Paul Johnson does not, as they say, need much introduction. Whatever one thinks of his opinions, one has to admire his frenetic energy. From 1955 to 1970 he poured forth strong left-wing views in the New Statesman, and since then has moved to pouring forth strong right-wing views in a whole host of publications, books and speeches. This collection of 76 pieces, culled from the Conservative press of 1976-84, shows him again in full spate on subjects as diverse as ‘The Decline of the Hat’ and ‘The Family as an Emblem of Freedom’. The essential unity of the book is, however, political. It is not just that extreme Thatcherism breathes from every page: both the strength of Johnson’s writing and its often dreadful thinness derive from its sheer polemicism. Here, at least, the continuity with his New Statesman days is clear, for there is the same fatal, though exciting, tendency to go over the rhetorical top, the same eye for what will make ‘our side’ hug themselves with glee and what will most infuriate the enemy. The whole effort is a form of literary baiting which works up the troops on both sides and generally creates a deal of heat, sound and fury. This style of writing was the sole (and rather measly) contribution to English letters made by Kingsley Martin, and has been imitated by successive New Statesman columnists – Richard Crossman, Paul Johnson, Gerald Kaufman, Matthew Coady et al. (One only has to listen to the Parliamentary speeches of Gerald Kaufman to see how this sub-genre, once picked up, is hard to drop.) The origins of the style lie, only too audibly, in the world of the public school and Oxbridge debating society: it is at once over-heated and un-serious, and has a sort of neighing ring to it, as of a clash of young geldings.
At his best, Paul Johnson’s writing rises above this – for example, his picture of how the 1983 Labour Manifesto came to be written: ‘The absurd policy document ... which reads as though it was written by a covey of demented social workers with Napoleonic delusions, was supposed to be cut, hacked about and generally sanitised before becoming the manifesto. The idea, I gather, was that Michael Foot himself was to do the job ... But either he was caught short by Mrs Thatcher’s abrupt decision, or had simply forgotten, or had found it all too much for him; at any event he arrived without anything to show, and the document simply became the manifesto un-amended.’ The artful juxtaposition of ‘covey’ with the bumbling Foot (a bumbling so nicely elongated by the long line of hopeless alternatives) has, at once, a literary and political punch. But although Johnson contributes a rather pompous but quite good essay on ‘The Craft of Writing’, much of what he himself writes stays with one only because it is so abusive (‘the pointy-head Tam Dalyell’), and a lot more is eminently forgettable. Indeed, it’s meant to be. Johnson’s greatest admiration often seems reserved for Dick Crossman, whom he takes to be a far greater intellect than he really was. Of his reports for the New Statesman Johnson comments that they ‘were always illuminating and exciting, though sometimes wrong-headed and quickly belied by events. This was not a disadvantage. The purpose of weekly journalism is to encapsulate seven days, and stir up the minds of its readers; not to achieve a reputation for prescience in twenty years’ time.’ This is a judgment to bear in mind as one reads Johnson’s own weekly journalism. The fact that Crossman was frequently wrong and silly, and encouraged delusions among his readers, is far less important than that he stirred them up.
It is difficult not to feel that this verdict applies to much of Johnson’s own writing. Great acres of it are monstrously wrong and silly. About half the book consists of pieces about the media – the world Johnson knows best – and one gets wearily used to the convention whereby Channel 4 is seldom mentioned without the epithet ‘Marxist’ in close attendance. Of the BBC we hear of ‘its growing reputation for anti-British views’, while we learn that James Reston and Ben Bradlee (of the Washington Post) art ‘left-wing trendies’. Georgetown University, the haunt of so many Reaganite super-hawks (including Jeanne Kirkpatrick), is rubbished as having ‘moved sharply to the Left’. This sort of thing is quite palpable nonsense and it is also very coarse: there is no room for nuance or teasing out of complex strands here. Those whom Johnson likes (Olga Maitland, George Gilder, Rupert Murdoch) are heroes; and all those he dislikes are abused, jesuitically, as devilish. This leaves one only two choices. Either Johnson really believes what he says – in which case he is almost clinically silly – or else he knows it’s nonsense but likes saying it to annoy – which is, in the last analysis, just childish. About which of these alternatives is true he does, though, keep one guessing.
