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Treason of the Intellectuals
Cloister Conspiracy, Philip Jackson, 2006

Treason of the Intellectuals

Julien Benda's classic book on the toxic mix of intellectuals and power is its own paradox.

Gustav Jönsson
Treason of the Intellectuals
by Julien Benda (Eris, 202 pp., $23)

The title of Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs—The Treason of the Intellectuals—has become a synecdoche for a tradition that upholds truth in the face of moral corruption and castigates those intellectuals who succumb to the allures of political tyranny. Published in 1927, when street battles between fascists and communists were weekly affairs, Treason is a book that speaks to each generation’s own crisis. For Benda, the traitors were Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, the Action Française, and other reactionary nationalists. The betrayal in question was that of the intellectual vocation itself. Intellectuals—who should have devoted their lives to truth and justice—had, in Benda’s felicitous phrase, preached the abandonment of the toga for the sword. Instead of challenging power, they had become its servants and ideologues.

Europe’s interwar period was one of history’s great hinge moments. The vatic force of Benda’s book stems in part from his recognition of this fact: He was one of the first who grasped the novel horror of fascism. Viewed from the Soviet Union, fascism was merely the natural outgrowth of capitalist society, which could be ignored or cooperated with in order to crush social democracy—this became the official party line in Ernst Thälmann’s Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands under the slogan “After Hitler, Our Turn.” Benda, born to Jewish parents, had sharpened his polemical talents writing Dreyfusard pamphlets. He was thus well placed to witness the rise of revanchist militarism from the wasteland of the Great War. Fascism, he thought, represented a radically new kind of threat—one which treated violence not as a necessary evil but (following Georges Sorel) as redemptive in itself. “Our century will properly be called the century of the intellectual organization of political hatred,” he wrote. When the second edition of Treason was published in 1946, this analysis seemed like an unheeded prophecy.

Benda introduced Treason with a story about Leo Tolstoy. When Tolstoy witnessed a fellow officer beat a man who fell out of marching ranks, he asked the officer if he had never heard of the gospels. The officer, in reply, asked if Tolstoy had never heard of the army regulations. For Benda, it was reasonable that the officer replied as he did, but it was nonetheless crucial that there be men like Tolstoy to protest. These men were the clercs—loosely translated, “scribes” with the hint of ecclesiastical status. “It is thanks to these scribes … that humanity did evil for two thousand years but nonetheless paid tribute to the good,” Benda wrote. “This contradiction was an honour to the human race, opening up the crack whereby civilisation could occasionally slip through.”

Intellectuals thus sustained civilization for millennia, but something slipped in the course of European history. Under the influence of 19th-century romanticism and historicism, scribes began preaching the right of might; they sought to nullify Enlightenment individuality in the collective hatreds of their race, nation, or class. They made a cult of cruelty, something that not even Machiavelli or Joseph de Maistre had contemplated. As Benda noted, when Machiavelli counselled the Prince to ruthlessly carry out his schemes, he never said that ruthlessness itself was good—only necessary. The fascist mentality therefore negated the essence of civilized life.

Benda posited a dichotomy between scribes and laymen: The former constituted an elevated clerisy in pursuit of spiritual or intellectual truths while the latter sought material rewards. The laymen were hostage to factional hatreds, thus in theory only intellectuals could be trusted to speak in the name of truth because they were the only ones who put truth first. But political power, Benda warned, could seduce the intellectual into abandoning his true telos: “The scribe’s defeat begins right from the point where he claims to be practical.” And yet, Treason was itself a book intended to have practical effects. There is thus something paradoxical in its message—it is a polemic that counsels against polemicizing.

Benda was not so naive as to think that intellectuals could or should keep out of politics entirely. He argued that the betrayal of les clercs stemmed from them sullying their intellectual integrity: They had let partisan expediency overtake their allegiance to truth. For Benda, intellectuals should stand athwart history yelling “No” when they saw the “transcendental values” of truth, beauty, and justice traduced. Paradoxically, they fulfilled their role as intellectuals when they engaged in political protest. Benda cited several exemplary cases of such engagement: Émile Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus affair; Voltaire’s defense of Jean Calas; Spinoza’s “ultimi barbarorum” following the lynching of the de Witt brothers. Benda thought that Treason was itself a paradigmatic case of intellectual responsibility.

