I’ve just finished a fascinating book, called The Reckless Mind (2001). Its subtitle is ‘Intellectuals in Politics’ and the author Mark Lilla charts the way six key European philosophers and thinkers made compromises—and worse—with totalitarian regimes through the twentieth century. It’s a shameful story, as you read how Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmidt supported the Nazis, while Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojeve, Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida all lent their support to varieties of Communist totalitarianism. ‘Tyrannophilia’ was a real phenomenon, and some of the most brilliantly people of the time stand charged of it.
In an excellent new epilogue to the book, Lilla writes that the collectivist ideologies that attracted these intellectuals have all but disappeared, replaced by ‘a dogma for which we have hardly any name’. This, Lilla explains, ‘begins with basic liberal principles like the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, and distrust of public authority, and advances no further. It is politically democratic but lacks awareness of democracy’s weaknesses and how they can provoke hostility and resentment. It promotes economic growth with unreflective faith in the cost-free benefits of free trade, deregulation, and foreign investment. Since it presumes that individuals are all that count, it has next to nothing to say about collectivities and their enterprises, and the duties that come with them. It has a vocabulary for discussing rights and identities and feelings, but not class or other social realities.’ Lilla goes on to say that this ‘dogma is at once anti-political and anti-intellectual’ and ‘cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. It has no use for sociology or psychology or history, not to mention political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes.’ It’s an extraordinarily powerful critique of our own cultural mess.
Lilla's epilogue is dated June 2016, and was written before the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. So my question is this: what is the trahison des clercs of our own time? How did leading intellectuals, artists and thinkers collude in creating an atmosphere in which the current wave of nationalistic, anti-science, anti-intellectual, popularism could thrive. Who will the ‘guilty men’ be when the philosophical and cultural history of the first quarter of the twenty-first century is written? It's not good enough just to blame the gutter press and the politicians. Artists, intellectuals and thinkers have to examine their own consciences. In other words, how many of us are Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’, clearing the path for the worst to triumph? And which of us are able to articulate a resistance and lead the fight for better times?