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Book Review: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Roger Scruton)

It is easy enough to know what the Right thinks, and why.  Half a dozen recent books can easily be found explaining clearly libertarianism; or social conservatism; or “reform conservatism.”  But no such thing exists for the Left.  Yes, there are many books on what political ends the Left desires.  I think those desires are mostly insane and fly in the face of reality.  But it cannot be true that those on the Left view their desires, or what drives their desires, as either insane or senseless.  And one must know one’s enemy.  So why are those ends desired?  I have always found that hard to say.

Roger Scruton’s book explains it all.  At least, it explains it with respect to the “New Left”—Western thinkers, mostly of the second half of the 20th Century, who generally take Marxism, or part of Marxism, as their starting point.  He writes with rare precision, especially considering the gelatinous, incoherent nature of many of the writers he analyzes.  He also has a gift for the pithy phrase, which makes the heavy reading in sections of the book (after all, Scruton is a professional philosopher) more tolerable.

What Scruton calls the New Left, or just the Left, is distinct from what I would call “traditional liberalism.”  In America, traditional liberalism wore various guises, from Progressivism to postwar liberal internationalism, which collectively held sway for the first half of the Twentieth Century.  (Europe, of course, was different, but had similar philosophies, such as some early social democrats.)  Then, like a reverse Cronus, traditional liberalism was eaten by its progeny, the New Left.  Traditional liberalism still exists alongside the New Left, but mostly in the same form as a dependent conjoined twin, both in America and Europe.  Today, the New Left dominates all left-of-center thinking.

Scruton does not much discuss traditional liberalism in this book, but I think it’s important to distinguish it, since most “liberals” today would claim to be traditional liberals, when they are really creatures of the New Left, what they would term “progressives.”  Traditional liberalism was distinguished by, as James Burnham analyzed it, its view of the nature of man:  “liberalism believes man’s nature to be not fixed but changing, with an unlimited or at any rate indefinitely large potential for positive development.”  This is in contradiction to traditional, conservative views of the imperfection and imperfectability of man—and of society.  But it does not imply the conclusions of the New Left, as we will see.  Most importantly, the New Left rejects this incremental perfectibility, exchanging it for a doctrine of phase change, like water to ice, where utopia arises spontaneously and in an instant through the correct application of abstract principles cooked up in the writings of intellectuals.

Naturally enough, Scruton begins with the key definition:  “What Is Left”?  Scruton characterizes all who are of the “Left” as sharing an “enduring outlook on the world,” going back to the Enlightenment.  The key common characteristic of that outlook is the belief “that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by a dominant class.”  Therefore, those of the Left “define themselves in opposition to established power, [and see themselves as] the champions of the new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.”

From this, Scruton moves to specificity.  Thus, “Two attributes of the new order justify the pursuit of it:  liberation and ‘social justice.’”  To the Left, liberation means not the freedom to be left alone but atomism—freedom from nearly any constraint, and in particular from the constraints that constitute “the shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.”  The only constraints to be left are the ever mounting constraints on any person who would defend or maintain those norms and values; those are to be crushed by increasingly brutal laws and social action directed only at them.  And to the Left, “social justice” means equality of ends, not equality of opportunity, to be obtained “by a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that the privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged. . . . . [T]he most important point to notice is that it is an argument that allows nothing to stand in its way. . . . In this way ‘social justice’ becomes a barely concealed demand for the ‘clean sweep’ of history that revolutionaries have always attempted.”

Scruton notes that these two goals are in tension, since total liberation implies the freedom to choose activity that can then result in increasing inequality, due to variances in talent and luck.  But that conflict is always obscured by the Left, simply “by declaring war on traditional hierarchies and institutions in the name of its two ideals. . . . Moreover, ‘social justice’ is a goal so overwhelmingly important, so unquestionably superior to the established interests that stand against it, as to purify every action done in its name.”

