Review of the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.
What is Left? What is Right? What is the New Left? These are some of the questions that Roger Scruton explores in his 2015 book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. This abrasive title undoubtedly relates to the author’s lifetime defiance of the New Left. In it, Scruton describes how New Left academics and other intellectuals empowered themselves by uniting against the common enemy of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, as well as by adopting an idiosyncratic language of its own, akin to the Newspeak in Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian society. Contrary to what the provocative title may suggest, Scruton’s treatment of the New Left is kinder than the treatment he received from its partisans, who cavorted to pin on him the slanderous label of ‘right-wing’. In his straight-forward style, with no mincing or Newspeak, Scruton dissects the irrationalism behind the New Left’s assault on all the things that makes society possible – property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government and institutions, showing that such assault has been carried out under the belief that it would lead to a society of perfect equality. He also highlights the unfairness of the New Left in comparing its imagined perfect society with real society.
Any outsider who happened to be familiar with British liberalism would be appalled to find out that Scruton’s 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, his first attempt to pursue the subject, was withdrawn from the bookstores by the publisher due to the pressure received from the academic establishment. If this smacked of the heretic trials of the Ancien Regime, it is because New Left ideology then enjoyed a similar dogmatic status. However, New Left dogmatism ended three years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the process of disintegration of the old Soviet Union. Scruton links the two events when he states that he decided to rewrite his book in 1989, ‘when people began to realize that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism had been intellectually respectable or morally right’.
In a special chapter, Scruton examines how the New Left developed its ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that caused the culture wars of the 1980s. The process goes back to the 1960s, when disappearance of the real working class in Britain and in other parts of the Western world, created the perfect conditions for the New Left to emerge. First the intellectuals sought to be recognised as honorary members of the working class and then they started a revolution in their name, to be fought in the world of books. Here is how Scruton describes it:
“For the first time it was possible to observe the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ from close to, while running no risk of violence other than the violence of words. It was possible, in particular, to observe how quickly and adroitly the left-wing message was encased in dogma, how energetically the new revolutionaries went about the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual inquiry away from the fundamental questions that had – from emotional necessity – been begged in their favour, including the question of revolution itself: what, exactly, is a revolution, and what good does it do?”
In describing the birth of the New Left in Britain, Scruton dwells in the idiosyncrasies of British society that facilitated the process, such as the British tradition of treating historians as leaders in the world of ideas and its unique tradition of social and literary criticism. He recalls changes in the British institutions of higher education as early as 1964, which, in his opinion, marked the transition from the Old Left to New Left. Scruton also describes the views of the most influential British socialists at that time, such as the Welsh writer and critic, Raymond Williams (1921-88), and the socialist historians who provided socialist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Those changes marked the start of the intellectual revolution to take control of culture. In Great Britain, they were concentrated in the humanities departments, where the old set curriculum based on the objective standards of the Enlightenment was gradually replaced by a consensus-driven post-modern curriculum.
Scruton also describes the early days of the New Left in other countries. In Germany, the main drivers of the New Left were the professors and thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School, as it is better known, pioneered the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’. Although it was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, just three years after it was founded by Max Horkeheimer (1895-1973), it survived through cooperation with universities in the United States, and resumed its operation in Frankfurt in 1951. In addition to Horkeheimer, the Frankfurt School included many big names of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Erich Fromm (1900-80) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). Scruton criticises the fact that the members of the Frankfurt School who were given the opportunity to continue their teaching careers in the United States did not pay back in kind. Horkeheimer and Adorno launched a relentless attack on the Enlightenment, claiming it was a product of bourgeois reasoning, while Marcuse denounced America’s ‘repressive tolerance’ and the ‘the totalitarian universe of technological rationality’. Jürgen Habermas (1929-), the surviving representative of the Frankfurt School, is let off the hook for having overcome its ‘stultifying agenda’.
