An update of Roger Scruton's takedown of Leftist intellectuals is even sharper than its predecessor
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.
What the New Left has mastered most, Scruton argues, is the ability to transform political language, its meaning and its use. It has created an imaginative narrative where abstractions such as “bourgeois” and “capitalism” are pilloried, while the “workers” are invoked — even when most of these workers have actually ceased to exist. Instead of trying to understand and describe how capitalism really works, how the classes are really constituted, and how people live, develop customs and use institutions, the New Left deals with a world without any substance. Some of these thinkers have even decided to exclude the use of argument and reason. When Scruton quotes Lukàcs, Althusser or Deleuze, it is absolutely clear that most of their sentences make absolutely no sense. And when Lacan and Badiou pretend to use mathematics as a proof for their crazy systems, it is not in order to save reality but to bury it.
As a matter of fact, reality is what they want to escape. According to Lukàcs, empiricism is “an ideology of the bourgeoisie”. That’s why, as Scruton explains, “anyone who actually consults the ideas of ordinary working-class people commits a heinous communist error, the error of ‘opportunism’.” Here lies the deep negativity of the dogmatic Left. It explains how and why a large part of the leftist intelligentsia was reluctant to condemn the crimes of Communism, despite its millions of deaths. It explains also why the New Left still manages to attract people despite the lessons of experience. It is because its ideal is not supposed to be realised: it is here to be dreamed about, and so never to be questioned. These thinkers will never describe anything practical that they wish to achieve. They will cast spells, as in the sentence attributed to Stalin that “the theories of Marx are true because they are correct.” These ideas meet a desire that lies in every human being: the need for religion and for an eternal justice that will compensate for all the perceived injustice in this world. Just as these spells are repeated as prayers, their authors have been worshipped as gurus. Visit Highgate Cemetery in London, and you will see that people leave roses, notes and presents at the foot of Marx’s grave, under his awe-inspiring statue.
Nevertheless, Scruton is still able to demonstrate a degree of sympathy for some of these thinkers. Not only does he make the effort to find something — however small — interesting in each of them, he sometimes sincerely agrees with his opponents. This is the case when he discusses the American criticism of consumer culture, where he shares their starting point but not their conclusion, when he praises Sartre as a great writer, or when he recognises the beauty of Foucault’s last work, The History of Sexuality. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the British Left ends up relatively spared from attack, as British socialism, according to Scruton, shares with conservatives a love for home and territory, and may have been less influenced by Marxism as a consequence.
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.
I don’t see how the New Left faithful can answer all the arguments deployed in these pages. But they are rarely asked to defend any of their views, as their prose has often been taken for granted, at least in the intellectual arena. Conservatives are always asked to justify their conception of life, to defend what already exists. The Left is rarely asked to do so, even though it wants to disrupt many things — including things that are cherished by ordinary people. Scruton has struggled with this paradox his whole life, but it is also what gives his work its exceptional character: he argues when others have left the battlefield or don’t see the point of entering it. To argue, he has to engage with the texts of his opponents, and to recognise where he agrees and disagrees with them. He argues in favour of conservative answers to the claims of the New Left, and not everyone will agree. But at least he has read his opponents, and I don’t think the contrary is true.
One of the conservative answers, for Scruton, is to “rescue the [language of politics] from socialist Newspeak”. A place where this cause is particularly needed today is academia. The New Left culture “now survives largely in its academic redoubts, feeding from the jargon-ridden prose that it amassed in university libraries”, Scruton writes. In my alma mater, an emblematic home of the Parisian New Left where Alain Badiou still teaches, many students now laugh at incomprehensible books that they rarely read.
Still, these authors remain included in the curriculum and their names are still worshipped. Why not act accordingly, and stop studying them? Otherwise, clever undergraduates will keep fleeing the humanities to study something else, and the humanities will be unable to renew and question themselves, and to innovate. This, added to the anti-free-market stand of the New Left, partly explains why the humanities and business have been moving apart for some decades. Business people may be too quick to dismiss academia as useless, but academia has its share of responsibility. For decades, universities have produced thinkers who criticise a legal order and economic prosperity on which they are dependent. The problem is not only that this brand of academia has been biased — bias is sometimes unavoidable, and right-wing academia has its own biases — but that it has shown itself unable to discriminate between serious work and nonsense.
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.