Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, written by Roger Scruton, is precisely the book that every student of modern political science and/or economics should read. Even if you don’t know the difference between a ‘dialectic’ and a ‘praxis,’ your lack of deep philosophical literacy will not impede the read. With tong and scalpel, Scruton offers the reader a narrative answer to a simple question. How did the very core idea of Western culture and law change from individual natural rights, seeking only truth, to contrived group rights, seeking only power?
Scruton wants one's inference to tumble out of these pages at the end. Fake news, identity politics, corporate shame, the evil 1%, globalism, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+, ANTIFA, and now our shooting cultural war all stem from the clever theology of group rights ordained by German theologian Karl Marx. With relentless surgical precision, philosophy professor Roger Scruton peels away layers of decayed Marxian mumbo-jumbo by later day acolytes from Sartre to Habermas, from Dworkin and Deleuze, to Lucan and Zizek, in his book Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. Even JFK’s pet economist, John Kenneth Galbraith gets a good waxing.
Originally published in 1985 as simply Thinkers of the New Left before the collapse of the old Soviet Union, this iteration of Scruton’s communist autopsy drills down to the core presumptions of communism’s decrepit corpse. Resting on sound philosophical research, his grammar, syntax, and diction are the results of immaculate conception. If you crave French nuanced literary criticism, then this book is not for you. If, however, you crave a road map of the intellectual car crashes that led us to our common social fatality, then, by all means, get this book.
Though brutal in his exorcism of Marxian devils, Professor Scruton takes patient pains to give both substance and style credit where credit is due. In this, he demonstrates more character virtue than the far-left academics who vindictively purged him from his university teaching and writing career.
But ‘Old Left’ Communism did not die at the hands of ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, ‘Solidarity’ inspired Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’. Indeed, it merely rebranded thanks to the zealous priesthood of the ‘New Left’ Marxists in Europe and America. Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, is the intellectual chronicle of those seminary and post-ordination days for that priesthood. One subtext of this work is the strong evidence that last century’s Marxian theology has become this century’s New Left religion. These postulants, scholastic monks, and deacons insinuated themselves into contemporary politics as revolutionary socialist bishops, cardinals, and even a Pope in the person of rabid atheist Richard Dawkins. Antonio Gramsci is their martyred saint who rotted away in Mussolini’s prison as public enemy number one of the Roman Catholic Church. This communist priesthood created a socialist workers society very much like the bourgeoisie society they waged jihad to destroy, unsuccessfully as it turns out.
Limited space here does not permit dragging the reader over the alpine philosophical mountains Scruton climbs in this work, but a few passages are intelligible to any educated reader conscious of the changes in our contemporary politics. One of those is Scruton’s meticulous documentation of how modern fascists and communists have much in common despite their obvious differences in this passage:
“Communism, like Fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy. Both movements regarded law as optional and constitutional constraints as irrelevant – for both were essentially revolutionary, led from above by an ‘iron discipline.’ “
Readers can glean from this sample, Scruton’s content, style, and comprehensive intellect.
After warning the reader that ‘this is not a word-mincing book’ in the terse introduction, Professor Scruton front-loads a strong thesis, to wit, “Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratized.” It’s not so much the clever dialectical pretzel of Marx that is responsible as much as it’s those who hijacked it for raw, brutal, murderous power. The rest of the book is a series of premises in the form of chapters deductively and inductively hammering home that conclusion with erudite blows of scholarship. This thesis is reiterated near the end as:
“To put the point another way: the Marxist theory of history, which explains all historical development as the product of changes in the economic infrastructure, is false. Historical development is as much the outcome of political will (as our ‘bourgeois’ historians have always insisted) as the outcome of ‘material’ processes.”
While acknowledging that some fascist governments were democratically elected, all Communist governments came to power by the coup d’etat (i.e. murder and mayhem). Best available estimates today on the number of humans murdered by the communist intellectual great, great grandchildren of Karl Marx range from 170 to 200 million.
Like some erudite tour bus driver, Scruton drives the reader around the intellectual wasteland of ‘group think’, ‘Orwellian Newspeak’ the ‘nonsense machine’ invented by Louis Althusser, and Gilles Deleuze, the scorched-earth attack on our ‘colonial’ inheritance by Edward Said, and the recent revival of ‘the communist hypothesis’ by Alain Badiou and motor mouth Slavoj Žižek. The intellectual landscape resembles something like Hiroshima after the bomb. Around every corner are burned out conceptual buildings of law, tradition, custom, enterprise, family, or religion, all made from the same atomic accelerant — the irrepressible individual human will for individual freedom nurtured by the false bourgeoise society.
