The death of Roger Scruton moved me to revisit two of his essays. The first, “Why I Became a Conservative,” appeared in The New Criterion in 2003. The second was published in the Daily Mail last summer under the headline, “Sir Roger Scruton battled the Thought Police behind the Iron Curtain as a young man. Now he says they’ve come for him in Britain after he was wrongly accused of making racist slurs.” Both pieces describe aspects of Scruton’s intellectual development in which his experience with Communism was central.
By the time he first visited Communist Europe in the late 1970s, Scruton had studied Edmund Burke and adopted many of the lessons of Reflections on the Revolution in France. He found Burke’s defense of authority, of tradition, and of the social compact between generations rather than individuals essential as he worked out his intellectual response to the student uprisings of 1968. “I had grasped the positive thesis — the defense of prejudice, tradition, and heredity, and of a politics of trusteeship in which the past and the future had equal weight to the present — but I had not grasped the deep negative thesis, the glimpse into Hell, contained in his vision of the Revolution,” he wrote in 2003.
His visit to Prague in 1979 was a dark revelation. “I knew nothing of what it was like to live under Communism — nothing of the day-to-day humiliation of being a nonperson, to whom all avenues of self-expression are closed.” Police accosted him as he tried to enter the apartment where he had been invited to teach a seminar. The participants — members of the Czech intellectual remnant — had been erased from public life. They eked out livings as stokers. Scruton was inspired to become involved in the lives of Czech dissidents. The more time he spent in central Europe, the more aware he became of the evil of Communism. “In the Czech lands,” he wrote in 2019, “I sensed the presence all around me of a dark, impersonal force, a controlling and all-observing eye whose goal was to plant suspicion and fear in the heart of every human relationship.”
He meditated on these sensations. “And I came to see,” he wrote for the New Criterion, “that Burke’s account of Revolution was not merely a piece of contemporary history. It was like Milton’s account of Paradise Lost — an exploration of a region of the human psyche: a region that lies always ready to be visited, but from which return is by way of a miracle, to a world whose beauty is thereafter tainted by memories of Hell. To put it very simply, I had been granted a vision of Satan and his work — the very same vision that had shaken Burke to the depths of his being.”
The Communist bloc was Roger Scruton’s Inferno. But it wasn’t Virgil who guided him there. It was Edmund Burke. “As to the task of transcribing, into the practice and process of modern politics, the philosophy that Burke made plain to the world,” Scruton wrote in 2003, “this is perhaps the greatest task that we now confront.” And so it remains.