Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left"

The original publication of Scruton's Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 reportedly "brought his career as an academic philosopher to an end", say Roger Scruton in an interview with Ricochet. This is not to say he was censored outright ("the people on the left don't 'censor' -- they look with compassion on your stupidity, take you quietly to the side, and recommend quietly that you retire for a while"). Rather, so great was the negative outcry from the left that his publisher eventually surrendered all copies, removed them from bookshops and relocated them to Scruton's garden.

Call him a sucker for punishment, but Scruton recently updated his infamous book for republication in late 2015, "Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left" (the snarky title somewhat betraying what is actually a substantial intellectual survey) -- in Scruton's own words, "I add a consideration of Hobsbawm and Adorno, touch on Rorty and Said, and explore the Parisian nonsense machine, with Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan and Badiou. I end with Žižek". Of course, Scruton himself appears well-primed to bear the brunt of another round of hyperbolic abuse by all parties offended.

Personally, I enjoyed this immensely, both for Scruton's dry, British wit as well as for the sheer breadth of intellectuals covered in his survey, a smattering of whom I've acquainted myself with in college but have little desire to pursue further. Suffice to say both as a husband, father and breadwinner, I've significantly less time to read as I did in college and am rather more judicious of what books to occupy my time. If anything, Scruton should be duly credited for his incredible display of patience and constitution in wading through book after book and thousands of pages of left-wing theorizing, or what he dubs the deliberately-calculated "the nonsense machine" -- providing a welcome reminder of what I really haven't missed, and don't regret missing, in my failure to further engage this particular genre of "scholarship").

Beyond the critical survey, what is appreciated is the closing chapter, "What is Right?", where Scruton lays out in part his own principles and conservative philosophy.

For Scruton, it is precisely in the leftist intellectual's inclination to elevate theory above reality, to immerse himself so completely in a class-war against the phantasm of the "bourgeoise" -- that they inevitably blind themselves to the concrete, tangible reality of the common man in front of them, and in such a way that, historically, countless acts of violence and murder have been sanctioned in pursuit of a theoretical, abstract ideal. (Time and again, Scruton returns to this point of how such intellectuals have quite willingly and consciously white-washed and carried water for the most brutal and bloody of regimes, all in the name of the "revolution").

Moreover, it is the dearth of recognition left-wing theory gives to the "little platoons" that Scruton abhors -- "all that makes society possible -- law, property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government, institutions". It is these mediating institutions of civil society, however imperfect and flawed, that exist and stand between the individual and the "totalizing vision" of the coercive state, and it is through the free assembly that we come together in such civil institutions that "politics is softened, and people are protected from the worst kinds of dictatorship."

To quote Scruton at length:

"… colleges and schools, of clubs, regiments, orchestras, choirs and sporting leagues – all of which offer, along with the benefit of membership, a distinctive ethos of their own. By joining these things you not only put yourself under the conventions, traditions and obligations of the group; you acquire a sense of your own worth as a member, and a bond of association that gives meaning to your acts. Such institutions stand between the citizen and the state, offering discipline and order without the punitive sanctions through which the state exerts its sovereignty. They are what civilization consists in, and their absence from the socialist states of modern times is entirely explicable, since free association makes it impossible to achieve the ‘equality of being’ towards which socialists aspire. To put the matter simply: association means discrimination, and discrimination means hierarchy.

My alternative political philosophy, therefore, would advocate not only a distinction between civil society and the state, but also traditions of institution building outside the control of the state. Social life should be founded in free association and protected by autonomous bodies, under whose auspices people can flourish according to their social nature, acquiring the manners and aspirations that endow their lives with meaning. That ‘right-wing’ vision of politics will not be devoted to the structures of government only, or to the social stratifications and class divisions that are obsessively referred to on the left. It will be largely devoted to the building and governance of institutions, and to the thousand ways in which people enrich their lives through corporations, traditions and spheres of accountability."



  • Catching Up with Roger Scruton: The Philosopher as Composer and Novelist, by Christopher S. Morrissey. Catholic World Report 10/29/15.
  • On the New Left – an interview with Roger Scruton, by Samuel Fawcett. Exepose 11/9/15:
    … If Scruton is so critical of the New Left, then, does he have any sympathy for the ‘Old’ Left? A surprising amount, in fact. He singles out Labour MP Frank Field as representing this philosophy and speaks fondly of the “rooted, English industrial working-class”, to which his own father belonged, as well as “people like George Orwell who spoke for it”. He goes even further, saying that the passing of the “patriotic Old Left” is something he “very much regrets”. He also speaks of his dislike for the “radical New Right libertarian movement which ignores the nation, the family and local communities” in favour of the individual, which he finds “very disheartening”.
  • "These Left-Thinkers have destroyed the intellectual life" - Interview with Mick Hume. Spiked Review December 2015:
    Defending academic freedom against the forces of conformity matters to Scruton because ‘My life began, insofar as it had a beginning, in the university. That’s where I grew up, and I love my subject, philosophy, love the whole idea of the academic and scholarly life, that one has a place apart where people are pursuing the truth and communicating that to people who are eager to learn it. And this thing has completely destroyed the intellectual life.’ He considers these leftists prime culprits in what might be called the closing of the university mind, though ‘whether they caused the closing of the mind or are the effect of it is another matter’.


