With the passing of Rush Limbaugh nearly two years ago in February, the free world was down to a handful of effective voices in entertainment, literature, or the so-called news media. Another titan died at age 94 on January 12, the British historian Paul Johnson.
As an older Ph.D. student completing my doctorate at the time, I had become accustomed to the writings of R. Emmett Tyrell and Waldyslaw Pleszczynski in the opening pages of The American Spectator with their “The Continuing Crisis” column. At the time, nothing in conservatism matched the sarcasm, wit, and humor of that single page. Then I came across Modern Times, by a historian I had never heard of, an Englishman named Paul Johnson. It was big. In my academic work, I wasn’t used to reading anything that huge (weighing in at over 670 pages in the revised edition). Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, professors had responded to students’ unwillingness to read by assigning smaller and smaller books—or even scholarly articles.
But Modern Times was daunting, even more so when I dug in. It seemed like Johnson knew everybody personally. His character studies were astounding in the world of American history literature, with which was what I was most familiar. Of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin: “The giant son of a Lugbara witch-woman.” Of Gandhi: “a political exotic” whose name meant “grocer,” who was “obsessed by the bodily functions and the ingress and egress of food.” Of Lenin: “the first of a new species, the professional organizer of totalitarian politics.” Later I found these insightful and dagger-ish descriptions carried into all his writings. In Birth of the Modern (1991), his book about the era 1815-1830, he described Czar Alexander’s sister, the Grand Duchess Katerina, as “a small, ugly, squat-nosed widow, full of mischief and malice.” Of Alexander himself: “notably clever, at a superficial level, and he suffered from that curse of the pre-Revolutionary age, a crypto-radical tutor.” Of Wellington: “a lean, energetic man of five feet nine, brown from years in the Indian sun, hook-nosed, but considered handsome by the ladies; his blue eyes less piercing than Jackson’s, more of a lively kind . . . . He had an abrupt manner of speech and a laugh . . . like a man with a whooping cough.” Of George IV: “men disliked him, particularly because he was an inveterate liar . . . a fantasist who could convince himself that certain imaginary things had happened.”
In these lines, one cannot help but think of Joe Biden (a fantasist) or Mitt Romney (“His instinct was always to desert and betray”). But it was his nearly 20-page exposure of Vladimir Lenin that set the stage for, in my mind, the entirety of Johnson’s writing, for within that lesson, he detailed Lenin’s departure from Marxist orthodoxy, his uncanny luck at being present at numerous events with which history associates him—but which he wasn’t even present (such as the beginning of the first Russian Revolution); his capacity to utterly disregard any attacks or criticisms, no matter how valid; and his perfect grasp of the power of propaganda.
It was here that Johnson reached stratospheric writing. He always paid attention to words and language, infusing Birth of the Modern with more than two pages of “Americanisms”—particular speech and words coined or adapted by Americans. So it was with Lenin. “His writings,” Johnson noted, abound in military metaphors: states of siege, iron rings, sheets of steel, marching, camps, barricades, forts, offensives, mobile units, guerrilla warfare, firing squads. They are dominated by violently activist verbs: flame, leap, ignite, goad, shoot, shake, seize, attack, blaze, repel, weld, compel, purge, exterminate.
If one read nothing else about Lenin than Johnson’s section in “the First Despotic Utopias,” his chapter in Modern Times, any sensible person would conclude that any dogma or political agenda supported by such an insidious lunatic should not command legitimacy for a single second.
Paul Bede Johnson was born on November 2, 1928, in Manchester to an artist and art school principal in Staffordshire. He attended Stonyhurst College, then run by the Jesuits, then Oxford, where he studied under A.J.P. Taylor, the Hitler apologist. From there, Johnson served in the Army, both in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Army Educational Corps. Commissioned a captain, he was based at Gibraltar. He took a job with the New Statesman. At the time, Johnson was a leftist. There he wrote critically of Ian Fleming’s Dr. No and the Beatles. He rose to the position of lead writer, then editor of the New Statesman from 1965 to 1970. His position allowed him to screen vast amounts of copy, including snapshots of virtually all world leaders. And he traveled. During his Statesman year, he filed over 50 overseas reports.
