The New Right is often accused of being radical. Is this a valid accusation, and what does it finally mean?
The following is an excerpt from the up-and-coming Arktos title The New Prometheans by John Bruce Leonard, which will be available for purchase in July of this year.
The many enemies of the New Right do not commonly tax themselves to understand it far enough to evaluate the extent to which their indictments might be just. They content themselves rather with vague accusations against it, the more cartoonish the better; they call us radicals, extremists, revolutionaries, reactionaries — “Fascists,” “Nazis,” “racists” — as the whim takes them, and have done with it. They apply the tactics of arsonists, lighting easy fires for the sake of the widest devastation: and straw men are so much more flammable than real and substantial positions. We cannot expect anything better of them. They are all of them, even the most reasonable among them, advocates of modernity, and at many of the most sensitive political points they simply cannot afford objectivity.
But it must be admitted that this is in some ways a great misfortune for the New Right. Any budding worldview is well served by serious, clear-sighted, and assiduous critics who can guide it, by their very informed opposition, toward self-knowledge. Our critics, alas, are almost to a head frivolous, partisan, impassioned, and hostile, and speak more out of irrational disgust and unearned disdain than from any more closely reasoned dissent. Then we ourselves must bear the responsibility of being our own keenest critics.
Thus we ask, in all seriousness: Is the New Right what it is so often accused of being? Is it radical? extreme? reactionary? revolutionary? And if so — in what way, and what is the meaning, the real solid meaning, of these charges against us?
We begin with that accusation which is not the commonest, but which is the deepest: namely, that the New Right is radical. It is a word which is used in equal measure by the proponents of the New Right as by its antagonists; it evidently then represents a point of rare agreement between us and our critics. For this reason it is of yet greater interest to us.
Now, by its etymology, the word “radical” means simply “pertaining to or proceeding from the roots.” A radical worldview by this broad understanding is one which does not ever forget its originating principles (i.e., its beginning, its first part), nor ever loses contact with them. American conservatism, by this broad analysis, appears to be an instance of a radical ideology: in intrepidly seeking out the origins of American political principles and seeking to regulate all of political life on their basis, it is eminently rooted, radical.
Of course, the term “radical” would never be applied to the commonplace American conservative for the simple reason that “radical” today has the strong sound of a pejorative. It indicates somehow a dangerous, an explosive, a firebrand political position. It is implicated somehow with revolutions and revolutionary tendencies and practices; one who holds to radical ideas must for that reason be neutralized and disarmed, perhaps even shunned, perhaps even in extreme cases imprisoned or driven into exile. The Jacobins, the Carboneria, the Fascists and revolutionary communists were radical; fundamentalist Muslims are radical; the Luddites were radical. How may we account for the derogatory connotation of this word?
Such movements, it is clear, are radical in the sense that they go to the roots of their regimes or times and seek to deracinate and to supplant them. Their radicalism refers primarily, not to the depth of their own self-knowledge, but rather to the depths of their assault on the status quo. Yet to seek to supplant these regimes or times, they must have principles in mind upon which to found new regimes or times; they must have clarity with regard to their own principles, else they reveal themselves less as radicals (who wish to replace one thing with another) than as reactionaries (who wish to oppose for the sake of opposing) or nihilists (who wish to destroy for the sake of destruction). Their radicalism therefore encompasses both the depth of their self-knowledge as well as the depth of their assault. To be radical is to condemn the roots of the present regime or day, or else — which amounts to the same thing — to defend and promote the much higher dignity of the roots of that regime or day that one would fain substitute.
Yet this does not go far enough, for it suggests that it is merely his profound opposition to the status quo which defines the radical as radical. But what happens when the radical succeeds? A revolutionary who carries through his coup perforce ceases to be a revolutionary. Does the same hold for the radical? Take, for instance, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Does that regime cease to be radical to the extent to which it rules? But surely not; it feeds still of the same radices as that lone jihadist who takes his life and others in the name of Allah in a foreign land. Radicalism then does not refer principally to an ideology or worldview antagonistic to the society of the present day; it refers instead to an ideology or worldview which is deeply attached to specific originating principles, and which, due to its depth, is likely to be hostile to any given and actual regime. It is not merely the attitude of a given belief with respect to its society which reveals its radicality, but rather and much more importantly, it is the quality of that belief.
Let us return to our American conservative. We now see that this conservative is not radical, for he takes the entire horizon of his political thought from the Constitution and the immediate legal precedents upon which the Constitution was framed. But the Constitution is not a first principle; it is very much only foreground and superfice. It itself is still deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, and the principles which brought it to existence are themselves perhaps only partially or imperfectly expressed in it. Radical instead is that attempt to subvert the Constitution in accord with the very principles upon which the Constitution was founded — as for instance the progressive does, or as was done in a more revolutionary way by the Union during the American Civil War. This is the reason the left is more often implicated in our day with radicalism, than is the right: it is not because all progressives are radicals, and still less because all radicals are progressives; it is rather because the progressive tends to disregard all actual and real embodiments of Enlightenment principles in favour of ideal or unactualized developments of the same. But this effort is obviously supra-legal. To continue our example, a radicalist critique of the Constitution could easily favour movements which seek to replace the Constitution in whole or in part, or which erode the respect and obedience which Americans have historically offered up to the Constitution. Thus we see the origin of the derogatory nature of this term, the dangerous atmosphere which adheres to it, in the connection between what is radical and what is revolutionary: the societies of modernity, insofar as they have from their origins always been secondary establishments, are detached from their progressive roots, and so the very act of returning to those roots tends to disturb and even in some cases to overturn them.
We may distinguish between two kinds of radicalism. The first seeks to supplant a given order with another which is totally different — as Islamic fundamentalism for instance would do with the liberal societies of the Occident. This kind of radicalism appeals to root principles totally foreign to the society in question; it seeks not only revolution, but arrant revolution; it seeks to tear out the entire organism of society and plant another in its stead. The second kind of radicalism, which we may call by contrast mild or home-bred radicalism, seeks instead to rationalistically purify the society in which it finds itself in accord with that society’s own founding principles. This is the position of the fundamentalist Muslim with respect to the more “moderate” communities of that same faith. The chances of this second form are obviously better than those of the first, and the danger it poses to the regime generally the mellower.
Then let us return to the question which heads this essay: is the New Right radical? The general answer must be perfectly evident: the New Right most certainly is radical in the decisive sense. Indeed — at risk of stating an absurdity — we might even say that the New Right is radically radical: for one of its most basic and innermost tenets is precisely this: that any political movement, any human community, any society, culture, or regime which is no longer nourished by its roots, shall surely wilt or wither.
Of course, this does not indicate that the contrary proposition is equally true: namely, that every community, society, culture, or regime which maintains connection to its roots will necessary thrive. For there are ideals whose roots, being basically unnatural, dangle but naked in a sort of perpetual free-fall. Communism, though it remained in all its manifestations a radical philosophy, nonetheless failed everywhere it took hold, and either collapsed altogether (as for instance in the Soviet Union) or had to be transformed into something else (as for instance in Red China). Communism arose and communism declined by virtue of its “philosophy”; it stands as the single greatest refutation of itself ever furnished by man or world.
Now, despite the propaganda of the Cold War, despite the reality of the desperate contest between communism and liberalism for dominion over all the world, despite the fact that the war between these two and the ramifications of that war were all in deadly earnest, nonetheless communism does not stand in any way as the theoretical opposite of liberalism. On the contrary: communism is nothing but the radicalization of liberal principles. That is why the conflict between liberalism and communism was so dire. Communism did not collapse for the efforts of the Americans; it collapsed by virtue of a deep inner contradiction. But it would be most strange if this contradiction did not exist mutatis mutandis in its milder twin, in liberalism too. Well may it be that communism, in radicalizing liberalism, brought its contradictions immediately and inescapably to the foreground, and so preceded liberalism in that degeneration and degradation to which liberalism too is finally destined. Communism in its fall would then be the harbinger of the end of liberalism.
To all appearances — and indeed, to more than just appearances — we are approaching precisely this final period, this last stage in the life-cycle of Enlightenment liberalism. Liberalism must implode, or must transform itself into something new. Not all the roads forth are happy to think on: well might liberalism salvage itself by mutating into an all-encompassing “soft-totalitarian” state as presaged by Alexis de Tocqueville.1 But we, who have yet hope in the future of our race, seek to obviate the “end of history” by the return to or the planting of a more vital taproot, from which a new society may yet spring up and bloom in better accord with nature, rather than with this rank artificiality.
In this sense, the New Right is, and must be, radical.
1 See in particular Democracy in America, Volume I, Part Two, Chapter 7, “Tyranny of the Majority”; Volume II, Part Four, Chapters 6 and 7; and Volume II, Part One, Chapter 11.