Moving from specificity of belief to practice, Scruton notes several impulses of the Left, each of which drives practice.  One impulse is utopianism, a declared goal to reach a prize of inestimable value, a totally new and perfect society, but which always recedes and has only the vaguest, self-contradictory contours.  Utopianism tends to make the Left view even horrific costs as nothing compared to the benefits of the coming utopia, and also tends to drive power to the most extreme members of any particular Left group (in contrast to conservatives, who being anti-Utopian tend to be skeptical of extremists).  A second impulse is to corrupt language and turn it into a tool not to describe reality, but a tool for the “rival purpose of asserting power over it.”  The purpose of language in the mouths of the Left is “to protect ideology from the malicious attacks of real things.”  Of course, “Human individuals are the most important of these real things, the obstacles that all revolutionary systems must overcome, and which all ideologies must destroy.”  Dealing with individuals as individuals necessarily requires a person to view another as he sees himself, to a greater or lesser degree, and therefore undercuts ideology, because “real social discourse is part of day-to-day problem solving and the minute search for agreement,” goals in contradiction to the sweeping goals of the Left.  By corrupting language, the Left alleviates this problem.  A third impulse is to believe in constant motion toward a pre-ordained ideological goal, sweeping us (and especially individuals, regardless of their personal choices) toward that goal, in which all change is “irreversible” but constant “struggle” is a constant necessity.  Finally, all these impulses, and the actions they drive, are in the service, ultimately, of the goal of negation of what IS now, in the spirit of Goethe’s Mephistopheles:  “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint”—I am the spirit that always denies, or negates.

Having laid a basic groundwork, Scruton begins with his first two thinkers:  Eric Hobsbawn and E.P. Thompson, both of whom he clearly admires for their intellect.  Choosing these men also means Scruton begins with the thinkers who are closest to the mainstream in their works, in that their works are comprehensible to, and comprehended by, the average reader—and, in fact are designed to be read primarily by the mainstream reader, not specialist acolytes.

Hobsbawn and Thompson were unapologetic Communist historians who viewed history through that lens, and, who, like Procrustes, lopped history to fit Communism.  Hobsbawn came of age, and are emblematic of the time, when Communism exercised a religious grip on much of Britain’s educated youth, causing them to repudiate and negate their nation and its institutions.  By all accounts, Hobsbawn was a giant of a historian, with enormous erudition and writing ability—all put to the service of his ideology.  Scruton even-handedly examines the theories of history put forth by Hobsbawn, and finds them wanting, though not bizarre, more simply incomplete and not in tune with reality, because blinkered by the need to constantly explain away inconvenient mismatches between Marxist theory and reality (such as wages continuously rising under the free market, or the existence of the common law).  Similarly, Thompson attempted to address by, as Scruton says, “sleight of hand,” the utter failure of the English working class to properly view itself as Marx viewed the working class, as a class acting as an agent, but that rather viewed themselves as people bound together primarily by things other than class.  At its core, of course, Marxism is a theory of antagonism to all existing institutions, and Hobsbawn’s, and to a lesser extent Thompson’s, open goal was to advance the destruction of those institutions.  Scruton ends by comparing Hobsbawn to the Holocaust denier David Irving, and concluding that both of them should be treated the same.  And his ultimate verdict on both is that they could not escape the box into which their devotion to orthodox Marxism put them.

Scruton next turns to America, noting first that “American leftism has more often than not taken the form of legal and constitutional argument, interspersed with reflections on justice that are mercifully free from the class resentments that speak in the works of the European left.”  Here, therefore, he profiles John Kenneth Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin, lesser lights than Hobsbawn.  Marxism, of course, never got traction in America—class struggle does not resonate when everyone, high and low, is climbing the greasy pole.  (Ironically, in today’s America, class struggle resonates more, as those deemed deplorable by the ruling classes see increasing obstacles to their ability to climb.)  Galbraith was an economist, who used social psychology, not analysis, statistics or comparisons of different forms of businesses, to reach his economic conclusions.  His particular focus was how “man, in his fallen condition, is subject to the tyranny of appetite, because his appetites are not truly his, but imposed on him, magicked into him, by others, and notably by the idols and fetishes of the marketplace.”  He was a lightweight intellectual and a toady to the powerful, not a contributor to real thinking, and to the extent he had any thinking, it bought into the Marxist concept of the “system,” the collection of institutions making up society, as something retrograde and in need of revolutionary change, by people, like, no surprise, John Kenneth Galbraith.

Dworkin fares even worse; Scruton savages him unmercifully.  This is an area, law, about which I know much more than philosophy generally, and I can certainly second Scruton’s view of Dworkin as an unbearable hack.  Like John Rawls (not discussed by Scruton, though mentioned in passing), Dworkin’s only intellectual project was finding high-sounding but sophistical arguments, falsely appearing to be based in American principles of justice, that justified the imposition by judges of sweeping left-wing rulings designed to negate, without appeal, any traditional American value.  For Dworkin, a left-wing “political morality” (the only kind that can exist) trumps anything else.  Groups, not individuals, have rights; but they only have rights if what they desire serves the goals of the Left—this is Dworkin’s “moral theory” of the Constitution, phrased largely as the right to be treated as an equal, meaning not equal treatment, nor even equality of result, but treatment calculated to achieve a Left policy outcome.

