Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (Yale University Press) consists of five profiles of thinkers with, for the most part, atrocious ideas—or rather, more precisely, ideas with a moral arc bending toward atrocity. The author is director of the Barry Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Morningside Institute in New York City, and parts of the book were originally published in the politically conservative and ecumenically Christian magazine First Things during the Trump administration.
The former president’s name appears just a few times, and only in passing, but The World After Liberalism is most definitely a consideration of ideological currents swirling around during Trump’s ascendency and in his wake. The label “alt-right” applies but has earned the connotation of trolling and delirium that seems to pre-empt any consideration of it as a body of ideas. “Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of seductive power,” Rose writes. “The alt-right entices through an appeal for fairness (an ideal it otherwise questions) and a rejection of double standards (a tactic it otherwise condones).” Much of this comes down to insisting that the demographic trend away from a majority-white U.S. population means that now white people need an identity politics of their own. But other arguments follow from this premise. The movement’s priorities “are not conventionally conservative. It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, social conservatism, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession.”
The constellation of figures Rose discusses—Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, Alain de Benoist and Samuel Francis, their work spanning the decades between the First World War through the start of this century—anticipate the alt-right and give it a degree of conceptual cohesion not made by possible by even the stickiest of memes. Having read all these authors over the years, in varying amounts, I find that in each case Rose’s treatment is intelligent and serious, and sometimes more generous than is warranted by the quality of the thinker’s work. Rose emphasizes that they are all hostile to the Judeo-Christian legacy, which is putting it mildly. At least a couple were particularly obsessed with the “Judeo-” part of that formulation, and their overall assessment of the Third Reich might be characterized as praising with faint damns. “I hope that in treating them seriously I have done nothing to normalize any of the perennial diseases of the human mind,” Rose writes. That is certainly a risk. But he is alert to why the authors under consideration are still finding an audience—something very worrisome from the vantage point of the sort of Christian humanism that informs his own thinking.
The term “liberalism” has divergent meanings on each side of the Atlantic, but the important point about the antiliberalism treated here is that it aims its fire in both directions. In European (and British) usage, liberalism entails support for private enterprise, free trade, individual rights protected by law and as minimal a state as is practical. American liberalism, at least since the New Deal, considers regulating some aspects of the economy to be a necessary and legitimate function of the government, along with maintaining a social safety net and intervening to protect the rights and well-being of disadvantaged groups.
The situation is less paradoxical than it may seem, insofar as liberalism of either variety incorporates, as Rose puts it, a vision of “rights-bearing individuals … pursu[ing] their own understanding of the good life” and engaged in satisfying “fundamental needs … for prosperity, peace, and pleasure” under authority deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. Intelligent challenges to this shared liberal framework have come from a number of directions: communitarian, Marxist, feminist, Thomist, etc. Rose sums up the various objections to liberalism too neatly to be improved upon.
“In theory,” he writes, “liberalism protects individuals from unjust authority, allowing them to pursue fulfilling lives apart from government coercion. In reality, it severs deep binds of belonging, leaving isolated individuals exposed to, and dependent on, the power of the state. In theory, liberalism proposes a neutral vision of human nature, cleansed of historical residues and free of ideological distortions. In reality, it promotes a bourgeois view of life, placing a higher value on acquisition than virtue. In theory, liberalism makes politics more peaceful by focusing on the mundane rather than the metaphysical. In reality, it makes political life chaotic by splintering communities into rival factions and parties.”
Rose himself sounds deeply sympathetic to this line of critique—and so all the more concerned by how the radical right has assimilated it. Liberalism understands human beings as self-defining “through acts of individual choice and self-expression alone.” But in reality (the counterstatement runs) people are embedded in relationships, communities and traditions, and we require them to flourish. “The essence of our creaturely condition, as well as human happiness,” Rose says, is “that we learn to order these bonds to real human goods, turning the passions that weave the fabric of life into the virtues that clothe it with dignity.”
The author leaves it unclear just what political arrangements are implied by this moral project. But the far-right thinkers he discusses offer alternatives that, if not in perfect alignment with each other, share the mission of tearing up liberalism, of whatever sort, and salting the ground so that it does not return.
Oswald Spengler’s two-volume work The Decline of the West (appearing in 1918 and 1922) presented a massive synthesis of world history, written in the key of global crisis. Many people in the industrialized countries around the turn of the 20th century had imagined vistas of endless progress ahead, only to see them buried under rubble and clouds of mustard gas in the First World War. Spengler framed developments in a very long view by identifying a number of distinct cultures developing across the millennia. Each was a kind of superorganism, running through its own life cycle—from seedling to stripling to mighty oak, and on to a dead trunk surrounded by trees growing up in its shadow. Spengler treated the societies of Europe and North America as comprising a single organism, the Culture of the West (his capitalizations). This he posited as emerging around 900 A.D. A few centuries of life were left in it, perhaps. But the days of its colonial domination over the rest of the world were numbered, and other, younger Cultures were beginning to stir.
