Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands (Sir Roger Scruton)

Scruton, Roger.  Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands.

The New Left is different in that the traditional Marxist categories are harder to apply.  This makes sense.  How many “Starbucks Socialists” really understand the Base and Superstructure paradigm? The New Left focuses more on Liberation and Social Justice than on surplus value.  This is understandable since few are likely to get excited on the metaphysical reification of labour.

Social Justice is not equality before the law but the rearrangement of social structures.

Marx’s contradiction: the future state is one where there is a full legal order present with none of the structure of the law.

Socialist utopias are violent “because it takes infinite force to make people to the physically impossible.”

Thesis: The purpose of language, at least on one level, is to describe reality. Newspeak asserts power over reality instead. As he notes, “Ordinary language warms and soens; Newspeak freezes and hardens. And ordinary discourse generates out of its own resources the concepts that Newspeak forbids.”  The New Left encapsulates reality in “Newspeak.”

Resentment in Britain

Problem with the Marxist theory of history: there is a web of connections between social and economic life, but it really can’t say which is the cause and which is the effect.  Marxists would reply that base (economics) determines superstructure, but as Scruton points out, there is no series of experiments for which we could test the theory.

Another problem with class warfare theories of history: it cannot account for the fact that many people, indeed most people for most of history, did not place their loyalties in a class, but in entities like the nation or the church. Indeed, “Nation, law, faith, tradition, sovereignty – these ideas by contrast denote things that unite us.”

Scruton maintains that the concept of English Common Law completely devastates the class theory of history.  Common law transcends class and itself has been the instigator of economic change, not vice-versa.

Disdain in America

I might disagree in emphasis with Scruton on one point: I don’t think John Kenneth Gailbraith was entirely wrong. To be sure, he was a proponent of the Welfare State and that’s a problem. Still, I think Gailbraith somewhat accurately anticipated how mass consumerism and mass society enslaves us.  Galbraith is probably best seen, not as a socialist, but as a modern New-Deal liberal.  As Scruton notes, like other liberals, he isn’t bothered by private property. He is bothered by the private property of others.

France and Foucault

Galbraith remained a relatively sane liberal.  His interviews with William Buckley Jr. are worth watching. He would no doubt oppose the extremism of Zizek.  When we move to French philosophy, however, all bets are off.  We can probably understand this chapter as the central hinge of the book, since most of the disaster known as modern Continental philosophy today stems from France.

Fun fact: The French Communists were allied, at least indirectly, with Hitler when he invaded France.  Munitions workers went on strike in support of the Nazi invasion.

Before we get to Kojeve, we should clarify what Hegel meant:  As Scruton points out, the process by which we come to know ourselves as subjects and the process whereby we realize our freedom are one in the same. Whereas Hegel drew conservative conclusions and saw the opposites–Self and the Other, Subject and Object–as coming together in a unity, left-wing Hegelians hardened the opposites into oppositions.

Scruton’s comments on Sartre and others are important, and Sartre’s influence on Pol Pot cannot be minimized, but an extended analysis would take one far beyond the scope of the review.

Foucault: focus on episteme, a new structure of knowledge. It serves a power-interest. 

Tedium in Germany

Lukacs: Lukacs took the “hidden meaning” of Marxian exchange value and applied it across the board: There is always a hidden undertone to society that needs theory and interpretation to bring it out.  

Brutal Bon Mots

Scruton almost rivals Samuel Johnson in the well-time phrase.  We list a few:

“Liberation of the victim is a restless cause, since new victims always appear over the horizon as the last ones escape into the void.”

“Marx’s remark about hunting, shing, hobby farming and lit. crit. is the only attempt he makes to describe what life will be like without private property – and if you ask who gives you the gun or the fishing rod, who organizes the pack of hounds, who maintains the coverts and the waterways, who disposes of the milk and the calves and who publishes the lit. crit., such questions will be dismissed as ‘beside the point’, and as matters to be settled by a future that is none of your business.”

“Peace never appears in Newspeak as a condition of rest and normality. It is always something to ‘fight for’, and ‘Fight for Peace!’”

“Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it.”

“Had Heidegger attached his great ego to the cause of international socialism, he would have enjoyed the whitewash granted to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Hobsbawm and the other apologists for the Gulag. But the cause of national socialism could enjoy no such convenient excuse, and the sin was compounded, in Heidegger’s case, by the fact that it was precisely the national, rather than the socialist aspect of the creed that had attracted him.”

“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.”

“Their few empty invocations of equality advance no further than the clichés of the French Revolution, and are soon reissued as mathemes by way of shielding them from argument. But when it comes to real politics they write as though negation is enough. Whether it be the Palestinian intifada, the IRA, the Venezuelan Chavistas, the French sans-papiers, or the Occupy movement – whatever the radical cause, it is the attack on the ‘System’ that matters. The alternative is ‘unnameable in the language of the system.”

