It’s Easy if You Try
A Review of A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right By Matthew Rose, Yale University Press, 208 pages, $28.00
As a general rule, talk about liberalism—the alleged inevitability of its decline or triumph, its inherent goodness or badness, its true historical origins, the manner by which liberals themselves can be most thoroughly owned or disowned, whether we are in fact already in a postliberal era or if our great epoch of imperial liberalism has only just begun—is now best avoided. This is, of course, not because such discussions aren’t relevant or worth having. If anything, the opposite is the case. Rather, because those having them, at least in the Anglophone world, almost never know what they are discussing. Such discussions are almost exclusively held between two parties who are both just different shades of liberal.
Debates between liberals and actual “post-liberals” are therefore quite difficult to find in the Anglophone world—and particularly in the United States, a regime explicitly founded on liberal ideas, which has no meaningful history of any true and lasting “illiberalism.” Thus for most Americans, “illiberalism,” “post-liberalism,” or whatever other term the reader prefers is something that happens “over there”—in blighted, dark lands with unpronounceable names (Soviet You-Go-Slav-e-uh for instance), inhabited by distant peoples who speak foreign tongues and worship strange gods—but certainly not here.
Matthew Rose’s new book, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, then, is a pleasant surprise. It represents a good-faith attempt to grapple with a group of thinkers whose ideas, for better or worse, are not only non-liberal but also self-consciously non-Christian.
The group Rose has chosen to represent what he calls the “radical right” or the “dissident right” is eclectic and strange. He selects Francis Parker Yockey, Julius Evola, Samuel T. Francis, Alain de Benoist, and Oswald Spengler as the five godfathers of this strain of thought, although he acknowledges their significant ideological differences—differences so profound it strains the claim that they represent any kind of coherent whole at all. However, Rose makes clear that his effort is not an attempt to write a coherent social history of radical rightwing thought. Rather, he considers the men noteworthy to the extent they each represent a distinct style of thought that attempts to independently imagine a world beyond the confines of the liberal imagination. Still, one can’t shake the feeling that his choice of thinkers, while undeniably interesting, is still somewhat off.
Yockey is perhaps the strangest of the bunch. While he still maintains something of a cult following, his work remains as an obscure niche within an already obscure niche, having almost no influence outside of it. In spite of this, his inclusion is worthwhile, if for nothing else than for the sheer strangeness of his story. His biography reads as a bizarre pro-Nazi hybrid of James Bond and Lee Harvey Oswald: a man constantly bouncing between exotic locales, dodging authorities, and writing the occasional pornographic novel with the help of associates in the post-war fascist underground and contacts on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Yockey, who was remarkably well-educated for the time—having graduated from Notre Dame in 1941 with a law degree—allegedly met leaders such as Egypt’s Abdel Nasser and visited Cuba after Castro’s revolution, in a search of allies for a dreamed-of grand alliance against the decadent and supposedly Jewish-controlled Liberal American Empire, which, if left unchecked, would inevitably squash the soul of “Western” man.
Unsurprisingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, unamused by Yockey’s Wile E. Coyotesque anti-American schemes, actively hunted him for over a decade. Yockey was able to elude the Feds for a considerable amount of time, but his luck finally ran out when one of his suitcases was incorrectly delivered and its contents—including numerous fake passports and forged birth certificates—were discovered by curious airport employees who promptly informed the authorities. He was arrested by the FBI on charges of passport fraud. Days later, he was found dead in his jail cell after committing suicide via cyanide. Yockey would have likely been forgotten had it not been for a man named Willis Carto, one of the last people to see him alive. Yockey, according to Carto, entrusted him with his massive manifesto, Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics, during a jail visit. Carto would go on to print and sell thousands of copies of the ponderous tome in the next several decades while involving himself in the extreme far-right politics of the 1960s and ’70s. While Yockey’s life makes for fascinating, if somewhat macabre, reading, most of what we know about it comes from Carto—who, having been a flamboyant crank who peddled garden-variety forms of racism and Holocaust denial alongside 9/11 conspiracy theories and bogus medical cures, shouldn’t be necessarily considered a reliable narrator.
The strangeness of Yockey’s life, however, eclipses that of another of Rose’s subjects, Julius Evola, only by a hair. Of all the characters in Rose’s book, Evola will likely have the strongest name recognition from casual political observers, if for no other reason than that he was once mentioned by former Trump campaign manager and one-time Breitbart boss Steve Bannon as an influence, a remark which launched a tiny deluge of think pieces on the impending threat posed by the influence of Evola’s fascist philosophy.
