Roger Scruton on Newspeak and the manipulation of language

Most leftist activists aligned themselves with different interpretations of Marxism (Trotskyist, Maoism among others). By the 1960s, after the Russians crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, New Left ideas began to modify their Marxist vision. For an explanation of the fundamentals of New Left thinking, so important to the growing hegemony of the left, I will draw on philosopher Roger Scruton’s work. Before doing so, I want to cover the basics of classical Marxism to put the developments into context.

The core of Marxist theory is that any society is made up of an economic base (the forces of production and production relations) and a superstructure of laws, government, conventions, customs, art and so on. The base determines the superstructure of government. The economic base is not static. According to Marx’s key concept of dialectical materialism, a society will experience a clash of classes between those in power and those exploited. The clash will result in a new economic order and a new superstructure determined by that order. This is the working out of the dialectic process. The clash of classes will go onto until classes cease to exist, and people live in a socialist paradise where the alienation of the worker from his essence as a human person will dissolve. Marx claimed we are at this time in the final phase of the clash of classes: capitalists (the exploiters) with the proletariat or workers (the exploited).

There were serious – indeed, insuperable – objections to Marx’s theory from the beginning, both economic and metaphysical. Scruton pointed out that the New Left theorists never address these objections, but seek to evade or disqualify them with sneers and dismissive labels. Indeed, evasion, denunciation, and disqualification of opponents to protect the theoretical paradigm are foremost features of the New Left political project.

In his introduction to New Left theorists and their theories in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left[i] Scruton returns to Marx’s dialectic to show how Marx framed the socialist promise for his disciples. He runs through the progress of the dialectic showing how changes in the economic base are meant to lead to a blissful classless society in which private property is abolished. ‘The state,’ he says quoting Marx, ‘will “wither away”, there will be neither law nor the need for it, and everything will be owned in common. There will be no division of labour, and each person will live out the full range of his needs and desires, “hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, tending cattle in the evening and engaging in literary criticism after dinner”, as we are told in The German Ideology.”‘What an irresistible picture of paradise on earth! Who could object to this vision – one so fervently wished for by the proletariat? It seems that to be wished for in the Marxist imagination is to be actualised. Scruton’s reply to this patent nonsense is devastating.

It is a joke to claim that this outburst of fancy is scientific instead of utopian, he says. Where is the social structure to enable all these activities? You only have to look at our present society to see what social, legal and administrative structures are presupposed by any one of them. Who is going to organize the administrative framework if bourgeois society has been abolished? However, such questions are ‘beside the point’ or are ‘too trivial to be noticed.’

Or rather, they are too serious to be considered, and therefore go unnoticed. For it requires but the slightest critical address, to recognize that Marx’s ‘full communism’ embodies a contradiction: it is a state in which all the benefits of legal order are still present, even though there is no law; in which all the products of social cooperation are still in existence, even though nobody enjoys the property rights which hitherto have provided the sole motive for producing them… The contradictory nature of the socialist utopias is one explanation of the violence involved in the attempt to impose them: it takes infinite force to make people do what is impossible.

We will see how well this image fits the student Marxists who star in the following account, and how the cleverest of them resort almost always to ridicule, mockery and sneering when faced with evidence and arguments that leave them staring and without answers.

* * *

In chapter 1 ‘What is Left?’ of Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left[ii] Scruton asks why he refers to a group of intellectuals as ‘the left,’ who are far from sharing the same theories. He answers first that they give themselves that tag, and

‘Second, they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by the elaborate social and political theories that I shall have occasion to discuss in what follows.’

He then describes the core beliefs and motivations of that outlook:

‘Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.[iii]

If Scruton is right – and the evidence is overwhelmingly in his support – the leftist will be in permanent rebellion against whatever and whoever that authority is, as long as he (the leftist) exists and embraces his theory of class exploitation – and as long as society remains unlevelled. There is not only a theoretical dimension to the leftist’s motivation but also a psychological one. There is a thrill in always being in holy combat against a perceived oppressor. There is a righteous thrill in having one’s hatred of an opponent justified. Scruton’s examination does not ignore this psychological dimension. The psychological dimension gives extra punch to the campaign to correct the unjust distribution of goods.

