Published on March 14, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Bloomsbury, 2015 | 296 pages

Reviewed by Bradley G. Green

Roger Scruton is a philosopher of the first rank, and is known as a leader of sorts of a kind of high-brow British conservatism (and of conservatism more generally). Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a re-working of a 1985 book by Scruton, Thinkers of the New Left. The current book reworks the material, and deletes certain sections.

Scruton currently resides in the UK, in a piece of land in the country which he and his wife dub “Scrutopia.” He is currently Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, DC.



Scruton is clear at the beginning that this is not a “word-mincing book” (p. viii). Quite true. This is polemics at its fiercest, as Scruton attempts to take 20th century left-wing thought to task. His target is generally the world of 20th century philosophy — mainly in the UK and European continent, although in one chapter he treats certain left-wing thinkers in the United States. Scruton is not necessarily using the term “left” or “left-wing” pejoratively, as he claims that the thinkers he examines in the book all use the term to describe themselves.

What does Scruton himself mean by “left” or “left wing”? While the book is full of various short-hand summaries of what Scruton means, one or two might help grasp Scruton’s understanding. Scruton can write:

Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed. (p. 3)

As Scruton understands left-wing thinking, there are two attributes of the left which are key: (1) liberation and (2) “social justice” (p. 3). And indeed, a lot hinges on how one defines one’s terms!

For Scruton, the “liberation” advocated by the Left is not “simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed.” Rather: “It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society” (p. 3).

In terms of “social justice”: “the goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship, as these were advocated at the Enlightenment. The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged” (p. 4).

Indeed: “behind the goal of ‘social justice’ there marches another and more dogged egalitarian mentality, which believes that inequality in whatever sphere—property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children—is unjust until proven otherwise” (p. 4).

As Scruton continues: “Everything that does not conform to the egalitarian goal must be pulled down and built again, and the mere fact that some custom or institution has been handed down and accepted is no argument in its favour. In this way ‘social justice’ becomes a barely concealed demand for the ‘clean sweep’ of history that revolutionaries have always attempted” (p. 4).

As Scruton seeks to understand this general Leftist understanding of things, he writes that while some have correctly seen Leftism as a type of “misplaced religion” or “form of Gnosticism” (and he agrees with these characterizations of the Left), Leftism is “also a repudiation of what we, the inheritors of Western civilization, have received as our historical bequest” (p. 15).

Having summarized at the big picture level his understanding of Leftism, the next seven chapters serve as the heart of the book. These seven chapters treat 20th century left-wing thinkers, generally by geographical location:

Chapter 2: “Resentment in Britain: Hobsbawm and Thompson”

Chapter 3: “Disdain in America: Galbraith and Dworkin”

Chapter 4: “Liberation in France: “Sartre and Foucault”

Chapter 5: “Tedium in Germany: Downhill to Habermas”

Chapter 6: “Nonsense in Paris: Althusser, Lacan and Deleuze”

Chapter 7: “Culture Wars Worldwide: The New Left from Gramsci to Said” (several persons are treated in this chapter. Gramsci was Italian and Said was English).

Chapter 8: “The Kraken Wakes: Badiou and Zizek” (a Frenchman and a Slovenian)



The book is a tour de force introduction to certain tendencies a strand of in 20th century philosophy. Rather than summarize each chapter I will note several tendencies which Scruton sees across these thinkers.

First, Scruton draws attention to the pervasive and ubiquitous influence of strands of Marxism and Communism in virtually all of these thinkers. As one works through the volume, it is astonishing to read how Marxism and Communism function so centrally in virtually all of these thinkers. To those of us who are a tad older (I turned fifty this summer), this may serve simply as a reminder to things we have been reading for years. For younger readers, this influence may come as something of a surprise. That the Left has repeatedly apologized for various Communist atrocities and abuses of power receives repeated criticism from Scruton.

