New Left Ideas and Their Consequences

Cambodian skulls

The world is not good enough. It could be better. We all agree about that. There are disagreements over how bad it is, and what causes this inadequacy. A popular explanation is that all of the world’s problems are caused by oppression, the process by which the powerful exercise their supremacy over the weak. It is a seductive myth, often employed to license resentment toward the majority of decent people who don’t view the world in such Manichean terms. If you aren’t a revolutionary, then you are an accomplice of the hateful establishment.

This is the kind of thinking that gave us the gulag, and it is the favored mode of thought in humanities departments the world over. Academics who rank Lenin and Mao among their greatest influences are subjects of veneration. Men who have repeatedly apologized for mass murder are regarded as geniuses. Propaganda is received as insightful scholarship. In the worst cases, homicidal rants are treated as righteousness itself. How has this happened? By what subtle arts have the acolytes of Marx taken hostage the minds of three generations of university students?

Roger Scruton has offered the most lucid, compelling, and comprehensive analysis of the ascendancy of Marxist and crypto-Marxist thought in the humanities departments of Western universities. In Paris in 1968, Scruton witnessed first-hand what havoc the revolutionary mindset could wreak. Witnessing this had cemented his conservative convictions. In 1985, Scruton published Thinkers of the New Left, a collection of articles from The Salisbury Review, a conservative monthly which he then edited. The book has now been reissued with additional material under the provocative title Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. In his introduction, Scruton describes the reception of Thinkers of the New Left:

The book was … greeted with derision and outrage, reviewers falling over each other for the chance to spit on the corpse. Its publication was the beginning of the end for my university career, the reviewers raising serious doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character… One of [the publisher’s] best-selling educational writers threatened to take his products elsewhere if the book stayed in print and, sure enough, the remaining copies of Thinkers of the New Left were soon withdrawn from the bookshops and transferred to my garden shed.

Today’s reviewers intent on panning Fools, Frauds and Firebrands haven’t resorted to vitriol and slander. They seem content to sneer and caricature. In The New York Times, Damon Linker, completely ignoring the battery of arguments Scruton levels at his targets, in fact showing no evidence of having done more than glance at the book’s contents page, comes out with this gem of condescending snark: “If you’re a Sean Hannity fan who likes to put on airs at a Tea Party rally, Scruton’s book will tell you everything you need to know about the thinkers it so confidently dismisses.” Which is Linker’s way of confidently dismissing Scruton’s sophisticated critiques of those thinkers. I suppose this shows that, in responding to Scruton, the organs of the left, such as they are, have graduated from derision and outrage to just plain derision. Progress of a kind.

Let’s imagine what kind of thought the Sean Hannity fan at the Tea Party rally might find himself capable of formulating after having read Scruton’s book, provided he is a reasonably astute reader. He might say, for instance (to pick the example that I assume would be of most interest to the legally-minded Tea Partier),

Dworkin’s procedural view of justice, though it shares very basic characteristics with conservative conceptions of the law, is ultimately nothing more than special pleading for judicial activism. His notion that the law is grounded in a particular “political morality,” and that the constitution rests on a particular moral theory, casts the law as almost entirely a realm of rights and claims, and the law thereby becomes an instrument for the advocacy of arbitrarily conceived social goals such as “equality,” rather than an organically emerging institution for resolving specific conflicts of interest. For Dworkin, the law, as the expression of a particular morality, is a means to certain pre-conceived political ends, not a tradition of codified pragmatic compromises with no greater goal than maintaining public order.

Probably any self-respecting Tea Partier would have had a firm grasp of the concepts involved in this critique of Ronald Dworkin long before opening Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. But is it enough to utter the words “Hannity” and “Tea Party” to refute the argument at play here?

Scruton Book coverThere’s also an abundance of evidence against the claim that Scruton altogether fails to conduct a diligent enquiry. In the course of critiquing J.K. Galbraith’s economic theory, for instance, he takes the time to say, albeit in a footnote, that “one corollary of Galbraith’s theory—that firms sometimes (and perhaps increasingly often) tend to pursue satisficing rather than maximising solutions, is fairly widely supported.” I’m not quite sure what this means, but it doesn’t sound to me like your typical Fox News analysis. Neither does Scruton’s approving observation that Adorno’s critique of mass culture is of a piece with critiques offered by Ruskin and Arnold and Eliot and Leavis, and partakes of the Old Testament condemnation of idolatry. Or that the subtler flaws in the concept of the “long revolution” advanced by the socialist literary critic Raymond Williams can be seen detailed in the much earlier writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. It seems it’s far easier, for Linker at least, to summon the spectre of vulgar populism than to confront challenging claims from a rigorous thinker.

Where Scruton comes armed with cogent arguments his critics are often armed only with accusations and insults (in the Guardian, Steven Poole sees tat and plays tit, if I can put it that way, accusing Scruton of adopting “the same paranoid and abusive style [he] decries”). An example of such an argument might be Scruton’s pithy response (pithy considering the oceans of ink spilled in its service) to anti-capitalist bluster:

[A]re we not tired, by now, of this tautologous condemnation of the free economy, which defines that which can be purchased as a thing and then says that the man who sells his labour, in becoming a thing, ceases to be a person? At any rate, we should recognise that, of all the mendacious defences offered for slavery, this is by far the most pernicious. For what is unpurchased labour, if not the labour of a slave? We should recognise the enormous onus of proof that lies with the person who condemns the market in labour, in favour of some intellectual alternative. Just who controls in this new situation, and how? Just what elicits labour from the person who would otherwise withhold it, and how is he reconciled to the absence of a private reward?

One could look at this passage and see only rhetoric (“mendacious,” “pernicious,” “enormous onus”) or one could recognize the gauntlet it throws down at the feet of any socialist, and the awful weight of history that justifies its rhetoric. The intellectuals Scruton studies don’t set out to answer those questions he poses. They set out, above all, to justify their violent resentment of the world’s imperfections.

Sometimes Scruton’s ability to discuss these figures with composure seems a remarkable feat. Jean-Paul Sartre, because his influence was so great, demands a lucid appraisal, but his history of despicable utterances makes such an appraisal difficult. It is worth pointing out that Sartre spoke in defense of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, that his response to the revelation of concentration camps in the Soviet Union (when he finally, grudgingly acknowledged the atrocity) was to urge that communism be judged “by its intentions and not by its actions,” and that his anti-bourgeois rhetoric likely inspired the massacre committed by his student Pol Pot. Scruton does more than inventory these appalling associations. He lays bare the connection between Sartre’s philosophy and Sartre’s accommodating attitudes to these crimes against humanity. It’s a connection that Scruton charts in each of the intellectuals he studies, the connection between theories and their real-world consequences. It is no accident that every country that has embraced communism (or had communism forced upon it) has become a hellish slave state. The Marxist’s actions are a direct result of his intentions.

The militant project of the Marxist intellectual reaches a fever pitch in György Lukács, for whom “the label ‘bourgeois’ concentrates into itself every human evil, and the label ‘proletarian’ all human good.” Scruton offers numerous samples of Lukács’ “dichotomizing invective,” and he emerges as perhaps the most frightening of the self-made grotesques on display. He also appears the most shamelessly dogmatic, insisting that anyone who actually consults the opinions of working-class people has committed the communist error of “opportunism,” thereby ensuring that the guardians of truth can only ever be enlightened intellectuals like György Lukács, people who measure out their courageous defiance of the capitalist order in page after page, and volume after volume, of prose designed to be indecipherable to all but a well-trained elite (and perhaps even to them).

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.

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is not a single-minded demolition of intellectual sophistry. It contains numerous, rich bounties of historical and philosophical detail. The chapter on Sartre and Foucault begins with a brief but fascinating overview of the history of intellectual movements in France, from the Dreyfus case and the responses it provoked from Zola and Proust, through the circle of Catholic patriots that formed in the wake of the First World War, to the lectures on Hegel by Russian exile (and avowed follower of Josef Stalin) Alexandre Kojève, which were attended by almost all of France’s leading post-war intellectuals. The chapter on the Frankfurt School includes an illuminating primer on German metaphysics, tracing the development of the notion of the subject-object relation from Kant and Hegel to Feuerbach and Marx. And in the final chapter Scruton stirringly articulates what is valuable and vital in the concepts of free association and corporate personality.

Ours is an imperfect world, and some construct elaborate systems of thought to justify what they see as the only tolerable solution to its evils: the repeal of all traditional loyalties and the destruction of all arrangements that aid the perpetuation of those loyalties. These desperate idealists even convince themselves that the moral catastrophe that results when they get their way is the prelude to paradise. The rest of us are capable of seeking consolation and edification in more modest worldly pursuits. I know few pursuits that bring more enlightenment and satisfaction than reading Roger Scruton.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are victims of the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

Sean Haylock


Sean Haylock is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.