The Hedgehog Review recently featured a rather strange essay on postliberalism and what it apparently gets wrong. The piece purported to engage with postliberal thinkers and point out the flaws in their arguments. However, the essay was a litany of surreal misrepresentations of thinkers the author had plainly not read properly or ignored entirely. It was notable that the author refers to Matthew Rose’s new book, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, near the start of his piece. And yet the article’s author fails to engage with Rose’s work beyond citing the fact that postliberal authors don’t agree on everything. Should one actually read Rose’s richly researched and lucidly written book, the rewards are far superior to what one might be led to believe.
Rose’s book is not a sociological survey but a series of intellectual portraits of five thinkers of (loosely) the post-war radical right: Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, Alain Benoist, and Samuel Francis. As Rose says in the book’s introduction, we tend to view history as before and during liberalism. We know (or assume) the time before liberalism was one of darkness and cruelty, intellectually closed and socially brutal. But it still had the allure of familiarity and cultural connection however faint. What is truly disturbing, according to Rose, is to attempt to imagine a world after liberalism, one that does not correspond to what we know or what we think we knew. If liberalism is no longer the baseline, then our most basic presuppositions must be up for grabs, and who knows what could replace them?
The five thinkers under discussion are not presented through the argument of “abandon liberalism and this is your destiny,” but there is a warning implicit through the book that their ideas are serious and deep enough to take on their own terms, offering a potent alternative that has resonance with our current condition. Should we lack prudence, we could indeed follow the ideas of these thinkers down the dark paths they lay out. As Rose writes, “I do not claim we are fated to repeat their arguments, and certainly not to admire their character. But they can serve as guides to some of the lurking political possibilities of our time, helping us to better understand what some radicals have already discovered, and what more will likely find.”
Rose argues that these figures went further than others in looking beyond the present and past into a reactive future. None of these thinkers is conventionally conservative; they see little worth retaining in their own time and look forward to what could arise and how thinkers like themselves could or should work to shape it. For these thinkers who wrote with words of dynamite, what ails liberalism went down to its roots. For them, liberalism was both false and evil, denying our collective, racial nature and heritage, unmooring us from our place in the ethno-cultural social order.
Yes, the thinkers of the radical right did disagree on many things, but their similarity lay in their agreement that politics “stands on enforced judgments concerning what is higher and lower, excellent and base, friend and enemy. Politics is properly illiberal about everything, depending, from its smallest decisions to its highest goals, on judgments about human greatness.” At the center of the diagnosis of liberalism’s poison was the cancer of Christianity, which subverted and replaced all our noble instincts with base and foreign ethical imports. The diagnosis implied the solution: repudiate Christianity and the people it ultimately came from, the Jews. And so, the obvious, predictable but no less barbarous end-point is reached.
The Radical Right
What did these thinkers actually believe? Rose demonstrates over the pages of each portrait that these weren’t amateur authors of shallow screeds designed to rile the masses. Each one was an elitist who wrote for fellow elites. Spengler wrote for his fellow disaffected bourgeois, Evola for the revolutionary vanguard of a new rightist order, Yockey for a fascist underground international, Benoist for a dissident intellectual New Right, and Francis for conservative ideologues connected to the upper tranches of America’s elite class.
Rose proceeds in chronological order, which adds coherence to the bigger picture he is trying to illustrate. This allows him to draw out the connections and commonalities between each figure, weaving them into a more coherent narrative of what the radical right believed. Each chapter begins with a brief biographical introduction, which then leads into how each philosopher’s thoughts developed over their lifetime. This then enables Rose to link each figure chronologically and thematically, tracing the development of this loose body of thought.
Rose begins with Spengler, who was writing The Decline of the West in the ruins of a war-shattered Europe. He feared that “Western culture, having once possessed the strength to shape Christianity in its own image, ha[d] slowly succumbed to its egalitarianism.” This fear of insidious egalitarianism was the main drive of the mad Italian count, Julius Evola, in books like Revolt Against the Modern World and Ride the Tiger. Evola hoped for “a postliberal order that will restore the archaic basis of social life,” rooted in an immanent but foundational spiritual Tradition around which the social, political, economic, mythic, and racial order was oriented.
