The Blessing of Limits
In this recent interview with the Catholic journal Le Nef, Alain de Benoist discusses the origins and evolution of the French ‘New Right’ as well as his own thought, liberalism, the future of politics, and his idea of paganism.
We have had the joy of interviewing the greatest French intellectuals, from Chantal Delsol to Pierre Manent, through Marcel Gauchet, Alain Finkelkraut, Jacques Juillard, and some others, in our columns. Alain de Benoist is not Christian and so we diverge on certain points, but he is a great mind open to debate and with which agreements abound. While he remains largely ostracised in the ‘mainstream media’, we are happy and honored to give him the floor here.
You are one of the founders of the ‘Nouvelle Droite’, GRECE, and many journals of this movement. Could you recall the circumstances of these establishments and the principal ideas that you thus defend?
What was designated much later by the very mediocre expression ‘Nouvelle Droite’ [New Right] was born in 1967-1968, a little before the events in Paris during the month of May. An adolescent, I had known an experience of intense, arguably total, political militancy in the four or five preceding years, within the radical Right (the Fédération des étudiants nationalistes of François d’Orcival, then the movement of the journal Europe Action, founded by Dominique Venner). A rough school and a memorable experience, but whose limits I rapidly tested. At 25 years old, I understood that I was a man of knowledge, not a man of power, to speak like Raymond Abellio. Moreover, I was tired of the slogans and ready-made ideas. So I broke definitively with both political action and the extreme Right, to completely devote myself to the work of thought. It's then that I created the journal Nouvelle École, shortly before the launching of GRECE. The journal Éléments appeared in 1972. I also launched the journal Krisis in 1988, which was intended to be a ‘journal of ideas and debates’. These three journals are still published today. My intention then was to start over from zero, that is to say to systematically inventory all the domains of knowledge in order to lead to the development of a new conception of the world capable of clarifying the historical moment we live in. I had in mind the example of the Frankfurt School, Action Française, and the CNRS! Of course we had to scale back. At least I can say that since a half-century ago, I have never set other goals.
You collaborated with Figaro Magazine at the end of the 1970s: you earned notoriety there, but you were ousted. Was that already for ‘thought crime’, and could we see in this episode the beginning of the media ostracism of which you've been the victim?
Things are simpler. Louis Pauwels, when he created Figaro Magazine, asked me to do it with him, which I accepted. Many of my friends also participated in this adventure. Three years later, traumatised by the arrival of the Left in power, Pauwels decided to convert both to Christianity and liberalism, though he was previously neither Christian nor liberal. Monsignor Lustiger received his confession. By following his example, I would have been easy for me to keep my positions at Fig Mag. I didn't do it. The eviction of which you speak was the logical consequence. But I do not think that it was the origin of the ostracism you also mentioned. That is only an aspect of the more general evolution of the intellectual landscape, which has progressively marginalised a series of free thinkers and that has struck many other intellectuals besides me. It's this millstone that is beginning to wear off today. The intellectual ice pack is in the process of melting. Climate warming!
They reproached you for defending ‘racist’ theories at the time: what was it really, and have you changed? Is it not these old accusations that stick to your skin?
The little prosecutors who want to dictate the media today use many means! The ‘racialist’ phantasms were part of the baggage of youth which I have long since jettisoned. I published three books against racism, in which I methodically deconstructed racist theories in order to demonstrate their intrinsic falsity. I have done the same with all the doctrines that pretend to derive the social-historical specificity of human societies from biology alone. And when I speak of identity, it's to Martin Buber that I refer, not to Gobineau! It suffices to read me to note it (the material isn't lacking: 102 books, 2,000 articles, 600 interviews). But I am no longer so naive: on the contrary, I know well that the real objective is to prevent people from reading me.
In relation to the beginning of the ‘Nouvelle Droite’, what are the principal points which you believe have changed and what are the persistent, fundamental subjects?
More than changes, there have been inflections. For example, today I would no longer subscribe to the complete rejection of the thought of Freud or Marx to which I adhered in the 1970s. Besides the great poles of influence that impressed me very early, like the socialist thought at the start of the labour movement (Sorel, Proudhon, Leroux, Malon), the ‘non-conformists’ of the 1930s (Mounier, Robert Aron, Alexandre Marc), or the German Conservative Revolution (Schmitt, Spengler, Jünger, Moeller van den Bruck), my interest has increasingly turned towards the social sciences, from Max Weber to Jean-Claude Michéa, through Simmel, Sombart, Baudrillard, and Louis Dumont. But I also pursued my works on popular traditions and the history of religions.
