As political parties collapse, Traditionalist philosophy is on the rise. Mark Sedgwick assesses the political topography of our strange new days:
Western politics has changed. Sometimes it still seems to fit into a familiar framework, as at least at some points the last British election did, but even then, nothing is quite the same. Despite occasional patronising talk of “the white-van man” and disadvantaged regions, it is becoming clear that something fundamental is shifting. The classic left-right shape of the political contest no longer holds. The broad liberalism that for so long seemed the natural background to Western politics is beginning to look like only one option among many.
There have been changes in what people hope for and what people fear. Underlying these are changes in the way many people live. There have also been changes in the ideologies that inform political life. As well as the familiar trio of liberalism, socialism and conservatism, previously unfamiliar thinkers are now important.
One of them is an Italian, Julius Evola. I have a pamphlet containing one of his essays, “Orientamenti”, that was produced in the 1970s using a manual typewriter and a photocopying machine – Italian samizdat. His books were first widely translated into English in the 1990s, brought out by an alternative publisher in the picturesque New England village of Rochester, Vermont. In 2014, when Steve Bannon referred to Evola in approving terms during a workshop in Rome, nobody noticed. When Bannon became White House chief strategist in January 2017, journalists started going back over his past, found a recording of the workshop, and, a month later, Evola made it into the New York Times.
René Guénon, a French writer on whom Evola drew extensively, is even more important to the new politics. Bannon recently told Bloomberg’s Josh Green how reading Guénon had changed his life, and when I met Aleksandr Dugin, who some now see as Bannon’s Russian counterpart, in Moscow in 1999, he proposed Guénon to me as the new Marx.
Guénon and Dugin were then almost equally obscure, but Dugin has become better known in the West since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He was identified in the Western media as “Putin’s brain” or, more poetically, “Putin’s Rasputin”. This was going a bit far. Putin clearly has a brain of his own, and, while Dugin is on good terms with the Kremlin, he is not part of Putin’s core entourage. If there is a Rasputin around today, it may actually be Bannon.
In 1999, I thought that Dugin was exaggerating, but now it looks increasingly as if he was right. Guénon, like Marx, was more interested in meta-analysis than in day-to-day politics. Marx surveyed human history in the long run, looking at it in terms of economics, and focusing on the ownership of the means of production. He saw the struggle between labour and capital as the key dynamic of his own time.
Guénon also surveyed human history in the long run, not in terms of economics but of metaphysics, of understandings of the human place in the universe. These metaphysical understandings were, for him, the real tradition of humanity. He came to see the current period in terms of the clash between tradition and modernity, as a final stage in a long process of decline. Marx hoped for the triumph of labour over capital, but Guénon feared the triumph of modernity over tradition, and with it the final collapse of human civilisation. He held out the hope that something of tradition might be saved, however. A small elite – the spiritual counterpart of Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard – might rediscover traditional doctrines in oriental metaphysics, notably the Hindu Vedanta.
Guénon tried to form such an elite through his writings and through the group that gathered around a journal that he edited called Études Traditionnelles. Although he drew mostly on the Vedanta in his writings, when he left Paris in 1930 he moved not to India but to Egypt, where he became Muslim and joined a Sufi order. He died in Cairo in 1951, leaving behind him 17 major books and countless articles. These discuss Hinduism and other religions, including Islam, which Guénon stresses as the proper orthodox context for the esoteric practice of Sufism. They also discuss modernity, its nature and its problems, and see the current age as one of ultimate decline at the end of a temporal cycle, characterised by the inversion of the traditional order of society, so that the lower castes exercise power over the higher castes. These books and articles form the basis of the “Traditionalist” movement, so called because of its emphasis on perennial metaphysical tradition, the idea that certain ancient religions are repositories of shared spiritual truths, and because of the way in which it values tradition and condemns modernity.
Just as Marx’s thought was developed after his death in two directions, the Soviet model and the liberal social-democratic model, so Guénon’s thought was also developed in two directions. One was primarily spiritual, and one was primarily political. The primarily spiritual heirs of Guénon focused on preserving metaphysical tradition in small groups, often drawing on Sufi mysticism, and had no ambitions for human society as a whole. The primarily political heirs of Guénon, in contrast, were interested in society, though their thought has never lost its metaphysical basis.
