Roger Scruton and the New Left, National Review. Ron Capshaw (Dec '15)
In his new book, Roger Scruton offers a diagnosis of and an antidote to the New Left.
‘ The important thing is that you should not argue with [Communists]. . . . Whatever you say, they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind, ‘Fascist,’ ‘Liberal,’ ‘Trotskyist,’ and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process.”
The above quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, despite being derided by Edmund Wilson as having talent without a brain, was perhaps the only member of the Lost Generation astute enough not to fall for Communism. The method of operation he described for Hollywood Communists in the 1930s has crossed the decades to reappear in academia. Those of us who have been graduate students have seen this in action. Once I was witness to a student asking a professor why there weren’t conservative books in the curriculum to balance the liberal ones; to which the professor replied, “Because they’re all fascists.” And that was that.
This tendency is probed in Roger Scruton’s study of the “thinkers” of the New Left, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. As he takes the reader through each thinker and his particular ism — Michel Foucault’s post-modernism, Eric Hobsbawm’s and E. P. Thompson’s Protestant-based Marxism — the end result is the same. All are impatient with Western Civilization’s imperfections. All seek an ideology more streamlined. All load the deck for civil war by selecting class as a category because of its explosive effects in a cohesive society. All defend the righteousness of their cause by owning the language and selecting lofty terms that express their moral vanity.
Hence they engage in Manicheaism, labeling those evil others who oppose their “social justice” schemes with the dread words “capitalist” and “fascist.” Even those who have only the vaguest relationship to Marxism, like Foucault, find oppression and divisiveness in Western Civilization. For Foucault, it is the very concept of objectivity that is fascist (verbs in particular are an oppressive construct).
It is in this area of language that Scruton locates these intellectuals’ success in taking over academia. Taking a leaf from George Orwell, he notes how they determine the language of the debate, and since they describe themselves as working for mankind, those who oppose them must be against mankind — weeds choking up the garden.
Despite their rhetoric of being willing to confront reality, Scruton pithily notes that their ideologies are designed to avoid it. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the realities presented by the Soviet Union. Eric Hobsbawm praised Lenin for emancipating Russians from the tsar, and dealt with Lenin’s ruthless post-Revolution methods as necessary for the advancement of mankind. Such manipulation of the language requires editing out facts such as Lenin’s hunting down and executing intellectuals. Comb Hobsbawm’s work, and there is no mention of Stalin lowering the age at which the death penalty could apply to twelve-year-olds.
So confident are these intellectuals in their power that they are stricken almost wordless when one of their own leaves the pack. E. P. Thompson felt a “personal injury and betrayal” when a colleague condemned Communist brutality in Eastern Europe.
For all his criticism of them, the British Scruton has a soft spot for British New Left thinkers. Thompson had “a beautiful investigative mind.” Eschewing the internationalist search for class, British socialists have the “endearing” quality of locating it only on their native soil. This “love for home and territory” makes it possible for them to meet British conservatives on common ground.
Unlike many conservatives, Scruton isn’t merely a debunker, but offers a way out of Marxism. It is through the rule of law, and not a revolutionary movement, that citizens have protection from institutions, while the same institutions are answerable to laws and to citizens.
Scruton’s book, with its examinations of commodity surplus and methods of consciousness, can be a hard read. Those uninterested in philosophical discussions about what constitutes class realities can get lost in the thicket. But for those who want to see how, after the implosion of Communism, the hard Left has taken over academia and holds it to this day, the book can be rewarding.
— Ron Capshaw writes from Midlothian, Va.