  • Thinking for England, by Nicholas Wrote. The Guardian 10/28/00:
    For Roger Scruton, as for so many of his generation, the Paris riots of May 1968 were the defining political moment of his life. He was in the Latin Quarter when students tore up the cobblestones to hurl at the riot police. His friends overturned cars and uprooted lamp-posts to erect the barricades. Representatives of his own discipline, old philosophers like Marx and new ones like Foucault, were providing the intellectual fuel for the fire raging on the ground.

    As he watched the events unfold from his apartment window, and listened to his friends, drunk on revolutionary hope and excitement, Scruton found his own emotions and opinions crystallising. "I suddenly realised that I was on the other side," he says. "What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilisation against these things. That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down."

  • A Very British Hatchet Job, by Clement Knox. Los Angeles Review of Books 01/18/16:
    … Far from being a Vernichtungskrieg waged without mercy upon the hallowed figures of the left-wing intellectual canon, this is a remarkably evenhanded hatchet job, with Scruton staying true to the promise made in the foreword “to explain what is good in the authors I review as well as what is bad.” This commendable sense of fairness might leave some readers who came expecting blood somewhat peeved.
  • From Jargon to Incantation, by Laetitia Strauch-Bonart. Standpoint November 2015:
    This is an outstanding and very necessary book. I may be biased, as I am the author’s translator into French, but I like his work because it is true, not the other way around. The only fault of the book is that it gives so much space to the sticky prose of the New Left. But that is a necessary evil. And Scruton’s fluid and lively sentences are such a relief. No wonder: you are at least reading something human. …

    Some people will be shocked by Scruton’s book. They will see it as an ideological work targeting his enemies. But I beg them to open their Habermas, Lacan or Badiou, and to ask two things. Does this text mean something that I could explain to my educated friend? And does it make an honest attempt to understand history or society, and not a resentment-inspired and reality-denying fantasy?

    If the answer is no, readers will have grasped Scruton’s point. Unless they really wish “to chew on the glutinous prose of Deleuze, to treat seriously the mad incantations of Žižek, or to believe that there is more to Habermas’s theory of communicative action than his inability to communicate it,” I challenge them to do so.

  • New Left Ideas and Their Consequences , by Sean Haylock. Crisis 01/25/16:
    It has become a commonplace in some circles that postmodern writing is nothing but nonsensical logorrhoea, deliberately opaque and utterly pretentious. Scruton certainly presents some astonishing examples of just this phenomenon, especially from Jürgen Habermas and Gilles Deleuze, both titans of postmodern academia (Deleuze is responsible for the sentence: “The eternal return eliminates that which renders it impossible by rendering impossible the transport of difference”). But Scruton also pays due compliment to works by his targets which display genuine literary accomplishment. Sartre’s account of his childhood, Les mots, is “a masterpiece of autobiography.” Michel Foucault is praised for “the synthesizing poetry of his style” and his last work, the three volume History of Sexuality, hailed for its discovery, as far as Foucault’s scholarly practice is concerned, of careful analysis and diligent citation. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, currently much in vogue, “writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema, and music, and … always has something interesting and challenging to say.” Such compliments aren’t concessions to the ideologies that drive these philosophers. I wonder how many ardent Marxists would be prepared to acknowledge the poetry in Scruton’s prose.
  • Roger Scruton vs. the New Left , by Alan Jacobs. The American Conservative 04/07/16:
    If we understand the nature of this transformation—this move from the necessity of a fundamental restructuring of the Western political order to a mere consolidation of its bureaucratic order with a few minor directional tweaks, or even (in the case of Hobsbawm) just a few rhetorical gestures, as though reciting an ancient liturgy in a long-forgotten language—then the value of Scruton’s book becomes clear. Without an account of this transformation, one might reasonably ask why it would be worth our time to read about these figures whose real political influence, if it ever existed at all, ended a quarter-century ago. The answer is that Scruton shows how even the most seemingly radical language can easily, painlessly be absorbed into the very social and political institutions it is supposed to be opposing. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is, among other things, a skillful ethnographic account of an intellectual subculture whose words and deeds run always on parallel tracks.
  • Why You Can't Argue with the New Left, by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty 03/07/16.
  • A Demolition of Socialist Intellectuals", by Stephen Poole The Guardian 12/10/15:
    … the problem in general with denouncing people as frauds and charlatans is that you might be paying them too much intellectual credit, and so too little moral credit. Perhaps they really believed this stuff, in which case they were idiots but not dishonest. This book is at its best, by contrast, when Scruton is engaging with writers whom he evidently respects, however much he disagrees with them.
  • The Enemies of Roger Scruton, by Samuel Freeman. The New York Review of Books 04/21/16. [Obscured by Paywall].

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