How do you analyse the emergence of ‘political correctness’, with its principal vector of anti-racism, and the little resistance that it meets?
It's originally a fashion that came from the United States. In France, it flourished on the Left, but it also marked the end of a Left faithful to its initial inspirations. By privileging anti-racism and the ‘fight against all discrimination’, the Left sought a replacement historical subject because it deliberately broke with the people. By reciting the mantras of human rights and calling to uphold any form of desire, including at the institutional level, it wants to hide its shameful adherence to the monotheism of the market. This turn encountered hardly any resistance because the ground had been prepared, for at least two centuries, by what I called the ideology of ‘the Same’, this multifaceted ideology that tells us men are fundamentally the same everywhere and that the differences we note between them are secondary, if not harmful. Equality, in this perspective, becomes a synonym for sameness.
You have written much about liberalism (Translator's note: liberalism is understood here in the European sense of the word, referring to the ideology of free markets and individualism). While our country suffers a stifling state socialism, while Islamist violence unleashes itself at home with massive immigration, while they ‘deconstruct’ man step by step from the theory of gender to transhumanism, in short while so many concrete threats overwhelm us, why is liberalism also a danger in such a context?
The loudest and most visible threats are not necessarily the most important. Some are as formidable as they are silent, like the growing power of artificial intelligence or the convergence of NBIC (nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information, and cognitive sciences) in the fabrication and transformation of life. If I privilege the critique of liberalism, it's because it today represents the dominant ideology in the majority of countries on the planet, but also because it is at the origin of most of the dangers that you mention. Transhumanism and the ideology of gender both rest on the idea that man can create himself from nothing, that perfectly conforms to liberal anthropology, which does not see man as an heir but as a being entitled to always pursue his best interest in a selfish manner and whose choices never take root in something preceding himself. From the start, immigration represents the ‘reserve army’ of the employers: liberals have always been partisans of the free circulation of people, goods, and capital. In the face of the resulting social pathologies, they have nothing to offer but the creation of an ‘immigration market’ (as they also want to create a market based on the right to pollute!). As for Islamist violence, it is only the convulsive result of ‘humanitarian’ wars launched in the Near East by Western powers dominated by the universalism of human rights and obsessed with the market.
According to you, do the problems that I just mentioned delineate new political divisions, and if so, which ones?
Born out of modernity, the Left-Right divide fades with modernity. Only those that still cling to it have not understood that the world has changed, and that obsolete conceptual instruments do not permit analysis. The only true divide today is that which contrasts peripheral France to urbanised France, the people to the globalised elites, the ordinary people to the ruling class, the popular classes to the big globalist bourgeoisie, the losers to the profiteers of globalisation, the proponents of borders to the partisans of ‘openness’, the ‘invisibles’ to the ‘over-represented’, in short those on the bottom to those on top. On this point I refer you to the works of Christopher Lasch and Christophe Guilluy. It is only in this perspective that we can understand a phenomenon like the rise of populism, which constitutes the only true political novelty of the last thirty years.
Do you think that these problems could find solutions in the framework of electoral debate, and thus approach resolution following a ‘good’ election?
I don't believe much in ‘good’ elections, nor that the political party as a form still has much of a future. Under the present circumstances, elections permit alternation, but not alternatives: they remain in the same social paradigm. The entire question is to know how we can change it. Even if we live in the epoch of implosions rather than explosions, my feeling is that we will only change society when it becomes impossible not to change it. It's another manner of considering the end of capitalism that I wish for. I wrote this many times: the money system will perish by money.
What does cultural combat mean for you, and how do you situate it in relation to political action?
General culture has disappeared at school; the political class today mainly consists of educated, yet uncultured people, as Alain Finkelkraut said. Moreover, the political parties have always been mistrustful regarding ideas, which uselessly divide people in their eyes. As for the Right, it has never liked intellectuals very much. Cultural work, which aims to change the spirit of the times, must thus follow other channels.
The United States will have a new President this autumn. Do you think this will concretely change anything in terms of the equilibrium of the world?
