PEOPLE who used to argue that temporary suffering was worth the risk for the sake of ultimate betterment often resorted to the aphorism: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." A disenchanted European friend once told me that if he wrote an autobiography the title would be So Where's the Omelette?

Paul Johnson provides an extensive gloss upon that cynical query. Not that his own tone is exactly cynical, though it is sharp and sometimes derisive. An English journalist and bookman, he has learned his trade well. He writes with swift assurance, hopping from decade to decade and continent to continent. He imposes order on a plethora of political and economic material.

Johnson reveals a sardonic humor (verging now and then on undergraduate smartness: Gerald Ford's tendency to fall over is attributed to a lack of gravitas). He has a nose for foolish utterance (Himmler in 1939, prescribing porridge for young German families on the supposition that it was the favorite food of English aristocrats like Lord Halifax "who are conspicuous for their slender figures"; Abbie Hoffman, thrilled to see Fidel Castro stand erect, "like a mighty penis coming to life . . . when he is tall and straight the crowd immediately is transformed").

Paul Johnson's scornful chronicle is of a world grown accustomed to war, revolution and massacre; of empires overthrown in favor of worse tyrannies, or of unstable artificial regimes. We slide, apparently, toward the abyss of Nineteen Eighty-Four--a process heralded, the author reminds us, in W.B. Yeats's famous perception of 1916:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .Mankind is afflicted with a spread of those dictatorships in which, it is said, everything that is not forbidden is compulsory. The optimistic vocabulary of reform acquires ironic overtones. "Liberation" may be a synonym for "destruction." "Uhuru" may lead to--what, Amin, Bokassa?

Modern times have been guilty, literally, of overkill. Johnson's Modern Times also, metaphorically, betrays this fault. He is a righteous rightist. In his neo-conservative creed nearly all the blame for the present state of the globe attaches to the people whom he variously calls intellectuals, intelligentsia, highbrows or (in the case of certain British exemplars) "Bloomsberries." In his view the trouble started more or less with Freud, Einstein and other modernists, whose relativism undermined moral absolutes. In London, for example, according to Johnson, "Bloomsberries" such as Lytton Strachey treated aestheticism as a superior substitute for religion; and in semi-homosexual coteries like the Cambridge "Apostles" (whose membership included Anthony Blunt and J.M. Keynes), the aesthetes overlapped with the ideologues. Strachey was a pacifist. Along with the bulk of Britain's literati he is charged here with having spread the debilitating myth that trench warfare had wiped out a whole generation of young men. How so? Johnson asks: there were only 700,000 British deaths, and the island's depressed postwar economy experienced not a labor shortage but a surplus.

Still worse harm, we gather, was wrought in other countries, where the doctrines of Karl Marx won even more disciples. Highbrows of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your brains. . . . Intellectuals are portrayed in general as grandiosely gullible: cowards, braggarts, sloganizers, decadents, and as a type fatally predisposed toward forms of authoritarianism, both left- wing and right-wing. Yeats and T.S. Eliot are mentioned as literati inclined to admire fascism. It is hard to tell from Johnson's account of the Weimar Republic which is deemed the more deplorable, the thuggish anti-intellectualism of the Nazis or the opposite avant-gardism of George Grosz or Kurt Tucholsky. Welfare-statism, while less evil than totalitarianism, is seen as a move in the same direction. The excessive costs of social security and the spread of state bureaucracy are offered as principal reasons for the recent decline in Scandinavian prosperity. Britain's dismal post- 1945 economic record is explained as a comparable process, with an added emphasis upon the baneful effects of trade-union power. Indeed Johnson seems to believe that trade-unionism is of itself the prime cause of his country's enfeeblement. Here his Toryism strikes me as close to Blimpishness. Did the owners and the managers set their employes an example of dedicated and imaginative effort?

Not surprisingly, given this approach, the author offers a sort of supply-side version of American history. His revisionism is merely Ma la mode when he applauds President Eisenhower and disparages the Kennedy administration. He goes beyond middling Republican opinion, however, in dismissing the Watergate imbroglio as an irresponsible trick played upon the statesmanlike Richard Nixon by the media, Eastern liberals, and Congressional Democrats. In fact almost no Democratic leaders except Harry Truman pass muster. The reader may rub his eyes, too, at the almost extravagant praise for Warren G. Harding ("pathetically shy . . . with women," "in all essentials . . . an honest and exceptionally shrewd president") and for the "lucid and lapidary" elegance of Calvin Coolidge's pronouncements on laissez-faire philosophy.

If Johnson goes further than most commentators in reversing liberal interpretations, he is of course not alone in the activity. Wholesale revisionism has been evident in the past decade: witness for instance the altered tone of Commentary, a one-time liberal monthly whose editor, Norman Podhoretz, is nowwas lucid and lapidary as Coolidge, though less taciturn. People have a right to change their minds. Nor do intellectuals deserve immunity to criticism. They dish it out and should be able to take it. Some idiotic and terrible things have been done and said in the name of sundry ideologies. There is in many circumstances a plausible case for leaving people alone. Even well-intentioned efforts at betterment may lead to worsement.

Again, there is nothing wrong with expressing faith in the capacity of individuals to change the course of history, for good as well as for evil. Modern Times has its great monsters (Hitler, Stalin) and its great heroes (De Gaulle, Churchill). Fair enough, except that Churchill, with his memories of garrison life in Bangalore, was surely not a fount of wisdom on Indian affairs.

Yet there is something objectionable about Paul Johnson's view of events. I suppose he has stayed on course in the sense that he has always been a Roman Catholic, possibly with a fondness for combative paradox in the manner so effectively deployed by Belloc, Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and by some Catholic intellectuals in the United States. In other respects Johnson has made what may be called in more ways than one a U-turn, toward the gentrified and the conservative. For 15 years he was on the staff of the leftist New Statesman. Was he in error all that time? If so, may he not be in error once more? He is an intellectual: why be so hard on the species? The Johnsonian animus against brainpower seems exaggerated and ill-tempered. So does his assertion that salvation lies in a return to religious certitude. In the whole span of history believers have probably done more damage than skeptics.

Most disturbing about the new conservative revisionism is its air of hardness. No doubt hard-headedness is preferable to soft-headedness. But hard-heartedness? Today's hardliners tend to behave as if >compassion were anti-capitalist, and sympathy the kind of attitude struck by a Lytton Strachey. This long, adroit analysis of soulless modernity somehow itself lacks soul. It closes with a glimpse of the intellectuality Paul Johnson currently appreciates. He is an admirer of sociobiology -- which is a field for highbrows good at studying lowbrows.