Neal Ascherson (review date 20 May 1977)

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SOURCE: “Barbarians at the Gate,” in New Statesman, May 20, 1977, pp. 677–78.

[In the following review of Enemies of Society, Ascherson commends Johnson's intelligence and scathing humor, but disagrees with his overriding notions about civilization and morality.]

Outside the headmaster's study, winding from the green baize door to halfway up the stairs, waits the queue. Whacks and screams suggest that Teilhard de Chardin is having a rough time in there. Paul Tillich and Marcuse stuff paper into their trouser-seats; Fanon and Schoenberg begin to snivel; Sartre, Marx, Freud, Diocletian, Meinhof, Laing, Lévi-Strauss, Cicero, the rulers of independent Africa, Francis Bacon, Edmund Leach … the Rev. Paul Johnson BA is going to root this thing out before it spreads any further. ‘You'll think twice before undermining civilisation again. Touch your toes …’

This book [Enemies of Society] is cross. But it is adventurous, learned and vehemently funny. Paul Johnson is one of the British masters of polemic, and he has summoned together all his enormous reading, all his prejudices and loves, into a political testament.

The book is about what Mr Johnson calls ‘civilisation’. Whatever that is, why does it decline? He begins with a huge, rapid sketch of the history of the human race, the chalk squeaking and snapping on the blackboard as he draws. Neolithic societies and the first city cultures could not progress because they were not free. The Roman republic promised well (‘a liberal economic process presided over by a night-watchman state’), but the Roman Empire fell because slavery paralysed initiative and prevented the emergence of a freedom-loving middle class. The barbarians who succeeded were in many respects ‘morally superior and socially more attractive’. But it was not until the late middle ages that the rise of a genuine ‘middle people'—free peasants and tenants, urban merchants—laid the foundations of a ‘civilisation’.

The Industrial Revolution begins in Britain because the victory of Parliament in the seventeenth century secured property rights and outlawed monopoly: not in Spain, because there was no middle layer between the rich and the beggars, not in France because it was an absolute monarchy, not in Holland because taxation was too high and too complicated. The take-off accelerates: here comes Adam Smith, then nineteenth-century liberalism, then Keynes, then Europe's post-war surge of growth.

And then human progress stumbles. In the Seventies, ‘for no apparent reason, the entire system staggered and lost confidence in itself’. This is the very moment when ‘capitalism was not only the physical mainstay of western civilisation; it was in the process of becoming civilised itself’. So why? Mr Johnson dismisses impersonal forces of history, cycles or dialectics as heathen mummery. If progress stumbled, somebody tripped it up. Who?

All the rest of the book tells us who. Everywhere, in a thousand guises, Paul Johnson discovers the social enemy at his work of wrecking and sabotage. The ecology lobby, for example, who egged on OPEC to put up the price of oil and thus avenged ‘the sin of growth’ on the poor of the entire world. The ‘pseudo-religions’ are guilty, for filletting theology and encouraging subjectivism and licence. Philosophers are guilty for leaving ‘civilisation undefended and confused’. Dons also are guilty, for trying to make universities ‘relevant’ and debasing standards. ‘Hirsute students and oleaginous sheikhs', ‘aggro-Dons', teachers who undermine middle-class morality, composers who desert tonality, painters whose work is impossible ‘to relate to morally', writers who deal in ‘a horror-reality of monsters, freaks and savages', the UN—all are part of the great conspiracy to ‘disorient civilised man’.

Some of this abuse has a brilliant, raving wit about it. Some of it perforates the right target: Teilhard deserves what he gets here. The chapter about euphemisms and the use of words to intimidate is especially well-aimed. But sheer wildness takes over. Frantz Fanon is named as the man who caused the guerrilla war in Rhodesia with its ‘dreadful purpose’ of expelling the whites, and then as a bonus is blamed for Palestinian terrorism and the Arab oil embargo (so the eco-lobby had an accomplice after all). Shirley Williams and Ted Short encouraged ‘the new student Fascist left', who, as is well known, are remote-controlled by the German mountebank, Marcuse. Women recruits to the Provisional IRA ‘are subjected to repeated rape and forced to take part in communal acts of sexual depravity’ (I would like to see Paul Johnson put that one over to the Columkill Ladies’ Choir in Derry). No Royal Marine who has read a newspaper about Rhodesia, experienced a British university recently, heard Mrs Williams or met a Republican woman is going to believe a word of this.

Paul Johnson's idea of civilisation is at the core of the book. It's a word many people try to avoid: I don't think many people who had visited Auschwitz would feel that the term had survived the teachings and accomplishments of the Third Reich. Those who do use it, like archaeologists, employ it only technically to describe certain combinations of material and social development. Chambers’ Encyclopaedia, in a definition by the late but great Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, says that ‘C. is currently used in a variety of vague and often emotional senses … civilisation is often the prerogative of only a minority in a society thus classified’.

This confusion between the notions of society and civilisation runs all through the book. Paul Johnson constantly refers to the value of truth as the definition of civilisation, but he gets muddled over the question of freedom. If the barbarians had a freer social structure than the Romans and (let's suppose) were more inclined to truthfulness, were they more civilised than the Romans? Even more simply, can you have a slave-holding civilisation? The word is dead, and ‘civilisation’ is now just the middle-class description of manners at table and in the office. In that sense, Mr Johnson would have done better to call this book Enemies of Civilisation, because—given Childe's point—an enemy of Johnsonian civilisation could easily qualify as a friend of society.

This ‘civilised minority’ problem emerges when Mr Johnson performs his scathing chapter on words and euphemisms (of which, of course, ‘civilisation’ is one of the most blatant). For a moment, he accepts that there is a majority with which the minority has problems. ‘Civilisation is best defended when all those in authority and influence combine to use words in their true and accurate meaning, and unite to denounce their misuse …’ A little further on, he adds that hieratic language at religious rites should be ‘special … the words must be bigger than their meaning’. And then: ‘This is where the heritage of language becomes so important, and hence attacks on it become attacks on civilisation itself.’

At one instant, an oligarchy of dominies is dictating what words will or won't mean. At the next, the masses are mumbling words they don't understand—but to ask the dominies to define them would be treated as gross insubordination. The missing dimension of this book is religion, because the appeal for absolute standards in the name of a certain pattern of moral behaviour is a religious appeal. To say: ‘I wish matters to be so because God commands that they should be so’ is a respectable old position. To say that they should be so because otherwise the middle class will not flourish is weaker by several dimensions. It is painful that Paul Johnson repeats the sound observation that some mental systems are closed because they can explain away any attack upon their premises in their own terms: painful, because the three great examples always quoted are Marxism, Freudianism and the Catholic Church. Mr Johnson chooses only to mention the first two.

This is a very Victorian book. As each victim touches his toes, he will glimpse upside down a sepia photograph of the Parthenon upon the headmaster's wall. Mr Johnson thinks a society is healthy when it is practical and realistic, and sick when its art stylises or abandons naturalism. He sees Brunelleschi's presentation of vanishing-point perspective as a decisive ‘civilising’ step; science and art have worked together to achieve an advance of truth.

Paul Johnson winds up with ten new commandments. They add up to principles for the defence of middle-class liberalism, in so far as they are not familiar precepts. He writes as an angry, kindly, generous man, in no way a Tsarist like Solzhenitsyn or a writer who defies the public hangman like Demaistre. But his cultural pessimism leads him to a view of general anarchy, in particular of anarchy in British life, which is quite unreal.

This is still a quiet, submissive, increasingly authoritarian place. Let one example serve. In the small city of Edinburgh, children are beaten with a strap in the local schools on thirty thousand occasions each year. Has this defence of values led to conflict with aggro-Dons, to mountebank psychologists and priests challenging morality and religion in the streets? It has not. The defence itself challenged those values in the victims’ own minds: the enforcement of obsolete middle-class standards by obsolete means breeds only inarticulacy, despair, a taste for destructive violence. People still need liberty, and it looks as if they will have to knock over Mr Johnson's ‘civilisation’ to get it.

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