More striking still are those essays where he dons the mantle of serious historian. The perversions of anything resembling historical truth which several of these essays contain are so gross and extraordinary that one rubs one’s eyes in sheer disbelief. Because Johnson hates the film Gandhi he attempts to convince us that Britain only ruled India ‘by consent’; that most British administrators in India wanted only that Indians rule themselves; and that Churchill’s chief concern was how the Untouchables would be treated if we got out. One suspects that even Churchill would have found all this pretty funny. That anyone who worked on the New Statesman through the era of decolonisation could fail to achieve any understanding at all of colonialism is surely quite remarkable. One should not forget, moreover, that Johnson is no historical relativist: he sees things in fiercely moral terms, and there is here, accordingly, an attempt at the moral exculpation of much that was morally horrible.
A similar blindness to social reality occurs when Johnson turns his gaze to Central America. ‘The present wave of violence in Central America and the Caribbean,’ he informs us, ‘has its origins on the campus of Havana University.’ This is utterly fantastic. Or, rather, it is the old agitator theory of history. All these people living in fear and poverty under torturous dictatorships would actually be jolly happy but for these damned agitators who keep stirring them up by alluding to their fear and poverty. But for that, these simple peasant people would have been quite happy with Batista, Somoza and Papa Doc.
Or again, there is an astonishing essay on Marxism and anti-semitism in which Johnson attempts to portray Marx as an anti-semite and Marxism itself as a sort of anti-semitic conspiracy theory. All this to show that anti-semitism is really, nowadays, a left-wing phenomenon. Johnson returns again and again to the question of anti-semitism. He is not only humanely revolted by it but, in some deeper personal sense, clearly troubled by it.
The clue lies, surely, in his extraordinary exculpatory statement that ‘traditional anti-semitic conspiracy theory had been kept alive by the ecclesiastical Inquisitions of Spain and Rome’. That tepid ‘kept alive’ is the nearest Johnson (himself a Catholic) comes to acknowledging that it is the Catholic Church, together with its Eastern Orthodox branch, which has been the principal cultural agent of anti-semitism over two millennia. Odd to say ‘ecclesiastical’ when one means ‘Catholic’. Odd, too, to talk of the Inquisitions keeping alive a ‘theory’ when they were torturing people horribly and killing them. This was done to Jews, mind, not because they were dissidents, but just because they were Jews.
Johnson inveighs passionately against the Soviet, East European and leftist anti-semitisms. They are real and evil things, but how far are even these phenomena not the legacy of the undisputed two-thousand-year hegemony of the Church, rather than the always disputed two or three-generation hegemony of Marxism? Too much, perhaps, is made of Pius XII’s refusal to condemn Nazi treatment of the Jews, not enough of the fact that he was simply acting as Popes have always done. Which Popes or Patriarchs attempted to hinder the persecutions and pogroms of all the centuries before that? Which Popes spoke out against the ferocious anti-semitism of the French Catholic Right, against the rampant anti-semitism in Horthy’s Catholic Hungary, against the ghetto-isation of the Jews in Catholic Poland, against the frequent anti-semitism of rightist regimes in Catholic Latin America? The truth is that such regimes have always known they could rely on the benign equanimity of Rome. It was the French Catholic Right, not the Left, which shouted ‘better Hitler than Blum,’ just as practising Catholics are notably over-represented in Le Pen’s racist electorate in France today. It was not until well after the Holocaust that the Papacy, under strong liberal pressure, finally conceded that the Jews were not, after all, collectively guilty of Christ’s murder, and the Church is still very far from admitting past errors in its treatment of the Jews. Even today the Vatican refuses to recognise the state of Israel.
Any thoughtful or sensitive Catholic cannot but have deep qualms of guilt about this shameful history. To this, in Johnson’s case, must surely be added an uncomfortable awareness that his migration to the extreme Right has made him a political bedfellow of those among whom an easy, golf-club anti-semitism still flourishes. It is to Johnson’s credit that the question of anti-semitism troubles him, and one can understand why. But one would respect him more if he faced up to where the primary historic responsibility for anti-semitism lies. To attempt to pass off this burden onto the Left is historically ludicrous and morally discreditable.
