Review: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Review: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

I was alerted to this book by an interview with its author carried out by Mick Hume, ‘editor-at-large’ of Spiked, the conservative libertarian website. Mick is something of a friend of Roger Scruton and remains dazzled by the great man’s capacity to outrage liberal opinion. Mick was particularly delighted to hear, man-to-man, Roger’s courageous views concerning homosexual men’s “obsession with the sexual organs rather than the relationship”, of their “obsession with the young”, and “the quite horrifying statistics” regarding the “hugely promiscuous” lives of male homosexuals. Scruton boldly told all this to Mick’s tape recorder without a care in the world as he contrasted homosexual hanky panky with the “self-sacrificing forms of love” shared by Mick and Roger, and heterosexual men in general. This is par-for-the-course for Mick Hume, Spiked, and Roger Scruton, but it’s important not to let this self-serving nonsense obscure the really challenging things, which Scruton has to say.

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a development of his 1985 text, Thinkers of the New Left. He looks at the work and influence of Antonio Gramsci, Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson, JK Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin, Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Theodore Adorno, György Lukács, Jurgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond Williams, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and dozens of others in a mere 288 pages. Scruton has cast his net wide, perhaps too wide, but the figures and thoughts under discussion in this book allow him to frame his conservatism as a rejection of the need for systemic change and permit him, once again, to insist upon the necessity of a spirited defence of the pedestrian whys and wherefores of ordinary mortals. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a hymn of praise for the kind of life that always has one foot in the past of tradition and continuity, and the other in the world of contingency and happenstance.

What Scruton, the stalwart conservative, finds so appalling in the work of critical theorists and Marxists is the rejection of the present in favour of the future, and the commitment of revolutionaries and radical critics to more elusive notions of futurity. It is our engagement with what could be, rather than with what is, that he finds so disturbing. Of course, he knows and understands our preoccupation with ‘bread and butter’ issues, but its our utopianism, our reaching for a bright new future, our preparedness to endorse terror and untrammeled mayhem to get there, which brings him up short. Of Raymond Williams’s advocacy of common sharing and participatory democracy, Scruton says:

[It] must be concluded that the onus lies with the socialists, to spell out the conditions for the ‘true democracy’ that they favour. Who, in this democracy, controls what, and how? The market is the only economic institution in which every participant influences every outcome. How is its abolition to be reconciled with participatory government? And if we are to retain the market, how are we to prevent private property in the means of production, which is the natural result of free exchange, when people are allowed to use and sell their labour as they will? The neglect of such questions is not merely intellectually disreputable. Given the intransigence with which Williams seeks to advance his purposes, it is also pernicious. For it permits the easy advocacy of actions whose consequences are in no way understood. [214]

Another of Scruton’s concerns is our refusal, in any substantial sense, to answer criticisms of our theories and propositions:

The moral asymmetry, which attributes to the left a monopoly of moral virtue, and uses ‘right’ always as a term of abuse, accompanies a logical asymmetry, namely an assumption that the onus of proof lies always on the other side. Nor can this onus de discharged. Thus in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the theories of Marx were being recycled as the true account of the sufferings of humanity under ‘capitalist’ regimes, it was rare to find any mention in the left-wing journals of the criticisms that Marx’s writings had encountered during the previous century. Marx’s theory of history had been put in question by Maitland, Weber and Sombart; his labour theory of value by Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and many more, his theories of false consciousness, alienation and class struggle by a whole range of thinkers, from Mallock and Sombart to Popper, Hayek and Aron. Not all those critics could be placed on the right of the political spectrum, nor had they all been hostile to the idea of ‘social justice’. Yet none of them, so far as I could discover when I came to write this book, had been answered by the New Left with anything more than a sneer.” [pp.6-7]

Scruton is not without one or two sneers of his own:- “When the intellectual reaches down to touch the upward-stretching hands of the proletariat, then is the evil magic of the ‘bourgeois’ order undone, and the world made whole.” [87] But, for the most part he sticks with challenging our conception of ‘social justice’, our pursuit of ‘liberation’, our determined belief in the class struggle, despite the empirical evidence of history. Above all he arraigns us for playing fast and loose with history itself; this is more than a charge of bias, it is a suggestion that figures as diverse as Jean Paul Sartre, Harry Pollitt, and Michel Foucault, chose to ignore matters, which they knew to be true, and avoided the actual course of historical development in favour of inebriation with poetic mythologies concerning class relations in which the unknowable future always outweighs the present, and what we know of the past.

