Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
A BOOK dissecting the “thinkers of the New Left” by Britain’s most prominent conservative intellectual comes with certain expectations. When that book is entitled Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, and is described by its author as “not . . . word-mincing”, those expectations are heightened. Add to this the fact that the first edition effectively lost the author his job and ended his academic career, and the reader can be excused for expecting 300 pages of vitriolic denunciation and frenzied ad hominems.
If so, then that reader will be disappointed. Roger Scruton’s latest book is sober, erudite, and thoughtful. Indeed, if anything, it is too respectful in places, dealing seriously with arguments that are, for all intents and purposes, incomprehensible and meaningless.
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is critical — very critical. A thorough revision of his 1985 offering, Scruton deals with around 20 “leftish” thinkers in seven dense chapters, bookended by shorter ones in which the camera pulls back and he asks what is “Left” and “Right”.
He offers praise where it is due. Eric Hobsbawn is admired for his erudition, elegance and scholarship, E. P. Thompson for his “beautiful investigative mind”, Slavoj Žižek for writing “perceptively on art, literature, cinema and music”, Perry Anderson for his later “melancholy and penetrating” criticism of our times.
Beyond such genuine if cursory honours, however, Scruton is penetratingly critical. Much of this criticism is directed at his thinkers’ impenetrable style. Some — Hobsbawn, Galbraith, later Foucault — dodge this bullet, but others are roundly and rightly condemned. Habermas is repeatedly censured for the “great waste-paper basket” of his prose, Lukacs for his writing “of supererogratory greyness”, Althusser for his “impenetrable opacity”. The wonder is that when he gets to writers such as Deleuze and Badiou, who make Habermas’s offering seem like Ladybird books, Scruton takes them seriously.
This is more than simply an aesthetic critique. One of Scruton’s big targets is the Newspeak of the New Left, which not only obfuscates and alienates, but ultimately “wipes away the face of our social world” and informs us that “there can be no resolution of our conflicts short of total . . . revolution.”
This is, of course, anathema to a conservative like Scruton (and, it should be said, to most normal people), and it gets to the heart of his criticism. His Left Thinkers prefer the abstract, the Other, the possible, and the utopian over and against the concrete, the immediate, the human, and the imperfect; and, in some instances, are prepared to defend the sacrifice of the latter for the goal of the former.
Scruton’s criticisms are persuasive, but his accomplishment doesn’t prevent the book’s being hard work, weighed down by “the glutinous prose of Deleuze [and the] mad incantations of Žižek”. Ultimately, one hankers for a critique of the older, saner, more readable Left, which sprung not from Marx’s discredited theorising, but from the lived experience of the urban poor, and which, in its attachment to community, chapel, family, and flag, stood much closer to Scruton’s own Conservatism.
Nick Spencer is a director of the think tank Theos.