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Home/Rod Dreher/Learning From The Radical Right

Learning From The Radical Right

Julius Evola (1898-1974), a leading figure of the far right. What does he have to do with us today? More than you think

I have been meaning for a while to write about one of the best books I’ve read this year: Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right. Rose is not on the radical right; he’s a Catholic and the director of the Berkeley Institute, and a contributor to First Things magazine. In fact, a superb 2019 essay he wrote for First Things about the far-right journalist and essayist Samuel Francis forms the basis for his new book.

Rose’s new book profiles some of the leading contemporary thinkers of the radical right, showcasing why they appeal to some people today. He neither lionizes them nor demonizes them, though he certainly does not whitewash their beliefs. What’s so valuable about this book — you’ll get this if you read the Sam Francis essay linked above — is that Rose looks at these figures squarely and fairly, and explains why they matter today. You don’t have to like any of them, but you need to know who they are and what they thought.

Henry George, writing in Front Porch Republic, says:

Rose’s book is not a sociological survey but a series of intellectual portraits of five thinkers of (loosely) the post-war radical right: Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, Alain Benoist, and Samuel Francis. As Rose says in the book’s introduction, we tend to view history as before and during liberalism. We know (or assume) the time before liberalism was one of darkness and cruelty, intellectually closed and socially brutal. But it still had the allure of familiarity and cultural connection however faint. What is truly disturbing, according to Rose, is to attempt to imagine a world after liberalism, one that does not correspond to what we know or what we think we knew. If liberalism is no longer the baseline, then our most basic presuppositions must be up for grabs, and who knows what could replace them?

The five thinkers under discussion are not presented through the argument of “abandon liberalism and this is your destiny,” but there is a warning implicit through the book that their ideas are serious and deep enough to take on their own terms, offering a potent alternative that has resonance with our current condition. Should we lack prudence, we could indeed follow the ideas of these thinkers down the dark paths they lay out. As Rose writes, “I do not claim we are fated to repeat their arguments, and certainly not to admire their character. But they can serve as guides to some of the lurking political possibilities of our time, helping us to better understand what some radicals have already discovered, and what more will likely find.”

Rose argues that these figures went further than others in looking beyond the present and past into a reactive future. None of these thinkers is conventionally conservative; they see little worth retaining in their own time and look forward to what could arise and how thinkers like themselves could or should work to shape it. For these thinkers who wrote with words of dynamite, what ails liberalism went down to its roots. For them, liberalism was both false and evil, denying our collective, racial nature and heritage, unmooring us from our place in the ethno-cultural social order.

This is exactly right (about Rose’s book), and why I found the book so riveting. Rose is emphatically not on the side of these radical right thinkers, but he is smart enough to realize that they are deep, and they speak about things that liberalism (meaning classical liberalism) prefers to ignore. We on the Right tend to be dismissive of far-left claims and arguments, when really we shouldn’t. Some conservative on Twitter wrote not long ago about a report that the Millennials and Gen Z have far less savings and wealth at their age than the Boomers did. The Twitter commentator said something to the effect of: Is there any wonder that people who can’t accumulate anything under capitalism don’t like capitalism?

Similarly, people on the Left ought to pay attention to what these radical right people are saying. They are speaking to people who have not prospered in the liberal order. You can call these people “losers” and “haters,” and maybe they are. But reading Rose’s book, you understand that those facile dismissals are dangerous. George points out that all the thinkers profiled by Rose hated Christianity, and blamed it for introducing liberalism to the world. He goes on:

This speaks to a problem keenly felt by those on the radical right: how does one live, and find meaning in the world, when Christian faith seems impossible? There is a particular urgency to this question in the work of Spengler and Evola, writing in the wake of the catastrophe of World War One.

The attempts of each to find a way towards meaning is telling. It speaks to the spiritual dissatisfaction that sits at the base of so many forms of extremism, from Islamism to the far-left and radical right. Each of these writers sought some sort of resolution and redemption inside the world and within history itself, having discarded or lost the path to salvation outside time that Christianity offers. But no matter their efforts, these thinkers seemingly cannot escape the shadow of the cross they so despise.

Read the entire review. 

And I hope you will buy the book too, because its importance at this critical moment in our history cannot be overstated. Rose is a Christian, as I mentioned. He begins the final chapter by writing about “Dan,” a young correspondent who left Christianity because, in his view, “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization.” Rose goes on:

Almost everything written about the “alternative right” has been wrong in one respect. The alt-right is not stupid; it is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous; they are serious. To appreciate this fact, one needs to inquire beyond its presence on social media, where its obnoxious use of insult, obscenity, and racism has earned it a reputation for moral idiocy. The reputation is deserved, but do not be deceived. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of seductive power.

