A Fortnightly Review of
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
by Roger Scruton
By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I have tried to read Marx’s Capital, and various works by some of some major players on the socialist team, and failed. The writing is always too turgid, too dense and overwhelmingly abstract. The only document I have ever found readable and intelligible is The Communist Manifesto. It has the virtue of being short, generally to the point, and refreshingly honest (in what it wants to destroy, that is). It’s also good for a laugh because it is nonsense, which is one of the reasons I always recommend it to students. As for the rest, forget it.
That is why I would like to thank Roger Scruton for having had the patience and resilience to have read through the thousands and thousands of pages churned out by the fashionable big-hitters of the leftist intelligentsia — Habermas, Althusser, Lacan and the like — in a generous spirit of assuming there may be some meaning in them; and then trying to explain to us what that meaning might be.
The first couple of chapters of Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, dealing with British and American intellectuals (Dworkin, Hobsbawm, etc) contain quotations that still reside in the realm of sense. Once you get to the continentals, however, you enter a realm where language has been sucked dry of any but the most self-referential meaning, “communing”, as Scruton says, “in a dream syntax with itself”. That’s because all of these intellectuals are but engineers of the great nonsense machine of the left – and “nonsense machine” is the phrase that is used repeatedly by Scruton, with absolute justification.
Writing nonsense, however, is not an accidental byproduct of dealing with difficult ideas but a deliberate ploy both to exclude the uninitiated and to render the ‘logic’ that leads to the foregone conclusions of such thinking impervious to criticism. For the conclusions are always the same: the enemy everywhere is capitalism and the bourgeoisie, and both have to be destroyed to herald in the utopia of socialism, equality, social justice, and what have you. What counts is knowing that by agreeing with this bilge you are placing yourself on the correct side of the political fence. Talking of the famous Sokal hoax in which two academics, Sokal and Bricmont, submitted a totally fatuous article to a well-known journal to prove that any old jargon-laden tripe would be published in it, Scruton points out that what they fail to point out “and perhaps fail even to see [is that] being on the left is what it is all about”. The obscurity of the language in such cases, “is no defect”.
SO IT MUST be quite liberating to be able to write such stuff and go unchallenged as long as you make your allegiances known:
Lacan showed that it is not necessary to mean anything anyway. You can go on meaning nothing for page upon page, and as long as a few ‘mathemes’ are are thrown in, and as long as you maintain the posture of inviolable certainty, secure in the revelation of which you are the sole proprietor, you will have done all that is required by way of making a contribution to the emerging revolutionary consciousness.
“Mathemes” being a piece of self-justifying Lacanian nonsense which I have no intention of trying to explain. This reminds me of Sartre, also dealt with by Scruton, who considered quantity of writing a virtue. Paul Johnson (in his book Intellectuals) makes the most damning statement of Sartre that any writer could make of another; that he “always preferred to write nonsense rather than write nothing”.
Writing nonsense, it turns out, is part of the policy. Corrupting the language is another, vital to the left, for as we see almost daily, the various groups of the politically correct are constantly refining the definitions in its lexicon of offence in order to identify and excommunicate the heretics, whether it’s old fashioned feminists proving to be “transphobic” or non-Corbyn-sympathising socialists being labelled Tories.
And here with the idea of heresy we get to the heart of it. Scruton knows that what we are really dealing with in the whole socialist project is a religious faith devoid of the supernatural and bereft of any compromise with the vagaries of human nature. Unable to cope with “the malicious encroachments of reality” (ie, the repeated failure of every socialist experiment as well as the mundanities of life) the high priests of the movement have to rely on the power of magical expression to keep their adherents believing the utopian revolution is just around the corner. It doesn’t matter that the language is obscure and meaningless because these are qualities that merely deepen the belief that something special is taking place. A mad kind of alchemy is supposed to be under way: believe, and all will be well. Believe, because it is absurd.
Althusser, Adorno, Habermas, Lukacs and the whole tribe of the Frankfurt School all contributed holy texts to this library, but it was the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who provided the master insight into how to achieve real alchemical change in society via the Culture War:
Gramsci redesigned the left-wing programme as a cultural revolution, one that could be conducted without violence and whose site would be the universities, theatres, lecture halls and schools where intellectuals find their primary audience.
The “long march through the institutions” as it has become known, has proved to be the most successful project of the left so far. In every level of society, the police, the judiciary, local government, the civil service, the arts, the media, there is evidence of that success in policies and the expressions of political correctness, one of the surest signs of leftist hegemony (to use one of Gramsci’s favourite words). The comparative success of this approach is evident in the ease with which people take up the separate “social justice” campaigns that allow them to trumpet their own virtue by joining in various “struggles”:
Whether it be the Palestinian intifada, the IRA, the Venezuelan Chavistas, the French sans-papiers, or the Occupy movement – whatever the radical cause, it is the attack on the ‘System’ that matters.
The “System” of course, encompassing specifics, eg, Westminster (if you’re a Scots nationalist), Big Oil (if you’re an environmentalist), the police (if you’re a dreadlocked, bongo-beating, middle class anarchist), the rich (if you just hate banks, businesses and the idea of anyone earning more than yourself), and so on. Or it could just be good old, vague old capitalism, even if you can’t really define what you mean by that.
IT’S A COMPLIMENT to the quality of Scruton’s writing that he makes this journey through the execrable inanities of modern leftism enjoyable, informative and often amusing. He’s happy to be vitriolic. I like his spearing of Eagleton, for instance, who passes “all art and literature through the grievance mangle, so as to squeeze out the juice of dominance,” which is reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s description of the leftist literary project as “the School of Resentment”. Irwin’s take down of Edward Said’s Orientalism reveals it to be “a scandal of pseudo-scholarship comparable to the works of Aleister Crowley or Madame Blavatsky”, and so on.
The final chapters are devoted to confronting the unpleasant fact that the nightmare of the utopian revolution is being revived by the likes of Zizek “the jack-in-the-box” and Badiou “the magician” (“while Deleuze grins wide from the coffin”) but also to his own vision of “what is right” (since the vision of revolutionary utopia is persistently — deliberately — vague). What is right, of course, turns out to be what the majority of people would consider common sense, that is, a plural society in which competing and conflicting opinions are allowed space to exist; in which compromise rather than censorship or eradication of opposition is the norm; in which institutions are both reliable and accountable; in which all people and institutions are subject to the law; in which individuals are allowed the freedom to make their own choices and to be unequal if that is the way things happen; in which the “small platoons” of free human association thrive (for Scruton is nothing if not a Burkeian). All horribly bourgeois.
Such are the modest desires of Scruton’s conservatism. That modesty distinguishes him from the anti-human and arrogant high priests of revolution with their incantatory rhetoric and ritualistically repeated dogmas. No doubt the nonsense machine will continue to spew out book after book of fraudulence and phoniness. No doubt there will be new heroes of the left, mangling language and meaning to secure their place in the socialist sun. What they’ll produce will still be garbage. Unlike their books, though, Scruton’s will remain not just readable but also intelligible and intelligent.
Michael Blackburn is a poet and the “Currente Calamo” columnist at The Fortnightly Review. From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. He is the author of a collection of poems, Spyglass over the Lagoon (2011), among other books.