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Brief reflections on Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson, one of the great figures of post-war British journalism, has died at the grand age of 94. He was the author of about 50 books, and I read several of them in my youth. Of all the books, the one that stands out for me is Modern Times. That was a one-volume study of the 20th century. Johnson was unafraid to challenge stereotypes. He defended US Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Nixon from the reputational shade cast upon them and was unsparingly hard on the likes of F D Roosevelt and JFK. He slammed the United Nations, lauded the NATO alliance, and pointed out how so many “third world” countries went disastrously wrong in embracing Fabian socialist ideas after the Western empires ended. In that sense, he gave every impression of enjoying how he trashed one Received Wisdom notion after another.

Johnson was a deeply religious man – a Catholic – and an awareness of God’s wrathful judgement on sinners was never very far away. I don’t share his faith but can respect how, at its best, the English Catholic tradition in the West has produced writers of great insight (GK Chesterton is another outstanding example). And he anticipated the “culture wars” in many respects. His insight that much of the New Left had given up on the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth stuck in my mind. He regarded one of the big disasters of the 20th Century was how scientific concepts such as relativity morphed, wrongly, into the idea of moral relativism, and all the horrors (communism, fascism, etc) that stemmed from it. His was a theological analysis, with a fair sprinkling of Aristotelian common sense (he was a great admirer of Thomas Aquinas).

In the first part of his journalist life this man, easily recognisable with his mane of reddish – later gold – hair, was a man of the Left and despised the Tory establishment of Eden, MacMillan and the like, although he was also a liberal in the sense of valuing free speech and democracy (the sort of Left that gave us George Orwell, for example). He worked as a young writer in France, and later became editor of the New Statesman magazine.

In the 1970s, as trade union strikes raged, inflation accelerated and old certainties crumbled, Johnson shifted to the Right, and became a fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He was a champion – with some caveats – of free market capitalism, mass prosperity and individual liberty. He admired Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and people like that. He was unafraid to attack high-profile intellectuals’ reputations, however grand, such as JJ Rousseau, Sartre, Brecht, Ibsen, Hemingway, Mailer and Marx. His heroes were people such as JW Turner (the painter), Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Adenauer. In later life, Johnson took up painting, and wrote intelligently about art. A man of varied tastes and enthusiasms.

He was one of those writers, such as the late Auberon Waugh, P J O’Rourke and Roger Scruton, where I read everything they wrote, whatever the quality. More often than not, I learned something valuable, even if I disagreed with what Johnson wrote. Like other political “converts” to the liberal free market point of view, he had a certain zeal of one who has forsaken old nostrums. His writing output was prodigious.

I think the Christian in him thought that he was put on this Earth to write and that there was no time to waste. I understand that the final years of his life were blighted by Alzheimer’s. For such a brilliant man and polymath to be afflicted seems particularly cruel.

Anyway, I am sure that I will revisit his books and glean fresh insights. May he rest in peace.

Update: Here is an obituary from the WSJ ($).

14 comments to Brief reflections on Paul Johnson

  • Wild Dirk

    Too right, a real trooper. Will be missed.

  • John

    It is a fitting tribute to the man that obituaries from papers across the political spectrum were overwhelmingly respectful and fair minded. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Guardian and David Luhnow in the WSJ were, in my opinion, particularly fine. Even in the NYT Richard Woodward was far more generous than the unpromising if technically accurate heading “Paul Johnson, Prolific Historian Prized by Conservatives” would have suggested.

    RIP Paul from a long-time reader of your Telegraph and Spectator columns. I only hope the last years were not too distressful.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes may the Gentleman Rest in Peace.

    Paul Johnson regretted a lot of things he did in his youth – as so many of us do. But, unlike many of us, he spent the rest of his life trying to make amends for the harm he had a part in when working for the New Statesman – and it should be noted that his motives for his political stance in the 1960s were good ones, he wanted to do good, the harm was unintentional. And, I believe, his later work more than made up for it – indeed many times over made up for it.

    As an historian Paul Johnson believed that his role was to get the truth about people and events to the public – that may seem like a blindly obvious objective for an historian to have, but it is NOT a fashionable one.

    The fashionable view of history (going all the way back to Hegel) is to use people and events to “illustrate the narrative” – Paul Johnson believed that people and events were-the-narrative, it is a massive philosophical difference.

    What happened? What did this person do? Why did they do it? These were, to Paul Johnson, the questions an historian must try to answer – and bring this to the attention of the public.

    And Paul Johnson was correct.

    No predestined course of history, history is what people decide to do – and they can decide otherwise. And no nonsense such as “history has no reverse gear” – which assumes that history has a predetermined road and that people can not decide to change course, and correct past blunders.

    Paul Johnson showed that terrible decions had been made (sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not) in the past, as well as good decisions having being made.

    It is up to people to build on the good decisions, and to correct the terrible decisions.

  • Paul Marks

    The late historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood attacked, in his “The Idea of History”, people for thinking that the job of a historian of thought was to find out “what were the opinions of this person?” (the job of a person as an historian) and “were they right?” (the job of a person as a philosopher or political thinker), but Paul Johnson defended this traditional “Common Sense” (Aristotelian – and Scholastic) approach of ordinary people.

    Contra Collingwood and other influential thinkers, Paul Johnson held that the job of a person as historian was to find out what people in the past (politicians or “intellectuals”) thought, what their opinions were (as best we can) – and that the job of a person as a philosopher or political thinker is to try and work out it they were they right.

    Written out it seems totally obvious that Paul Johnson was correct in this – but it is astonishing how often this position is denied by “intellectuals”.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree with Johnathan Pearce that if anyone wants to get to know the work of Paul Johnson (and they really should – because his work was well worth getting to know), they should start with the book “Modern Times”.

  • NickM

    I know nothing really of Johnson but I’ll take JP’s word for it that he seemed a good guy…

    But, I’m going to raise a side-point. The problem isn’t so much a lot of the “left”‘s moral relativism per-se but their deeply engrained position that truth is a construct and that their constructed “truth” is actually absolute. This is why they operate so often like a medieval inquistion. If they were truly morally reletivistic they would not be so didactic about such things as “white privilege”, LGBTQ+ ideology, assorted forms of victimology and all the rest. Their approach has far less to do with moral reletivism as much as moral totalitarianism which will absolutely brook no deviation and will punish any who do disagree – however trivially. Look at the torrent of hatred against writers like JK Rowling, the constant calls for “de-platforming”, the professors who have had careers ended.

    No, they haven’t built gulags and I don’t think they will because they have been stunningly successful without such “crude tactics”. I’m not saying they are morally better than Stalin or Mao because they haven’t engaged in purges and mass slaughter. Absolutely not! If you read the vile, inchoate rage of these people you just know they have that in them. They simply haven’t taken up the sword because they have wielded the pen* so effectively.

    This would never be made nowadays. Might I suggest that the only reason “Life of Brian” hasn’t been trash-canned by the Woke is it is perceived as a satire on Christianity and Judaism which are the only acceptable** religions to lampoon. I think it is only glancingly about that but perhaps that’s just me. The movie is a much deeper critique of the human condition.

    *Well, the keyboard, the courts and useful idiots but I’ll stick with the original idiom because the pen they wield most adroitly is the censor’s big black marker.

    **By “acceptable” I mean, perhaps, something closer to “required”.

  • Martin

    I have to agree with Nick that the left, or at least the vast vast majority of them, are not moral relativists. Instead they are moral fanatics, and many ‘conservatives’ have wasted a lot of effort fulminating for decades about relativism. The left see its opponents as evil. They have an absolute morality, it’s just a different one to their opponents. You see this with BLM and LGBTQ+. It’s never enough for the left the populace to be tolerant of gay marriage or transgenderism, or avoid saying hateful things about black people, etc. No, if you don’t outwardly and enthusiastically support BLM, actively celebrate gay marriage or sec change operations etc, you’re liable to be denounced as fascists,Russian agents, or worse.

