Review

Deconstructing the Left

Why, one might ask, should anyone still read the ‘master thinkers’ of the Left, particularly the Marxist Left? Are these thinkers not decidedly old hat? Isn’t it true that Marx and his manifold variety of followers are dead as Ramses? On many counts this is certainly correct, as Marx’s views have been refuted again and again. But those who would like to resuscitate Marx’s way of thinking do not care about this. And attempts to give new lifeblood to socialism and communism—and to denounce the traditions of the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the market economy—seem to have become fashionable again. 

In addition, a virulent form of ‘cultural Marxism’ and its offshoots has become increasingly dominant in the cultural sphere with every passing year. The widespread reductionist emphasis on race, gender, postcolonial issues, and climate activism have broadened the field of left-wing propaganda.

According to Roger Scruton, the most important legacy of the Marxist left remains intact. This refers to the “transformation of political language.” The main thesis of this book—the German translation of the 2017 re-edition (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Leftof his 1985 classic—focused on leftist thinkers of the 20th century is that we must protect language against socialist ‘newspeak.’ To do this, we must look at how newspeak came into being and understand what this kind of ideological speech and writing implies for any interpretation of the world that does not want to make unpleasant facts go away. 

Left-wing thinking, for Scruton, is not just a misguided form of religion or gnosticism, seeking to wield power and have control on the basis of an alleged absolute or secret knowledge. Rather, the thinkers studied by Scruton entirely reject the traditions of Western civilization because they are inspired by a deep-seated negativism, a ‘culture’ of rejection of theological proportions.

The thinkers Scruton examines include some that are less relevant outside the Anglo-Saxon world—people such as Edward Thompson, Kenneth Galbraith, or Ronald Dworkin. Perhaps more widely known is the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong communist whose historical writings presented a popular image of the rise of capitalism as well as a sanitized picture of bolshevism as a dictatorial regime. 

Scruton also considers figures with a wider appeal in Western Europe like the French thinkers Sartre and Foucault. Sartre’s form of existentialist philosophy appears as a rather special version of Marxism, as his anti-bourgeois rhetoric gained much traction among postwar intellectuals in France and elsewhere. Sartre’s posture of negation was wedded to the idea that Marxism was the most advanced philosophy of his age and therefore the basis, not the object, of criticism. The concept of ‘totality,’ taken over by Sartre from Marxism, merely hid, according to Scruton, the emptiness at the heart of a system which should have been filled by God.

Scruton regards György Lukács as one of the most important and effective thinkers on the left. Although not much cherished in present-day Hungary, he still has a considerable following among left-wing intellectuals who try to update his thoughts. Lukács early on cultivated his hatred towards capitalism while regarding Marxism as a totalistic worldview to which one comes not through rational argument but rather converts as to a new creed.

György Lukács (1885-1971) was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, literary historian, critic, and aesthetician.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA.

 

Lukács, who was in favour of denouncing non-communist writers and intellectuals and of prohibiting their writings, contributed considerably to the common charge that bourgeois society and capitalism has produced alienation, reification and fetishization. However, Lukács suggests that these features of liberal societies would be overcome by socialism. 

According to Scruton, however, this view implies that the sufferings and the sinfulness of human beings need no other explanation than the existence of a capitalist system. In fact, the pseudo-theology already implied in Hegel and Feuerbach finds its continuation in Marxism. Indeed, Lukács’ most important achievement, Scruton avers, consists in the revelation of the theological meaning of Marx’s economic doctrine. 

From Lukács, Scruton moves on to some of the key thinkers of the Frankfurt school: Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, who popularized a sort of Marxist cultural critique but could no longer provide any positive utopian ideal. Instead, they offered mere abstractions—culminating in the vast, intellectual wastelands represented by the writings of Jürgen Habermas, whose style and rhetorical argumentation Scruton finds exceedingly boring.

Scruton does not deny that the Frankfurt school’s critique of the capitalist consumer society contains a kernel of truth. In fact, he sees it as intimately related to the truth of the Old Testament where idolatry is said to be a turning away from God. Adorno did not believe in God, however. His God had been Utopia—or so Scruton maintains—as opposed to the false God of consumerism. Likewise, the critique of “instrumental reason” is not without merit. However, it has been conservative thinkers like Burke, Hegel, and Oakeshott who understood that instrumental reason is the result of a loss of respect for institutions and loyalties that the Frankfurt school thinkers regarded as features of bourgeois life that deserved to be destroyed.

Whereas the German version of leftist thinking often painted its theoretical ruminations grey in grey, the French versions were much for colourful and prone to rather wild thinking. But even here there were authors like Louis Althusser who could be regarded as a Marxist scholastic of the worst kind. Althusser basically represented the pseudo-theological dogmatization of Marx in which the one thing needed was no longer the truth but the production of political loyalty towards the left and its pet projects. 

Then, under the influence of authors like Jacques Lacan or Gilles Deleuze, a kind of ‘nonsense-machine’ was put in place, producing a new academic style in which syntax exists without semantics. According to Scruton, leftist thinking which employs these writing styles attempts to immunize itself against every possible criticism. It is for this very reason that Scruton’s updated critique of the left’s newspeak will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. 

The most recent developments in leftist thought taken up by Scruton concern the worldwide cultural battles in the context of postcolonialism. Against the backdrop of recent developments, one may perceive Antonio Gramsci’s shift from economic to cultural questions, taken up again by latter-day Communists such as Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek (who even wants to revive people’s interest in Lenin). 

What emerges from such thinkers is a total critique of our culture that fundamentally targets Western civilization as such—a civilization the Scruton judged to have entered long ago an epoch of cultural suicide. This slow decline has been made possible only because those who should have been Western culture’s guardians and protectors have abdicated their responsibility. Instead, they now routinely use every argument available—as erroneous as they may be—to denounce our cultural heritage. 

Perhaps the rather harsh title of the book may keep people from reading it. That would be a pity—for Scruton’s deconstruction of the Left’s theoretical ‘empire-building’ is of utmost importance—particularly to break the stranglehold of such thinking over our education system and all our many cultural institutions.

Till Kinzel is a humanities scholar and currently a member of the board of the Förderstiftung Konservative Bildung und Forschung (FKBF) in Berlin.

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