A Very British Hatchet Job - The Los Angeles Review of Books: "
Clement Knox on Fools, Frauds and Firebrands : Thinkers of the New Left
A Very British Hatchet Job
January 18th, 2016 RESET - +
BETWEEN 1790 AND 1793, William Blake, then living on Hercules Road in South London, composed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. A manifesto that took its political inspiration from the revolutionary ferment ongoing across the Channel, and its literary stylings from the Bible and John Milton, this work — aphoristic, obscure, reveling in dialectical language games — contains some of Blake’s most memorable lines (such as his observation that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”) and guaranteed his reputation as one of Britain’s strangest literary talents. Over a century and a half later, in the midst of a very different revolution, Blake’s mantras would become the slogans for protesting students across the West. His observation that the “tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” would be scrawled on radical walls from Prague to Oakland, California, while his famous reflection on the “doors of perception” would be borrowed for the names of Aldous Huxley’s mescaline memoir and Jim Morrison’s psychedelic rock group.
The popularization of explicitly antilogical political sloganeering in the 1960s had its literary roots in the word games of the Dadaists, the provocations of the Surrealists, and the cool disenchantment of the Beat poets. However, the techniques’ political roots were rather different. Since the 1930s, left-wing thinkers such as Gramsci, Sartre, and Marcuse had grappled with the stubborn survival of market capitalism, analyzing how this exploitative system had created structures and systems of power that perpetuated its hegemony over the toiling masses. In America the postwar intellectual popularity of the Existentialists and the Frankfurt School meant that these ideas were now alive on college campuses in a period when the number of enrolled students jumped fourfold to six million from 1945 to 1968. In addition, they were given credence by events in the real world. The convulsions of the civil rights movement, the ferocity of the Vietnam War, and the deadening complacency of the technocratic elite in power all proved to growing numbers of students that there was a larger logic of power at work that could not be negotiated with. Students for a Democratic Society leader Carl Oglesby spoke in 1965 of being “trapped in a system,” the same year his colleague Paul Potter spoke of an “incredible war in Vietnam” made possible by a system that “trampled upon those things of value which give dignity and purpose to life”; the year before, at Berkeley, Mario Savio told a huge crowd that “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart […] you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop.”
By 1968, a few years and a generation away, the tigers of wrath were out in force, and were not interested in practicing a politics premised on the art of the possible. In Chicago for the Democratic Convention, protesters shouted their support for the Viet Cong, and the Yippies selected a pig as their presidential candidate. About the same time in Paris students took over the Sorbonne and covered the walls with Blakean proverbs. They were soon visited by the old guard Existentialists keen to take intellectual credit for the “events” of that year. Touring her alma mater on one such outing, Simone de Beauvoir noted her particular enthusiasm for the slogan “il est interdit d’interdire” — “it is forbidden to forbid.”
It was in Paris, in 1968, that Roger Scruton, a British writer and philosopher, had his Damascene conversion to small-c conservatism that set him on a trajectory for, in his words, a “life beyond the pale” of institutionalized academia. The setting for his epiphany sounds improbably picturesque. He told The Guardian in 2000 that it was while watching, from the safety of his garret window of course, students in the Latin Quarter tear up cobblestones to use as ammunition against the police that he realized,
I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it […] That’s when I became a conservative.
Reading Scruton, one realizes that it was that last part, the Marxist gobbledegook, that really exorcised him. His prodigious output since then — 40 or so works of nonfiction, seven novels, two librettos, and a BBC documentary — have been volleys in his lonely intellectual war against what he sees as the academic and philosophical shortcomings of left-wing thinking in the 20th century.
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, originally published in 1985 as Thinkers of the New Left, is a reprise of his central intellectual effort to prove canonical left-wing academics either wrong or unscholarly, or both, on their own terms. "
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