When writer and philosopher Roger Scruton first published Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 it was, in his words, “greeted with derision and outrage” and “marked the beginning of the end of my university career”. His critique of such leftist icons as Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Gramsci led to “reviewers falling over themselves to spit on the corpse” while “raising doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character.”
Since then he has written books on a variety of subjects including The Aesthetics of Architecture, How to be a Conservative, On Hunting, a memoir (Gentle Regrets), and two novels. Now, 30 years on from his mauling at the pens of the academic establishment, Scruton has renewed his assault with an updated and revised version of that original book, Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.
Does he expect the reception to be better this time around? “Of course, since I no longer have an academic career to lose. Also, when I published the book in 1985, people in the academic world actually believed things, usually silly things of a vaguely socialist complexion. Now they merely repeat things – whole paragraphs of Deleuze applied to the obsession of the day, but impossible to believe since meaningless.”
It is meaningless argument, dressed up as profundity, that Scruton argues characterises the thinking of much of the New Left. Thus he dismantles the Marxist distinction between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’ before proceeding to analyse and dismiss the arguments of such eminent figures as Hobsbawm, Thompson, Dworkin, Sartre, Althusser, Lacan, Gramsci, Said and Zizek. Many of the writings of these intellectuals are rejected as “prodigious waffle, and indeed barely intelligible”.
Such language might lead one to assume Scruton enjoys baiting left-wing academics. He denies the suggestion. “I don’t enjoy annoying people, but sometimes it saves time. In fact I am far more respectful towards my targets than they or their supporters would be towards me.”
Others may welcome a book that unapologetically pulls the rug from under the feet of the New Left. I ask Scruton if Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left had been written in part with students in mind. “Yes,” he replies, “I do think students need to know that ideas matter, that they only make sense in the context of an attempt to distinguish the true from the false, and that this attempt requires discussion and the respect for alternative views – things that are disappearing from the culture.”
In recent months the very ability to freely and openly discuss and debate ideas has been the subject of intense controversy. Calls for universities to be ‘safe spaces’ and the no platforming of various groups have created an atmosphere that many fear will have damaging consequences for freedom of expression. Scruton has written extensively in defence of free speech so I asked him about the difficulties of reconciling freedom of speech with the supposed need to avoid offending ideas that others hold sacred.
“You should not knowingly and disrespectfully trample on what others hold to be sacred,” he tells me. “But you should also remember that you have the right to do so, and that ‘holding something sacred’ is not a blanket excuse for whatever a person should choose to think or do. Think of what was held sacred by the Nazis, the fascists and the Bolsheviks, and what is held sacred by the Islamists today.” Above all, “the University should be the kind of ‘safe space’ to which you refer, but a space where offence can be safely given, in the cause of rational argument.” Asked if he has a message for the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, he has this to say: “Learn some history; read some literature; understand what has happened to Africa since Rhodes, and what it was like before Rhodes. And grow up.” Perhaps this interview will provoke a new campaign: Scruton Must Fall. I imagine he would see the funny side if it did. “When dealing with thinkers on the left, humour is essential, as when dealing with Islamists. These are people who cannot laugh at themselves since nothing frightens them more than the (true) thought that they are ridiculous.”
This sense of the ridiculous and the absurd may well be the result of the influence of writers like Sartre and Camus. Scruton has written of his admiration for Sartre as a writer and a philosopher and he says that of all the leftist thinkers, the most challenging is Sartre “because he made leftism part of the calling of the writer, which is my calling too.” And, like Sartre, Scruton has attempted to create something new, though the something new is naturally much harder for the conservative. As Scruton puts it in Gentle Regrets, he is “searching the world for that impossible thing: an original path to conformity.”
To describe Scruton as cosmopolitan in his intellectual interests and attitudes might surprise many of his less well-informed critics. Yet on his website he describes himself as “a French intellectual, a born Englishman, a German romantic, a loyal Virginian and a Czech patriot”. He tells me the novelists who have most influenced him are Joyce, Flaubert and Thomas Mann. And in his writing of two novels (Notes from Underground and The Disappeared) and an opera, he reveals he is anything but a dry squire-Tory.
Asked why he has experimented with the novel he responds, “I think that there are some matters, those that concern the ‘what it is like’ of experience, that can only be explored through art or something approximating it: and when art and philosophy meet, as in the writings of Diderot or the music of Wagner, something is said about our world that could not be said in any other way. Not,” he adds, “that I can compare myself with geniuses like Diderot or Wagner, or Sartre and Camus for that matter.”
What the writings of Diderot and the music of Wagner have in common is that they give meaning to our experiences of the world and help to explain those experiences. Reading much of Scruton’s work, especially his memoir Gentle Regrets and Notes from Underground, one is made to feel that our existence is in many ways a search for consolation. Consolation found through art, music, and literature.
Are these things on their own able to reconcile us to our individual existence? According to Scruton, “Consolation is hard to find in a world of random association. The old-fashioned view that faith, love and family are the best that we have has yet to be refuted. But we can seek consolation in imaginary things too, and this is not an imaginary consolation.”
At the heart of Scruton’s philosophy is the idea of redemption. His conservatism is not, other than incidentally, concerned with economics or the organisation of the marketplace. His is the conservatism of Rilke or T.S. Eliot, where culture acquires a consolatory and redemptive quality. What is that redemption? “To know that this, here, now is worthwhile, and that its being worthwhile justifies also the rest of your life.”
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99