Clearly what Scruton means by our “mythologies” is the manner in which particular battles about specific sectional concerns are extrapolated to fit our notions and theories concerning the interests and combativity of the working class. He is particularly exercised by the manner in which the ‘bourgeoisie’ appear also to be reified and moved like a chess piece about the historical board without much precision or regard for historical specificity. Yet in his discussion of Perry Anderson’s work and of Anderson’s exchanges with E. P. Thompson [220-231] Scruton tempers his outrage with an acknowledgement of the complexity of the thinking and scholarship at work. But this fails to mask his irritation at the way in which a number of critical theorists and Marxists have demonstrated scant regard for consistent and coherent historical periodization.

To this he adds the hermetic character of much discussion on the left, where the terms of argument and the frame of thought appear to depend entirely upon staying within parameters staked out by socialist foreconceptions and assumptions. In illustration of this contention he cites a lengthy quotation from Louis Althusser’s instructions in Reading Capital which conclude with: “It is not possible to read Capital properly without the help of Marxist philosophy, which must itself be read, and simultaneously, in Capital itself.” [162] This leads Scruton to say:

In plain English, the conclusion is this: you can understand Capital only by believing it or, in even plainer Latin, credo ut inteligam, as St Anselm put it, when discussing the supreme mystery of God: I believe in order to understand [. . .] For the scientific mind belief is the consequence, and not the cause, of understanding. But it is precisely the scientific failure of Marxism that necessitates Althusser’s enterprise – that of sacralizing Marx’s texts and transforming their content into revealed dogma. [162]

“That’s very old hat”, I can you say. And you’re right. It is. However, Scruton pursues essentially the same point on and on through many different stages, ending at last with Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.

Despite its subject matter, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a rattling good yarn in which rightwing polemic is relieved from time to time with amusing asides: “Indeed, if there were no greater reason to regret the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the release of Žižek on to the world of Western scholarship would perhaps already be a sufficient one.”

From this, you will have garnered that there is nothing new or startling in this conservative attack upon Marxists and critical theorists in general, except perhaps the equal contempt with which Scruton regards the relativism of what some on the left like to call ‘post-modernism’, the totalizing totality of structuralism, and the misplaced (or misnamed) humanism of Lukács. He rejects the entire enterprise of attempting to transform the world by ripping society apart and starting anew. This book is replete with the usual Burkean charges concerning terror, the abrogation of legal process, and the destruction of lawful government. But, it is also a considered and reasonable engagement with a number of thinkers on the left in which he acknowledges the depth of feeling and the considerable sophistication of many of those under discussion; he clearly admires the erudition of Žižek, the genius, style, and sensitivity of Sartre and Foucault, and even when dismayed by the “soporific” and rebarbative prose of Habermas, is prepared to praise with baleful wit:-

Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of those who have read them remember what they say. Nevertheless, with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’s prose, and any account of the German left establishment must take his writings seriously. [116]

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a serious book, written by a serious man that surely identifies and challenges a number of the unanswered difficulties under which we labour. For this reason alone all revolutionary socialists concerned to extricate themselves from the tangle in which “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, should read it with attention, because we on the left, no less than conservatives, are saturated with conventional wisdom and unexamined prejudices.

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands Thinkers of the New Left
By Roger Scruton
London: Bloomsbury, 2015 ISBN: Hb 978-1-4081-8733-3

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