The Magazine

Brains Distrust

A man of the left who is really, really mad.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Taylor was a much better historian than Collini allows. It is true that he often advanced madcap theses, but even in his errors there were elements of truth. In this regard, he is reminiscent of Edward Gibbon, whom we read despite his conclusions. And in any case, bad ideas do not mar Taylor's best works, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954) and English History 1914-1945 (1965). What Collini dislikes about Taylor is that he was not prepared to be consistently left-liberal. He had good things to say about Churchill and bad things to say about the Soviets. He was too contrarian. Collini wants his left-liberals marching in lockstep, which is why he has taken to upbraiding Christopher Hitchens, another lively contrarian.

Collini's reading of Freddie Ayer shows his humorlessness. The fun-loving, frivolous Ayer clearly offends the puritan in Collini. Throughout his discussion of Ayer there is a kind of censorious disapproval: How could a man who might have been such an effective publicist for positivist atheism have condescended to appear on silly television programs like The Brains Trust? Worse, how could he have admitted that he had nothing of any substance to say to his fellow citizens? For Collini, these are exasperating shortcomings.

But surely, the one admirable thing about Ayer was his honesty. More than any of his converts--Paul Johnson once referred to "the new welfare state intellectuals . . . with their long-playing records and their ponytailed wives, their bottles of Spanish wine and volumes of A.J. Ayer"--he freely acknowledged the philosophical blind alley of logical positivism. Asked in the 1970s what he thought the defects were of Language, Truth and Logic (1936), his famous attack on metaphysics, he replied: "Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false." The truest thing about Ayer was his hedonism. His second, American, wife once said of his indefatigable philandering: "Some men played golf; Freddy played women." It is also worth remarking that he was no duffer on the dance floor, by all accounts particularly good at the samba.

What responsible public role Ayer might have played is not clear. He was convinced that moral judgments were mere feelings, indicative not of principles but emotions. Consequently, there was no such thing as objective good or evil but only one's feelings about what was morally good or evil, which could claim no verifiable truth. It is strange imagining him trying to interest his dance partners in such notions.

The worst essay in the book is on George Orwell. For Collini, Orwell was the most reprehensible of traitorous clerks because he was "guilty of that most unlovely and least defensible of all inner contradictions, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectual." What this boils down to is that Orwell, unlike, say, Eric Hobsbawm, refused to connive at Stalin's genocidal crimes. Anti-intellectualism in Collini's lexicon means anti-left intellectualism.

Some of the comments Orwell made about English left intellectuals during WWII have an unsettling application to our own left intellectuals: "The quickest way of ending a war," he observed, "is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory." In one of his London Letters for Partisan Review, he wrote: "The chief activity among left-wing writers is a rather pettifogging criticism which turns into a kind of dismay when England wins a victory, because this always falsifies their predictions." There is no need to belabor parallels.

Collini's essay can be read as a riposte to Hitchens's recent paean to Orwell. You can detect the abomination of dissent that characterizes so much of the left-liberal camp, and on this subject, Paul Johnson is astute: "Taken as a group, [left-liberal intellectuals] are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value." Yet left-liberals were not always like this. Take William Hazlitt. Speaking of Edmund Burke in 1826, he assured his readers, "I had reason for my prejudice in favour of this author. To understand an adversary is some praise. . . . I conceived that [Burke] might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion." Collini would be no more capable of that kind of intellectual magnanimity than he would be of putting in a good word for global capital. In the 500-odd pages of Absent Minds, there are two passing references to Burke.