Three names stand out among Guénon’s political heirs. Evola represents the Fascist period. Alain de Benoist, a Frenchman, represents the post-1968 period, and Dugin the post-Soviet period. Evola was the first to incorporate Guénon’s Traditionalism into a political philosophy. His most famous book, Rivolta contro il mondo moderno (Revolt Against the Modern World), takes Guénon’s diagnosis of modernity from books such as his La crise du monde moderne (The Crisis of the Modern World) and proposes a remedy that owes more to Nietzsche than to Guénon: revolt. Benoist then incorporated Evola into his own thought, and was the centre of a group of intellectuals and activists that the French media called the New Right, echoing the self-identification of the New Left. The New Right, in turn, inspired Dugin in Russia, and helped inspire the alt-right in the United States. All these remain faithful to a long view of human history that sees tradition as central and economics as marginal, that sees the political as inextricably linked to the metaphysical, and that sees liberal modernity as a fatal aberration.
Evola is not easy to classify. He was read with appreciation by the Austrian psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud’s appointed heir before the two men split, and by the University of Chicago historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who did more than anyone else to establish modern religious studies. The extent to which Evola influenced Martin Heidegger is disputed. He advised Mussolini on race, an issue he also discussed with Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi theorist who was later sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials. Yet Evola criticised Nazi racial theories as simple-minded, and quarrelled with Mussolini, whom he found too bourgeois. Evola does not much resemble the mainstream American right, which stresses family values and Christian faith. He often attacked not just the Catholic Church, but also the Christian religion, and he was interested in sex magic, in which the force of orgasm is channelled to transcendent ends.
Evola had a long and varied career. He fought in the Italian army during the First World War, and then became a painter, passing from Futurism to Dadaism. Like many other artists of the time, he looked for the hidden reality that underlay appearances. This led him to experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and also with magic. Magic led him to the esoteric, and to the works of Guénon, many of whose perspectives he adopted.
While Guénon had spent the Second World War away from Europe in Egypt, Evola stayed in Italy, and wrote for newspapers such as Il Regime Fascista, where he edited a regular column on “Spiritual problems in Fascist ethics”. He became known especially for his writings on race. He argued that the biological racism of the Nazis was adequate for breeding cats or thoroughbred horses, but entirely inadequate for grasping human behaviour. Attention also needed to be paid to the soul and the spirit. These were the ideas that interested Mussolini.
Unlike Rosenberg, the Nazi theorist, Evola was not put on trial after the war. He had never even joined the Fascist Party, and was not directly implicated in any crimes. In fact, he did not even seem to be seriously implicated in what Italians had come to see as the fiasco of Fascism, which is why, unusually among political writers who had been active in the Fascist period, he continued to write and be read until his death in Rome in 1974. His work was a particular favourite of the right-wing terrorists who fought left-wing terrorists, the Italian state, and sometimes each other, during the 1970s. I sometimes wonder quite who produced my home-made copy of “Orientamenti”.
Evola’s post-war works took new directions, inevitably so in the aftermath of the collapse of the Fascist and Nazi projects. The post-war Evola was a pessimist. The lowest castes had taken power from the higher castes, and there was no immediate prospect of this changing. The cycle was coming to its inevitable end. The appropriate response is apoliteia, detachment from the political. Apoliteia, however, does not mean inaction. Evola’s first interest had been not in politics, but in ways in which the “absolute self” might experience the transcendent. Among these was human action, and that remained true. Apoliteia need not exclude action with a political goal, though the action mattered more than the goal, and the fight mattered more than the victory.
The rest of the Traditionalist movement is even further from everyday politics. Guénon never became even briefly involved in actual politics in the way that Evola did, not just because he was never a fan of Nietzsche, but because he felt it was pointless. In his view, the social and the political follow from the spiritual. Changes to the spiritual would change the social and the political, but the reverse was not true, and for this reason all attempts to directly change the social and the political will inevitably fail.
