Many sense that the West needs to reconsider its philosophical foundations. Reflexive appeals to old pieties no longer persuade. But those who look to modern philosophy for answers run into a problem best articulated by Leo Strauss: “Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight. But here is the great trouble, the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger.” Heidegger is notoriously difficult, fundamentally anti-modern, and tainted by Nazism. Yet Heidegger can indeed help us, if we liberate ourselves from narrow readings of his thought. And to do that, we have something to learn from a Russian Heideggerian who reads the famous German philosopher very differently than do most Western interpreters.
It was in 2011 that I first learned about Alexander Dugin, the now infamous Russian political theorist and activist. I was an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of British Columbia. My interest in Strauss had led me to Azure, the now defunct neoconservative journal of Jewish ideas, in which I read an article by Yigal Liverant titled “The Prophet of the New Russian Empire.” Liverant’s account of Dugin engaged three of my intellectual concerns: the unique character of Russian thought, the mystical tradition as a counterweight to modern rationalism, and the Platonic figure of the philosopher-king. Dugin addressed all three. He appeared to me as a mystical philosopher-king whose thought held the key to understanding Russia as a specific civilization.
Today, Dugin is generally thought of as an enthusiastic war propagandist and neofascist who proposes to unite the global far right into an anti-Western alliance. But all that was in the future. When I googled Dugin after reading Liverant’s article, I happened upon a five-minute talk on what Dugin calls “the fourth political theory.” His argument is that the twentieth century was defined by an ideological struggle between three political theories: liberalism, communism, and fascism, the last of which was most powerfully expressed in Nazism. The defeat of the third political theory in 1945—and the end of the Cold War, which saw the triumph of the first over the second—ushered in what the late Charles Krauthammer called the unipolar moment. Liberalism appeared to stand as the last viable ideology, the end of history. But what if someone wants to oppose liberalism, and to do so neither as a fascist nor as a communist? In a world defined by the three political theories, that option seems impossible. Those who oppose liberalism are either accused of being communists of one sort or another, or derided as fascists.
To break through this dead end, Dugin announced a fourth political theory. His goal was to provide intellectual breathing room for those who were trapped in an outdated framework. As he wrote in his 2009 book The Fourth Political Theory (which I co-translated), he doesn’t understand “why certain people, when confronted with the concept of the Fourth Political Theory, do not immediately rush to open a bottle of champagne, and do not start dancing and rejoicing, celebrating the discovery of new possibilities.” I am one of those who was happy to raise a glass. From my first encounter with Dugin, I was grateful for the freedom to think about the political future of the West outside the confining framework of the three political theories that claim to be our only options.
Closer to home, Dugin’s fourth political theory helped me to solve a puzzle. Reading Leo Strauss and the Zionist Azure as an undergraduate, I had often heard both Strauss and Zionism labeled “fascist” by students and professors. It was obvious to me that they are not. But why do otherwise intelligent commentators draw such an untenable conclusion? Dugin’s approach provides an answer: If you’re not a liberal and you’re not criticizing liberalism from the left, then, of necessity, according to the tripartite scheme of modernity, you’re a fascist; there’s no other option. This kind of reasoning is stultifying, especially when one is trying to understand a political thinker as deep and enigmatic as Leo Strauss.
What is the fourth political theory? That’s not an easy question to answer. It rejects liberal democracy but, like democracy, it is concerned to do justice to “the people” in the sense of peoples, a topic Dugin develops at length in his book Ethnosociology and elsewhere. Peoples create civilizations, and Dugin argues that political sovereignty rests in large civilizational spaces and blocs. Small nation states often enjoy only the semblance of sovereignty, because in fact they do the bidding of greater powers, the politically organized, militarily capable civilizational centers that represent the poles of a multipolar world.
This analysis led to a surprising point of agreement in an otherwise hostile debate at the Nexus Institute in 2019 between Dugin and the French-Jewish intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. Both affirmed that American decline, if not reversed, will bring forth a world of several civilizational empires. (Levy highlighted Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and radical Sunni Islamism; Dugin’s list is longer.) Levy laments that prospect, whereas Dugin welcomes it as a return to the truth of the primacy of peoples and civilizations over the unencumbered liberal individuals who reside in a unipolar world that considers liberalism the only humane basis for political life.
Dugin shows that liberalism is leading, in the name of freedom, to our liberation from human identity altogether. Soon, the affirmation that we are human will be denounced as fascistic, just as today a proponent of nationalism or an opponent of transgenderism is called a fascist. (Dugin spells out this trajectory in The Great Awakening vs. The Great Reset.) The most important task for those who wish to preserve a humane way of life is to preserve the possibility of human freedom as such. That task requires resisting the forces that are destroying the very being of the human, which is enmeshed in shared bonds and collective structures. Dugin makes a crucial distinction between the individual and the human being or person: “The individual is the product of subtraction of the personality from the human being, the result of the liberation of the human unit from any bonds and collective structures.” He identifies the Great Reset and related globalist ideologies as a continuation of erroneous teachings that encourage individualism and artificial group identity, teachings that began with the nominalist rejection of universals. (In this regard, Dugin’s thought parallels a long tradition of modernity critique in the West.)
Dugin’s geopolitical cosmos contains several suns and moons, not a single center of gravity; many “globes,” cosmoses, oikoumenes, not one; civilizations in the plural, not “civilization” as a single standard. Freedom, for him, means more than the freedom to choose among the options available within the context of a liberal political society. It must also mean the freedom to choose something other than a liberal political society. Man “has been given the freedom to choose his own political philosophy on a paradigmatic level.” Perhaps, Dugin speculates, there will be as many notions of freedom and what it entails as there are peoples and civilizations.
The culture-specific reflection that we find in Dugin sounds a bit like leftist postmodernism, which sometimes champions multiple, relativistic ways of knowing. But the similarities are deceiving. Precisely as leftist, postmodernism operates within the constrained vision of the three political theories. Its fashionable relativism therefore renders some alternatives untouchable (fascist!), even as it makes others available. Postmodernism loves to love the Other, provided it is the politically correct Other. There is no affirmative action for bearded young Eastern European conservatives. Dugin, by contrast, opens up the framework of political theory for discussion. He attacks Western political modernity from both premodern and postmodern directions, and his postmodernism goes beyond the familiar leftist variants to include a kind of right-wing postmodernism, one of rooted traditionalism. In the American political context, Dugin’s fourth political theory supports “Trumpism” (though not necessarily Trump), because that movement expresses a spontaneous protest against the destruction of all that is sacred. Dugin would be quick to point out, though, that this kind of populism does not understand the problem of man philosophically.
The fourth political theory must be understood in light of its philosophical orientation. Dugin insists that the three political theories are to be rejected because they share a faulty modern metaphysics. He draws on Heidegger’s account of the history of philosophy, especially his idea of inceptual thinking, to challenge their hegemony. Dugin’s specific understanding of this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy makes him distinctive among political theorists.
Heidegger argues that the history of philosophy in the West has a beginning, middle, and end, and that the movement of this history is not that of an accidental sequence but an unfolding of the destiny of being itself. Put differently, according to Heidegger, philosophy has made our world; it has been inceptional, giving being its “shape” or “way of being.” And by his account, the making has been a mis-making, an eclipse of being, a silencing of being. By contrast with almost all of Heidegger’s Western interpreters, who detail the ways in which Heidegger plots the trajectory toward modernity’s loss of being, Dugin recounts Heidegger’s history of philosophy with an emphasis, not on the dead end, but rather on the opportunity we have to make another beginning of philosophy, to think “inceptually.”
According to Heidegger, to think inceptually requires more than questioning the inherited concepts of the Western philosophical tradition. One must think beyond them, as it were, and this is done by returning to the source from which they first arose. Heidegger eventually employed the archaic spelling of the German word for “being,” captured in English awkwardly but adequately as “beyng,” to demarcate the source of philosophical reflection. We are called to turn our thoughts from the mainstream metaphysical tradition, which talks of being and beings, toward the source of the thought-worthy as such.
The western tradition of metaphysics encourages us to think about being as the being of beings, the quality or feature that all beings share. Heidegger argues that this mode of reflection operates on being rather than remaining open to its origins. He invites us to “leap” into “beyng” in our thinking. He doesn’t say what the source of being “is.” If it isn’t a being, can we even say that it “is”? Instead, he invites us to enter into the momentous question of why and how we are compelled to speak about fundamental things in terms of being at all. He meditates on a host of basic words and concepts, including history, culture, time, life, change, motion, reason, and truth. In Heidegger’s view, progress in philosophy does not consist of an ever-growing stock of answers to problems, but rather involves “a deepening and renewed posing of questions.” “In questioning,” he writes, “reside[s] the tempestuous advance that says ‘yes’ to what has not been mastered and the broadening out into ponderable, yet unexplored, realms.” This questioning sparks inceptual thinking, fresh possibilities for thought, and if we participate fully in the questioning that belongs to inceptual thinking, he claims, we undergo an “essential transformation of the human being: from ‘rational animal’ (animal rationale) to Dasein.” (Dasein is another Heideggarian formulation meant to evoke a particular “being there” rather than the generic notion of being.) Inceptual thinking is a fundamentally transformational questioning, a re-grounding of the self.
Heidegger does not provide a comprehensive sketch of what the world looks like from the standpoint of Dasein. How could he? “Comprehensive” invites abstraction, whereas Dasein seeks rootedness in the real. But Heidegger does indicate, over hundreds of pages, how we must learn to think and speak differently in order to prepare the possibility of that transformation. For instance, he takes the Enlightenment notion of self-certain self-consciousness, the Romantic idea of nature, and the Renaissance concepts of culture and genius, and shows the specific manner in which each of them closes us off to deeper concern with beyng and reinforces its distorted interpretation in terms of being.
Heidegger thought that the saying-power of our words had undergone exhaustion and destruction, precisely because at the end of the first history of philosophy we are no longer essentially related to beyng in our speaking. Ordinary philosophical language “must by necessity now sound dull, ordinary, and empty,” at most giving the impression that it is concerned with scholarly advancements to the academic field of philosophy. With Heidegger we have to learn to let words bring forth a blossoming. His language is strange not because he strives for obscurity but because he strives for a clarity that has become obscured to us over the course of our history, and which may yet be recovered.
Heideggerian political thinking is also aware of the emptiness of a great deal of our political language. Freedom is an obvious example; democracy another. To regain a freshness of insight, Dugin employs many of Heidegger’s reflective techniques: the language of authenticity and notions such as being-towards-death, care, projection, thrownness, historicity, and everydayness. He also uses evocative neologisms such as the fourfold, Dasein, selbst, beyng, and the event. These are among the “essential words” of Heidegger’s philosophy, meant to redirect our thinking, allowing us to make new beginnings in thought reconnected to the animating source of philosophy.
Heidegger’s critics dismiss these “essential words” as obscurantist mumbo-jumbo. But there was a time when it would have been unusual to think of every human being as an “individual”—an inception that has been fruitful, spawning entire life-worlds that we now take for granted. Likewise, it will be unusual to see man in terms of his fundamental openness to beyng; that seeing, too, will be inceptual. According to Heidegger, we face a decision: either another beginning of philosophy, one open to beyng and seeking Dasein, or else the exacerbation of our alienation, technological manipulation, and willful destruction—a posthuman nightmare. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Heidegger invites us to reconsider everything from a strange new perspective, attained with difficulty but worth the effort. It’s an invitation Dugin takes up enthusiastically, and he does so in relation to political theory. In The Fourth Political Theory he urges us to reject the individual, class, race, and the state as fundamental units of analysis and replace them with Dasein—understood as an interpretation of the human being in terms of our openness to beyng, our capacity to be moved by the mysterious ground of our existence. Dugin elaborates a set of topics: “Dasein and the state, Dasein and social stratification, Dasein and power (the will to power).” Whereas in The Fourth Political Theory he lists only the themes to be explored, in other works, such as the still untranslated Experiments in Existential Politics, he begins the exploration.