Treason is a testament to France as a place where ideas can flourish in the absence of rigor; it is more of an exclamation than a carefully reasoned case. Benda often breezily assumes what he should be proving through examination of the evidence. He resorts far too often to generalizing phrases like “everyone will agree” or “we have only to open our eyes.” But it is precisely in these moments—when he thinks that he says something obvious—that he blunders. He never explains how intellectuals can know the truth; rather, they seem to know it as though they were Plato’s fictional philosopher-kings. Benda did not need to invent a millennia-old division between scribes and laymen to charge Maurras and Barrès for betraying the intellectual life. Benda thus unnecessarily overstates his otherwise solid indictment. Yet Edward Said had a point when he said that Treason overcomes its own flaws—perhaps it is most instructive because it shows that those who think that they know the truth utter falsehoods most convincingly.

To see the force of this last point, consider the trajectory of Benda’s own career. Benda moved ever-further left in the 1930s until he prostrated himself before Stalin. He was forced into hiding when Paris fell to the Wehrmacht in 1940 and was very nearly captured in 1944. In the immediate post-war years, he called for collaborators—including some clercs—to be executed for treason. These writers were guilty of treason twice over, he argued, for betraying their intellectual calling and their nation. By this time, he had already unshouldered the burden of responsibility. Having warned of collectivistic hatreds, he succumbed to it himself. Mark Lilla, in his introduction, cites Benda’s statement on massacres committed by the communists in the Spanish Civil War:

I say that the scribe must now take sides. He must choose the side which, if it threatens liberty, at least threatens it in order to give bread to all men, and not for the benefit of wealthy exploiters. He must choose the side which, if it must kill, will kill the oppressors and not the oppressed. The clerc must take sides with this group of violent men, since he has only the choice between their triumphs or that of the others. He will give them [the communists] his signature. Perhaps his life. But he will retain the right to judge them. He will keep his critical spirit.

Benda thus sided with the Communist Party while thinking that he kept his critical spirit—providing political history with yet another example of cognitive dissonance. Had Stalin’s NKVD caught him in Spain, or had he lived in the Soviet Union, he might have ended up like Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov—losing his critical spirit moments before giving both his signature and life. Benda had an unfortunate combination of naiveté and righteousness: It did not strike him as absurd, shortly after the Holodomor, to rationalize communist murder on the grounds that they at least provide bread for the people.

The ne plus ultra of Benda’s moral degradation came in 1949, when he justified Mátyás Rákosi’s show trials, including the execution of foreign minister László Rajk on false charges of being a “Titoist spy.” This episode, now seldom remembered, once carried great moral weight in European history. The show trial of Rajk shook the European Left to such a degree that Daniel Bell listed it as one of the most significant “Kronstadt moments” along with the Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and Hungary 1956. Benda visited Budapest shortly after Rajk’s execution. He stayed at Hotel Bristol, where he met Hungarian writer György Faludy. Faludy recalled how impressed Benda had been when he toured the city’s manufacturing plants—he came away completely fooled, never suspecting that the workers were in reality employed by the security services. “You see,” he asked Faludy, “when will the French worker be able to have such a car and income?” When he returned to France he thanked Rákosi for inviting him to Budapest and compared his own defense of Stalin with Zola’s defence of Dreyfus.

Benda’s hypocrisy, however, takes nothing away from Treason’s core premises. Indeed, his failure to heed its warnings only makes them more forceful—because it shows that even those, perhaps especially those, who feel most sure of themselves risk betraying their own high principles in spasms of righteous fury.

Gustav Jönsson is an essayist and critic based in Glasgow. Twitter: @GustavNJonsson

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