Debating the Intellectual Leader of the French New Right
As Umberto Eco warned and as Alain de Benoist shows, fascism can return in the most unexpected of disguises.
I am the author of two books about the French nouvelle droite (ND): Where Have All the Fascists Gone? and Rethinking the French New Right: Alternatives to Modernity. In 2014, I published a piece entitled, “The French New Right: Neither Right, Nor Left?” in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism. Surprisingly, the French ND leader, Alain de Benoist, responded with a polemical and largely ad hominem article in the same journal. Despite de Benoist’s charges, I neither identify with a political party nor with a political movement. I do not support any ideological current. De Benoist does. He is self-described as a man of the right. Hence, he cannot claim intellectual objectivity.
Here, I want to offer some comments on my recent debate with de Benoist. I argue that, while we should strive toward intellectual objectivity, we cannot be silent in the face of falsehoods. In this respect, the ND plays a dishonest game. Its intellectual leader and attendant activists feign intellectual objectivity and the platitudes of transcending right and left. Yet they aim for cultural hegemony and the triumph of their decidedly radical right-wing ideals.
This struggle for cultural hegemony began back in 1968 in Nice, France, when 40 intellectuals, including de Benoist, created the key ND think-tank Le Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE or The Group for Research and Studies on European Civilization). The novelty of GRECE was that it used the inspiration of the anti-system New Left — recall the massive protests in France in 1968 — especially the work of Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, to rethink the sterile legacies of fascism and Nazism, Vichy collaboration and pro-Algerian colonialism.
At the time, many people told me not to respond to de Benoist. How can you respond to a neo-fascist? From my part, I used the debate with de Benoist to demonstrate that the ND leader is a neo-fascist with a human face. In short, fascists today no longer state that they want to re-open Auschwitz or wear jackbooks. As Umberto Eco noted in a 1995 piece entitled “Ur Fascism” for the New York Review of Books, neo-fascists maintain fascist core values, but do not subscribe to the violent tactics of the past. Those tactics are less acceptable in a post-World War II, post-Holocaust and anti-fascist age.
I have long argued that the ND worldview has similarities with fascism, but that the think-tank does not employ violence. Instead, its calling cards are: 1) anti-liberalism; 2) anti-communism; 3) anti-conservatism; 4) an attempt to create a new, modern, self-determined, and secular culture; 5) a highly regulated, multiclass and integrated national economic structure; 6) an economic framework that uses the state to restrain capitalism, the banks and multinational corporations; 7) a desire for nationalist (or ethnically homogenous) states; 8) the goal of empire; 9) the desire for European grandeur in the geopolitical realm; 10) a positive evaluation of authors that legitimize violence, such as Carl Schmitt and Julius Evola; 11) a stress on the emotional and mystical aspects of life, including traditions, Indo-European symbols and primordial ties to the region, nation or Europe; and 12) an organic view of society and extreme stress upon chauvinism.
Nouvelle Droite: Neo-fascism with a human face?
De Benoist’s “neo-fascism with a human face” has helped inspire other intellectuals, especially in Western Europe — and later in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Interestingly, de Benoist’s ND project began in the same year as the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the massive student and worker protests in France. De Benoist and the ND were influenced by both events, insisting that a revolution was possible in advanced industrialized societies without using violence.
If we want to better understand de Benoist’s “neo-fascism with a human face,” we must see through what Professor Matthew Feldman has called the “doublespeak” of the radical right, but also its postwar disdain for the dominance of liberal democracy. Such a view of the radical right should include de Benoist’s ND and its attempts at “repackaging” contemporary ultra-nationalism.
In my previous works, I have argued that the ND draws upon the Conservative Revolution (CR), New Left (NL) and other diverse influences. The use of NL influences, for instance, was designed to re-think the sterile legacy of fascism; to reconstitute the right after the debacle of the loss of French Algeria; and to win supporters in a cultural climate that was decidedly left-wing in the 1960s and 1970s. In undertaking this project, the ND saw itself as an intellectual vanguard in winning cultural hegemony from the liberal-left. It thus explicitly differentiated itself from political parties and extra-parliamentary (or terrorist movements) on the radical right.
