When French writer Julien Benda published The Treason of the Clerks in 1926, Europe still lay in the shadow of the Great War and a failure of civilizational nerve. The old verities of faith were eroding, and new political religions like communism, ethnonationalism, and fascism were battling for ascendancy in people’s hearts and in the streets.
For Benda, this cultural malaise was the consequence of intellectuals––the “clerks” whose vocation is the life of the mind and the search for truth––having betrayed that calling to honor humane ideals and moral integrity, and instead pursued “practical advantages” in order to fulfill the “desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action,” and promote the idea that “politics decides morality.” He particularly focused on the ideologies “owing to which men rise up against other men, the chief of which are racial passions, class passions and national passions.”
In short, a betrayal of the true vocation of the intellectual to “urge their fellow beings to other religions than to the religion of the material.”
Today, the disease Benda analyzed has metastasized throughout our body politic. This new “betrayal of the clerks” touches on every dimension of our culture, not just the universities, the natural habitat of today’s intellectuals, or its adjuncts in high-brow culture, but in K-12 education, popular culture, many churches, government agencies, sports, media, and entertainments.
This abandonment of truth and moral clarity, and in its place the adoption of a philistine, relativistic utilitarianism, has deep roots. The most heinous betrayal by intellectuals supposedly committed to truth and humane principle is the Holocaust. The seed of this atrocity was “scientific racism,” the application of Darwinian evolution to political and social policy.
Darwin’s “natural selection,” the improvement of species through the selection of random mutations that increased survivability and exterminated the less fit, informed Nazism’s race theory and gruesome practice. Like England’s Francis Galton, who said “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providentially, quickly and kindly,” Nazi scientists directed natural selection, only they left out the “kindly” and doubled-down on the “ruthlessly.”
The purpose was to maintain “racial hygiene” and avoid “race suicide” by exterminating inferior peoples who polluted the superior “folk” by interbreeding, and who competed with the superior races for resources and land. Nazism, then, misapplied the core of Darwinian evolution and its components like superior fitness for survival, and “extermination” for the less fit, the losers in this competition for resources. Like Galton, the Germans added the novel feature of scientists taking control of this process through political policies, just as British and American scientists and researchers did through eugenics. Numerous German scientists and academics signed on to this atrocity, betraying their professional ethics and their own humanity.
Marxism, however, with its toll of 100 million dead, was the first corrupter of the intellectuals. The rise of Marxism was aided by secularism, the discrediting of God and theology, and their replacement by metaphysical materialism and its new gospel scientism, a debasement of real science to provide camouflage for dubious and destructive ideologies. As Friedrich Engels said at Marx’s funeral, “Just as Darwin had discovered the law of development of organic nature, so did Marx discover the laws of human history.”
Marxism also adopted many of the features of Christianity, which made it an attractive substitute to those atheists who looked to science rather than faith for mankind’s meaning, destiny, and perfection. The intellectual’s vocation now became promulgating Marxist communism and proselytizing the masses. “Truth” and facts were reduced to whatever confirmed the Marxist libretto, and any argument and empirical evidence contradicting that dogma was demonized and distorted.
Thus Lenin’s and Stalin’s mass murders, engineered famines, gulags, and torture were consigned to the “memory hole,” and only the irrational, the evil, or those blinded by bourgeois “false consciousness,” Marxism preached, would accept the evidence for those crimes going back to the early Twenties. “Useful idiots,” as Lenin allegedly called them, in America and Europe, many of them credentialed scholars and intellectuals, accepted the lies and, like the New York Times’s Walter Duranty in the Thirties, publicized them.
The exposure of those lies by eyewitnesses and, more importantly, access to the Soviet archives in the Nineties, has not discredited Marxism nor its cousin Socialism, of which more than half of Gen Z’ers approve. Nor did the collapse of the USSR, Marxism’s superpower idol of global fellow travelers, weaken Marxism’s allure. The persistence of loyalty to communism and apologetics for the Soviet Union’s atrocities has turned such unseemly admiration for the greatest mass murderer in history into a mark of status and superior sophistication. These “useful idiots” 2.0 exist because affection for communism has burrowed deep into high culture, popular culture, and the universities and their “clerks,” where their betrayal has been institutionalized.
Indeed, one of the founders of the racist outfit Black Lives Matter bragged that she and her co-founder are “trained Marxists,” which as anyone versed in its history knows. is a confession that lies, slander, ad hominem attacks, violence, and a disregard of truth will be part of the organization’s modus operandi. And don’t forget the prestige and support that Black Lives Matter has enjoyed in our universities, media, corporations, and government agencies.
So too are the rise of political correctness and now “wokeism,” which likewise enjoy the approval of universities, where those illiberal attacks on, and censorship of proscribed ideologies are practiced, supported, and facilitated. As for Benda’s “racial passions,” multicultural identity politics have tribalized Americans, and dividing them into “oppressors” and “victims,” with commensurate rewards and punishments. And don’t forget the show trials in which those accused of sexual assault or “hate crimes” are deprived of Constitutional protections. That such tyranny takes place in the temples of truth and reason constitutes yet another modern “betrayal of the clerks.”
Even more egregious is the nationalization of a fringe beliefs––that subjective or neurotic feelings lead people to believe they’ve been born with the wrong biological sex. Worse, many medical doctors have endorsed this unscientific idea despite its lack of any empirical evidence. This irrational notion is as lunatic as “Darwinian racism” and eugenics, another example of the scientism that has facilitated the betrayal of the clerks.
And what should we say of certified, licensed physicians who betray the foundational principle of their profession, “first do no harm”? Actually, the Greek original is even more specific: “Benefit patients, or don’t injure them.” Those doctors prescribe puberty blockers or hormones contrary to the patient’s sex, and mutilate them irreversibly, leaving them sterile––the equivalent of the forced sterilization of women in America for 47 years, or the ubiquitous castration of men throughout history to make them eunuchs. These primitive treatments of the “transgendered” constitute a double betrayal of the clerks.
These are just a few examples of our contemporary “betrayal of the clerks.” The wholesale embrace, especially in the “human sciences” and the humanities, of postmodern and poststructuralists sophistries such as the contingency and subjectivity of truth, meaning, language, and values like beauty and excellence––all are mere epiphenomena of the structures of power and the interests of those wielding it. This “higher nonsense” has wreaked havoc on our fundamental beliefs, moral goods, ethics, and principles, which have lost their moorings in reality and exist now as mere preferences, their goodness or evil adjudicated by those who seek the power to control others.
Finally, Julien Benda foresaw the consequences of the “great betrayal.” Europe, he predicted, was “heading for the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world”––a prediction that came to pass 13 years after he made it. So, too, we today are living in the political and moral corruption that is the predicate of disaster.
Our world could end in an orgy of violence like World War II, given the ambitions of the West’s nuclear-armed enemies like China, Russia, and soon Iran. More likely than such a horrendous “bang,” our world might end with a “whimper,” a self-inflicted decline brought on by hedonism, fashionable self-loathing, arrogant virtue-signaling, spurious moral preening, and fiscal catastrophes engineered by the serial betrayal of our “clerks,” those “experts” and “managerial elites” who have cast aside faith, practical wisdom, tradition, and common sense.
If the betrayal of the clerks continue to dominate, America, what Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth” for freedom, will be lost.