A World After Liberalism:
Philosophers of the Radical Right
by matthew rose
yale, 208 pages, $28
In a series of short but incisive essays, Matthew Rose, a frequent contributor to First Things, examines five thinkers of the radical right: Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Yockey, Alain de Benoist, and Samuel Francis. Why study a set of thinkers with dubious ideas, whose lives contain enough imprudence to make Céline seem like a cautious centrist? For Rose, we must study the radical right to counter the “suffocating” narrowness of contemporary political culture. “Unlike the radical left,” he observes, the foremost thinkers of the radical right “are not found in university curricula, and sometimes not even in university libraries.” Liberals will likely agree with certain points in his thoughtful yet critical depictions of these thinkers. But as we shall see, Rose’s criticisms of the radical right are not offered in the service of liberalism.
Spengler, the author of Decline of the West (1918), is the greatest thinker in the volume and the one who haunts the thought of the other four. Evola was his Italian translator. A man of aristocratic sensibilities, Evola dedicated himself to uncovering the primeval sources of order, setting him off on a lifelong search for the “Primal Tradition.” He cavorted with Italian fascism but never joined the party; the fascists tried to assassinate him. Yockey led a colorful but obscure life as a writer with a small cult following. He argued that Jewish culture was taking over the West—except in Russia, which he thought would become a cultural bastion against Western decadence. Yockey worked for the U.S. government but also collaborated with communist regimes around Europe and South America. In 1960, after being arrested by the FBI, he committed suicide. Benoist, the only one of these thinkers still alive today, is a serious academic thinker in his own right. France’s most intellectually rigorous pagan, Benoist is a consistent defender of nominalism and identitarianism. The American essayist and theorist Samuel Francis, most famous for his indictment of American conservatives as Beautiful Losers (1994) and infamous for the racialized explanations of civilization he endorsed in the last decade of his life, completes the volume.
These thinkers are neither reactionaries nor counterrevolutionaries. They do not seek to reverse a modern philosophy or regime in the name of an older one. (Rose has not written—yet—Philosophers of the Royalist Right.) These thinkers are better understood as accelerationists, who aim to push forward rather than reverse modernity in order to reveal new political possibilities. Nor are these thinkers unambiguous fascists. While some, such as Evola, come precariously close, they tend to see fascism as something between a failed experiment and a vulgar, destructive project. And while some endorse racial hierarchy, others do not. Benoist, for example, rejects the notion of any racial group possessing inherent supremacy or inferiority, and disdains biological explanations of human behavior.
These five thinkers of the radical right share an apocalyptic diagnosis of Western civilization. Instead of seeing the twentieth century as a vindication of the best of the West against its challengers, they contend that the century reveals a civilization caught in a suicidal spiral. “Traumatised by its past and terrified of the burdens of political responsibility,” the West has lost its sense of identity. Thinkers of the radical right blame liberalism for this. They claim to be the only ones capable of confronting the liberal lie; they claim to be the only remaining enemies of nihilism.
Rose’s quintet all agree that liberalism is premised on a false anthropology. They deny that mankind consists of individuals sharing the same desires and capable of living in one homogenous society. The truth is that men “inherit ways of thinking and acting that reflect our particular ethno-cultural origins.” Culture is destiny. Humanity is not united by a fixed nature. It is permanently divided by historical experience into cultures that cannot understand each other and should not presume to do so. All the thinkers in the volume are multiculturalists. Preaching cultural relativism and rejecting universalism, they differ from liberal multiculturalists in that they task themselves with saving their own culture, the West.
By focusing on cultural origins, the five thinkers depart from classical, Aristotelian political science. Stepping back from political history’s most ordinary features—ideas and regimes—they set out in search of history’s higher meaning. They look across centuries, even millennia, to discover the West’s hidden origins and history. This commitment entails intriguing revisionist histories of the twentieth century. For Spengler, the twentieth century should not be understood in terms of intellectual or ideological battles. Rather, the century showcases the start of a long struggle between diverse human identities and the cultural symbols that represent them; it should be understood through the lens of identity politics. Yockey follows suit, interpreting the Second World War as an unresolved cultural struggle between an egalitarian culture and those who oppose it. Benoist sees the twentieth century in terms of a mounting confrontation between competing forms of group solidarity that transcend partisan divides. Evola regards the twentieth century as the culmination of the loss of the principle of authority. Its events take their meaning from the gradual erosion of the culture of “Tradition,” beginning as far back as the eighth century b.c.