“While exorting us to judge other cultures in their own terms, he [Said] asks us to judge Western culture from a point of view outside—to set it against alternatives, and to judge it adversely, as ethnocentric and even racist.”

“The search for a policy to overcome original sin is not a coherent political project.”


Against the Tide (Sir Roger Scruton)

Scruton, Roger.  Against the Tide. Bloomsbury.

This is a collection of Sir Roger Scruton’s best editorials.  To note, these are not precise argumentative pieces. They are generally short, witty, and to the point.  The prose is magnificent.  Imagine if G. K. Chesterton actually had something of substance to say.

Put a Cork in it

Corked wine slows down the pace of life.

Human Rights

Pace reactionary conservatism, human rights do in fact exist.  The problem is trying to delineate something like “universal human rights.”  A right not only implies a duty, but it also implies someone against whom a right is claimed.  It is not clear how this works on the global scale. I have a duty to my neighbor.  It’s not clear what kind of practical duty I can have to a Sherpa in Tibet.

On the Soul

Scruton defends some form of dualism. He is very clear that we should call it the soul, noting that cultural philistines call it “mind.”  He interacts with John Searle’s famous Chinese room experiment.  Though Searle was correct to rebut some hard forms of physicalism, his lack of belief in any sort of telos makes his dualism irrelevant to human life.

God and the New Atheists

Scruton employs something like Alvin Plantinga’s response to naturalism.  Richard Dawkins, the New Atheist, argues, or rather asserts, that religion is like a meme.  It replicates itself.  Here is where it gets interesting.  In terms of evolutionary theory, false “memes,” like false maths, do not survive.  Religion, for better or worse, is surviving. It has survived, even thrived, for quite some time.

Education and Sociology

Scruton defends what are called “the irrelevant subjects.”  Earlier custodians of the British Empire studied logic, Greek, and Latin and successfully managed the greatest empire in history. What they studied developed the mind and soul, yet was largely irrelevant to “practical matters.”  We have reversed the situation today.

He has a hilarious chapter on a mock dialogue between two sociologists from the BBC.


The current fad of “function over form” guarantees neither.  Modern buildings are ugly, and for that reason non-functional.  Most urban planning projects look like bombed out war zones.  They are not functional for the main reason that no one wants to live there.

Animal Rights

If you want to promote the well-being of animals, hunt and eat them.  Hunting animals guarantees the preservation of their ecosystem.  

Bon Mots

As with all of Sir Roger’s writing, we are treated to devastating one liners.

“Sociology takes legitimate relations–Lover/Beloved, Employee/Employer–and turns them into power structures.”

“The pit bull terrier will go most of his life before turning on and killing his owner, much to the delight of everyone else.  Unfortunately, it also wants to kill everyone else.”


Because Sir Roger’s prose is so fine, one is tempted to let it wash over himself.  That in itself is a worthy endeavor, but one should not miss the cogency of the argument for the beauty of the prose.

Roswell Dialectic

Farrell nodal points:

Problem (ET1): The problem with any ET explanation of Roswell: “If, as is so often alleged, ET’s technology was so far superior to our own as to allow such interstellar reconnaissance, then why would they bother with such antiquated technologies as atom-bombs and rockets” (17)?

Problem (B1) with the balloon hypothesis: Are we to believe that the 509th’s base intelligence offer, Major Jesse Marcel, of the world’s only atomic bomb group could not tell the difference between a weather balloon and a flying saucer (26)?

Problem (ET2): by all accounts the strange writings on the “recovered debris” were recognized as numerals. Is it likely that aliens would have been using Roman or Arabic numerals (32)?

Problem (B3): What sort of experimental aircraft was being tested in New Mexico…at night…during a thunderstorm” (137)?

Problem (B4): “If the debris was from a crashed top secret balloon project, why draw the world’s attention to it with a crazy story about flying saucers” (171)?

Notable Figures

Wernher von Braun: Hitler’s rocket scientist who was brought to the US in Paperclip (237). Rosin Affidavit.

Hans Kohler: invented a little coil that contained nothing but magnets in a hexagonal pattern. It contained no power source but was able to produce an electrical current (246).

Willy Ley: member of Vrill Society. Investigated properties of space-time medium (248).

Allen Dulles: OSS station chief and later CIA director.

Reinhard Gehlen. Head of Nazi military intelligence within Eastern Europe. Commanded Fremde Heere Ost. Gehlen notes the following about his arrangement with the Allies (346-347):

Cosmic War Nodal Points

I’ve been reading, both appreciatively and critically, Joseph P. Farrell for the past fifteen years. The scope of his vision is breathtaking. He has suggested that one read his books in order, as they build upon each other. If you do that, you will notice recurring themes. I had the idea that it would be best to plot those themes and see what comes up.