Evola’s emphasis on higher spiritual meaning was reflected by the American fascist dissident Francis Parker Yockey. In his two-volume tome Imperium he articulated his “belief that critical rationality has been smuggled into the soul of American culture by biblical religion,” i.e. Judaism and its Christian descendent, which undermined the “cultural vitalism” of the imperial West. Echoing Yockey’s paganism, the French New Rightist Alain de Benoist, in books including On Being a Pagan and Manifesto for a European Renaissance “claim[ed] that Christian monotheism alienates believers from nature and history,” lambasting Christianity and liberalism for their homogenising influence and destruction of cultural and racial difference. Lastly, Samuel Francis reflected this castigation of liberalism for its dissolving effects on real Americans, his post-bourgeois Middle American Radicals. He called on rightists in Beautiful Losers and Leviathan and its Enemies “to build a political movement that dispenses with the false consolations of faith” and looked at things in terms of cold, structural power politics, all of which led to biological race.
These may be disparate individuals from different times and places, but they do share a worldview in common. As Rose writes, the philosophers of the radical right “critique Christianity for nurturing individual freedom, not suppressing it; for undermining human inequalities, not upholding them; for being rationalistic, not irrational; for its openness, not its exclusivity; for being apolitical, not political; and for living up to its ideals, not betraying them.” These writers are the prophets and doctors of decline in a circular world stripped of linear time, one in which cultures are doomed to rise and fall. They described the disease and prescribed the cure. Each thinker yearns for particularity over universality and immanence over transcendence. Each thinker is also gripped by what they see as the internal rot at the heart of Western (white) culture. These philosophers seek to save Western man from himself, lost in a world bereft of direction and purpose. Most saw themselves as attempting to secure Western man from nihilism, not as nihilists themselves. The word radical stems from radix, or roots. These thinkers saw themselves attempting to go to the roots of what they viewed as their deep predicament in order to find a way forward. To do this, these men were all either resigned to, or actively engaged in, a revolution that throws us into the future, onto the other side of the historical horizon line culminating in what they saw as an insipid liberalism.
For all this, the attack on Christianity levelled by these thinkers and their descendants is often misplaced and ill thought out. They homogenise a faith that is two millennia old. They ignore its tensions and its deep substance. As a result, many on the radical or dissident right—including these five authors and their heirs today—are blind to the dead-end their ideology represents.
Christianity and True Identity
Rose ends his book with a chapter on the “Christian Question,” addressing the challenge to Christianity posed by these thinkers and their contemporary followers. As he writes, the challenge they pose is potent, and it is finding a receptive audience among young people. But as Rose also shows, Christianity itself and the beliefs and ideas it inspired still have strong responses to these challenges.
Before we get to these responses, it is worth noting the ironic similarities between these thinkers and the faith they despise. For example, the story of Yockey’s underground work for fascism and his eventual death when he is finally run to ground by the American government provides the thing that the radical right seeks: a sense of victimhood and a story of a man martyred for his beliefs, something that transcends the time and place of his life. It is almost surreal that those who look to Yockey and these other thinkers as the repudiation of the Christian morality they so despise end by reaffirming its core tenets. The suffering figure unjustly persecuted, who bears the good news of redemption and is killed for his beliefs? How Christian!
This is not the only such example of these ironies. Spengler’s worldview of cultures and Benoist’s “right to difference” demonstrate the very universality in their epistemology that these writers wish to deny and destroy. If one can only see the world through the lens of one’s culture, if there is no external viewpoint from which to see the fact of difference, then how is it possible to portray the world through an objective, systematic, and descriptive argument as Spengler and Benoist do?
There is also the obvious yearning for spiritual truths. Benoist fears the dissolution of cultural particularity while Francis railed against distant elites lording it over disaffected post-bourgeois Middle American Radicals, destroying their patrimony and future with immigration. All of these authors hold a worldview inflected with racialism at the very least, and appalling racism at worst. Evola, Spengler, and Yockey all claim that racial categories in the biological sense are useless, immoral or defunct, but then proceed to reintroduce them through the backdoor, in ersatz spiritual terms.
