Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
10 April 2024

The West’s useful idiots

The solipsism and self-censorship of the campus intelligentsia has spread throughout society. But demand for instruction in progressive doublespeak is dwindling.

By John Gray

The renowned visiting writer was forceful and self-assured in expressing his views. Seated in the lobby of the grand hotel reserved for foreign guests, repeatedly bringing down his heavy stick on the thick grey carpet to mark the importance of his words, he explained why the execution a few weeks previously of a government minister was perfectly justified. The charges of conspiracy and being an agent of Western imperialism had been proved beyond any doubt. Anyone who suggested otherwise was a fascist, spreading slanderous lies against a beleaguered people’s democracy.

The writer was Julien Benda, author of The Treason of the Intellectuals, first published in France as La Trahison des Clercs in 1927, which denounced the intelligentsia of his day for betraying the truth for political ends. Instead of practising their proper vocation and pursuing free inquiry regardless of the consequences, they had yoked their minds to ideas of race, nation and class.

Benda’s endorsement of the execution of the Hungarian foreign secretary and former interior minister László Rajk in October 1949 – after the communist regime had forced a confession and staged a show trial – was witnessed by a young writer and poet, György Faludy, who describes it in his memoir My Happy Days in Hell (1962). When Benda got up to go to the lavatory and Faludy accompanied him, a nondescript figure in civilian clothes, plainly a secret policeman, scuttled ahead and locked himself into a cubicle in order to overhear their conversation. Benda seems not to have noticed anything amiss.

The author of the canonical 20th-century defence of the independent mind had become a useful idiot. When Benda asked lawyers and criminologists in Budapest about the trial, he assumed they could speak freely. In fact every one of them was speaking under severe constraint. The country’s leading historian, who assured Benda that Rajk was guilty of the trumped-up charges, was being blackmailed (Faludy tells us) with the threat that medication on which his life depended could be withdrawn. Others feared their children would suffer. All were afraid for their careers. In Hungary as in other communist countries, complicity in untruth was how intellectuals survived.

The situation is not altogether different in the post-liberal societies of the West. Anyone who openly deviates from progressive ideology risks being erased from their professions. Leading figures can withstand the pressure, and the families of dissidents are not routinely threatened. But if the penalties for dissent are less severe, the resulting conformity is impressive. Nearly everyone practices self-censorship, not least in the company of their colleagues. Here there is an echo of life in communist societies, which will become louder if dissent is criminalised, as occurred in Scotland on 1 April, when the Hate Crime and Public Order Act became law.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

There is a fundamental difference, however. Under communism, everyone lived in two worlds – that invoked in official discourse, and the one that actually existed. A sense of reality, independent of what anyone said they believed, was daily reinforced by the absurdities everyone was forced to repeat. In the West, the collective solipsism of the campus has spread throughout much of the culture. Any notion of objective reality is dismissed as a reactionary prejudice and facts regarded as malleable social constructions. But if you have no idea of truth, you have no use for doubt or free enquiry. Relativism and repression go together. Truth is what you and people like you believe, and can compel others to accept.

An over-expanded and ideologically captured higher education sector may not be interested in reality, but reality is interested in it. The edifice of university financing stands on increasingly shaky foundations. Not only are parts of the sector near bankruptcy. Much of it is exposed to geopolitical shocks. If tensions with China escalate, Beijing can cut off flows of students almost instantly. Sub-prime universities will collapse, as American property did in the global financial crisis. With the fiscal limits of Western states stretched to breaking point, there will be no bailout, whichever governments are in office.

Higher education has been reorganised on a market model, but there is a dwindling market for the legions of students it recruits. Old-fashioned humanities curriculums of a kind now condemned inculcated mental skills that could be useful in a variety of occupations. Instruction in progressive doublespeak prepares heavily indebted graduates for jobs as baristas and food delivery couriers, positions from which they may soon be displaced by AI-directed robots.

Since it appeared almost a hundred years ago, Benda’s analysis has gained in relevance. Despite their delusions regarding totalitarian regimes – so pervasive in enlightened circles that he succumbed to them himself – intellectuals in his time had little power in their own countries. The mass intelligentsia of the post-liberal West is more like a Soviet-style nomenklatura, a class of bureaucrats embedded in key institutions throughout society, whose function was to enforce the ruling ideology. When communism imploded, they found themselves superfluous and redundant. As capitalism drifts into crisis, our intellectual bureaucrats face a similar fate.

[See also: Your own personal Jesus]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward