Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy

Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy

New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxvi + 325 pp., paper, $29.95.

Mark Sedgwick is the author of two books previously reviewed in these pages: Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century and Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age. With this new anthology, he breaks with his previous focus on Sufism, Islam, and esotericism to shed light on sixteen thinkers who have influenced or helped shape the present radical right in Europe and the U.S. That might seem like something of a non sequitur, but given that the far right has often railed against what they see as Muslim immigrants invading the West, this departure is not as far afield as it might initially seem.

In this volume, Sedgwick has limited his own writing to a thirteen-page introduction, while assembling a capable team of academics and a few lay researchers to each write a chapter on one of the key thinkers influencing the present radical right. These are gathered into three sections: “Classic Thinkers,” “Modern Thinkers,” and “Emergent Thinkers.”

The classic thinkers covered are Oswald Spengler (author of the oft-cited but rarely read The Decline of the West), revolutionary conservative Ernst Jünger, Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and the Italian Traditionalist Julius Evola. The modern thinkers consist of the French New Right theorists Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye, paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried, columnist Patrick Buchanan, white nationalist Jared Taylor, Russian exponent of Eurasianism Alexander Dugin, and anti-Islamic zealot Bat Ye’or. The emergent thinkers are all associated with the so-called alt-right and are largely active on the Internet in one form or another: neoreactionary theorist Mencius Moldbug, white-nationalist publishers Greg Johnson and Richard B. Spencer, Jack Donovan of the so-called Manosphere, and Daniel Friberg, Swedish identitarian.

While I was already aware of most of the thinkers profiled (the only female included, Bat Ye’or, was new to me), I was impressed by how even-handed and well-informed the contributors were. The research is deep and generally accurate—at least as far as I could determine—and moral posturing and mudslinging are almost entirely absent. That is pretty remarkable for an examination of a political milieu which many people consider offensive and deplorable, if not downright dangerous. While a number of the thinkers covered here would match most people’s definitions of racist, anti-Semitic, and neofascist, the authors nevertheless consider their ideas and theories as necessary to understand in the interest of the big picture.

This strikes me as a textbook for a college course set on understanding the far right, not just condemning it. At a time when campuses seem overpopulated with students and instructors obsessed with “deplatforming” those they view as the enemy, Key Thinkers of the Radical Right offers insight instead of invective. (As such, it is my hunch that the book’s subtitle, Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy, was devised by the publisher’s marketing department as a sales-boosting come-on. The thinkers covered herein may be at odds with “liberal democracy,” but many of them are clearly highly intelligent and far more sophisticated than their run-of-the-mill critics.)

Perhaps of most potential interest to readers of Quest, a fair number of the people covered have ideas and theories drawing upon esoteric and spiritual traditions. Julius Evola considered himself a Traditionalist in the intellectual stream initiated by René Guénon, as do Dugin, Johnson, and Friberg. De Benoist and Donovan qualify as pagans, while Pat Buchanan is a devout Roman Catholic (though no fan of Pope Francis). Dugin is an Orthodox Christian of the Old Believers sect. Paul Gottfried, whose inclusion on the radical right I question, is Jewish and just a conservative of the Old Right mold (for which he coined the term “paleocon” in contrast to the hegemonic rise of the “neocons”).

All of which is to say that there is little uniformity among these thinkers and no monolithic ideological stance. If they share any basic beliefs, they would be that equality is hard to discern either between individuals or larger groupings; that leftist dreams of an end to war and injustice and a goal of eternal peace are delusional; that civilizations and cultures rise and fall, and in our era the trend is mostly downward; and that the present multicultural celebration of diversity is bound to lead to conflict and dysfunction.

Key Thinkers of the Radical Right fills in the nuances of these beliefs and provides considerable food for thought. While understanding the far right is not everyone’s cup of tea, an informed overview is valuable for those who wish to know what ideas and their messengers are at work in the outer regions of the zeitgeist.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.