Scruton’s appraisal of the New Left in the United States highlights the pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Edward Said (1935-2003), encapsulated by a set of relativist ideas according to which ‘there is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth for all that matters is what is agreed.’ According to Scruton, both Rorty and Said inculcated doubt in the American mind and attempted to deprive the American cultural inheritance of the belief of its own legitimacy. Rorty came up with the idea of a new curriculum, a post-modern one, to replace the old curriculum, based on the Enlightenment. As for Said, Scruton states that he scorned and poisoned the way which the West portrayed the East but never considered the way which the East portrayed the West. Said’s attacks included not just the living scholars of the West but the entire Western scholarship, which Scruton presents as evidence of Said’s short sightedness. As it turned out, Said’s seminal book Orientalism was later shown to be the outcome of pseudo-scholarship, when Robert Irwing exposed its mistakes, oversights and downright lies. Scruton completes his criticism of Rorty and Said by showing some great examples of Orient Studies that came out of the Enlightenment, from Galland’s 1717 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, Goethe’s translation of the collection West-Östlicher Diwan (into German), and FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayan’s Rubaiyat. Scruton complements these with Sir William Jones dedication to preserving Persian and Arabic poetry and his pioneering study of Indian languages.
Scruton’s account of the New Left includes the building of its own brand, as distinct from that of the Old Left. He also points out two important things that the New Left preserved from the Old Left: the practice of creating cults around figureheads and the lingo. After recognizing the need for a figurehead that was exclusive to them, the theoreticians of the New Left chose Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian communist revolutionary who was imprisoned by the fascist government from 1926 until his death at age 46. There were two things that drove them to choose Gramsci over any other. The first was Gramsci’s idea of ‘revolutionary praxis’ with which he hoped to create a new and objective cultural hegemony which would replace the bourgeois culture. In a nutshell, Gramsci’s idea consisted of prioritizing ‘practice’ over ‘theory’ and it fitted well with the message the New Left wanted to convey. The second was the circumstances of Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison, a fact that gives credence to the political spectrum conceived by the New Left, where communism is located in one end and fascism the other. All the New Left had to do to make the cult around Gramsci stick was to exaggerate his credentials.
The existence of a political spectrum where the ‘Left’ end is the presumed realm of everything ‘intellectually respectable or morally right’ while the ‘Right’ end is presumed to be the realm of the opposite is a total nonsense, according to Scruton. In an attempt to throw some light on the topic, Scruton points out how the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ originated, in the early days of post-revolutionary France. When the prospect of changing France into a Constitutional Monarchy was being considered, the ‘Estates-General’, a body representing the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate), which had not met since 1614, was reconvened. In the Assembly of 1789, the representatives of the common people sat on the left of King Louis XVI while others sat on his right. This event marked the start of the association of the Left with the people and the Right with the elite. Since then, many gimmicks have been used to stretch the meaning of the Left to include anarchists, Marxists dogmatists, nihilists and American-style liberals, and to lump fascists, Nazis and economic liberals in the Right. Scruton closes his case by highlighting the common ground that unites communism and fascism:
“Communism, like fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy.”
A special idiosyncratic language is the other thing that the New Left preserved from the Old Left. Scruton describes it as a “contemptuous Marxist lingo created to denounce, exhort and condemn”. He also tries to show the similarities between the New Left’s lingo and ‘Newspeak’, the official language of Oceania, in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four. Scruton describes Newspeak as “a new fortified language created for the purpose of creating a ‘politics of truth’ to be used in the place of truth itself.” This lingo, according to Scruton, includes the Manichaean spin on words in order to mislead people to think that there are only two alternatives, as well as the manipulation of the meaning of certain words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. By presenting the word ‘capitalism’ as synonym of exploitation, the New Left gain an excuse to condemn free economies. By presenting the word ‘bourgeoisie’ as ‘a hegemonic propertied class that controls the means of production and therefore exploits the working class or proletariat’ the New Left justifies its call for class warfare. Scruton admits that many of the wrongs in British society identified by the New Left are true but he objects to the way that the New Left describes such wrongs, framing accusations in such a way that do not leave any room for defence either of the people described or of the system that contained them.