Traditionalists who refer to Guénon rather than Evola, therefore, do not generally engage in political work. They may prefer some political outcomes to others, but they do not aim at them directly. They work instead for the formation and development of Guénon’s elite, through small groups, normally religious but sometimes also cultural. The most frequently found religious group is the Sufi order, and many of the most important followers of Guénon are thus converts to Islam. There are also Guénonian Masonic lodges. Cultural groups include the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, a London-based organisation that provides training in such arts as calligraphy, geometric design and mosaic, often but not exclusively of Islamic origin. The school operates under the active and enthusiastic patronage of Prince Charles, whose engagement with Traditionalism mirrors that of Bannon, but focuses on Guénon rather than Evola.
Evola remained obscure outside Italy and France until the 1990s, when more of his books began to appear in English translation. In 1994, Telos, an American journal founded in 1968 as a forum for the intellectual New Left, published a special issue on the New Right, subtitled “New Right – New Left – New Paradigm?” At the time, this question was provocative and interesting. More than 20 years later, the answer to the question is clear. Yes, there is now a new paradigm – and Telos helped to launch it. The Telos special issue focused above all on Benoist, a French intellectual and journalist who continued to appear in later issues of what was becoming a New Paradigm journal more than a New Left one. In a key article in Telos in 1999, Benoist summarised the views of the New Right.
After analysing modernity in terms that owed much to Guénon and Evola, Benoist argued that humanity cannot be understood in purely biological terms, in purely economic terms or in purely mechanical terms. People, argued Benoist, live within particular cultures and communities. Modernity’s attempt to replace the particular with the universal and the community with the individual “has not liberated man from his original … belonging or … attachments. It has only submitted him to other constraints, which are harsher, because they are further away, more impersonal, and more demanding” – that is, the market, the state and utilitarianism. Accordingly, it is necessary to go “beyond the marketplace”: the economy should serve society, not form it. For Benoist, neoliberalism is inherently and inevitably unjust, and inverts the proper order of society.
Benoist then returned to his theme of particular cultures and communities, which he saw as being under attack from modernity, from universalism and individualism, and from what he called the “New Class”, the class that dominates the media, big business and international organisations, “cold-blooded specialists, rationality detached from day to day realities”. “The public feels,” he wrote, “indifferent towards or angry at a managerial elite which does not even speak the same language as they do.” It is necessary to confront “financial capitalism”, “arrogant wealth”, and its international institutions. It is necessary to confront the media, which stifle debate by endlessly repeating outdated views, and by denouncing new views rather than discussing them.
Since Benoist wrote these words in 1999, Trump and Le Pen have been remarkably successful in channelling hostility towards the universalist New Class, financial capitalism and the mainstream media. This is just what Benoist hoped would happen.
Similar views are expressed by Dugin in Russia. Though never a painter, Dugin’s past is almost as colourful as Evola’s. As a young man he joined a circle of Soviet dissidents that met in an apartment on Iuzhinskii Lane in Moscow. This circle had been founded by Yuri Mamleev, a novelist in the Irrationalist tradition, and included the poet Yevgeny Golovin. The Iuzhinskii Circle, as it came to be known, read as much forbidden literature as it could lay its hands on, including the mystic George Gurdjieff, Evola and Guénon. Some of their books were available on the open shelves of the Lenin Library, at least for those who could read French or German.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Iuzhinskii Circle’s members explored possibilities that had previously been closed to them. Dugin’s wife, Evgenia Debryanskaya, who was also a member of the circle, founded the Association of Sexual Minorities, an organisation that campaigned for LGBT rights. Dugin joined a novelist and a rock musician in founding the National Bolshevik Party, not a real political party but a countercultural organisation that claimed to combine the best parts of Nazism with the best parts of Stalinism. Dugin then visited Paris, met Benoist, and on his return to Moscow launched a magazine called Elementy, inspired by one of Benoist’s many publications, Éléments.
In the liberal but chaotic Russia of Boris Yeltsin, Dugin was countercultural and marginal. As Russia became less liberal and less chaotic under Putin, the general political culture moved in Dugin’s direction, and Dugin became progressively less marginal. The National Bolsheviks were replaced by the more serious Eurasia Movement, which revived a 1920s vision of Russia at the heart of a Euro-Asian bloc that stood against an Atlantic bloc. Eurasia incarnated tradition and hierarchy, while the Atlantic bloc incarnated modernity, financial capitalism and decline.