The redistribution of society’s goods according to the leftist’s idea of justice logically means that not only the big corporations, the filthy capitalists, but those who have no place at all in the dominant class are subject to the planned seizure and redistribution. Levelling comes before all else. It is only a question of being judged by the new dominant class to have more than one ought. Now, in this campaign of just redistribution, there are two apparently contradictory goals. They are freedom and social justice. If society pursues freedom, there will not be equality. If society pursues social justice (equality), there will not be full freedom. Before discussing a possible resolution of these goals, I want to point out that the New Left does not understand freedom and social justice in the sense accepted by the ordinary citizen of our liberal-democratic society, the society that is allegedly the bequest of the Age of Enlightenment. Scruton:

‘The liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the “structures”: from the institutions, customs, and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society… Much of their literature is devoted to deconstructing such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us. This literature, seen at its most fertile in the writings of [Michel] Foucault, represents as “structures of domination” what others see merely as the instruments of civil order.’[iv]

Recognising the victims in need of liberation is an endless task. All manner of victims, right down to the Muslims, who need to be liberated from Islamophobia, pass in the leftist parade of oppressed victims. These victims are taken up into the leftist agenda and protected by the purpose-made laws and committees they have generated.

‘Gradually the old norms of social order have been marginalized, or even penalized as violations of “human rights”. Indeed, the cause of “liberation” has seen the proliferation of more laws than were ever invented to suppress it – just think of what is now ordained in the cause of “non-discrimination“.’

Scruton’s account of the leftist’s idea of social justice is as just as clear and succinct – and recognizable to anyone who has observed the actions of our dominant political class.

Likewise the goal of “social justice” is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to citizenship. The aim is a comprehensive rearrangement of society so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged.[v]

The radical’s demand for the abolition of private property may no longer be as insistent as in the past with today’s striving for equality, but there is now an uncompromising determination in those promoting social justice. It is the driven belief that ‘inequality in whatever sphere – property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – is unjust until proven otherwise.’ (One can surely see how this idea of equality – imposed levelling – spawns current theories of identity politics.) The leftist strives to disqualify any flicker of dissent, but not on the grounds of a reasoned response.

It is an argument that allows nothing to stand in its way. No existing custom, institution, law or hierarchy; no tradition, distinction, rule or piety can trump equality, if it cannot provide itself with independent credentials. Everything that does not conform to the egalitarian goal must be pulled down and built again, and the mere fact that some custom or institution has been handed down and accepted is no argument in its favour. In this way, “social justice” becomes a barely concealed demand for the “clean sweep” of history that revolutionaries have always attempted.’

We daily recognise the left’s political tactic in shielding their beliefs and political action from close scrutiny and, if things get too hot for them, in labelling dissenters as callous protectors of class difference. Not only do we hear echoes of classical Marxism here, but we can also hear Edmund Burke’s railing against the Jacobin’s abstract idea of liberty and equality and against the notion that state and society can be rebuilt on the basis of an abstract theory. Indeed, Scruton invokes Burke’s arguments at crucial points in his critique of New Left theories.

The two goals of liberation and social justice, Scruton says, are just as incompatible today as they were at the time of the Jacobin rage, and the principles are just as uncompromising and carried out with an unwavering determination. That is the logic of the meaning of the concepts and the accompanying zeal. But how does the New Left deal with the clash between their concepts of freedom and social justice and those of the ordinary citizen in our liberal-democratic society? Quite simply, how in practice do they deal with someone whose qualities and habits achieves more and acquires more than the next person? How do they deal with the ‘lifter’ and ‘leaners’ – those whose efforts bear fruit and those who don’t make the effort- that were central concepts in Robert Menzies’ influential ‘Forgotten People’ speeches?

