Tag Archives: Democratic Theory

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck – Tudor

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck: The Man & His Thought

By Lucian Tudor


Arthur Moeller van den Bruck was one of the most important, perhaps even the single most important, figure of what is known as the “Conservative Revolution” in early 20th century Germany. His influence on conservative German thought, despite its limitations, is deep and lasting, carrying on even into the present day. Indeed there may be some truth to the mystical declaration made by his wife: “In trying to account for the question who was Moeller van den Bruck, you are really addressing a question to Germany’s destiny.”[1] An examination of his life and philosophical thought is an examination of one of those great forces in the realm of ideas that moves nations. And it is for the value to any nationalist or conservative inherent in such an examination that we aim to accomplish that here concisely.

Early Life and Development

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck was born on April 23, 1876 in Solingen in the Rhineland area of Germany. At the age of sixteen, Moeller van den Bruck (we will hereafter shorten his last name to Moeller) was expelled from the Gymnasium which he was attending at Dusseldorf due to the fact that he was indifferent in his classes, which was a result of his preoccupation with German literature and philosophy. This expulsion did not stop him from continuing his literary studies and he even attended lectures at several intellectual centers, despite not being able to enter a university.[2]

Friedrich Nietzsche’s (and to some extent also Paul de Lagarde’s and Julius Langbehn’s) philosophy had a powerful influence on Moeller’s thought in his youth, and shaped his views of Bismarck’s Second Reich, a state which he found disagreeable because of its “forced patriotism.” At this time, Moeller was extremely “un-political” and decided to leave Germany in 1902 for some time to avoid military service.[3] The first location to which he traveled was Paris, where he began the writing of an eight-volume work titled Die Deutschen: unsere Menschengeschichte (“The Germans: Our People’s History”), published from the years 1904 to 1910, which was a cultural history that classified significant Germans according to characteristic psychological types.[4]

Supplementing Die Deutschen, Moeller published in 1905 Die Zeitgenossen (“The Contemporaries”), which presented his concept of “old peoples” and “young peoples,” an idea which he would reassert in later notable works.[5] During this time he also acquired a fascination with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work and also an admiration for the “Eastern[Russian] spirit,” which motivated him to produce a German translation of Dostoevsky’s works with the help of Dmitry Merezhkovsky.[6]

From the years 1912 to 1914, Moeller had traveled throughout various nations, particularly through Italy, England, Russia, and Scandinavia, having originally planned to write books describing the prime characteristics of certain nations, but he ultimately only finished a book on Italian art titled Die Italienische Schönheit (“The Italian Beauty”) in 1913.[7]

World War I, Young Peoples, and Racial Theory

When the First World War began, Moeller returned to Germany due to a feeling of attachment for Germany and enlisted in military service. In 1916, after having been discharged from the army due to suffering from nervous disorders, he produced a key work known as Der preussische Stil (“The Prussian Style”). This book, although its primary focus was on Prussian architecture, presented Moeller’s view on the nature of the Prussian character, which he now praised, writing that “Prussianism is the will to the state, and the interpretation of historical life as political life in which we must act as political men.”[8]

In 1919, Moeller produced another of his famous works known as Das Recht der Jungen Völker (“The Right of Young Peoples”), which reasserted his idea of “young peoples” and “old peoples” in a new form. In this theory, peoples or nations (Völker, which is the plural form of Volk) differed in “age,” which means not age in years or actual time but rather in their character and behavior. “Young peoples,” which included Germany, Russia, and America, possessed a high amount of vitality, hard work, will-to-power, strength, and energy. “Old peoples,” which included Italy, England, and France, were saturated, highly developed, valued “happiness” over work, and generally had a lower amount of energy and vitality.[9]

According to Moeller, the destiny of peoples would be determined by the “law of rise and decline of nations,” which held that “all aging states relentlessly sink down from their hegemonial positions.”[10] However, “young peoples” could be defeated in war by a coalition of “old peoples,” as Germany had been in World War I, although this would not crush a “young people” if the resulting conditions would still leave that nation with the ability to exist and grow. Consequently, Moeller advocated an alliance between Germany, America, and Russia, hoping that with this effort Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” could be implemented and Germany would live under reasonable conditions. However, the resulting peace treaty was the Versailles Treaty and not the Fourteen Points.[11]

In Das Recht der Jungen Völker Moeller also included some earlier writing he had done on the subject of race. Moeller believed that humans could not be divided into races solely by anthropology because Man is “more than nature.” He had a peculiar idea of race which presented a dichotomy between Rasse des Blutes (“Race of the Blood”), which refers to the common biological concept of race, and Rasse des Geistes (“Race of the Spirit”), which refers to psychological or “spiritual” character which is not hereditarily determined.[12]

Moeller argued that because peoples of the same biological race could have significant differences between each other, the English and the Germans being an example of this, “race of the blood” was not as powerful or important as a “race of the spirit.” Conversely, it was also proven by the fact that a people could be made of up of a mixture of races, such as the Prussians (who were the result of an ancient Slavic-Germanic mix), yet still have a positive and unified form; although, of course, it should be noted that despite this commentary, Moeller would certainly have not approved of any European group mixing with non-European (i.e. non-white) races.[13]

The June Club and the Spengler Debate

In 1919, Moeller founded, along with Heinrich von Gleichen-Russwurm and Eduard Stadtler, the “neoconservative” (an alternative term for “revolutionary conservative”) group known as the Juniklub (“June Club”), an organization of which Moeller would soon become the key ideological leader.[14] In early 1920, the June Club invited Oswald Spengler to discuss his book The Decline of the West with Moeller van den Bruck. Moeller and Spengler agreed on some basic issues, including the basic division between Kultur (“Culture”) and Zivilisation (“Civilization”), but had some significant disagreements as well.[15]

Moeller asserted that Spengler’s “morphological” theory of culture cycles had certain key inaccuracies. Firstly, he disagreed with Spengler’s rigidly deterministic and fatalistic view of history, in which the rise and decline of High Cultures were “destined” and could even be predicted, because for Moeller history was essentially unpredictable; it is “the story of the incalculable.”[16]

Secondly, the nations which Spengler claimed constituted the “West” had powerful differences between each other, especially in terms of being “young” and “old,” which affected whether they would rise or decline, as well as cultural differences. Moeller wrote that due to these significant differences there was clearly no “homogeneous Occident” and “for that reason alone there can be no homogeneous decline.”[17]

Not only that, but history resembled a “spiral” rather than a “circle,” and a nation in decline could actually reverse its decline if certain psychological changes and events could take place within it. In fact, Moeller felt that a nation like Germany could not even be classified as “Western” and even had more in common, in terms of spirit, with Russia than it did with France and England.[18]

The Third Empire

In 1922, Moeller, along with his two friends Heinrich von Gleichen and Max Hildebert Boehm, published a collection of their articles in the form of a book titled Die Neue Front (“The New Front”), which was intended to be a manifesto for young conservatives.[19] One year later, however, Moeller would publish his own manifesto, Das Dritte Reich (“The Third Empire,” translated into English as Germany’s Third Empire), which contained the most comprehensive exposition of his worldview.[20]

He began the book with a declaration of the ideal of the Third Empire which Germany had the potential to establish while simultaneously giving a warning that Germany must become “politically-minded.” In the first chapter he discussed the German Revolution of 1918 which established the Weimar Republic, declaring that this revolution introduced un-German political ideas which were imposed by the foreign powers of France and England, and that it must be overcome by a new, conservative and nationalist revolution.

Here Moeller also repeated his concept of “young peoples” and “old peoples,” emphasizing that the English and French nations were “old” but shrewd and politically experienced, while Germany was “young” and vigorous but had behaved in an inexperienced and impetuous manner. If Germany could rise above the defeated situation in which it was placed into, its leaders would need caution and political experience. Moeller warned that if German leaders would not handle the political situation “with the utmost care and skill” and with wisdom, “her[Germany’s] attempt will plunge us once more into impotence, into disintegration, into a non-existence which will last this time not for decades but for centuries.”[21]

The succeeding parts of Germany’s Third Empire would examine the four typical ideological types – Revolutionary, Liberal, Reactionary, and Conservative – in Germany and their essential attitudes and ideas.

Revolutionaries, Socialism, and the Proletariat

The political type known as the “Revolutionary” or the “Radical,” which was represented primarily by the Marxists, held the mistaken view that a nation and its society could be entirely transformed through a revolution, rapidly creating a new world. Moeller believed that this was a naive view of the life of nations, because the past customs, traditions, and values of a nation cannot ever simply be totally brushed aside. “We may be the victims of catastrophes which overtake us, of revolutions which we cannot prevent, but tradition always re-emerges.”[22]

Moeller spent much time critiquing the materialist and rationalist ideological foundations of Marxism. He critiqued rationalism for failing to understand that “reason” had limits and was entirely separate from “understanding.” “Reason should be one with perception. This reason ceased to perceive; she merely reckoned. Understanding is spiritual instinct; reason became mere intellectual calculation.”[23] Materialism (which shared a link with rationalism) and rationalism “embraces everything except what is vital.” Like rationalism, materialism could not understand either history or the nature of man:

The materialist conception of history, which gives economics greater weight than man, is a denial of history; it denies all spiritual values. . . . Man revolts against the merely animal in himself; he is filled with the determination not to live for bread alone – or, at a later stage, not alone for economics – he achieves consciousness of his human dignity. The materialist conception of history has never taken cognizance of these things. It has concentrated on half man’s history: and the less creditable half. [24]

Thus Marxism, because it was founded upon such ideas, made the error of conceiving of man as a soulless animal guided merely by economic motives, while in reality higher spiritual forces and ideas guided his actions. Furthermore, Marx failed to understand that there could be no international proletariat because people, whether they were proletariats or not, were differentiated by belonging to different Völker (this is often translated as “nations,” but may also be understood as “ethnicities”).

Moeller believed that this failing was partly a product of Marx’s rationalistic thought as well as his Jewish background, which made him “a stranger in Europe” who yet “dared to meddle in the affairs of European peoples.” Moeller struck out: “Jew that he was, national feeling was incomprehensible to him; rationalist that he was, national feeling was for him out of date.”[25]

However, socialism itself was not limited to Marxism and in fact, “international socialism does not exist . . . socialism begins where Marxism ends.”[26] Moeller called for the recognition of the fact that “every people has its own socialism” and that a conservative “national socialism” of German origin existed which should be the foundation of the Third Empire.

This German socialism was essentially a form of socialistic corporatism, a “corporative conception of state and economics,” which had its foundations in the ideas of thinkers such as Friedrich List, Frieherr von Stein, and Constantin Frantz, as well as in the medieval guild system.[27] Other notable intellectuals who were contemporaries of Moeller, most prominently Oswald Spengler and Werner Sombart, advocated similar conceptions of “German socialism.”[28]

Moeller also defied Marx’s concept of the proletariat as well as his concept of class warfare, asserting that “the proletarian is a proletarian by his own desire.” Thus the proletariat in the Marxian sense was not a product of his position in capitalist society, but merely of “the proletarian consciousness.” Socialism is a “population problem,” which is the “the most urgently socialist question conceivable” and which Marx was incapable of giving proper recognition to.[29]

The problem of the proletariat was essentially the problem of a nation having too much surplus population due to a lack of “living space,” which meant that its people began to live in bad conditions. Because Germany was being prevented by foreign powers from solving its population problem, “the proletariat is learning that if oppressed classes suffer in body, oppressed nations suffer in soul.” German proletarians and non-proletarians were both German and would have to unite in order to free themselves from oppression, for “only the nation as a whole can set itself free.”[30]

Liberalism and Democracy

Liberalism was attacked by Moeller as a negative force which must be absolutely eliminated and which was the prime enemy of both the conservative Right and revolutionary Left. Liberalism, Moeller taught, is at its essence based upon individualism, meaning not simply the idea that the individual has value but a kind of egotism which refuses to recognize anything above the individual and which even puts total value upon self-interest. “The liberal professes to do all he does for the sake of the people; but he destroys the sense of community that should bind outstanding men to the people from which they spring.”[31]

Thus, liberalism is a degenerating force which weakens nations and atomizes society; it is an ideology tolerated only by nations which no longer have a sense of unity or “state-instinct.” Liberals consequently have no sense of responsibility towards their nation, being indifferent to both its past and its future and seeking only personal advantage. The disintegrating power of this ideology is obvious: “Their[liberals’] dream is the great International, in which the differences of peoples and languages, races and cultures will be obliterated.”[32]

Moeller concluded that liberalism had created a form of state – the republic – in which the old aristocracy was replaced by a “dangerous, irresponsible, ruthless, intermediate stratum” of corrupt politicians who were guided solely by self-interest. Moeller even maintained that liberals did not even have proper idea of freedom: “Freedom means for him[the liberal] simply scope for his own egotism, and this he secures by means of the political devices which he has elaborated for the purpose: parliamentism and so-called democracy.”[33]

In place of the liberal-republican concept of democracy, Moeller offered a new idea: “The question of democracy is not the question of the Republic” but is rather something that comes into being when the people “take a share in determining their own Fate.”[34] Germans had originally been a democratic people in ancient times, which had nothing to do with theoretic rights or even voting, but rather with the bond of peoplehood and with the monarch executing the people’s will.

Thus, even a strong monarchy could be a democracy. However, Moeller believed that the old monarchy of the Second Reich had lost touch with the people and a new kind of monarchical state should come into being, a “democracy with a leader – not parliamentism.”[35] This Leader would abolish the rule of the parties and institute a system in which leaders would “feel at one with the nation” and “identify the nation’s fate with their own.”[36]

Reactionaries and Conservatives

Reactionaries and Conservatives are often seen as interchangeable, but Moeller emphasized that there are important differences between the two groups. A reactionary is essentially someone who believes in a total reinstitution of a past form. That is, he seeks to reverse history and bring back into being all old practices, regardless of whether they are actually good or bad, because he believes that everything of the past was good. Moeller thus distinguished the reactionary from the conservative:

The reactionary’s reading of history is as superficial as the conservative’s is profound. The reactionary sees the world as he has known it; the conservative sees it as it has been and will always be. He distinguishes the transitory from the eternal. Exactly what has been, can never be again. But what the world has once brought forth she can bring forth again. [37]

What is meant here is that while a reactionary seeks to completely revive past forms, the conservative understands how the world actually functions. Societies evolve and therefore some values and traditions change, but at the same time certain values and traditions do not change or should not change. The conservative tries to preserve the values and customs which are good for the nation or are eternal in nature while simultaneously being accepting of new values and practices when they are helpful for the nation or when they replace older ones which were negative in effect. Therefore,

He [the conservative] has no ambition to see the world as a museum; he prefers it as a workshop, where he can create things which will serve as new foundations. His thought differs from the revolutionary’s in that it does not trust things which were hastily begotten in the chaos of upheaval; things have a value for him only when they possess certain stability. Stable values spring from tradition. [38]

What, then, is a “Revolutionary Conservative” or “Conservative Revolutionary”? In many ways, Moeller’s definition of conservative is basically equivalent to revolutionary conservative; one who values what is eternal or good while leaving behind what is no longer tenable or is bad. However, strictly speaking, for Moeller the revolutionary conservative is a conservative who merges conservative and revolutionary ideas for the benefit of the nation. Moeller wrote that “conservative-revolutionary thought” is the “only one which in a time of upheaval guarantees the continuity of history and preserves it alike from reaction and from chaos.”[39] It is thus a necessary development which recognizes and reconciles “all the antitheses which are historically alive amongst us.”[40]

Conservative Nationalism and the Third Empire

According to Moeller, conservatism and nationalism are linked, meaning that a conservative is now a nationalist. But how does he define “nationalism,” a term which often has contradictory definitions? Nationality (or alternatively, ethnicity) is not based simply on being born in a specific country and speaking its language, as has often been assumed in the past; a nation is in fact defined by “its own peculiar character from the manner in which the men of its blood value life.”[41] Thus Moeller wrote:

Consciousness of nationhood means consciousness of a nation’s living values. Not only those are Germans who speak German, or were born in Germany, or possess her citizen rights. Conservatism seeks to preserve a nation’s values, both by conserving traditional values, as far as these still possess the power of growth, and by assimilating all new values which increase a nation’s vitality. A nation is a community of values; and nationalism is a consciousness of values. [42]

It is of interest to note here that liberal-egalitarian intellectuals oftentimes claim that nationalists believe that a nation is a totally unchanging entity in terms of character, while Moeller’s concept of conservatism and nationalism, as explained above, entirely defies these anti-nationalist prejudices. Similarly, Moeller’s associate, the influential volkisch (“Folkish”) thinker Max Hildebert Boehm, held the view that a Volk was not an unchanging organism but always in a state of flux.[43]

Finally, Moeller declared that “The crumbling state threatened to bury the nation in its ruins. But there has arisen a hope of salvation: a conservative-revolutionary movement of nationalism.”[44] It will establish a “Third Empire, a new and final Empire” which would unite the German people as a whole, would be founded upon conservative values and the love of country, and would resolve Germany’s economic and population problems. However, Moeller emphasized that the aim was not to fight only for Germany’s sake, but in fact “at the same time he[the German nationalist] is fighting for the cause of Europe, for every European influence that radiates from Germany as the centre of Europe.”[45] Thus, the fulfillment of German destiny would mean the salvation of Europe.

Influence and Death

Moeller’s grand vision for the future of German nationalism and conservatism had much influence among right-wing groups in Germany and was critical in the development of “revolutionary conservatism.” However, his most prominent influence was on Hitler’s National Socialist movement, even to the extent that Moeller is oftentimes said to be a precursor of National Socialism.

Although the term “Third Reich” did not originate with him, it was he who popularized it during the Weimar Republic and was the source from which the National Socialists adopted it.[46] Furthermore, Moeller’s concept of a Leader who identifies with the nation, the concept of a “national socialism,” his anti-liberalism, and his belief in the importance of nationality all bear an obvious relationship to Hitler’s National Socialism.

However, on the other hand, these ideas are certainly not unique to either Moeller or Hitler, and in fact predate both of them. There are also conspicuous differences between Moeller’s worldview and Hitler’s. Moeller did not share Hitler’s anti-Slavism or his particular racial views, nor were his anti-Jewish attitudes as strong as Hitler’s, even though he recognized Jews as a problem.

When Hitler visited the June Club in 1922 and had a discussion with Moeller, Moeller believed that while Hitler clearly was fighting for German interests, he did not have the right personal qualities or tendencies: “Hitler was wrecked by his proletarian primitivism. He did not understand how to give his national socialism any intellectual basis. He was passion incarnate, but entirely without measure or sense of proportion.”[47]

According to Otto Strasser, another associate of Moeller, Hitler also did not understand Moeller’s phrase “We were Teutons, we are Germans, we shall be Europeans,” which meant that Germany should become “a member of the great European family”[48] Yet in spite of all this, Hitler still admired Moeller and a signed copy of his Das Dritte Reich was found in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.[49]

By the year 1925, Moeller began to despair over the political situation in Germany and various negative developments. He did not have any confidence in the right-wing political forces which emerged, and it has also been suggested that he had feared that the National Socialists abused or distorted his ideas. As he began to withdraw from political activism, Moeller became lonelier and more depressed, and was finally struck by a nervous breakdown, after which he committed suicide on May 30, 1925.[50] But as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck passed from this world he left behind his imposing vision:

German nationalism fights for the possible Empire . . . . We are not thinking of the Europe of Today which is too contemptible to have any value. We are thinking of the Europe of Yesterday and whatever thereof may be salvaged for Tomorrow. We are thinking of the Germany of All Time, the Germany of a two-thousand-year past, the Germany of an eternal present which dwells in the spirit, but must be secured in reality and can only so be politically secured . . . . The ape and tiger in man are threatening. The shadow of Africa falls across Europe. It is our task to be guardians on the threshold of values. [51]



[1] Lucy Moeller van den Bruck as quoted in Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), p. 184.

[2] Gerhard Krebs, “Moeller Van Den Bruck: Inventor of the ‘Third Reich,’” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Dec., 1941), pp. 1085–86.

[3] Klemens von Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism; Its History And Dilemma In The Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 154–55.

[4] Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Die Deutschen, 8 vols. (Minden, Westphalia: J. C. C. Bruns, 1910).

[5] Krebs, “Moeller Van Den Bruck,” p. 1093.

[6] Kemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, p. 155–56.

[7] Ibid., p. 156.

[8] Moeller, Der preussische Stil (Munich, 1916), p. 202. Quoted in Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, p. 156.

[9] Moeller, Das Recht der Jungen Völker (Munich: R. Piper & Co., 1919).

[10] Moeller as quoted in Krebs, “Moeller Van Den Bruck,” p. 1093.

[11] Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, pp. 158–59.

[12] On Moeller’s racial views, see Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair, pp. 142–43, 187, and Alain de Benoist, “Arthur Moeller van den Bruck: Une ‘Question a la Destinee Allemande,’” Nouvelle Ecole, Paris, 35, January 1980, http://www.alaindebenoist.com/pdf/arthur_moeller_van_den_bruck.pdf, pp. 13 & 35.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, p. 103.

[15] Benoist, “Arthur Moeller van den Bruck,” p. 28.

[16] Moeller, Das Recht der Jungen Völker, pp. 11–39. Quoted in Zoltan Michael Szaz, “The Ideological Precursors of National Socialism,” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), p. 942.

[17] Moeller as quoted in Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair, p. 239.

[18] Benoist, “Arthur Moeller van den Bruck,” pp. 13, 27–30.

[19] Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, p. 232 and Krebs, “Moeller Van Den Bruck,” p. 1087.

[20] Moeller, Germany’s Third Empire (Howard Fertig, New York, 1971). Note that a new edition of this work in English has recently been published by Arktos Media (London, 2012).

[21] Ibid., p. 24.

[22] Ibid., p. 223.

[23] Ibid., p. 212.

[24] Ibid., p. 55.

[25] Ibid., p. 43.

[26] Ibid., p. 76.

[27] Ibid., pp. 60, 74, 160.

[28] See Oswald Spengler, Selected Essays (Chicago: Gateway/Henry Regnery, 1967) and Werner Sombart, Economic Life in the Modern Age (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Publishers, 2001).

[29] Moeller, Germany’s Third Empire, pp. 160–62.

[30] Ibid., p. 161.

[31] Ibid., p. 90.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 110.

[34] Ibid., p. 132.

[35] Ibid., p. 133.

[36] Ibid., p. 227.

[37] Ibid., p. 181.

[38] Ibid., p. 223.

[39] Ibid., p. 192.

[40] Ibid., p. 254.

[41] Ibid., p. 245.

[42] Ibid., p. 245.

[43] Max Hildebert Boehm, Das eigenständige Volk (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1932).

[44] Moeller, Germany’s Third Empire, p. 248.

[45] Ibid., p. 264.

[46] Klemperer, Germany’s New Conservatism, pp. 153, 161–62.

[47] Moeller as quoted in Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair, p. 238.

[48] Otto Strasser, Hitler and I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1940), pp. 39 & 217.

[49] Cyprian Blamires, World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO, 2006), p. 431.

[50] Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair, p. 266 and Benoist, “Arthur Moeller van den Bruck,” p. 49.

[51] Moeller, Germany’s Third Empire, p. 264.



Tudor, Lucian. “Arthur Moeller van den Bruck: The Man & His Thought.” Counter-Currents Publishing, 17 August 2012. <http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/08/arthur-moeller-van-den-bruck-the-man-and-his-thought/ >.

Note: For a discussion related to Revolutionary Conservative thought, see also the Interview with Robert Steuckers on our site.

Additional Note: This essay was also republished in updated form in Lucian Tudor’s From the German Conservative Revolution to the New Right: A Collection of Essays on Identitarian Philosophy (Santiago, Chile: Círculo de Investigaciones PanCriollistas, 2015).




Filed under New European Conservative

Interview with Alain de Benoist – American Renaissance

“We Are at the End of Something”

The American Renaissance Interview with Alain de Benoist


American Renaissance: You have said that modernity is the enemy of identity. Could you explain this idea further?

Alain de Benoist: When one considers modernity, one must consider two meanings of the word. The first is known to everyone: It is the changes of life that come with more material wealth. But modernity is also the product of an ideology that appeared in the 17th and 18th century with the Enlightenment. It is an ideology of progress, of which the basic idea is that mankind will always be better. The future will be better than the present and the present is better than the past. For this ideology, the past has nothing to teach us. The past is a graveyard of archaic customs and irrational constraints. Instead, man must use his reason to decide by himself what he wants.

Modernity also takes a unitary view of history. History is not cyclical, as it was for the Greeks, but is a straight line. This idea comes from Christianity and Judaism, which posit that there is an absolute beginning and an absolute end to history. Mankind is likewise unitary. All peoples must go through the same stages, and reach the same level of development. This is the myth of development, of technological progress.

Thus, everything that is new has value because it is new. There is a fetishism of the novel. So when you speak of modernity you must consider not only the material dimension but also the ideological dimension. Modernity is intrinsically antagonistic to collective identities because such identities are an obstacle to the march of progress towards a unitary mankind.

Of course, modernity has a strong economic component. In Europe it was linked to the rise of the bourgeois class and its commercial and merchant values. This is the problem of capitalism. It wants to organize more markets—a world market, a planetary market—and collective identities fragment this market.

Europeans have frequently criticized the United States as a materialist society, but is not every society materialist? Is it not part of human nature to always to want more?

You are right. In that sense I would say that today we are all Americans. And it is true that the desire to have more is part of human nature. The difference is that much of European religion and philosophy are based on values that are more important, on the belief that for moral or religious or philosophical reasons, we must not submit to greed and to the appetite for wealth. This was different in America because of the protestant Calvinist idea of the elect—God shows his approval by giving wealth. You know Max Weber’s theory of the link between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. I think these things make a big difference.

In Catholic countries money is always suspect—even though everyone wants more of it rather than less. You can see that in the fact that in France it would be impossible for a wealthy man to be elected head of state. No one would vote for a millionaire. The idea would be repulsive. But in America if a candidate is a millionaire it shows he is a success and has ability.

So in Europe people hide what they have. They don’t say how much they earn. In America there is a passion for numbers, and everything is a calculable quantity. Americans know how much they paid for everything. When American tourists go to the Eiffel Tower they ask, “How many steps to the top?” They do not understand the difference between quantity and quality.

Is there anything besides Catholicism that has protected Europe from the same levels of materialism?

No longer. Today, everyone looks at the same films, listens to the same music, lives in the same kind of houses. This is something that greatly concerns me. I have traveled a great deal, and every year I see the world becoming more similar. I call this the ideology of sameness. This ideology can take religious and not-at-all religious forms, but the central idea is that we are all part of mankind, that we are brothers of the same family. There may be differences but they are unimportant and should be either eradicated or transformed into mere folklore. American Indians do their dances for the tourists but this is not traditional life.

What is the solution to this problem of sameness?

To see solutions we must conceive of globalization as a dialectic. The more the world is homogenized, the more there is rebellion. Thus, the impulse that homogenizes the planet creates new kinds of fragmentation, new kinds of divisions. Sometimes this resistance can be excessive—it can take the form of terrorism, for example.

The solution is to work locally. I strongly believe in localism. Localism means more direct democracy, it means working to create liberated spaces. That’s why I don’t believe so much in politics. I believe that the time of political parties is over. Parties take each others’ places, but they are not real alternatives. In France it is the Right or the Left, or the Left or the Right, and everything remains the same.

That is the reason why so many people are fed up with what we call the “new class” of politicians, financiers, media. There is a widespread feeling that this class does not understand the daily life of the citizens, that it is remote, not committed to a particular nation, that it has common interests instead with an international new class. This is one of the reasons for the rise of the so-called populists parties, which is the most interesting political phenomenon in the last 10 or 20 years.

What are some other examples of this resistance to globalization?

Some countries resist very well. China, for example. I was in China not long ago. Of course you can see young people fixated on their video games, their iPods, iPads, and BlackBerries, but I think the Chinese leaders have a very clear view of the state of the world. Few countries really try to think about the future. The United States, yes, certainly. Russia and China as well, but in Europe, there is nothing.

You think Americans are thinking seriously about the future?

Not the American people, but the think tanks and government agencies think very seriously about the future.

More so than in Europe?

Yes, certainly. We have politicians but nothing like your think tanks. Maybe some political clubs, but nothing else. The politicians just want to be reelected, so the future for them is next year. They don’t think globally about the world.

If global capitalism is the enemy of identity, can you describe a type of economic organization that would be a friend of identity?

Economic life must not be reduced to free exchange and to commercial and market values. An economy must take social realities into consideration, and must not be free from political authority. It is perfectly possible to have an economy of social solidarity that includes a private sector, a public sector, as well as a sector for voluntary associations, such as workers’ cooperatives. The dictatorship of the financial markets must be destroyed. An economy must be based on real production and not on financial speculation. We must fight against the de-localization caused by globalization, which results in labor-market dumping, and harms the working classes by putting downward pressure on salaries. Free exchange between nations is good for everyone only if those nations are at approximately identical levels of economic development.

In Europe there must be reasonable protectionism that guarantees salaries and revenue. We must also promote, to the extent possible, consumption of goods where they are produced, with an emphasis on local transport and economies of proximity. The re-localization of economies is a way to maintain collective identities and also to restore social ties and local democracy in a public space in which citizenship is expressed.

Would you hope for a Europe that is more locally autonomous?

I am personally in support of a politically unified Europe, but this would be a Europe in which as many decisions as possible are made locally. We speak of the principle of “subsidiarity” according to which, as much as possible, and at the lowest possible level, people decide the matters that concern themselves.

That was the original idea of the United States. Every state was to have great autonomy.

But in the history of the United States the meaning of the word “federalism” has changed. Now when we say “federal” it means the central government, even though things were different in the beginning. The history of states’ rights is complex.

But that is my point. The European Union shows the same tendency. A central government always wants more power. Switzerland seems to be one of the few exceptions to this rule.

I like Switzerland very much. I would like the Swiss model extended to the whole of Europe. Do not forget that the difference between the central power in Europe (the so-called European Commission) and in the United States is that in Europe it is not even elected by anybody. There is no democratic legitimacy to it. I don’t have any illocutions about the value of the kinds of elections you have in the United States, but at least there is an election. Not in France. We elect a European parliament that has almost no power, and the only reason people take an interest in that election is because it is an indication of which parties are most popular within your own nation.

Do you think it is possible to have a politically united Europe that really does leave local decision-making to local people?

Yes. You see that in Switzerland. Of course, it is a small country.

But in the history of Europe you have two competing models. One is the nation-state, of which France is the perfect example, but of which England and Spain are also examples. The other model is empire: Italy, Germany and so on. I think the model of empire is much better because it does not concentrate power. It leaves rights and political autonomy to the different countries and regions. A recent model would be the Austro-Hungarian empire. It contained 35 different nationalities, but it worked pretty well. Of course, it was implicated in all the troubles in the Balkans.

For many countries, the United States is an unpleasant presence, but is this simply a reflection of its power? Is this just our version of the French mission civilisatrice or British empire-building, or is there something different about the way America imposes its ideas on the world?

Certainly England, France, and Spain had great influence on the world, but the difference is that they are old countries. They have behind them 2,000 or 3,000 years, and in such a long period of time you have many different conceptions of politics. Not so in the United States. From the beginning, you have the myth of the City on a Hill, that you were the new chosen people, that you fled corrupt Europe with its monarchies and that you would build a new society that would be the best in history.

This goes hand in hand with American optimism. There may be many problems but in the end technology will solve them. Technology creates problems and yet more technology will solve them. This feeling, which is shared by so many Americans, can lead to isolationism or Wilsonianism, in which you want to colonize, though not in the old way. You want all people to be Americanized.

I notice that when I am in America I always hear music—music or television—even in restaurants. But it is always American music. I never hear any singer or music that is not American. In a few restricted circles you may see a French film, and people may know of Edith Piaf or Maurice Chevalier. But if you go to Europe or anywhere else you will hear the same music! Not only, but mostly. When it is not French, it is American music. Why don’t the French listen to Chinese music or African music or German music or Spanish music or Danish music? And it is the same for films. We see all the American films. We do not see all the German or Italian films, even though those countries are very close to France.

Globalization is the vehicle for all this. English becomes the universal language; if you don’t understand English, you can’t really use the Internet. So here are two reasons for the impact of America. One is the ideological reason but the other is the effect of pure power. This is normal.

From the European point of the view, surely someone like George W. Bush must have been impossible to understand because he was not Machiavellian or even sophisticated.

To us he looks like a moron. In Europe a good politician or statesman is someone who is cultivated in matters of political philosophy and literature, who has a deep knowledge of the world, who sees history as tragedy. He is someone who is a realist in politics, who doesn’t try to hide his interests behind the smokescreen of moral discourse. Americans are completely different. They put their hands on their hearts and speak of freedom and democracy.

Yesterday I was at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, where I saw a quotation from President Reagan that went something like this: “There are no limits to growth or human happiness if people can freely choose their dreams.” What does that mean? Nothing. But you can see that sort of thing everywhere.

I was recently in New York and visited Rockefeller Center. There you have tablets with quotations from Nelson Rockefeller. “I believe in humanity. I believe in love. I believe in the pursuit of happiness but nothing is more important than love.” This man’s life was making money, but he says there is nothing more important than love. He was not a lover, he was a financier. This sort of thing is very strange for Europeans.

And there are so many things that have come from America to Europe and settled there, such as gender studies—people like Judy Butler, who are completely mad. The crazy kind of feminism. I am not against feminism. There is a good kind of feminism, which I call identitarian feminism, which tries to promote feminine values and show that they are not inferior to masculine values. But this American version of universalist egalitarianism says there is no difference between men and women. It concedes there is a small difference: you are born with one sex or the other, but it’s not very important. What is important is that gender is a social construct, and you can make the parallel with race. Race and sex, they don’t exist because they are social constructs; they are only what your mind says they are.

You may know that last May the French government decided—it is the law now—that the French Republic “does not recognize the existence of any race.” Race does not exist, but racism exists. We must fight racism, which is presumably a hatred of something that does not exist. Curiously, these people claim to value diversity, but how can there be diversity if races do not exist? Many of these ideological fashions came from America.

Many Americans and Europeans who are frustrated with the direction in which their country is going speak of the possibility of systemic collapse. Do you foresee such a collapse?

I don’t foresee that because it is impossible to foresee anything. The main characteristic of history is that it is always open, therefore unpredictable. All the important events of the last decades were not foreseen, beginning with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet system. Some people with a catastrophic and pessimistic view do not realize that history is open. They think nothing can change, yet change is always possible because human history is open. I don’t foresee any collapse but I believe that there is a strong possibility of a general collapse.

At least in Europe we have the impression that the political system has exhausted all its possibilities. There is also the financial crisis, which is, for me, a structural rather than contingent crisis of capitalism. You cannot live forever on credit. Look at the public debt of the United States—my God. We always add a bit more, a bit more, a bit more. But “more” and “better” are very different things. No tree can reach the sky, so it will certainly collapse.

At the same time, there are ecological, demographic, and immigration problems. We are clearly at the end of something. Probably at the end of modernity. Never in my life can I remember a time in which all possibilities were as open as they are today. We are in a world of transition. During the cold war, things were simple—two blocs—but not anymore. What will become of Russia? What will become of China? In Africa we will have demographic growth—like the public debt in the US!

So I think collapse is possible and it may be necessary, but you cannot rely on it. You cannot sit in your chair and say, “Well, dear friends, I am waiting for the apocalypse.” That would be like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “The end of the world is nigh.” One world may be ending, but not the world.

Collapse may be necessary for what?

For change. Americans have lived ever since the beginning of their country under more or less the same system, so it is very easy for them to believe that theirs is a natural system. In Europe we have known so many systems, so many revolutions, so many conflicting opinions. I refuse to be constrained by inevitability.

Under the current system only marginal reforms are possible. In France, the National Front is rising in a very interesting way. It is becoming the leading political party, which is very strange when you remember that because of the electoral system it has only two members in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if Marine Le Pen were elected president—I do not think it will happen but I cannot exclude it—there would be no great changes. We would live in the same kind of society, looking at the same films, playing with the same electronic games, and so on.

You have spoken about how complex and multiple identity is. It is composed of language, history, profession, ethnicity, sex, etc. but why can race can never be part of a collective identity—at least for white people?

You mean in Europe?

I mean anywhere.

It is even more forbidden in Europe. In the United States, it is accepted by most people that races exist—and in my mind to accept race is very different from racism—but in Europe that is not so. In the United States you have racial statistics. You can go to the government and find race statistics on everything, including crime and social patterns. The collection of these kinds of statistics is forbidden in Europe—certainly in France.

In France you may categorize people as foreigners or French citizens but many immigrants have French citizenship. Sometimes they receive it automatically when they are born there. So sociologists who want to study a racial question must look indirectly at such things as medical statistics. No one knows how many blacks there are in France. We have an idea, of course, but officially race statistics are forbidden because race does not exist. Such race statistics might be used by racist people. They could use findings about crime, for example.

But to return to the question of identity, I am concerned that the people in France who want to defend identity seem to be the first not to know what identity means. They give only a negative definition of it: “I’m not an immigrant.” Alright, you are not an immigrant, but what are you? “I am French.” But of course you are so many other things as well. You are a man or a woman, you are a journalist or a producer, you are gay or straight, born in a particular region, etc. Identity is complex.

How do you see yourself as different from Identitarians?

If I compare you and me, the first difference is that I am aware of race and of the importance of race, but I do not give to it the excessive importance that you do. For me it is a factor, but only one among others.

The second is that I am not fighting for the white race. I am not fighting for France. I am fighting for a world view. I am a philosopher, a theoretician, and I fight to explain my world view. And in this world view, Europe, race, culture, and identity all have roles. They are not excluded. But mainly I am working in defense of a world view. Of course, I am very interested in the future and destiny of my own nation, race, and culture, but I am also interested in the future of every other group.

Immigration is clearly a problem. It gives rise to much social pathologies. But our identity, the identity of the immigrants, all the identities in the world have a common enemy, and this common enemy is the system that destroys identities and differences everywhere. This system is the enemy, not the Other. That is my basic credo.

Is there anything in particular you would you like to say to an American audience?

What I would say to America is to try to be a bit more open to the rest of the world. Try to know other countries and not just to visit them as tourists. As tourists you don’t see much. You need to understand that throughout the world people can think differently. I don’t say they are better or worse, but accept these differences, because a world of difference is a richer world. The wealth of the world is diversity — its genuine diversity.



De Benoist, Alain. “We Are at the End of Something.” Interview by the American Renaissance Staff. American Renaissance, 22 November 2013. <http://www.amren.com/features/2013/11/we-are-at-the-end-of-something/ >.

Note: For a listing of certain major works of the New Right by Alain de Benoist in various languages, see Benoist’s and Champetier’s Manifesto along with the further reading section:  <https://neweuropeanconservative.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/manifesto-of-the-new-right-benoist-champetier/ >.


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Ten Theses on Democracy – Benoist

Ten Theses on Democracy

By Alain de Benoist

1. Since everyone nowadays claims to be a democrat, democracy is defined in several mutually contradictory ways. The etymological approach is misleading. To define democracy on the basis of the modern regimes which have (rather belatedly) proclaimed themselves to be democratic is questionable to say the least. The historical approach ultimately appears to be the most reasonable:  to attempt to define democracy, one must first know what it meant for those who invented it. Ancient democracy brings together a community of citizens in an assembly, granting them equal political rights. The notions of citizenship, liberty, popular sovereignty and equal rights are all closely interconnected. Liberty stems from one’s identity as a member of a people, which is to say from one’s origins.* This is liberty as participation. The liberty of the folk commands all other liberties; common interest prevails over particular interests. Equality of rights derives from the status as an equal citizen enjoyed by all free men. It is a political tool. The essential difference between ancient democracies and modern ones is the fact that the former do not know the egalitarian individualism on which the latter are founded.