Spengler could sound fairly stoic about that prospect—certainly by contrast with the demagogues of the period who responded with screeds about “the rising tide of color” or organizing torchlight parades in honor of Aryan purity. But as Rose writes, his work anticipated “the rise of democratic ‘Caesars,’ growing racial animosity, and even environmental crises, due to rampant technological exploitation of nature.” And beyond that (as Rose writes of Spengler), “Who will give birth to the next great culture? Perhaps Russia, he hinted, which had yet to birth an authentic culture, but might do so after it renounced Bolshevism and renewed its Christian traditions (Lenin despised Spengler’s book, and for good reason). As for Americans and Europeans, Spengler urged them to meet their fate like an unrelieved Roman soldier at Pompeii—defiant, unbending, and undeceived about their inevitable doom.”
A century later, Spengler’s counsel of quiet dignity does not find many takers in the United States. But two close students of his thinking reimagined Spengler’s vision as a program of cultural survivalism. One was his Italian translator Julius Evola, an avant-garde artist and one of the aspirants to the position of official philosopher to Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime. Evola regarded most of human history since the Bronze Age as the surrender of heroic masculine authority to lesser beings who by nature are meant to serve. Fortunately, civilization would collapse and a proper order would be restored. A certain amount of violence might accelerate the process, he hinted. Some discretion was necessary after 1945. By the time he died in 1973, though, his followers included the neo-Fascist terror cells taking up arms during Italy’s “Years of Lead.”
Evola was more erudite and eloquent than my summary may suggest, and Rose homes in on the appeal to spiritual hunger at work in his thought. “Evola dreamed of a world of absolutely fixed and certain meanings,” he writes, “where human identities, in all their forms, bore the indelible chrism of sacred destiny. He fantasized about a world saturated with meanings so thick, so absolute, and so unchallengeable that they could create reflections of eternity in time.”
Evola welcomed the work of a Spenglerian from the United States named Francis Parker Yockey. A lawyer and (by all accounts) a gifted pianist, with a reported IQ of 170, Yockey published his magnum opus, Imperium, in 1948 and spent the remaining years developing a global network of extreme rightists. In 1960, he died by suicide while in federal custody. A lost piece of his luggage had turned up containing a remarkable variety of passports, all bearing his photo. The FBI had been looking for him for a while and had a few questions. He denied them the answer, thanks to a cyanide capsule.
Imperium took its bearings from Decline of the West’s notion of Culture as macro-organism but replaced the notion of cyclical birth, growth and death with a different model. It emphasized the destructive role of the Alien as agent of Culture Distortion and Culture Pathology. (In Yockey’s pages, every abstract noun yearns to be uppercase.) Rose states that Imperium “made no explicit reference to national socialism or to Hitler,” which is true, strictly speaking. While his reference to the corrupting Alien seems general enough to refer to any immigrant group, Yockey was clearly recycling anti-Semitic tropes in particular. And no historically literate person will be left in doubt about whom Yockey had in mind in dedicating the book to “The Hero of the Second World War.”
The French public intellectual Alain de Benoist is the only figure in Rose’s philosophical portrait gallery who is still alive—and by far the most enigmatic, having taken the calculated risk of turning the rhetoric of diversity and multiculturalism against the left in ways that sound vaguely Marxist, while also honoring Julius Evola as a major thinker. A central element of Benoist’s sprawling and encyclopedic body of work is his rejection of monotheism as the prototypical totalitarian ideology, against which he champions “paganism,” albeit not of the New Age–adjacent variety common in the U.S. His paganism is more theoretical and theological: “an attitude about the terrestrial sources of human value,” writes Rose, “and hence about the nature of political community.”
Where Spengler, Evola and Yockey reject the liberal vision of the rights-bearing, autonomous individual and instead ground politics in the demands of continent-sized Cultures or primordial Tradition, Benoist’s paganism “roots all value—all meaning, inspiration, and fulfillment—in our communion with the natural and social worlds,” writes Rose. “It places human beings on a continuum with nature and the divine, seeing all existence as alive with the sacred.” A multitude of gods corresponds to a multitude of cultures—each distinct and preferably self-contained, which is to say separate. Which is not to say equal: for all his rhetorical feints to the left, Benoist’s ideology preserves a very old-school rightist aversion to the concept of equality.
In the Clinton years, when I first read them, Benoist’s articles were sometimes translated for a journal called Chronicles, where the last figure in Rose’s lineup also published his work: the late Samuel Francis. His writings from that era made the emergence of Trump, or someone like him, seem inevitable. Francis did not drink the globalization Kool-Aid:
“What connected the welfare state, feminism, employment protections, school reform, and liberal internationalism?” Rose asks. “Francis’s undeviating answer was that they serve managerial power [exercised by a ‘new class’ of credentialed professionals] through a leveling process of ‘homogenization.’ They ensured that consumers had the same tastes, businesses operated in the same markets, students received the same training, and citizens held the same values.”
Like some of Benoist’s arguments, Francis’s perspective on corporate capitalism (and its handmaid, technocratic liberalism) sound left of center, although he infused them with enough nativism and white supremacy to avoid confusion on that score. “It is imperative,” Francis insisted, “for elites to challenge, discredit, and erode the moral, intellectual, and institutional fabric of traditional society.” And in consequence, deep pools of resentment were accumulating beneath the American political playing field’s well-manicured turf.
Francis died in 2005. He expected the arrival of a new American right that would have, he said, “less use for the rhetorical trope and the extended syllogism than for the mass rally.”
With book commentary, especially online, brevity is a virtue. Here, I have neither exercised it nor exhausted what there is to say about this volume. Aspects of it require more attention, and more room, than circumstances allow. I will return to it in another article.