The New Left deal with the outcomes of natural equality in society by obscuring the conflict between the concepts, says Scruton: ‘social justice is a goal so overwhelmingly important, so unquestionably superior to the established interests that stand against it, as to purify every action done in its name.’[vi] This obscuring has to do with language, or rather with the way language is manipulated and adapted to the New Left goals. The adaptation of language has its origins in the ‘enclosed vocabulary that entered the language with Marxism and which was gradually simplified and regimented in the years when socialists were occupying the intellectual high ground.’[vii]

Communists in their battles with each other discovered that Marxism lent itself to conjuring ‘convenient labels’ to put down opposition and to inject drama into their political conflicts. Those early battles set a standard that was adopted by all leftists groups that followed.’The transformation of language of politics’ writes Scruton, ‘has been the principal legacy of the Left, and it is one aim of this book to rescue that language from socialist Newspeak.’[viii] Scruton acknowledges that George Orwell created the inspired Newspeak term in his totalitarian novel 1984, but points out the manipulation of language for political purposes began at the time of the French Revolution. Revolutionaries wielded slogans with the effect of hard weapons. It was, however, at the Second [Socialist] International of 1889 that participants were ‘granted a vision of a transformed world’. That vision was a Gnostic revelation that convinced them so thoroughly of the righteousness of their cause that they could conceive of no possible argument against the Gnostic dogma of socialism. To eliminate an opponent, all the ideological faithful had to do was label someone with a title designating their deviation from the supreme dogma. The guillotine blade fell at the uttering of a choice of labels: ‘deviationists’,’revisionists’, ‘infantile leftists’,’social fascists’, and other such denunciations.

The success of those labels in marginalizing and condemning the opponent fortified the communist conviction that you could change reality by changing words. You could create a proletarian culture, just by inventing the word “proletcult”… you could bring about the downfall of the free economy by shouting “crisis of capitalism” every time the subject arose… Newspeak reassembles the political landscape, dividing it in unfamiliar ways.’[ix] [my emphasis]

The effect of this reassembling is ‘to dismiss as illusions the realities by which we live.’ Scruton explains further how Newspeak is part of the magician’s art.

Newspeak occurs whenever the primary purpose of language- which is to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it. The fundamental speech-act is only superficially represented by the assertoric grammar. Newspeak sentences sound like assertions, but their underlying logic is that of the spell. They conjure the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument, and also the danger of resistance.[x]

You could hardly have a more lucid description of the Left’s bending of political language. You only have to look at Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews’ snarling dismissal of widespread objections to his government’s Safe Schools Coalition program created and overseen by a Lesbian Marxist. Calling critics a bunch of homophobic bigots was all Andrews thought he had to do to dismiss objections to the Marxist-inspired program. No objection was possible or could be justified, once the sorcerer waved his wand, and the spell was cast. It does not matter who the objector is. It is the ideological transgression that counts. Scruton continues:

As a result Newspeak developed its own special syntax, which – while closely related to the syntax deployed in ordinary descriptions – carefully avoids any encounter with reality or any exposure to the logic of rational argument. Francoise Thom has argued this in her brilliant study La langue de bois [literally the language of wood, best translated by “evasive waffle”]. The purpose of communist Newspeak, in Thom’s ironical words, has been “to protect ideology from the malicious attacks of real things.“‘[xi]

Anybody who has had anything to do with the political agitation of leftist groups over time will know that their experience of leftist discourse perfectly corresponds with Scruton’s description of Newspeak. Foremost among those real things are individuals and the living world of concrete particulars each lives in. Newspeak causes the real individual to disappear in a torrent of abstractions that constantly inflame the idea of progress derailed by reaction, and the struggle that must be engaged to defeat reaction. Words familiar to the ordinary person in everyday life take on a loaded meaning entirely unfamiliar to that person.

In ordinary discourse capitalism describes an economic system in which capital is in the hands of private individuals. The extended empirical description is about real individuals with names, who acquire the capital, either by savings or loans, to invest in a shoe shop, or a coffee lounge, or an online website selling children’s toys, or other some such small business. That real individual invests his time and energy into building up the business to secure himself and his family and perhaps eventually to employ other real individuals who in turn support their families. It is common knowledge that small private businesses are Australia’s biggest employer. This real observable human scenario disappears behind the murky curtain of the left’s Newspeak of conglomerated abstractions about progress, reaction and struggle and the unending shouting about ‘capitalist exploitation’ and the ‘crisis of capitalism’. Scruton:

