A World After Liberalism: the Radical Right and the dream of tradition
A new book by Yale scholar Matthew Rose is a rare detailed study of the intellectual roots of today’s conservative nationalist movements.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has supercharged the already well established debate on whether the world is entering a new Cold War, the division drawn this time not between competing economic systems but liberalism and conservative authoritarian nationalism.
Nationalisms of various kinds and degrees have come to power and in some cases consolidated their hold in countries including Russia, China, Hungary, Turkey, India, Brazil and the US, but have made significant gains elsewhere, notably in France, Italy and the UK.
Some manifestations, notably in Russia and China, are plain authoritarian. But it is too simple to label even these regimes as simple dictatorships. They, like the others, enjoy significant popular support, appealing to broad coalitions of social and religious conservatives, patriots, and romantics nostalgic for a pre-modern golden age. They all hold out the promise of order against the perceived decadence of a post-religious West.
Putin’s invasion is the ideology’s most visceral assertion so far, understood by its protagonists as a ‘holy war’ waged in the name of the ‘Russkii Mir’, a Russian Orthodox civilisation standing against liberal degeneracy. For Putin and his acolytes, Ukraine’s rightful place is not with the NATO alliance, but with Russia and Belarus, an integral part of an ancient Christian Orthodox motherland standing as a bulwark against the West.
A World After Liberalism, a fascinating new book by Yale scholar Matthew Rose, considers the thought and influence of five thinkers beyond the political and academic mainstream who have played a significant role in establishing the intellectual framework for the movement, which Rose refers to, for convenience, as the ‘Radical Right’.
Rose notes that the intellectual luminaries for many of today’s younger conservatives are no longer those that inspired the turn against social democracy in the late 70s: ‘Instead of William Buckley it is Curtis Yarvin. Instead of Milton Friedman it is Peter Thiel. Instead of George Will it is Angelo Codevilla. Instead of Richard John Neuhaus it is Adrian Vermeule. Instead of Irving Kristol it is Steve Sailor. … In congressional offices, Republican politicians won’t know them all either, but their young aides will. At conservative magazines, senior editors don’t read them, but their junior staff do.’
Like the Christian conservatives who formed a critical part of that earlier movement, the Radical Right is viscerally hostile to liberalism. But far from pining for a return to some kind of theocracy the subjects of Rose’s study are overwhelmingly hostile to Christianity, ‘the original wound of our civilisation’, which, by asserting the rights of the individual against the timeless communitarianism of the ancient world, planted the seed from which the weed of liberalism grew.
Rose studies three European writers, Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist, and two from the United States, Francis Parker Yockey and Samuel Francis. Spengler is included as a bridge to an earlier generation of thinkers including Carl Schmitt, Ernst Junger and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck who emerged in Germany after 1918, the ‘new conservatives’ whose work laid the groundwork for Rose’s subjects, most of whom were active in the middle of the 20th century.
Julius Evola’s world of Tradition
I was particularly intrigued by Evola and de Benoist, whose work is startlingly different from mainstream political literature, offering a worldview that both disturbs and fascinates. For Rose, Evola had ‘a remarkable imaginative capacity to think about the world beyond the boundaries liberalism has assigned it’. During his life the Italian writer won a narrow but devoted audience, notably through his 1934 book Revolt Against the Modern World, an essential outline of his thought which ‘dreamed of a world of absolutely fixed and certain meanings, where human identities, in all their forms, bore the indelible chrism of sacred destiny.’ His influence has grown in the half century since his death.
Evola contrasted what he saw as the disenchanted world of secular modernity with that of ‘Tradition’, the rich ways of life described in Norse poetry, Hindu scripture, Roman religion, Celtic legend, Mesoamerican myth and Arthurian legend, in which every act, no matter how mundane, is saturated with meaning, and which promise every person, no matter how lowly, a life of dignity within an society ordered according to a sacred hierarchy patterned after a celestial order. Work, worship, music, war, relationships, everyday household duties — all are transfigured through observance of rituals handed down by the gods. The world of Tradition ‘offers protection from the terrors of time, creating islands of unchanging order in a sea of flux and decay.’
Evola asserted that these strictly ordered societies were summoned into being by aristocracies that perceived the need to impose ‘form’ on the raw ‘matter’ of life. Each new generation of these elites secures its authority not through force but rather the admiration and awe of the masses, grateful for their deep wisdom in safeguarding the venerable ways of life that offer meaning, the lodestar guiding the community ‘from the lower order of reality to the higher’. Evola here echoes the Aristotelian concept of ‘natural slavery’, asserting that freedom ‘can only exist when there are masters opposed to slaves, when there are proud leaders and followers that boldly and generously put their lives and destinies in their hands.’
Evola makes the remarkable claim that the Golden Age of Tradition began to break down as long ago as the eighth century BC, the ‘Axial Age’ when the immemorial customs that had sustained human society for millenia were finally questioned, giving rise to the great world religions and school of philosophies that gave priority to individual subjectivity. As soon as humanity became, so to speak, conscious of itself, the spell was broken, and the intricate but brittle world of Tradition began to disintegrate, a fall captured in the Biblical story of the expulsion from Eden.
Evola’s philosophy, therefore, is profoundly pagan. Far from pining for the restoration of an idealised Christendom, he condemns Christianity as the canker at the heart of Western culture, responsible for uprooting the enchanted world of myth. The ancient civilisations idealised in the Egyptian, Roman, Assyrian, Persian, Hindu and Norse myths saw no division between the theological, the political and the personal, uniting kingship and priesthood into a single office. But Christianity drove a wedge between what it called ‘Church and State’, sundering earthly authority from the divine. And the Gospels’ insistence that all are equal before God regardless of faith, sex, nation or race broke the delicate web of associations that sustained each traditional civilisation, replacing loyalty to its particular norms with a deeper allegiance to a global community of believers.
As Rose puts it: ‘The earth was once full of gods, but Christianity banished them, setting society on a path that led inevitably to secularism. In claiming that the ultimate source of truth and value exists in a transcendent realm, it effectively made the world profane.’ Evola thought Christians too servile before God, and too rebellious before human authorities. Christianity was the acid that wore away the foundations of an older hallowed world and laid the foundations for liberal modernity, a philosophy that, by conceiving of human beings as rights bearers free to define and pursue for themselves an understanding of the good life, departs radically from the ancient perspective according to which human dignity consists in finding one’s place within a sacred order.
Evola’s developed his thought during the interwar years in which totalitarian movements came to power. But although the use openly fascist thinkers and politicians made of his work earned him notoriety, he insisted he was a critic of their ideology — but from the right, not the left. He shared national socialism’s concern for hierarchy, but thought the new creed a vulgar distortion of the traditional cultures he venerated. Mussolini, Hitler and other fascist leaders of the day, with their crass rhetoric and cruel pogroms against other cultures exhibited none of the grace and natural authority Evola believed to characterises the aristocratic elites his work imagined.
Evola insisted he was not a fantasist, retaining a stubborn faith that some kind of return to the ways of Tradition was yet possible. But he gave little indication of how such a transformation could be achieved. He avoided direct political engagement, dedicating himself to the development of an intellectual vocabulary some future generation might draw upon to appeal to the masses tired of the drift of modernity and hungry for meaning.
Alain de Benoist and Identarianism
Evola’s exotic but undeniably compelling thought world surfaces through the work of the influential French writer Alain de Benoist, the principal architect of ‘identarianism’, the alt-right political philosophy that seeks to protect national cultures from ideologies and patterns of immigration taken to be corroding native communal identities. de Benoist, still writing today, was deeply influenced by the 1968 uprisings, admiring the New Left’s concern to respect the specific identities of minority groups. But he took different lessons from the progressives, rejecting their faith in the possibility of multicultural societies in which different groups can live peaceably side-by-side.
For de Benoist the racial tensions that continue to simmer in France, and across Europe, show that true social peace is secured not by seeking areas of common ground between cultures, but by recognising the profound differences that set them apart, and giving them space to breathe within their own spheres. Forcing them to exist within the same space generates bubbling resentments that frequently boil over into violence.
de Benoist’s radical concern for the particular rather than the abstract might be understood as reapplying the liberal concern for the rights of individuals to groups. Like Evola he appeals to the distant past to ground his thought, drawing on the concept of nominalism elaborated by medieval Catholic theologians in support of his concern for the concrete over the universal. The nominalists insisted, against idealist classical philosophers like Plato, that there are no universal truths or natures, only a multitude of particular beings or objects. Universals — like Plato’s world of Forms — are merely words, convenient labels for grouping particular things into classes. Nominalist empiricism understands the world as an endlessly complex nexus of unique objects, peoples and ways of life. The liberal ideal of a common humanity sharing an essential nature inclined towards liberal democracy is a Platonic abstraction. There are only different cultures with different values and different histories, with different ideals of the good life.
