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Jürgen Habermas (left) and Slavoj Žižek: Does their prose make sense? (Habermas by Wolfram Huke CC-BY-SA-3.0; Žižek by Andy Miah CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Roger Scruton has a striking sense of timing. He was in Paris during les événements of May 1968. His last novel, The Disappeared, dealt with sex trafficking in a northern city in England just as the child abuse cases in Rotherham and Oxfordshire were making headlines. His latest book, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, appears at the very moment when the Labour party has chosen as its leader a man whose political beliefs, from crypto-Marxism to egalitarian Newspeak, are much inspired by New Left thinkers. Jeremy Corbyn’s success shows that the New Left is still a major intellectual current in Britain and elsewhere.

The New Left is the wave of European and American left-wing intellectuals who gained prominence in the post-war era, especially from the 1960s, in a context of dramatic social and cultural change, a new yearning for emancipation and the continuing influence of Marxism despite the decay of the Soviet Union.  In 1985 Scruton, eager to target these Pied Pipers, published a first version of Thinkers of the New Left; it was greeted with contempt by much of the intellectual establishment. Thirty years later, the book is back, enriched with new details and brought up to date. All the big names are there, and no one escapes the scrupulous and devastating Scrutonian laser.

Scruton possesses a rare quality: that of being able to describe and judge at the same time. Each chapter deals with a specific time and country, and deploys the same strategy: describe, analyse, save a little piece of truth and kill the rest. The journey is very intense, from Hobsbawm’s Marxist view of history to Galbraith’s liberal disdain for consumer culture; from Sartre as rigid servant of Communist ideology to Foucault and his paranoid obsession with power; from the horrifying Lukàcs, for whom “the bourgeoisie possesses only the semblance of human existence”, to Habermas’s appeal for “a wide dialogue excluding most of his detractors”, as Scruton puts it. The French have developed their own brand of delirium: Althusser, in language that was obscure even for a Marxist, struggled with superstructure and infrastructure; Lacan preferred to deny any meaning and truth; and Deleuze, determined to fight capitalism in the name of desire, developed a curious “syntax without semantics”, in Scruton’s words.

The final firework is worth the wait: Badiou and Žižek and their worship of revolution. Why pay attention to the vast sufferings that the French, Russian and Maoist revolutions caused, when “fidelity” to the event — their trademark concept — is “a sufficient justification for carrying on regardless”?

Encompassing all those thinkers under the umbrella of the New Left is inevitably limiting and doesn’t capture all the nuances of their thoughts. Some are Marxists, others Structuralists or Keynesians, still others sui generis. But they have many features in common, the first being that they represent everything that a conservative like Scruton dislikes. They have inherited from the Old Left an enduring quest for liberty and equality, without any acceptance of the possible contradictions between them. They interpret all institutions as features of domination and oppression, and their purpose is always to change everything. They see the state as the main instrument for the new order “that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed”. For them, politics is everything while civil society or the rule of law doesn’t interest them much. They are utterly negative: they are often filled with resentment.

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