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Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left

Theo Hobson

Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury, 296pp

This book looks back at left-wing theorizing since the mid twentieth century. On one level the tradition has faded, says Roger Scruton, for the mainstream left seldom speaks of revolution now that its aims of liberation and social justice 'have been bureaucratized.' But the left, he argues, still uses obfuscating language (which he calls, following Orwell, 'Newspeak'), and retains the nihilistic tendency to attack existing traditions on the basis of airy possibilities. Also, one or two heralds of revolution are still taken seriously.

It is not much of a page-turner: trying to follow the convoluted theories of these thinkers is hard work. One often wonders if the effort is worthwhile. But Scruton does sometimes shed light on all this darkness. For example he partially clarifies why Jean-Paul Sartre was such a pivotal figure. On the surface his philosophy of personal freedom and authenticity seems contrary to Marxism. But the desire for absolute freedom is attracted to the absoluteness of Marxism, its apocalyptic abolishing of all ordinary reality with its final utopia.

He is comparatively lenient on Theodore Adorno, whose attack on capitalist culture was steeped in the Jewish critique of idolatry; he saw a role for a form of 'personal salvation, a turning away from fantasies', in the pursuit of utopia. But such thought had the effect of Marxists colonizing the humanities, claiming to speak about the true political function of art. In the 1960s the debate shifted in this cultural direction. Foucault (who is admitted to be an excellent writer) influentially criticised the structures of domination of capitalist society - but like other thinkers of the left he could offer no alternative, except 'utopia'. With Lacan and Deleuze, the left developed a taste for radical-sounding babble - defying normal bourgeois rationality was presented as a subversive act. Political philosophy blurred with an esoteric performance art: only those who believe in the absolute of revolution can grasp it.

As with Adorno, he partially forgives many of the British Marxists such as Christopher Hill and Raymond Williams: their celebration of working-class culture, and dislike of mass consumerism was in tune with the thought of Ruskin and Morris, and at odds with cold Continental rigour, and semi-surrealist posturing. But the left can't really tolerate nuanced, moderate arguments: it must perform its commitment to the absolute. With the demise of Communism, a new negative approach emerged: attacking Western values as bogus, oppressive, racist. Partly thanks to Edward Said, the humanities are now ruled by a resentful relativism that unites 'the new ummah of the rootless.'

Recently the ideal of revolution has been revived by Alain Badiou. He revives Sartre's emphasis on apocalyptic absoluteness, with his 'philosophy of the Event'. The Christian roots of this are plainer than ever - he even uses St Paul to illustrate it. Badiou seems to admit that Marxism is utterly faith-based, and seems to praise a fidesitic (rationality-rejecting) commitment to it. We must pursue 'the possibility of the impossible', and (a phrase from Lacan) we must not give up on our desire. As with Sartre, an intense individualism, adapted from Nietzsche, is awkwardly recruited to the revolutionary ideal.

Slavoj Zizek has recently popularized this approach, mixing verbose posturing and punkish nonsense with some sharp analysis. He falls back on the absurd claim that the inner purity of the revolutionary mind is selfjustifying. If one is motivated by a reality-changing vision that re-makes the world, one rises above normal ethics. If a movement carries the flame of utopia, it is justified, even in violence.

With the demise of Communism as a force in the world, the religious basis of left-wing theory is ever clearer. It is rooted in apocalyptic utopianism. And it also borrows the idea of the adherent's leap of faith, away from ordinary reality to 'authenticity'.

In his conclusion Scruton admits the dehumanizing potential of capitalist societies. But the solution is not political but spiritual in a wide sense: we must nurture a culture that treats people as ends not means, a culture that promotes values beyond commerce and rivalry. 'We must change our lives.' And we should not pretend that politics can get rid of 'domination': 'Our concern as political beings should be, not to abolish the powers that bind society together, but to mitigate their exercise. We should not aim for a world without power, but for a world where power is consented to.'

This is well said, but I think a Christian response should say something else. The Marxist desire for absolute change deserves a sort of respect. Beside it, the secular humanist belief in human rights and progress is rather lazy and dishonest. It supposedly aims for the good of all humanity, but in a diluted way that's compatible with self-interest, common sense. Yes, revolutionary rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible, but there is an echo of the Kingdom of God here that normal political rhetoric lacks.

We Christians should more boldly claim to square the circle: we announce an apocalyptic revolution, but we also affirm the good in the present order, even its most bourgeois aspects.