    The attitude to the overturn of Roe v Wade in the USA also highlighted this. The Supreme Court decision didn’t actually ban abortion, it simply returned the issue to state legislatures. In leftist strongholds like California it changed nothing. But to the left it is a moral affront and outrage that certain states may legislate for somewhat tighter abortion laws. The left have universalist and imperialistic tendencies which again suggests to me they aren’t relativists.

    As Paul Gottfried explains:

    those who support Antifa and Black Lives Matter have hardly failed to recognize that there is “Truth” in the world. They simply reject the moral right of their enemies to express other views. This is a moral stand, hardly a relativistic one, and it is a political-existential one, in the sense in which Carl Schmitt understood “the Concept of the Political” as the most intensely antagonistic of human relationships. It is unimaginable that the more fervent and more activist side in our culture wars is not driven by its own morality, which expresses itself in rage.

    If there were actually any leftists that were genuine relativists I’d take them over the hypermoralistic left that actually does exist.

    As for Paul Johnson, his death made me look up his list of books. I had thought I’d read more books by him, but alas I only have read his History of the USA and Intellectuals. The America book is good as far as one volume works of a nation’s history go. It’s definitely a good corrective to Howard Zinn’s book, and Johnson shows some intellectual daring by adopting Murray Rothbard’s Austrian explanation for the Great Depression. The ‘safer’ thing for a conservative to do would have been to go with the Milton Friedman account, so fair play to Johnson here.

    Intellectuals I read years ago and remember enjoying reading it. I have a vague sentiment though that I perhaps learnt more about the faulty private lives of his subjects from the book than why their theories/academic work etc was wrong. I may be being unfair though here and admit that the personal stuff may have resonated in my head better, and perhaps should reread it some time.

    Reading the obituaries of Johnson was a revelation. I remember him having said that he thought philandering politicians should be punished, but hadn’t realised he was also exposed as having affairs too. Personally I am not that bothered about men having mistresses, but I’m not surprised Johnson got slimed for it.

    On Europe he seemed to have good instincts, having opposed the EU from the beginning. On Tony Blair he was hopeless though, thinking Blair was ‘an old-fashioned English patriot’. I think he said that prior to Blair becoming PM to be fair, and he wasn’t the only one taken in by him.

  • Paul Marks

    Nick M – as you know the left did not use to be like that. I think one problem is that that a lot of the left got tied to Marxism – and when it was obvious that Marxism was false, with the refutation of the Labour Theory of Value, the left faced a choice – abandon Marxism, or abandon reason. Sadly a lot of the left choose door-number-two.

    These days even people who fanatically follow the latest twists and turns of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, often do not know they are doing it – because the actual word “Marxism” is not used. Even big “capitalists” follow these mad doctrines now – see, for example, the posts of Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook, all the “Woke” doctrines of Critical Race Theory, Third Wave Feminism, and-so-on. All of it is nonsense, but these are people following their passion – not reason. And they put their money with their mouth is – for example Mr Zuckerberg spent about half a Billion Dollars helping to rig the 2020 Presidential election in the United States, and he was not the only one. As for whether Mr Z is just pretending (to fit in) or is actually is one of them – I do not know.

    By the way “Climate Justice” is now part of this – you could come up with a total refutation of the C02 causes deadly global warming theory and it would-not-matter. They are passionate people they just would not care about reason and evidence – they would kill you anyway, and feel good about themselves doing it.

    “It takes one to know one” – yes of course, I am a passionate type as well (that is why I understand them), but at least I know that there is an objective reality which reason can know (including an objective moral reality) and that my passions must take second place to moral reason.

    Paul Johnson knew that as well, it is part of Scholastic teaching, did he always follow moral reason – no, of course not, we all fail (I certainly do) – but men like Paul Johnson pick themselves up and try again.

