About Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is http://www.roger-scruton.com/.
Articles by Roger Scruton
This week's editor
The heavyweight guide to Ukraine
A few weeks ago I was at a dinner in Bucharest, hosted by a small centre-right think-tank, at which the discussion focused on the continuing dominance in western universities of certain familiar styles of intellectual subversion: postmodernism, Michel Foucault, American feminism and the occasional bureaucratised version of these things in Jürgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.
Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and
public commentator. Among his recent books are Gentle
Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005); News
from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006); Culture Counts: Faith
and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007); A
Dictionary of Political Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2007); Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009); Understanding
Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (Continuum, 2009); and I
Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine (Continuum, 2009). His website is here
Roger Scruton's many articles in openDemocracy include:
"Maurice Cowling's achievement" (26 August 2005)
"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)
"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)
"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)
"England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007)
"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007)
"Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007)
"Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008)
"Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within" (7 August 2008)
Most of those present had spent time in a western university, and all had been troubled by the curriculum they had encountered there. In their eyes the western curriculum seems to have no other appeal than that which comes from deconstructing the forms of authority and order which have come down to us from our Judaeo-Christian culture. And yet that appeal is enough: nothing else seems required for academic legitimacy, and even if you write the kind of constipated sociologese of a Habermas or a Giddens, you can be guaranteed a position by those who would read you only so far as to extract the subversive and postmodern message.
Someone put on the table a copy of the first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, which had that day appeared for the first time in Romanian, and invited us all to contemplate it. The question on everybody's lips was "How did he get away with it?" How did Leszek Kolakowski not only survive coming into the open with the most devastating critique of Marxism and its intellectual fellow-travellers in existence, but go on to enjoy an academic career of unparalleled success in western universities, becoming a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, winning the MacArthur "genius" prize, normally reserved for prominent leftists, and the million-dollar John W Kluge prize for a lifetime's achievement in the humanities? He picked up honorary degrees and awards by the score, and retired to a comfortable life in Oxford, there to write books on subjects normally held to be marginal, if not shocking, by the liberal establishment - topics such as man's religious need, the concept of the sacred, and the need for a counter-Enlightenment in defining our spiritual home.
I was not able to answer the question. For I too have always been puzzled by Kolakowski's unorthodox journey. He fled Poland in 1968, part of an intellectual exodus that later included Włodzimierz Brus - whose continued adherence to Marxism facilitated an extended career in Oxford, having nothing else to recommend him to the English intellectual establishment. While Brus achieved only a brief moment of vicarious notoriety, when the attempt was made in the late 1990s to extradite his wife to Poland to stand trial for her alleged crimes during the Stalinist period, Kolakowski went from strength to strength.
The grand survey
Main Currents of Marxism began appearing in English in 1978, and made little impact on the curriculum in London University, where I was teaching, and where philosophy students had the chance to take an option in Marxism. The official view was that this book was a piece of marginal continental baggage, left over from 19th-century ways of seeing things. Kolakowski, it was said, had failed to see the real scientific potential of the Marxist vision, and his book was far too mired in literary controversies to deserve close attention.
Elsewhere, however, the impact of Main Currents began to be felt. It was impossible to dismiss it as a mere anti-communist diatribe: Kolakowski had himself been a Marxist, had joined the Communist Party in the period of post-war reconstruction, and had for a while shared the illusion of many Poles that communism offered the only secular alternative to fascism - the only way of organising a modern society that would remove oppressive relations between people and ensure some kind of social justice overall. He had grown away from communism, like most of his countrymen, in a state of disillusion rather than contempt, and had meanwhile read widely and deeply in the Marxist literature, so that Main Currents remains the most comprehensive survey of Marxism in existence, and one that traces the intellectual roots of the Marxist idea right back to tendencies in western thinking that were already revealed in the Enneads of Plotinus.
Most impressive, in my view, is the third volume of the work, in which Kolakowski directs his attention to the post-war forms of intellectual Marxism which were reshaping the western curriculum, and which were the real cause of those changes which had so appalled my Romanian friends. Kolakowski treats characters like Antonio Gramsci, György Lukács, Louis Althusser and Theodor Adorno with enough respect to make his criticisms stick, and he perceptively traces the French structuralist and post-structuralist movements of the 1960s to the way in which Marxist ways of seeing things had become institutionalised in French intellectual life.
The book does contain one huge lacuna - Michel Foucault, who is not menioned, even though it was he who was to pick up the banner that had been dropped in the gutter by Jean-Paul Sartre. My own view is that Foucault owes his appeal to perpetuating the Marxist way of seeing things beneath a non-judgmental veneer. He is giving what Marx hoped to give in The German Ideology - an account of "bourgeois"' society and its institutions that would remove the mask, and reveal the underlying workings of power. This lacuna aside, however, Kolakowski's survey of post-war Marxism provides a better explanation than any source that I know, of the decline of the humanities in western universities.