Like Yockey, it is the details of Evola’s life (such as his characteristic monocle) which ultimately make him a compelling figure. A colorful veteran of the Great War, Evola came to the forefront of Italy’s fascist movement before renouncing it after its disastrous failure in World War II. After the war, he went on to become something of a guru for whatever fascists remained on the continent while authoring inane books on esoteric religious theory, ancient magical rituals, and tantric sex practices. The latter two of these are probably the primary reasons Evola’s memory survived at all, since they gave his works a second life as exotic oddities popping up at the quirky American used-bookshops which catered to the puerile interest in all things “Eastern” aroused by the Hippie movement. His actual philosophy, however, was a mix of superficial religious perennialism combined with a love of the Hindu caste-system and a smattering of “vitalistic” Nietzscheanism. Thin gruel indeed.
Evola’s greatest actual influence on the modern right is, like Yockey’s, mostly confined to the “memeosphere,” where terms like “Kali Yuga” (imported from Hinduism by Evola and others such as Madame Blavatsky) and “Cultural Marxism” (a concept for which Yockey laid the intellectual groundwork) are casually employed in a variety of contexts and with varying degrees of irony.
Once we move beyond the more cartoonish members of Rose’s anti-liberal influencer squad, we get to figures of more significant intellectual stature.
Suffice it to say, both De Benoist and Francis were highly influential in their own rights, De Benoist for his work with the “Nouvelle Droite” movement, and Francis for his uncanny description of what would later become Trumpism. However, although they both produced impressive and extensive bodies of work, the two ultimately failed as ideologues: both of their respective movements either ended up as dead ends or evolved to hold tenets completely at odds with their founder.
Alain de Benoist and Samuel Francis are both incredibly interesting figures, and the book is worth reading just for the chapters on each of them. De Benoist, perhaps the most prolific of Rose’s five writers, is also the hardest to properly describe. One of the founders of the far-right Nouvelle Droite movement in France, his philosophy is best described as a kind of radical relativism that seeks to undermine the universalist claims of liberal modernity. De Benoist, as a self-described pagan, centers his critique on a deconstruction of Christianity, which he believes is the metaphysical and moral foundation for liberalism’s universalism. Ultimately, de Benoist’s influence has been negligible in spite of his prolific output. The reasons boil down to the alienating nature of his own paganism combined with his unwillingness to fully embrace racialism as an explicit part of his ideology (mistakes his one-time collaborator and more successful protégé Guilliame Faye would not make).
Unlike most of the writers profiled by Rose, Samuel Francis had real influence in a much more immediate way. A columnist, author, and former editor of The Washington Times—as well as one of the godfathers of “paleoconservatism,” which would become a meaningful influence on the American right in the hands of American Conservative founder, Reagan-era communications director, and perennial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan—Francis was a genuine example of a man who, for better or for worse, was ahead of his time. His prophecy of a “middle American revolution”—an uprising of rural and flyover Americans against the overwhelming political and cultural influence of coastal elites—was seen by many to have come to fruition with Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory.
Despite high hopes to the contrary, however, Francis’s revolution amounted to little under Trump, losing its greatest proponent, Steve Bannon, relatively early. What followed was not a great assault on the liberal power structure and the administrative state as Francis had outlined in his book, Leviathan and its Enemies, but merely the traditional Republican policies of tax cuts, deregulation, and “originalist” judges, only this time with an orange facade. And since then it has fared not much better, with many of the promises of the halcyon days of 2016 largely forgotten—though figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and GOP Senate candidates like Blake Masters and J.D. Vance may manage to enact something of a revival of Francis’s thought, if their future voting records end up matching their early base-pleasing rhetoric. As things stand now, however, any revival of Francis’s thought remains purely hypothetical.
Perhaps that is for the best. After all, Francis would by the end of his life evolve from cranky paleoconservative to self-concious white nationalist. A fate which, let us hope, is itself not the trajectory for the movement Francis helped launch.
Oswald Spengler, our final figure, is the most well-known and significant of the bunch by a mile. In his own time he achieved real international fame and renown for The Decline of the West, which quickly became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Though now considered the epitome of the “declinist” genre of modern history, the two-volume work is really anything but. It is a rich, vivid, and loquacious journey into an alternative historiography that rejects the tedious philosophy of history as the march toward inevitable social and technological progress. Rather, history for Spengler happens in wild blooms of intense and violent collective activity out of which sprouts a civilizational collective consciousness that he refers to as a “prime symbol.” This symbol acts as a spiritual “eye” of the societal hurricane as it churns about on its journey from cultural birth to late civilizational decay, and eventually to death. But for Spengler, this death is more akin to a life cycle completing itself rather than some kind of event that could possibly be prevented.
