New Left Thinkers: Pursuing Utopia or Annihilation?

A review of Roger Scruton's "Fools, Frauds and Firebrands."

How did we arrive at a world where the New York Times and other prominent mass media extol leaders of the brutal North Korean regime at the Olympics?  The answer is that our current mainstream journalists and educational establishment are largely the ideological offspring of the European and American thinkers of the New Left.

Thanks to Roger Scruton’s book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, I can now better understand my own experiences of contemporary academia.  Until fifteen years ago I devoted a lot of effort to promoting critical thinking in higher education in Japan and Asia.  Then I came up against widespread resistance among academics to the inculcation of rationality and eventually gave up on many of those efforts, mystified by the current ascendency of relativistic thinking in the university world.  Even more puzzling has been the emergence of Marxist thought among evangelical intellectuals like Tim Keller.

A conservative British philosopher and prolific writer, Roger Scruton does a superb job of explaining how this state of affairs came about.  He probes the writings of many influential European and American New Left thinkers, such as Sartre, Said, Foucault, Adorno, Derrida, Rorty, and Zizek.  Rather than trying to cover his analysis of these writers in detail, this review will bring out some prominent themes of the whole book that impressed me, including some representative quotes.

To begin with, the New Left thinkers clearly revealed their hostility to ordinary people and their traditions.  Like the older Marxists before them, they demonized the bourgeoisie, which basically means middle-class people.  Only industrial laborers and leftist intellectuals escape this broad condemnation. 

That stance helps account for the apathy of these intellectuals toward the atrocities carried out by leftist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot.  For instance, the French Maoist Badiou made light of the damage caused by China’s Cultural Revolution.  Scruton comments that Badiou “expresses a kind of dismissive contempt towards the many Chinese people who had the impertinence to cherish their traditional culture at a time when the French intellectuals had, in their ignorance, waved that culture to extinction.”  That disdain usually also applied to bourgeois ideas like human rights.

Hostility to normal people went hand-in-hand with a rejection of their way of thinking, meaning common-sense rationality.  The leftist intellectuals espoused a relativist view of truth and condemned rationality as a tool of dominance.  Scruton’s analysis made me realize that the anti-rational stance of thinkers like Michel Foucault is not really a bug but a feature, from their point of view.  Relativism makes it impossible to subject leftist ideology to critical analysis.  Therefore, critics cannot come at them with the power of truth and argument.  This seems to be a tacit admission that leftist ideology can no longer bear any close scrutiny.

After all, the disasters visited on many societies by leftist ideologues during the last century have made it extremely difficult to mount a compelling rational case for leftism.  As a result, the best course available is to portray rational thought as a conspiracy to oppress people.  As Scruton puts it, “nonsense is much to be preferred to sense.  For it builds a way of life around something that cannot be questioned.”  In the place of clear, coherent argumentation, Scruton finds modern leftist intellectuals engaging in name-calling and psychological censure (impugning twisted motives to opponents) – tactics very familiar to all of us these days.

This cavalier attitude to truth has led to astonishing instances of intellectual dishonesty, such as the widespread embrace of Edward Said among the leftist intelligentsia.  Said’s writings are full of misrepresentations intended to discredit well-established, significant scholars of Islam, like Bernard Lewis, whom Said dismissed as bigots guilty of “othering” Eastern peoples.  However, Said was really guilty of greater intellectual wrongdoing than they were, since he lied about himself and historical facts.  For instance, he claimed to have been raised in Palestine when in fact he grew up in a wealthy family in Egypt.

None of that mattered, since Said’s condemnations were in line with the agenda of leftist academics.  Scruton explains:

The principal reason for Said’s popularity in our universities is that he provided ammunition against the West.  Many of those appointed as the guardians of Western culture will seize on any argument, however flawed, and any scholarship, however phony, in order to denigrate their cultural inheritance.  We have entered a period of cultural suicide…

Even here in Japan, I encounter academics who venerate Said.  Some years ago a documentary film lionizing him was shown on our campus, and I attended a literature conference last year in Kobe where one presentation glorified him.

Because of the convoluted, irrational theorizing of these New Left intellectuals, I found the book rough going in places.  They often throw out terms like “social justice” without really defining what it means.  By using such suggestive but unclear terms, they conjured up vague utopian hopes but failed to offer any concrete, realistic plans for the future. 

In fact, a number of them openly declared that an unattainable utopia is morally superior to anything concrete.  Scruton wryly notes that “when, in the writings of Adorno, I discover that the alternative to the capitalist system is utopia I congratulate the writer for his honesty, since that is another way of saying that there is no alternative.”  Scruton’s humorous and insightful comments illuminate their confusing, often incoherent theorizing.  Yet despite the combative tone of the book’s title, Scruton also sometimes expresses appreciation for insights in the works of some of these thinkers.

The most invidious aspect of the New Left thinkers may be their determination to destroy all perceived obstacles to utopia, which masquerades as a quest for equality: “The goal is not equality or liberty conceived in the qualified sense that you or I would understand those terms.  It is absolute equality (with a bit of liberty thrown in if you are lucky), which can by its nature be achieved only by an act of total destruction.”

Demolishing statues and setting fire to vehicles have become present-day enactments of the nihilistic direction of New Left thought.  Observing the quasi-religious devotion of our current crop of activists, Scruton memorably remarks, “A blind faith drags radical leftists from ‘struggle’ to ‘struggle’, reassuring them that everything done in the name of equality is well done and that all destruction of existing power will lead towards the goal.”

Leftist thinkers regularly blame the bourgeoisie and capitalism for problems that are simply the results of human moral frailty, such as materialism and reducing people to commodities.  More insightfully, Judeo-Christian thinking has always attributed the evils of consumerism to idolatry (the worship of things) and original sin (mankind’s inborn inclination to evil), as Scruton rightly points out.

Despite its occasional difficulty, Scruton’s book is well worth reading.  It shows what happens when utopian fantasy triumphs over human reality.  But then, we can see the same thing at our universities and in our mass media every day.

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.