The central point that Scruton makes in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is that when the New Left juxtaposes its project against Western Civilization, it is not comparing like with like. Great Britain may have many faults but is a real society. Such is not the case of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, a term Scruton uses to describe the society of perfect equality imagined by the New Left. He ends his book defending his position that Great Britain should remain as it is and pointing out that any improvements to it must come from within. They should be done through the improvement of civil societies, institutions and personality. By civil societies Scruton means the little platoons that exist across the land such as brass bands, study groups, choirs, cricket clubs, dances, holiday clubs, etc. As examples of institutions Scruton names professional organizations such as the Inns of Court, although these are also civil societies. By personality Scruton means the agency and the accountability of individuals as well as the institutions that include them. In spite of his dislike for the political spectrum terminology, Scruton describes what the so-called Right stands for:
‘The right rests its case in representation and law. It advocates autonomous institutions that mediate between the state and the citizen, and a civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers. It sees government as in every matter accountable: not a thing but a person. Such a government is answerable to other persons: to the individual citizen, to the corporations, and to other governments. It is also answerable to the law. It has rights against individual citizens and also duties towards them: it is tutor and companion to civil society, the butt of our jokes and the occasional recipient of our anger. It stands to us in a human relation, and this relation is upheld and vindicated by the law, before which it comes as one person among others, on equal footing with those who are also subject to its sovereignty.’
‘Such a state can accommodate and bargain. It recognizes that it must respect persons not as means only, but as end in themselves. It tries not to liquidate the opposition but to accommodate it, and socialists too have a part to play in this process, provided they recognize that no change, not even change in their favoured direction, is or ought to be ‘irreversible’.’
Many of the ideas in Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands will be carefully considered by his admirers in Eastern Europe and in Latin America even though he wrote it thinking about Great Britain. Scruton wants to preserve Britain because he loves it and believes that it deserves to be preserved. He also thinks that should the New Left ideology ever become a reality, the result would be slavery. Scruton’s call to preserve society does not exclude micro-adjustments. However, before deciding which adjustments are needed people need to understand society’s two basic components, the state itself and civil society. Scruton’s view is that civil society should apply changes to the state and not the other way around. Therefore, all such changes should be from the bottom up, from changes within people. It is us who need to make a change of life that leads to self-knowledge, which in turn, would allow us to recognize that our happiness depends on wanting the right things, rather than the things that captures our attention or inspire our lust. These suggestions resonate with ideas often associated with the Left and also illustrate the nonsense of the political spectrum.
Scruton does not think that everything that the New Left thinkers wrote is wrong. In his appraisal of Gramsci, for instance, although he rated his work as ‘common sense sociology’ rather than a cutting edge philosophy, he recognised in him ‘a frankness that the more orthodox Marxists lacked’. To Scruton, Gramsci ‘was thwarted by the repudiation of the very idea of objectivity, and by the purely negative work of the comfortable professoriate in America’. Such view suggests that Scruton understood Gramsci better than those who pandered to him.
Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is the outcome of the author’s defiance against the New Left and the new order of things that the New Left sought to introduce in Britain. Scruton got a lot of grief as a result of this defiance and this could explain the streak of pessimism he reveals at the very end of this book, in the form of the questions left unanswered. If the professorship of the West’s top universities can be so mistaken, what hope can be for the rest of humanity? If the human species has a religious need that no amount of rational thought can overcome, would not that make all argument meaningless? If people are more prone to the abstract than to the concrete, is there a point is defending that which is merely real? These questions serves as food for thought for everyone who loves their country and wants to preserve it. Perhaps that was what Scruton had in mind when he asked them.
Jo Pires-O’Brien edits a digital magazine called PortVitoria, about the Iberian culture and its diaspora in the world.
Helen Kirby, reviser