  • Paul Marks

    Marin – yes Paul Johnson was taken in by Mr Blair, but a lot of people were.

    In a way it is better to be like Paul Johnson, and think well of people (give them benefit of the doubt) till they really let you down, than to be the other sort (like me) who tend to think the worst of people and expect them to behave badly.

    Paul Johnson lived in hope – he hoped people would behave well, and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • GregWA

    I wonder how much of the cancel culture left have always, or almost always, been with us? But they are less than 1% of us and until the interwebs arose, we did not hear their noise. They are mostly unknown people making noise that is now amplified by “re-tweets” and similar amplifying devices.

    Obviously wrong, often deranged and mostly despicable, they should be ignored…but they aren’t. Isn’t that the problem?

  • lucklucky

    I have to agree with Nick that the left, or at least the vast vast majority of them, are not moral relativists. Instead they are moral fanatics, and many ‘conservatives’ have wasted a lot of effort fulminating for decades about relativism.

    Moral relativism of the Marxist Left is just an utilitarian tool to deconstruct the enemy culture(Western Civilisation) nothing more.
    Likewise when they do not control or dominate they are all for Free Speech. If they take power instead Free Speech disappears because then correct people is in power, so there is no reason for free speech.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Martin, thanks for your comment.

    In Johnson’s case, what he was getting at was how, as he saw it, the Left paid no heed to empirical evidence and the results of their policies. It was the purity of their intentions that counted. But sincerity without willingness to check evidence is not a sign of honesty or rigour, but often a self-deluding type of arrogance.

    So Johnson have responded that the Left’s notion of “truth” was that of a secular religion, more like a faith in the truth of their cause without troubling over what might actually be happening (the victory of the proletariat and the inevitability of revolution, or the inevitable destruction of the Earth because of fossil fuels, whatever). And he’d also argue that, when confronted with evidence confounding these nostrums, the Left did not adjust, or correct, or admit mistakes, but double down. Their approach to truth was irrational, and could be easily demonstrated as such. The other important word here is “objective” – the Left, in Johnson’s eyes, was uninterested in any metrics or yardsticks to measure progress or regression, and demonstrated bad faith and intellectual dishonesty on an increasing scale. (Even in the late 19th Century, Marx was dishonest in his use of labour market data to prop up his immiseration claims about the working class.)

    Milton Friedman once wrote that sincerity is a much overrated virtue, and he was spot-on. Thomas Sowell has also argued about how many Leftists have tended to elevate the supposed nobility of their visions over the wreckage of their policies.

    The supreme irony, of course, is that Johnson was religious, and who believed in the “truths” of the Bible and was a man of faith. But as I said in my OP, he was also of the Aristotelian end of Catholicism, the one that saw its most impressive flowering in Dr Aquinas, with its attempt to balance reason with faith, and which arguably was an early staging post towards the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment. (To that extent, then, I think Johnson was not quite right about where his analysis would lead him).

  • Paul Marks

    Johnathan Pearce – quite so, to a follower of Aquinas there is no contradiction between faith and reason. The Scholastics may have wrong – but they were impressive thinkers, which sadly can not be said for the leftists we know so well.

    GregWA – there used to be a free speech culture, I am old enough to remember it. “I despise what you say, but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it” as Voltaire defined such a position.

    Ronald Reagan warned that freedom is never more than one generation from being destroyed – and what happened (even in his time) is that the left took control of education and taught (as with Herbert Marcuse) that Freedom of Speech was “repressive tolerance” that “harmed historically disadvantaged groups”.

    And that is how we got to the terrible place we are now in.

    Although there is one other factor – the pathetic failure of the establishment “conservatives” to stand up for Freedom of Speech or any other basic liberty. Their decision to go with the flow has been fatal – and will not, in the end, save their private wealth.

    “If I pretend to go along with the left they will leave me alone” is the sort of thing that should be written on their tombstones.

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