Roger Scruton: A Gentleman Who Didn't Suffer Fools
Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left | Roger Scruton | Bloomsbury
On January 12, 2020 the world lost a towering intellect, a brilliant orator, and a prolific writer in Sir Roger Scruton.
Scruton, a pillar of the conservative intellectual community and ever at the forefront of political and social philosophical trends, remained staunchly committed to preserving essential human truths, of the sort that both transcend cultures and sustain them. In the wake of his passing, I’d like to recommend one of his more recent works, an incisive and enlightening summary of the current cultural climate, entitled Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (originally published in 2015).
Sir Roger articulated the scant substance of the New Leftist philosophy far better than the philosophers whose ideas he undertook to explain. He did his level best to be gentle, giving his opponents the benefit of every doubt where possible, striving manfully to state the claims of each thinker with clarity and precision and to convey the attitudes of their hearts with charity and compassion. The late Scruton was nothing if not a gentleman. He was also, however, a serious philosopher, with a keen eye for intellectual dishonesty, and no patience for frauds, no matter how well-intentioned. He wastes no time in condemning the malaise afflicting not just the modern academy, but all cultural discourse.
Beginning in Britain with historians Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, Scruton traces the development of leftist philosophy across the post-war world, stopping off across the Atlantic to examine critics of American capitalism like John Kenneth Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin, before marching through continental philosophers Sartre and Foucault, and German neo-Marxists like György Lukács and Jürgen Habermas. Then he turns to nihilist authors of the “Parisian nonsense machine,” Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze; cultural relativists Antonio Gramsci, Richard Rorty, and Edward Said; and finally, present day champions of the New Left Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.
If you like this review, you’ll love what a full subscription gets you: Access to digital versions of the content in our quarterly print journal, plus extra reviews to great books worth noticing. Subscribe now for 50% off!
Scruton’s introduction asserts that the contents of his book are, in the main, taken from an earlier compilation of essays entitled “Thinkers of the New Left”, which lends Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands its subtitle, and which ruined his university career upon its release in 1985. His principal crime was to suggest that the real-world consequences of the Marxist political agenda were heinous, and that the proponents of that cause in his own day were intellectually culpable for separating the cause from its ill-effects in its defense. This suggestion, of course, was met with wholesale derision, and with, as Sir Roger puts it, “serious doubts about my intellectual competence, as well as my moral character.”
I found this criticism of Scruton a fit lens through which to view the rest of the work. As he writes his way through what is essentially the average syllabus of a graduate level political philosophy course, even his generosity cannot overlook the moral posturing inherent in each thinker’s contributions. Invariably, no matter the particulars of their “innovations,” the thinkers of the New Left claim a primeval superiority over their opponents: that of the righteous defender of a beleaguered truth, any opposition to which is not simply disagreement, but malice and the deepest poverty of spirit.
The writers and thinkers that Scruton summarizes and ultimately critiques embark on a project that promises to be pivotal in the way we view society and humanity, but the closer one reads, the more one sees that all they do is promise, without delivering many logically verifiable arguments. Take this in combination with the disastrous effects of the several “revolutions” founded on these writings, and one wonders how the leftist argument has sustained itself since its resurgence in the 1960’s.
The answer, put simply, is that the philosophical insights comprising the bulk of Leftist thinking are not philosophies at all: they are expressions of a single, quasi-religious faith, in which political concerns take the place of spiritual ones. The obvious advantage of faith over political philosophy is that its claims needn’t be verified in order to be held – and held with deep fervency. Its demands needn’t be justifiable, no matter how dramatic. It must only promise righteousness to its adherents. Such a promise, as Scruton repeatedly shows using rigorous textual analysis, is the inexhaustible fuel of Leftism in all its iterations.
