Wall Street Journal Review

Groupthink in the Ivory Tower, Wall Street Journal. Barton Swaim (Dec15) 

How did an ideology supposedly predicated on struggle and revolution become the worldview of tenured professors with hefty pension plans?

In 1985, the English philosopher and polymath Roger Scruton published a book titled “Thinkers of the New Left” in which he systematically exposed the bogus intellectual underpinnings of 14 leftist intellectuals, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, György Lukács and Eric Hobsbawm.

There was only one problem: Mr. Scruton was then employed as a professor of philosophy at the famously progressive Birkbeck College, London, and his attack on these leftist saints was treated as an outrage. The book provoked a torrent of hostility. One left-wing academic wrote to the publisher, Longman, to advise the firm against publishing anything by Mr. Scruton in the future; another demanded that remaining copies of the book be removed from stores.

The whole affair was, Mr. Scruton writes, “the beginning of the end for my university career.” That was just as well; he has since gone on to write many highly successful books on a dizzying array of topics—the aesthetics of music and architecture, the meaning of conservatism and sexual desire, the value of fox hunting and wine drinking. With “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands,” Mr. Scruton has returned to the book that scandalized his peers. He has reworked the manuscript and added sections on the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the political theorist and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, the anti-imperialist literary critic Edward Said and a few others.

The book is a masterpiece, its rather too clever title notwithstanding. In crisp, sometimes brilliant prose, Mr. Scruton considers scores of works in three languages, giving the reader an understanding of each thinker’s overarching aim and his place within the multifaceted movement known as the New Left. He neither ridicules nor abuses the writers he considers; he patiently deconstructs them, first explaining their work in terms they themselves would recognize and then laying bare their warped assumptions and empty pretensions.

Do we still need a book like this? After all, communism and socialism have been discredited everywhere, and in the years since the Soviet Union’s fall the international left has failed to generate a totalizing theory with anything like the appeal of yesterday’s Marxian ideologies. True enough. But the writers dealt with here, many of whom embraced Marx’s economic determinism in one way or another, retain a decisive influence on today’s European and American professoriate, which in turn has an outsize influence on present and future policy makers.

What is their appeal? Some were gifted writers—Sartre, Foucault, the economist J.K. Galbraith—but many were not. Consider, for example, the jargon-laden works of the Frankfurt School social theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas. Much of their work is dull. Their admirers, though, are searching for a way to contemn Western society and retain some level of intellectual credibility. They “belonged to a generation that enjoyed freedom and prosperity on a scale that young people had never previously known,” Mr. Scruton writes. “To dissent from the ‘capitalist’ order in the name of freedom seemed faintly ridiculous, particularly when the contrast with the Soviet alternative was so apparent. What was needed . . . was a doctrine that would show capitalist freedom to be an illusion, and which would identify the true freedom that the consumer society denied.”

In a sense, the Frankfurt theorists did what leftist intellectuals have always done. First they collapsed European and American society’s bewildering variety of mediating institutions—churches, charitable organizations, debating societies, pubs, brass bands—into a single lifeless word, “capitalism.” Second, they set the present “capitalist” society against a future state of total equality, a state that by definition couldn’t be measured or even described.

This latter maneuver is everywhere in New Left writing. Mr. Scruton relays a remarkable sentence from the historian Eric Hobsbawm: “If the left have to think more seriously about the new society, that does not make it any the less desirable or necessary or the case against the present one any less compelling.” Hobsbawm felt no obligation to prove or even argue that this “new society” would be better than the old; the fact that he could envision it was all he needed to condemn the society he lived in. That disposition of studied ingratitude is the defining characteristic of leftist theorizing, and it’s the temptation against which modern liberalism must constantly guard itself.

Discussions of New Left ideologies often lead to this question: How did Marxist ideology, supposedly predicated on struggle and revolution, become the consensus worldview of university professors with tenure and hefty pension plans? Mr. Scruton’s examination of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers a partial answer. It was Gramsci who rejected economic determinism and so rehabilitated the political sphere in the Marxist mind-set. For Gramsci, communist politics was possible, as Mr. Scruton puts it, “not as a revolutionary movement from below, but as a steady replacement of the ruling hegemony—a long march through the institutions, as it was later described.” Gramsci showed that one could stay true to the spirit of Marx’s historical materialism without reviling American and European culture as so much capitalist vulgarity.

Hence, for example, the careers of the Marxist historians Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel and of the Marxist literary critics Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Of course, there was always something unnatural about respected academics adopting leftist creeds: You can only denounce a culture and curate its achievements for so long before you begin to seem disingenuous. No wonder Mr. Scruton’s erstwhile colleagues hated his book so much.

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