2. Liberalism and democracy are not synonyms. Democracy is a ‘-cracy’, which is to say a form of political power, whereas liberalism is an ideology for the limitation of all political power. Democracy is based on popular sovereignty; liberalism, on the rights of the individual. Liberal representative democracy implies the delegation of sovereignty, which strictly speaking – as Rousseau had realised – is tantamount to abdication by the people. In a representative system, the people elect representatives who govern by themselves: the electorate legitimises a genuine power which lies exclusively in the hands of representatives. In a genuine system of popular sovereignty, elected candidates are only entrusted with expressing the will of the people and the nation; they do not embody it.

3. Many arguments can be raised against the classic critique of democracy as the reign of incompetence and the ‘dictatorship of numbers.’ Democracy should neither be confused with the reign of numbers nor with the majority principle. Its underlying principle is rather a ‘holistic’ one, namely: acknowledgement of the fact that the people, as such, hold political prerogatives. The equality of rights does not reflect any natural equality; rather, it is a right deriving from citizenship, the exercise of which is what enables individual participation. Numerical equality must be distinguished from the geometrical view, which respects proportions. The purpose of majority rule is not to determine the truth; it is merely to choose among different options. Democracy does not stand in contrast to the idea of strong power any more than it stands in contrast to the notions of authority, selection or elite.

4. There is a difference between the notion of generic competence and specific competence. If the people have all the necessary information, it is perfectly capable of judging whether it is being well-governed or not. The emphasis placed on ‘competence’ nowadays – where this word is increasingly understood to mean ‘technical knowledge’ – is extremely ambiguous. Political competence has to do not with knowledge but with decision-making, as Max Weber has shown in his works on scientists and politicians. The idea that the best government is that of ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ betrays a complete lack of understanding of politics; when applied, it generally leads to catastrophic results. Today this idea is being used to legitimise technocracy, whereby power – in accordance with the technical ideology and belief in the ‘end of ideologies’ – becomes intrinsically opposed to popular sovereignty.

5. In a democratic system, citizens all hold equal political rights not by virtue of any alleged inalienable rights possessed by the ‘human person,’ but because they all belong to the same national and folk community – which is to say, by virtue of their citizenship. At the basis of democracy lies not the idea of ‘society,’ but of a community of citizens who are all heirs to the same history and/or wish to carry this history on towards a common destiny. The fundamental principle behind democracy is not ‘one man, one vote,’ but ‘one citizen, one vote.’

6. The key notion for democracy is not numbers, suffrage, elections or representation, but participation. ‘Democracy is a folk’s participation in its own destiny’ (Moeller van den Bruck). It is that form of government which acknowledges each citizen’s right to take part in public affairs, particularly by appointing the government and lending or denying his consent to it. So it is not institutions that make democracy, but rather the people’s participation in institutions. The maximum of democracy coincides not with the ‘maximum of liberty’ or the ‘maximum of equality,’ but with the maximum of participation.

7. The majority principle is adopted because unanimity, which the notions of general will and popular sovereignty imply in theory, is in practice impossible to achieve. The notion of majority can be treated as either a dogma (in which case it is a substitute for unanimity) or as a technique (in which case it is an expedient). Only the latter view assigns a relative value to the minority or opposition, as this may become tomorrow’s majority. Its adoption raises the question of the field of application of pluralism and of its limits. We should not confuse the pluralism of opinions, which is legitimate, with the pluralism of values, which proves to be incompatible with the very notion of the people. Pluralism finds its limit in subordination to the common good.**

8. The evolution of modern liberal democracies, which are elective polyarchies, clearly reflects the degeneration fo the democratic ideal. Parties do not operate democratically as institutions. The tyranny of money rigs competition and engenders corruption. Mass voting prevents individual votes from proving decisive. Elected candidates are not encouraged to keep their commitments. Majority vote does not take account of the intensity of people’s preferences. Opinions are not formed independently: information is both biased (which prevents the free determination of choices) and standardised (which reinforces the tyranny of public opinion). The trend towards the standardising of political platforms and arguments makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between different options. Political life thus becomes purely negative and universal suffrage comes to be perceived as an illusion. The result is political apathy, a principle that is the opposite of participation, and hence democracy.

9. Universal suffrage does not exhaust the possibilities of democracy: there is more to citizenship than voting. A return to political procedures in keeping with the original spirit of democracy requires an assessment of all those practices which reinforce the direct link between people and their government and extend local democracy, for instance: the fostering of participation through municipal and professional assemblies, the spread of popular initiatives and referendums, and the development of qualitative methods for expressing consent. In contrast to liberal democracies and tyrannical ‘popular democracies,’ which invoke the notions of liberty, equality and the people, organic democracy might be centred on the idea of fraternity.

10. Democracy means the power of the people, which is to say the power of an organic community that has historically developed in the context of one or more given political structures – for instance, a city, nation, or empire. Where there is no folk but only a collection of individual social atoms, there can be no democracy. Every political system which requires the disintegration or levelling of peoples in order to operate – or the erosion of individuals’ awareness of belonging to an organic folk community – is to be regarded as undemocratic.


Added Notes:

* Here Alain de Benoist refers to “a people” or “folk” (equivalent to terms in other European languages such as popolo in Italian and Volk in German) in the particularistic ethnic and cultural sense which, which is distinguishable from an undifferentiated mass of individuals, to which the term “people” is also sometimes applied. Thus, a true people or folk is not the same thing as a mere mass, for the former (the people) makes up an organic cultural community while the latter (the mass) is a society in the sense of a mere collection of individuals. On this topic, see also “‘Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft’: A Sociological View of the Decay of Modern Society” by Alain de Benoist and Tomislav Sunic.

** Earlier in this work, The Problem of Democracy, Benoist had written (pg. 66) that “The way in which the political rights assigned as a guarantee to the opposition are commonly assimilated to the rights from which social minorities wish to benefit is itself problematic: for political categories cannot always be transposed on a social level. This may lead to a serious failure to distinguish between citizen minorities and non-citizen groups installed – whether temporarily or not – in the same land as the former. ‘Pluralism’ may here be used as a rather specious argument to justify the establishment of a ‘multicultural’ society that severely threatens national and folk identity, while stripping the notion of the people of its essential meaning.”



The “Ten Theses on Democracy” are excerpted from: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy (London: Arktos Media, 2011), pp. 100–103. (See this essay in PDF format here: Ten Theses on Democracy).

Note: These theses were also partially translated in Spanish as “Diez Tesis sobre la Democracia” in the first section of Sebastian J. Lorenz’s Elementos, Nº 39, “Una Crítica Metapolítica de la Democracia: De Carl Schmitt a Alain de Benoist, Vol. 1” (23 Enero 2013), <http://urkultur-imperium-europa.blogspot.com/2013/01/elementos-n-39-una-critica-metapolitica.html >. (We have made Elementos N° 39 available for download on our site: Elementos Nº 39 – Democracia I). The complete Spanish translation of the Ten Theses (Diez Tesis) is available in the Spanish translation of Benoist’s book: ¿Es un Problema la Democracia? (Barcelona: Nueva República, 2013).

Additional note: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy was originally published in French as Démocratie: Le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), and is also available in a German translation as Demokratie: Das Problem (Tübingen & Zürich: Hohenrain, 1986), in Italian translation as Democrazia: Il problema (Firenze: Arnaud, 1985), and in Spanish translation as ¿Es un Problema la Democracia? (Barcelona: Nueva República, 2013).


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Rethinking Democracy – Devlin

Rethinking Democracy: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy

By F. Roger Devlin

Alain de Benoist
The Problem of Democracy
Arktos Media, 2011

This deceptively brief study of democracy begins from the familiar point that the term can no longer mean much in an age when all regimes claim to be democratic. Benoist suggests that the serious inquirer should turn to history and study democracy as it has actually existed, long before the modern era. One pattern which quickly becomes clear is the intimate connection between democracy and Western civilization:

In contrast to the Orient, absolute despotism has always been exceedingly rare in Europe. Whether in Rome, in the Iliad, in Vedic India or among the Hittites, already at an early date we find the existence of popular assemblies for both military and civil administration.

This does not mean that most Western polities have been democracies; they have most often been mixed regimes containing democratic elements. Yet even such elements have generally been absent in the non-Western world, where the very word for democracy is a recent import from the European languages.

More specifically, democracy was a system of government which developed in Greece during classical times. Benoist next seeks to rediscover what demokrateia meant to the men who invented it. His discussion then evolves toward a defense of this ancient conception and a corresponding critique of modern “democracies.”

The cardinal point to grasp is that the classical understanding presupposed “a relatively homogeneous community conscious of what makes it such,” or “cultural cohesion and a clear sense of shared belonging.”

The closer the members of a community are to one another, the more likely they are to have common sentiments, identical values, and the same way of viewing the world and social ties, and the easier it is for them to make collective decisions concerning the common good without the need for any form of mediation.

The citizens of a Greek polis shared a common descent, common history, common language and common form of worship. It is a moot point what demokrateia would have been in the absence of one or more of them.

Such a regime was distinguished from oligarchy or tyranny by three forms of civic equality: isonomy, or equality before the law; isotimy, or equal eligibility for public office; and isegory, or equal freedom to address one’s fellow citizens on matters of public concern. Civic equality has nothing to do with natural equality, and has no meaning outside men’s relationship to the political community of which they are members.


Athens is the only ancient democracy of which we have considerable knowledge. We know enough of Sparta and Rome to draw useful comparisons, but these states were mixed regimes with only certain democratic aspects.

Benoist’s too-brief historical review passes hastily over the Solonian reforms, although these certainly had a democratic tendency. In earlier times, power had been monopolized by the Eupatridai (the ‘well-fathered’), an aristocracy typically holding large estates and breeding horses amid the rich bottomland of Attica. By the early sixth century BC, this class had reduced many of the smallholders of the hill country to debt-slavery. Receiving a commission to reform the laws so as to restore civil concord, Solon abolished debt-slavery and cancelled existing debts. This measure was called the seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens. He also admitted the newly-free class of Yeomen farmers (Zeugetai, or yokefellows) to participation in the Assembly. For these reasons, Solon was often called the father of Athenian democracy. But the poorer, generally landless men known as Thetes continued to be excluded from politics.

Benoist dates Athenian Democracy to the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BC. Previous to that time, Athenian society consisted of four phylai, or tribes, which were subdivided into phratria (brotherhoods) and genē (clans). Athenian citizen rolls were based upon membership in phratria. Not surprisingly, civic loyalty to Athens often had to give way to the claims of kinship. This contributed to the establishment of a tyranny by the Peisistratid family while Solon was still alive.

After helping to overthrow the Peisistratids, Cleisthenes instituted a new system of enrolling citizens by place of residence, or deme, regardless of clan or tribe. The four tribes, indeed, were abolished and replaced with ten new groupings. Although still called phylai, they were henceforth composed of demes rather than families. Cleisthenes’ great object was to substitute specifically political or civic bonds for kinship bonds.

Each of the ten new ‘tribes’ was composed of three groups of demes, or districts: one from the plains, one from the hill country and one from the coast. The old eupatrid aristocracy was concentrated in the plains, the independent smallholders in the hills, and the coastal regions were mixed. So the reorganization forced not only different families but also different social classes to work together, forestalling the development of political factions around class interests. Cleisthenes called his system isonomia, or equality before the law, but it gradually became known as demokrateia. This term may originally have signified ‘rule by the demes’ as much as ‘rule by the people’ (the demos).

Forty-six years later a third and final major round of democratic reforms was carried out under the leadership of Ephialtes. Up to this time, much influence had been exerted by the Areopagus, a council of former office-holders somewhat analogous to the Roman Senate. The Areopagus had remained a stronghold of eupatrid power. Ephialtes transferred all its political prerogatives to the popular Assembly, leaving it a mere court with jurisdiction over murder and certain other capital crimes. He also opened participation in the Assembly to the Thetes. The resulting regime is often referred to as the radical democracy.

Ephialtes himself was assassinated by an aristocratic opponent within a year of carrying through his reforms, but they were consolidated by his successor Pericles. Within about fifteen years, the city’s aristocratic faction had virtually fallen apart. Athens continued to be governed democratically for over a hundred years, with two brief interruptions, until the Macedonian conquest of 338 BC. The popular assembly passed laws, made war and peace, appointed officials, and sometimes exercised judicial functions.

In 451 BC, ten years after the death of Ephialtes, a law was passed restricting Athenian citizenship to men born of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother. This restriction upon the number of citizens eligible to participate in Athenian politics may strike the modern reader as a quintessentially undemocratic measure, but it was seen by contemporaries as a natural consequence of democracy itself: the extension of political rights to ever-broader classes of the population seemed to them to call for a corresponding tightening of civic membership requirements.

The Athenians liked to consider themselves autochthonous: the original inhabitants of Attica, unmixed with foreign blood. As Athens prospered, however, it attracted merchants from all over Greece and beyond. Foreign traders and their families became known as metoikoi, or dwellers-with, and came to form a large fraction of the resident population. Mixed marriages began to occur: a resident Thracian fathered the Athenian historian Thucydides. Such foreigners could own property and enjoyed civil rights such as use of the court system, but they had no political rights of any kind.

According to the notions currently approved for our use, such exclusion was a violation of these foreigners’ “human rights” and the most unconscionable “racism.” Yet there is no evidence that they ever protested their situation. Clearly, they felt that the advantages of living in Athens outweighed the loss of any political participation they might have enjoyed back home. If there were any malcontents among them, they were sent packing by the Athenians too quickly to leave traces in the historical record.


What is known of the ethnography and constitution of the Spartan state also confirms Benoist’s assertion of the intimate connection between democracy and racial and social homogeneity. The Spartans never claimed to be autochthonous; they considered themselves pure “Dorians” whose ancestors had led a wandering life before settling in as the masters of Laconia. The earlier, non-Dorian natives of that land were reduced, if they were lucky, to the status of perioikoi, or “dwellers-around,” with no political rights. If they were less lucky, they became helots, or slaves of the Spartan state. The Spartans lived in continual fear of vengeful uprisings from this numerically superior slave class, and dealt harshly with it. Spartans never intermarried with the despised natives of Laconia, whether perioikoi or helots.

The ancients considered the Spartan constitution a model “mixed” regime compounded of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements: it combined a dual kingship with a council of elders and a popular assembly which had to approve all legislation. Yet it is important to stress that this constitution applied only to full Spartan citizens, who formed a small minority of the total population living in Spartan-controlled territory. Considering that territory as a whole, the regime must be seen as an extremely narrow aristocracy.

Clearly, the Spartans considered their political regime essentially bound up with membership in a single clan sharing a common ancestry. Chalk up two for Benoist.


The case of Rome seems less favorable to the author’s thesis. Romans preserved the surprisingly unflattering tradition that Romulus originally populated his city by offering asylum to runaway slaves, criminals and sundry other outcasts and from the surrounding area. These being mostly men, the city only survived beyond the first generation by kidnapping women from the nearby Sabines. Two of Rome’s seven semi-legendary kings are said to have been of Etruscan origin; the Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language and may have originated in Anatolia.

In its early days, Rome quarreled with the independent Latin cities as much as anyone. At no point in its development was the city ever the capitol of a compact, homogeneous, ethnically-based Latin nation-state; the historical record resisted the stoutest efforts of Nineteenth Century historians, influenced by the romantic nationalism of their day, to foist such an interpretation upon it.

More important, perhaps, is the generosity with which Rome extended citizenship to subjects of proven loyalty. This was considered unusual at the time, yet it was among the most important tools of Roman policy. Potentially rebellious conquered peoples were mollified with limited civic rights and, crucially, the possibility of gaining further rights and status over time. It was a program of Romanization, and proved notably effective, yet it involved a major break with the ancient communitarian nature of politics.

Despite this liberality in extending citizenship, the Roman Republic simultaneously granted increasing powers to their popular council, the concilium plebis; in other words, it gradually became more democratic. A deeper study of the democratic component of the Roman constitution than we can undertake here might provide some modifications to Benoist’s thesis concerning ancient democracy and bio-cultural homogeneity, which he bases mainly on the case of Athens.

Of course, nothing in the Roman experience indicates the feasibility of democratic rule in a polity compounded of different “continental population groups.”

Democracy, Equality, and Freedom

Besides dependence on a pre-existing folk community, ancient democracy differed from modern liberal democracy in its concept of equality, which was in no way opposed to hierarchy or authority. “All ancient authors who have extolled democracy have praised it not because it is an intrinsically egalitarian regime but because it . . . enables a better selection of the elite.”

Elections (from the Latin eligere, ‘to choose’) are a form of selection; the very word ‘elite’ has the same etymology. Originally, democracy expressed a will to replace privilege with merit at a time when the former no longer appeared to be the logical consequence of the latter. The aim was to substitute skill for chance factors (especially birth). It is not elites which it is opposed to. . . . What regime, after all, does not seek quality in government? If democracy charmed so many spirits, this is partly because it was seen as the best means for organising elite turnover.

An equality derived from inherited membership is surely comprehensible to us, even if less familiar than leftist leveling. Surely freedom, however, depends upon circumstance and cannot be conceived as an inherited status? Yet for the ancients, it was so:

In Greek, just as in Latin, liberty stems from one’s origin. Freeman, *(e)leuderos (Greek eleutheros), is primarily he who belongs to a certain stock (cf. the Latin word liberi, children). ‘To be born of good stock is to be free,’ Emile Benveniste writes, ‘it comes to the same thing.’ The Indo-European root *leudh-, also served to designate people as belonging to a given folk (cf. the Old Slavonic ljudú, ‘folk’ and German Leute, ‘people’). These terms all derive from a root evoking the idea of ‘growth and development.’

Common Objections to Democracy

In his second chapter, Benoist attempts to defend democracy in its original understanding from a number of common criticisms: it is unstable, with constant factional fighting amounting to a latent state of civil war; it is vulnerable to the appeals of special interests; a thousand fools do not add up to one wise man; its derivation of authority from numbers is a non-sequitur; it consecrates the reign of mediocrity, etc.

Concerning the problems of factionalism and special interests, the author adds nothing to his previously stated position that democracy presupposes homogeneity and may not be practicable in its absence. About Scandinavia, for example, he writes:

[T]his democratic tradition rests on a particularly strong communitarian sentiment—a tendency toward Zusammenleben (‘living together’) which leads people to take account of common interests above all else. . . . This tradition [is] founded on mutual assistance and a feeling of shared responsibility.

It may simply not be possible to practice democracy in the absence of “a particularly strong communitarian sentiment.”

Regarding the ignorance and incompetence of the common people, the author borrows a point from Weber’s Politik als Beruf: “In politics, decision-making does not mean choosing between what is true and what is false; rather, it means choosing between possible [practical] options.” He remarks that if truth were the determinant of political action, no choice would be involved, whereas politics is precisely an art of making choices.

The idea that government should be in the hands of ‘knowers’ stretches back at least to Plato’s Republic. For Plato, however, knowledge preeminently means knowledge of ‘the Good’—the supreme value and telos of human action. For the utopian philosopher-king capable of such knowledge, political decision-making would indeed be reduced to a kind of calculation.

Rightly or wrongly, few of our contemporaries believe in the possibility of any knowledge of ‘the Good’; for them, ‘knowers’ are merely specialists and technicians. Such men understand how to adopt means to a given end, but almost by definition lack the breadth of vision necessary for prudently choosing between ends. For this reason, political rule by technical experts often proves disastrous.

Yet Benoist is surprisingly optimistic about the capacity of properly informed ordinary people for making decisions regarding their own welfare:

The vast majority of citizens today—especially when they have a clear awareness of their shared belonging—are perfectly capable, if given the means to make a real choice (without being misled by propaganda and demagogy), of identifying the political acts most suited to the common good.

The author affirms the reality of the Volksgeist, the spirit of a particular people expressed in its history and institutions. He describes this spirit as a “shared vision” or “collective representations of a desirable socio-political order” which “presents each person with imperatives transcending particular rivalries.” The national or folk-consciousness is the fundamental source of any regime’s legitimacy, transcending any law or constitution. One understands why Benoist has met with incomprehension on the part of Anglophone political science, with its lingering positivist sources of inspiration.