Here Scruton starts to emphasize a characteristic that connects all thinkers in this book:   a total unwillingness to engage their opponents on the Right, other than with the language of ritual incantation and denunciation.   And Scruton also begins to note a second problem—the increasing tendency as he goes through his book for the thinkers he profiles to be very difficult to understand, since they write in what is, or at least seems like, a deliberately obscurantist way.  In Dworkin’s case, that’s because his arguments are, like Hobsbawn and Thompson, constructed to fit the precise conclusion already determined, but that servitude must be obscured.  In the case of other writers, it’s because they are literally senseless.

We start down the path of those writers, who are all Continental writers, with Sartre and Foucault.  It is at this point that I began to find Scruton’s book less immediately valuable to me, in part because while the various writers from this point on are highly influential and have followings among the global cultural elite, none of them really make any sense or have any impact on reality, and to the extent they make any sense, they are highly philosophical, and therefore abstract.

Scruton sets the early- to mid-20th Century French stage, discussing various writers, from Jacques Maritain to Charles Maurras, and, of course, the impact of the wars on the French intellectual class.  Scruton ascribes much of the basis of the French New Left to Alexandre Kojève, a Russian émigré whose seminars on Hegel were hugely influential.  His focus was on Hegel’s focus on the “self-created individual.”   “But what impressed Kojève’s audience of spiritually hungry atheists in the 1930s was the vision of radical freedom and the self-created individual.  It dawned on them that, by exploring the self and its freedom, it was possible to re-enchant their disenchanted world, and to place the human subject once again at the centre of things.”  From here there was much discussion of the Hegelian dialectic, and of Subject and Other.

Scruton thinks Sartre worthy of some interest, though silly for following individualism to the conclusion that what the individual must commit himself to is revolution in the cause of social justice.  Why, exactly, asks Scruton?  There is no answer—other than the spirit of Mephistopheles, once again, in the service of a vague utopia (in Scruton’s words, “a noumenal promise, a ghostly beckoning from the Kingdom of Ends.”)  And it is in Sartre that we first encounter the New Left incantory word “totalization.”  “Like many words with a liturgical use it is not defined but merely repeated—and applied with such mesmerizing meaninglessness as to attract a phalanx of admirers prepared to serve as a priesthood of the faith.”  Scruton spends some time chasing Sartre’s thought, and notes that he added to the basic leftist desire for Utopia, an additional “belief that all ideals and loyalties are merely invitations to betrayal, and that redemption lies within the individual, to be bestowed on himself by himself alone.”  I note that such a belief means that all who adhere to it are rootless, and as Robert Nisbet said, “rootless men always betray.”  Scruton is somewhat kinder to Foucault, whose focus was the structures of power, but who was not as personally committed to the Left project, and therefore was a more independent thinker.

Next Scruton treats Germany, or, as he titles the chapter, “Tedium in Germany:  Downhill to Habermas.”  Here he deals largely with the Frankfurt School, beginning with György Lukács (Hungarian, of course, not German—and Scruton notes that it’s in part because of the seething resentment against Lukács and his ilk, even today, that Hungary is currently dominated by the conservative Fidesz party).  Lukács pushed “Marxist humanism”—in essence, an attempt to update orthodox Marxism, given the total failure of its theories to comport with reality.  He talked much about “reification,” the supposed mechanism by which apparently normal social relations are in fact a sign of alienation and commodification, requiring a totalizing approach, led by the Communist Party, to unleash the class consciousness thereby suppressed.  Most importantly, this means what actual working class members think is irrelevant; all that matters is the Party.

Scruton then goes through Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and other luminaries of the Frankfurt School.  He notes some insights—but nothing that could not already be found in Arnold and Ruskin, and in the Old Testament, as critiques of modern society.  He ends with an extensive discussion of Jürgen Habermas (bizarrely, still alive), today not as revolutionary, but as defender of the EU “soft-left bureaucracy” and desirous, as the German left establishment in general, of maintaining its “status as a privileged elite.”  “The dialogues that Habermas now advocates . . . are noticeable for the voices they exclude:  no nationalists, no social conservatives, no pre-modernists or fervent free-marketeers will be invited to the table, when the postmodern future of mankind is plotted in the Habermasian bunker.”