In the book’s only substantive misstep, Rose labels Francis “the nationalist.” Yet Francis first saw nationalist politics as epiphenomenal to class conflict. What Francis called “the secret of the 20th century” was not national conflict but the managerial revolution. The ascent of bureaucratic administration created a new class of functionaries (those trained for technical and managerial roles) who entered into conflict with the old elites, untrained in managerialism but with personal talents of competency and leadership. As this conflict intensified, newer elites used the power of the state to dislodge the old elites. This conflict also took on an ideological character, as egalitarianism became a weapon used by the new elites to smash the power of the old. The strategy was to delegitimize bourgeois society—small businesses, family firms, locally oriented institutions, representative government—as well as the bourgeois virtues of self-governance, responsibility, and duties to one’s family and local community. Francis departed from American conservatism by denigrating the persuasive power of ideas. The next phase of the egalitarian revolution “will depend less on who and how many really believe in the egalitarian lie than on who stands to gain from wielding the egalitarian sword.” After the managerial revolution, a successful nationalist coalition had to think not in terms of ideas but economic power; it could only win if it offered a “nationalist-socialist synthesis.”
With these claims, Francis was already courting controversy, but in the final stage of his thinking, he concluded that nation was epiphenomenal to race. Ideological conflicts were best explained not by class differences, but by racial differences. America failed because an “interpretation of history in which whites are systematically demonized as the enemies of the black race” coupled with “a myth of black racial solidarity and supremacy” invented a new ethnic hierarchy and intensified racial conflict. Yet for Francis, this conflict was not reducible to ideology. It was the norm of human civilization. He called not for a national consciousness, but for a racial consciousness that dispelled ideological blindness.
The four other thinkers in the volume share Francis’s commitment to “metapolitics” in this sense. They summon their readers not to political activism, but to recognize their true identities. Countering the cottage industry of literature that tried to trace a political program from Evola and Spengler through to the post-2016 GOP, Rose makes clear that these thinkers have no readily applicable political agenda. They wrote as prophets, not politicians. “I write not for a few months ahead or for the next year, but for the future,” said Spengler. Evola sought to build a fraternal order linked through publishing houses. Yockey lived as a vagrant in pursuit of his writing. Francis wrote as a clinician performing an autopsy on a dead political movement. Benoist seeks to shape cultural attitudes and avoids giving political advice. An October 2021 interview in Éléments with some activists evinces his typical tactic. “I believe it’s not for me” to encourage others to act. “I can only advise . . . that they listen to what you have to say.”
Informed as the quintet are by a hostility to classical political philosophy, traditional metaphysics, and natural law, and fired by an enthusiasm for historicism, multiculturalism, and identity politics, we could dispute whether their intellectual premises belong to the right or to the left. Benoist, for instance, came of age in the 1960s and admired the New Left. Nevertheless, in Rose’s account these thinkers belong to the right because of their preoccupation with liberalism’s attack on authority. For them, liberalism is “evil in principle because it destroys the foundations of social order.” No compromise with this egalitarian, anarchic program is possible. Liberalism is a mistake that must be unlearned; once it is unlearned, it will be possible to build new, authoritative orders.
In their determination to root out the liberal mistake, these thinkers unite their anti-liberal ire with an anti-theological, anti-Christian ire. Unlearning liberalism requires unlearning centuries of Christian belief. Christianity produced liberalism, and pace Tom Holland in Dominion, that is a very bad thing. The radical right is radical in the sense that it seeks to extirpate liberalism completely. It has no qualms about uprooting Christianity in the process.
Spengler provides the main line of attack: Christian morals are an affront to excellence. Liberalism “detests every kind of greatness”; Christian morals, in fostering and producing this egalitarian monomania, are responsible for liberal mediocrity. Rose’s quintet repeats this charge again and again, and Rose is far from the first to admit that it rings true. Egalitarianism is undoubtedly encouraged by Christianity, yet as egalitarianism intensifies, it ravages aspirations for heroism and nobility. What is less noble is not more just. Egalitarianism nurtures a distrust of authority, attacks social hierarchies and the corresponding responsibilities they engender. This disorders societies and souls, for loyalties to tribe and place provide men with the guidance to achieve the common good.
Spengler took the additional step of reinterpreting Christianity’s greatest achievements in a non-Christian light. In his account, Christian civilization—its cathedrals, monasteries, polyphonic chants, and lively scholastic thinkers—are expressions of the Faustian man’s heroic yearning for infinity. They do not stem from an authentically Christian source. Spengler is obviously fascinated with Christianity, yet he divides Western civilization into an authentic non-Christian West that represents the West’s peak, and a moralized Christian West that inexorably declines. The other thinkers in the volume deepen that division. For Evola, Christianity introduces a distinction alien to the West, the separation between spiritual and temporal authority evinced by “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Medieval attempts to resolve this separation were admirable failures.) This induces social schizophrenia, leading to the modern situation where no authority orders human life. For Yockey, Western identity is bound up with faith in the West’s superiority. In this picture, to place faith not in oneself but in another outside of oneself, in God, negates Western identity. Benoist thinks similarly.He holds that placing the highest value outside of humanity deforms social relationships. His search for a non-Christian West that escapes this deformation propels him back into a proto-European, archaic history. Francis sees contemporary Christianity as part and parcel of the ideological blindness that gets in the way of ethno-cultural consciousness.
