‘These left thinkers have destroyed the intellectual life’
The philosopher talks to Mick Hume about politics, marriage and Islam.
Ours is an age of intellectual conformism, in which expressing offensive opinions often seems to be deemed the worst offence of all; academia is decreed a ‘safe space’ where ‘uncomfortable’ ideas are banished, and using the wrong word can see you accused of committing a ‘microaggression’. And you are supposed to apologise at the first sign of a wagging finger.
Roger Scruton apparently didn’t get the memo. During our conversation, the conservative philosopher gently but unapologetically delivered blunt and cutting opinions on subjects ranging from Slavoj Zizek to Jeremy Corbyn, from banning the veil to Islamist terrorism, from homosexuality to fox hunting. Whatever anybody thinks of his views, they should surely endorse his aversion to the ‘radical censorship of anything that disturbs people’ and his insistence that the controversial ‘needs to be discussed’ rather than continually ‘pushed under the carpet’.
Now 71, Scruton has been the bête noire of British left intellectuals for more than 30 years, and gives them another beastly mauling in his new book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. It is a tour de force that, the introduction concedes, is ‘not a word-mincing book’, but rather ‘a provocation’. In just under 300 pages he Scruton-izes a collection of stars, past and present, of the radical Western intelligentsia – the likes of Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson in Britain, JK Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin in the US, Jurgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze in Europe. An expanded and updated version of his controversial Thinkers of the New Left (1985), the book ends with a new chapter entitled ‘The kraken wakes’ dealing with the ‘mad incantations’ of Alan Badiou and the left’s marginally newer academic celebrity, the Slovenian Zizek.
The slightly pained look on his face suggests that I am not the first to ask Scruton why he has devoted a book to taking on a collection of largely declining or deceased intellectuals and a culture that he concedes ‘now survives largely in its academic redoubts’. ‘They may seem like obscure intellectuals to the man in the street but actually they are still dominant on the humanities curriculum’, he explains. ‘If you study English or French, even musicology or whatever, you have to swallow a whole load of Lacan and Deleuze. Take Deleuze’s book, A Thousand Plateaus – the English translation has only been out a few years, but it’s already gone through 11 printings. A huge, totally unreadable tome by somebody who can’t write French.’
‘Yet this is core curriculum throughout the humanities in American and English universities. Why? The one sole reason is it’s on the left. There is nothing that anybody can translate into lucid prose, but for that very reason, it seems like a suit of armour around the age-old prejudices against power and authority, the old unshaped and unshapeable agenda.’
Defending academic freedom against the forces of conformity matters to Scruton because ‘My life began, insofar as it had a beginning, in the university. That’s where I grew up, and I love my subject, philosophy, love the whole idea of the academic and scholarly life, that one has a place apart where people are pursuing the truth and communicating that to people who are eager to learn it. And this thing has completely destroyed the intellectual life.’ He considers these leftists prime culprits in what might be called the closing of the university mind, though ‘whether they caused the closing of the mind or are the effect of it is another matter’.
Scruton’s powerful aversion to ‘the French gurus of ’68 and their jargon-ridden prose’ dates from that student revolt in Paris in 1968. It gave birth to a generation of radical thinkers, and, in the process, helped turn at least one young Englishman into a conservative. ‘I was there in Paris and I was indignant at the stupidity of what I observed. I was a normal young person in England, I was brought up in a Labour Party family and as far as I had any views they’d be vaguely on the left.’ His father was a working-class lad from Manchester who became a schoolteacher and moved his family south, where Scruton attended High Wycombe Royal Grammar School, played bass guitar and listened to The Beatles before being expelled shortly after winning a scholarship to Cambridge University. ‘But I’d been very influenced as a teenager by TS Eliot and FR Leavis, who put culture at the centre of the their vision. They understood that culture in a way that now would be described as elitist, as an initiation into something higher than where you were. I thought the culture of our civilisation was something intrinsically valuable – I still think that. And something that is worth making distinctions in order to preserve. So that was moving me in a conservative direction.
‘But when I was in Paris in ’68 I became indignant at the total ignorance of the people who tried to tell me that this revolution was something important. I couldn’t argue with them about the thing that really mattered to me, culture. To them that was just “bourgeois”. This word bourgeois really got up my nose. I decided, yes, of course there is such a thing as the bourgeoisie and you are it, these well-fed, pampered middle-class students whose one concern was to throw stones at working-class people who happened to be in a policeman’s uniform.’
Some might also suspect the new book of settling old scores. The first version of Thinkers of the New Left was, Scruton now reflects, ‘a disaster’, a key moment in his ousting from respectable academic life. ‘I never envisaged that I could be attacked in quite such a violent way. My previous book The Meaning of Conservatism had prepared the way – that was an outspoken and provocative book – so I was already persona non grata in academic circles. But for me to attack the people on whom the whole new curriculum was founded was regarded not just as an insult; it was also necessary to show that this was the product of a small, benighted mind. So that was made into the theme, and it was quite difficult to deal with. But it was fun in the end, of course. One can’t worry too much about what others say about you.’
That Eighties furore proved ‘the beginning of the end’ for his British university career – he was professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck at the time. Scruton went to Eastern Europe to encourage the intellectual dissidents against the Stalinist regime, and received the Czech state’s highest civilian honour after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. He moved temporarily to America, too, as professor of philosophy at Boston University. Nowadays he is based back in Blighty, a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University, and fighting a rearguard action against the new left’s domination of the academic and intellectual life.
At the end of the book, Scruton asks why this unrepresentative group of left intellectuals has achieved such ascendancy, and offers some reasons. As I point out, he does not suggest that one reason might be the paucity of conservative intellectuals, present company excluded of course.
‘I agree there is a paucity of conservative thought. It is partly the effect of the dominance of the left. If you come out as a conservative in a university context, you will find yourself very much on the margins. But my main explanation of this is that conservative thought is difficult. It doesn’t consist of providing fashionable slogans or messages of hope and marching into the future with clenched fists and all the things that automatically get a following. It consists in careful, sceptical rumination on the near-impossibility of human existence in the first place.’
In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands Scruton attacks the left idea of thought for a cause, ‘politics with a GOAL’. By contrast, he tells me, ‘Conservatives are by their nature people who are trying to defend and maintain existence without a cause’. Simply to keep things as they are? ‘We obviously all want to change things, but recognising that human life is an end in itself and not a means to replace itself with something else. And defending institutions and compromises is a very difficult and unexciting thing. But nevertheless it’s the truth.’
For Scruton, the left intellectuals’ apparent attachment to a higher cause only disguises what they really stand for: ‘Nothing.’ He writes that ‘when, in the works of Lacan, Deleuze and Althusser, the nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had “capitalism” as their target, it looked as though Nothing had at last found its voice’. More recently, ‘the windbaggery of Zizek and the nonsemes of Badiou’ exist only ‘to espouse a single and absolute cause’, which ‘admits of no compromise’ and ‘offers redemption to all who espouse it’. The name of that cause? ‘The answer is there on every page of these fatuous writings: Nothing.’
So, what is all this Nothing-ness about? ‘My view’, says Scruton, ‘is that what’s underlying all of this is a kind of nihilistic vision that masks itself as a moving toward the enlightened future, but never pauses to describe what that society will be like. It simply loses itself in negatives about the existing things – institutional relations like marriage, for instance – but never asks itself if those existing things are actually part of what human beings are. Always in Zizek there’s an assumption of the right to dismiss them as standing in the way of something else, but that something else turns out to be Nothing.’
We agree to disagree about his suggestion of there being a dreadful left continuum from the French revolution to today (me being not only a fan of past revolutions but an old historical materialist who believes in seeing things in their specific contexts). However, his book does acknowledge that something important has changed about leftwing thinking: ‘Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratised.’
‘Whatever we think about the revolutions’, he says, ‘the original slogan of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité – was just a slogan, and nobody troubled to ask themselves whether liberté and égalité were compatible in practice. Really the subsequent history has been an illustration of that conflict between them.
‘But these great ideals, for which people did fight and die, were changed under the pressure of 20th-century politics into bureaucratic processes, that are constantly equalising, constantly passing little bits of legislation to ensure that anybody is not discriminating, not standing out, not learning something that puts them in a higher category than anybody else. And, likewise, liberté has been bureaucratised in the sense that it doesn’t any more represent the freedom of people to break out, to do the thing that they really want to do. Rather it’s conceived as a form of empowerment – the state gives you this in the form of vouchers or privileges, privileges, for example, that you might have as a gay, or a woman, or an ethnic minority. So in all these ways, both those ideals have ceased to be ideals and become the property of the state, to distribute among people according to the fashion of the day.’
Some 15 years ago, reviewing his book England: An Elegy, I suggested that perhaps Scruton could be the lost leader of the British left, since he shared some of their conservative, nostalgic national prejudices (and expressed them rather more eloquently). Now, of course, the Labour left has turned to a different sort of traditionalist, the state socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Scruton, unsurprisingly, is no fan of Corbyn or of the ‘idiocy’ of allowing activists to choose party leaders. ‘He was not elected by the parliamentary party but by people who have the luxury of sounding off without the responsibility of answering for it. Corbyn represents the idiocy of direct democracy, and the culture of resentment that takes advantage of it.’
What, then, of the state of the right? Scruton’s previous book was How to be a Conservative (2014). That seems to be something many Tories find difficult today, despite their victory in the May General Election. ‘The election result revealed a very important truth’, insists Scruton. ‘The media, the academy and everything are essentially trying to portray the Conservative movement as evil, just out for themselves, all the usual caricatures. The election showed that people know in their hearts that it’s not true.’
But hold on, it would be hard to claim the election as an outpouring of heartfelt enthusiasm for the Conservatives. ‘No, of course, there’s no enthusiasm for the Conservative movement any more. Although when I express it, there is sometimes enthusiasm among young people – I really have a following, which is surprising. But the Conservative Party’s made the mistake of ignoring me. For years, I have worked hard to express things in a language that Conservatives could use if they only troubled to think it through. But they don’t.’ Do the likes of Cameron and Osborne even pass his ‘how to be a conservative’ test? ‘Well, yes, they are in their instincts, definitely. Osborne is quite an intelligent person, and so I think is Cameron. But let’s say they don’t have a grasp of the sort of complex sociological and philosophical vision that I would like them to have.’
Scruton’s preferred ‘sociological and philosophical vision’ for conservatism would involve a moral code as well as market economics. ‘The question of maintaining a serious moral order while allowing economic freedom has, I think, troubled people right from the beginning of history, and has always been a tension within conservative thinkers, going right back to [Edmund] Burke. The traditional way of reconciling these two things was through religion, which would remove certain things from the market. Sex is removed from the market and made into a religious ceremony, and parent-child relations, education, etc. I think that’s the great benefit that religion has deferred on people down the centuries. Take it away now and we don’t know quite what’s going to happen.’
And what of the Tory government’s modernising moral policies – as symbolised by its enthusiasm for legalising gay marriage? ‘The arguments in favour of offering something to a previously disprivileged group are all very well and they do have weight. But much more important is the effect of this on the institution of marriage. My view is that here we need some serious anthropology. You have to recognise that rites of passage are not personal possessions, they are possessions of the whole community, they are the ways in which the community defines itself and defines its obligation towards the next generation. So you don’t make these radical, metaphysical alterations to an institution such as marriage without there being long-term consequences. And nobody seemed to want to talk about the long-term consequences.’
The issue for a Christian such as Scruton is what, for example, might his marriage and his sacred vows to his wife Sophie mean now, in the light of these changes. ‘And my marriage means my children as much as my wife, and those children are the product of our union and our whole being on this earth is vindicated in them. That, of course, can’t be reproduced now in quite the same way.’
While opposed to any discrimination against homosexuals today, he retains characteristically unfashionable attitudes. ‘What I say in my book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), I still think. But it’s much more dangerous to say it now. My view then was that first of all – oh why not say it, you know, I’m old now – homosexuality is not one thing. Lesbianism is usually an attempt by a woman to find that committed love that she can’t get from men any more. Because men exploit women and move on. So it’s very often a reaction to that sort of disappointment. Whereas male homosexuality, because it’s not constrained by a woman’s need to fix a man down, is hugely promiscuous – the statistics are quite horrifying. And there’s also the obsession with the sexual organs rather than the relationship, this vector towards phallicism, the obsession with the young, all kinds of things like that, which mean that, as I see it, homosexual desire, especially between men, is not the same kind of thing as heterosexual desire, even though it’s not a perversion.
‘This doesn’t mean you’re condemning people or that they should be discriminated against. But nor should we old-fashioned, sad heterosexuals, minority interest though we might be, be deprived of those institutions that we have built out of our self-sacrificing forms of love. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say now between you and me, but it isn’t a perfectly reasonable thing to say or a possible thing to say in public any more.’ You do realise Roger, I remind him with a nod at my voice recorder, that you are saying it in public? ‘Yeah yeah, I don’t care any more.’
Something Scruton does still care about is the conflict between Western civilisation and Islamists, as highlighted by the massacres in Paris. ‘I have for the past 30 years made a point of advocating the integration of immigrant communities as the main task, and that schoolteachers should be encouraged to do this. It’s jolly hard but still we have to try. And we didn’t try. On the contrary, people on the left accused you of racism if you even suggested it.’ Indeed, Scruton had a bitter experience of this in the Eighties when his conservative journal the Salisbury Review published a notorious article by Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford, arguing that the celebration of multiculturalism in schools, and the failure to insist on speaking English, was failing children of all communities. ‘That destroyed my career as effectively as the book on the new left, but I would still adhere to [the idea of integration].’
Scruton is too smart to support anything as idiotic as Donald Trump’s proposed religion test to bar all Muslims from the US. But he does have his own suggested test for Muslims in the UK to pass. ‘[Muslims] have to be confronted with the fact that this is how you behave [in the UK]: you don’t treat women like this, you don’t hide your face in public. The French have been very good about that.’ Does he think a French-style ban on the veil would be a good idea, then? ‘Totally, because we’re a face-to-face society, which defines our relations with each other through the idea of the I-thou relationship – I’m taking responsibility, looking you in your eyes.’
Some of us might think the problem is less about getting Muslims in the UK to sign up to a set of agreed British values than it is about wider British society deciding what those common values might be. If, for example, we truly believe in freedom and tolerance, it would surely be better to criticise and even condemn something like the veil rather than ask the state to ban it outright. ‘Possibly, possibly’, Scruton sort-of concedes, ‘but it needs to be discussed. Everything has been pushed under the carpet and not discussed and what we’re seeing is the inevitable result.’
Staying on the domestic front, the West’s loss of faith in its own values has led to various attacks on free speech, as documented on spiked. This has prompted Scruton of late to write in defence of the right to be offensive, against ‘people just cultivating the art of being offended before knowing beforehand what is actually going to offend them’. ‘We’ve got to stand up not only for free speech, for the individual, but also for all that we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment and from Christianity, too. Why should we turn our backs on any of it? The thing that produced Beethoven and George Eliot and Tolstoy, what are we supposed to be defending? I don’t want to close down free speech in response. I think we will have to close down a lot of public movement in order to trace the terrorists, there are all sorts of difficulties but no, certainly not to give way to what they want. I mean, really, when it comes to things like the cartoons of the Prophet, they should be publicly displayed, and their alleged offensiveness discussed by those who have an issue with it. As it is, we have no idea what the fuss is about. Are we being asked to deny that the Koran can be interpreted as an incitement? That the Prophet was a warrior? That there is such a thing as Jihad of which we infidels might be the target? Censorship is effectively encouraging Muslims not to take the critical attitude to their religion that we all need, and they most of all.’
Nobody, however, should mistake Scruton for some sort of wild libertarian or a supporter of spiked’s view on the primacy of human freedom. ‘I think that obedience, properly understood, is if not the highest virtue (that would make me an Islamist) the one that is presupposed by all the others – obedience to the law, to morality, to authority, to those you love and those who depend on you. That is what freedom consists in, as Kant wisely saw.’
One freedom Scruton has long been associated with is the freedom to hunt foxes with hounds; he had been riding out with the hunt earlier that day, following a trail laid by a man rather than a fox to comply with the hunting ban. He has five horses on his Wiltshire farm, where he has reinvented himself as a countryman over the past 20 years. But his fondness for hunting and ‘high’ culture, coupled with his disdain for such popular pastimes as football and television, has led to accusations of snobbery. This seems to annoy Scruton almost as much as if he were called a socialist. ‘My interest in hunting stems from a love of horses and the countryside, and our hunt consists largely of farmers, and has few if any toffs.’ He thinks that those who use the word ‘snob’ as a term of abuse ‘are thereby accusing themselves of the very fault they claim to discern’, by looking down their noses at others. As for cultural snobbery, ‘Have I got to be threatened with the concentration camp in order to like popular culture when most of it is self-evidently trash? Think what George Orwell would say. But also look at the extended praise of heavy metal in my novel The Disappeared.’ Careful Roger, or they’ll be calling you a head-banger.
More than a decade ago I became probably the first and possibly the last old libertarian Marxist to go on a family visit to the Scrutons’ Sunday Hill farm, our small daughters gambolling about in the field and on horseback with their little Sam and Lucy (well, there was no TV to watch indoors). The Scruton offspring are away at boarding school now. ‘They’re both extremely happy there’, he says, adding with a typically wry smile, ‘I see them every now and then’.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, Sophie Scruton has started a business selling locally made artisan cheeses (the rural equivalent of London’s booming craft-beer industry). Athelstan Farmfoods takes its name from ‘the king who was crowned here in Malmesbury after he defeated the Danes, the first king of all England’. Perhaps somebody will soon have to crown Roger Scruton as the last English conservative intellectual standing.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(USA) and Amazon(UK).)
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Policy Exchange, published under a creative commons license.