“The Treason of the Intellectuals,” writes Adam Kirsch, “is one of those books that is famous even though almost no one actually reads it.” Its author, Julien Benda, lambasts the people he calls clercs (a word that bears a religious connotation that “intellectuals” does not) for forsaking integrity and truth-seeking in favor of populist fads, and thus failing in their duty to society. Delving into the historical backdrop to the 1927 book, and especially the Dreyfus affair—in which a Jewish army captain was framed on charges of espionage—Kirsch points to its connections to the situation of French Jewry, and the flaws of its argument.
Though David Broder’s new translation keeps the traditional English title The Treason of the Intellectuals, in the text he renders clerc as “scribe,” an inspired choice that captures the association of wisdom, writing, and the sacred, evoking the Biblical sofrim Ezra and Baruch. Benda was mainly interested in the failures of French scribes. His examples included Georges Sorel, who urged the working class to revolt in Reflections on Violence, and Charles Maurras, the founder of the protofascist group Action Française, who would later be convicted of collaborating with the Germans during World War II.
But the name that appears most often in the book is Maurice Barrès, [who] was radicalized by the Dreyfus case. . . . Instead of truth and justice, he glorified la terre et les morts, the earth and the dead, which he saw as the basis of the mystic unity of the French nation. It was on these grounds that Barrès became a fierce anti-Semite, seeing Dreyfus as a representative of a conspiracy of aliens whose earth and dead lay elsewhere.
In The Treason of the Intellectuals, however, anti-Semitism is the dog that doesn’t bark. Benda acknowledges early in the book that “the movement against the Jews” is one of the chief drivers of the political hatred he deplored; later he observes that “the scorn which the likes of Barrès have displayed toward the Jews . . . has brought real damage to the objects of their contempt.” Yet that is the sum total of his discussion of the subject. It would be easy to read Treason without realizing that it is a book by a Jewish writer attacking notorious Jew-haters and that the Jewish question had been bound up with the very issues Benda was writing about since the Dreyfus affair.
[And] as Mark Lilla writes in his probing introduction to this new edition, Benda himself ended up committing exactly the kind of treason he denounced. In the 1930s, he joined many erstwhile liberals in becoming a fellow traveler, defending the Soviet Union despite its blatant crimes against “truth and justice.” The scribe who once believed it was unacceptable for France to imprison one innocent man now defended the right of the Communist party to execute thousands.