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Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left Hardcover – December 8, 2015
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"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." ―Wall Street Journal
"Scruton’s book is not the dispassionate examination and measured assessment of philosophical arguments typical of analytic philosophers. It is a polemical dissection and indictment of the perceived destructive aims and tactics of the left. Earlier chapters on Sartre and Foucault, and on members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno, are the most engaging." ―Samuel Freeman, The New York Review of Books
“Eminent British philosopher and polymath Scruton gives a sharp-edged, provocative critique of leading leftist thinkers since the mid-20th century . . . complex and erudite.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Caustic, highly recherché, and simply great fun to read for the questing intellectual soul.” ―Kirkus Reviews
"[H]onestly assesses the political and philosophical contributions of the Left [and] addresses what is likely our most pressing question: ‘Can there be any foundation for resistance to the leftist agenda without religious faith?'" ―Catholic World Report
About the Author
Professor Roger Scruton is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge. He has been Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, and University Professor at Boston University. He is currently a visiting professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. He has published a large number of books, including some works of fiction, and has written and composed two operas. He writes regularly for the Times, the Telegraph, and Spectator, and was for many years wine critic of the New Statesman.
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Scrutton does a good job in this short work of separating the wheat from the chaff, in addressing the dominant intellectual schools of thought, and the thinkers who made their "institutional march," first through Europe, who are now well-entrenched in American universities. This book is not the paranoid hit piece that either the title nor the cover art would lead one to believe. Scruton gives credit where it is due, especially to Foucault and Sartre, whose conclusions and solutions may be off-base, but whose keenness of mind and command of history is pretty staggering.
The ultimate picture that Scruton paints, however, is one that would be absurdly funny if so many people weren't hurt (literally and psychologically) by the unrelievedly nihilistic philosophies and theories perpetuated by the Frankfurt School, existentialists, Marxists, etc. All of the thinkers whose works and beliefs Scruton details have several features in common: they believe in the sanctity of some abstract "worker" or proletariat, despite having little or no daily interaction with their subjects, and they believe that the Left can never be held accountable for the catastrophic gulf between theory and praxis (especially regarding Marxism and Communism), and above all, they believe that people who don't believe what they believe are not merely viewing things from a different perspective, but are wrong, and either need to be ignored or somehow eliminated from the discourse.
The works that Scruton engages are many times pretentious, and, once parsed for content, revealed to be empty shell games. Naturally then, when Scruton critiques the works, he himself has to "wade in the mud" so to speak, so sometimes the reading is itself a chore. But it was a necessary public service Scruton performed in this book, and his sense of humor helps leaven what would otherwise be a punishing wade through the mire. And if you're going to college and you're going to accrue debt and a plethora of nihilistic, useless gibberish as well, you owe it to yourself to read this book and inoculate yourself. Or, if you've already been through the ringer, his book will reassure you that no, you are not alone, and that yes, Bertrand Russell was right: "Man is born ignorant, not stupid. He is made stupid through education." Recommended.
This is a very difficult task because many of these writers have voluminous bibliographies and write with a lugubrious, sometimes impenetrable style (the near totalizing ‘abstraction’ of which leads to a set of key points). A prominent literary critic once compared a task such as this to fighting with Joel Chandler Harris’ tar baby. If you engage with the shape-shifting beast you may never come out again. On the other hand, you cannot engage with it without reading these writers’ works, lest you be called a dilettante, a ‘vulgar conservative’, or all manner of other ugly names. Scruton is none of these, but he is very brave and tenacious to suffer through the volume of material which is here under investigation.
His bottom line is that there are many common threads here, nearly all of which begin with Marx, sometimes as adumbrated by Hegel or filtered through such a shared teacher as Alexandre Kojeve. Scruton is fair in recognizing that some of these individuals’ works are impressive intellectual accomplishments, even if their conclusions are ultimately antinomian. He argues, very impressively, that many of these individuals have invented new ways of saying the same old thing. They have enlisted linguistics, epistemology, psychology, sociology, communication theory, etc. to argue, at bottom, that we will never be happy until we achieve a utopia in which the bourgeoisie is liquidated, false consciousness is transcended, the proletariat ‘rules’ as a result of its leadership by the leftist elites/intellectuals/cognoscenti. Scruton demonstrates that the proponents of these views care little for the fate of those who are tortured, imprisoned or murdered in the process and that many of them do believe in the greatness and rightness of such individuals as Stalin and Mao Zedong. They operate at a level of abstraction that sees actual human beings and their plights as incidental or unimportant. Still, they argue for an ‘end’ which is—to any sentient being—impossible to achieve.
While he attempts to be as intellectually honest and transparent as possible he does not pull punches, suggesting that one explanation for their labor is Nietzsche’s observation “that resentment is the real default condition of social beings, who know only that the other has what they want, and must be made to suffer for it” (p. 287).
I would have preferred a different title, since this one suggests that the book is a polemic or screed. It is not; it is a studied examination of the thought of a number of prominent leftists and the examination is undertaken with rigor and sophistication. In other words, this is a challenging book that deals with complex thought; it is not a triumphalist exposé of actual fools and frauds (though he does suggest that some—Lacan, e.g.—are very close to the latter).
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