Between intellectual objectivity and polemical storms
Here are some key points from my debate with de Benoist:
a) The battle of ideas matters. Revolutions are made by material factors, but also the battle of ideas among intellectuals and ordinary people.
b) In a polemical debate, pivotal ideas are sometimes lost or distorted; there can be opportunistic lies in order to discredit the researcher (e.g., de Benoist falsely claimed that I had no contact with him); and you can get pinned with labels (e.g., Metapedia, a pro-ND website, calls me a “leftist” and “Jewish anti-fascist”). However, I should stress that I did not label de Benoist a “neo-fascist” to discredit him, but to show historical continuities between his contemporary ideas and his support for the radical right Conservative Revolutionaries of the inter-war years.
c) Are we ever fully objective? We can try, but I doubt it. Our debate reinforced this view. Yet in my classes as a lecturer, I teach a wide-range of perspectives, ideologies or international relations theories. We must ultimately think critically rather than be the slaves of any political camp.
d) De Benoist is intellectually brilliant, but also nasty, caustic and demeaning. When I noted that the ND’s “anti-racist” stance echoes xenophobic political parties, de Benoist mocked me in his purposefully provocative response: “This is about as intelligent as saying: (1) Hitler liked dogs. (2) Tamir Bar-On likes them too (maybe!). (3) Therefore, Tamir Bar-On is a Nazi.” De Benoist resorts to grotesque name-calling without any basis. He does not like that I decipher both the ND’s exoteric and esoteric discourses (a distinction I borrow from Roger Eatwell). ND writings must be analyzed in terms of what is said in their texts, especially their “code words” such as “Indo-European” (instead of Aryan), “European culture” (instead of white) and “Judeo-Christian tradition” (instead of Jews) — but also what they do not often write about anymore: Jews, Zionism, support for conspicuous racism. I should add that I was also caustic when I compared de Benoist’s ideas to anti-immigrant terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. I still believe in that claim, although de Benoist has not openly endorsed violence and is anti-Zionist and less conspicuously anti-Muslim compared to Breivik.
e) I still hope to change the world, which is also the case for de Benoist. I still believe in administrative equality, unlike de Benoist. He only wants to “liberate” a part of humanity, “original” European ethnic groups. He forgets that direct democracy is a scam when it excludes those that supposedly do not belong to the political community. He wants to use referenda in order to stop immigration, refugee and asylum-seekers — and even expel non-Europeans from Europe.
The intellectual and media decline of the ND
My closing line in response to de Benoist was: “The ND is merely the intellectual face of what Jean Baudrillard saw as the rising tide of a white, fundamentalist Europe, which is simultaneously promoted by radical rightwing populist parties, more violent and outdated extraparliamentary forces, and, at times, by mainstream political parties.” In short, the apogee of the ND’s strength was in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, the ND is losing its media and intellectual vitality. It seeks scandals in order to gain supporters. These polemical debates allow it to play the cult of victimhood against a supposedly “liberal left wing” arrayed against it.
Despite the ND’s fall from the spotlight, ND ideas on immigration, national identity and the loss of national sovereignty are increasingly becoming mainstream. Why has the cultural climate shifted so dramatically to the right since 1968, the year the ND was created? The post-9-11 climate? Islamist terrorist attacks? The rise of radical right political parties since the Cold War? The cooptation of radical right-wing ideas by mainstream parties and coalition governments? The dramatic decline of the radical left, as Slavoj Žižek once suggested? The EU development? Capitalist globalization and its excesses? Or is it, in fact, the slow cultural change in mentalities engineered by the ND?
Theirs is a radical right hearkening back to Europe’s dark past; a right of homogeneous regions, nations and Europe; a right where internal homogeneity will be achieved through cultural and legal means. As Eco warned and as de Benoist shows, fascism can return in the most unexpected of disguises.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.