Problems of Popular Sovereignty

In his third chapter, Benoist develops two inherent difficulties involved in popular sovereignty. The first concerns the possibility of unjust and tyrannical action on the part of the demos. “The underlying characteristic of popular sovereignty,” he writes, “is that in principle there is nothing to limit it.” This would render meaningless the distinction between a democracy under the rule of law and an ochlochracy, or rule by a lawless mob. If law is sovereign, the people are not: hence there is no democracy. The author discusses but does not offer any solution to this dilemma, which may simply be inherent in the nature of popular rule.

The second difficulty concerns both the need for pluralism and its necessary limits. On the first point, Benoist emphasizes that majority voting should be seen as a mere technique for decision-making, not as a source of authority or truth. The foundation of democratic legitimacy is not majoritarianism but the appointment of leaders by those governed.

Where the majority is invested with the moral authority of the demos as a whole, as Lenin and Robespierre envisioned, the opposition is left with no rights. Under these conditions, the majority becomes permanent—and this means precisely the end of democracy. A political opposition has, therefore, been described by one liberal theorist as “an organ of popular sovereignty as essential as government.”

Benoist, however, considers this position less than satisfactory: “there is a great risk that as it gradually extends, ‘pluralism’ may dissolve the notion of [a] people, which is the very basis of democracy.” Overgenerous immigration policies immediately spring to mind.

Moreover, certain persons may feel themselves entirely alienated from the national folk community. Yet they may often be willing to participate in democratic institutions for the purpose of subverting such communities and abolishing the rights of democratic citizenship. During the last century, Communists were the prime example of such subversives; today they have been replaced by Muslim immigrants. Surely the regime stands under no duty to let itself be destroyed.

During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany tried to respond to this difficulty by decreeing Berufsverbote, or ‘profession bans,’ to keep subversives out of certain sensitive kinds of work. Yet such a law has considerable potential for abuse. Today the Berufsverbote are plainly being misused by Germany’s globalist elite to harass and demoralize patriotic opponents of Muslim immigration or European integration—opposition they have been pleased to declare intrinsically ‘antidemocratic.’

Sometimes loyalty to the constitution is said to be the criterion for distinguishing loyal from disloyal political opposition. Yet this seems hardly satisfactory; patriotic citizens may favor all sorts of far-reaching constitutional changes as well.

Benoist masterfully evokes the dilemma of pluralism before concluding as follows:

Pluralism is a positive notion, but it cannot be applied to everything. We should not confuse the pluralism of values, which is a sign of the break-up of society, with the pluralism of opinions, which is a natural consequence of human diversity. . . . Freedom of expression is thus destined to end not where it interferes with others’ freedom (this being a liberal formula which could easily be shown to be hardly meaningful), but rather where it stands in contrast to the general interest, which is to say to the possibility for a folk community to carve a destiny for itself in line with its own founding values.

It remains to be seen whether standards such as “pluralism of opinions but not values” or “the possibility for a folk community to carve a destiny for itself” will prove less ambiguous or less vulnerable to corruption than loyalty to the constitution or not interfering with the rights of others. Perhaps no possible legal remedy against subversion is at once unambiguous and incapable of abuse.

Representative Democracy

In his fourth chapter, Benoist turns to the critique of modern representative democracy, which he sees as “intimately connected to Judaeo-Christian morality and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.” This conception of democracy rests upon supposed rights inherent in all human beings. From such a perspective, nations seem mere conglomerations of people accidentally thrown up by history and without intrinsic meaning. Instead of peoples, we see masses: “transient pluralit[ies] of isolated and rootless individuals.” Democracy in the classical sense becomes impossible, for there is no folk in whose destiny anyone might participate.

Elections were originally meant to be a way of allowing ordinary people to participate in public life by helping to appoint their own rulers. In contemporary mass-democracies, they are little better than a travesty of this idea. They serve instead as “a way of legitimising the power which professional politicians exercise over a passive population” (Benoist quotes archeologist Paul Veyne).

In democratic theory, candidates wish to be elected in order to implement their own program for the people’s future. Today’s candidates are more likely to adopt whatever ideas they think will get them elected. Electoral platforms are increasingly based on opinion polls, which yield the same results for all parties. Campaigning consists of reaching out to the ‘center’ where opinions are nothing but “impression[s]: vague, contradictory and ill-defined ideas that depend on their moods and infatuations and which are in constant flux.”

Using the same techniques to fish in the same swamp, it is hardly surprising that “in the case of a final ballot between two candidates, the result is invariably in the 50/50 range: it is increasingly unusual for elections to be won or lost by more than a tiny percentage of votes.”

Once elected, the politician hastens to take measures he knows will prove unpopular or which go against the promises he previously made; demagogic measures reappear when new elections are approaching. We may blame such behavior, but it is a natural consequence of the undeniable fact that politicians owe their position far more to their parties and financial backers than to the voters. Neither the campaign financing game nor the internal structure of the modern political party have anything democratic about them, however.

In a word, democracy is sick because citizens cannot vote for politicians from whom they may expect a course of action reflecting well-defined commitments. As a result, “the political life of liberal democracies is now experiencing an unprecedented wave of indifference and apathy.”

What the author describes here as the fate of democracy in the modern world is simply bureaucratic corruption, a process which occurs in all sorts of contexts. A lucid and (to this writer) compelling way of analyzing it is provided by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Democracy, in MacIntyre’s terms, is a kind of practice, i.e., a socially established co-operative human activity aimed at a good. Other examples of practices include the arts, the sciences, historiography, warfare, and worship.

Like all human practices, democratic politics requires institutions which support and nurture it, but the practice is not simply equivalent to them. Like all institutions, democratic political institutions create a system of incentives which only partially coincides with the aim proper to democratic practice itself, viz., the flourishing of the political community concerned. Most of the energy which goes into electioneering is directed toward what MacIntyre would call the institutional rewards external to democratic political practice itself: perquisites of office, traffic in patronage and so forth.

Thus, what in a healthy democratic polity might be a leader’s vision for the destiny of his folk community gets replaced by a ‘platform:’ a poll-derived, focus-group-tested list of ‘positions on the issues,’ the merest ideological packaging designed to market the party-designated nonentity du jour to the masses.

MacIntyre goes so far as to define virtue as that which enables those engaged in human practices to resist the corrupting influence of institutions. In terms of this analysis, the crisis Benoist identifies in democratic institutions amounts quite simply to a lack of virtue.

The reader may snort that he was able to arrive at a similar conclusion just by looking at the sort of men who rise to high position in contemporary Western regimes. I agree. The rise to power of moral midgets like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel et hoc geno omne is the best possible confirmation of the correctness of this analysis.

Reforming Democracy

The Problem of Democracy is very much a theoretical treatise, and the final chapter on concrete reforms is the briefest and sketchiest in the book. Benoist emphasizes that institutions themselves matter less than popular participation in them. Venues for such participation include municipal associations, regional assemblies and professional bodies.

The people should be given the chance to decide wherever it can; and wherever it cannot, it should be given the chance to lend or deny its consent. Decentralization, the delegating of responsibilities, retroactive consent and plebiscites are all procedures that may be combined with universal suffrage.

* * *

The Problem of Democracy is not an easy work to digest. In part, this stems from the author’s habit of expressing himself by means of agreement or disagreement with a host of French and continental European figures largely unfamiliar to American audiences. Some of these are worthy men in their own right, while others are forgettable publicists cited only to make a point, but the difference may not always be clear to the reader. The publishers have, however, added numerous footnotes for added clarity.

Alain de Benoist has been a celebrated and controversial figure in French intellectual life, as well as an uncommonly prolific author, since the early 1970s. His non-reception in the English-speaking world contrasts weirdly with the mob of academic acolytes surrounding frivolous figures such as Jacques Derrida. The work under review is only his second title to appear in English, following On Being a Pagan in 2005.

The reason things are, belatedly, starting to change is the recent emergence of small, unsubsidized publishers such as Arktos which have stepped in to do work the sclerotic academic publishing establishment should have performed years ago. Arktos Media, Ltd. has existed only since 2010, yet they have already published the first two English translations of Guillaume Faye and have announced an entire series devoted to Benoist. This is among the most heartening developments of the last few years.



Devlin, F. Roger. “Rethinking Democracy: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy.” Counter-Currents Publishing, 14 October 2011. <http://www.counter-currents.com/2011/10/rethinking-democracy-alain-de-benoists-the-problem-of-democracy >.

Note: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy was originally published in French as Démocratie: le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), and is also available in a German translation as Demokratie: das Problem (Tübingen & Zürich: Hohenrain, 1986), in Italian translation as Democrazia: il problema (Firenze: Arnaud, 1985), and in Spanish translation as ¿Es un Problema la Democracia? (Barcelona: Nueva República, 2013).


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Crisis of Democracy – Benoist

“The Current Crisis of Democracy” by Alain de Benoist (PDF – 273 KB):

Current Crisis of Democracy


De Benoist, Alain. “The Current Crisis of Democracy.” Telos Vol. 2011, No. 156 (Fall 2011), pp. 7-23. <http://www.alaindebenoist.com/pdf/the_current_crisis_of_democracy-anglais.pdf >.


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Manifesto of the New Right – Benoist & Champetier

“Manifesto of the French New Right in the Year 2000” by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier (PDF – 264 KB):

Manifesto of the French New Right (English)

The following is the original French version of this work:

Manifeste: la Nouvelle Droite de l’an 2000 (PDF – 208 KB):

Manifeste: la Nouvelle Droite de l’an 2000 (Français)

The following is the Spanish translation of this work:

Manifiesto: La Nueva Derecha del año 2000 (PDF – 204 KB):

Manifiesto: la Nueva Derecha del año 2000 (Español)

The following is the Italian translation of this work:

La Nuova Destra del 2000 (PDF – 202 KB):

La Nuova Destra del 2000 (Italiano)


Notes on publications and translations of the Manifesto:

Alain de Benoist’s and Charles Champetier’s “Manifesto of the French New Right in the Year 2000” (Telos, Vol. 1999, No. 115, [March-May 1999], pp. 117-144) was the first edition of the English version, which was also published in a second edition as Manifesto for a European Renaissance (London: Arktos, 2012). The full text of this manifesto was also included as an appendix within the third edition of Tomislav Sunic’s Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right (London: Arktos, 2011). The text used to create the file available on this site was retrieved from: <http://www.amerika.org/texts/manifesto-of-the-french-new-right-in-year-2000-alain-de-benoist-and-charles-champetier >. The text in English is alternatively available in HTML format here: <http://home.alphalink.com.au/~radnat/debenoist/alain9.html >.

The “Manifiesto: la Nueva Derecha del ano 2000” (Hespérides, Vol. IV, No. 19 [March-May 1999], pp. 13-47) was the first edition of the Spanish version, which was also published in a second edition as Manifiesto para un renacimiento europeo (Mollet del Vallès, Barcelona: Grup de recerca i estudi de la cultura europea, 2000), which has in turn been recently republished by Arktos (London, 2013). The text of the Spanish translation was retrieved from: <http://www.red-vertice.com/disidencias/textosdisi19.html >.

The “Manifeste: la Nouvelle Droite de l’an 2000” (Eléments, No. 94, [February 1999], pp. 11-23) was the first edition of the original French version, which was also published in a second edition as Manifeste pour une renaissance européenne (Paris: GRECE, 2000). The text of the French retrieved from: <http://www.grece-fr.net/textes/_txtWeb.php?idArt=71 >.

The “La Nuova Destra del 2000” (“La Nuova Destra del 2000” (Diorama letterario, Firenze, 229-230, October-November 1999) was the first Italian translation of the manifesto, which was published in a newer edition as Manifesto per una Rinascita Europea (Rome: Nuove Idee editore, 2005). The file made available on this site was retrieved from: <http://www.alaindebenoist.com/pdf/la_nuova_destra_del_2000.pdf >.

Other translations: The manifesto was also translated into German as “Manifest: Die Nouvelle Droite des Jahres 2000” (published in Aufstand der Kulturen [Berlin: Edition Junge Freiheit, 1999]), into Dutch as “Manifest voor Europees herstel en vernieuwing” (TeKos, Wijnegem, 95, octobre-décembre 1999), into Danish as “Manifest. Det nye højre år 2000” (Nomos, Valby, III, 2005, 1), into Hungarian as “Manifesztum az európai újjászületésért” (A51 [2002], pp. 239-285), into Czech as “Manifest: Nova pravice v roce 2000” (Tradice budoucnosti. Ed. Orientace 1/2008), into Croatian as “Manifest za Europsku Obnovu, Nova Desnica u 21. Stoljeću” (included as an appendix to Tomislav Sunic, Europska Nova Desnica [Zagreb, Croatia: Hasanbegović, 2009]), into Portuguese as Manifesto Para Um Renascimento Europeu (USA & EU: Editora Contra Corrente, 2014), into Polish as Manifest Grupy Badań i Studiόw nad Cywilizacją Europejską (GRECE) (published online: Konserwatyzm.pl, 2013), and into Ukrainian as Маніфест Нових Правих (published online: Національний альянс, 2009, http://nation.org.ua/)


Further Reading (Major works by Alain de Benoist):

The following works are considered to be the most important books (along with the above Manifesto) by Alain de Benoist which establish the intellectual foundations of the New Right movement:

Vu de Droite: Anthologie critique des idées contemporaines (Paris: Copernic, 1977), which was translated into German as Aus Rechter Sicht: Eine kritische Anthologie zeitgenössischer Ideen (Tübingen: Grabert, 1983-1984), into Italian as Visito da Destra: Antologia critica delle idee contemporanee (Napoli: Akropolis, 1981), into Portugese as Nova Direita, Nova Cultura: Antologia critica das ideias contemporaneas (Lisboa: Afrodite 1981), and in an abridged format into Romanian as O perspectivâ de dreapta: Anthologie criticâ a ideilor contemporane (Bucarest: coll. « Dreapta europeanâ », 2, Anastasia, 1998).

Les Idées à l’Endroit (Paris: Libres-Hallier, 1979), which was translated into Italian as Le Idee a Posto (Napoli: Akropolis, 1983), into Spanish as La Nueva Derecha: Una respuesta clara, profunda e inteligente (Barcelona: Planeta, 1982), into Greek as Oi ιδέες sta ορθο (Αθήνα: Ελεύθερη Σκέψις, 1980), and partially into German as Kulturrevolution von Rechts: Gramsci und die Nouvelle Droite (Krefeld: Sinus-Verlag, 1985).

Démocratie: le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), which was translated into English as The Problem of Democracy (London: Arktos, 2011), into German as Demokratie: das Problem (Tübingen & Zürich: Hohenrain, 1986), into Italian as Democrazia: il problema (Firenze: Arnaud, 1985), and into Spanish as ¿Es un Problema la Democracia? (Barcelona: Nueva República, 2013).

Au-delà des droits de l’homme: Pour défendre les libertés (Paris: Krisis, 2004), which was translated into English as Beyond Human Rights: Defending Freedoms (London: Arktos Media, 2011), into German translation as Kritik der Menschenrechte: Warum Universalismus und Globalisierung die Freiheit bedrohen (Berlin: Junge Freiheit, 2004), into Italian as Oltre i diritti dell’uomo: Per difendire le libertà (Rome: Il Settimo Sigillo, 2004), and into Spanish as Más allá de los Derechos Humanos: defender las libertades (published online 2008 at Les Amis d’Alain de Benoist: <http://www.alaindebenoist.com/pdf/mas_alla_de_los_derechos_humanos.pdf >).

In German, an important collection of essays by Alain de Benoist has been published in the book  Schöne Vernetzte Welt: Eine Antwort auf die Globalisierung (Tübingen: Hohenrain-Verlag, 2001). Another German collection had also been published as Aufstand der Kulturen: Europäisches Manifest für das 21. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Edition Junge Freiheit, 1999). In Spanish, see also the following two publications: Benoist’s Más Allá de la Derecha y de la Izquierda: El pensamiento político que rompe esquemas (Barcelona: Ediciones Áltera, 2010), and a collection of essays by Benoist and Guillaume Faye titled Las Ideas de la “Nueva Derecha”: Una respuesta al colonialismo cultural (Barcelona: Nuevo Arte Thor, 1986). In Russian, a notable collection of translated essays by Alain de Benoist (Ален де Бенуа) has been published as Против либерализма: к четвертой политической теории (Санкт-Петербург: Амфора, 2009).

Also worth mentioning is a book by Benoist that is only available in French known as Critiques – Théoriques (Lausanne & Paris: L’Age d’Homme, 2003),  but from which selected essays (two important examples being “A Critique of Liberal Ideology” and “The Idea of Empire”) have been translated into multiple languages – including English, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, among some others – and published in various magazines or journals. In addition, we would like to make note of a collection of essays on racism and anti-racism, which includes Benoist’s important essay “Racisme: remarques autour d’une définition” (translated into English as “What is Racism?”): the book Racismes, Antiracismes, edited by Andre Béjin and Julien Freund (Paris: Librairie des Méridiens, 1986), translated into Italian as Razzismo e antirazzismo (Firenze: La roccia di Erec, 1992).

Finally, it is worth mentioning the joint work of Alain de Benoist and Alexander Dugin on the theory of Eurasianism and the Fourth Political Theory, L’appel de L’Eurasie, conversation avec Alain de Benoist (Paris: Avatar Éditions, 2013), translated into Spanish as ¿Qué es el eurasismo? Una conversación de Alain de Benoist con Alexander Dugin (Tarragona: Ediciones Fides, 2014).

Read more about Alain de Benoist’s life and work at his official website: <http://www.alaindebenoist.com/ >, and see also F. Roger Devlin’s review of Alain de Benoist’s Memoire Vive: <https://neweuropeanconservative.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/benoists-vivid-memory-devlin/ >.



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New Right Forty Years Later – Benoist

“The European New Right: Forty Years Later” by Alain de Benoist (PDF – 169 KB):

European New Right Forty Years Later


De Benoist, Alain. “The European New Right: Forty Years Later.” The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, (Spring 2009). <http://www.toqonline.com/archives/v9n1/TOQv9n1Benoist.pdf >.

Note: This essay has also been published as a preface to the third edition of Tomislav Sunic’s Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right (London: Arktos, 2011). It has also been translated into Spanish as “La Nueva Derecha Europea, 40 años después”, published online at El Manifesto (9 Julio 2014) <http://www.elmanifiesto.com/articulos.asp?idarticulo=4773 >.


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Democracy Revisited – Benoist

Democracy Revisited: The Ancients and the Moderns

by Alain de Benoist


Translated by Tomislav Sunic from the author’s book Démocratie: Le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985).


“The defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy,” wrote George Orwell.1 This does not seem to be a recent phenomenon. Guizot remarked in 1849: “So powerful is the sway of the word democracy, that no government and no party dares to live, or thinks it can, without inscribing this word on its banner.”2 This is truer today than ever before. Not everybody is a democrat, but everybody pretends to be one. There is no dictatorship that does not regard itself as a democracy. The former communist countries of Eastern Europe did not merely represent themselves as democratic, as attested by their constitutions;3 they vaunted themselves as the only real democracies, in contrast to the “formal” democracies of the West.

The near unanimity on democracy as a word, albeit not always a fact, gives the notion of democracy a moral and almost religious content, which, from the very outset, discourages further discussion. Many authors have recognized this problem. Thus, in 1939, T.S. Eliot declared: “When a word acquires a universally sacred character . . . , as has today the word democracy, I begin to wonder, whether, by all it attempts to mean, it still means anything at all.”4 Bertrand de Jouvenel was even more explicit: “The discussion on democracy, the arguments in its favor, or against it, point frequently to a degree of intellectual shallowness, because it is not quite clear what this discussion is all about.”5 Giovanni Sartori added in 1962: “In a somewhat paradoxical vein, democracy could be defined as a high-flown name for something which does not exist.”6 Julien Freund also noted, in a somewhat witty tone:

To claim to be a democrat means little, because one can be a democrat in a contradictory manner—either in the manner of the Americans or the English, or like the East European communists, Congolese, or Cubans. It is perfectly natural that under such circumstances I refuse to be a democrat, because my neighbor might be an adherent of dictatorship while invoking the word democracy.7

Thus we can see that the universal propagation of the term democracy does not contribute much to clarifying the meaning of democracy. Undoubtedly, we need to go a step further.