The human secret
In later life Kolakowski showed a growing attraction to the Catholic heritage in which he had been raised. It is never clear, in his later writings, precisely where he stands on the question of God's existence, Christ's resurrection and those minor details like the immaculate conception and the virgin birth. Nevertheless, he writes with enormous respect not just for those who believe in those things, but for the concepts which they use to organize their experience and to make sense of the world. In particular, he emphasised the great loss, as he saw it, which has ensued with the disappearance of the sacred from the worldview of western intellectuals. "With the disappearance of the sacred", he wrote, "arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization - the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle' an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man's total autonomy and thus to deny man himself."
He was increasingly concerned with the need, as he saw it, to fill the god-shaped hole in the scheme of things which had been made by the Enlightenment, and which Marxism had tried to fill with an ideology of equality - an ideology that left its followers with a disenchanted vision of the social world, and an inability to find meaning in anything save political activism and the pursuit of power. He defended capitalism in the same spirit as Winston Churchill defended democracy, as the least worst system available.
"Capitalism", he wrote in 1995, "developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it, and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work - that is, man's greed allowed to follow its course - whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human action, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism."
Also in openDemocracy:
Adam Szostkiewicz, "Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure" (21 July 2009)
As the quotation reveals, Kolakowski's thought was marked to the end of his life by his former Marxism. That he should see capitalism as motivated by greed alone, overlooking the beautiful constructs of contractual obligation, accountability and the rule of law, shows just how much the Marxist marginalising of such things as mere "superstructure" had left its mark on him.
Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understandiong to the arguments of others.
And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he "got away with it" - that he never entered the foreground of others' judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life's project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, combined the gifts of a novelist with the stature and ambitions of a prophet. He may not have matched their achievements as a writer of imaginative prose, but he was their equal when it came to insight into evil and its collective manifestation. Moreover his literary monument - The Gulag Archipelago - was an achievement little short of the miraculous, given the circumstances under which the information was collected and digested, and given the obstacles that stood in the way of the work's seeing the light of day.
Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is
among the greatest Russian and world writers of the 20th century. He survived the second world war, incarceration
in the Soviet Union's prison-camp system, and
internal exile to produce a series of novels and essays that retrieved and
reimagined the history of the Soviet state and the experience of its people.
His major works include A Day
in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The
Ward (1968), The
(three volumes, 1974-76), and The Oak and
the Calf (1975). Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, and was deported to
the west in 1974. He returned to Russia
in 1994 and died near Moscow
on 3 August 2008
By Alexander Solzhenitsyn in openDemocracy:"A world split apart" (4 August 2008) - an extract from his Harvard address in June 2008
It is fair to say that the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago did more than any other publication to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who had been tempted to believe that communism would have been fine, had it not been perverted from its true course by Stalin. Solzhenitsyn showed the way in which, once accountability has been set aside, as it was set aside by Lenin in 1918, and once society had as a result been conscripted to a single goal, with all institutions gathered up into the collective advance, it is not "corruption" that leads to the triumph of evil. The conditions are now in place for evil to prevail, since there is nothing to prevent it.
Yet this evil should not be seen as an impersonal thing. Solzhenitsyn was far from endorsing the thesis of the "banality of evil" as Hannah Arendt had expounded it. Nor did he see totalitarianism as the ultimate source of the evil that it promotes. Rather totalitarian government is the great mistake, made for whatever noble or ignoble purpose, of putting the final goal before the present dilemma. It is this which gives evil intentions the same chance as good ones, which enables the criminal and the psychopath to compete on a level with the saint and the hero. Yet even in totalitarianism the evil belongs to the human beings, and not to the system. This is the remarkable message that Solzhenitsyn, crawling from the death-machine, carried pressed to his heart. It is worth reproducing the passage at the end of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in which he bears witness to what he took to be the great moral gift that he had received in prison:
"It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more."
The call and the echo
Solzhenitsyn saw totalitarianism as the inevitable result of revolution (something which modern history has proved many times over), and also as the thing which gives evil its biggest chance. And in his heart he drew the contrast between the revolutionary way of confronting evil, by seeking the "system" that would lead mankind towards perfection, and the example set by Christ, who confronted evil by refusing to adopt its weapons, and by offering himself as a sacrifice. Not surprisingly therefore, Solzhenitsyn tuned his prophetic spirit, as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had tuned theirs, to the Christian message.
Roger Scruton is
a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. Among the most
recent of his many books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum,
2005), News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum,
2006), and Culture
Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007)
Also by Roger Scruton in openDemocracy:
"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)
"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)
"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007)
"Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007)When he was finally expelled from the Soviet Union, to take up residence in Vermont, he found himself still face to face with evil, but in its more seductive guise. He did not dispute the public image of America, as the land of the free. But he wanted people to know that freedom too gives evil a chance. Not the same chance, to be sure, and one that could be resisted; a chance, nevertheless, to pursue the pleasures of the flesh and to forget about the spiritual calling of mankind.
Many Americans blamed Solzhenitsyn for this, and in particular for his Harvard lecture of 1978, in which he denounced modernity, and the "flight from spirituality" that he witnessed around him in America. Was he not repeating that old chestnut of "moral equivalence", doing what Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky and others had done, by responding to criticism of communism with an equal and opposite criticism of the west - as though control from the top were the same thing as control from the bottom, and as though things deliberately done for evil ends were no worse than bad things happening though no-one intended them? Was he not, in other words, denying the value of human freedom, and the crucial difference that it makes to all our moral judgments? It has to be said that the mantic nature of Solzhenitsyn's language, and his way of looking on the world from a point somewhere above it, fed these accusations. His time in America was not, from the PR point of view, a success, and many were the sighs of relief when, after the collapse of communism, he decided to return to his native Russia and preach to the converted from there.
But now, looking back on it, we must surely recognise, not merely the courage and integrity of the man, but also the truth of his message to our times. If there are evil systems, he is telling us, it is because there are evil people, evil intentions, and evil states of mind. The best we can achieve through amending the system of government is to ensure that mistakes can be corrected and evil condemned. But we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the solution to the problem of evil is a political solution, that it can be arrived at without spiritual discipline and without a change of life. It is to us human beings that the call to the good life is addressed. And it is only when we recognise that "the line separating good and evil is drawn through the human heart" that we will have finally understood the lesson of the 20th century.
The response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture on 7 February 2008, " Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective", has included discussion of the character of the "sharia" that formed an important part of the address. Fred Halliday's contribution on openDemocracy focuses on this question as part of a general questioning of the integrity of such terms as "Islamic law" and "Islamic finance" (see "Islam,law and finance: the elusive divine", 12 February2008). His is an excellent contribution to a developing discussion; but thereare a couple of points to be added that highlight what is really at stake inthe controversy following Rowan Williams's intervention.
You can read a great novel - Nostromo, for example - and immediately, on finishing, want to read it again. You can listen to a great symphony - Bruckner's 7th, for example - and have the same experience. Ditto for great works of painting, sculpture and architecture. But very few films have this effect on their intended audience, and even if you occasionally want to see a film twice or thrice, it is rare that a film proves inexhaustible, in the way that Conrad and Bruckner are inexhaustible.
In cinema, too much is built upon effects, which do not bear repetititon once they have lost the element of surprise; too much in the image is accidental, intrusive or irrelevant to the story; too much is dependent on the arbitrary appearance of the actors, rather than the depths of the characters they portray - in short, too much is focused on that first and startling impression, and little or nothing on the meaning that can only reveal itself in time. The cinema is an art in which redundancies proliferate, flooding and diluting the dramatic image. And it has all got worse since the introduction of colour, and the subsequent loss of control over light, shade and contrast.
Richard Rorty, who died on 8 June 2007, was a philosopher whose high reputation was bestowed on him, not by fellow philosophers, but by the many literary scholars who took comfort and inspiration from his writings. In this he resembled the contemporary philosopher whom he most admired, Jacques Derrida. Like Derrida, Rorty had a mind that ranged widely over philosophy, literature and the history of ideas; and like Derrida he was less concerned to present valid arguments than to offer a subversive perspective, in which the distinctions between valid and invalid, true and false, real and imaginary, would disappear or at any rate lose their former importance. Unlike Derrida, however, Rorty wrote in a clear and unaffected style, presenting his ambitious claims with disarming modesty, and leaning at every point on authorities to whom he accorded a higher distinction than he claimed for himself.
In its silence about Islam and its hostility to the United States, Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s definition of the threats to democracy fails to convince Roger Scruton.
Even before the British government of Tony Blair first proposed to ban hunting with dogs in England and Wales two years ago, thus provoking massive protest demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people, openDemocracy realised that this polarising issue required discussion and dialogue between voices on different sides of the argument. The result was our debate of June–December 2002, “Hunting culture – is there a place for hunting in the modern world?”