This is the thing that Rose notes, and which is impossible to ignore. Each writer in his own way is searching for the spiritual. Spengler finds it in the culture of European Faustian man, Yockey in Western vitalism, Evola in racialised Tradition, Benoist in a kind of immanent pantheism. Even Francis, for all his supposed realism, imbues his search for racial superiority with a semi-sacred fervour. This speaks to a problem keenly felt by those on the radical right: how does one live, and find meaning in the world, when Christian faith seems impossible? There is a particular urgency to this question in the work of Spengler and Evola, writing in the wake of the catastrophe of World War One.
The attempts of each to find a way towards meaning is telling. It speaks to the spiritual dissatisfaction that sits at the base of so many forms of extremism, from Islamism to the far-left and radical right. Each of these writers sought some sort of resolution and redemption inside the world and within history itself, having discarded or lost the path to salvation outside time that Christianity offers. But no matter their efforts, these thinkers seemingly cannot escape the shadow of the cross they so despise.
They despise the cross because they blame Christianity for birthing liberalism, yet this rejection is a reckless move born of ideological fervour and spiritual resentment. One need not abandon Christianity to accept that liberalism’s flaws regarding the human person and our place in community and history are significant. The idea that we cannot disentangle the truly diverse history of the Christian faith and its tradition from liberalism seems a vastly oversimplified route to take, especially from those so convinced of their own intellectual prowess. By rejecting the Christian tradition, these thinkers repeat liberalism’s failure “to understand the tragic character of human history,” a failure that Reinhold Niebuhr understood could only be rectified by the accounting of our tragic nature and existence found in Christianity. Christianity takes full account of “this blindness [which] does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations… the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.”
The inspiration these philosophers provide to their young adherents will not provide today’s radical right with relief from the longing they feel. As Joshua Mitchell writes in American Awakening, modern liberalism seems fixated on a secular politics of innocence and stain, disenchanting the world of transgression redeemed through the transcendent forgiveness of all promised in Christianity. The radical right looks on what Mitchell calls the “stain of inheritance” and goes “so what?” This question represents a form of forgetting, and this forgetting is a terrifying precedent for the future, one devoid of the humility rooted in a realistic view of man’s flawed nature in a fallen world.
It need not be this way. For all their supposedly clear-eyed bleakness regarding the place of man in the world, these thinkers surveyed by Rose are blinkered. They fail to see the inherent brokenness of themselves as well. They place the line between good and evil between ethno-cultural groups rather than through the hearts of all. Nostalgia is often for a past that never occurred, but these thinkers and their followers are nostalgic for a future that will never come. Rose is correct when he writes that it is a fantasy to think the need for meaning and purpose will be met by the banal biological reality of race.
Yet their diagnosis cannot be solved by a bigger dose of liberal platitudes: more openness, atomisation, and individualism. Liberalism remains wrong to see our roots in particular communities and traditions as barriers to freedom. These apparent limits enable true liberty. The attachments and loyalties that liberalism does indeed dissolve form limits and boundaries that are essential characteristics of our human life. As Nigel Biggar argues, Christianity acknowledges our “creatureliness,” and the preference for the familiar and known this brings. Our finitude, living in particular places with particular people at a particular time, means our attachments will necessarily be specific in their embrace.
But nor is the answer to reject universality as such in favor of immorally exclusive biological particularity. The Christian faith reminds us to learn to love what is good, which requires us to order our loyalties to what transcends them. Claes Ryn demonstrates the Christian faith’s nobler message, one where the tension between the particular and the universal is resolved in the person of Christ himself. The dichotomy between moral universality, on the one hand, and history and heritage, on the other, is an artificial one. Respect for tradition and the legacy of the past, the need for community and the diversity of cultures, need not undermine true reason and catholicity. Our knowledge of the universal becomes known to us in a real, concrete form. In the figure of Christ we see a synthesis of the universal and the historical, when the transcendent becomes immanent in a particular place, at a particular time, bringing everlasting forgiveness. The concrete universal of our place and time can act as an icon that points beyond itself.