Dugin’s proposals are admittedly “abstract.” They are less about institutions and more about underlying concepts. But we sometimes forget that our institutions and hardheaded political realities are animated by underlying concepts. I’ve already mentioned “the individual.” Sovereignty is another core concept that is not self-explaining. Fruitful analysis can often be undertaken without a concrete link between the concept and something already established and easily understood. The state is another concept. Strauss insisted that the Greek word polis should not be translated as “city-state,” because the modern theory of the state is wholly distinct from the classical teaching on political organization. The state isn’t just an empirical reality. It is an idea, antithetical to other ideas and filled out by the concrete realities that evoke its use.
Dugin rejects the concept of the modern state and the theory underlying it. He prefers the term politeia (the title of Plato’s Republic). The politeia, according to Dugin, is not established to protect individual liberties, as some liberal theories insist, but neither does it operate in accord with fascist theory, which asserts the priority of the state. Rather, the best kind of politeia is configured around the founding moment of authentic existence native to a people’s most outstanding figures, its philosophers and poets. Consider this formulation from a speech Dugin gave in 2013, in which he discusses the Islamic philosopher al-Farabi:
The head of state in al-Farabi’s perfect state is considered in Plato’s sense the one who is united with the divine Intellect, the prophetic ruler, the Philosopher King. Authentically existing Dasein is the Philosopher King. My alternative [to the modern political theories] is Platonopolis where the phenomenologists rule—Philosophers of Martin Heidegger’s school. So humanity is concentrated in the Dasein of those who exist authentically.
In other words, a well-formed polity arises from the capacity of those who lead it to think in accord with its “genius,” and thus give political form to the thought-world that animates its populace.
The idea that a politeia is the political embodiment of foundational, constitutive thoughts is not far-fetched. Consider C. Bradley Thompson’s work on America’s revolutionary mind, which presents an interpretation of America’s founding as the triumph of a certain way of thinking. Because Thompson believes that America has gone astray, he calls for a return to those arguments, ideas, and principles. The original founding—and now necessary refounding—is philosophical. Heidegger, for his part, seems to have thought that there were no genuine regimes when he was writing, because America, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, the three great powers, despite their differences, were “metaphysically the same,” all technological enterprises uprooted from the soil of genuine philosophy and poetry. In Heidegger’s formulation, a mass becomes a people when its outstanding figures emerge. A people is not a biological entity you can poke with a stick or study in a lab. It’s an existential-cultural phenomenon. (This idea runs completely counter to official Nazi dogmatism, incidentally, which Heidegger criticized at length throughout his Black Notebooks—an irony, given that they have a reputation for being the smoking-gun proof of his Nazism owing to the anti-Semitic remarks they contain.) Dugin applies that insight to his theory of global multipolarity, which affirms a plurality of civilizational spaces, interpreting civilizations in terms of their greatest souls, those who awaken and guide the Dasein of the people, the concrete expressions of its public life.
Dugin’s political theory is compatible with Russian imperialism: “I am in favor of an existential Empire.” His ideas justify a narrative of Russia’s special mission in the world as not-quite-West and not-quite-East—in other words, as Eurasian—and his notions of civilizational great spaces and historical destiny provide a basis for disregarding the legally established, widely recognized borders of neighboring states. (They also self-servingly put intellectuals like him at the apex of the regime.) But even those who loathe Russian imperialism can learn from Dugin’s reading of Heidegger, because it cuts against the standard post–World War II Western reception of Heidegger.