The first idea that needs to be dismissed—an idea still cherished by some—is that democracy is a specific product of the modern era, and that democracy corresponds to a “developed stage” in the history of political regime. 8 This does not seem to be substantiated by the facts. Democracy is neither more “modern” nor more “evolved” than other forms of governance. Governments with democratic tendencies have appeared throughout history. We note that the linear perspective used in this type of analysis can be particularly deceiving. The idea of progress, when applied to a political regime, appears devoid of meaning. If one subscribes to this type of linear reasoning, it is easy to advance the argument of the “self-evidence” of democracy, which, according to liberals, arises “spontaneously” in the realm of political affairs just as the market “spontaneously” accords with the logic of demand and supply. Jean Baechler notes:

If we accept the hypothesis that men, as an animal species(sic), aspire spontaneously to a democratic regime which promises them security, prosperity, and liberty, we must then also conclude that, the minute these requirements have been met, the democratic experience automatically emerges, without ever needing the framework of ideas.9

What exactly are these “requirements” that produce democracy, in the same manner as fire causes heat? They bear closer examination.

In contrast to the Orient, absolute despotism has always been rare in Europe. Whether in ancient Rome, or in Homer’s Iliad, Vedantic India, or among the Hittites, one can observe very early the existence of popular assemblies, both military and civilian. In Indo-European societies kings were usually elected; in fact, all ancient monarchies were first elective monarchies. Tacitus relates that among the Germans chieftains were elected on account of their valor, and kings on account of their noble birth (reges ex nobilitate duces ex virtute sumunt). In France, for instance, the crown was long both elective and hereditary. It was only with Pippin the Short that the king was chosen from within the same family, and only after Hugh Capet that the principle of primogeniture was adopted. In Scandinavia, the king was elected by a provincial assembly; that election had then to be confirmed by the other national assemblies.

Among the Germanic peoples the practice of “shielding”—or raising the new king on his soldiers’ shields—was widespread.10 The Holy Roman Emperor was also elected, and the importance of the role of the princely electors in the history of Germany should not be neglected. By and large, it was only with the beginning of the twelfth century in Europe that elective monarchy gradually gave way to hereditary monarchy. Until the French Revolution, kings ruled with the aid of parliaments which possessed considerable executive powers. In almost all European communities it was long the status of freeman that conferred political rights on the citizen. “Citizens” were constituent members of free popular communes, which among other things possessed their own municipal charters, and sovereign rulers were surrounded by councils in the decision-making process. Moreover, the influence of customary law on juridical practice was an index of popular “participation” in defining the laws. In short, it cannot be stated that Europe’s old monarchies were devoid of popular legitimacy.

The oldest parliament in the Western world, the althing, the federal assembly of Iceland, whose members gathered yearly in the inspired setting of Thingvellir, emerged as early as 930 A.D. Adam von Bremen wrote in 1076: “They have no king, only the laws.” The thing, or local parliament, designated both a location and the assembly where freemen with equal political rights convened at a fixed date in order to legislate and render justice.11 In Iceland the freeman enjoyed two inalienable privileges: he had a right to bear arms and to a seat in the thing. “The Icelanders,” writes Frederick Durand

created and experienced what one could call by some uncertain yet suggestive analogy a kind of Nordic Hellas, i.e., a community of freemen who participated actively in the affairs of the community. Those communities were surprisingly well cultivated and intellectually productive, and, in addition, were united by bonds based on esteem and respect.12

“Scandinavian democracy is very old and one can trace its origins to the Viking era,” observes Maurice Gravier. 13 In all of northern Europe this “democratic” tradition was anchored in a very strong communitarian sentiment, a propensity to “live together” (zusammenleben), which constantly fostered the primacy of the common interest over that of the individual. Such democracy, typically, included a certain hierarchical structure, which explains why one could describe it as “aristo-democracy.” This tradition, based also on the concept of mutual assistance and a sense of common responsibility, remains alive in many countries today, for instance, in Switzerland.

The belief that the people were originally the possessor of power was common throughout the Middle Ages. Whereas the clergy limited itself to the proclamation omnis potestas a Deo, other theorists argued that power could emanate from God only through the intercession of the people. The belief of the “power of divine right” should therefore be seen in an indirect form, and not excluding the reality of the people. Thus, Marsilius of Padua did not hesitate to proclaim the concept of popular sovereignty; significantly, he did so in order to defend the supremacy of the emperor (at the time, Ludwig of Bavaria) over the Church. The idea of linking the principle of the people to its leaders was further emphasized in the formula populus et proceres (the people and the nobles), which appears frequently in old texts.

Here we should recall the democratic tendencies evident in ancient Rome, 14 the republics of medieval Italy, the French and Flemish communes, the Hanseatic municipalities, and the free Swiss cantons. Let us further note the ancient boerenvrijheid (“peasants’ freedom”) that prevailed in medieval Frisian provinces and whose equivalent could be found along the North Sea, in the Low Lands, in Flanders, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Finally, it is worth mentioning the existence of important communal movements based on free corporate structures, the function of which was to provide mutual help and to pursue economic and political goals. Sometimes these movements clashed with king and Church, which were supported by the burgeoning bourgeoisie. At other times, however, communal movements backed the monarchy in its fight against the feudal lords, thus contributing to the rise of the mercantile bourgeoisie.15

In reality, most political regimes throughout history can be qualified as mixed ones. “All ancient democracies,” writes François Perroux, “were governed by a de facto or de jure aristocracy, unless they were governed by a monarchical principle.” 16 According to Aristotle, Solon’s constitution was oligarchic in terms of its Areopagus, aristocratic in terms of its magistrates, and democratic in terms of the make-up of its tribunals. It combined the advantages of each type of government. Similarly, Polybius argues that Rome was, in view of the power of its consuls, an elective monarchy; in regard to the powers of the Senate, an aristocracy; and regarding the rights of the people, a democracy. Cicero, in his De Republica, advances a similar view. Monarchy need not exclude democracy, as is shown by the example of contemporary constitutional and parliamentary monarchies today. After all, it was the French monarchy in 1789 that convoked the Estates-General. “[D]emocracy, taken in the broad sense, admits of various forms,” observed Pope Pius XII, “and can be realized in monarchies as well as in republics.” 17

Let us add that the experience of modern times demonstrates that neither government nor institutions need play a decisive role in shaping social life. Comparable types of government may disguise different types of societies, whereas different governmental forms may mask identical social realities. (Western societies today have an extremely homogeneous structure even though their institutions and constitutions sometimes offer substantial differences.)

So now the task of defining democracy appears even more difficult. The etymological approach has its limits. According to its original meaning, democracy means “the power of the people.” Yet this power can be interpreted in different ways. The most reasonable approach, therefore, seems to be the historical approach—an approach that explains “genuine” democracy as first of all the political system of that ancient people that simultaneously invented the word and the fact.

The notion of democracy did not appear at all in modern political thought until the eighteenth century. Even then its mention was sporadic, frequently with a pejorative connotation. Prior to the French Revolution the most “advanced” philosophers had fantasized about mixed regimes combining the advantages of an “enlightened” monarchy and popular representation. Montesquieu acknowledged that a people could have the right to control, but not the right to rule. Not a single revolutionary constitution claimed to have been inspired by “democratic” principles. Robespierre was, indeed, a rare person for that epoch, who toward the end of his reign, explicitly mentioned democracy (which did not however contribute to the strengthening of his popularity in the years to come), a regime that he defined as a representative form of government, i.e., “a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are of their own making, do for themselves all that they can do well, and by their delegates do all that they cannot do themselves.” 18

It was in the United States that the word democracy first became widespread, notably when the notion of “republic” was contrasted to the notion of “democracy.” Its usage became current at the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially with the advent of Jacksonian democracy and the subsequent establishment of the Democratic Party. The word, in turn, crossed the Atlantic again and became firmly implanted in Europe—to the profit of the constitutional debates that filled the first half of the nineteenth century. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, the success of which was considerable, made the term a household word.

Despite numerous citations, inspired by antiquity, that adorned the philosophical and political discourse of the eighteenth century, the genuine legacy drawn from ancient democracy was at that time very weak. The philosophers seemed more enthralled with the example of Sparta than Athens. The debate “Sparta vs. Athens,” frequently distorted by bias or ignorance, pitted the partisans of authoritarian egalitarianism against the tenets of moderate liberalism. 19 Rousseau, for instance, who abominated Athens, expressed sentiments that were rigorously pro-Spartiate. In his eyes, Sparta was first and foremost the city of equals (hómoioi). By contrast, when Camille Desmoulins thundered against Sparta, it was to denounce its excessive egalitarianism. He attacked the Girondin Brissot, that pro-Lycurgian, “who has rendered his citizens equal just as a tornado renders equal all those who are about to drown.” All in all, this type of discourse remained rather shallow. The cult of antiquity was primarily maintained as a metaphor for social regeneration, as exemplified by Saint-Just’s words hurled at the Convention: “The world has been empty since the Romans; their memory can replenish it and it can augur liberty.” 20

If we wish now to continue our study of “genuine” democracy, we must once again turn to Greek democracy rather than to those regimes that the contemporary world designates by the word.

The comparison between ancient democracies and modern democracies has frequently turned into an academic exercise. 21 It is generally emphasized that the former were direct democracies, whereas the latter (due to larger areas and populations) are representative democracies. Moreover, we are frequently reminded that slaves were excluded from the Athenian democracy; consequently, the idea emerged that Athens was not so democratic, after all. These two affirmations fall somewhat short of satisfying answers.

Readied by political and social evolution during the sixth century b.c., as well as by reforms made possible by Solon, Athenian democracy entered its founding stage with the reforms of Cleisthenes, who returned from exile in 508 b.c. Firmly established from 460 b.c., it continued to thrive for the next one hundred and fifty years. Pericles, who succeeded Ephialtes in 461 b.c., gave democracy an extraordinary reputation, which did not at all prevent him from exercising, for more than thirty years, a quasi-royal authority over the city. 22

For the Greeks democracy was primarily defined 23 by its relationship to two other systems: tyranny and aristocracy. Democracy presupposed three conditions: isonomy (equality before laws); isotimy (equal rights to accede to all public offices); and isegory (liberty of expression). This was direct democracy, known also as “face to face” democracy, since all citizens were allowed to take part in the ekklesía, or Assembly. Deliberations were prepared by the boulé(Council), although in fact it was the popular assembly that made policy. The popular assembly nominated ambassadors; decided over the issue of war and peace, preparing military expeditions or bringing an end to hostilities; investigated the performance of magistrates; issued decrees; ratified laws; bestowed the rights of citizenship; and deliberated on matters of Athenian security. In short, writes Jacqueline de Romilly, “the people ruled, instead of being ruled by elected individuals.” She cites the text of the oath given by the Athenians: “I will kill whoever by word, deed, vote, or hand attempts to destroy democracy…. And should somebody else kill him I will hold him in high esteem before the gods and divine powers, as if he had killed a public enemy.” 24

Democracy in Athens meant first and foremost a community of citizens, that is, a community of people gathered in the ekklesía. Citizens were classified according to their membership in a deme—a grouping which had a territorial, social, and administrative significance. The term démos, which is of Doric origin, designates those who live in a given territory, with the territory constituting a place of origin and determining civic status. 25 To some extent démos and ethnos coincide: democracy could not be conceived in relationship to the individual, but only in the relationship to the polis, that is to say, to the city in its capacity as an organized community. Slaves were excluded from voting not because they were slaves, but because they were not citizens. We seem shocked by this today, yet, after all, which democracy has ever given voting rights to non-citizens? 26

The notions of citizenship, liberty, or equality of political rights, as well as of popular sovereignty, were intimately interrelated. The most essential element in the notion of citizenship was someone’s origin and heritage. Pericles was the “son of Xanthippus from the deme of Cholargus.” Beginning in 451 b.c., one had to be born of an Athenian mother and father in order to become a citizen. Defined by his heritage, the citizen (polítes) is opposed to idiótes, the non-citizen—a designation that quickly took on a pejorative meaning (from the notion of the rootless individual one arrived at the notion of “idiot”). Citizenship as function derived thus from the notion of citizenship as status, which was the exclusive prerogative of birth. To be a citizen meant, in the fullest sense of the word, to have a homeland, that is, to have both a homeland and a history. One is born an Athenian—one does not become one (with rare exceptions). Furthermore, the Athenian tradition discouraged mixed marriages. Political equality, established by law, flowed from common origins that sanctioned it as well. Only birth conferred individual politeía. 27

Democracy was rooted in the concept of autochthonous citizenship, which intimately linked its exercise to the origins of those who exercised it. The Athenians in the fifth century celebrated themselves as “the autochthonous people of great Athens,” and it was within that founding myth that they placed the pivot of their democracy. 28

In Greek, as well as in Latin, liberty proceeds from someone’s origin. Free man *(e)leudheros (Greek eleútheros), is primarily he who belongs to a certain “stock” (cf. in Latin the word liberi, “children”). “To be born of a good stock is to be free,” writes Emile Benveniste, “this is one and the same.” 29 Similarly, in the German language, the kinship between the words frei, “free,” and Freund, “friend,” indicates that in the beginning, liberty sanctioned mutual relationship. The Indo-European root *leudh-, from which derive simultaneously the Latin liber and the Greek eleútheros, also served to designate “people” in the sense of a national group (cf. Old Slavonic ljudú, “people”; German Leute, “people,” both of which derive from the root evoking the idea of “growth and development”).

The original meaning of the word “liberty” does not suggest at all “liberation”—in a sense of emancipation from collectivity. Instead, it implies inheritance—which alone confers liberty. Thus when the Greeks spoke of liberty, they did not have in mind the right to break away from the tutelage of the city or the right to rid themselves of the constraints to which each citizen was bound. Rather, what they had in mind was the right, but also the political capability, guaranteed by law, to participate in the life of the city, to vote in the assembly, to elect magistrates, etc. Liberty did not legitimize secession; instead, it sanctioned its very opposite: the bond which tied the person to his city. This was not liberty-autonomy, but a liberty-participation; it was not meant to reach beyond the community, but was practised solely in the framework of the polis. Liberty meant adherence. The “liberty” of an individual without heritage, i.e. of a deracinated individual, was completely devoid of any meaning.

If we therefore assume that liberty was directly linked to the notion of democracy, then it must be added that liberty meant first and foremost the liberty of the people, from which subsequently the liberty of citizens proceeds. In other words, only the liberty of the people (or of the city) can lay the foundations for the equality of political and individual rights, i.e., rights enjoyed by individuals in the capacity of citizens. Liberty presupposes independence as its first condition. Man lives in society, and therefore individual liberty cannot exist without collective liberty. Among the Greeks, individuals were free because (and in so far as) their city was free.

When Aristotle defines man as a “political animal,” as a social being, when he asserts that the city precedes the individual and that only within society can the individual achieve his potential (Politics, 1253a 19–20), he also suggests that man should not be detached from his role of citizen, a person living in the framework of an organized community, of a polis, or a civitas. Aristotle’s views stand in contrast to the concept of modern liberalism, which posits that the individual precedes society, and that man, in the capacity of a self-sufficient individual, is at once something more than just a citizen.30

Hence, in a “community of freemen,” individual interests must never prevail over common interests. “All constitutions whose objectives are common interest,” writes Aristotle, “are in accordance with absolute justice. By contrast, those whose objective is the personal interest of the governors tend to be defective.” (Politics, 1279a 17sq). In contrast to what one can see, for instance, in Euripides’ works, the city in Aeschylus’ tragedies is regularly described as a communal entity. “This sense of community,” writes Moses I. Finley, “fortified by the state religion, the myths and traditions, was the essential source of success in Athenian democracy. 31

In Greece, adds Finley, “liberty meant the rule of law and participation in the decision- making process—and not necessarily the enjoyment of inalienable rights.”32 The law is identified with the genius of the city. “To obey the law meant to be devoted with zeal to the will of the community,” observes Paul Veyne.33 As Cicero wrote, only liberty can pave the way for legality: “Legum…servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus“ (“We are the servants of the law in order that we can be free,” Oratio pro Cluentio, 53.)

In his attempt to show that liberty is the fundamental principle of democracy (Politics, VII, 1), Aristotle succeeds in de-emphasizing the factor of equality. For the Greeks equality was only one means to democracy, though it could be an important one. Political equality, however, had to emanate from citizenship, i.e., from belonging to a given people. From this it follows that members of the same people (of the same city), irrespective of their differences, shared the desire to be citizens in the same and equal manner. This equality of rights by no means reflects a belief in natural equality. The equal right of all citizens to participate in the assembly does not mean that men are by nature equal (nor that it would be preferable that they were), but rather that they derive from their common heritage a common capacity to exercise the right of suffrage, which is the privilege of citizens. As the appropriate means to this téchne, equality remains exterior to man. This process, as much as it represents the logical consequence of common heritage, is also the condition for common participation. In the eyes of the ancient Greeks it was considered natural that all citizens be associated with political life not by virtue of universal and imprescriptible rights of humans as such, but from the fact of common citizenship. In the last analysis, the crucial notion was not equality but citizenship. Greek democracy was that form of government in which each citizen saw his liberty as firmly founded on an equality that conferred on him the right to civic and political liberties.

The study of ancient democracy has elicited divergent views from contemporary authors. For some, Athenian democracy is an admirable example of civic responsibility (Francesco Nitti); for others it evokes the realm of “activist” political parties (Paul Veyne); for yet others, ancient democracy is essentially totalitarian (Giovanni Sartori). 34 In general, everybody seems to concur that the difference between ancient democracy and modern democracy is considerable. Curiously, it is modern democracy that is used as a criterion for the democratic consistency of the former. This type of reasoning sounds rather odd. As we have observed, it was only belatedly that those modern national governments today styled “democracies” came to identify themselves with this word. Consequently, after observers began inquiring into ancient democracy, and realized that it was different from modern democracy, they drew the conclusion that ancient democracy was “less democratic” than modern democracy. But, in reality, should we not proceed from the inverse type of reasoning? It must be reiterated that democracy was born in Athens in the fifth century b.c. Therefore, it is Athenian democracy (regardless of one’s judgments for or against it) that should be used as an example of a “genuine” type of democracy. Granted that contemporary democratic regimes differ from Athenian democracy, we must then assume that they differ from democracy of any kind. We can see again where this irks most of our contemporaries. Since nowadays everyone boasts of being a perfect democrat, and given the fact that Greek democracy resembles not at all those before our eyes, it is naturally the Greeks who must bear the brunt of being “less democratic”! We thus arrive at the paradox that Greek democracy, in which the people participated daily in the exercise of power, is disqualified on the grounds that it does not fit into the concept of modern democracy, in which the people, at best, participate only indirectly in political life.

There should be no doubt that ancient democracies and modern democracies are systems entirely distinct from each other. Even the parallels that have been sought between them are fallacious. They have only the name in common, since both have resulted from completely different historical processes.

Wherein does this difference lie? It would be wrong to assume that it is related to either the “direct” or “indirect” nature of the decision-making process. Each of them has a different concept of man and a different concept of the world, as well as a different vision of social bonds. The democracy of antiquity was communitarian and “holist”; modern democracy is primarily individualist. Ancient democracy defined citizenship by a man’s origins, and provided him with the opportunity to participate in the life of the city. Modern democracy organizes atomized individuals into citizens viewed through the prism of abstract egalitarianism. Ancient democracy was based on the idea of organic community; modern democracy, heir to Christianity and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, on the individual. In both cases the meaning of the words “city,” “people,” “nation,” and “liberty” are totally changed.

