Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze, Adorno, Lukács, Habermas, Badiou, Zižek, and perhaps most importantly Gramsci, have had a profound but lamentable influence on Western culture. Their ideas were embraced by the New Left, hypnotised by the jargon of their ‘nonsense machine’, here dismantled and analysed by Scruton in forensic, ironic detail.
Faced with the failure of Marx’s prediction that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, they repackaged his ideas with so many semantic layers of their own that students were fascinated, while ‘outsiders’ remained baffled. Unlike Christianity, whose moral truths are open to all, New Left Gnosticism, dispensed by an intellectual priesthood, was concerned with ‘higher truths’ accessible only to true believers. Their ‘mathemes’ purported to demonstrate scientifically the inevitability of revolution; their turgid prose should be recommended reading for insomniacs – as my father, a life-long socialist, would say, ‘Do what?’
Having carried a copy of Das Kapital to and from the library I can confirm that it is indeed a solid work; Scruton deserves praise not only for reading it but for dissecting the weaknesses that Marxists, in search of a materialist religion, are too blind or economically challenged to see.
God’s truth is original and endless, but intelligent men, dazzled by one facet of that truth – equality – endlessly chewed over Marx’s original but erroneous economic theory, turning it into cosy nesting material for spiritually homeless intellectuals. They wrote not for the ‘masses’, whose grievances would be ‘weaponised’ to further the revolution, but for students who would relay the message of Marxism to other students.
The Marxist view was that in embracing capitalism instead of revolution the ‘masses’ were acting against their self-interests; having diagnosed them as suffering from ‘false consciousness’, the New Left turned to the universities. The aim was to capture the citadels of culture, and the new weapon was criticism, aimed at the ‘bourgeoisie’ – middle-class man, reluctant to embrace socialism and therefore deemed ‘Right-wing’. However, in accusing the ‘bourgeoisie’ of subverting the ‘masses’ and undermining the democracy to which they paid lip-service, the New Left justified their own aims, motives and methods, while inadvertently revealing them.
During the 1920s and 1930s Western socialists travelled the ‘Moscow road’ and marvelled at the showpieces of Communism, carefully shielded from the realities of agricultural disaster, mass starvation and gulags; but in 1945 the Iron Curtain dropped, and by 1956 Western audiences could see newsreel footage of Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary. Communism was no longer defensible – although some still defended it – and capitalism was delivering true progress to the ‘masses’; but the middle-class intellectuals were doubly horrified by the prosperity which capitalism delivered to the poor and the poor taste it unleashed among them. Communism, they believed, could actually help them by restricting their purchasing power.
The students of the 1950s and 1960s rediscovered the Frankfurt school of the 1920s and 1930s, and the writings of Gramsci, imprisoned by the fascists. They too were imprisoned by the cultural institution that upheld capitalism and ‘passed on’ conservatism – the family; they too took the freedoms of democracy for granted – and anyway, had it not led to fascism? With revolutionary fervour they set about freeing democracy’s ‘prisoners’ – workers, women, blacks, prisoners, psychiatric patients, children – but also paedophiles.
Eric Hobsbawm, E P Thompson and Raymond Williams tended more to nostalgia, with a politicised version of the Fall; seeing human nature as plastic and human beings – at least, the Left and the poor – as perfect. In their meta-narrative, the working-class Adam and Eve were cast out of their pre-capitalist Eden by a ‘second Adam’ – Adam Smith, with his flaming sword. And heaven was still Marxist socialism, despite the fact that in attempting to construct a materialistic heaven it had more than once created Hell on earth.
The culture wars have shifted from their focus on Gramsci and the Marxist word-manglers to grievance politics, and the cultural warriors now wage blitzkrieg on freedom of expression, and even on history itself, highlighting crimes against their PC preoccupation while ignoring the mass murders of Communism; there is a far-Left renaissance on the economic front; but as Scruton notes, Marxists are vague about positive programmes, preferring to employ continual criticism against capitalism’s imperfections.
He proposes a God-inspired culture, and the positive portrayal of capitalism as the free exchange of goods and services; more truly democratic than Marxism – state capitalism without democracy – free markets encourage free exchange and the freedom to form human institutions. Unlike Marxism, which always ends in dictatorship and slavery, it is the only economic system that promotes prosperity and leaves room for liberty.
Scruton’s fools, frauds and firebrands excused the evils of Communism and took the ordinary things for granted. The shock troops of Marxism make war on the good things because they are imperfect, and would abolish the ordinary things that make life worth living. But in times of war, thoughts turn to family, friends, children and home, and find that they are really extraordinary; this work will encourage the defenders of the ordinary things, which are also the good things.