Book review - "Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky"

British historian Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky” is a provocative look at the personal lives of the world’s leading left-wing intellectuals.

A major theme of "Intellectuals" (by “Intellectuals” Johnson means left-wing political radicals who wanted to reshape the world with their ideas) is these people lived as if they weren’t bound by the same obligations as everyone else.  They didn't live up to their own ideals, either – they claimed to love humanity, but the way they treated actual people was often cruel. Johnson argues the way these Intellectuals conducted their own lives should cast doubt on the ideas they wanted to impose on the rest of us.

Many facts about the life of Karl Marx - the most destructive of the Intellectuals - are shocking. Marx was a genuinely appalling man. He was abusive and cruel to others, never held a regular job during adulthood, and routinely begged for money from family plus his closest associate, Friedrich Engels. Most surprising given his pro-worker philosophy, Marx avoided actual contact with lower class workers. He exploited his housekeeper of several years, Helen Demuth, by giving her keep but no wages. There is good evidence Marx took Demuth as his mistress. She gave birth to a son, Henry Frederick Demuth, but Marx never acknowledged he was the father.

Marital fidelity is one example where none of the Intellectuals felt society's standards applied to them. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had mistresses who produced a total of five children, all of whom were abandoned at Rousseau’s insistence. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's long-term relationship with Simone de Beauvoir has been called the "original open relationship" – the two never married, and agreed they would have sexual relations with others as long as they disclosed the details to each other. Bertrand Russell married and divorced four times and had multiple affairs, some occurring at the same time.

Honesty is another area. Marx knowingly used data that he knew to be outdated or false to support his anti-capitalist arguments in “Das Kapital.” Rousseau and playwright Lillian Hellman routinely lied in letters, memoirs and other accounts. James Baldwin lied about his childhood. Hemingway lied about nearly everything.

Then there is the seemingly minor matter of paying taxes. Socialist writer Edmund Wilson didn't pay taxes for nearly a decade and avoided prison only after a lengthy court battle. (The chapter on Edmund Wilson is where Johnson points out Marx almost certainly never paid any income taxes, even though his German contemporaries were required to.) This seems like a small matter, but when someone calls for bigger government but doesn’t pay their share of taxes, it rings hollow.

“Intellectuals” is an important historical work shining a bright light on the nature of left-wing elites and whether people should listen to them. This book complements Thomas Sowell’s work on the mindset of the liberals who designed the failed social policies of the past fifty years, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. I would love to see an updated version with info on newer generation of intellectuals: Saul Alinsky (author of Rules for Radicals), Andrew Cockburn, Howard Zinn.