Friends of the democracy, inclusive societies, and free speech can be forgiven for remembering the 1980s with fondness. Reagan and Thatcher and John Paul II ruled the day, brought communism to its knees, and asserted the excellence of the West. Yet that decade also witnessed the continuing ascendancy of a radical form of Marxism on university campuses in America and Great Britain. Although Allan Bloom’s 1987 Closing of the American Mind acted as a flag around which to rally in the culture war over higher education, it was not enough to stop, or even really slow a campus takeover that today enjoys great political influence.
In 1989, for example, Catharine MacKinnon published Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, arguing that gender is a social construct that is based upon a disordered relationship between dominant men and hitherto oppressed women. Sexism is ingrained in our very institutions, our grammar, and our surroundings, MacKinnon warned. Until we tear down the institutions and social forms that propagate sexism, she declared, we will fail to overcome the antagonism of oppressor and oppressed that defines the relationship between men and women. As Marx produced a critical theory of the economy, so MacKinnon set out to produce a critical theory of sex.
At the same time, a group of thinkers, most of whom were graduates of Harvard Law School who had participated in the 1982 effort to force Harvard to hire more minority faculty, set out to develop critical race theory, which holds that racism is built into the very grammar, institutions, and customs we employ and participate in. Those who continue to follow the customs of the society in which they live will continue their racist ways. Racism will be abolished when those customs, laws, and institutions are abolished or remade.
While MacKinnon’s Marxist analysis of the sexes was percolating in the minds of American academics and Harvard graduates were hardening the iron of critical race theory, Roger Scruton sat across the Atlantic, at the time as a professor at Birkbeck College in London, watching the destruction of his academic career. Scruton had been vilified throughout the 1980s for writing substantial, intellectually serious books on conservatism, as well as critical portraits of leftist thinkers in his volume Thinkers of the New Left, published in 1985 and reissued this month by Bloomsbury Press as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands.
Upon publication, his left-leaning colleagues all but raced to their desks to write complaints to the publisher and the university. Publication was eventually discontinued because of pressure from Scruton’s fellow academics. For his part, Scruton has described the period as "the beginning of the end of my academic career." He left Birkbeck in 1992.
Thirty years after its original publication, Scruton’s book proves as prescient as ever. Discussing the American university’s inheritance of Marxism from mid-century British socialism, Scruton says, "[t]he very reasoning that sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true." Such could describe the posture of any of the student groups who have made demands on America’s campuses this past fall.
Reading Scruton’s book on thinkers of the new left sheds light on the intellectual origins of the current situation on American campuses—and to a great extent on the situation of our culture at large. Perhaps some students will find the book interesting enough to travel to the University of Buckingham, where Scruton is teaching philosophy this year. Still, one would hope that in the coming years, American students who want something other than politicized Marxism should be able to find a collegiate home this side of the Atlantic.