To argue, therefore, within this context, that Greek democracy was a direct democracy only because it encompassed a small number of citizens falls short of a satisfying answer. Direct democracy need not be associated with a limited number of citizens. It is primarily associated with the notion of a relatively homogeneous people that is conscious of what makes it a people. The effective functioning of both Greek and Icelandic democracy was the result of cultural cohesion and a clear sense of shared heritage. The closer the members of a community are to each other, the more likely they are to have common sentiments, identical values, and the same way of looking at the world, and the easier it is for them to make collective decisions without needing the help of mediators.

In contrast, having ceased to be places of collectively lived meaning, modern societies require a multitude of intermediaries. The aspirations that surface in this type of democracy spring from contradictory value systems that are no longer reconcilable with unified decisions. Ever since Benjamin Constant (De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes, 1819), we have been able to measure to what degree, under the impact of individualist and egalitarian ideologies, the notion of liberty has changed. Therefore, to return to a Greek concept of democracy does not mean nurturing a shallow hope of “face to face” social transparency. Rather, it means reappropriating, as well as adapting to the modern world, the concept of the people and community—concepts that have been eclipsed by two thousand years of egalitarianism, rationalism, and the exaltation of the rootless individual.


1. George Orwell, Selected Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), p. 149.

2. François Guizot, De la démocratie en France (Paris: Masson, 1849), p. 9.

3. Georges Burdeau observes that judging by appearances, in terms of their federal organization, the institutions of the Soviet Union are similar to those of the United States, and in terms of its governmental system the Soviet Union is similar to England. La démocratie (Paris : Seuil, 1966), p. 141.

4. T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Faber & Faber, 1939).

5. Bertrand de Jouvenel, Du pouvoir (Geneva : Cheval ailé‚ 1945), p. 411.

6. Giovanni Sartori, Democratic Theory (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1962), p. 3.

7. “Les démocrates ombrageux,” Contrepoint (December 1976), p. 111.

8. Other authors have held exactly the opposite opinion. For Schleiermacher, democracy is a “primitive” political form in contrast to monarchy, which is thought to correspond to the demands of the modern state.

9. “Le pouvoir des idées en démocratie,”Pouvoir (May 1983), p. 145.

10. Significantly, it was with the beginning of the inquiry into the origins of the French monarchy that the nobility, under Louis XIV, began to challenge the principles of monarchy.

11. The word “thing,” which designated the parliament, derives from the Germanic word that connoted originally “everything that is gathered together.” The same word gave birth to the English “thing” (German Ding: same meaning). It seems that this word designated the assembly in which public matters, then affairs of a general nature, and finally “things” were discussed.

12. “Les fondements de l’État libre d’Icelande: trois siècles de démocratie médiévale,” in Nouvelle Ecole 25-26 (Winter 1974–75), pp. 68–73.

  1. Les Scandinaves (Paris: Lidis [Brepols], 1984), p. 613.

14. Cf. P.M. Martin, L’idée de royauté‚ … Rome. De la Rome royale au consensus républicain (Clermont-Ferrand: Adosa, 1983).

15. Here “democracy,” as in the case of peasants’ freedoms as well, already included social demands, although not “class struggle”—a concept ignored by ancient democracy. In the Middle Ages the purpose of such demands was to give voice to those who were excluded from power. But it often happened that “democracy” could be used against the people. In medieval Florence, social strife between the “popolo grosso” and the “popolo minuto” was particularly brisk. On this Francesco Nitti writes: “The reason the working classes of Florence proved lukewarm in defense of their liberty and sympathized instead with the Medicis was because they remained opposed to democracy, which they viewed as a concept of the rich bourgeoisie.” Francesco Nitti, La démocratie, vol. 1 (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1933), p. 57.)

16. This opinion is shared by the majority of students of ancient democracies. Thus, Victor Ehrenberg sees in Greek democracy a “form of enlarged aristocracy.” Victor Ehrenberg, L’état grec (Paris: Maspéro, 1976), p. 94.

17. Pius XII, 1944 Christmas Message

18. M. Robespierre, “On Political Morality,” speech to the Convention, February 5, 1794.

19. On this debate, see the essay by Luciano Guerci, “Liberta degli antichi e liberta dei moderni,” in Sparta, Atene e i `philosophes’ nella Francia del Setecento (Naples: Guido, 1979).

20. Camille Desmoulins, speech to the Convention, March 31, 1794. It is significant that contemporary democrats appear to be more inclined to favor Athens. Sparta, in contrast, is denounced for its “war-like spirit.” This change in discourse deserves a profound analysis.

21. Cf., for example, the essay by Moses Finley, Démocratie antique et démocratie moderne (Paris: Payot, 1976), which is both an erudite study and a pamphlet of great contemporary relevance. The study is prefaced by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who, among other errors, attributes to Julien Freund (see n. 7, above) positions which are exactly the very opposite of those stated in the preface.

22. To cite Thucydides: “Thanks to his untainted character, the depth of his vision, and boundless disinterestedness, Pericles exerted on Athens an incontestable influence.… Since he owed his prestige only to honest means, he did not have to truckle to popular passions.… In a word, democracy supplied the name; but in reality, it was the government of the first citizen.” (Peloponnesian War II, 65)

23. One of the best works on this topic is Jacqueline de Romilly’s essay Problèmes de la démocratie grecque (Paris: Hermann, 1975).

24. Romilly, Problèmes de la démocratie grecque.

25. The word “démos” is opposed to the word “laós,” a term employed in Greece to designate the people, but with the express meaning of “the community of warriors.”

26. In France, the right to vote was implemented only in stages. In 1791 the distinction was still made between “active citizens” and “passive citizens.” Subsequently, the electorate was expanded to include all qualified citizens able to pay a specified minimum of taxes. Although universal suffrage was proclaimed in 1848, it was limited to males until 1945.

27. On the evolution of that notion, see Jacqueline Bordes, ‘Politeia’ dans la pensée grecque jusqu’à Aristote (Paris : Belles Lettres, 1982).

28. Nicole Loraux interprets the Athenian notion of citizenship as a result of the “imaginary belonging to an autochthonous people” (Les enfants d’Athéna. Idées athéniennes sur la citoyenneté et la divison des sexes [Paris: Maspéro, 1981]). The myth of Erichthonios (or Erechtheus) explains in fact the autochthonous character and the origins of the masculine democracy, at the same time as it grafts the Athenian ideology of citizenship onto immemorial foundations.

29. Emile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, vol. 1 (Paris : Minuit, 1969), p. 321.

30. On the work of Aristotle and his relationship with the Athenian constitution, see James Day and Mortimer Chambers, Aristotle, History of Athenian Democracy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962).

31. Finley, Démocratie antique et démocratie moderne, p. 80.

32. Finley, Démocratie antique et démocratie moderne, p. 141.

33. Veyne adds: “Bourgeois liberalism organizes cruising ships in which each passenger must take care of himself as best as he can, the crew being there only to provide for the common goods and services. By contrast, the Greek city was a ship where the passengers made up the crew.” Paul Veyne, “Les Grecs ont-ils connu la démocratie?” Diogène October-December 1983, p. 9.

34. For the liberal critique of Greek democracy, see Paul Veyne, “Les Grecs ont-ils connu la démocratie?” and Giovanni Sartori, Democratic Theory (see n. 6 above).



De Benoist, Alain. “Democracy Revisited: The Ancients and the Moderns.” The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 2003). Text retrieved from: <http://home.alphalink.com.au/~radnat/debenoist/alain14.html >. (See this essay in PDF format here: Democracy Revisited).

Notes: This article is a translated from Alain de Benoist’s book Démocratie: le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), which was fully translated into English as The Problem of Democracy (London: Arktos, 2011).

This essay is also available in Spanish translation as “Democracia antigua y “Democracia” moderna”, published in Sebastian J. Lorenz’s Elementos, N° 41, “Una Crítica Metapolítica de la Democracia Vol. 2” (Febrero 2013), <http://urkultur-imperium-europa.blogspot.com/2013/02/elementos-n-41-una-critica-metapolitica.html/ >.


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Liberalism or Democracy? – Sunic

Liberalism or Democracy? Carl Schmitt and Apolitical Democracy

By Tomislav Sunic

Growing imprecision in the language of political discourse has turned virtually everyone into a democrat or, at least, an aspiring democrat. East,West, North, South, in all corners of the world, politicians and intellectuals profess the democratic ideal, as if their rhetorical homage to democracy could substitute for the frequently poor showing of their democratic institutions.[1] Does liberal democracy – and this is what we take as our criterion for the “best of all democracies” – mean more political participation or less, and how does one explain that in liberal democracy electoral interests have been declining for years? Judging by voter turnout, almost everywhere in the West the functioning of liberal democracy has been accompanied by political demobilization and a retreat from political participation.[2] Might it be, that consciously or unconsciously, the citizens of liberal democracies realize that their ballot choices can in no substantial manner affect the way their societies are governed, or worse, that the rites of liberal democracy are an elegant smoke screen for the absence of self-government?

Liberal Parenthesis and the End of the Muscled State

This paper will argue both that democracy is not necessarily an accompanying feature of liberalism and that liberal democracy may often be the very opposite of what democracy is supposed to mean. Through the arguments of Carl Schmitt, I shall demonstrate that: 1) democracy can have a different meaning in liberal society than in non-liberal society, 2) the depoliticization of liberal democracy is the direct result of voter mistrust in the liberal political class, and 3) liberal democracy in multi-ethnic countries is likely to face serious challenges in the future.

Over the period of the last fifty years, Western societies have witnessed a rapid eclipse of “hard” politics. Theological fanaticism, ideological ferocity, and politics of power, all of which have until recently rocked European states, have become things of the past. The influence of radical left-wing or right-wing parties and ideologies has waned. “High” politics, as a traditional action and interaction process between the rulers and the ruled, and as a guide for purported national destiny, seems to have become obsolete. With the collapse of communism in the East, modern liberal democracies in the West appear today as the only alternative forms of government on the barren political and ideological landscape. Moreover, in view of the recent collapse of totalitarian ideologies, liberal democracy seems to have gained even more legitimacy, all the more so as it successfully accommodates differing political views. Western liberal democracy, people believe, can satisfy diverse and disparate opinions, and can continue to function even when these are non-democratic and anti-liberal.

For Schmitt, liberal tolerance towards opposing political views is deceiving. In all of his works, and particularly in Verfassungslehre and Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus, he points to differences between liberalism and democracy, asserting that liberalism, by its nature, is hostile to all political projects. In liberal democracy, writes Schmitt, “politics far from being the concern of an elite, has become the despised business of a rather dubious class of persons.”[3] One may add that liberal democracy does not appear to be in need of political projects: With its vast technological infrastructure and the free market network, argues Schmitt, liberal democracy has no difficulty in rendering all contending beliefs and opposing ideologies inoffensive, or, at worst, ridiculous.[4]

In liberal democracy, in which most collective projects have already been delegitimized by belief in individualism and in the private pursuit of economic well-being, “it cannot be required, from any thinkable point of view, that anyone lays down his life, in the interest of the undisturbed functioning [of this society].”[5] Little by little, liberal democracy makes all political projects unattractive and unpopular, unless they appeal to economic interests. “Liberal democracy,” writes Schmitt, “seems to be fitted for a rational, secularized environment in which the state is reduced to a “night-watchman” supervising economic transactions. The state becomes a sort of inoffensive “mini-state” [“Minimalstaat”] or stato neutrale.”[6] One could almost argue that the strength of liberal democracy lies not in its aggressive posturing of its liberal ideal, but rather in its renunciation of all political ideals, including its own.

To some extent, this apolitical inertia appears today stronger than ever before, since no valid challenger to liberal democracy appears on the horizon. What a stark contrast to the time prior to World War II, when radical left- and right-wing ideologies managed to draw substantial support from political and intellectual elites! Might it be that the “Entzauberung” of politics has gone so far as to contribute to the strengthening of apolitical liberal democracy? Very revealing, indeed, appears the change in the behavior of modern elites in liberal democracies; left, right, and center barely differ in their public statements or in their political vocabulary. Their styles may differ, but their messages remain virtually the same. The “soft” and apolitical discourse of modern liberal princes, as one French observer recently wrote, prompts the “liberal-socialist” to exclaim: “I will die from loving your beautiful eyes Marquise.” And to this the “socialist-liberal”responds: “Marquise, from loving your beautiful eyes, I will die.”[7] Leftwing agendas are so often tainted with right-wing rhetoric that they appear to incorporate conservative principles. Conversely, right-wing politicians often sound like disillusioned leftists on many issues of domestic and foreign policy. In liberal democracy, all parties across the political spectrum, regardless of their declaratory differences, seem to be in agreement on one thing: democracy functions best when the political arena is reduced to its minimum and the economic and juridical spheres are expanded to their maximum.

Part of the problem may result from the very nature of liberalism. Schmitt suggests that the notions of liberalism and democracy “have to be distinguished from one another so that the patchwork picture that makes up modern mass democracy can be recognized.”[8] As Schmitt notes, democracy is the antithesis of liberalism, because “democracy … attempts to realize an identity of the governed and the governors, and thus it confronts the parliament as an inconceivable and outmoded institution.”[9]

Organic Democracy vs. Apolitical Democracy

True democracy, for Schmitt, means popular sovereignty, whereas liberal democracy and liberal parliament aim at curbing popular power. For Schmitt, if democratic identity is taken seriously, only the people should decide on their political destiny, and not liberal representatives, because “no other constitutional institution can withstand the sole criterion of the people’s will, however it is expressed.”[10] Liberal democracy, argues Schmitt, is nothing else but a euphemism for a system consecrating the demise of politics and thus destroying true democracy. But a question arises: why, given liberalism’s history of tolerance and its propensity to accommodate diverse groups, does Schmitt adamantly reject liberal democracy? Has not liberalism, particularly in the light of recent experiences with “muscled ideologies,” proven its superior and humane nature?

The crux of Schmitt’s stance lies in his conviction that the concept of “liberal democracy” is semantic nonsense. In its place, Schmitt seems to suggest both a new definition of democracy and a new notion of the political. According to Schmitt, “democracy requires, first homogeneity and second-if the need arises-elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.”[11] Homogeneity and the concomitant elimination of heterogeneity are the two pillars of Schmitt’s democracy, something which stands in sharp contrast to liberal party systems and the fragmentation of the body politic. Democratic homogeneity, according to Schmitt, presupposes a common historical memory, common roots, and a common vision of the future, all of which can subsist only in a polity where the people speak with one voice. “As long as a people has the will to political existence,” writes Schmitt,” it must remain above all formulations and normative beliefs. . . . The most natural way of the direct expression of the people’s will is by approvals or disapprovals of the gathered crowd, i.e., the acclamation.”[12] To be sure, with his definition of homogeneous democracy that results from the popular will, Schmitt appears to be holding the value of the traditional community above that of civil society which, for the last century, has been the hallmark of liberal democracy.[13] One may therefore wonder to what extent can Schmitt’s “organic” democracy be applicable to the highly fractured societies of the West, let alone to an ethnically fragmented America.

Schmitt insists that “the central concept of democracy is the people (Volk), not mankind [Menscheit]. . . . There can be-if democracy takes a political form-only popular democracy, but not a democracy of mankind [Es gibt eine Volksdemokratie und keine Menscheitsdemokratie].”[14] Naturally, this vision of “ethnic” democracy collides with modern liberal democracy, one of the purposes of which, its proponents claim, is to transcend ethnic differences in pluralistic societies. Schmitt’s “ethnic” democracy must be seen as the reflection of the uniqueness of a given people who oppose imitations of their democracy by other peoples or races. Since Schmitt’s democracy bears a resemblance to ancient Greek democracy, critics must wonder how feasible this democracy can be today. Transplanted into the twentieth century, this democratic anachronism will appear disturbing, not least because it will remind some of both fascist corporate and Third World states with their strict laws on ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Schmitt confirms these misgivings when he states that “a democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity [das Fremde und Ungleiche . . . zu beseitigen oder fernzuhalten].”[15] Any advocate of liberal democracy in modern multicultural societies could complain that Schmitt’s democracy excludes those whose birth, race, or simply religious or ideological affiliation is found incompatible with a restricted democracy. Foreign may be a foreign idea that is seen to threaten democracy, and a foreigner may be somebody who is viewed as unfit to participate in the body politic because of his race or creed. In other words, one could easily suspect Schmitt of endorsing the kind of democracy that approximates the “total state.”

Nor does Schmitt treat the liberal principles of legality with much sympathy. In his essay “Legalitat und Legitimitat,” Schmitt argues that the kind of liberal democracy creates the illusion of freedom by according to each political group and opposing opinion a fair amount of freedom of expression as well as a guaranteed legal path to accomplish its goal in a peaceful manner.[16] Such an attitude to legal rights is contrary to the notion of democracy, and eventually leads to anarchy, argues Schmitt, because legality in a true democracy must always be the expression of the popular will and not the expression of factional interests. “Law is the expression of the will of the people (lex est quod populus jubet),” writes Schmitt, [17] “and in no way can law be a manifestation of an anonymous representative or a parliamentarian who solely looks after interests of his narrow constituency.” “Indeed,” continues Schmitt, “an ethnically homogeneous and historical people has all the prerequisites to uphold justice and remain democratic, provided it always asserts its will.”[18] Of course, one may argue that Schmitt had in mind a form of populist democracy reminiscent of the 1930s’ plebiscitary dictatorships which scorned both parliamentary parties and organized elections. In his Verfassungslehre, Schmitt attacks free parliamentary elections for creating, through secret balloting, a mechanism which. “transforms the citizen (citoyen), that is, a specifically democratic and political figure, into a private person who only expresses his private opinion and gives his vote.”[19] Here Schmitt seems to be consistent with his earlier remarks about ethnic homogeneity. For Schmitt, the much-vaunted “public opinion,” which liberals equate with the notion of political tolerance, is actually a contradiction in terms, because a system which is obsessed with privacy inevitably shies away from political openness. True and organic democracy, according to Schmitt, is threatened by liberal secret balloting, and “the result is the sum of private opinions.”[20] Schmitt goes on to say that “the methods of today’s popular elections [Volkswahl] and referendums [Volksentscheid] in modern democracy, in no way contain the procedure for genuine popular elections; instead, they organize a procedure for the elections of the individuals based on the total sum of independent ballot papers.”[21]

Predictably, Schmitt’s view of democratic equality is dependent upon his belief that democracy entails social homogeneity, an idea Schmitt develops more fully in Verfassungslehre and The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Although liberal democracy upholds the legal equality of individuals, it ignores the equality of rooted citizens. Liberal democracy merely provides for the equality of atomized individuals whose ethnic, cultural, or racial bonds are so weakened or diluted that they can no longer be viewed as equal inheritors of a common cultural memory and a common vision of the future. Undoubtedly, equality and democracy, for Schmitt, are inseparable. Equality in a genuine organic democracy always takes place among “equals of the same kind (Gleichartigen).”[22] This corresponds to Schmitt’s earlier assertions that “equal rights make good sense where homogeneity exists.”[23] Could one infer from these brief descriptions of democratic equality that in an ethnically or ideologically fragmented society equality can never be attained? One might argue that by transferring the political discourse of equality to the juridical sphere, liberal democracy has elegantly masked glaring inequality in another sphere-that of economics. One could agree with Schmitt that liberal democracy, as much as it heralds “human rights” and legal equality and proudly boasts of “equality of (economic) opportunity,” encourages material disparities. Indeed, inequality in liberal democracy has not disappeared, and, in accordance with the Schmitt’s ‘observations regarding the shifts in the political sphere, “another sphere in which substantial inequality prevails (today, for example the economic sphere), will dominate politics. Small wonder that, in view of its contradictory approach to equality, liberal democracy has been under constant fire from the left and the right.[24]

To sum up, Schmitt rejects liberal democracy on several counts: 1) liberal . democracy is not “demo-krasia,” because it does not foster the identity of the governed and the governors, 2) liberal democracy reduces the political arena, and thus creates an apolitical society, and 3) in upholding legal equality, and pursuant to its constant search for the wealth that will win it support, liberal democracy results in glaring economic inequality.

