[The thesis of the following piece by British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘Confessions of an egghead,’ is that liberals are typically eggheads—that is, people who approach life in terms of ideas rather than immediate realities—and that eggheads are nearly always wrong. He confesses to being an egghead himself, and substantiates his thesis with an impressive list of his own errors and those of other famous eggheads.]
The first contemporary hero I consciously had was Woodrow Wilson. I saw this solemn-faced American on the old flickering silent film. He was wearing a top hat, which he raised from time to time. It seemed to me that he had come as a saviour among us; that his Fourteen Points would deliver mankind from the evils of war for evermore, and that under the auspices of the League of Nations the reign of freedom and brotherhood must prevail. When this did not happen, I was confident that his purposes had been frustrated by wicked, selfish men. It did not occur to me that the purposes themselves might be mistaken.
Subsequent judgements and admirations have little better withstood the test of time. As a leader-writer on the Manchester Guardian I used to argue with great passion that the virtuous Germans were only claiming their just rights in Europe, malignantly opposed therein by the French, whose ruthless and unscrupulous exercise of power politics threatened to involve us all in another war. Alas, only a few years later the roles had changed. The virtuous Germans were voting in large numbers for Hitler, while the malignant French represented the champions of justice and freedom. Their Grand Armeť whose maintenance had been so roundly denounced became (again mistakenly, as it turned out) a blessed bulwark of righteousness.
Again, in India it seemed to me clear that once the British Raj was ended, communal and other troubles would all automatically vanish. The alien imperialists must go, and then Gandhi would take over and his human notions prevail. Certainly I did not foresee that the British Raj would end in a bloody and impracticable partition, whose ill consequences for both Moslem and Hindu are with us still. Yet again, I first thought that the Soviet regime had fulfilled all the promises of human felicity ever made, and then, having spent a year in the U.S.S.R., that it must collapse under the weight of its cruelty and oppression.
The fact is that eggheads (taking an egghead to be one who approaches life in terms of ideas rather than of what seem to be immediate realities) are nearly always wrong. It might be argued that they were right about the Spanish Civil War. Even in this case, however, in retrospect, the awkward thought arises that the most probable alternative to a Franco government would have been one more or less subservient to Moscow. Such a government, in 1940, during the operation of the Nazi-Soviet pact, would probably have been induced by Stalin, as part of other bargains on his own frontiers, to let the Wehrmacht march through Spain, and thence to North Africa, whereas Franco, with surprising toughness, resisted all Hitler’s persuasions to agree to this.
Past eggheads seem to have been as unfortunate in their prognostications and misguided in their enthusiasms as contemporary ones. They had as foolish expectations, and said as foolish things, about the French Revolution as we did about the Russian Revolution. An egghead like Hazlitt went on regarding Napoleon as the poor man’s friend with the same idiot persistence as his like a century later persisted in seeing in Stalin the practical implementer of the Sermon on the Mount. Again, take the case of Dr. Johnson. He was convinced that the American colonists’ demands were preposterous and indefensible, and that anyway little more was likely to be heard of them. The political ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau seemed to him so obviously depraved and ludicrous that no one would ever heed them. As for Gibbon and Hume—they were outside the pale. Johnson, of course was a Tory, though many of the views he expressed were on the side of the angels. He was a strong believer in poor people having more money; he was always ready to do anything he could to save convicted criminals from the gallows, and his Life of Savage is the most sensitive and uncensorious biography in the English language. As for his personal charity—it was fabulous. His house was full of down-and-outs of various kinds, and of his pension of 300 pounds a year he gave away all but 75.
Johnson, as I have said, was a Tory. What, then, about Marx and Engels who confidently predicted that the proletariat would triumph in their time? Or, for that matter, what about the founder of the Christian religion, who encouraged his followers to believe that the end of the old, cruel way of life was at hand and the reign of righteousness imminent?
The truth is, surely, that liberalism, in one variation or another the egghead’s credo, may be strategically sound but is tactically fallacious, and as such highly misleading as well as highly destructive. Indeed, in my opinion, it is the destructive force of the age. Propositions of our time like Communism, which unashamedly recommend violence and destruction, have also presupposed a consequent stability. They are essentially conservative, stabilizing forces. There is to be a big bang, and then quiet. Liberalism, on the other hand, presupposes what is unattainable—that we, little men and women, should live in amity together on our minute corner of the universe for the few score years vouchsafed us, of our own volition seeking one another’s good and sharing equitably the material things which satisfy our needs and desires. This is a fantasy. This, in human terms, cannot be. Therefore, the effect of believing in it is constantly to tear the world to pieces.
In this sense, the persecutors of eggheads had some justification. When egghead flowers blossom, as the Chinese say, they are liable to turn into weeds, and then they have to uprooted. Brains have to be washed because, from the point of view of those who want to maintain order—any sort of order—unwashed, they are a menace. We have all written righteously indignant paragraphs to solace ourselves about Mr. So-and-So, Herr So-and-So, Senor So-and-So, Comrade So-and-So, a mild man who spent all his time browsing among his books, and never had anything to do with plots and stratagems, but who none the less had been wickedly imprisoned or shot, and what a monstrous thing it was. Of course it was monstrous. But it was also sensible. If you want to have a stable society getting richer and richer (which is what the majority of mankind now want, and perhaps always have wanted) you just cannot afford to let mild men browse quietly among books. I am not suggesting they should necessarily be killed or imprisoned. Stalin and Senator McCarthy were simple hearts whose methods lacked subtlety. A less ostentatious, and perhaps in the long run more efficacious procedure is to buy them off with regius professorships and other like offices, or to get them attached to some church or other, the more authoritarian the better. But just browsing they are a menace.
After all, it was not Hilter or Stalin or Mr. Dulles or even Field-Marshal Montgomery who invented atomic fission and made possible all its deadly affiliates, but a rum-looking egghead, Einstein, scribbling on a piece of paper. It was not Napoleon who made the French Revolution; but Rousseau, a crazy Swiss, who took to knitting and to dressing up in Armenian costume, had a lot to do with it. Stalin, when he killed off all his eggheads like Bukharin, was only establishing a sound and stable government. In this country the victims would have been given the O.M. and sent to the House of Lords, but the end result would have been the same. They would have been silenced. One or two of them, for form’s sake, might even have been left at large, with the possibility of appearing on television or otherwise propounding ideas through the B.B.C. filter. Why purge when the same objective can be painlessly achieved? Broadcasting House washes whiter.
The basic egghead fallacy, the fallacy of liberalism which makes it in practice so destructive a force, is, it seems to me, that it implies the possibility of achieving imaginative ends by the exercise of the will. Actually, these two—the will and the imagination, or, to put it another way, power and love—are in conflict. They pull in opposite directions, and cannot, without the most disastrous consequences, be harnessed together. If the operations of the will are judged in terms of the imagination, the judgment must necessarily be false. Nonetheless, it is the fate of the egghead to attempt this impossible feat. He buys every gold brick because, imaginatively, its glitter is convincing. When, however, he goes to sell it he finds it is worthless. And quite often he has it thrown at his head for his pains.
Click HERE to reach
the associated topic for this webpage.
For more topics click HERE.