A Catholic, Johnson became disenchanted with the left and began writing for the Spectator about social decline, contributed to the Daily Mail, then the Daily Telegraph. He had already begun publishing books. His anti-communism led him to support Richard Nixon, but more than his antipathy to communism, Johnson always retained certain British influences, including a distaste for the French and an appreciation of the Empire. Unlike many British writers, however, Johnson had a robust respect for the United States. His chapter in Birth of the Modern makes an argument that the essential stalemate after 1814 in the War of 1812 benefitted both countries, as neither could lord over the other the status of “winner.”
While one can rightly question the support for western values and liberal political rights that Johnson held while simultaneously (in typical English fashion) hinting that the Empire would never be prepared for independence, it’s hard to challenge his portraits of the chaotic and murderous African and Asian states in “The Bandung Generation” or “Caliban’s Kingdoms” in Modern Times.
The only quibbles I had with Johnson came in his History of the American People, which, while nearly as strong as his other books, still suffered from “British-itis” in terms of his assessment of many distinct American developments. He was, to a fault, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, whose image as a “democrat” and “populist” had taken serious body blows in recent years from both right and left. (I argued in my Banking in the American South that his “war” on the BUS was no “populist” attack on a “central bank” at all—the BUS was not a central bank and was mostly privately owned—but an early spoils soppage wherein Old Hickory could dish out BUS money to his cronies. He likewise never seemed to find an argument for the Great Depression, unsure whether to blame inflation or deflation.
Such lapses were rare. Better was his masterful assessment of Dwight Eisenhower as a sensible conservative; of John Kennedy as a reckless, untethered war hawk who missed an opportunity to take Cuba; of Nixon, the first victim of a media/political coup in the United States.
Reading most of Johnson’s works (I admit, I found A History of Christianity a little tedious—but then I thought the same thing the first time I read Birth of the Modern, only to appreciate its value later), one feels like a customer in a jewelry store. Everything glitters. Nothing is ugly. Yet every once in a while, that special sparkle stands out as when Johnson said of Israel that it “slipped through a crack in the time continuum.” In eight words, Johnson not only captured Israel’s political creation but hinted strongly that the Lord God was entirely at work in its creation.
Married in 1958 to Marigold Hunt, the daughter of Sir Winston Churchill’s physician, Johnson had three sons and a daughter, all high achievers. One of his granddaughters married Piers Morgan. Of course, with more notoriety came more scrutiny, and in 1998 it was revealed that Johnson had an eleven-year affair with Gloria Stewart, who had recorded them together for a Brit tabloid. She claimed she outed him because of his hypocrisy over morality, religion, and family, though she admitted that, in fact, he left her for yet another woman. Though sordid, that entire affair, in fact, validated Johnson’s conservative views that to be a hypocrite, one had to actually believe in something and act alternatively. Leftists believe in nothing, save power for power’s sake, and thus it was that Rush Limbaugh gave up his nearly two-decade practice of ridiculing leftists because the charge of hypocrisy could not stick to them.
In his later years, Johnson wrote smaller books, including a devastatingly insightful work on Napoleon. Most of his other books in that period were anthologies of different people assorted by their chief characteristics as he saw them: Intellectuals, Heroes, and Creators. By far, the most astounding of any chapter is his section in Intellectuals on Karl Marx called “Howling Gigantic Curses.” It was so powerful I assigned it to my classes. I think they came away properly revolted by the father of communism.
I won’t delve into many of his other works here: that would take weeks’ worth of columns, but he produced A History of The Jews, Art: A New History, Churchill, Civil War America, and The Quest for God (his personal spiritual journey). If stranded on a desert island with nothing else to read but the works of Paul Johnson, one would have virtually the history of the world, from politics to culture, in his hands. I already miss him. He was a waterfall of truth.