The United States has entered into a phase of relative decline, but remains a power that we would be wrong to underestimate. With Hillary Clinton, who is the representative of the business milieus and the establishment, the principal risk is that of relaunching the Cold War – even war, period. Capital has always called for war when there is no other means of relaunching the race for profit! Donald Trump represents the unknown. At least it would be in keeping with the principle of precaution to recall that, if Europe always has many pro-American governments, there has never been a pro-European government in the United States.
You define yourself as ‘pagan’: For you, what is it to be pagan? And what establishes your anthropology?
How to summarise in a few phrases – and moreover in a Catholic journal! – a position on which I have already written many thousands of pages? The opposition between Christians and pagans clearly doesn't boil down to the number of gods. Paganism is firstly a religion of the city (the Greeks worship Greek gods). It's then a religion of the kosmos and life, where ethics and aesthetics never enter into opposition. Paganism is the ethic of honour, not the morality of sin. It's the condemnation of excess (hybris), the sense of limits, the denial of primacy to everything that is only material. Historically, Christianity is a hybrid phenomenon which had to contend with the forms of paganism without ceasing to fight it in essence. It's this complexity that I tried to bring to light in Comment peut-on être païen? [How Can We Be Pagan?] (1981), and perhaps even more so in my dialogue with the Christian philosopher Thomas Molnar in L’éclipse du sacré [The Eclipse of the Sacred] (1986).
I do not like those who believe in nothing. I believe that in order to give the best of oneself, in order to reach one's telos, man must appeal to something that surpasses him. But I do not believe in any ‘afterworld’, in any world beyond. I do not believe in the theological distinction of the created being and un-created being. That's why I feel more at home immersing myself in the Homeric epics or in the Song of the Nibelungs, practicing Heraclitus, Aristotle, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, rather than reading Saint Paul or Saint Augustine. I have studied the origins of Christianity for more than forty years. I see nothing credible or attractive there. I reproach Christianity’s universalism (the ‘people of God’ doesn't correspond to any people), that prevents it, when left to itself, from assuming an identitarian dimension. I reproach it for having introduced individualist-universalism into the European mental space, for having emptied the world of all its intrinsic sacrality, for having propagated a vectoral and linear conception of history from which all the modern historicisms emerged, and for having disseminated these ‘Christian truths gone mad’ (Chesterton) which, once secularised, became the pedestal of the disenchanted world, emptied of meaning, where we live today.
At the same time, if you read my memoirs (Mémoire vive), which were published four years ago, you know what I owe to authors like Charles Péguy and Georges Bernanos [Catholic authors-Ed.]. I also fondly remember Gustave Thibon and Jean-Marie Paupert, with whom I maintained very affectionate relations, which were returned it seems (it's in La Nef, in October 2003, that Paupert had the kindness to define me as his ‘alter ego’!). I add that I am not one of those who dislikes the encyclical Laudato sí, and that the ‘ecosocialism’ of Pope Francis suits me very well. On the condemnation of money, this ‘manure of the devil’; the rejection of greed and chrematistics; the protection of ecosystems; and the condemnation of the ‘commercialisation’ of life (which Catholics forget too often begins with the sale of the workforce), there can assuredly be agreement. Religious discussions are endless discussions. Even the believers are atheists in the religion of others! Simple human experience has shown me for a long time that among Christians, pagans, atheists, or agnostics, there are the same proportions of good men and free spirits, as well as of measly sectarians and frank scoundrels. Ideas are one thing, men are another. I judge men primarily on what they value (or seem to value to me), not on what they say. It's what distinguishes me both from holy vipers, the proponents of ‘political correctness’, and the inquisitors of the moment.
What principal themes direct your philosophical or political thinking today, and what are the principal dangers that threaten us in your eyes?
The dangers are of every kind, as we have never lived in such an uncertain world. Among those I find the most preoccupying: the global limitlessness of the ideology of commerce, the disappearance of popular cultures and rooted ways of life, the possible replacement of man by machine, the exhaustion of large collective projects, the rise of technomorphism [Translator's note: technomorphism refers to the growing influence of technology on people's lives to the point where technology comes to dominate], and many others. Those are a few of the themes I reflect upon. But I also work on subjects as different as the shrinking importance of the political or the achievements of contemporary exegesis. It's difficult to do everything together!
This interview with Alain de Benoist was posted in French in September 2016, on the La Nef Website. Christophe Geffroy was the interviewer. It was translated by Eugene Montsalvat.