Every philosopher must practice the arts of critique and construction: dismantling the arguments one disagrees with and building one’s own intellectual edifices. Few thinkers are equally good at both of these practices, which call for quite different skills, though no great thinker can do one only. As in so many other philosophical conversations, in this one we can trace ancestry back to the same original pair: Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, is the champion of all dismantlers; Aristotle the king of the architects.
Continental philosophy over the past half-century and more has specialized in the arts of disassembly—in what Martin Heidegger called Destruktion, Jacques Derrida deconstruction. It has not always been easy to tell what such thinkers would put in the place of the edifices they dismantled; at times some of them have simply disavowed the need to do so. (After delivering a paper at a conference early in his career, Derrida was once asked where he was going with his arguments, to which he replied that he was trying to put himself in a position where he no longer knew where he was going.)
By contrast, the English philosopher Roger Scruton has devoted much of his career to the articulation of a complex and highly positive account of conservatism: of what resources the conservative disposition brings to the challenge of sustaining the social order—through politics, yes, but especially through the mediating social forces of religion, community, and the arts. But in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, he largely sets aside constructive philosophical work in order to dismantle the dismantlers. This he does with rhetorical vigor and flair, and though he often paints with the broadest of brushes and does not always make the distinctions perfect fairness would call for, his critique is a powerful one indeed.
The major figures Scruton explores span a wide range of disciplines: there are historians (E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm), an economist (John Kenneth Galbraith), a legal theorist (Ronald Dworkin), philosophers of various stripes (Jean-Paul Sartre, Jürgen Habermas), a psychoanalyst (Jacques Lacan), a literary critic (Edward Said), and various unclassifiable figures (Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek). Do they all belong in the same book? Are they rightly subject to the same general critique?
Scruton gives two reasons for bringing them together here. The first is that they have all identified themselves as leftists—a claim that I do not believe to be true. The second is that “they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment.” That outlook is composed of two major commitments, or proclaimed commitments anyway: to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.
Scruton rightly notes that much of the internal tension, at times exploding into hatred, among figures of the New Left arises because these two commitments are pretty clearly not compatible: the more fully people are liberated, the more energetically they will create and sustain various forms of inequality, while equality can only be enforced at the cost of placing strict limits on personal freedom.
The one figure Scruton treats who simply does not fit is Foucault. Scruton calls him an “anarchist,” a view for which there is, as far as I know, no evidence, though he may have been a kind of libertarian. Foucault is hard to place on any political map because, as he himself frequently said, he was not interested in providing solutions to problems but rather a history of problems: his relentless emphasis on the failures of all schemes of liberation, their absorption into new forms of power—“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” as Pete Townshend of The Who wrote many years ago—has caused a good many leftists to insist that Foucault is actually a conservative.
While I am complaining, I will also note that Scruton has nothing to say about how several of these figures—especially Žižek and Alain Badiou, along with Jacques Derrida, who is barely mentioned here—have played a role in the so-called “religious turn” of humanistic studies, in which various movements generally called “postmodern” find a significant place for religion in their reflections, if not in their beliefs or practices. This marks a significant departure from the relentless secularism of most earlier forms of European leftism, and that deserves note. Nor does Scruton account fully for Jürgen Habermas’s reputation as a centrist figure in the German and more generally the European context. (Habermas too has spoken more warmly of religion in recent years.)
But Habermas’s current centrist reputation provides a very nice illustration of one of the key themes of this edition of Scruton’s book. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a reissue, with revisions and additions, of a book originally published in 1985 under the title Thinkers of the New Left. At that time, scarcely anyone imagined that the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent, and the New Left of that era was often implicitly—less often explicitly—communist in orientation. In the intervening three decades things have changed, and in an important passage I must cite at length, Scruton explains why:
we must recognize that the Marxist spectacles are no longer on the left-wing nose. Why they were removed, and by whom, it is hard to say. But for whatever cause, left-wing politics has discarded the revolutionary paradigm advanced by the New Left, in favour of bureaucratic routines and the institutionalization of the welfare culture. The two goals of liberation and social justice remain in place: but they are promoted by legislation, committees and government commissions empowered to root out the sources of discrimination. Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratized. In looking back at the left intellectuals in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, I am observing a culture that now survives largely in its academic redoubts, feeding from the jargon-ridden prose that it amassed in university libraries, in the days when universities were part of the anti-capitalist ‘struggle.’
One need to look no further than to the current student protests on American college campuses to see evidence for Scruton’s interpretation. Unlike their radical counterparts from the 1960s, these students have no thought of breaking down and rebuilding the fundamental structures of the university along egalitarian lines; rather, in their dream world, universities are still hierarchical, bureaucratic, and driven by administrative diktat, but the bosses doing the dictating are sympathetic to the students’ politics and willing to persecute the students’ enemies. By the very same logic, figures like Habermas and Derrida, whom we might call post-leftists, seek not revolution or even socialism as such but rather the elevation of the European Union into an imitative bureaucratic rival of the United States. (Just before Derrida’s death in 2004, he and Habermas oversaw a manifesto calling for just this: Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe, with contributions by several other intellectuals, was published in 2005.)
This altered emphasis can be seen quite clearly in the first two figures Scruton treats in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Thompson, author of the enormously influential 1963 study The Making of the English Working Class, resigned from the English Communist Party in 1956 because the party would not repudiate the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and he later left his academic position at the University of Warwick because he thought that the university had become the merest tool of capitalism. Scruton thinks Thompson a biased and unreliable historian but clearly has a grudging respect for his integrity. Hobsbawm, by contrast, though remaining a communist all his life—in 1956 he even said that he was “approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary,” and in an autobiography published in 2002 he commented that “To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with … indulgence and tenderness”—was perfectly happy to work for the University of London and to accept academic honors from all sorts of capitalist enterprises. In 1998, he was even pleased to be received by Her Majesty the Queen into the Order of the Companions of Honour.
If we understand the nature of this transformation—this move from the necessity of a fundamental restructuring of the Western political order to a mere consolidation of its bureaucratic order with a few minor directional tweaks, or even (in the case of Hobsbawm) just a few rhetorical gestures, as though reciting an ancient liturgy in a long-forgotten language—then the value of Scruton’s book becomes clear. Without an account of this transformation, one might reasonably ask why it would be worth our time to read about these figures whose real political influence, if it ever existed at all, ended a quarter-century ago. The answer is that Scruton shows how even the most seemingly radical language can easily, painlessly be absorbed into the very social and political institutions it is supposed to be opposing. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is, among other things, a skillful ethnographic account of an intellectual subculture whose words and deeds run always on parallel tracks.
Let me conclude by returning to my opening theme of building and dismantling. Late in his book Scruton comments that he has searched these thinkers’ writings “in vain for a description of how the ‘equality of being’ advocated in their fraught manifestoes is to be achieved.” In the end, he says, “We know nothing of the socialist future, save only that is it both necessary and desirable.” But for that reason the socialist faith is a blind faith. Scruton knows perfectly well what he thinks is worth building—or, more to the point, conserving—and in his final chapter, titled “What is Right?”, he gives as clearly concise a summation of his own political position as one could ask for. It is only 15 pages long, but it is by itself worth the price of admission to this book.
Alan Jacobs is distinguished professor of the humanities in the honors program at Baylor University and the author of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.