By describing free economies with this term, we cast the spell that extinguishes them. The reality of the free economy disappears behind the description, to be replaced by a strange baroque edifice, constantly falling to the ground in a dream-sequence of ruin.’[xii]

If we take Scruton’s contrast of the discourse of ordinary men and women with the Newspeak of the New Left, the metaphor of the magician’s spell is so close to what actually happens that it seems to dissolve. It is a contrast that he enlarges on in his recent books A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism and How to Be a Conservative. Ordinary people manage and build their society by way of a conversation about what they want and how to get what they want. There are constant exchanges that require agreement and compromise. There may be an intense argument about it all, even to the point of clashes. The crucial element in the intercourse of ordinary people is the avenue for disagreement and compromise. The structure of their society and the rules underpinning the structure is ultimately a consensus. It is a consensus reached from the ground up. The foremost example Scruton gives of the process of building from the ground up is the English Common Law.

The Newspeak of the Left, with their casting of spells, eliminates such discourse and imposes a pre-ordained plan from the top down. Once you cease to talk to the small business owner about the economics of his business- prices, costs, plant, revenue and so on – and relegate him to the class of the bourgeois, you condemn the real person in the real variable circumstances to disappear. That real person becomes a figment of ideology – a detestable figment. You impose an implacable plan with a series of irresistible decrees.

That plan implements Newspeak’s concept of social justice which deprives the successful coffee lounge owner of the fruits of labour that has given him more than the indolent person next door. Scruton says: ‘In the opinion of almost all the thinkers whom I discuss in [Fools, Frauds and Firebrands], government is the art of seizing and then redistributing the things to which all citizens are supposedly entitled.’[xiii] The measure is the opposite of that which Robert Menzies proposed in his famous ‘Forgotten People’ talk of 22 May 1942. The bourgeois Menzies not only wished to protect the (independent) lifter from the (dependent) leaner, but he proposed measures that favoured diligence and industry over indolence and dependence. The diligent and the improvident should reap their due rewards. There is an excellent reason that Australia’s dominant leftist class strives to cause Menzies to disappear.

The all-pervasive Newspeak underlies differences in outlook. Those who wish to conserve the structure of their long developed society talk about ‘authority, government and institution’. The Left, on the other hand, speak about ‘power and domination’ There are no laws and offices in the left’s vision. There are only ‘classes, powers, and forms of control…together with the “ideology” that mystifies these things and shields them from judgment.’[xiv] There is nothing left in the leftist worldview of the ordinary social arrangements of a traditional society. There is no place for them. Even worse, the traditional social arrangements are allegedly a mask hiding power.

The pursuit of abstract social justice goes hand in hand with the view that power struggles and the relations of domination express the truth of our social condition, and that the consensual customs, inherited institutions and systems of law that have brought peace to real communities are merely the disguises worn by power.’[xv]

If the elements of bourgeois society are merely a ‘disguise worn by power’, then the solution suggests itself. The righteous, those designated by the totalitarian speech-act, have to seize power and bring about social justice. They must divide society into the innocent and guilty. The guilty are subject to disqualification and property confiscation. The innocent become the beneficiaries of the redistribution of the appropriated goods. This outcome is the social justice of the Newspeak realm. From the Newspeak analysis of class exploitation, the leftist draws the conclusion that Marxism is a science and the views of the bourgeois mere ideology. This conclusion, says Scruton, is the most cunning feature of Marxism. It has turned around the accepted view that Marxism is an ideology and economics a science. Marx reasons that because his theory has shown the political and economic theories of the bourgeois class to be in reality power-seeking and not at all truth-seeking, bourgeois ideas are ideology and Marxist claims of class exploitation science. We have gone from the magician’s tent to the sorcerer’s cave.

There is a kind of theological cunning in this aspect of Marxist thought. Since the class-theory is a genuine science, bourgeois political thought is ideology. And since the class-theory exposes bourgeois thought as ideology, it must be science. We have entered the magic circle of a creation myth.’[xvi]

Scruton goes on to discuss the ‘single emotion’ that is behind Marx’s theory of history and class exploitation. That emotion is resentment- ‘a resentment of those that control things.’ This is the powerful psychological push behind the theory, giving its indefatigable devotees limitless sources of ideological energy to pursue their class enemies. With inflamed green eyes, the proletariat is forced to watch a parasitical class feeding off the worker who has nothing but his blood sweat and tears to maintain his existence. The class of ill-gotten goods and privileges has ‘cheated’ the workers of ‘their just deserts.’