Second (and flowing from the first point above), Scruton draws attention to the consistent appeal to revolution in these left wing thinkers. For example, Scruton notes that Eric Hobsbawm (in the Daily Worker, November 9, 1956), actually approved of the Communist invasion of Hungary, although he did so with a “heavy heart” (p. 18). Hobsbawm can (astonishingly) write: “Who could afford to consider the possible long-term consequences for the revolution of decisions which had to be taken now or else there would be an end to the revolution and no further consequences to consider? One by one the necessary steps were taken . . .” (p. 30).

André Breton could write in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1930: “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste the ideas of family, country, religion . . .” (p. 19). Zizek, again astonishingly, can write that the one is not “to reject terror in toto but to re-invent it” (p. 260). The Left’s repeated attempts to sanitize various Communist regimes while nonetheless condemning in the strongest way Nazism leads to some bizarre writing.

Thus, Zizek, in comparing the Stalinist gulag and the Nazis, write: “the thin difference between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp was also, at that moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism” (p. 269). Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is full of such incriminating evidence.

Third, Scruton is persuaded that much of the writing of the New Left is so difficult to read fundamentally because it is intellectually incoherent and largely bereft of meaning, logic, or any real desire to communicate at all. And Scruton is quite clear that this incoherence is intentional and to a large degree simply flows from the Marxist, communist, and revolutionary commitments of these left-wing thinkers.

To Scruton’s credit, when he finds in an author an attempt to actually make and argument, to put forward a thesis, to draw conclusions from evidence, he tries to give credit where it is due. But as Scruton sees it, the New Left is not particularly interested in things like arguments, evidence, logic, reason, etc. One might be tempted to write off Scruton at this point: Yet another example of an “analytic” philosopher not “getting” “continental philosophy”. But I suspect this would be a mistake. Scruton has spent a lifetime trying to understand these thinkers (remember, the first iteration of this book appeared thirty years ago).

It is important to Scruton’s argument to grasp that this disinterest in classical issues of reason, logic, argument, tradition, and evidence is inextricably linked to the centrality of Marxism, communism, and fundamental revolutionary commitments. When the goal is revolution, and when the “bourgeois” must be liquidated as a part of the revolution, there is precious little time for traditional philosophy. Thus, Jacques Lacan can write that “the love of truth”—a rather central concern to good philosophy—“is the love of this weakness whose veil we have lifted; it is the love of what truth hides, which is called castration” (p. 190). That is: traditional concerns with “truth” are unwarranted, for such “truth” is really simply brute power masquerading under the name of “truth”.


A Final Word

A final word on why persons might want to read this book:

First, many of us who read “Books at a Glance” are likely pastors or academics in theological settings of some sort. As such, many of us want to know more philosophy but our training may or may or not have intensive training in philosophy. Scruton’s book is a good way to get the big picture of a slice of 20th century philosophy. It is a polemical survey no doubt, but not the worse for it.

Second, it is a joy to read someone as astute and well-read as Scruton. He is a world-class philosopher, and most readers will benefit from reading such a fine wordsmith.

Third, at least in the academy the tendency is to read (and write) rather limpid and frankly tedious monographs and essays. It is simply a joy to read someone who has something to say, and is not afraid to say it. May his tribe increase.

One caveat: Scruton is a fascinating philosopher, and in criticizing various forms of Leftism he regularly makes appeal to the importance of Christianity, traditional religious belief, etc. He rightly pinpoints the fact that traditional Christianity has always been in the cross-hairs of various forms of Marxism, communism, and Leftism. Scruton does not offer a full-blown Christian social theory or Christian philosophical perspective. His positive comments about traditional Christianity are tantalizing, and leave the Christian reader wanting more. No judgment is being made here regarding Scruton’s own particular theological commitments or beliefs. Scruton is a wonderful companion to have in trying to forge wise living and thinking in our day, but those seeking a full-orbed and explicitly Christian philosophical perspective will need to keep reading beyond the significant wisdom of Professor Scruton.

Bradley Green is Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University and Review Editor for Systematic Theology here at Books At a Glance.

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Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Bloomsbury, 2015 | 296 pages

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