Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015
The recently published Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is a revised and updated version of a book he wrote three decades ago. In the Introduction, he recalls how the previous publication was received with pure horror:
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. This sudden loss of status led to attacks on all my writings, whether or not they touched on politics (p. vii).
Not only Scruton was viciously attacked, but also his publisher who surrendered after threats of negative reactions from left-wing authors and academics. Soon, all copies were removed from bookshops and transferred to Scruton’s garden. All of a sudden, a respected author had become a persona non grata with a pile of his new book outside his kitchen window. Eventually, Scruton did not feel comfortable in his own country and lived abroad for a while.
However, in recent years Scruton has become surprisingly mainstream in Britain, well regarded across political lines. Partly, the reason for his success is that his traditionalist conservative message is widely considered relevant to modern Britain; partly it is because of his calm, sophisticated and appealing demeanor which contributes to the popularity of his public lectures and documentaries; and partly it is because reflective people recognize that he is, at the end of the day, a solid philosopher and an author of books that are worthy of being read.
In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands Scruton focuses his criticism on Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin, Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek.
Before reading the book my main fear was that the bourgeois conservative would be blind to the ambivalent nature of especially Žižek, who has proven to have sound sentiments and healthy aesthetics disguised under a layer of Neo-Marxist gibberish and Stalinist flirtation. Žižek is a buffoon, for sure, but like most profound buffoons, he is not the buffoon he seems to be at first sight. I was glad to discover that Žižek’s quality and attraction does not totally escape Scruton.
To be fair, Žižek, who qualified as a ‘dissident’ during the declining years of communism in his native Slovenia, offers proof of one feature in which the communist system had the edge on its Western rivals: he is seriously educated. He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say. He has learned Marxism, not as a flamboyant pursuit of an emancipated leisure class, but as an attempt to discover the truth about our world. He has studied Hegel in depth, and in what are surely his two most sustained pieces of writing – The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and Part I of The Ticklish Subject (1999) – he shows how to apply this study to the confused times in which we live. He has responded to the poetry of Hegel as well as to the metaphysics, and he has retained the Hegelian longing for a total perspective, in which being and nothingness, affirmation and negation are brought into relation and reconciled (pp. 259-60).
But Scruton fails to recognise Žižek’s ambivalence and the value of his provocative buffoonery. According to him, at the center of Žižek’s “onion” is pure poison, as is eloquently stated the following passage:
The machine-gun rattle of topics and concepts makes it easy for Žižek to slip in his little pellets of poison, which the reader, nodding in time to the rhythm of the prose, might easily swallow unnoticed. Thus, we are not ‘to reject terror in toto but to re-invent it’; we must recognize that the problem with Hitler, and with Stalin too, is that they ‘were not violent enough’ . . . (pp. 260-61).
When all things are considered, Scruton’s discussion of Žižek is average; it is neither the best nor the worst part of the book.
Examples of Scruton at his best and at his worst can be found in the same chapter, namely the chapter on Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Scruton is at his best early on in that chapter when he accounts for one of the most harmful intellectuals of the 20th century, the Jewish-Hungarian philosopher György Lukács:
Lukác’s father was a wealthy Jewish banker, who had been ennobled by the Emperor and who used his influence to obtain privileges for his son – including exemption from military service during the First World War. Lukács devoted his protracted youth to reading widely in philosophy and literature. Along with the Marxist classics he immersed himself in the writings of the anarcho-syndicalist George Sorel, whose apology for violence made a deep impression, and was often used in later years in defence of revolutionary terror. He joined the Hungarian Communist Party shortly after its foundation in 1918, and served as deputy Commissar for Education in the short-lived Hungarian ‘Soviet’. He was later to look back with satisfaction at the heroic deeds of the time, when he began the work of dismissing all non-communist professors from the Hungarian universities. He was to return to this work on his return from Moscow after the Second World War, becoming part of the new communist administrative machine, with a responsibility for denouncing non-communist writers and intellectuals and banning their publications. It is thanks in part to Lukács that the most important Hungarian philosopher of the twentieth century – Béla Hamvas – was expelled from his position as a librarian and forced to work as an unskilled labourer in a power plant (p. 118).
But Scruton is at his worst at the end of the same chapter where one can find the following revealing passage:
[I]n a remarkable treatise, Horkheimer and Adorno extend their critique of bourgeois reasoning to the Enlightenment itself: for enlightenment belongs to a world dominated by ‘bourgeois justice and commodity exchange’. The assault on bourgeois rationality has now taken on a distinctly hysterical tone. Enlightenment is the real producer (did not Hegel say it?) of ‘the herd’; ‘enlightenment is totalitarian’; ‘abstraction, the tool of the enlightenment, treats its objects as did fate, the notion which it rejects: it liquidates them’. The spells are case one after another, but still the ghost will not vanish. For not only is the Enlightenment here to stay (a fact for which, when you think about it, we should all be grateful); but the Frankfurters’ belief in the redemptive role of critical reflection is one form of it. (p. 140)
The passage is revealing because it shows that at the end of the day Scruton is of a fundamentally different “political species” than white nationalists, identitarians, radical traditionalists, and reactionaries (let us call them “alt-rightists” collectively). Overall, alt-rightists agree with Scruton’s fierce criticism of the Frankfurt School, but exactly in the area where alt-rightists would see some positive value in philosophers such as Horkheimer and Adorno, Scruton sees the ultimate evil. Adorno’s criticism of the enlightenment might one day find a secure place in the alt-right’s canon, but Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is ultimately too bourgeois-conservative to reach the heart of our movement. Nevertheless, it is a book that can be recommended.