Written 3 May 2021
I had “something by Roger Scruton” on my list of books to read this year and have managed it. I’ve become more interested in Roger Scruton over the last few years and have come to see him as a thinker who touches on very important themes and deserves to be taken seriously, not least because he is at least able to articulate what a political conservative is, a task that seems to be beyond all politicians standing for notionally conservative parties. When I was growing up in the 1980s he was, with a small group of others, a despised figure for the Left (to whom I then belonged), and regarded as being extremely, dangerously right wing. Other members of this group were Keith Joseph (mad) and, of course, Margaret Thatcher herself.
Anyway, having listened to a few interviews and read articles over recent years I decided it was time to read a book by him and chose this one. Scruton takes us on a tour through the thinkers, rather than the politicians, of the European and American Left, with chapters devoted to Britain, the US, France, Germany, then back to consider the soixante-huitards and then Gramsci and Said.
I found the book rather heavy going to be honest. As you’d expect from a philosopher, it is wordy and detailed, and does take the ideas being analysed seriously. There is no pulling of punches: Scruton does admit where he thinks thinkers are on to something, but also where he thinks their ideas are simply incomprehensible or nonsense.
I did not find this book particularly easy to read: I studied a module of basic philosophy as an undergraduate and that was very much enough for me. Scruton lingers on details of the subjects’ thoughts in more detail than I really needed or wanted: generally for my purposes the chapters could each have lost 20 pages and been better for it. I’d not read the works of any of the thinkers considered (though I think I dipped into EP Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” many years ago along with Edward Said’s “Orientalism”), and to be honest after this I’m pretty sure I won’t. The final chapter “What is Right” does attempt to round off the things and move on from the negativity of the main part by setting out an alternative to the thoughts of those he has spent the first part analysing and this I found easier.
It is worthwhile to read a book like this, if only to organise one’s own thoughts a bit better. It gives a bit of a framework and sheds light on assumptions behind the political debates of today. The question of whether we can say the thinkers reviewed have been successful is interesting too. I’ll set the French aside, I found them impenetrable and suspect they are actually rather boring and not really serious for practical purposes, but broadly I’d say the thinkers who attached themselves to the Soviet Union (e.g. Hobsbawm) have come up very short, the world is not as they see it and never will be and they will be in history’s dustbin soon enough. I think Gramsci and Said have had much more success, we see the influence of their thinking in a demoralisation and degradation of Western political culture and institutions, and it is the chapter that covers them that seems to have most relevance to us today. Said articulating a relativistic view which when taken to extremes means babies are thrown out with bathwater. Gramsci a Marxist who seems to be able to see how a dictatorship of the masses could actually be achieved through mainly intellectual and technocratic elites.
Clearly, Scruton is not a sympathetic reviewer of the political philosophies he is trying to analyse and explain, but he is honest in this. Themes emerge from his criticisms: the seeming compulsion on the Left to categorise, define, to demarcate thought, to close out alternative views and opposition and above all to pursue power to implement a rather abstracted, ideological vision of a new society. To view human life and society in terms of class, structures, ideas, visions and above all power: how to gain it and how to use it. A relentless, single minded, remorseless and unforgiving energy devoted to the political project, which in the end is nothing other than humans and human society itself. Ultimately for these thinkers of the Left there is really nothing but the political project, a perfectly consistent, self referring edifice that is unimpeachable to those within it but largely nonsense to those without.
I’m pretty much with Scruton on this: I find the Left increasingly unappetising as I grow older and am happier more and more to listen to and give credit to conservative viewpoints. I’m glad I read the book, and will perhaps read another one by him in time, but it will be a while before I read another philosopher talking philosophy.