Making things happen

Ross McKibbin

  • Heroes and Villains: Selected Essays by R.W. Johnson
    Harvester, 347 pp, £25.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0735 X

This Johnson is an energetic essayist. His energy is not simply physical, though he has plenty of that: it is mental too. He seems to write quickly – how else the productivity? – but he writes also with a kind of cerebral force, apparent in all these essays, which are themselves the tip of an intellectual iceberg: he has also written standard books on both South Africa and the French Left which combine contemporary political description with historical analysis in an admirable and often memorable way. Nor is he afraid of controversy, rather the reverse. He wrote a celebrated/notorious explanation of the shooting-down of the South Korean airliner KAL 007 which so many well-placed persons dismissed as impossible as to suggest that the explanation might well be true. His purpose, furthermore, though sometimes playful, as these essays demonstrate, is always serious. This collection is prefaced by a thoughtful introduction on the nature of individual political engagement (that is, the political engagement of intellectuals) and of the role of individuals as political instruments, as people who set things in motion.

He has no doubt that individuals do matter in politics, ‘at least within certain limits’ and ‘at what one might term the heroic level’, or, at any rate, can matter, even if the majority who turn to politics as a vocation do not. Most of the essays, therefore, are in one way or another about individuals who set things in motion. Not all of them, however, actually do so at the heroic level: many of those who populate these essays grub around in the murkier recesses of the Western intelligence organisations or of French fascism: ‘making things happen’, but in a destructive and occasionally demented fashion. The essays are also concerned with intellectual judgment and truth-telling. Just as Johnson has no doubt that individuals can matter, so he has no doubt that intellectuals should intervene in politics. They are qualified to do so and it is one of their legitimate functions. But they must also tell the truth as they see it – in the (now) old-fashioned phrase, ‘without fear or favour’. In Johnson’s case, this means Orwellian truth-telling: the once defensible commitment of the radical intellectual to this or that left-wing cause has, he seems to suggest, been rendered indefensible by the collapse of the old Labour movement. The proper role of the intellectual in politics is thus to expose ‘untruth’. It is pretty clear where all this comes from and, in any case, Johnson makes it quite explicit:

In practice, Orwell’s path is a hard one to follow, and yet he is the first really modern intellectual, the first to achieve a transcendence of the classic Gramscian categories. What Orwell is saying is that you have to be committed and you have to tell the truth. And telling the truth is not just telling lies about your enemies: it is talking straight to your friends. It means the avoidance of bad faith ... The Gramscian intellectual, facing a moral dilemma over truth-telling within a political organisation, will feel that the cause and the organisation must always come first. But the Orwellian will feel that the truth must always come first.

Readers, and indeed the subjects of these essays, should, therefore, know what to expect: the shade of Orwell looms over a number of conspicuously truth-telling pieces.

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