Two of the three remaining chapters deal with nonsense philosophers:  Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, Žižek.  I had not heard of a single one of these.  As with all the other thinkers he covers, Scruton goes into considerable detail about their thought.  But Scruton, by his own admission, struggles in these two chapters,  because most of their writing is incomprehensible, and apparently deliberately so—and what little can be understood is nonsensical.  This is because “Refutation must be evaded, so that the truth within the dogma can be protected from malice contained in real things.  Hence . . . [they] engage with nothing written by those outside the Marxist camp, nor do they acknowledge any tradition of social and political thinking that does not bear, from its inception, the stamp of the Marxist dogma toward which it tends.”  But Scruton tries.  And fails—as he says after quoting one passage of Althusser, it “illustrates the ponderous, suspicion-laden circularity of Althusser’s prose, which goes round and round monotonously on its own heels, like a lunatic trapped in an imaginary cage.”  Lacan and Deleuze introduce bogus use of semiotic and mathematical tools, ripped from their actual use and babbled about in irrelevant contexts, used as charms.  The result is the creation of a “nonsense machine,” useful mainly for dullard academics “to bury their intellectual faults while revealing their political sympathies,” which are totalitarian Left.  Truth is formally irrelevant, “mere representation.”  “The boiling tide of nonsense flows between secure walls on which indelible messages have been chiseled.  These tell us that the world is in the hands of the capitalist Other, and is awaiting the great Event of its liberation—the revolution that is to be summoned by the new literature of spells.”

Scruton spends only one chapter on the thinkers best known in the context of modern politics, those at the forefront of the modern culture wars.  These include the godfather of such thought, Antonio Gramsci, who had the good fortune to be actually killed by the Fascists, thus becoming an icon and necessary figurehead.  (Scruton points out that the Left always needs to feel part of a struggle, but also needs a putatively brilliant intellectual figurehead in the struggle—hence the attraction for the supposed genius of Mao and the related iconography of Che Guevara).  Gramsci and his many acolytes, such as the obscure (to me, at least) Englishman Raymond Williams, and also the still-alive Perry Anderson (notable recently for leading attacks on the latest left bogeyman, “neoliberalism”), on the torn-up ground prepared by the nonsense machine, began to ignore the idea of revolution from below and endorsed revolution purely by the intellectual class.  This solved the problem found with Marxism that revolution from below never actually occurred.  And, famously, they proposed to stretch out the revolution, remove the immediate need for violence, and accomplish it by the long march through the institutions.  This they have done with huge success.

Turning from England to America, noting that lately the culture wars have shifted to America (it is not clear if Scruton thinks of the “culture wars” in precisely the same terms as American conservatives), Scruton focuses on Richard Rorty and Edward Said.  Rorty has enjoyed a brief renaissance during the rise of Trump, since he wrote some tendentious lines a few decades ago about how someday a strongman would become attractive to the deplorables, because he would falsely tell them that their betters, the cultural elite, weren’t really better.  Scruton eviscerates Rorty as a fake pragmatist who, like so many of the socially popular American thinkers, all hacks (see, e.g., Rawls, John), really just wanted to impose a leftist view on all political matters.  He spends more time gutting Said, though that’s really just shooting fish in a barrel.

All these Gramscian cultural warriors merely want relativism in the service of Leftism—but an imbalanced relativism, a censorious relativism, forbidding wrongthink, since “when everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder.”  And, of course, we see this brought to life in the behavior of the Left that has animated, and post-election breathes continuous life into, the golem Trump, come to smash the crystalline spheres the Left has constructed around their precious and hard-earned power.  These “relativist beliefs exist because they sustain a community—the new ummah of the rootless. . . . The very reasoning that sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true.”

Finally, balancing his first chapter, Scruton ends with “What is Right?”  He points out that the Left has a strong aversion to self-definition, focusing instead on condemning what it opposes, not on themselves, and certainly not on the actual mechanics of achieving the Utopia they all have as their goal.  So Scruton feels obliged, given the criticisms he makes, to say “what is the real alternative?” (that is, of the Right, to the Left).  In other words, what should those on the Right do today, given the way the Left has been able to change Western society?

