Fools, Frauds and Firebrands - reviewed by Patricia Duffaud for The Book Bag
Thinkers of the New Left first came out in 1985, under Thatcher's government. British left-wing intellectuals gave it savage reviews. The publisher was threatened with a boycott and the book was withdrawn from bookshops. Roger Scruton feels this caused his university career to decline. In the introduction, he says he is reluctant to return to the scene of such a disaster.
However, this is a subject he is clearly passionate about, having worked with underground networks in communist Europe and seen the destructive reality behind the fashionable leftist ways of thinking.
The book is now being reissued, updated with a chapter on Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou and retitled Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.
It is an elegantly written book and Scruton makes his points fairly. He focuses his gaze on one thinker after another, summarizing their ideas and commenting on them. He gives praise, too. Sartre is described as a gifted writer. About Foucault, he says that the synthesizing poetry of his style rises above the murky sludge of left-wing writing like an eagle over mud-flats, which is itself a lively and imaginative comparison.
The main critiques he makes are convincing. In particular, Sartre, Foucault, Habermas and many others show a disgust of the 'bourgeoisie' which feels dated now. Scruton also identifies the Newspeak common to these left-wing thinkers:Many words with respectable origins end up as Newspeak, used to denounce, exhort and condemn without regard for observable realities.
Another interesting comment is that the texts he quotes sound like spells and the ideas of the thinkers assembled here resemble a religion. It is difficult not to conclude, after following Scruton's exposition, that these left-wing ideas are a utopia and would never work as a government.
Fuelling his critique is also the plentiful well of the atrocities committed by communist regimes, and glossed over by thinkers as varied as Sartre and Hobsbawm. More obscure maybe is the tale of Lukàcs, a Hungarian left-wing thinker once in vogue, who denounced 'bourgeois' thinkers as part of a self-righteous witch-hunt. In one moment of casual savagery, Lukàcs is partially responsible for sending Hungarian philosopher Béla Hamvas to work as an unskilled labourer in a power plant. Imagining the hard-hearted single-mindedness required to send a colleague into a life of hardship makes it easier to see where Scruton is coming from. There is danger in following ideas so blindly, while believing one is fully on the side of good, and ending up harming others without a qualm.
Indeed, it would be salutary for students, led to automatically thinking of Marxism as being the only 'fair' way to see a world through the lens of the exploitation of the working class, to be able to step into a different mindset, if only for the space of one book. People who have unthinkingly been on the left of the spectrum may find it alleviating to read a book that pokes at the revered thinkers of the left and their pronouncements.
Scruton's stylish writing and his knowledge and passion for his subject make this an entertaining read.