Decades after his death, Spengler and Decline of the West later became, perhaps unsurprisingly, a target for sneering liberals, although Decline’s influence is likely to outlive not only its liberal critics but also liberal civilization, much for the same reason it was first taken seriously by friends and critics of liberal democracy alike, from Heidegger and Strauss to Wittgenstein and Adorno. Who, after all, is more likely to still be read in 500 years: Oswald Spengler or Adam Gopnik?
Spengler is nonetheless the oddest addition to the list, even if he is also the most intellectually substantial. His inclusion, as well as the genesis of The World After Liberalism, appears to stem from Rose’s 2018 First Things article entitled “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right,” where he spent a lively few paragraphs slandering Spengler, accusing him of being a biological racialist (a patently false claim from even a cursory reading) as well as asserting that Spengler believed that Christianity was a unique creation of Western (Faustian) man. Spengler thought no such thing; rather he believed that Faustian man had, by adopting Christianity, transformed it into a new religion in greater alignment with the spirit of Faustian civilization.
Thankfully, Rose’s latest treatment of Spengler is free of the more glaring of these errors, and it is overall a fair and interesting introduction. But the character of Spengler himself highlights the flaw that ends up undermining Rose’s entire project: he, like the rest of Rose’s characters, simply doesn’t belong. None of them do. There is no movement or coherence here. The hard truth is that Spengler, while influential and notable for his unique historiographical and rhetorical approach, has no real influence on the contemporary Anglophone right, radical or otherwise, and for much the same reason he had no meaningful influence among the leaders of Hitler’s Reich: he was simply too pessimistic.
The modern American right is significantly different from the German National Socialist movement of the 1930s and ’40s; what they have in common, however, is a narrative of cultural resurrection, a feature utterly lacking in, and openly contradicted by, Spengler’s own barren pessimism regarding “Western civilization.” In Spengler’s view, a civilization whose future holds only the fulfillment of its inner “Faustian” logic, thus undermining and eventually destroying the very life-world which engendered it (a position very clearly spelled out in Man and Technics).
Not exactly a message fit to inspire the next generation to great deeds, is it? Of course, that won’t stop Spengler’s name from occasional ceremonial evocation by members of the online right (especially his most meme-worthy quote, about the Roman soldier at Vesuvius). He was, after all, a prominent figure in the German “conservative revolution” of the interwar period and hated communists (and thus, from the ever-naive and shallow view of the Anglophone right, “on our side”). But the truth remains that the substance, as opposed to the vague and largely misunderstood vibe, of Spengler’s ideas has influenced almost nobody on the Anglo-American right, old or new—and he remains largely an exotic curiosity for the few eccentrics who actually bother to read him in depth.
Rose’s book reads as an intellectual genealogy of a right wing that could have been, but never was. It’s a kind of fan fiction for a hypothetical movement led not by shallow imbeciles like Steve Bannon and his ilk, but by some genuinely charismatic and intelligent fascists like the late Jonathan Bowden (a man who actually read, and was actually influenced by, the figures Rose cites in his book). This, of course, never happened, though one must forgive Rose for thinking it might have. After all, the years 2014–2018 were truly a different country, especially when compared to what is currently taking its place.
Instead, today’s “far right” now mostly revolves around the tech billionaire Peter Thiel and his ever expanding political media network. Summing up this “New Right” in anything approaching a succinct manner after Thiel’s de facto takeover is not an easy task, seeing as how it is composed of a vast assortment of different factions and personalities, a coalition full of seemingly interminable internal contradictions.
However, if a future chronicler were to attempt to do for the new Thiel-influenced “dissident right” what Rose did for the the 2014–2018 alt-right, and select five authors who are representative of important and influential streams of the movement’s ideology, that list might look something like the following.
In the place of Spengler’s trippy dream visions we would find the long-winded and painfully analytic thought of Curtis Yarvin. The wild and strange life of Francis Parker Yockey would be replaced with the perhaps even stranger one of “Bronze Age Pervert,” a figure whose two major works have already had far more influence than Yockey could have ever dreamed of. The backward-looking perenniallist sex magic promoted by Evola would be traded in for the far more interesting and substantive hyper-futurist thought promoted by Thiel himself. The legendary Alain de Benoist would be swapped for his former Nouvelle Droite compatriot and one-time ally, the late Guilliame Faye, who not only seemed to have somehow predicted the crises of our times, but whose book Archeofuturism paints a simultaneously alluring and terrifying picture of a future which—whether they realize it or not—the Anglo-American new right is currently in the business of calling into being. Lastly, in the place of the brilliant but forgotten paleocon Sam Francis would stand another Paleocon, Steve Sailer. A man who somehow managed to avoid Francis’s social fate and in the process might have single-handedly revived race science in the 21st century, largely through the power of his relentless blogging and social media use.