He of course does not claim an overarching detailed program (such a thing would be not-conservative anyway).  But he says a few things.  “The greatest task on the right, therefore, is to rescue the language of politics:  to put within our grasp what has been forcibly removed from it by jargon.”  We should view the world as it is, a complex of real people doing real things with real institutions designed organically over time to serve those real people, not as abstraction defined by deliberately unreal terms like “capitalism,” “social justice,” “power,” and “dominance.”  And as to the other major line of New Left thought, the complaint about “commodification, reification, consumerism” and so forth?  As Scruton points out earlier, these criticisms are as old as Genesis—they are, in essence, criticisms of idolatry—and the New Left has nothing new to add, except obscurity and tendentiousness.  To this basic problem, appetite and greed, “The fact is that we know the solution, and it is not a political one.  We must change our lives. . . . This changed way of life does not come from politics.  It comes from religion and culture, and in particular from the God-imbued culture that [New Left thinkers] wished to replace with a purely political way of seeing things.”  To do this, we must clearly separate civil society from state (the opposite of what the Left wants), and renew that civil society, through strengthening intermediary institutions, whether groups of individuals in a purely social context or groups with a quasi-official role, such as lawyers and military groups—all institutions that the Left is intent on destroying as the first step toward Utopia.  And Scruton ends by querying, without answer, why after more than a century of Leftist domination of the heights of culture and power, with resulting global charnel houses, “the left-wing position remains, as it were, the default position to which thinking people automatically gravitate when called upon for a comprehensive philosophy.”

I can’t answer Scruton’s final question, though I have some ideas, perhaps to be explored elsewhere.  But I note that Scruton’s is basically a defensive program.  It says how a society could be well made, but not how such a society can be well made when attacked continuously by the barbarians of the Left, much less how to evict those barbarians from the commanding heights they occupy in the ruins of our culture.

I conclude, for myself, not Scruton, that only by evicting the barbarians and breaking their power can we get back on the right track.  It took America two nuclear bombs and an occupation of Japan focused on remaking the culture by command to root out a dominant Japanese ideology that harmed America.  We must do the same—not with nuclear bombs, but by aggressively rooting out, destroying, and cauterizing the power of the Left in their bastions.  Knowing what they think and why is helpful in this, but action is required, not just analysis.

This should start with crushing the news-and-culture setting media, academia, and the administrative state.  (Yes, I am keenly aware that terms like “crushing, “struggle,” etc. are traditional denominators of the New Left, and abhorrent to the Right.)  The specifics I will leave for another day and another writing, but I note that the Left has regularly used, and increasingly uses, personal destruction of reputations and jobs; wholly political lawsuits and indictments; and violence such as SWAT raids on the businesses, homes and families of their enemies.  We should do the same and more (though unlike the Left, who often focuses on small fish because, as under Communism, random terror is a key tool in their arsenal, it might be best to focus on the leaders, if we hope ever to rebuild civil society).

We have tried comity and reason for decades; it has failed, since our enemies do not care and they hate us.  This book is clear proof of that.  We should give no quarter.  We have argued that one should not assume that the intentions of others are bad or evil.  But such an assumption is anathema to our enemies, and our argument is false, for their intentions are bad and their nature is evil.  Conservatives should seize the levers of power, and then use power to break the back of their enemies, in the same way as has been done to them over the past decades, but to a greater degree, such that, like Japanese militarism, their way of thinking will not rise again.  As in Japan, the focus should be destroying the leaders, and re-educating the followers—after all, many of the followers are our friends, and many have been led astray, and can perhaps be led back from worship of corrosive false gods.

Tolkein called, in a mythical context, for “uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”  When, and only when, the ground has been made clean again, we can perhaps rebuild civil society.  (Whether, and if so to what degree, such a program can be reconciled with Christianity is a topic for another day.  Similarly, what future degree of Left behavior and action is tolerable is also a topic for another day—is there a liberalism not tainted by the Left, and therefore compatible with reality and with decent human behavior?)

Only a few months ago, such as program would have seemed fantastical.  In the Age of Trump, it seems barely possible, though only that.  Certainly it is not that Trump would lead such a renewal (though in the right circumstances the overweening power of the federal government, raised up as its familiar by the Left, could be brought by Trump to turn instead on its creators).  But Trump’s rise has broken the spell—like Prince Rilian in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, we see that we have been captured and bewitched, and, like him, we see the new/old reality that requires immediate hard and dangerous action from us, with an uncertain end.  But now is the time to build on this beginning and to press our advantage; the future we will deal with as it comes.

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    “We should do the same and more.”
    Too few people see this.

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