund Burke of “contemptible hard-hearted sophistry” in his Reflections, and went on to dream: 

What salutary dews might not be shed to refresh this thirsty land if more were more enlightened! Smiles and premiums might encourage cleanliness, industry, and emulation—a garden more inviting than Eden would then meet the eye … 

She was, of course, on more solid ground in moving to the rights of women, but she still lived long enough to learn of the heads dropping into baskets and the repression in La Vendee and other places. A generation later, the brewer Samuel Whitbread committed suicide after Waterloo, apparently from despair at the fate of his hero, while William Hazlitt famously went on a fortnight-long bender to deal with his unhappiness. These people took their politics to heart.

How, one might ask, did dreams of enlightenment lead to heads dropping into baskets? The answer is simply that the Jacobins faced up to one of the central problems of far-reaching social radicalism. It consists in the fact that many of the human beings inherited by the enlightened from earlier unjust regimes turn out to be unsuitable material for this new, improved society. The Jacobins responded with impressive revolutionary ruthlessness, and an understandable reaction against their methods quickly set in. Too many eggs were being broken for an omelette most people did not seem to want. The result is that the historical sequence of stages in the brief Jacobin adventure became the technical names for what later came to be seen as “revolutionary praxis”—from the Terror itself on to Thermidor. 

There is a difference, of course, between sympathy for foreign developments on the one hand, and “treason of the heart” on the other. A great deal of European history is a creative dialogue between different nations each with its own distinct capacities in everything from culture to social institutions. But most of Pryce-Jones’s subjects were irrational because they not only sympathised with foreign causes but did so because such foreign peoples and movements contrasted with those of Britain, and were generally thought superior.

Today, the idea of treason has been eviscerated so much that it almost counts as a claim to critical integrity. Loyalty is taken to be a servile characteristic, and self-respect depends on standing out from the crowd—or joining what has been cynically but appropriately called a “herd of independent minds”. It happens, however, that on most of the grand conflicts of the last two centuries, the British position has generally coincided with one we might defend as enlightened—whether we are talking about the abolition of slavery or the rejection of totalitarian regimes. In these terms, then, we have a reformulation of our paradox: the unthinking, loyal patriots happen to have got it right, while many of the bold critical thinkers got it wrong.1

And that leads us to a deeper and more interesting question. Can we discover, in the follies of modern intellectuals and academics, a set of notable dispositions or mistakes that might be understood as disposing them towards folly? It is a line of inquiry worth taking up some of our attention.

The most obvious mistake has certainly been to believe that constitutions determine the happiness of peoples, or indeed determine any universal substantial outcome at all. And in this mistake, our enthusiasts were in good company. In the crucial year of 1790, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant published an essay arguing that the solution to the problem of war in Europe was to get rid of kings. People living in republics, he argued, had no interest in killing each other for a new bit of taxable territory. He was certainly in tune with the zeitgeist—indeed it has seemed at times that he was the zeitgeist—because Shelley, Godwin and the rest independently shared this progressive view. We may call this particular mistake “constitutional salvationism”, and some element of it will be found in nearly every piece of nonsense from Bentham’s utilitarianism to Marx’s communism. Intellectuals with their lust for the new are much given to the belief that a new deal of the constitutional cards might give everybody a winning hand. This is not a fallacy, of course, because it is not a mistake of logic, but it is certainly a false understanding of political realities.

There is a further aspect of this particular mistake. It lies in the fact that the English Jacobins, and later the Napoleonists, had no direct personal interest in pushing their opinions. Like Lord Holland’s Whigs, they clearly wished for the public good, even when it might seem to have been against their own personal interests. This is why we are dealing not only with an opinion, but with a moral posture. Those who affirm it can claim a certain disinterested superiority to others because they are above the vulgar clash of interests by which politics is often understood. Instead of self-seeking, or self-interest, we have an idealism seeking the good of all—or greatest happiness, as Bentham was later to promise. Today’s version of this posture is sometimes expressed in the demand to think of “people” rather than “profit”.

The “disinterestedness” often claimed as part of the idealist posturing of much intellectual opinion on politics is, in my view, a corruption of the idea of being disinterested. As it happens, the Australian philosopher David Stove in one of his posthumous essays just published by Encounter Books, What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, features a claim to disinterestedness as among the postures popular among leading Enlightenment thinkers.2 It was a claim to a higher idealism in promoting the projects of abstract benevolence that turned out to be so destructive in the ideological twentieth century. To pursue an interest is often wrongly thought to be inherently rather debased, whereas only good people support ideals, especially ones which they claim will benefit others.

We thus have here a complex of inducements to foolish enthusiasm. One of them is a simple mono-causal view that constitutions determine specific outcomes, and above all, that they determine the happiness of peoples. Related to that is a posture of disinterestedness which transposes the enthusiasm into the morally elevated realm of idealism. The reality claimed for such ideals, however, depends on nothing more substantial than the declarations of good intentions made by foreign radicals—what I have taken to be the “public relations” of radical idealism.

Perhaps the most astonished feature of the critical posture of many of Pryce-Jones’s enthusiasts is an evident simplicity of mind. Many of them were simply starstruck! Thus Lord Holland might have been over the top, though not actually ridiculous, in thinking Napoleon “the greatest statesman and the ablest general of ancient or modern times”, but Algernon Swinburne was certainly lost to reason in asking: “Is Garibaldi” (who had his suits made in Savile Row and energetically cultivated his own legend) “the greatest man since Adam, or is he not?” Well, if you insist, no. Garibaldi was the Che Guevara of his day, and focused the admiration many Britons had for the nationalists of Italy.

This version of the comedy of illusion however rather dies in the throat as we discover that Gertrude Stein in 1934 could think that Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, or we contemplate H.G. Wells describing Lenin as “the dreamer in the Kremlin”. Even Bertrand Russell on meeting Lenin thought, “his strength comes, I imagine, from his honesty, courage and unwavering faith—religious faith in the Marxian gospel which takes the place of the Christian martyr’s hope of paradise”. The odd thing is that political enthusiasm has in some respects the strange frivolity of celebrity gossip. Mao, and even Pol Pot, were not safe from such remarkable adulation.

Pryce-Jones as we have seen emphasised that enthusiasts for foreign causes commonly also hate their own peoples. He cites R.N. Brailsford (described as “a scattergun intellectual of his day”) who was widely thought to have loved humanity because he hardly loved anyone else. The fact is that one rubs up against one’s own people all the time, and it is easy to find in them one or other defect. Australians are certainly familiar with this response to each other. The point is that we understand other peoples, abstractly, by signs, from a distance. Encountering them in limited circumstances makes it easy to get them wrong. Hence Byron admired the Greeks because he saw them through the filter of a classical education, while many later Britons became Italian nationalists from admiration of Garibaldi. Wagner was one source of admiration for German culture in a later generation. Even more Britons in the twentieth century supported the decolonisation of Africa because they admired African attitudes.

Illusion is a universal feature of human affairs, and its natural habitat is the future. This might explain the striking fact that the admirations of these British enthusiasts were not for the realities of the case, but were directed towards collective entities thought to be in the process of being born. Greeks, Italians and Africans were, for these enthusiasts, potentialities not yet actualised, and therefore suitable inhabitants of a vision. It is a notable economy of thought, of course, to be able to admire both a people and a cause as one package. The admiration for the Bedouin in the nineteenth century and after, for example, was sometimes based on a view that the English had lost their gentlemanly virtues and become corruptly commercial. Out in the sands of Arabia could be found simple authentic people uncorrupted by commerce. As Pryce-Jones points out, the famous explorer Richard Burton was really caught up in Rousseau’s Noble Savage. Harry St John Philby (yes, father of the communist Kim) thought: 

the Arab is a democrat, and the greatest and most powerful Arab ruler of the present day is proof of it. Ibn Saud is not more than primus inter pares, his strength lies in the fact that he has for twenty years accurately interpreted the aspirations and will of his people. 

Not much need for an “Arab Spring” in that fortunate land, then! Glubb Pasha wrote that “the Bedouin was every Englishman’s idea of nature’s gentleman”. 

My point in making these observations is to suggest that the occurrence of folly and illusion among the intelligent—where one might expect it least—is an under-explored aspect of the political life of our time. What universities seem to have developed is a new scholasticism. Medieval scholasticism resulted from a corruption of the idea of authority. This modern scholasticism emerges no less clearly from a corruption of the idea of criticism. Its source lies in the identification of academic excellence in terms of the idea of criticism, which is a half-truth. It has the useful benefit, however, of according the critic a form of moral as well as academic superiority. The accolade of being critical, on the other hand, has the weakness of generally being self-ascribed. A scholasticism of this kind often generates the discovery of bad intentions underlying the policies of Western states. Some such policies may well be deplorable, but not usually because they fit into some postmodern stereotype.

My taxonomy of constitutive illusions, from constitutional salvationism onward, could easily be extended, and it could as easily be contracted into a complex account of the forms of rationalism that lose their grip on reality because they filter the world through a net of currently admired abstractions.

But whichever development of the idea might be chosen, this new scholasticism fits within the tradition Pryce-Jones has described. For as with the Jacobins down to the communists, the tradition satisfies its acolytes because it gives them a starring role in an exciting melodrama of victimhood, in which the business of life—life’s meaning, as it were—is the struggle against oppression. And the moral self-satisfaction involved is best illustrated in the reflections of one late-repenting British communist who told an interviewer: indeed, we chose the wrong solution. But at least—we cared!


1. Including, as we may now discover from David Bird in Quadrant (July-August 2011), the historian Manning Clark, who had a pro-German phase in the late thirties, and who fits into Pryce-Jones’s thesis in that it seems to have been based on a pretty deep dislike of the British Empire.

2. It is, however, important to realise that “disinterested-ness” is a good description of many human activities that are neither self-interested nor altruistic, and that disinterestedness is a central feature of modern Western culture.  

Kenneth Minogue’s latest book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, was published last year by Encounter Books and reviewed by Claudio Veliz in the October 2010 issue. 

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