Scruton’s tour bus struggles mightily up the steep hill of Jürgen Habermas, the German intellectual and relentless theorist of the ‘public sphere’ (‘group-think’ in America) only to fall back down again exhausted. Like Sisyphus trudging after his boulder, Scruton only takes pleasure in his descriptions of Marxian ‘nonsense’ by accepting them as nonsense. The tour bus even has a stop at a bombed out psychiatric clinic where French intellectual fraud Louis Althusser died after strangling his wife to death. He claimed she was a Marxist ‘revisionist.’ Can’t have that now, can we?
Thus, the odd post-Marxian creatures Sir Scruton details for us constitute part zoo, part theme park, part waterboarding torture chamber, and part Cambodian killing field. There’s something for every political fetish here in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. Near the end of the book, special ridicule is reserved for the New-Left’s canonized saint, Italian firebrand Antonio Gramsci who wrote his most potent social poison in prison.
“There is another reason for Gramsci’s canonization, however. He provided the theory that promised both to solve the problem of ‘so-called great men’, and also to establish the intellectual’s right to govern. In The Modern Prince and other writings from his prison years he moved on from Leninist sloganizing and devoted himself to the task of reconciling the Marxist theory of history and society with a philosophy of political action. Gramsci referred to his theory as ‘the philosophy of praxis’, and developed it in opposition to the ‘vulgar materialism’ of Bukharin.”
It may be that the matter/spirit dialectic that Hegel twisted into a transcendental pretzel actually is the poison tree of modern western philosophy and its cultural fruit. It may be right and proper that Marx tried to chop it down. Sir Scruton will have none of that balderdash, tommyrot, eyewash speculation. Ultimately, that is the major defect in the two hundred and eighty-eight pages of this seductive decapitation of the Marxian ‘nonsense machine.’ But if that is the only defect in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, then we can cut Scruton some slack. After all, there’s just so much turgid nonsense a philosopher can wade through in a single book.
One final matter of some importance. In the last two chapters, 9 and 10, Professor Scruton correlates New Left’s Marxian religion with today’s constant upheaval, by balkanized mobs demanding special rights rather than equal rights. If you can’t quite imagine why these eternal dissenters, itinerant protesters, occupiers of streets, buildings, bridges, and universities cannot be appeased or mollified, then you haven’t analyzed Žižek.
Today, the default political correctness requires the intellectuals and workers to unite and ‘stand up’ for x, y, or z. It really doesn’t matter what cause x, y, or z reference, just as long as law and society is disrupted, resisted, and hopefully destroyed completely making way for a classless, genderless, Godless, workers’ paradise. Scruton illuminates the cause. It’s the constant state of ‘revolution’ of ‘us’ (the 99%) against ‘them’ (the 1%) necessary to destroy the capitalist bourgeoisie society that created them, educated them, and trusted them to seek truth. Instead, there is a ’constant struggle’ for only power since there is no other ‘truth.’ Might makes ‘right,’ and the only thing that matters is are you on the ‘right’ side of the revolution to overthrow the enslaving bourgeoises.
“Repeatedly in what follows we will encounter the Newspeak of left-leaning thinkers. Where conservatives and old-fashioned liberals speak of authority, government and institutions, those on the left refer to power and domination. Laws and offices play only a marginal part in the left-wing vision of political life, while classes, powers and the forms of control are invoked as the root phenomena of the civil order, together with the ‘ideology’ that mystifies those things and rescues them from judgement. Newspeak represents the political process as a constant ‘struggle’ concealed by fictions of legitimacy and allegiance. Peel away the ideology, and the ‘truth’ of politics is revealed. The truth is power, and the hope of deposing it.”
In “What is Right?,” the final chapter, Sir Roger answers the obvious criticism that any intelligent reader has been mulling for the prior 273 pages. With his blistering refutation of those Marxian priests that have taken perpetual vows to tear down society, has not Sir Roger become just like them offering nothing positive and only negative complaints? To say that he rises to the challenge would be an injustice. In quick bold brush strokes, Scruton paints the vibrant, textured landscape of representation and law resting on objective principles of individual human nature, individual freedom, acceptance of human imperfection while striving to avoid it, freedom to buy or sell your labor, goods or services, freedom to join a group or not, freedom to organize a union or fund a corporation, freedom to worship a God if you will it, freedom to risk with potential for reward, freedom to enjoy the prospect of success and/or failure at the mercy of reality, truth, goodness, and beauty.
The reader can actually read just that last chapter and still drink the deep waters of philosophical wisdom between the covers of this book. It remains one of the only works in print which defends the notion that our individual life of ideas in not the sole province of the New Left apostles in the academy. He may be right, but not by half.