In his seminal 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, writer-academic Roger Scruton had analysed the grip left-wing ideologues have on intellectual discourse, with specific focus on front-ranking Marxist writers and philosophers. In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015), Scruton revisits the issue, which retains as much contemporary relevance as ever.
Fundamental to the left’s way of thinking is the linear order implied in its name. People who describe themselves as ‘on the left’ believe that political opinions and movements can be assembled from left to right, and that, to the extent that you are not on the left, to that extent you are on the right. At the same time, by a relentless campaign of intimidation, left-wing thinkers have sought to make it unacceptable to be on the right. As a rule they give no definition of what the ‘right’ consists in, nor do they explain why national socialists, fascists and economic liberals should all be included in the category. Nevertheless, they are clear about one thing. Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned. This has been my experience, as it has been the experience of all the dissidents I have known. If books by authors on the right are noticed by left-wing reviewers (and in the academic world left-wing reviewers are the norm) it is only in order to trash them.
All that, you might think, puts an enormous onus on left-wing thinkers to define their alternative…Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law. It is as though the abstract ideal has been chosen precisely so that nothing actual could embody it…
…Thinkers on the left often begin their critique of our social and political systems with an assault on the language, as part of a far-reaching strategy to put power and domination at the top of the political agenda, while debunking the ways in which human relations are mediated by the search for agreement. Leftist Newspeak is a powerful tool, not only because it wipes away the face of our social world, but also because it describes a supposed reality that underlies the genial appearance and also explains that appearance away as a deception. Marx’s ‘material forces’, ‘antagonistic production relations’ and ‘ideological superstructure’; Foucault’s ruling ‘episteme’ and ‘structures of domination’; the ‘forcing’ ‘generic sets’ and ‘truth procedures’ of Badiou, the big Other of Lacan and Žižek, the ‘reification’ and ‘commodity fetishism’ of Lukács – all those mystifying technicalities have the purpose of confiscating reality from our ordinary human understanding. The effect is to put the social world beyond the reach of politics. We are being invited to believe that there can be no resolution of our conflicts short of total transformation, total revolution or, as Joseph Conrad’s Professor expresses it, in The Secret Agent, ‘the destruction of all that is’.
The greatest task on the right, therefore, is to rescue the language of politics: to put within our grasp what has been forcibly removed from it by jargon. It is only when we have found again the language that is natural to us that we can answer the great accusations that are constantly thrown at our world from the left. And it is only when we have found that language that we can move on from the one-dimensional left/right, with us/against us, progressive/reactionary dichotomies that have so often made rational discussion impossible…
…throughout the period of their ascendancy, thinkers of the New Left were prodigal of excuses for the communist regimes and unable to see the real difference between the rule of the Party and the rule of law. Our European legal systems, patiently constructed upon the established results of Roman Law, Canon law and the common law of the European nations, embody centuries of minute reflection upon the realities of human rivalry and the procedures for soothing it. Such legal systems have tried to define and to limit the activities of every important social power, and to install in the heart of the social order a principle of answerability that no agent can escape.
The rule of law is no simple achievement, to be weighed against the competing benefits of some rival political scheme. It is the sine qua non of political freedom, available only where law is independent of the executive power and able to stand over it in judgment. Without a rule of law opposition has no guarantee of safety, and where opposition is unprotected it also disappears. A government without opposition is without the means to correct its own mistakes or even to notice that it is making them – such, indeed, has been the kind of government introduced by leftist regimes wherever they have come to power by means of a coup d’etat or a revolution.
Almost all the thinkers I have discussed in this book have adopted the same annihilating approach to their opponents as leftist parties in power. For the opponent is the class enemy. Should he put his head above the parapet in the culture wars he is not to be argued with, for he cannot utter truth: he is the false intellectual of Sartre, the devotee of Badiou’s ‘simulacrum’, the person whose thought, in Žižek’s words, is ‘a worthless sophistic exercise, a pseudo-theorization of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears and instincts…’ Such an enemy is not to be the object of negotiation or compromise. Only after his final elimination from the social order will the truth be perceivable.
In order to drown the still small voice of disagreement communist parties have had recourse to ideology – a set of doctrines, for the most part doctrines of a staggering imbecility, designed to close the avenues of intellectual enquiry. The purpose of this ideology was not that people should believe it. On the contrary, the purpose was to make belief irrelevant, to rid the world of rational discussion in all areas where the Party had staked a claim. The idea of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was not supposed to describe a reality; it was supposed to bring enquiry to an end, so that reality could not be perceived.
(Excerpted from Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton, Bloomsbury India, Rs 599)