Returning to the piece cited at the beginning, this is the form of Christian postliberalism that the major postliberal thinkers today cleave to, with variations accounting for personal belief. Those like Adrian Pabst, Patrick Deneen, R.R. Reno and Sohrab Ahmari meld a Catholic religious perspective with a Burkean and Tocquevillean sensibility to ask how we should relate to each other and ourselves, beyond the cramped and sinful confines of race but within community and locality. The synthesis of the universal and the particular embodied by the nation is affirmed in the Bible from the Tower of Babel on. Yoram Hazony makes this explicit in his vision of the nation as the mediator between particularity and universality, tribe and empire, kin and cosmopolis. Isn’t it ironic that, contrary to these radical rightists’ protestations, it is the Jewish tradition that grounds a truly substantive view of nations and peoples?
John Paul II articulated a case for this true dignity of difference. He denied that Christians have no “native land” on earth, defending nations as natural communities. Against those seeking a homogenised world, he urged the preservation of language, memories, and religious traditions. If a culture has self-respect it can extend respect to others, and a culture that conserves itself can extend fellowship. For John Paul II, the “spiritual self-defence” of our nation is a moral obligation rooted in mutual loyalty to our parents and families. But this respect and loyalty was tempered by humility: any nation risks becoming an idol instead of an icon if it does not point towards a divine inheritance that transforms it in the process. As the pope wrote, “the inheritance we receive from Christ orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal homeland.” Augustine was right when he said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
If we wish to make a world worth living in, one for people to live decent lives, then we should avoid the paths laid down by the philosophers Rose considers. He has done us a service in reminding us where such ideas can lead if not restrained by the reality of man’s inherent brokenness. Tragedy results when the moral realism rooted in Christianity is rejected and when we attempt to make the world over within history itself. Conservatives and postliberals should be grateful that Rose has written this book, and it should inspire them to the necessary work of offering a deep and decent alternative.
Someone needs to do a book on Dostoevsky as a critic of liberalism. His understanding of human freedom under God is itself worthy of examination, and seems to me to be a primary element in his rejection of European liberal thought. I believe that there’s something “hidden,” so to speak, in Notes From Underground, which is fleshed out in his later works, but even after multiple readings I find that it just manages to escape my grasp. My guess is that it has something to do with the difference between the Eastern Orthodox understanding of human freedom and that of “The West,” broadly speaking, but I’ve not seen this idea expounded upon anywhere. It remains simply speculative on my part.
You might try “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, Rob, if you haven’t already.
Thanks, Aaron — yes, I’ve read that one. Helpful but didn’t really nail it for me.
This quote from the article supra precisely states what liberalism and its attendant ideologies have done and continue to do:
“He has done us a service in reminding us where such ideas can lead if not restrained by the reality of man’s inherent brokenness. Tragedy results when the moral realism rooted in Christianity is rejected and when we attempt to make the world over within history itself. ”
Liberalism has not and does not recognize man’s brokenness because the “liberal man” is inherently “good.” The attendant ideologies such as various forms of socialism and Marxism seize the “brokenness” as a weapon, alleging that it is the “flaw” caused by some nefarious “system” which must be overthrown, with no regard to the metaphysical nature of the brokenness. It is precisely liberalism and its ugly sisters which want to make “the world over within history itself.”
What one finds in those writers outlined by Rose if one reads them closely is that they harken back to a time, obviously broken, in which pagans and Christians both believed that they were creatures in a created order attempting to find their own limits within that order and attempting to respond to that Something (gods, God) which was pushing through that order, demanding a response. Precisely that is what is missing in both the liberal age and the age which is likely to follow it. It is much easier for a Christian to “witness” to a pagan than it is to “witness” to an emancipated, liberal man.
Matthew Rose misrepresents Sam Francis:
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