He shares Evola’s hostility to Christianity, asserting the pagan ideal of radical immanence against an abstract creator God. For de Benoist the world itself, in all its particularity, is ‘holy and eternal, uncreated and imperishable … alive with the sacred’. Freed of obligation to a transcendent deity humans can venerate the world as it is, with all of the natural appetites it inspires, its hierarchies, and beauties, however cruel they may be. Like Evola he condemns Christianity, with its insistence on equal dignity before God, as ‘a foreign religion and an alien deity’, denying our natural desires and detaching us from the traditional communities in which we should find our home.
de Benoist draws on communitarian thought to insist that meaning is always socially mediated, experienced only through the particular norms of particular cultures. Communal identity precedes personal identity, nurturing us into the world through a common language and shared ideals. But he goes further than mainstream social conservatives, insisting that identity is therefore defined in contrast to other cultures. It is simply not possible to find the common ground between cultures that might allow them to live side-by-side in a single polity. Multiculturalism is a liberal ideal that has illiberal consequences: the desire to integrate different peoples into a shared common life withers human diversity through assimilation.
Like Evola de Benoist is vague about precisely how multicultural Western societies might be broken apart and reassembled into their constituent elements. He too is content to present himself as intellectual working to ‘to revive the ideological preconditions under which organic forms of European community might again take root after liberalism’. The strength of nativist sentiment in French politics indicates his work has not been without influence: recent presidential candidate Eric Zemmour is one prominent reader.
The Christian rupture
The book concludes with an outstanding essay in which Rose, a conservative-inclined Catholic, considers the Radical Right’s profound hostility to Christianity. He credits its thinkers with a surer grasp of Christian orthodoxy than Christian nationalists, whose faith cloaks a prior and deeper loyalty to ethnic or cultural identity. For Rose the ‘theological marks of a false nationalism include: the idea that an individual is Christian in virtue of being born into a particular ethnicity or nation; the idea that a people is innately Christian in virtue of its history or culture; the idea that Christianity is an inheritance a people possesses as its own, rather than a gift they share with others; the idea that a Christian community is closed to those outside its ethnocultural boundaries. All these ideas understand Christianity as something that originates from within a people, as an expression of their identity, rather than something that comes to it from without.’
It’s a heresy exemplified by the Russkii Mir theology of the Putin-appointed Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, forcefully condemned just after the outset of the present war as ‘a false teaching’ by dozens of Russian Orthodox scholars. Whereas Russkii Mir espouses ‘a form of Orthodox ethno-phyletist religious fundamentalism, totalitarian in character’, the true Christian gospel stands in judgement over all nations, including ‘any Manichean and Gnostic division that would elevate a holy Orthodox Eastern culture and its Orthodox peoples above a debased and immoral “West”’.
Unashamed latter-day pagans like Evola and de Benoist are better able to recognise the nature of the ‘anthropological revolution’ wrought by Christianity, reconceiving human beings as unique individuals defined by their ability to reason and choose rather than as social beings who can only find meaning by locating themselves in the culture into which they have been born. Christianity estranged cultures from themselves, displacing loyalty to particular traditions with an ‘alien’ Judeo-Christian worldview. Rose believes they were also correct to identify Christianity as the precursor to the liberal progressivist view that history has a forward orientation towards a universal community uniting people from every nation and land. As he puts it liberalism ‘is a secular expression of the Christian teaching that the individual is sacred and deserving of protection. Socialism is a secular expression of Christian concern for the poor and downtrodden. Globalism is a secular expression of the Christian hope that history is leading to a kingdom of universal peace and justice. In the past, Christianity spread through religious conversion. In the present, it spreads through secular creeds that preach equality and freedom.’
Rose returns to the earliest Christian theologians and writers to suggest a response to the Radical Right’s challenge. As the new faith spread through the Roman Empire, the early Church encountered resistance by pagans ‘worried about the tending of the ancestral flame and the deities of hearth and home’, who saw its teachings as a cause of social decline. While the Church Fathers affirmed the New Testament’s radically inclusive vision — ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, male and female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ — they were sensitive to the concerns of would-be converts concerned that conversion would cut them adrift. from their ancestral traditions. They therefore encouraged converts to reimagine their ancestry rather than abandon it, building on the Apostle Paul’s idea that Christians acquire Abraham as an ancestor, becoming descendants of Israel through faith. Conversion to Christianity, they argued, made believers members of a family that stretched back to the dawn of human history, encompassing not just Christians but faithful Jews and virtuous pagans, the ‘race of the saved’ who had intuited something of the nature of God prior to the full revelation given in the life of Jesus. Christian converts, therefore, ‘were members of a people whose roots were as deep as human history, and whose genealogy boasted of saints, sages, and heroes with whom they were related through God.’ The idea of Christians as a ‘Third Race’, carried forward into the Christian theological tradition, found perhaps its most celebrated literary expression in Dante’s recognition of the virtuous pagans who inherited eternal life in the Elysian Fields, and — for some — in the Christian Paradise itself.
As well as appreciating the Radical Right’s recognition of Christianity’s capacity to undermine conservatism rather than uphold it, Rose shares their hostility to radical expressions of liberalism, which he suggests ‘see our rootedness in particular communities and traditions as obstacles to human freedom, rather than as natural conditions for its attainment.’ Rose, the Catholic writer, contends ‘there are human needs that liberalism cannot possibly satisfy … Our need to bond with a family, community, and nation to the exclusion of others; our need to protect and pass on an inheritance; our need to celebrate exceptional human beings and inequalities of achievement; our need to experience self-transcendence through self-sacrifice; our need to exhibit loyalty to those specially like us — these are the needs of human spirit that liberalism has often chosen to ignore or impugn.’
He commends a generous catholic Christianity that recognises ‘a tension between particular and universal loves’, acknowledging our natural preferences for the familiar and the known but insisting we must love what is good beyond the boundaries of whatever tradition we have been born into. Against de Benoist he argues that cultures differ not just because of accidental local and historic attachments but because those within them tend to believe their way of life is actually preferable than those of other communities, not just different. de Benoist actually advocates a radical cultural relativism that may work to undermine the social bonds around which cultures form. And he charges Evola with a runaway romanticism, an indulgence in an idealised vision of the past that ‘speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions’. Though certain traditions exhibit great stubbornness, persisting through the ages, human culture is dynamic, continually evolving through internal and external critique.
Rose’s understanding of the Christian tradition and moderate conservatism make him an ideal interpreter of the Radical Right, an uncomfortable but increasingly influential intellectual current still little studied by mainstream academics and commentators. His familiarity with Christian theology allows him to recognise the Radical Right’s grasp of Christianity’s significance in breaking the old pagan world and laying the foundations for today’s prevailing liberal consensus.
It is less clear whether he himself presents liberalism fairly. Today’s headline controversies over ‘woke’ avant-garde progressive concerns obscure the subtleties of the wider, classical, liberal tradition, which has always recognised the importance of tradition and nation to human identity, and acknowledged our conditioned nature. Liberals do not disdain community, but interpret it differently. They are more inclined than conservatives to believe in our capacity to create our own communities, to create what might be called progressive collectivities, not simply to inherit those of our ancestors. That is why so many seek freedom from the constraints of traditional communities, insisting on their freedom and capacity to develop their own ties. In brief, liberals seek to balance the universal human need for belonging with a due scepticism, keenly aware that inherited values and identities can harden into intolerance and authoritarianism. Virtue is not something possessed simply through membership of a particular community, and cannot be imposed by that community’s elders: it must be worked out by individuals in concert with the communities of which they are part.
Those reservations aside, this is an outstandingly interesting and superbly written guide to the intellectual underpinnings of an insurgent political movement rarely paid the close attention its rapid evolution warrants.
A World After Liberalism by Matthew Rose is published by Yale University Press. Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash.