NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A t what point does “right” become “far right,” or “left” “far left”? And where is the “center” from which distance is measured in one direction or the other? These questions are becoming increasingly difficult to answer objectively. The number of political and cultural touchstones shared by all Americans is falling, the siloing of news and media consumption is growing, and Americans are now unable to agree even on the nature and extent of their disagreements. For our MSNBC-viewing, Jacobin-reading friends, anyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren may as well be Genghis Khan, while the president’s courtiers and acolytes denounce conservatives such as Mitt Romney, John McCain, and John Bolton as deep-state globalist sell-outs.
Key Thinkers of The Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy, edited by Mark Sedgwick, addresses these tricky questions about the political spectrum by identifying the points at which the far right departs from mainstream conservative thought altogether. The book is divided into three sections. Part I covers “Classic Thinkers,” those whose place in the far-right canon is already established. Among these writers are the Germans, Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, and Carl Schmitt, along with the Italian traditionalist Julius Evola. Part II moves on to “Modern Thinkers” such as Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye of the French Nouvelle Droite along with Americans such as Patrick Buchanan, Paul Gottfried, and Jared Taylor. Part III concerns itself with “Emergent Thinkers” such as Richard Spencer and Jack Donovan of the alt-right. Each thinker covered in the book is treated in his or her own essay, written by an academic familiar with their output. As Sedgwick informs the reader in the introduction, this is not a polemical work, either promoting or refuting the arguments of its subjects. It aims rather to summarize and elucidate the key themes and ideas animating the work of each writer discussed. The book is really a brief academic introduction and overview of far-Right political thought. Still, it remains readable for the layman all the same.
Since the French Revolution, mainstream conservatism has been rooted in certain assumptions about human nature that are said to be true of all people across time and space. These include the recognition that our nature is both fixed and flawed and that consequential knowledge about how societies function is necessarily diffuse among its members, together forming the conviction that excessive centralization should be avoided. Because these things are true of all people everywhere, conservatism in the American tradition holds that there is no basis for according different legal or political privileges to people based on their race, sex, or any other immutable characteristic. The capacity to reason and to make decisions is an individual trait shared by virtually everyone, and so conservatism has traditionally regarded the individual as the ultimate, final, and irreducible political unit. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence is a salient example of this kind of thinking.
The key thinkers on the radical right call this brand of politics “universalism,” and they don’t care for it in the slightest. The notion that anything of any political significance is universally true of all people everywhere is anathema to them. These writers regard traits shared by all individuals, including reason, conscience, and consciousness, as insufficient grounds for a working political regime. For Carl Schmitt, successful politics is built upon the “distinction between friend and enemy.” He argues that “what ultimately underpins politics is the fundamental distinction between us and them.” Thus, Schmitt emphasized the local community or tribe as the necessary foundation for politics. As he saw it, classical liberalism “ignores this precondition of a constructive politics because it is biased toward universalist ideologies.” The kind of affirmation of universal human dignity that one finds in the Declaration of Independence hinders the development of an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality by maintaining that the most important aspects of human beings as political actors are things that they all share — an obvious lie in Schmitt’s eyes. This friend/enemy foundation for political action has been widely accepted by subsequent thinkers on the far right. Alain de Benoist, for example, thinks that universalism engenders an “ideology of sameness” that opens the door to globalism and the subsequent exploitation by capitalists of what should be locally autonomous ethnic communities. After the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger, the most important founding text for the radical Right is Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, in which much of the same dismissal of a politically relevant ‘human nature’ is present. According to Spengler, “cultures” are the great actors on the stage of world history. “Mankind,” by comparison, is simply “a zoological expression, or an empty word.”
Most of the thinkers in Sedgwick’s book are self-described pagans who hold Christianity in contempt and deeply regret the starring role it has played in the history of the West. Larry Siedentop, most emphatically not a man of the far Right, has observed that “the most distinctive thing about Greek and Roman antiquity is what might be called ‘moral enclosure,’ in which the limits of personal identity were established by the limits of physical association and inherited unequal social roles.” This moral enclosure, whereby duty is circumscribed by race or caste, is what the thinkers of the radical Right are trying to retrieve from pagan antiquity. When working as a contributor to the publication Europe-Action between 1963 and 1967, de Benoist became a devotee of the philosopher Louis Rougier, and embraced his rebuke of Christianity as “an egalitarian and thus subversive doctrine” responsible for destroying the hierarchical social model derived from “the old pagan wisdom of Europe.” He would subsequently publish a book in 1981 entitled On Being a Pagan. Jean-Yves Camus identifies the following as the most important sentence in all of de Benoist’s writings for understanding his work: “I hereby define the Right, by pure convention, as a positive thing; and the progressive homogenization of the world, extolled and effected by two thousand years of egalitarian ideology, as a negative thing.” (Emphasis added.)
The emergent thinkers of the radical Right seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet as their forbears. Richard Spencer believes that Christian values “produced the egalitarian ‘sicknesses’ associated with liberalism, socialism, feminism, and multiculturalism” while Jack Donovan, in an address given at Spencer’s National Policy Institute, encouraged his audience to reject the “universal morality” associated with Christianity, which, he told them, “makes men weak, leaves them lost, confused, dependent, helpless.” From 2007 to 2009, Donovan was actually a priest of the Church of Satan, which he described as “very much a do-it-yourself religion when it comes to personal ethics” (a rather neat summation of Paradise Lost). Since 2015, he has been a member of the Wolves of Vinland, a neopagan group that embraces many of his male tribalist principles.
It only remains to discuss the thinkers in Sedgwick’s book who have been more traditionally associated with the American conservative movement. Here, the reader might object, we are on different ground. The very first arrivals from the Old World who settled the wilds of America some 400 years ago were not pagans but Christians. Just as mainstream American conservatism differs in flavor from the throne-and-altar right in Europe, surely the American far Right, whatever its vices, is exempt from the charge of hostility towards universal anthropology? After all, the United States is a universalist nation, in this sense, in its very DNA. Interestingly, the American far Right, as discussed in this book by Seth Bartee, Edward Ashbee, and others, resembles its European counterpart in almost every sense. Only the reference points change. Bartee focuses his analysis on what he calls “The Lincoln Wars,” a debate in the ’60s between Harry Jaffa and M. E. Bradford, among others, about the nature of the American Founding. Jaffa and his supporters argued that the Founding was primarily an affirmation of universal inalienable rights, while his traditionalist opponents viewed it as a unique moment in history pertaining to a particular people and their culture; a ‘securing’ of ‘the rights of Englishmen.’
The paleoconservative Paul Gottfried is one of the thinkers analyzed in the book. His work, The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar Right, sought to ground the conservative movement in historicism, and inveighed against “liberalism’s desire,” as Bartee put it, “to universalize the American political project.” Once again we are on familiar ground: The division is between the political and anthropological universalism of Lincoln, and the historical and regional particularism of his enemies. Often the debate in America is couched in the language of her own civic religion instead of Christianity, but the issues at stake are the same as in Europe. What separates the right from the far right is the conviction that the most important truths about human beings as political actors are shared equally and individually by everyone on the planet. Sedgwick’s book does a good job demonstrating how the great divorce between the right and the far-right hinges on this basic disagreement about anthropology. The book’s lesson for American conservatives is that the best way to head off the advance of the radical Right going forward is to make sure that Burkean particularism is always and everywhere balanced with a healthy dose of Jeffersonian universalism.