In mid-century Germany, France, and America, Heidegger was read in a way that made him less of a threat to the post-war consensus. German Heideggerians thought “with him and against him” to develop rationalistic theories of liberal dialogue and community through communication—and often refused to say more about him. French Heideggerians turned him into a man of the deconstructive left. Heidegger showed, they thought, that any appeal to Truth, Reason, Nature, and the like rested on a historical contingency, underneath which could be found a nihilistic abyss. They embraced what Gianni Vattimo celebrates as the “weakening of Being,” because it served their political ends. American interpreters appropriated Heidegger to the American tradition of pragmatism, fashioning a kind of hopeful, positive nihilism that produced freely created narratives of social solidarity that invariably turned leftward. As Richard Rorty quipped, “Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.” All these traditions of interpretation ignored the importance of beyng as the ground and source—indeed, the “authority.” Dugin, if nothing else, corrects this imbalance.
Dugin regards our openness to beyng as the deepest dimension of our freedom (a view, I submit, that was Heidegger’s as well). This is not “individual freedom” as liberals understand it. In Dugin’s account, the history of liberalism is one of false liberation from collective identities and external sources of authority, culminating in man’s attempt to liberate himself from gender identity and human identity in favor of “cyborgs, artificial intelligence networks, and products of genetic engineering.” To be free in the liberal way is at last to liberate the human being from himself: Individual freedom leads to the destruction of man.
Against freedom as liberation from our humanity, Dugin emphasizes the freedom that belongs to man only if he is open to beyng. He gestures toward something much grander, nobler, and holier than liberation, the state of belonging to “homo maximalis,” one of several terms he uses to evoke an expansive sense of the human being who is free for the greatest tasks, especially the task of philosophizing. Freedom is for excellence. The measure of the good polity, according to Dugin, is the degree to which it provides the greatest space for its greatest figures to develop their highest capacities. In doing so, the polity does not discriminate against the others; rather, lesser souls find excellence befitting their character and condition only in a polity held together by authentic philosophizing, like iron filings in the presence of a magnetic force. Not everyone must be a philosopher. But for anyone authentically to be what they are, philosophers must be holding open the space of beyng.
As a Russian interpreter of Heidegger, Dugin can show us more about Heidegger’s philosophy than we’re used to seeing in the overly ideological environment of the postwar West, where American pragmatism, French deconstructionism, and a kind of German liberalism have dominated, and skewed, readings of Heidegger the philosopher. If the only thing he were to have accomplished was to remind us of the inceptual dimension of Heidegger’s thought and make the case for its centrality in understanding Heidegger, Dugin’s writings would be a welcome contribution.
But today we are concerned not only with pure philosophy, but with the crisis of contemporary politics. We need the help of great thinkers, and it is still the case that the greatest thinker of our time is Heidegger. Can Dugin’s Heidegger help us think through today’s political crisis?
Since 2016, there has been a kind of intellectual renaissance on the right. Figures who had been appropriated by the left after World War II—Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt, for example—are starting to return to their more natural place on the political spectrum. The conversation has changed so as to restore some balance to what had become a lopsided caricature of our political options. Even obscure figures such as René Guénon and Julius Evola are receiving attention. A serious consideration of Dugin’s political theory fits into this relatively new intellectual context, and does so in challenging ways. His thinking is anti-liberal and anti-modern, positions held by other important thinkers in the West today, at least at a theoretical level. Dugin’s philosophy is more or less at home with movements critical of transgenderism, post-humanism, uncontrolled technology monopolies, atheism, myriad forms of extreme egalitarianism, and the rejection of rank, holiness, and order.
Dugin has said of Putin, “I believe both he and I are reading the same writings, written in golden letters on the skies of Russian history.” Words such as these remind us of other philosophers who wedded themselves to tyrants. Heidegger’s support for Hitler offers an unsettling example. As was the case with Heidegger, Dugin’s ill-starred political alliance causes many to dismiss him, writing him off as the source of intellectual legitimation for a fascist, kleptocratic thug who wishes to recreate the Russian empire. Duginism is indeed compatible with Putinism, but we need to see that it is not reducible to it. It is more accurate to say that Dugin is the chief philosophical mastermind of an ideologically coherent alternative to Western political modernity. And like it or not, that is a remarkable accomplishment, from which even those who wish to defend political modernity in the West can learn a great deal.
Michael Millerman is the author of Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political.
Image by Nima Najafzadeh via Creative Commons. Image cropped.