Resentment naturally arises in a society of people. Indeed, it is a good thing in a way because like pain to a physical body it signals some illness in the social body. A healthy society of cooperating people will establish outlets to relieve the resentment and if possible resolve its source without harming society’s basic fabric. Such outlets in a traditionally formed society are many: customs, clubs, shared religious attitudes, manners, and so on. These outlets reflect the desire of society’s members to get along. When the totalitarians take over, those outlets are blocked. Resentment is then transformed into a governing emotion directed at ‘society as a whole.’ It is no longer a feeling directed at unmerited success but becomes an ‘existential posture: the posture of one whom the world has betrayed.’

Such a person does not seek to negotiate within existing structures, but to gain total power, so as to abolish the structures themselves. He will set himself against all forms of mediation, compromise and debate, and against the legal and moral norms that give a voice to the dissenter and sovereignty to the ordinary person. He will set about destroying the enemy, whom he will conceive in collective terms, as the class, group or race that hitherto controlled the world and which must now in turn be controlled. And all institutions that grant protection to that class or a voice in the political process will be targets for his destructive rage.[xvii]

This posture creates a serious social disorder, a disorder that is the ripe fruit of the writings of the theorists Scruton discusses. The posture is not only about a sort of Gnosticism that imbues their theories with exclusion; it is also about the treasures of Western Civilization that the New Left gurus repudiate. The destructive rage of the leftist mind reminds Scruton of the words of Goethe’s Mephistopheles who ‘when called upon to explain himself says: I am the spirit who always denies, the one who reduces Something to Nothing, and who thereby undoes the work of creation.’[xviii] The last paragraph of this first chapter is a compelling conclusion to Scruton’s introduction to the theorists of the New Left.

Theirs is an oppositional voice, a cry against the actual on behalf of the unknowable. The generation of the 1960s was not disposed to ask the fundamental question how social justice and liberation could be reconciled. It wished only for the theories, however opaque and unintelligible, that would authorize its opposition to the existing order. It had identified the rewards of intellectual life through an imagined unity between the intellectuals and the working class, and had sought for a language that would expose and delegitimize the “powers” that maintained the “bourgeois” order in being. Newspeak was essential to its programme, reducing what others saw as authority, legality and legitimacy to power, struggle and domination. And 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. Henceforth the bourgeois order would be vaporized and mankind would march victorious into the Void.’[xix]

I have attempted to bring into relief the chief points of Roger Scruton’s at times dense explanation of the ideas, motivations, and goals of the New Left in the first chapter of his book. He goes on to demonstrate his claims in a sustained analysis of some of the foremost theorists: Gyorgy Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, and Jurgen Habermas among an impressive rogues gallery of influential leftists. Louis Althusser was a favourite among Sydney University’s Marxists. My object has been to lay out the chief points of his characterisation of the left and to show how they elucidate the behaviour of the student radicals Tony Abbott and the few other conservatives on campus had to face up to.

[i] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Bloomsbury Continuum, London, UK, 2015

[ii] Scruton, ibid., pp. 1/16

[iii] Scruton, ibid., p. 3

[iv] Scruton, ibid., p. 3

[v] Scruton, ibid., p. 4

[vi] Scruton, ibid., p. 4

[vii] Scruton, ibid., p. 7

[viii] Scruton, ibid., p. 8

[ix] Scruton, ibid., p. 8

[x] Scruton, ibid., p. 9

[xi] Scruton, ibid., p. 9

[xii] Scruton, ibid., p. 10

[xiii] Scruton, ibid., p. 11

[xiv] Scruton, ibid., p. 12

[xv] Scruton, ibid., p. 13

[xvi] Scruton, ibid., p. 14

[xvii] Scruton, ibid., p. 15

[xviii] Scruton, ibid., p. 15

[xix] Scruton, ibid., pp. 15/16

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