If Rose’s book has a coherent thesis at all, it’s contained in its last part, “The Christian Question,” which is the author’s attempt to explain and confront what he sees as the alt-right’s hatred of Christianity. “Christianity denied what antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are destined to rule the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are constituted by our social status,” Rose writes. “While this revolution is widely seen as moral progress, the radical right argues that it admits another interpretation, however oblivious we are to it.” This chapter is Rose at his most sympathetic: the wise Christian scholar attempting to save the angry young men of the post-Christian right from themselves and the very real demons they have chosen, knowingly or not, to ally themselves with. It is not a pose: Rose’s rhetoric seems entirely earnest.
Of course, Rose is right to be concerned about the prevalence of anti-Christian and post-Christian beliefs among members of the Anglo-American new right. But ultimately Rose’s concern, though admirable, is misplaced. We should be so lucky if the Anglo-American new right’s anti-Christian arguments were as straightforward as those offered by the men Rose profiles, who collectively approached the faith with either open hostility (Benoist) or detached atheistic indifference (Spengler). At least with such characters, you know where they stand and precisely what they believe. For us, today, things are different. The “Post-Christian” right Rose fears is already here, but its prophets and leaders quote Zero to One and René Girard, not Decline of the West and Francis Parker Yockey. They regularly twist Scripture to their own ends, but instead of doing so to promote anti-Semitism or a doctrine of blood and soil, they justify the genetic engineering of children in the service of “positive eugenics” and the procurement of female “surrogates” to assist the reproductive desires of its own naturally infertile leadership class. Despite Rose’s admirable motivations and worthwhile scholarship, his timing is off and comes far too late to change the Spenglerian trajectory of things.
He will live to see man-made horrors beyond his comprehension.
Such a company apparently doesn’t include a very different reviewer of Rose’s book who claims, incredibly, that Spengler taught that “the decline of the West resulted from a reversion to an earlier Christianity, focused on leveling and hostile to heroic greatness.” Of course, Spengler never says anything like this, clearly arguing that the “Decline” of the West was in many ways natural, ultimately the fulfillment of the very Faustian drive that first powered its rise. Of course, there is the now memeified quote from Spengler, “Christian Theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism,” which, frequently shared in far-right online spaces, is likely the source of the author’s embarrassing misinterpretation. Ironically though, the “Christian Theology” Spengler actually cites in context is that of the Scholastics, whose materialism (in his view) planted the seed for later Marxist materialism—definitely not the primitive “communism” of the Apostles. This author’s laughable reading of Spengler still illustrates his irrelevance quite well, even among those who claim to have “read” him! ↩︎
Max Chafkin’s The Contrarian is a good place to start in this regard but is still quite limited. The true book chronicling the actual extent of Thiel’s involvement with the far-right has yet to be written. More useful is the recent piece from Vanity Fair detailing some of the more obvious connections between the sprawling Thiel network and the world of online “dissidents.” ↩︎
The new right, Post-Thiel, embraces almost any and every promising new Earth-escaping, transhumanist technology, whether it be Thiel’s own obsession with the science of immortality or the various other hobby horses of his extended circle—from Mars colonization to advanced facial recognition surveillance systems, from nuclear fusion to Bitcoin by way of geothermal power and—crucially—from “young blood” transfusions along with genetic engineering to eugenic embryo testing. This enthusiasm for technology does not make for an easy alliance with social conservatives, however much the latter choose to ignore these details. And even when defending conventionally “conservative” issues, “New Right” arguments are often made at cross-purposes. Bourgeois family values, for instance—a staple of American conservatism, as the irreplaceable bedrock of Republican governance—might be defended inasmuch as they promote the social stability necessary to enable the flourishing of the higher caste of individuals (“Dark Elves,” as one Thielite thinker has called them) who run and design society, and whose creativity and inherent superiority give them license to ignore the social conventions useful to only lesser men. And surrogacy, a practice which has been employed by numerous powerful individuals within the Thiel network in addition to Thiel himself (see Chafkin’s book, page 301), which until recently was mainly relevant when discussing dystopian science fiction, serves to emphasize a general obsession with and optimism about technology. Thiel spins an intellectual dark web, indeed. ↩︎
Featured image: L'Italia fra le arti e le scienze painting (1935) by Mario Sironi.
Piotr Chaimovitch is a writer.