Several themes:

  1. Cosmic War
  2. Roswell and the Reich
  3. JFK
  4. Nazi International
  5. Topological Metaphor
  6. Breakaway Civilizations
  7. Transhumanism

Roswell and the Reich (Farrell)

Establishing the Problem

The Roswell investigation functions as a dialectic. Either the event is so extraordinary that it could only be from outer space, or it is so terrestrial, and hence ordinary, and so should be dismissed. Farrell attempts (successfully, I think) to break the dialectic by arguing “that the technology, while extraordinary, is within the possibilities of human achievement” and is tied to a wider international context (Farrell 328).

Saucer or Weather Balloon?

The First Articulation

The first news report explicitly stated that a disk, and not debris was recovered at the crash (Farrell 3). No mention of bodies.

The Second articulation

Even the later reports that mention bodies only mention one crash site, not two (13).

Problem (ET1): The problem with any ET explanation of Roswell: “If, as is so often alleged, ET’s technology was so far superior to our own as to allow such interstellar reconnaissance, then why would they bother with such antiquated technologies as atom-bombs and rockets” (17)?

Problem (B1) with the balloon hypothesis: Are we to believe that the 509th’s base intelligence offer, Major Jesse Marcel, of the world’s only atomic bomb group could not tell the difference between a weather balloon and a flying saucer (26)?

Problem (ET2): by all accounts the strange writings on the “recovered debris” were recognized as numerals. Is it likely that aliens would have been using Roman or Arabic numerals (32)?

Summary of Timeline: 56ff.

The Third Articulation

Problem (B2): How could a flimsy weather balloon’s crash have come to earth so violently and strewn debris over a quarter of a mile (60)?

Fourth Articulation

Problem (B3): What sort of experimental aircraft was being tested in New Mexico…at night…during a thunderstorm” (137)?

Those questions more or less destroy the original “It was a weather balloon” claim. I think the govt suspected that also, which is why they officially changed the story to a Mogul Balloon (an aircraft that was to track Soviet nuclear tests. The technology wasn’t all that impressive, yet it was top secret in that its mission was important). But it, too, is open to a damaging criticism:

Problem (B4): “If the debris was from a crashed top secret balloon project, why draw the world’s attention to it with a crazy story about flying saucers” (171)?

The Hot Air Force, The Balloon Hypothesis, and the Skeptics
The govt officially changed its story in June of 1997.

Majic-12 Documents

Short definition: simple photographs of a top secret meeting by the Truman administration for the incoming-Eisenhower. The “document outlines the crash and recovery of a flying saucer, its occupants, its technologhy” (254). This is the original set.

Another set of documents released were the “Cooper-Cantwheel” set.

Problem of Verification

All the documents came on film. No provenance to determine authenticity (258).
Only way to tell is from internal evidence (259). Several members of the Majic-12 group had Nazi/CIA connections, including one with the ability to read Japanese (which makes sense given some of the symbols on the recovered crash).

If it were Nazis….

There are three possible scenarios for what happened at Roswell:

Operation Paperclip (284-285). A research project by Nazi scientists in America after WWII. Everyone rejects this option. What crashed at Roswell was not German WWII technology.

Independent Nazi scenario (285-286). It was a continuation of Nazi technology, but not from America. This would explain how the US Army was caught flat-footed and issued the response it did. It would explain how it was able to penetrate US airspace. It also accounts for the extraordinary hieroglyphics found on the debris.

ET-Nazis. Suffers from other criticisms.

Recap: if the documents are genuine, then aliens exist. However, on even the most charitable reading, we have no way of verifying that. Further, there are aspects of the documents which make no sense on the alien hypothesis, but make perfect sense on the Nazi hypothesis.

But Farrell takes it a step further. Roswell researchers make a good point: this isn’t a simple hoax, “for it contains too many details that only a very experienced forger would know” (287). This leads us to several possibilities:

a) It is a disinformation exercise to cover the tracks of an independent Nazi program.
b) it is calling attention to the Nazi program by leaving clues.

Kevin Randle’s argument:

The documents were on 8 ½ x 11 paper, whereas standard govt documents at the time were 8×10.

Notable Figures

Wernher von Braun: Hitler’s rocket scientist who was brought to the US in Paperclip (237). Rosin Affidavit.

Hans Kohler: invented a little coil that contained nothing but magnets in a hexagonal pattern. It contained no power source but was able to produce an electrical current (246).

Willy Ley: member of Vrill Society. Investigated properties of space-time medium (248).

Allen Dulles: OSS station chief and later CIA director.

Reinhard Gehlen. Head of Nazi military intelligence within Eastern Europe. Commanded Fremde Heere Ost. Gehlen notes the following about his arrangement with the Allies (346-347):

Clandestine German intelligence agency that would gather intel on the Soviets.

It worked “with,” not under the Americans.
It would operate exclusively under German leadership until a new govt was formed in Germany.
It would be financed by the Americans with funds that weren’t part of the occupation costs.

But here is the kicker: Gehlen made a separate peace with Dulles, resulting in the clean grafting of Nazi spy apparatus to the American clandestine sources. This was the birth of the CIA” (Jim Keith, quoted in Farrell 347-348).

Farrell explains: one member of the “American oligarchic elite–Allen Dulles–had negotiated a separate peace….with a member of the Nazi elite” (348).

General Gehlen also “traduced” (to use a theological term) a “vast network of emigre fronts,” whom Farrell will argue were influential in the Reagan and Bush administrations (348).

Arthur Rudolph. Principal designer of the Saturn V booster. Was noted as a “100% NAZI” and fled the US after the moon launch (352).

Ernst Steinhoff. Top rocket scientist of Von Braun’s Peenemunde rocket team (352).

Essays (George Orwell)

Orwell, George. Essays ed. Carey, John. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002.

Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, was a victim of his own success.  His two dystopian novels defined the genre for generations to come. Animal Farm is the most important book a student will read in high school.  1984, while nowhere near Animal Farm in terms of perfection, is the final word on dystopian literature.  As a result, when people think of Orwell, they think of those two novels.  They rarely read his essays, which is a shame.  Orwell was a master of English prose and he didn’t flinch from hard topics, willing even to subject his fellow socialists to brutal criticism.  These essays are organized chronologically, beginning in 1928 and ending in 1949.

Several themes emerge from this 1,300 page volume: Hitler, Pacifism, Socialism, and Literature. Regarding Hitler and Socialism, Orwell has strong opinions, but his conclusions might surprise you.


Review of Mein Kampf

Orwell explains, no doubt in terms that will be unintelligible to today’s intelligentsia, Hitler’s rise to power. Like all demagogues, Hitler captured the sentiments against the prevailing world order, this one being the decadence of progressive living.  If all one desires is comfort and ease, it’s hard to imagine a world of patriotism and virtue.  As Orwell notes, “The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do” (251).


Orwell, rightly, has nothing but contempt for bourgeois pacifism.  Leaving rhetoric and emotion aside, the position is ultimately incoherent.  Pacifists know they do not really have an answer to the “Hitler problem.”

The pacifist will not resist Hitler. So far, he is consistent.  If he lives in Germany he has a few choices: roll over and probably be arrested, or he can move to an Allied country.  That seems logical.  Here is where the problem is: in order for the pacifist to continue to believe in ideals like democracy, he has to hope that war-like countries can defeat Hitler.  By force.  If killing is a moral wrong, then for the pacifist it must be just as wrong for Churchill as for Hitler. In the following line, Orwell skewers the pacifist on the horns of a dilemma:

“You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.  Whichever choice you choose you will not come out with clean hands” (389).


Orwell’s socialism is simple: abolish private property.  What he never connects, at least I have not seen him connect, is that such an abolition entails the statism he so eloquently condemns elsewhere.  Orwell is quick to assure us, though, that the abolition of private property does not entail a stripping of private possessions (316).  Technically, he is correct but if the State were to do so, it is hard to see on what grounds Orwell would oppose it.

It is actually refreshing to see a Socialist come to grips with the key problem of socialism.  Orwell writes, “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them” (316).  I said Orwell wrestles with this problem.  In fact, I do not think he does.  As every serious free market economist has pointed out, “By what criteria does the State know what will be needed?”  Even worse, at what price should these goods be charged?  This question is unanswerable on socialist grounds.


Politics and the English Language

Orwell’s insights on modern literature pervade this volume and probably deserve their own review.  His most important essay, moreover, is “Politics and the English Language.” He does two things in this piece: exposes garbled prose and shows how that such prose warps reality. The death sentence for any writer is “You sound like a textbook” or “You sound like a sociologist.” Orwell gives you pointers for avoiding this fate.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” (954).

Modern English prosody prefers catchy phrases than precise words (956ff). Verbs now become phrases. “Noun constructions are preferred to gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’)” (958).

A good writer, therefore, follows:
a) avoid pretentious diction

b) avoid meaningless words

c) prefer the concrete over the abstract.

A good writer asks the following questions:

a) What am I trying to say?

b) What words will express it?

c) What image or idiom will make it clear?

d) Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Orwell suggests, though he understands its limits, the following maxim: use the fewest and shortest words to convey one’s meaning (965). There is a danger to this.  If applied too strictly, the writing loses all elegance and begins to look like an outline in prose form.


Readers of all political and cultural backgrounds should read Orwell.  He serves as a model for clarity in writing and in thinking.  In politics he is brave enough to avoid the party line.  He is a socialist, but socialists come under far worse criticism than nationalists or conservatives. These are the ideas that formed his more famous dystopian novels.

The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell)

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier.

Originally planned as a Leftist expose of “capitalist society,” Orwell actually gives us a fine expose of mass-industrial society, whether capitalist or socialist. To whatever degree northern British society was actually capitalist is a question beyond my expertise. Orwell’s remarks, however, show a society essentially at the same level of (non) flourishing as any you would find in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The real enemy is any impersonal system. This goes beyond mere economics, whether socialist or capitalist. Orwell could not have imagined how advanced technology is today (or maybe he could have). His observations are even more relevant.

Orwell explains the psychology of the working poor, and unlike the rest of world socialism, he actually cares about the poor. Unlike today’s socialists, Orwell believes in work. He believes in a welfare state, to be sure, but for him it was a necessary evil. Man did not want to be on the dole. He wanted to work and would cry to God for work. Today’s socialist, by contrast, believes that welfare is of the very essence of the Good.

The first six chapters or so are grim reading. It is England at its ugliest. The next seven chapters turn into a savage critique of modern “bourgeois socialism.” Think of the Starbucks socialist today. This is Orwell at his literary best. He writes,

“I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners.”

He made many socialists uncomfortable with his critique of industrialism. Industrialism had long been the Holy Grail of world communism. The problem, though, is that increases in technology seemed to make work, and by extension man, unnecessary. The more advanced the technology, the less needed for man’s muscle and skill. As a result, anyone who wants to learn a skill will be perceived as anachronistic.

Orwell also saw the connection between poverty and bad diets. Why do most people below the poverty line choose to gorge themselves on junk food, when healthy food is often cheaper? He notes,

“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.


One of socialism’s PR problems was reversed expectations. The early socialist believed that the working man would want to make his working condition better. What actually happened, at least in America, is that the working man became patriotic, largely religious, and violently anti-communist. Socialism was relegated to university professors and social media activists.

Homage to Catalonia (Orwell)

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I hate communism with all of my heart. I am not sympathetic to the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any way Orwell could have better written one of his books. Every word and sentence is perfectly crafted. What surprised me the most is that Franco wasn’t the real enemy. The background in which we find every war was the real danger: Heat. Cold. Lack of supplies. Friendly fire. Disease. To top it off, the book ends, not with Franco’s crushing victory, as would happen a few months later, but with the Communists and republicans purging the ranks. It ended with betrayal, though Orwell should have seen it coming, since the essence of communist leadership is to kill anyone who might have helped some years earlier. This book defined Orwell’s later political outlook and is key to understanding his later fiction works. Orwell was a socialist, to be sure, but he was primarily an anti-Stalinist.

Orwell fought as a militiaman in the Workers’ Party for Marxist Unification (POUM). This was only one of the Marxist and anarchist fronts fighting Franco. He notes how the militia did most of the fighting while the Army trained away from danger. The biggest problem from the POUM, as for most of Republican Spain, was the lack of decent supplies and weapons. If they got a rifle–if–it would have been an old German rifle predating WWI. Revolvers were needed for trench fighting and were almost impossible to come by. The first casualty Orwell saw was not from a Fascist bullet, but from a rifle misfiring (if it fired at all). He notes,

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”

Truth be told, the Marxist factions never had much of a chance. Part of this was due to the nature of Marxist ideology. If we are all equal and if we are all “comrades,” then how can I as a senior officer command you to do something? I’m being serious. Orwell notes how ideological soldiers spent five minutes arguing with their superior officer. Communist militaries, to be sure, can be quite successful. They have to have what Trotsky called “The Necessity of Red Terror.” Of course, that further aggravates the problem of just how we can be equal in a communist society.

The book ends with betrayal. Various militia groups were accused of collaborating with Fascists or Trotskyites. Orwell and his wife (why would you bring your wife into the middle of a foreign civil war?!?) barely escaped.

As in all of Orwell’s works, it is filled with savage irony. We will look at a few quotes:

“The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think worth describing in detail.”

“Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically—i.e. in the form of society aimed at—the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality.”

“The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war. All foreigners are alike appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality. The one word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana.”

“No one I met at this time — doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients– failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”

“Fortunately this was Spain and not Germany. The Spanish secret police had some of the spirit of the Gestapo, but not much of its Competence.”

Between Two Millstones vol 1 (Solzhenitsyn)

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. Between Two Millstones Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2018.

This is a great book, but it is not a happy book.  The eponymous millstones are the KGB/Soviet Dragon and Western liberalism. Let us not miss that point. It is easy to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communist narrative that we miss the other enemy, decadent liberalism.

He begins with an appreciation for German Culture. As hinted at in other works (August 1914 and In The First Circle) Solzhenitsyn admired high German culture.  Take Hitler away and Germany could have been a noble leader of Europe. He notes: “But I did like Germany…Not for a moment did I connect Hitler with traditional Germany” (Solzhenitsyn 5, 6).

Although it goes without saying that the KGB (and Communism in general) is pure evil, Solzhenitsyn should be credited as one of the first heroes to demonstrate also how wicked and treacherous Western media is, even saying, “You are worse than the KGB!” Of course, the media isn’t worse in the sense that the media, perhaps with a bit of wistful longing, cannot put patriots in jail. Like the KGB, however, the media can erode the moral foundations of a society.

Solzhenitsyn explains the purpose of all his writing: to show the different Russias.  At the time of his writing the book, there was the rich cultural Russia of the emigres and then there were the Communists.  He laments the path that Russia did not take (92).  We see something similar today in Putin’s Russia.  For many years Russia was right to resist Soros and the globalists. Putin, though, descended into paranoia and forced Russia into an anticlimactic, if not doomed invasion of Ukraine.

Before he left for America, Solzhenitsyn took an idyllic tour of rural France. It “struck me as gentle, tender, and natural. If I were to live in Europe there would not have been a better country for me: not because of the formidable cathedrals of Reims, Chartres, Soissons, or the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, but because of the placid flow of life in the forgotten little towns, the soft and noble contours of the fields, the woodlands overgrown with mistletoe, the long gray garden walls, and the simple French manner of using earth-gray stone in buildings (100-101). This is the moral vision that conservatives have always wanted, if not always articulated.

Solzhenitsyn’s sojourn in Switzerland allowed him to see the decentralized nature of the Swiss cantons.  This might be the most virtuous style of republicanism there is.  As he notes, alluding to a speech by the community leader, “Our community never gave itself over to the folly of total freedom…There cannot be a functioning state without a dash of aristocratic and even monarchic elements” (109).

Aside from dodging the KGB assassination teams, Solzhenitsyn spent most of his time responding to lies by the Western media. Complicating this, he had a rather incompetent lawyer, a Swiss man, who seemed as baffled by the Western legal system as Solzhenitsyn was.

Aside from the KGB and the media, his other opponents included Pope Pius VI and Henry Kissinger (187).  His message to America was simply this: “stop aiding the oppressors” (189).  He wasn’t asking the US to go to war with Russia, nor stop its supplies to Russia. That last sentence might confuse some readers. The USSR wouldn’t have continued existing for much of its history if it weren’t for American shipments of food and materiel to it.

He has a touching section on meeting Prince Franz Joseph II of Liechtenstein.  Prince Franz had refused to deliver Russian soldiers to Stalin, who would have had them murdered.  Britain and America, one must point out, did precisely that (194).

Concerning his later fiction, the book does explain the somewhat tortured side plots of the Red Wheel trilogy.  Solzhenitsyn’s own understanding developed during the writing.  He came to understand that the liberalizations didn’t achieve anything. The educated people who were “bitterly opposed to arbitrary rule, now turned cowardly and fell silent or lied” (226).

Even if the West didn’t have the Soviet terror, it was too weak to morally stop it in the long run.  Communism fell because of the contradictions inherent in the system (and because Reagan forced the USSR to spend money it did not have). The West was drowning itself in commerce and litigation.  They did not want to hear the words of a prophet: “When I called out ‘live not by lies’ in the Soviet Union, that was fair enough, but when I called out ‘live not by lies’ in the United States, I was told to take a hike” (287).

Solzhenitsyn also realized, however, that the America of the decadent academics and media was not the true America.  The true America was “one that was small-town and robust, the heartland, the America I envisioned as I was writing my speech, and to which my speech was addressed” (291). This is the America one finds in a Travis Tritt song.

A social and moral vision emerges from Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs.  The healthy society is one that eschews both Communist terror on one hand and decadent modernity on the other.  Few modern conservatives would disagree.  That analysis, though, might be too superficial. A life as a cog in the machine and always threatened by a ubiquitous legal system, is not much better.  It might be more comfortable (what with no Gulags and all), but it doesn’t allow any human flourishing.

Important points to note:

~Solzhenitsyn supported American involvement in Vietnam (99).

~He correctly noted that General Franco of Spain saved his country from Communist enslavement (206ff).

Reflecting on Theonomy After I left it

EDIT AND CORRECTION: Prof Clark linked David Bahnsen’s post where his father, Greg, supported Norman Shepherd.

A few blogs ago, I did a series called “The Theonomy Files.” I have since updated my own thinking more in line with Reformed Scholasticism since I wrote that. Here is the gist of it. Part of this will be a number of problems in theonomy. These aren’t “gotcha” but they are difficulties to which I never saw a satisfactory answer. I do plan on offering more substantial criticisms later.

 Let’s briefly define our terms:   theonomy is the position that all of the old testament laws are binding for the new covenant Christian, unless rescinded by command (or presumably practice), and are to be applied in their new covenant context.  

It is hard to debate with theonomists.   Part of the reason is they respond to every criticism with “Oh, but you are simply an antinomian/statist/relativist.”  

The following points of criticism do not necessary serve as any one  refutation of theonomy.    Taken together, however, the place a burden of epistemological proof upon theonomists that I deem is impossible for them to bear.

  1. Where were you all this time?   Theonomists like to point out that older, medieval Christian societies were theocratic and would be opposed to the secularism of today’s politics.   Yes, they were theocratic, but they were not theonomic.   And to the degree that the early Western medieval church was Augustinian, they were most certainly not theonomic (Oliver O’Donovan’s reading of Augustinian ethics shows how difficult the Augustine = theonomist case really is).  Further, almost ALL of these societies were explicitly monarchist, a position theonomists vehemently reject.  Obviously, you can’t simultaneously say you affirm (King) Alfred the Great’s social ethic while denying the form of Alfred the Great’s politics (and by implication, social ethic).
  2. Bird’s Nests and God’s Law.  Deuteronomy 22:6 tells you what to do when you come across a bird’s nest.   Is that considered civil case law, moral law, or ceremonial law?   While I admit at times the law can be delineated along such lines, more often than not it cannot.  It is not always clear whether a law is civil, moral, or ceremonial.  Or maybe it’s all three.   If it’s all three, and we obey the moral part, do we not also obey the ceremonial part? But isn’t that heresy on the standard reading of the law (by both sides)?
  3. Moses isn’t the same as John Locke.   Similar to (1);  theonomists have a tendency to read 18th century American (and 17th century British) political concepts back into the law of God.  Ultimately, this means they reject Christian Monarchy, but they reject Christian Monarchy along American revolutionary lines.   They conclude their rejection of monarchy (which would entail a rejection of most of Christian historical ethical reasoning–a point theonomists often fail to grasp) by an appeal to 1 Samuel 8.   Presumably, 1 Samuel 8 is binding on all Christians all the time (though 1 Samuel gives no evidence to that claim).   Notwithstanding, theonomists cannot give us a clear answer to the question:  does Torah teach monarchy or theocratic republicanism?  (Read Deuteronomy 17 and Genesis 49).  Further, is 1 Samuel 8 civil law or moral law?  Is it even law? If it isn’t a law, should we be bound by it?

Torah isn’t the Congressional Register

Of course, by Torah we mean after Christ, apart from works of Torah.   I am saying that seeing the “Law” as Torah and not theonomy provides a better model for understanding Scripture.  A quick perusal of the Pentateuch will show that it was not written with late Western modernity in mind.  In fact, seen in our categories, much of it is quite bizarre.

That’s not to deny its importance.  If anything, the strange ways in which Torah is organized should invite the reader to reflect even deeper about reality and the way that God’s world works.  Let’s consider a few and ask how these can possibly work on the theonomic thesis:

  1. While there are covenantal-sequential patterns and typological motifs (riffing off of the days of creation–Ex. 25-40), many of the laws are apparently haphazardly organized together.  This should alert us to the fact that maybe God didn’t intend for these laws to be understood in a post-common law framework.
  2. Torah is also story.  In Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans Torah is not functioning as a list of dos and don’ts, but as story.  How do you put story into a law code?

Women Breaking up fights

Here is another difficulty with theonomy.   Maybe it’s not with theonomy the idea, but it does invite young theonomists to reflect more deeply on what they are actually saying.  Here is Deuteronomy 25:11

“When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.

There are several problems here if we take it at face value and apply it to a modern Western law code:

  1. Just think about it:  how likely is something like this ever going to happen?   I am a school teacher and I break up fights all the time.   It’s not that easy to get between two people in a fight (and I’ve been hit before, though I was so pumped up with adrenaline I didn’t feel it).
  2. If two guys are moving rapidly and throwing punches, how likely is it that a woman is going to go low and grab the private parts of the other guy?
  3. And would you really apply this?  If a bad guy broke into your home and the wife was able to help out by “disabling” him (and for the sake of argument, save your life), are you really going to reward her by cutting off her hand?  Really?

Someone could say, “Well, that applies to the Mosaic covenant when it was important to provide an heir.”  Maybe.  The text doesn’t say anything about that, so it’s just ad hoc and speculation.  There is still the justice of the matter, covenant heir or no.

And then there is the equity of the matter.   Well before that:  is this law moral or civil/judicial?   It’s obviously judicial since there is a penalty attached to it.   So what’s the equity for today for theonomists?  Remember, on the theonomic gloss the “judicial law abides in exhaustive detail.”    The Reformed Confessionalist does not have this problem.   The Confession only says “allows” the equity and no more.  Which is a nice way of saying that this law would never be applied.  The theonomist has to apply the law.

The After-Calvin Source Failure

One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all. 

That raises another problem:  reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms.  Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas.  Here is an experiment for you:  pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms.  Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE . Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accepted natural law).   The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist).   The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).

If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that
1) they don’t contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein;
2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it].

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak. 

The Steroid Effect

One of the dangers in taking steroids while lifting weights is that despite all the gains, the level you reach is likely the highest you will ever reach.   Once you get off steroids, and even the biggest “user” won’t take them perpetually (No one does steroids, or even creatine, during the regular season for risk of dehydration), it is unlikely you will ever reach those levels naturally again.

We see something similar in theological studies.   Deciding which area to major in will determine how deep one’s theological knowledge can get.   Here was my (and many others; and for what it’s worth, throughout this post substitute any Federal Vision term in place of a theonomy term and the point is largely the same) problem in institutional learning:  I immediately jumped on how important apologetics was for the Christian life to the extent that I made apologetical concerns overwhelm theological concerns.  I essentially made theology proper (and soteriology and ecclesiology) subsets of apologetics/ethics, instead of the other way around.

I won’t deny:  I became very good at apologetics and ethics, but I didn’t know anything about theology outside of a basic outline of Berkhof.   Studying Reformed theology among sources, and worse, movements, who are only barely Reformed, limited how deep I could go in Reformed theology.

I’ll say it another way:  when I was taking covenant theology we had to read sections of Gisbertus Voetius and Cocceius in class.  I got frustrated thinking, “These guys are tying in the covenant of works with natural law.  Don’t they know how un-reformed natural law is?”  Problem was, I was wrong.  But if you read the standard theonomic (or FV; by the way, the FV fully adopts the Barthian, and now historically falsified, Calvin vs. Calvinist paradigm) historiography, there is no way to avoid such misreadings.  Even worse, said historiography fully prevents one from learning at the feet of these high Reformed masters.

The Collapse of First Generation Reconstructionism

I’m not going to touch on the infamous “whitewall” sermon.

I suppose the inevitable question, one loaded with irony, is that given Christian Reconstruction’s commitment to postmillennialism, how come the movement fractured immediately and society is not reconstructed?  Before we get into the individual faults of the men and camps, it is important to first note perhaps why they were prone to fracturing.

Many CR leaders knew they wouldn’t be welcomed in the presbyteries.   So they reasoned:  too bad for the presbyteries!  For all the problems and limitations in local presbyteries, they tend to keep individuals from going off the deep end.   We will soon see why.

  1. Rushdoony:  On one hand it’s a good thing that Rushdoony’s errors are so easy to see.   Being egregious errors and out in the open, they are fairly easy to avoid.  His main errors are the dietary laws, ecclesiology, and shallow readings of some Reformed sources.  I won’t bother refuting his interpretation dietary laws.   I suspect his personal experiences drove his ecclesiology.  I don’t know the whole story, though Gary North has documented it here.   Evidently he got angry at the OPC and separated himself from church bodies for the greater part of a decade. A bit more minor issue but one more prevalent is that many young CRs began their study of theology by beginning with Rushdoony.  As a result, many simply parroted his slogans without really understanding all the theology and philosophy behind it.  Their grasp of Reformed theology was very tenuous beyond the basics.   Once they came across sharp Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologists, they were toast.  They didn’t have the strong foundation in Turretin, Hodge, and Owen that older men had.  Had they begun with the latter and had a decent foundation, then they could have approached Rushdoony Finally, people who really follow Rushdoony have a hard time accepting any criticism of the man.
  2. Was the home-church movement an inevitable spin off from Rushdoony?  That he endorsed something like it is clear, but most Reformed people understand he is wrong on that point.  I think one of the dangers of the home church movement is that apart from any presbyterial oversight, there is nothing stopping the members from embodying outrageous positions.
  3. Gary North:  His Y2K debacle lost him his credibility.  Others have pointed out his refusal to condemn the Federal Vision, though truth be told, would it have mattered?  Most people stopped listening to him in 2,000.   Would his condemning FV in 2003 have changed anything?  Another of his problems would be the Tyler connection. Tyler had the bizarre mixture of independent congregationalism and quasi-sacerdotal episcopalianism.  
  4. Was Federal Vision inevitable?  If you read Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics carefully, it doesn’t seem like it.  He is citing standard P&R and evangelical textbooks on hermeneutics and the Sermon on the Mount.   All of this is wildly at odds with the later Federal Visionists. That’s the problem: other theonomists either became Federal Visionists or they ran interference for them.  

Gary North notes that CR split into two camps:  Tyler Ecclesiasticalism and Rushdoony’s Home Church Patriarchalism. Neither seems like a good choice.