By Timothy Berk, University of Toronto
Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to our episode on the French New Right, #26: “the French Connection.” Tim Berk provided research for that episode, which is synthesized here. If you haven’t already hear that episode, give it a listen.
The political resurgence of the far right in Europe has put liberal multiculturalism on the defensive in both theory and practice. We see evidence of this in practice in the familiar examples of the success of Brexit, and the increase in support for far-right parties across Europe, including, but not limited to, the Rassemblement National in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria, the Swedish Democrats, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and both Fidsez and Jobbik in Hungary. In each case, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been harnessed to grow support.
Less familiar (at least in North America) is the theoretical attack of multiculturalism by the leading ideologues of the European Nouvelle Droit and their Eurasionist allies. What is surprising about their critiques is their adoption of traditionally left-wing postcolonial and multicultural rhetoric to defend their ethnonationalist goal of the establishment of self-contained ethnically homogenous societies. Indeed, they claim to advocate on behalf of closed societies precisely for the sake of global diversity, in opposition to liberal cultural imperialism.
These critics charge that the structures of modernity, including scientific rationalism, industrial or post-industrial economies, religious secularization, and political liberalism, narrow the scope of possible differences in ways of life, as well as structures of thought and belief, between various societies. In response, they promote militantly illiberal policies and anti-modern or trans-modern ideologies in order to preserve a space for ‘difference’ among ethnic ‘peoples’ and empires, rather than within nation-states. Thus despite liberalism’s normative affirmation of tolerance and diversity, exemplified by multiculturalism, these critics argue that liberalism’s identification with the allegedly homogenizing forces of modernization render it an enemy of the very diversity it claims to protect.
The leading intellectual figures of the European or Eurasianism New Right, such as Alain de Benoist in France and Alexander Dugin in Russia, have utilized the rhetoric of cultural pluralism to call for a radical break with liberal forms of multiculturalism. Instead, they champion an illiberal multiculturalism of empire as a necessary measure to protect cultures from the homogenizing influence of liberal modernity. This post will proceed by outlining the historical context of the New Right’s turn from the language of race to that of ethno-cultural pluralism, by providing examples of such rhetoric in the works of Benoist and Dugin, and by sketching their illiberal alternative to liberal multiculturalism and the dangerous political implications that their pluralistic rhetoric attempts to conceal.
The European New Right emerged in the late 1960s, led by Alain de Benoist and buoyed by French Nouvelle Droite institutions such as the think-tank GRECE (Groupement de Recherche et d’Etude pour la Civilization Européenne) as well as periodicals such as Nouvelle Ecole and Elements. These institutions spread the Nouvelle Droite’s ‘metapolitical’ critiques of liberal democracy, which influenced public debate in France and beyond – most notably in Italy, Germany, and Russia, where it played an influential role in the development of contemporary Eurasianism.
Historian and theorist of fascism Roger Griffin provides a helpful overview of the recurrent features of the European New Right. First, they employ a strategy of ‘right-wing Gramscianism’, or ‘metapolitics’. This means that they seek to influence politics not through the ballot box or street rallies, but by influencing society’s underlying or foundational ideas and values. In other words, metapolitics seeks to effect political and institutional change through cultural change. The ideals and values they appeal to, meanwhile, draws from the intellectual and ideological authority of a shared canon of right-wing European right wing intellectuals such as Nietzsche, Jünger, Heidegger, Schmitt and Evola. To make these ideas palpable to a broader audience, they attempt to bypass the traditional left and right dichotomy, by emphasizing their shared critique of capitalism, materialism, and the consumerist individualism of American society. Yet smuggled within this critique is a shared conception of Europe as “a unique cultural homeland,” in need of revitalization through the renewing “contact with its pre-Christian mythic roots”. Indeed, thinkers of the ENR understand contemporary European history as a period of post-war decadence; as an ‘interregnum’ between the old authentic Europe which drew its last breath during the Second World War, and the future restoration of European greatness. Last, and most importantly for our purposes, they share the rhetorical “celebration of ethnic diversity and difference (‘differentialism’) to be defended against cultural imperialism and ‘totalitarian’ one-worldism (‘mondialisme’), mass migration, and the liberal endorsement of a multi-racial society”.
The last point was essential to the rebranding of the Nouvelle Droite in the 70s and 80s under Alain de Benoist’s leadership. To achieve their goal of cultural hegemony it was decided that the New Right would have to leave behind the alienating trappings of fascism from the 30s and 40s and appropriate the politically acceptable ideological commitments normally associated with the New Left, or the ‘68ers. Spektorowoski observes “In contrast to postures that common sense usually associates with the Right such as nationalism, the New Right endorses regionalism; in contrast to racism and colonialism, it endorses cultural pluralism and anti-imperialism”, noting that this ideological innovation successfully “sowed the seeds of an intellectual and ideological debate in which the New Right gained unexpected supporters”, infamously including the formerly left-wing journal Telos.
French debates in the 80s and 90s about multiculturalism and the validity of extending social or political recognition to ethnic and cultural difference would be tainted by the Nouvelle Droite’s embrace of identitarian politics in opposition to liberal ideals of universal citizenship. Mindful of the Nouvelle Droite’s rhetorical strategy, the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzeveton Todorov warned at the time that:
The term race, having outlived its usefulness, will be replaced by the much more appropriate term ‘culture’; declarations of superiority and inferiority… will be set aside in favour of a glorification of difference… What will remain unchanged [between racialism and culturalism] is the rigidity of determinism (cultural rather than physical now) and the discontinuity of humanity, compartmentalized into cultures that cannot and must not communicate with one another… racist behaviours [appeal] to nationalist or culturalist doctrine, or to the ‘right to difference’.
It is this strategy of appropriating publically defensible norms (often borrowed from the language of multiculturalism or the New Left) in service of politically unacceptable ends that we see the European New Right still utilize today, helping to explain the normalization of their ideas. As Griffin writes, “the anti-liberal currents of ideology [this strategy] feeds may prove even more insidious than modernized forms of the interwar fascist right in their liberticide effects because they are so easily absorbed into the bloodstream of liberalism itself”. That is to say, through its adoption, radicalization, and distortion of the multiculturalist and anti-colonial rhetoric of diversity, identity, cultural pluralism, and anti-imperialism, the New Right is able to attract sympathizers across the ideological spectrum, increasing their capacity to challenge liberal multicultural societies from within.
We can see examples of this ethnopluralist rhetoric by turning directly to the writings of de Benoist and his Eurasionist disciple Dugin. de Benoist writes,
The true wealth of the world is first and foremost the diversity of its cultures and peoples. The West’s conversion to universalism has been the main cause of its subsequent attempt to convert the rest of the world: in the past, to its religion (the Crusades); yesterday, to its political principles (colonialism); and today, to its economic and social model (development) or its moral principles (human rights). Undertaken under the aegis of missionaries, armies, and merchants, the Westernization of the planet has represented an imperialist movement fed by the desire to erase all otherness.
Dugin, meanwhile echoes Benoist, pronouncing,
…every people in the world, from those who founded great civilizations to the smaller ones, and which are carefully preserving their traditions, are an inestimable wealth. The assimilation of a people through external influences, the loss of a language or a traditional way of life, or the physical extinction of any of the peoples of the Earth is an irreparable loss for all mankind… Against the establishment of the Atlanticist world order and globalization stand the supporters of the multipolar world: the Eurasianists. The Eurasianists defend on principle the necessity to preserve the existence of every people on Earth, the blossoming variety of cultures and religious traditions, and the unquestionable right of the peoples to independently choose their own path of historical development. The Eurasianists greet the dialogue of cultures and value systems with enthusiasm, and they cherish the organic combination of devotion to tradition and creative cultural innovations.
Thus according to the rhetoric of these authors, all traditional cultural inheritances are treasures that need to be preserved against the corroding imperial influence of Western-led liberalization, which is a byword for globalization.
What is it about liberal modernity that these writers think threatens local traditions? Borrowing from more familiar authors such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, the New Right responds that liberal modernity is characterized by its impulse towards levelling both individuals and peoples. Benoist writes,
The whole history of modernity can be regarded as the continuous deployment of the ideology of the same: suppression of the castes and states by the Revolution, homogenization of the rules of language and law, progressive eradication of specific lifestyles related to housing, work, social environment or belief, the increasing indistinction concerning male and female social behavior. In every field, including (recently) the space of filiation, indistinction is growing and this process will reach its peak with globalization. Differentiated lifestyles have disappeared everywhere because of modernity. Old organic ties have been severed. Differences between lifestyles have grown smaller.
To counter this trend towards homogenization, New Right and Eurasian thinkers agree that liberal modernity must be opposed.
Dugin, for example, in agreement with Benoist, contends that liberalism is both “the essence of modernity” and an “absolute evil” because it “brings with itself the stereotyping and homogenization of the world, which destroys all forms of diversity and differentiation”. He insists that as a result, any liberal who embraces the value of cultural diversity “should deny himself ideologically and reject liberalism and its suppositions in their entirety.” In other words, if modernity is evil because it undermines diversity, and if liberalism is at the heart of modernity, then the champions of diversity must embrace anti-liberal and anti-modern politics in order to preserve ethnocultural pluralism in an age of globalization.
For these critics, noting the tension between modernity and cultural diversity, or attempting to negotiate between the two is not enough. Instead they quixotically insist that vanguard intellectuals, ethnic peoples, and multiethnic empires must actively defend global cultural diversity through an assault against the imperialism of liberal modernity and the forces of globalization. Hence de Benoist’s rally, “Will the earth be reduced to something homogeneous because of deculturalization and depersonalizing trends… Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world? This is really the decisive question that has been raised at the beginning of the next millennium.”
In order to persist as something meaningful, the European New Right and Eurasionists map ‘diversity’ onto the globe rather than the liberal nation-state. What is essential for them, according to their rhetoric, is not the non-discriminatory co-existence of racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, or sexual identities within the liberal-state, but that the planet remains hospitable to a diversity of non-liberal and non-modern cultures or ways of collective being.
In response, they promote illiberal policies and anti-modern ideologies in order to preserve a space for ‘difference’ among or between peoples, rather than within nation-states. Hence, whereas liberal multiculturalism seeks to protect the cultural rights of minority groups within multi-ethnic liberal nation-states, the New Right advocates an illiberal ‘multiculturalism’ which promotes ethnically homogenous cultural units that “develop themselves only in their own natural environments”, and are bounded within federal empires on the scale of ‘civilizations’ (Europe, Eurasia, etc.). Despite their differences, these civilizational empires are in turn united in their resistance to liberal globalization and the affirmation of a multipolar world.
It is worth making explicit the disturbing political implications of the New Right and Eurasionist embrace of ethnopluralism, especially given that these implications can often hide themselves behind the veil of multicultural or anti-colonial rhetoric. As Spektorowski argues, the new right endorses “a radical conception of multiculturalism in order to undermine the intellectual basis of liberal multiculturalism” by drawing “attention to… the plausible theoretical antagonism between the demand for the cultural rights of indigenous peoples on the one hand, and the support of the cultural rights of immigrant communities in the European framework on the other.” That is to say, the New Right argues that if minority or colonized cultures are worth preserving because of the importance of cultural identity as such, then the ethnic identities of majority cultures must be too. They continue that the best way to accomplish this (for both groups!) is through the enforcement of ethnocultural homogeneity within a group’s autochthonous region, by exiling minority populations back to their own similarly ethnically self-contained homelands, where it is claimed that they too will flourish.
Spekorowski rightly warns, however, that the New Right dream “will be a permanent nightmare for old immigrants and for political and ideological dissenters. In short, the new ethno-regional Europe will be the proper field for the emergence of a new type of totalitarianism relying upon a European version of the ‘politics of identity.” Or as Griffin writes, the creation of a European empire divided into ethnically homogenous localities “would involve a process of enforced resettlement and ethnic cleansing which would soon leave the ‘hundred flags’ of the new Europe drenched in blood.”
Furthermore, despite their anti-imperial rhetoric, the ethno-cultural pluralism offered by the European New Right and Eurasionists unsurprisingly concentrates power in Europe or Russia respectively. For example, de Benoist and the New Right reject the idea that technological progress is indicative of cultural or racial superiority, seemingly giving plausibility to the idea that their new world order of a technological Europe and a ‘Third World’ maintaining its agrarian traditions will be non-hierarchical. It is argued that just as technological civilization is an organic outgrowth of European culture, traditional agrarian practices are organic manifestations of the cultures of the ‘Third World’, and should therefore be proudly defended without feelings of inferiority towards technological Europe. They thus insist that it is in the interest of Europe and the ‘Third World’ to unite to fend off the dangers of Anglo-American liberalism in Europe and modernization in the ‘Third World’. Implicit, however, within this “right-wing anti-imperialism”, Spektorowski observes, “is the organic division of labour based on natural diversity… [and] a new type of world hierarchy wherein an emancipated and technologically developed Europe dominates a ‘proud’ underdeveloped Third World.” Once again flipping Leftist ideas on their heads, the global equality of cultures is championed in the service of global hierarchy.
Dugin’s Eurasianism, meanwhile, clearly serves Russian geopolitical interests in promoting a multipolar world with a large sphere of Russian influence and the diminished influence of Anglo-American liberalism. Dugin does this by elevating Russia to the role of the central protagonist in the eschatological drama of the planet’s revolt against the American imperialism represented by globalized liberal modernity. As Beiner remarks, Dugin’s ideological blend of totalitarian ideologies (with pre-eminence explicitly granted to fascism), whether labeled as National Bolshevism, neo-Eurasianism, or the fourth political theory, “all amount to the same thing: a scheme for uniting all the global enemies of liberalism under Russian leadership and displacing the current dispensation with something virulently antiliberal and antimodern or premodern.”
To conclude, despite liberal multiculturalism’s normative affirmation of diversity, the New Right’s radicalization of its very premises has rendered liberal multiculturalism on the defensive. These authors claim that a policy of multiculturalism within the modern-liberal state will not be able to preserve the ‘thick’ forms of ethnocultural difference – whether that of the majority or minority culture – that it cherishes. In response, they call for an illiberal and antimodern ‘multiculturalism’ based upon a global patchwork of ethnically homogenous societies organized into civilization empires which can allow these identities to flourish and check the power of Anglo-American cultural imperialism. Despite their use of anti-colonial rhetoric, it would be naive to believe the world they are promoting would lead to anything but hierarchy and mass global conflict between empires, the forced migration of tens if not hundreds of millions, and the unshackling of imperial rulers from the constraints of liberal normativity, however imperfectly they are lived up to today.
- de Benoist, Alain, “On Identity.” Telos 128 (Summer 2004): 9-64.
- de Benoist, Alain and Charles Champetier. Manifesto for a European Renaissance. London: Arktos Media Ltd., 2012.
- Dugin, Alexander. Eurasian Mission: An Introduction to Neo-Eurasianism. Edited by John B. Morgan IV. London: Arktos Media Ltd 2014.
- Beiner, Ronald. “Russia’s Ecumenical Jihadist,” Inroads, 37 (Summer/Fall 2015): 92-100.
- Griffin, Roger. “Interregnum or endgame? The radical right in the ‘post-fascist’ era,” Journal of Political Ideologies 5.2 (2000): 163-178.
- Grillo, R.D. “Cultural essentialism and cultural anxiety,” Anthropological Theory 3.2 (2003): 163-164
- Spektorowski, Alberto. “The New Right: ethno-regionalism, ethno-pluralism and the emergence of a neo-fascist ‘Third Way’,” Journal of Political Ideologies 8.1 (2003): 111-130.
- Todorov, Tzveton. On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- For a critical profile of Alain de Benoist and his influence on far-right politics over the last 50 plus years, including commentary from our guest Jean-Yves Camus, see:
Feder, J. Lester and Pierre Buet. “The Man Who Gave White Nationalism a New Life.” Buzzfeed (December 2017). Accessible at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lesterfeder/the-man-who-gave-white-nationalism-a-new-life
- For a compelling look into the role French New Right thinking and strategies played in the American Alt-Right, the Charlottesville rally, as well as a portrait of the divisions and quarrels among surviving members of the New Right movement, see: Williams, Thomas Chatterton. “The French Origins of You Will Not Replace Us,” The New Yorker (November 2017). Accessible at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lesterfeder/the-man-who-gave-white-nationalism-a-new-life
- For an up-to-date, comprehensive, and accessible primer into the state of the current international far-right, and the intersections between the European New Right, American Alt-Right and Identitarian Movement see: Mulhall, Joe, Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, and Simon Murdoch. The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century? Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge, 2020.
- For a primer on the phenomenon of “post-modern conservatism”, and its implications for 21st Century political life see: McManus, Matthew. “On Post-Modern Conservatism.” The McGill International Review (March 2018). Accessible at: https://www.mironline.ca/what-is-post-modern-conservatism/
- Or if you would like to go into further depth on the phenomena, see: McManus, Matthew. The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture, and Reactionary Politics. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019.
- Bar-On, Tamir. Where Have All the Fascists Gone? London: Routledge, 2007.
- Bar-On, Tamir. Rethinking the French New Right: Alternatives to Modernity. London: Routledge, 2013.
- Camus, Jean-Yves. “Alain de Benoist and the French New Right,” in Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Edited by Mark Sedgwick. pp. 73-90. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Camus, Jean-Tves and Nicholas Lebourg. Far-Right Politics in Europe. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press ofHarvard University Press, 2017.
- McAdams, A. James. “Making the Case for ‘Difference’: From the Nouvelle Droite to the Identitarians and the New Vanguardists,” in Contemporary Far-Right Thinkers and the Future of Liberal Democracy. Edited by A. James McAdams and Alejandro Castrillon. London: Routledge 2021. (Forthcoming in September).
- Mulhall, Joe. Drums in the Distance: Journeys into the Global Far Right. Icon Books Ltd, 2021 (forthcoming July 8)
- Mulhall, Joe. “HNH Explains… The Identitarian Movement and the Alt-Right,” Hope Not Hate (October 2017). Accessible at: https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/2017/10/31/explained-identitarian-movement-alt-right/
- Sharpe, Matthew. “The Long Game of the European New Right,” The Conversation (March 2017). Accessible at: https://theconversation.com/the-long-game-of-the-european-new-right-75078