Scruton begins his first chapter, wisely, by noting that the very concept of “political opinions spread in a single dimension [Left to Right]” is only useful on the smallest of local scales: it cannot account for the breadth and particularities of the real theories that shape the political landscape across time. By the end of the work, he takes the further step of asserting that the polarizing effect of such generalizations is fundamental to Leftist thinking. In fact, all the thinkers he engages use the term to describe themselves, despite the fact that their own opinions cover the waterfront nicely from Marxist dogmatism, to “exuberant nihilism” and outright anarchy.
His subsequent insistence on tracing each thinker’s own intellectual lineage before presenting their argument and refuting it lends the book both its weight and its perplexity. Particularly for the political philosophy novice, reading many of these thinkers (even in Scruton’s own eloquent prose) can be impossibly confusing. According to Scruton, however, this has far less to do with the reader’s lack of education or intellectual acuity and far more to do with the foremost tool of the Leftist thinker: Newspeak, which Scruton defines thusly:
Where conservatives and old-fashioned liberals speak of authority, government and institutions, those on the left refer to power and domination. Laws and offices play only a marginal part in the left-wing vision of political life, while classes, powers and the forms of control are invoked as the root phenomena of the civil order, together with the ‘ideology’ that mystifies those things and rescues them from judgement. Newspeak represents the political process as a constant ‘struggle’ concealed by fictions of legitimacy and allegiance. Peel away the ideology, and the ‘truth’ of politics is revealed. The truth is power, and the hope of deposing it.
For Marx, and those who have come after him, world history rightly understood was an account of the struggle of the ‘proletariat’ (the oppressed lower and middle classes) against the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the oppressive aristocratic ruling class). Scruton goes on to point out that this perspective sentimentalizes and politicizes all forms of ‘consensual’ association—in short, that it refuses entirely to grapple with society as it is (human, rather than ideal), preferring instead to destroy all customs and traditional societal institutions in a fit of all-knowing, benevolent rage. Newspeak enables this destruction by “dividing human beings into guilty and innocent groups”. The innocent, designated as such by their kowtowing to the new order, need protecting and the guilty, designated as such by their dissent, need punishing. And the state is the best man for the job.
The beauty of this system is that once the correct lens is accepted, evidence of oppression and inequality are as rampant as human greed and dissatisfaction can make them. But this in itself is not what has allowed Marx the continued relevance in the present that Scruton laments. All this together is merely another ideology of exactly the kind it claims to refute! Which is why Marx sought out firmer ground from which to launch his attacks.
[Marx’s] theory has been effective not merely because is serves the function of amplifying and legitimizing resentment, but also because it is able to expose its rivals as ‘mere ideology’. Here, I believe, is the most cunning feature of Marxism: that it has been able to pass itself off as a science.
Look at the world through the classist lens, and at once property owners form a class, with, as Scruton puts it, “a shared moral identity, shared and systematic access to the levers of power, and a shared body of privileges,” all of which have been nefariously attained (at the expense of the proletariat) by the enabling power of traditional notions like the rule of law, or property rights, which themselves were written into existence by members of the very class that benefitted from their power. Thus, they are “ways of hanging on to the privileges conferred by the bourgeois order. By exposing this ideology as a self-serving pretense, the class-theory vindicated its own claims to scientific objectivity.” Science is truth, and truth is power.
What began here with Marx has been continued by the thinkers Scruton profiles in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. By “dressing up the theory in scientific language,” Marx, in effect, wrote a new language full of empty rhetoric, circular reasoning, and moral posturing, one that only the initiated can speak, and the speaking of which insulates the thinker from taking any ideas but his own into account. It was only a matter of time before the acolytes would surpass the master, creating vapid worlds of their own, even less connected to reality than that of their forbearers.
It is into such murky waters that Scruton invites the reader to wade alongside him. His explanation cannot in every case unveil the meaning handed down to us in the works he discusses. To do so would often be to create sense where none exists. He can only lead us to the conclusion that there is little to understand at all.
Ian Andrews is an associate editor with FORMA.
If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal.