One of the most difficult, but also most necessary, tasks that conservatives face is attempting to examine, dissect, and understand leftist thinking. That task is, admittedly, distasteful. It involves scouring and closely reading incomprehensible books and passages, spending time with works that attack religion and traditional views of sex, putting up with reading line after line of abuse leveled against conservatism and traditional views, and a good bit of head-scratching as you try to figure out what, if anything, they are attempting to say.
Luckily for us, Roger Scruton did just that; he did the painful reading and examining that someone needed to, but that all of us were loathe to. His analysis of those thinkers, if they can even be called that, and their texts, is what Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands is about; it is a concise but information-packed book that tells you most of what you need to do about the leftist intellectuals that have created the new left.
Summary of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands by Roger Scruton
Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands is, at its core, a book that tackles the immense and mostly thankless task of compiling and examining leftist works.
In chapter after painful chapter, Roger Scruton, a British conservative and academic, examines past leftist thinkers and their writings and exposes them for the frauds they are. His main thesis, which he provides evidence for throughout the book (something the leftists in it seem unable of doing), is that the twin liberal orders of “liberation” and “social justice” are empty slogans and collapsible newspeak. In other words, his view is that both those terms and the academic-sounding terms that leftists use to defend them are meaningless jargon meant only to confuse us into silence or diminish our faith in traditional beliefs and values.
He also answers a simple, related question. How did the core idea of Western culture and law change from individual natural rights, seeking truth, to contrived group rights, in pursuit of power?
His evidence is organized into chapters that topic specific schools of thought or leftist thinkers from specific time periods and areas that in some way contributed to the new left and its understanding of “liberation” and “social justice.”
In the first chapter he exposed how by focusing on language and acadmic sounding battles, today’s left has used “bureaucratic routines and the institutionalization of the welfare culture” to promote the twin goals of social justice and liberation by way of “legislation, committees, and government commissions.”
Then, in a chapter entitled “Disdain in America: Galbraith and Dworkin,” Scruton examines leftist intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith and his book The Affluent Society, exposing Galbraith’s unfair and incorrect assumptions about a market economy and the American system before next exposing how the defense Dworkin and other leftists made in defense of rioters was selective; it was meant to apply only to leftist rioters, not similar actions from the right, something we saw with the left’s reaction to the Reichstag Fire of 2021. In that same chapter of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Scruton exposes Dworkin’s ideas for what they are: an attack on individual rights.
After that lengthy attack on Dworkin and Galbraith for their many intellectual and moral shortcomings, Scruton delves into the philosophies of Sartre and Foucault, both of whom he demolishes in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. For example, on page 105, Scruton shows how despite the suspicion Foucalt and Satre had of basic human decencies as shown by their concept of the Gaze, Foucault later retreated from that Gaze in the final days of his life, acting hypocritically in a hospital he had formerly slandered and maliciously criticized.
Next, in a chapter of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands entitled “Tedium in Germany: Downhill to Habermas,” Scruton makes a key observation about the works of Habermas that could be used to describe the writings of most any subject of the book: “To extract the meaning from Habermas is additionally difficult on account of the structure of his books, which are composed of loosely connected chapters with no argument sustained…Each chapter reads like an assignment composed by a committee appointed to consider some matter towards which is members are largely indifferent.”
That observation, along with his other criticisms of Habermas’s unoriginal and uninspiring works, shows the nature of the works discussed within Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. They are unoriginal, full of useless ramblings, and struggle to make a point at all, much less effectively.
Returning to France in “Nonsense in Paris: Althusser, Lacan, and Deleuze,” Scruton uses the works of those three men and the tragedy of Althusser killing his wife because of her “revisionism” to make a salient point about the nature of Marxism and the New Left. Theirs is a system that eschews any form of compromise and that leads only to tragedy.
As said by Scruton on page 173 of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, “The tragic outcome of Althusser’s pilgrimage into the heart of darkness seems like the domestic re-creation of the tragedy suffered by the peoples of Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Eastern Europe. It is the tragedy that inevitably follows, when paranoid suspicion displaces the natural law of compromise.”
The seventh and best chapter of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands tackles the concept of the culture war as it was developed and fought by Gramsci, the founder of Cultural Marxism. Scruton’s description of that development is powerful and wholly accurate:
“The…nonsense machine was used to mount a ballistic assault on the bourgeois culture, throwing dense blocks of impenetrable Newspeak over the battlements into the public square of the besieged city. The effect was to destroy the conversation on which civil society depends….[However] the principal weapon was not the impenetrable Newspeak that reached its apogee in Deleuze but the common-sense sociology of Antonio Gramsci. It was from this sociological approach that the cultural ideas of the New Left in Britain and America largely derived.”
In other words, Gramsci and his ideas were dangerous because, unlike the ideas of the Newspeak-speaking leftists of chapters past, he made his ideas seem like common-sense, thus making them more useful to agents of the left in the West.
Finally, Scruton ends Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands by describing what the current culture war situation is and why the left’s attacks have become so vitriolic. As he says on page 285,
“Almost all the thinkers I have discussed in this book have adopted the same annihilating approach to their opponents…For the opponent is the class enemy. Should he put his head above the parapet in the culture wars he is not to be argued with, for he cannot utter truth…Such an enemy is not to be the object of negotiation or compromise. Only after his final elimination from the social order will the truth be possible.”
That is why the left will not attempt to “unify” with the right. That’s why AOC wants a list of Trump supporters. It’s why Parler’s rise was not tolerated. It’s why they defend, as every post-Stalin leftist intellectual in this book did, the horrible crimes committed by communist regimes and brushed off the millions murdered by communism as meaningless. The New Left accepts no dissent and takes no prisoners.
This summary is by no means a full account of the book, but is rather an initial explanation to help you understand its content and what ideas are expressed and demolished in it.
My Take on Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands by Roger Scruton
Overall, I liked Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. Scruton is witty and his mastery of the English language shines through in this caustic and fun book. He pulls no punches and launches masterful literary attacks on the subjects of the book, but also gives credit where credit is due. Some of their scholarship, for example, was well done despite the false conclusions they drew from it.
However, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands does suffer from a few flaws.
One is the limited nature of those discussed. Scruton spends huge swathes of the book discussing some leftist thinkers whose ideas are indecipherable because of how sloppily written and poorly expressed they were, but spends only a limited amount of time interrogating the views of some of the more comprehendible thinkers of the New Left.
Gramsci is given a chapter, but, other than him, most of those discussed are leftists that might have had some impact, but are generally philosophers whose works are known only in academics rather than thinkers who made their ideas useful to the average dim-witted leftist. Bill Ayers, for example, is left unmentioned, as is Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals. Both of those men made far more of an impact than some of the others discussed in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands.
Similarly, a problem with Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands is that it relies so heavily on direct quotations from the works discussed. Normally, that would be a good thing. But, because they are so non-sensical and poorly written, Scruton’s heavy use of them makes some of his chapters appear poorly written. That’s a minor point, and perhaps an unfair one, but it was an impression I kept returning to. To keep the book readable, Scruton should have summarized more than he quoted. His masterful use of English is such that doing so would make it a far more effective attack.
Other than those few issues, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands is quite excellent. Scruton demolishes the arguments made by each leftist thinker and exposes them for what they were: delusional, bitter fools that could not formulate a coherent argument.
Thanks to its heavy reliance on direct quotations from almost unreadable leftist sources, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands is a dense and difficult book to read. From the first page, that is obvious.
However, it is also an important one to read. Conservatives need to understand the threat posed by the New Left and the ideological origins of that culture war enemy. Scruton, with his obvious understanding of those thinkers, past philosophers such as Hegel and Plato, and excellent use of English will help you understand that threat.
By: Gen Z Conservative