The Rule of the People or the Rule of Atomized Individuals?

From the etymological and historical points of view, Schmitt’s criticism of liberal democracy merits attention. Democracy signifies the rule of the people, a specific people with a common ethnic background, and not the people construed, after the manner of some liberal democracies, as the atomized agglomeration flowing from a cultural “melting pot.” But if one assumes that a new type of homogeneity can develop, e.g., homogeneity caused by technological progress, then one cannot dispute the functionality of a liberal democracy in which the homogenized citizens remain thoroughly apolitical: Hypothetically speaking, political issues in the decades to come may no longer be ethnicity, religions, nation-states, economics, or even technology, but other issues that could “homogenize” citizens. Whether democracy in the twenty-first century will be based on apolitical consensus remains to be seen. Schmitt sincerely feared that the apoliticism of “global liberal democracy” under the aegis of the United States could become a dangerous predicament for all, leading not to global peace but to global servitude.[25] As of today, however, liberal democracy still serves as a normative concept for many countries, but whether this will remain so is an open question.

In view of the increased ethnic fragmentation and continued economic disparities in the world, it seems that Schmitt’s analysis may contain a grain of truth. The American experience with liberal democracy has so far been tolerable: that is, the U.S. has shown that it can function as a heterogeneous multi-ethnic society even when, contrary to Schmitt’s fears, the level of political and historical consciousness remains very low. Yet, the liberal democratic experiment elsewhere has been less successful. Recent attempts to introduce liberal democracy into the multi-ethnic states of Eastern Europe have paradoxically speeded up their dissolution or, at best, weakened their legitimacy. The cases of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union and the now-defunct Yugoslavia-countries in endless struggles to find lasting legitimacy-are very revealing and confirm Schmitt’s predictions that democracy functions best, at least in some places, in ethnically homogeneous societies.[26] In light of the collapse of communism and fascism, one is tempted to argue that liberal democracy is the wave of the future. Yet, exported American political ideals will vary according to the countries and the peoples among whom they take root. Even the highly Americanized European countries practice a different brand of liberal democracy from what one encounters in America.

Schmitt observes that liberalism, while focusing on the private rights of individuals, contributes to the weakening of the sense of community. Liberal democracy typifies, for Schmitt, a polity which cripples the sense of responsibility and renders society vulnerable to enemies both from within and without. By contrast, his idea of organic democracy is not designed for individuals who yearn to reduce political activity to the private pursuit of happiness; rather, organic, classical democracy means “the identity of the governors and the governed, of the rulers and the ruled, of those who receive orders and of those who abide by them.”[27] In such a polity, laws and even the constitution itself can be changed on a short notice because the people, acting as their own legislators, do not employ parliamentary representatives.

Schmitt’s democracy could easily pass for what liberal theorists would identify as a disagreeable dictatorship. Would Schmitt object to that? Hardly. In fact, he does not discount the compatibility of democracy with communism or even fascism. “Bolshevism and Fascism,” writes Schmitt, “by contrast, are like all dictatorships certainly anti-liberal, but not necessarily anti-democratic.”[28] Both communism and fascism strive towards homogeneity (even if they attempt to be homogeneous by force) by banning all opposition. Communism, for which the resolute anti-Bolshevik Schmitt had no sympathy, can surely be democratic, at least in its normative and utopian stage. The “educational dictatorship” of communism, remarks Schmitt, may suspend democracy in the name of democracy, “because it shows that dictatorship is not antithetical to democracy.”[29] In a true democracy, legitimacy derives not from parliamentary maneuvers, but from acclamation and popular referenda. “There is no democracy and no state without public opinion, and no state without acclamation,” writes Schmitt [30] By contrast, liberal democracy with its main pillars, viz., individual liberty and the separation of powers, opposes public opinion and, thus, must stand forth as the enemy of true democracy. Or, are we dealing here with words that have become equivocal? According to Schmitt, “democratic principles mean that the people as a whole decides and governs as a sovereign.”[31] One could argue that democracy must be a form of kratos, an exercise, not a limiting, of power. Julien Freund, a French Schmittian, concurs that “democracy is a ‘kratos.’ As such it presupposes, just like any other regime, the presence and the validity of an authority.” [32] With its separation of powers, the atomization of the body politic, and the neutralization of politics, liberal democracy deviates from this model.

Conclusion: The Liberal ‘Dictatorship of Well-Being’

If one assumes that Schmitt’s “total democracy” excludes those with different views and different ethnic origins, could not one also argue that liberal democracy excludes by virtue of applying an “apolitical” central field? Through apolitical economics and social censure, liberal democracy paradoxically generates a homogeneous consumer culture. Is this not a form of “soft” punishment imposed on those who behave incorrectly? Long ago, in his observations about democracy in America, Tocqueville pointed out the dangers of apolitical “democratic despotism.” “If despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.”[33] Perhaps this “democratic despotism” is already at work in liberal democracies. A person nowadays can be effectively silenced by being attacked as socially insensitive.

Contemporary liberal democracy amply demonstrates the degree to which the economic and spiritual needs of citizens have become homogenized. Citizens act more and more indistinguishably in a new form of “dictatorship of well-being.”[34] Certainly, this homogeneity in liberal democracy does not spring from coercion or physical exclusion, but rather from the voter’s sense of futility. Official censorship is no longer needed as the ostracism resulting from political incorrectness becomes daily more obvious. Citizens appear more and more apathetic, knowing in all likelihood that, regardless of their participation, the current power structure will remain intact. Moreover, liberal democrats, as much as they complain about the intolerance of others, often appear themselves scornful of those who doubt liberal doctrines, particularly the beliefs in rationalism and economic progress. The French thinker Georges Sorel, who influenced Schmitt, remarked long ago that to protest against the illusion of liberal rationalism means to be immediately branded as the enemy of democracy.[35] One must agree that, irrespective of its relative tolerance in the past, liberal democracy appears to have its own sets of values and normative claims. Its adherents, for example, are supposed to believe that liberal democracy operates entirely by law. Julien Freund detects in liberal legalism “an irenic concept” of law, “a juridical utopia . . . which ignores the real effects of political, economic and other relations.”[36] No wonder that Schmitt and his followers have difficulty in accepting the liberal vision of the rule of law, or in believing that such a vision can “suspend decisive [ideological] battle through endless discussion.”[37] In its quest for a perfect and apolitical society, liberal democracy develops in such a manner that “public discussion [becomes] an empty formality,”[38] reduced to shallow discourse in which different opinions are no longer debated. A modern liberal politician increasingly resembles an “entertainer” whose goal is not to persuade the opponent about the validity of his political programs, but primarily to obtain electoral majorities.[39]

In hindsight, it should not appear strange that liberal democracy, which claims to be open to all kinds of technological, economic and sexual “revolutions,” remains opposed to anything that would question its apolitical status quo. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that even the word “politics” is increasingly being supplanted by the more anodyne word “policy,” just as prime ministers in liberal democracies are increasingly recruited from economists and businessmen.

Schmitt correctly predicted that even the defeat of fascism and the recent collapse of communism would not forestall a political crisis in liberal democracy. For Schmitt, this crisis is inherent in the very nature of liberalism, and will keep recurring even if all anti-liberal ideologies disappeared. The crisis in liberal parliamentary democracy is the result of the contradiction between liberalism and democracy; it is, in Schmittian language, the crisis of a society that attempts to be both liberal and democratic, universal and legalistic, but at the same time committed to the self-government of peoples.

One does not need to go far in search of fields that may politicize and then polarize modern liberal democracy. Recent events in Eastern Europe, the explosion of nationalisms all around the world, racial clashes in the liberal democratic West – these and other “disruptive” developments demonstrate that the liberal faith may have a stormy future. Liberal democracy may fall prey to its own sense of infallibility if it concludes that nobody is willing to challenge it. This would be a mistake. For neither the demise of fascism nor the recent collapse of communism has ushered in a more peaceful epoch. Although Western Europe and America are now enjoying a comfortable respite from power politics, new conflicts have erupted in their societies, over multiculturalism and human rights. The end of liberal apolitical democracy and the return of “hard” politics may be taking place within liberal democratic societies.


1. See Giovanni Sartori, Democratic Theory (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962), 3. “In a somewhat paradoxical vein, democracy could be defined as a high-flown name for something which does not exist.” See, for instance, the book by French “Schmittian” Alain de Benoist, Democratie: Le probleme (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), 8. “Democracy is neither more ‘modern’ nor more ‘evolved’ than other forms of governance: Governments with democratic tendencies have appeared throughout history. We can observe how the linear perspective used in this type of analysis can be particularly deceiving.” Against the communist theory of democracy, see Julien Freund, considered today as a foremost expert on Schmitt, in Politique et impolitique (Paris: Sirey, 1987), 203. “It is precisely in the name of democracy, designed as genuine and ideal and always put off for tomorrow that non-democrats conduct their campaign of propaganda against real and existing democracies.” For an interesting critique of democratic theory, see Louis Rougier, La Mystique democratique (Paris: Albatros,1983). Rougier was inspired by Vilfredo Pareto and his elitist anti-democratic theory of the state.

2. See, for instance, an analysis of U.S. “post-electoral politics,” which seems to be characterized by the governmental incapacity to put a stop to increasing appeals to the judiciary, in Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, Politics by other Means: The Declining Importance of Election in America (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1990).

3. Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge: MIT,1985), 4.

4. The views held by some leftist scholars concerning liberalism closely parallel those of Schmitt, particularly the charge of “soft” repression. See, for instance, Jurgen Habermas, Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968). See also Regis Debray , Le Scribe: Genese du politique (Paris: Grasset, 1980).

5. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (Munchen und Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1932), 36. Recently, Schmitt’s major works have become available in English. These include: The Concept of the Political, trans. G. Schwab (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Prress, 1976); Political Romanticism, trans. G. Oakes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986); and Political Theology, trans. G. Schwab (Cambridge: MIT Press; 1985). There may be some differences between my translations and the translations in the English version.

6. Schmitt, Der Begriff, 76.

7. Francois-Bernard Huyghe, La soft-ideologie (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1987), 43

8. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 8.

9. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 15.

10. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 15.

11. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 9.

12. Carl Schmitt, Verfassungslehre (Munchen und Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker und Humblot, 1928), 83.

13. See Ferdinand Tonnies, Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), trans. and ed. Charles P. Loomis (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). Tonnies distinguishes between hierarchy in modern and traditional society. His views are similar to those of Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, the Caste System and its Implications, trans. Mark Sainsbury and L. Dumont (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Dumont draws attention to “vertical” vs. “horizontal” inequality among social groups.

14. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 234.

15. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 9.

16. Carl Schmitt, Du Politique, trans. William Gueydan (Puiseaux: Pardes, 1990), 46. “Legalitat und Legitimitat” appears in French translation, with a preface by Alain de Benoist, as “L’egalite et legitimite”

17. Schmitt, Du Politique, 57.

18. Schmitt, Du Politique, 58. See also Schmitt’s Verfassungslehre, 87-91:

19. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 245.

20. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 246.

21. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 245.

22. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 10.

23. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 13.

24. See, for instance, the conservative revolutionary, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Das Dritte Reich (1923) whose criticism of liberal democracy often parallels Carl Schmitt’s, and echoes Karl Marx, The Critique of the Gotha Program (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 9. “Hence equal rights here (in liberalism) means in principle bourgeois rights. The equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor.” See also Schmitt’s contemporary Othmar Spann with a similar analysis, Der wahre Staat (Leipzig: Verlag von Qnelle und Meyer,1921).

25. See Carl Schmitt, “L’unite du monde,” trans. Philippe Baillet in Du Politique, 237-49.

26. In some multi-ethnic states, liberal democracy has difficulty taking root. For instance, the liberalisation of Yugoslavia has led to its collapse into its ethnic parts. This could bring some comfort to Schmitt’s thesis that democracy requires a homogeneous “Volk” within its ethnographic borders and state. See Tomislav Sunic, “Yugoslavia, the End of Communism the Return of Nationalism,” America (20 April 1991), 438–440.

27. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 234. See for a detailed treatment of this subject the concluding chapter of Paul Gottfried, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory (Westport and New York: Greenwood Press, 1990).

28. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 16,

29. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 28.

30. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, 247.

31. Carl Schmitt; “L’etat de droit bourgeois,” in Du Politique, 35.

32. Freund, Politique et impolitique, 204.

33. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966), vol. 2, book fourth, Ch. 6.

34. There is a flurry of books criticizing the “surreal” and “vicarious” nature of modern liberal society. See Jean Baudrillard, Les strategies fatales (“Figures du transpolitique”) (Paris: Grasset, 1983). Also, Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1979).

35. Georges Sorel, Les illusions du progres (Paris: M. Riviere, 1947), 50.

36. Freund, Politique et impolitique, 305.

37. Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie (Munchen und Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker und Humblot, 1934), 80.

38. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 6.

39. Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 7.



Sunic, Tomislav. “Liberalism or Democracy? Carl Schmitt and Apolitical Democracy.” THIS WORLD (An Annual of Religious and Public Life), Vol. 28, 1993. <http://www.tomsunic.com/?p=38 >. (See this essay in PDF format here: Liberalism or Democracy? Carl Schmitt and Apolitical Democracy).

Note: This essay was also republished in Tomislav Sunic’s Postmortem Report: Cultural Examinations from Postmodernity – Collected Essays (Shamley Green, UK: The Paligenesis Project, 2010).

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Historical Dynamics of Liberalism – Sunic

Historical Dynamics of Liberalism: From Total Market to Total State

by Tomislav Sunic

The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the historical dynamics of liberalism and its impact on contemporary Western polities. This essay will argue a) that liberalism today provides a comfortable ideological “retreat” for members of the intellectual élite and decision makers tired of the theological and ideological disputes that rocked Western politics for centuries; b) that liberalism can make compromises with various brands of socialism on practically all issues except the freedom of the market place; c) that liberalism thrives by expanding the economic arena into all aspects of life and all corners of the world, thereby gradually erasing the sense of national and historical community which had formerly provided the individual with a basic sense of identity and psychological security. This essay will also question whether liberalism, despite its remarkable success in the realm of the economy, provides an adequate bulwark against non-democratic ideologies, or whether under some conditions it may actually stimulate their growth.

In the aftermath of the second world war, liberalism and Marxism emerged as the two unquestionably dominant ideologies following their military success over their common rival, fascism. This brought them into direct conflict with each other, since each contended, from their own viewpoint, that the only valid political model was their own, denying the validity of their opponent’s thesis. Beaud writes that when the liberal and socialist ideas began to emerge, the former quickly cloaked itself in science (“the law of supply and demand,” “the iron law of wages”), while the latter had the tendency to degenerate into mysticism and sectarianism.(1)

Some critics of liberalism, such as the French economist François Perroux, pointed out that according to some extreme liberal assumptions, “everything (that) has been happening since the beginning of time (can be attributed to capitalism) as if the modern world was constructed by industrialists and merchants consulting their account books and wishing to reap profits.”(2) Similar subjective attitudes, albeit from a different ideological angle, can often be heard among Marxist theorists, who in the analysis of liberal capitalism resort to value judgements colored by Marxian dialectics and accompanied by the rejection of the liberal interpretation of the concept of equality and liberty. “The fact that the dialectical method can be used for each purpose,” remarks the Austrian philosopher Alexander Topitsch, “explains its extraordinary attraction and its world-wide dissemination, that can only be compared to the success of the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century.”(3) Nevertheless, despite their real ideological discord, liberals, neo-liberals, socialists, and “socio-neoliberals,” agree, at least in principle, in claiming a common heritage of rationalism, and on the rejection of all non-democratic ideologies, especially racialism. Earlier in this century, Georges Sorel, the French theorist of anarcho-syndicalism, remarked with irony that “to attempt to protest against the illusion of rationalism means to be immediately branded as the enemy of democracy.”(4)

The practical conflict between the respective virtues of liberalism and socialism is today seemingly coming to a close, as some of the major Marxist regimes move in the direction of a liberalization of their economies, even though the ideological debate is by no means settled amongst intellectuals. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Marxist socialism is today in global decline amongst those who have to face the problem of making it work. In consequence, despite the fact that support for Marxism amongst Western intellectuals was at its height when repression in Marxist countries was at its peak, liberalism today seems have been accepted as a place of “refuge” by many intellectuals who, disillusioned with the failure of repression in the Marxist countries, nevertheless continue to hold to the socialist principles of universalism and egalitarianism.

As François B. Huyghe comments, welfare state policies accepted by liberals have implemented many of the socialist programs which patently failed in communist countries.(5) Thus, economic liberalism is not only popular among many former left-wing intellectuals (including numbers of East European intellectuals) because it has scored tangible economic results in the Western countries, but also due to the fact that its socialist counterpart has failed in practice, leaving the liberal model as the only uncontested alternative. “The main reason for the victories of economic liberalism,” writes Kolm, “are due to the fact that all defective functioning of the non-liberal model of social realization warrants the consideration of the alternative liberal social realization. The examples of such cases abound in the West as in the East; in the North as in the South.”(6) In the absence of other successful models, and in the epoch of a pronounced “de-ideologization” process all over Europe and America, modern liberalism has turned out to be a modus vivendi for the formerly embattled foes. But are we therefore to conclude that the eclipse of other models and ideologies must spell the end of politics and inaugurate the beginning of the Age of Liberalism?

Long before the miracle of modern liberalism became obvious, a number of writers had observed that liberalism would continue to face a crisis of legitimacy even if its socialist and fascist foes were miraculously to disappear. More recently, Serge-Christophe Kolm has remarked that liberalism and socialism must not be viewed in dialectical opposition, but rather as a fulfilment of each other. Kolm writes that the ideals of liberalism and Marxism “are almost identical given that they are founded on the values of liberty, and coinciding in the applications of almost everything, except on a subject which is logically punctual, yet factually enormous in this world: wage-earning, location of individuals and self.”(8) Some have even advanced the hypothesis that liberalism and socialism are the face and the counter-face of the same phenomenon, since contemporary liberalism has managed to achieve, in the long run and in an unrepressive fashion, many of those same goals which Marxian socialism in the short run, employing repressive means, has failed to achieve. Yet differences exist.

Not only do socialist ideologues currently fear that the introduction of free market measures could spell the end of socialism, but socialism and liberalism disagree fundamentally on the definition of equality. Theoretically, both subscribe to constitutional, legal, political and social equality; yet their main difference lies in their opposing views regarding the distribution of economic benefits/rewards, and accordingly, as to their corresponding definition of economic equality. Unlike liberalism, socialism is not satisfied with demanding political and social equality, but insists on equal distribution of economic goods. Marx repeatedly criticized the liberal definition of equal rights, for which he once said that “this equal right is unequal right for unequal labor. This right does not acknowledge class difference because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual talents, and consequently it holds individual skills for natural privileges.”(9) Only in a higher stage of communism, after the present subordination of individuals to capital, that is, after the differences in the rewards of labor have disappeared, will bourgeois rights disappear, and society will write on its banner: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”(10)

Despite these differences, it may be said that, in general, socialist ideas have always surfaced as unavoidable satellites and pendants of liberalism. As soon as liberal ideas made their inroads into the European feudal scene, the stage for socialist appetites was set – appetites which subsequently proved too large to fulfil. As soon as the early bourgeoisie had secured its position, liquidating guilds and feudal corporations along with the landed aristocracy, it had to face up to critics who accused it of stifling political liberties and economic equality, and of turning the newly enfranchised peasant into a factory slave. In the seventeenth century, remarks Lakoff, the bourgeois ideas of equality and liberty immediately provided the fourth estate with ideological ammunition, which was quickly expressed by numerous proto-socialist revolutionary movements.(11) Under such circumstances of flawed equality, it must not come as a surprise that the heaviest burden for peasants was the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, which had hailed the rights of equality as long as it struggled to dislodge the aristocracy from power; yet the minute it acceded to power, prudently refrained from making any further claims about equality in affluence. David Thomson remarked with irony that “many of those who would defend with their dying breath the rights of liberty and equality (such as many English and American liberals) shrink back in horror from the notion of economic egalitarianism.”(12) Also, Sorel pointed out that in general, the abuse of power by an hereditary aristocracy is less harmful to the juridical sentiment of a people than the abuses committed by a plutocratic regime,(13) adding that “nothing would ruin so much the respect for laws as the spectacle of injustices committed by adventurers who, with the complicity of tribunals, have become so rich that they can purchase politicians.”(14)

The dynamics of liberal and socialist revolutions gathered steam in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notably an epoch of great revolutionary ferment in Europe. The liberal 1789 revolution in France rapidly gave way to the socialist Jacobin revolution in 1792; “the liberal” Condorcet was supplanted by the “communist” Babeuf, and the relatively bloodless Girondin coup was followed by the avalanche of bloodshed under the Jacobin terror and the revolt of the “sans-culottes.”(15) Similarly, a hundred years later, the February Revolution in Russia was followed by the accelerated October revolution, replacing the social democrat, Kerensky, by the communist Lenin. Liberalism gobbled up the ancient aristocracy, liquidated the medieval trade corporations, alienated the workers, and then in its turn was frequently supplanted by socialism. It is therefore interesting to observe that after its century-long competition with socialism, liberalism is today showing better results in both the economic and ethical domains, whereas the Marxist credo seems to be on the decline. But has liberalism become the only acceptable model for all peoples on earth? How is it that liberalism, as an incarnation of the humanitarian ideal and the democratic spirit, has always created enemies on both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons?

Free Market: The “Religion” of Liberalism

Liberalism can make many ideological “deals” with other ideologies, but one sphere where its remains intransigent is the advocacy of the free market and free exchange of goods and commodities. Undoubtedly, liberalism is not an ideology like other ideologies, and in addition, it has no desire to impose an absolute and exclusive vision of the world rooted in a dualistic cleavage between good and evil, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the “chosen and the unchosen ones.” Moreover, the liberal ideal lacks that distinctive telos so typical of socialist and fascist ideologies. Contrary to other ideologies, liberalism is in general rather sceptical of any concentration of political power, because in the “inflation” of politics, and in ideological fervor, it claims to see signs of authoritarianism and even, as some authors have argued, totalitarianism. (16) Liberalism seems to be best fitted for a secularized polity, which Carl Schmitt alternatively called the “minimal state” (Minimalstaat), and stato neutrale.(17) It follows that in a society where production has been rationalized and human interaction is subject to constant reification (Vergegenständlichung), liberalism cannot (or does not wish to) adopt the same “will to power” which so often characterizes other ideologies. In addition, it is somewhat difficult to envision how such a society can request its citizens to sacrifice their goods and their lives in the interests of some political or religious ideal. (18) The free market is viewed as a “neutral filed” (Neutralgebiet), allowing only the minimum of ideological conflict, that aims at erasing all political conflicts, positing that all people are rational beings whose quest for happiness is best secured by the peaceful pursuit of economic goals. In a liberal, individualistic society, every political belief is sooner or later reduced to a “private thing” whose ultimate arbiter is the individual himself. The Marxist theoretician Habermas comes to a somewhat similar conclusion, when he argues that modern liberal systems have acquired a negative character: “Politics is oriented to the removal of dysfunctionalities and of risks dangerous to the system; in other words politics is not oriented to the implementation of practical goals, but to the solution of technological issues.”(19) The market may thus be viewed as an ideal social construct whose main purpose is to limit the political arena. Consequently, every imaginable flaw in the market is generally explained by assertions that “there is still too much politics” hampering the free exchange of goods and commodities.(20)

Probably one of the most cynical remarks about liberalism and the liberal “money fetichism,” came not from Marx, but from the Fascist ideologue Julius Evola, who once wrote: “Before the classical dilemma, your money or your life, the bourgeois will paradoxically be the one to answer: ‘Take my life, but spare my money.’” (21) But in spite of its purportedly agnostic and apolitical character, it would be wrong to assert that liberalism does not have “religious roots.” In fact, many authors have remarked that the implementation of liberalism has been the most successful in precisely those countries which are known for strong adherence to biblical monotheism. Earlier in this century, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asserted that the liberal postulates of economics and ethics stem from Judeo-Christian legalism, and that liberals conceive of commerce, money and the “holy economicalness” (“heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”) as the ideal avenue to spiritual salvation.(22) More recently, the French anthropologist Louis Dumont, wrote that liberal individualism and economism are the secular transposition of Judeo-Christian beliefs, noting that “just as religion gave birth to politics, politics in turn will be shown to give birth to economics.”(23)

Henceforth, writes Dumont in his book From Mandeville to Marx, according to the liberal doctrine, man’s pursuit of happiness has increasingly come to be associated with the unimpeded pursuit of economic activities. In modern polities, he opines, the substitution of man as an individual for the idea of man as a social being was made possible by Judeo- Christianity: “the transition was thus made possible, from a holistic social order to a political system raised by consent as a superstructure on an ontological given economic basis.”(24) In other words, the idea of individual accountability before God, gave birth, over a long period of time, to the individual and to the idea that economic accountability constitutes the linchpin of the liberal social contract – a notion totally absent from organic and traditional nationalistically-organized societies. Thus Emanuel Rackman argues that Judeo-Christianity played an important role in the development of ethical liberalism in the USA: “This was the only source on which Thomas Paine could rely in his “Rights of Man” to support the dogma of the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And this dogma was basic in Judaism.”(26) Similar claims are made by Konvitz in Judaism and the American Idea, wherein he argues that modern America owes much to the Jewish holy scriptures.(27) Feurbach, Sombart, Weber, Troeltsch, and others have similarly argued that Judeo-Christianity had a considerable influence on the historical development of liberal capitalism. On the other hand, when one considers the recent economic success of various Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, whose expansionary impetus often overshadows the economic achievements of the countries marked by the Judeo-Christian legacy, one must take care not to equate economic success solely with the Judeo-Christian forms of liberal society.

Equal Economic Opportunity or the Opportunity to Be Unequal?

The strength of liberalism and of free-market economics lies in the fact that the liberal ideal enables all people to develop their talents as they best see fit. The free market ignores all hierarchy and social differentiation, except those differences which result from the completion of economic transactions. Liberals argue that all people have the same economic opportunity, and that consequently, each individual, by making best use of his or her talents and entrepreneurship, will alone determine his or her social status. But critics of liberalism often contend that this formula is in itself dependent upon the terms and conditions under which the principles of “economic opportunity” can take place. John Schaar asserts that liberalism has substantially transformed the social arena into the economic field track, and that the formula should read: “equality of opportunity for all to develop those talents which are highly valued by a given people at a given time.”(28) According to Schaar’s logic, when the whims of the market determine which specific items, commodities or human talents are most in demand, or are more marketable than some others, it will follow that individuals lacking these talents or commodities will experience an acute sense of injustice. “Every society, Schaar continues, “encourages some talents and discourages others. Under the equal opportunity doctrine, the only men who can fulfil themselves and develop their abilities to the fullest are those who are able and eager to do what society demands they do.”(29) This means that liberal societies will likely be most content when their members share a homogeneous background and a common culture. Yet modern liberalism seeks to break-down national barriers and promote the conversion of hitherto homogeneous nation-states into multi-ethnic and highly heterogeneous political states. Thus, the potential for disputation and dissatisfaction is enhanced by the successful implementation of its economic policies.

It is further arguable that the success of liberalism engenders its own problems. Thus, as Karl Marx was quick to note, in a society where everything becomes an expendable commodity, man gradually comes to see himself as an expendable commodity too. An average individual will be less and less prone to abide by his own internal criteria, values or interests, and instead, he will tenaciously focus on not being left out of the economic battle, always on his guard that his interests are in line with the market. According to Schaar, such an attitude, in the long run, can have catastrophic consequences for the winner as well as the loser: “The winners easily come to think of themselves as being superior to common humanity, while the losers are almost forced to think of themselves as something less than human.”(30) Under psychological pressure caused by incessant economic competition, and seized by fear that they may fall out of the game, a considerable number of people, whose interests and sensibilities are not compatible with current demands of the market, may develop feelings of bitterness, jealousness and inferiority. A great many among them will accept the economic game, but many will, little by little, come to the conclusion that the liberal formula “all people are equal,” in reality only applies to those who are economically the most successful. Murray Milner, whose analyses parallel Schaar’s, observes that under such circumstances, the doctrine of equal opportunity creates psychological insecurity, irrespective of the material affluence of society. “Stressing equality of opportunity necessarily makes the status structure fluid and the position of the individual within it ambiguous and insecure.”(31) The endless struggle for riches and security, which seemingly has no limits, can produce negative results, particularly when society is in the throes of sudden economic changes. Antony Flew, in a similar fashion, writes that “a ‘competition’ in which the success of all contestants is equally probable is a game of chance or lottery, not a genuine competition.”(32) For Milner such an economic game is tiring and unpredictable, and if “extended indefinitely, it could lead to exhaustion and collapse.”(33)

Many other contemporary authors also argue that the greatest threat to liberalism comes from the constant improvement in general welfare generated by its own economic successes. Recently, two French scholars, Julien Freund and Claude Polin, wrote that the awesome expansion of liberalism, resulting in ever increasing general affluence, inevitably generates new economic and material needs, which constantly cry out for yet another material fulfilment. Consequently, after society has reached an enviable level of material growth, even the slightest economic crisis, resulting in a perceptible drop in living standards, will cause social discord and possibly political upheavals.

Taking a slightly different stance, Polin remarks that liberalism, in accordance with the much vaunted doctrine of “natural rights,” tends, very often, to define man as a final and complete species who no longer needs to evolve, and whose needs can be rationally predicted and finalized. Led by an unquenchable desire that he must exclusively act on his physical environment in order to improve his earthly lot, he is accordingly led by the liberal ideology to think that the only possible way to realize happiness is to place material welfare and individualism above all other goals.(34) In fact, given that the “ideology of needs” has become a tacit criterion of progress in liberalism, it is arguable that the material needs of modern anomic masses must always be “postponed,” since they can never be fully satisfied.(35) Moreover, each society which places excessive hopes in a salutary economy, will gradually come to view freedom as purely economic freedom and good as purely economic good. Thus, the “merchant civilization” (civilïzation marchande), as Polin calls it, must eventually become a hedonistic civilization in search of pleasure, and self-love. These points are similar to the views held by Julien Freund, who also sees in liberalism a society of impossible needs and insatiable desire. He remarks that “it appears that satiety and overabundance are not the same things as satisfaction, because they provoke new dissatisfaction.”(36) Instead of rationally solving all human needs, liberal society always triggers new ones, which in turn constantly create further needs. Everything happens, Freund continues, as if the well-fed needed more than those who live in indigence. In other words, abundance creates a different form of scarcity, as if man needs privation and indigence, “as if he needed some needs.”(37) One has almost the impression that liberal society purposely aims at provoking new needs, generally unpredictable, often bizarre. Freund concludes that “the more the rationalization of the means of production brings about an increase in the volume of accessible goods, the more the needs extend to the point of becoming irrational.”(38)

Such an argument implies that the dynamics of liberalism, continually begetting new and unpredictable needs, continually threatens the philosophical premises of that same rationalism on which liberal society has built its legitimacy. In this respect socialist theorists often sound convincing when they in effect argue that if liberalism has not been able to provide equality in affluence, communism does at least offer equality in frugality!

Conclusion: From Atomistic Society to Totalitarian System

The British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, once exclaimed: “if I could I would annex the planets!” A very Promethean idea, indeed, and quite worthy of Jack London’s rugged individuals or Balzac’s entrepreneurs – but can it really work in a world in which the old capitalist guard, as Schumpeter once pointed out, is becoming a vanishing species?(39)

It remains to be seen how liberalism will pursue its odyssey in a society in which those who are successful in the economic arena live side by side with those who lag behind in economic achievement, when its egalitarian principles prohibit the development of any moral system that would justify such hierarchical differences, such as sustained medieval European society. Aside from prophecies about the decline of the West, the truism remains that it is easier to create equality in economic frugality than equality in affluence. Socialist societies can point to a higher degree of equality in frugality. But liberal societies, especially in the last ten years, have constantly been bedevilled by an uneasy choice; on the one hand, their effort to expand the market, in order to create a more competitive economy, has almost invariably caused the marginalization of some social strata. On the other hand, their efforts to create more egalitarian conditions by means of the welfare state brings about, as a rule, sluggish economic performance and a menacing increase in governmental bureaucratic controls. As demonstrated earlier, liberal democracy sets out from the principles that the “neutral state” and free market are the best pillars against radical political ideologies, and that commerce, as Montesqieu once said, “softens up the mores.” Further, as a result of the liberal drive to extend markets on a world-wide basis, and consequently, to reduce or eliminate all forms of national protectionism, whether to the flow of merchandise, or of capital, or even of labor, the individual worker finds himself in an incomprehensible, rapidly changing international environment, quite different from the secure local society familiar to him since childhood.

This paradox of liberalism was very well described by a keen German observer, the philosopher Max Scheler, who had an opportunity to observe the liberal erratic development, first in Wilhelmian and then in Weimar Germany. He noted that liberalism is bound to create enemies, both on the right and the left side of the political spectrum: On the left it makes enemies of those who see in liberalism a travesty of the natural rights dogma, and on the right, of those who discern in it the menace to organic and traditional society. “Consequently,” writes Scheler, “a huge load of resentment appears in a society, such as ours, in which equal political and other rights, that is, the publicly acknowledged social equality, go hand in hand with large differences in real power, real property and real education. A society in which each has the “right” to compare himself to everybody, yet in which, in reality, he can compare himself to nobody.”(40) In traditional societies as Dumont has written, such types of reasoning could never develop to the same extent because the majority of people were solidly attached to their communal roots and the social status which their community bestowed upon them. India, for example, provides a case study of a country that has significantly preserved a measure of traditional civic community, at least in the smaller towns and villages, despite the adverse impact of its population explosion and the ongoing conflict there between socialism in government and liberalism in the growing industrial sector of the economy. By contrast, in the more highly industrialized West, one could almost argue that the survival of modern liberalism depends on its constant ability to “run ahead of itself” economically.

The need for constant and rapid economic expansion carries in itself the seeds of social and cultural dislocation, and it is this loss of “roots” that provides the seedbed for tempting radical ideologies. In fact how can unchecked growth ever appease the radical proponents of natural rights, whose standard response is that it is inadmissible for somebody to be a loser and somebody a winner? Faced with a constant expansion of the market, the alienated and uprooted individual in a society in which the chief standard of value has become material wealth, may be tempted to sacrifice freedom for economic security. It does not always appear convincing that liberal societies will always be able to sustain the “social contract” on which they depend for their survival by thrusting people into material interdependence. Economic gain may be a strong bond, but it does not have the affective emotional power for inducing willing self-sacrifice in times of adversity on which the old family-based nation-state could generally rely.

More likely, by placing individuals in purely economic interdependence on each other, and by destroying the more traditional bonds of kinship and national loyalty, modern liberalism may have succeeded in creating a stage where, in times of adversity, the economic individual will seek to outbid, outsmart, and outmaneuver all others, thereby preparing the way for the “terror of all against all,” and preparing the ground, once again, for the rise of new totalitarianisms. In other words, the spirit of totalitarianism is born when economic activity obscures all other realms of social existence, and when the “individual has ceased to be a father, a sportsman, a religious man, a friend, a reader, a righteous man – only to become an economic actor.”(41) By shrinking the spiritual arena and elevating the status of economic activities, liberalism in fact challenges its own principles of liberty, thus enormously facilitating the rise of totalitarian temptations. One could conclude that as long as economic values remained subordinate to non-economic ideals, the individual had at least some sense of security irrespective of the fact his life was often, economically speaking, more miserable. With the subsequent emergence of the anonymous market, governed by the equally anonymous invisible hand, in the anonymous society, as Hannah Arendt once put it, man has acquired a feeling of uprootedness and existential futility.(42) As pre-industrial and traditional societies demonstrate, poverty is not necessarily the motor behind revolutions. Revolution comes most readily to those in whom poverty is combined with a consciousness of lost identity and a feeling of existential insecurity. For this reason, the modern liberal economies of the West must constantly work to ensure that the economic miracle shall continue. As economic success has been made the ultimate moral value, and national loyalties have been spurned as out of date, economic problems automatically generate deep dissatisfaction amongst those confronted with poverty, who are then likely to fall prone to the sense of “alienation” on which all past Marxist socialist success has been based.

One must therefore not exclude the likelihood that modern liberal society may at some time in the future face serious difficulties should it fail to secure permanent economic growth, especially if, in addition, it relentlessly continues to atomize the family (discouraging marriage, for example, by means of tax systems which favors extreme individualism) and destroys all national units in favor of the emergence of a single world-wide international market, along with its inevitable concomitant, the “international man.” While any faltering of the world economy, already under pressure from the Third World population explosion, might conceivably lead to a resurgence of right wing totalitarianisms in some areas, it is much more likely that in an internationalized society the new totalitarianism of the future will come from the left, in the form of a resurgence of the “socialist experiment,” promising economic gain to a population that has been taught that economic values are the only values that matter. Precisely because the “workers of the world” will have come to see themselves as an alienated international proletariat, they will tend to lean toward international socialist totalitarianism, rather than other forms of extreme political ideology.


1. Michael Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980(Paris: New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p. 80.

2. François Perroux, Le capitalisme (Paris: PUF, 1960), p. 31.

3. Ernst Topitsch “Dialektik – politische Wunderwaffe?,”Die Grundlage des Spätmarxismus, edited by E. Topitsch, Rüdiger Proske, Hans Eysenck et al., (Stuttgart: Verlag Bonn Aktuell GMBH), p. 74.

4. Georges Sorel, Les illusions du progrès (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1947), p. 50.

5. François-Bernard Huyghe, La Soft-idéologie (Paris: Laffont, 1988). See also, Jean Baudrillard, La Gauche divine (Paris: Laffont, 1985). For an interesting polemics concerning the “treason of former socialists clerics who converted to liberalism,” see Guy Hocquenghem, Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary(Paris: Albin Michel, 1986).

6. Serge-Christophe Kolm. Le libéralisme moderne (Paris: PUF, 1984), p. 11.

7. Carl Schmitt, Die geistegeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlametatarismus (München and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1926), p. 23.

8. Kolm, op. cit., p. 96.

9. Karl Marx, Kritik des Gothaer Programms (Zürich: Ring Verlag A.G., 1934), p. 10.

10. Ibid. , p. 11.

11. Sanford Lakoff, “Christianity and Equality,” Equality,edited by J. Roland Pennock and J. W. Chapmann, (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), pp. 128-130.

12. David Thomson, Equality (Cambridge: University Press, 1949), p. 79. 13. Sorel, op. cit., p. 297.

14. Loc. cit.

15. Theodore von Sosnosky, Die rote Dreifältikeit(Einsiedeln: Verlaganstalt Benziger and Co., 1931).

16. cf. Raymond Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism(New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1969), p. 194 and passim.

17. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (München and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1932), p. 76 and passim.

18. Ibid. , p. 36.

19. Jürgen Habermas Technik and Wissenschaft als Ideologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968), p. 77.

20. Alain de Benoist, Die entscheidenden Jahre, “In der kaufmännisch-merkantilen Gesellschaftsform geht das Politische ein,”(Tübingen: Grabert Verlag, 1982), p. 34.

21. Julius Evola, “Procès de la bourgeoisie,” Essais politiques (Paris: edition Pardès, 1988), p. 212. First published in La vita italiana, ”Processo alla borghesia,” XXV1II, nr. 324 (March 1940): 259-268.

22. Werner Sombart, Der Bourgeois, cf. “Die heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”; (München and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker and Humblot, 1923), pp. 137-160.

23. Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx, The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), p.16.

24. Ibid., p. 59.

25. cf. L. Dumont, Essays on Individualism (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1986).

26. Emanuel Rackman, “Judaism and Equality;’ Equality,edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), p. 155.

27. Milton Konvitz, