A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, by Matthew Rose (Yale University Press, 208 pp., $28)
Matthew Rose opens A World After Liberalism with a diagnosis: “We are living in a postliberal moment.” The statement doesn’t imply that all liberal institutions have crumbled (though some have) or that all liberal politicians lose elections (though some do). Rather, Rose writes, “liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds.” In the realm of ideas, at least, the founding myths, values, and prophets of liberalism are losing their appeal. Disenchanted Westerners see not prosperity but consumerism, not independence but atomization, not rationality but spiritual disarray, not tolerance but relativism, and not freedom but anarchic disorder. The world that the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up seems to be closing in on itself. As its institutions fracture, its principles tremble, and its promises disappear, its most ardent champions are withdrawing into irrelevance. Such is the fear of liberals; such is the hope of their opponents, especially those of the radical Right.
To understand the future of post-liberalism, Rose, a scholar of religion who works at the Morningside Institute, turns to its past. He profiles five thinkers who have shaped the radical Right in the West, four of whom are deceased. Delving into the life and work of each intellectual, Rose explains how they represent beliefs, trends, or prejudices that animate today’s dissident Right. Despite internal contradictions, their ideas coalesce into an uncomfortable whole as the book progresses.
Rose begins with Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola, two giants of the radical Right. Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (1918), was a convinced nationalist who rejected race theory, Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the very idea of racial purity. Sympathetic to cultural relativism, he opposed all attempts to evaluate non-Western cultures by Western standards. He considered Hitler a plebeian idiot, the Nazis an “organization of the unemployed by the workshy,” and fascism a worthless enterprise—earning him the ire of the Nazi press. A leading figure in Germany’s post-World War I Conservative Revolution, Spengler celebrated heroic elites, abhorred Enlightenment rationalism, and sought to preserve the aristocratic mindset dear to the Romantics. His political project flowed from a desire to inject dynamism and devotion into a sclerotic public square that the unimpressive many had captured at the expense of the exceptional few. An accelerationist, he did not want to reverse modernity but hoped that its course would intensify until genuine alternatives could emerge.
Diagnosis of Western decline aside, Evola shared little with Spengler. Where the German historian spurned fascism and notions of racial purity, Evola embraced both: his only critique of Mussolini’s regime was that it was insufficiently fascist. While both Spengler and Evola lamented the subversion of hierarchies by liberal decadence, Evola drew on the traditionalism of René Guénon, a French philosopher who defended tribalism and primal cultures as uncorrupted by reason’s malign grasp. Against the relativism of Spengler, Evola argued that “primordial facts” exist and apply to all. Accessing those facts required the reversal of both Christianity—the religion of the weak—and modernity. Spengler’s accelerationism did not go far enough.
The book’s remaining three thinkers oscillate between these poles. Francis Parker Yockey, whose Imperium (1948) influenced the American far Right in the 1950s, injected a heavy dose of anti-Semitism into Spengler’s account of decline. Less interesting than Spengler, Yockey served as a representative of a broader trend, believing that “critical rationality has been smuggled into the soul of American culture by biblical religion.” This view quickly yielded to unabashed Jew-hatred.
Alain de Benoist, the still-living father of the French New Right, comes next. Like his philosophical forebears, he lambasts the homogenizing influence of Christianity and liberalism but does so in the name of anti-imperialism, diversity, and communal revival, disguising his views in New Left jargon to avoid unpleasant accusations. Though Benoist rarely uses the language of hierarchy, his concrete prescriptions do not differ from those of his more unapologetic companions.
Finally, Rose turns to Sam Francis, an American writer active in the late twentieth century, whose writing anticipated the rise of identitarian right-wing populism. A keen reader of James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, Francis envisioned a revolt against the managerial elite fueled by the humiliations and grievances of middle-American whites. These “middle American radicals,” he thought, were natural opponents of both the emancipatory cultural politics of progressives and the economic individualism of movement conservatives. Embracing power politics, Francis hoped that a charismatic leader would harness the resentment of working-class whites into a political revolution that could control the leviathan state. Some have found echoes of a not-so-distant past, or prophecies for a not-so-distant future, in Francis’s writing.
Elegant and informative, Rose’s book serves two objectives. Descriptively, he introduces readers to a neglected but relevant tradition without academic jargon or emotional zeal. Normatively, he hopes to persuade readers that the radical Right stands in fundamental tension with Christian teachings. In his final chapter, provocatively titled “The Christian Question,” Rose exhorts believers to find a middle path between modernity and its discontents. Skeptical of liberalism but afraid of its enemies, Rose advances a cautious defense of modernity that stands in refreshing contrast with those offered by the Cold War crusaders of old. He accepts that the pathologies of our secular age aren’t going away, while advocating a Christian renewal whose universality, humility, and piety leave no place for a post-liberal awakening.
Even those who disagree with Rose’s normative project will find his analysis penetrating. Sometimes unconsciously, he captures both the appeal and the fatal flaws of the radical Right. Prejudice and obsessions aside, three of these flaws stand out.
First, with the exception of Francis, these thinkers exaggerate the extent to which ideas drive history. Paying vanishingly little attention to social structures, institutions, and material conditions, they blame Judeo-Christian principles or Enlightenment ideals for the West’s putative decadence. Reading Evola, one gets the impression that the glorious West was instantly placed on the path to extinction the moment that Westerners began to care about rationality. Such a genealogy fails to capture the reality of historical change or political power. Indeed, the radical Right can learn from the radical Left: though orthodox Marxists often discount the role of ideas, radical rightists would do well to pay more attention to the structural forces that lie behind events.
Second, radical rightists offer a confused critique of philosophical rationalism. Witnessing the dismemberment of tradition, they blame modern malfunctions on rationality itself without differentiating between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the rationality of the church. Even granting that the fetishization of instrumental reason delegitimizes faith and revelation—supplanted by a devotion to economic, technological, and moral progress—rationality is not the exclusive property of the secular mind. In fact, the history of the modern West could be seen as the history of the struggle between the juridical rationality of Abrahamic faiths and the calculating rationality of liberal thought. The former operates within the bounds of the tradition that the latter subverts; the former serves the divine that the latter despises; the former codifies an order against which the latter revolts. Instead of picking a side, radical rightists try to escape from the fight itself. Denying man’s nature as a rational animal, pagan traditionalists deprive him of the primal essence that they claim to preserve.
Third, dissident rightists indulge in escapism masquerading as radical thought. Conservatives tend to romanticize the past, but radical rightists romanticize a past so distant, foreign, and inaccessible that their utopian yearnings become an excuse to do nothing. Rose’s thinkers obsess over the aristocratic life, yet none showcases the kind of noblesse oblige that distinguishes the virtuous aristocrat from the self-interested bourgeois. Indeed, radical rightists waiting idly for societal collapse are as delusional as orthodox Marxists hoping earnestly that capitalism will collapse under its own contradictions. To avoid the mundane demands of politics, Evola and Benoist fetishize “primal” cultures in the most Orientalist of fashions, seeking refuge in an inverted Third Worldism. They posture as stewards of an order that does not, will not, and cannot exist. More disrespectful than the liberals they lambast, radical rightists treat tradition as aesthetic—a pastime, a fantasy, or a commodity to deal with their anxieties. In this respect, Evola and his followers are the ultimate products of the liberal order: self-centered and resentful essayists, desperate to inject an element of romanticism into their otherwise modern lives.
Beneath their flamboyant rhetoric lies a simple truth. These are intellectuals who, coping with boredom, chose to posture as defenders of imaginary societies in which they would not survive more than ten minutes. Rose is right: they should have gone to church instead.
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