This chapter is the first attempt I have seen by a Christian on the Right to grapple honestly with the threat to Christianity posed by the radical (anti-Christian) right. Rose pays these thinkers the compliment of taking their ideas seriously. He says that the politics of the post-Christian Right are going to sound a lot of the themes that the far-right authors he profiles advocated — this, even if the post-Christian Rightists of the future have never heard of these men. We Christians had better be ready for these arguments, Rose says. He goes on:

Like believers in late antiquity, Christians need to be willing to see their cultures, including their proudest achievements, through the eyes of their most unforgiving critics. Doing so requires that they resist the temptation, however powerful, to dismiss their critics’ ideas as motivated solely by prejudice or hatred. The radical right can be ignored or marginalized for a time, and we can hope that its season will not soon arrive. But it represents a perennial possibility in our political life, and where social changes continue to open new intellectual spaces, its opportunities for expression will undoubtedly grow. Its ideas do not cease to animate human minds when they cannot be openly expressed and debated, and it is not credit to us if we succeed in repressing them without first understanding them. We cannot know what we affirm without knowing what we deny, and we cannot know who we are if we do not know what other ways of life are possible.

More:

Liberalism aspired to order society around a vision of human beings, abstracted from all attachments, whose fundamental needs are for prosperity, peace, and pleasure. It imagined human beings as rights-bearing individuals who could pursue their own understanding of the good life. If liberalism is in crisis, it is because this picture of human life has proven to be impoverished. Human beings are not defined through acts of individual choice and self-expression alone; they are social creatures who find meaning through relationships they have not chosen and responsibilities they cannot relinquish. Human identity is in this respect irreducibly illiberal, being embedded in lines of kinship and descent, existing only in a sequence of generations, always as a child, and invariably an inheritor of a particular cultural and social patrimony. It is an irreducible part of our nature, an absolute given, that we owe our existence to parents and peoples we did not originally choose.

In light of that paragraph, consider a complaint that was voiced years ago by a commentator, long since departed, called German Reader. He was a German who was not a Christian, and who said openly that he held Catholic and Protestant pastors in his country responsible for its destruction. Why? Because they promoted open-doors immigration, which was tearing apart the social fabric. Anybody who has spent time in European cities knows what a crisis immigration is causing there. Pope Francis constantly promotes open-doors immigration, apparently disregarding the right of the various peoples of Europe to decide for themselves who will live in their territories, and disregarding the fact that there is something valuable in the lives of their particular peoples, stretching far back into the past — something that is worth preserving, but that cannot be preserved if their people are replaced, or semi-replaced, by foreigners.

As you know, I spent significant time in Hungary this year. Immigration is a big deal there, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban following a hard line against immigration to his country. Orban’s argument is that Hungary has existed as a nation for a thousand years. Nobody else in the world speaks a language like theirs. There are fewer than 10 million Hungarians living in Hungary. To open the doors to immigrants is to put the existence of their nation in danger. Given that much of the migration to Europe comes from the Islamic world, it would be to put the existence of Christianity in Hungary in danger — this, at a time when secularism has it flat on its back.

Of course Orban is right about this. If people like Pope Francis want to urge people like Viktor Orban to change their minds, then he (Francis) has to take seriously the arguments of the anti-immigrant folks — whose number includes many Catholics. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, there is nothing but chastisement and bland speechifying talking about welcoming the stranger. To be fair, Christians do have a particular obligation to consider their moral responsibility towards the stranger. But does fulfilling that obligation require the suicide of a people, and of their state? These are extremely difficult questions, and there is no indication that liberals — neither Francis nor any other leading liberals — are capable of addressing them seriously. At some point, though, denouncing all dissent from the liberal line as “hatred” and “bigotry” becomes untenable. These questions are not going away.

If Christianity cannot figure out how to answer the real questions these people have, then we Christians will lose them to the radical right. Matthew Rose makes this extremely important point in his vital book. But bourgeois Christian conservatism of the Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel-Colson era is no longer enough. What, then? I have proposed the Benedict Option as a contribution to that discussion. Patrick Deneen, Rusty Reno, Sohrab Ahmari, and others have their own ideas. This 2015 First Things essay by Michael Hanby is a great place to start the deliberations. 

UPDATE: A reader who is non-white e-mails to say:

Nearly all of what you say is of critical importance, but “Learning From The Radical Right” had an urgency to it that I haven’t felt in your other posts. For one, it immediately reminded me of what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry said in 2017 (but also attributed to Ross Douthat): If you didn’t like the Christian right, you’ll really hate the post-Christian right.
You know by now I’m an atheist. Which is strange, because most other atheists who share my views of God and spirituality, many within the scientific community, are not on the Right like I am. The critical difference between myself and other atheists is that while I don’t believe in a higher power or an existence outside ourselves, I see religion as eminently useful. Religion has formed the bedrock of families, communities, and societies for all of human history. At this late hour in our republic, I’m also more convinced than ever before that religion, singularly Christianity, has not only formed the basis for and great enabler of all of Western civilization, but has also acted as a brake on humankind’s worst impulses.
The progressive dream of secularism entailed the right turning into, essentially, the center-left. Instead, all over Europe, and increasingly America, we see the post-Christian right turning into a nationalist, or even ethno-nationalist, movement.
I don’t know what Gobry’s political alignment is, but it doesn’t matter, because what he says is correct: the Left, in its assault on Christianity and America’s heritage overall, is creating something it has even less control over. This selfish (at best) power grab by the Left to create a collectivism has certainly succeeded in putting them in the driver’s seat, at the cost of creating a struggle which increasingly cannot be resolved in civil fashion.
Gobry concludes with:
The secularization of America can have another effect. When America was a majority Christian nation, it was also a less polarized nationIt’s hard not to see that Christianity played a role by providing a common language that helped bridge partisan differences. A secularized America is going to have a much more extreme right wing, but also a much more extreme left wing, and fewer ways for them to interact and talk. Welcome to the future.
200% The Left has PTSD because of this fact, as it indicts them as criminally culpable for the destruction of this country and the West. You can argue that America shouldn’t be a theocracy and that nobody should be forced to believe or go to church while also conceding, as I have, that the United States wouldn’t ever have existed (at least not as we’ve known it) without Christianity. Classical liberalism was the product of those who were of faith, many of whom took the Bible literally. The Founding Fathers were all religious men.
Despite the Left’s lies, the Abolitionists were not, anything remotely resembling today’s Woke. They were, instead, conservative and religious. This makes the Left’s assault on Christianity all the more baffling – these conservative Christians rendered more “progress” on humankind than most people. So why the vitriol? Is it because you saw a televangelist say you’re going to Hell if you’re gay? Does that one act alone by one person invalidate all the good the faith has done for the world?
Samuel Huntington, who was heavily influenced by Oswald Spengler, said things similar to what Gobry said. He observed that Americans are, compared to Europeans, far more religious and that Protestant Christianity should serve as a foundation for American culture, because that’s what made us. Without this distinction, there’s nothing keeping us from becoming more like Europe. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it’d certainly be the end of the American experiment.
I guess the urgency I felt reading your post is due to my atheism, which makes me susceptible to Radical Right thinking. I have to admit, their ideas are fascinating and I think they’re actually correct about a great many things. But a society cannot be created on the basis of “correctness.” A society built on the basis of science alone is effectively a Darwinian society, which we all reject. There’s a reason why secular humanism is so popular among scientists, because the underlying philosophy behind it is to channel science for the greater good, not to surrender ourselves to it.
The same goes with the Radical Right. It may, in fact, be better for all ethnicities and races to live separately, for example. But paths inevitably cross, and then what? Shall we reduce ourselves to an existence of ethnic conflict or race war? Or shall we find ourselves an imperfect means of coexistence which, if it doesn’t resolve our differences, prevents our differences from being used as an excuse to kill each other?
I can’t remember who said it, but it goes something like, “A society is something where people agree on certain myths.” Myths have become synonymous with lies and I agree, it’s a thin line. But, on some level, we have to be willing to believe certain things together if we’re to stay together. We have to render unto a higher power, even if we don’t actually believe in its literal existence. We have to believe we’re a good people, even if we’ve committed unspeakable sins in our past. We have to see one another as family, even if we’ve never met each other. Without any of this, a society cannot exist and certainly not a nation.
This is why Viktor Orban is doing it right, like you say. He’s not the alt-right, but a man who knows what it takes to create a truly civil nation and society. Emphasizing Hungary’s Christian heritage is bigoted to most, but I’m more convinced than ever this is the only way to prevent something terrible from coming its way. The Left’s failure to cease fire is going to backfire on them big time and they’ll rue the day they commenced their assault on Christianity. The Christians, love them or hate them, aren’t the bad guys in all this. They probably never were.
And you know what? I don’t think I’ll stand in the way of whatever’s coming back at the Left.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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