Dugin’s Eurasianism fits well with Putin’s policies, one of which promoted the Eurasian Economic Union as an alternative to the EU. It also fits well with the Russian policy of supporting movements abroad that question or threaten a status quo more congenial to the United States than to Russia. To this end, Russia has indirectly contributed €9 million to Le Pen’s party, and may also have supported Trump, and UKIP in the UK. As Bannon explained in 2014, Putin may be a kleptocrat, but “the underpinnings of some of his beliefs … come from … Eurasianism.” That, in Bannon’s view, is why many of those who value tradition incline towards him.
Dugin’s Eurasianism also facilitates relations between Russia and those European political parties whose leaders read Evola with approval, notably Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. It also facilitates relations with Turkey and Iran, where an Iranian-American professor and Sufi who is among the spiritual heirs of Guénon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, is widely read, and where there is definite interest in Evola and Guénon. Dugin played a major part in improving relations between Turkey and Russia after their historic low when Turkish forces shot down a Russian attack aircraft in late 2015, a process that culminated in discussions between Dugin and the Turkish prime minister. Not all Traditionalists favour Russia, however. Enthusiasts of Evola in Ukraine have formed the Azov Regiment, which fights pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, some of whom are followers of Dugin. This places Evola’s apoliteia in a new light.
Benoist’s emphasis on communities is partly a response to an aspect of modernity that has intensified since Guénon and Evola – globalisation. It is also a response to two issues that have become ever more pressing in Europe, the EU and immigration. On the first, Benoist argues for a “Europe of Nations”, as opposed to a European nation. Traditional ethnic, linguistic and political identities should be reasserted, against homogenisation. Brexiteers would not disagree. On the second issue, which is always a difficult one for those who value tradition against modernity, Benoist argues for a “right to difference” that includes the right of communities of immigrant origin to be themselves. This is the opposite of the “integration” policies that are now the norm across Europe, but is not so different from the policies pursued by some other states outside Europe, notably in the Gulf, which remain glad to be multicultural.
The issue of immigration and, especially, Islam is always a difficult one because Islam is not like universalism, liberalism, financial capitalism or the media. All of these can be identified with modernity, and so condemned. Islam, in contrast, is easier to identify with tradition than with modernity. This is how Guénon saw it, and this is how his readers in Turkey and Iran see it. Guénon was a Sufi, and as a Sufi in Egypt he lived as a devout Muslim. Many of his followers today are also Sufis, sometimes born Muslims and sometimes converts to Islam. While some Westerners condemn Islam as pre-modern, many Traditionalists prefer to celebrate it as a bulwark against modernity.
That Islam is the ally of tradition is the position taken by Dugin in Russia, which has had a significant Muslim population since Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan in 1552. Islam is viewed rather differently in Russia than in northwestern Europe, if only because of its longstanding presence there. Dugin has often supported the alignment of Russia with the Muslim world, notably Iran and Turkey, against Western modernity. America as quintessentially modern, is the problem for many Traditionalists, not Islam. The European New Right, however, is not a philosophy club. It aims to lay a new ideological basis for a new politics, and pro-Muslim positions would not, in the current climate in Europe and America, go down well. The alternative view, therefore, is that the problem with Islam is the particular nature of the Islamic tradition: that it is a tradition of conquest. This is not the view of Benoist, but it is the view of others associated with him in Europe, and it is the view of Bannon. Hence the (attempted) Muslim ban in the United States. This makes sense for Bannon, but differs from the Traditionalist norm.
So the new political paradigm is not just about changes in how people live, in what they fear and hope for. It is also driven by a new ideology. Those who voted for Le Pen and Trump were not readers of Evola or Guénon, do not believe in perennial metaphysical tradition and do not see themselves at the end of a temporal cycle that makes apoliteia an appropriate response. But their votes are still votes against the liberal consensus that had become almost synonymous with modernity in the West. A new paradigm is opening up new political spaces that can be occupied by people like Bannon and Dugin, people who, on the one hand, can speak to the concerns of those who vote for Le Pen and Trump, and on the other, whose thinking is informed by their reading of Evola and Guénon, and by their sense of crisis at the end of a temporal cycle. Their ideology is already shaping the thinking of certain politicians, and will increasingly shape both politics and the future. §
© Mark Sedgwick 2017
The text original is taken from site www.academia.edu