As Rose discerns, these thinkers of the radical right struggle to avoid a fatal contradiction. Despite their exhortations to save and preserve Western civilization, they are—just like the liberal multiculturalists they despise—at war with the West’s most important spiritual and intellectual traditions. Those hoping to find in Rose’s book esoteric endorsements of these thinkers will be disappointed.
The book’s esotericism lies elsewhere, in its tacit subversion of a familiar genre. Isaiah Berlin, Allan Bloom, Mark Lilla, and others have made a trade of “reading liberalism’s best critics to better defend it.” Rose’s book is sufficiently subtle that some may conclude that he has the same goal. This is just what many reviewers and the book’s promoters at Yale University Press have done. The book has been marketed as another exhortation to defend liberalism from its challengers.
Rose’s introduction encourages us to expect this outcome, yet he does not deliver it. Throughout the book, liberalism’s weaknesses are stated clearly and decisively. Deploying a common tactic of esoteric writers, Rose lets the objections to liberalism stand. His silence implies his agreement with the postliberals. It is too late to save liberalism.
Assuming the demise of liberalism, the deeper issue Rose addresses is what Christians in a postliberal world must recognize about themselves. The book’s most profound accomplishment is how it brings the thinking of the radical right to bear on “The Christian Question” (the title of the final chapter). Rose’s sketch is brief, even aphoristic; we must read between the lines.
The final chapter’s title is a veiled reference to Samuel Francis; once we understand the reference, we can understand the full weight of Rose’s concluding exhortation. “The Christian Question” is the title of a short review essay that Francis published in 2001, several years before his death. Observing modern Christianity’s accommodation with universalist egalitarianism, Francis asks whether this coupling was inevitable.
Francis’s account of Christianity’s past is largely sympathetic. During the Roman Empire, Christianity stressed themes of universalism and egalitarianism, appealing to the Empire’s victims. But this message was only temporarily effective. After the fall of the Empire, Christianity was unpersuasive to the conquering Germanic tribes; driven by heroism, excellence, and military glory, they had no time for victimhood. To spread the gospel, Christianity accommodated itself to Germanic virtues. Christianity was Germanized, muting its most universalist strands. The resulting medieval Christian ethic had all those things thinkers of the radical right say Christianity lacks: respect for social hierarchy, loyalty to tribe and place, heroism, as well as a stress on military and other forms of self-sacrifice.
One need not agree with every element of this account to see that the older forms of Christian order have been vilified. A new, liberal egalitarian Christianity claims to offer a better, purer faith. Yet liberalism’s rejection of authority and commitment to absolute freedom inevitably turn against divine authority, destroying faith.
Thinkers weightier than Samuel Francis have grasped the same problem. As George Grant observed, “once freedom is put under anything, it is not authentic freedom. . . . If the Christian is to be consistent, he cannot say that freedom is absolute, for the consequences of that are atheism. If the liberal is to be consistent, he must say that man’s essence is freedom or else he gives up his position. This is the great gulf fixed between them.” We must choose: either liberal freedom or Christianity. For Francis, the choice has already been made. The old Christianity’s “enemies within the churches” have won, taking over “organised” or “institutional” Christianity. They peddle egalitarianism, a “bastardized version of Christian ethics.” Christianity, at least in its organized, institutional forms, has become the enemy of Western culture.
Rose agrees with a great deal of this. Writing elsewhere for First Things, he has denounced the accommodation of Christianity to liberalism and the denigration of the historic Christian mode of faith. Yet the questions Francis raises need not entail rejecting Christianity. Instead, the Christian Question can be answered again along the lines it once was. We can drop the black legend that non-liberal Christian polities inevitably betray the gospel. On that basis, we can lead “organised” or “institutional” Christianity away from a reductionist gospel of universal love and toward a rediscovery of what it means to be a Christian people, a Christian nation (ethnos). That is how Rose finishes the book. Rejecting liberal freedom, he reminds us how St. John Paul II urged Christians to rediscover the local and national identities that Christianity had shaped and enriched—identities that rewarded and elevated natural aspirations for heroism, excellence, and martial sacrifice.
Why study the radical right? Rose’s concluding exhortation is discreet but provocative metapolitics. By reminding us of the human longing for excellence, thinkers of the radical right help us understand why liberalism and liberal Christianity are sterile. We would do well to listen to Francis, Evola, and Benoist: not to apprentice ourselves to them, but to let them steer us away from the empty works of liberal egalitarians so that we might apprentice ourselves to St. Henry, St. Joan of Arc, and St. Stephen.
Nathan Pinkoski is a research fellow and director of academic programs at the Zephyr Institute.