But there is a sense in which it is silly to take Johnson too seriously. By his own admission, after all, his judgment is terrible. Everything he said or wrote between 1955 and 1970 he now thinks was utterly wrong. He recounts how Kingsley Martin long felt Crossman would make a disastrous editor of the New Statesman; how he, Johnson, was convinced of the contrary and got his way; and how Crossman was indeed so bad that he had to be sacked. Johnson then became a passionate admirer of Mrs Thatcher – but has recently announced that she is, after all, nothing special. Even he does not attempt to make any consistent sense out of all these twists and turns. One feels no confidence that, as the intellectual and political tide goes out on the right, he will not recant all he has said here. He is a man who clearly feels intensely whatever he is feeling at the time, but the only real thread is a radical instability of view. He has not one but many return tickets for the ride to Damascus. The real interest of these wanderings emerges only if one places them in their broader social and historical context.
Paul Johnson belongs to one of the most influential generational groups in recent British history – the Oxford student cohort of the immediate post-war period who clambered aboard the great Labour surge of 1945-51. This cohort was the exact British analogue of the bright young New Dealers from the American Ivy League campuses so tellingly depicted by Mary McCarthy in The Group. For these young people, the best and brightest of their day, the path towards modernity, social justice, and rationally-administered change, led unequivocally towards the Left, whose sweeping rise to power meant that one could combine all these good things with excellent career prospects and a certain chic. The combination was overwhelming. Through the long, locust years of the 1950s this Oxford generation was sustained not only by the memories of 1945-51, and a sense that history was still on their side, but by their own steady advance towards the summit of the Labour movement. Their day would come. In 1964-70, it did: never has a government been so overflowingly endowed with Oxford graduates – not just its ministers but its great flock of advisers and propagandists all came from the same stable.
The Wilson Administration of those years was, though, an unparalleled disaster and disappointment. Quite quickly, signs of acute intellectual confusion and disorientation were apparent: perhaps as striking as any was Paul Johnson’s famous ‘Blundering into Socialism’ editorial which greeted the draconian July measures of 1966. Rather than accepting this event as the staggering blow it was to all hopes of planned growth, the editorial infuriated wide sections of the Labour movement by arguing that it somehow heralded a great socialist advance. Within a year or two, however, Johnson had swung the New Statesman round to demanding that the dreadful Wilson must go. As the trauma of 1964-70 sank in, the key Oxford cohort began to scatter in confusion. Deprived of all confidence in the intellectual compass points they had clung to for twenty years or more, they resembled a broken cavalry charge: with esprit de corps, discipline and forward momentum all gone, it was sauve qui peut. A large group began their move towards a new political Centre; others looked around and decided in the end to stay put; quite a few left politics. The most bizarre and radical directions were taken by the smaller sub-set within the cohort who had not only Oxford but public school backgrounds and who had travelled furthest to come into the Labour movement. Their faith had had to be sustained by a special intensity of commitment. Their post-1970 disorientation – and their reaction to it – was correspondingly sharper than those of others. Lord Longford (Eton and Christ Church) peeled off into a peculiar variety of religious activities. Tony Benn (Westminster and New College) decamped for the wild and intransigent Left. Paul Johnson (Stonyhurst and Magdalen) bolted to the radical Right. It would not be unfair to say that for most people what these diverse movements had in common was their sheer dottiness. In part, no doubt, such a judgment simply reflects the old English horror of ‘enthusiasm’ of any sort, but it is certainly true that these are all men who need intensity of feeling as others need strong drink.
Paul Johnson’s own way of putting this is to say that the Sixties were the decade of illusion, the Seventies of disillusion and the Eighties of realism. Ah, we should have known. As one wanders through these pages, one learns that the reason for the rising rate of family breakdown among America’s black and Hispanic poor is the welfare hand-outs they get; that women’s lib has ‘done no good to anyone at all, apart perhaps from hard-core lesbians, the Soviet ruling class – which finds the Greenham Women a useful propaganda tool, in a small way – and of course the self-publicists and media operators’; that telephone-tapping is essentially harmless unless used against tax-evaders (‘some of the worst Gestapo-type searches at dawn have involved small businesses’); that the aims of the peace movement are ‘objectively evil’; that the World Council of Churches has a ‘contempt for faith, or worship, or what most of us understand by the Ten Commandments’; and that the Daily Mail has ‘the best editor in Fleet Street’. Anyone who believes that such views are realistic or even reasonable will no doubt enjoy The Pick of Paul Johnson. Others will simply wonder at the new ‘realism’ of such a strong self-avowed Christian. The gospel according to Paul Johnson appears to be not only that camels can get through the eye of a needle, but that only camels can. A puzzle remains: if the camels not only have all the money and power but also this exclusive access to heaven as well, why should Mr Johnson – now such a fervent camels’ man – be so angry about everything?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.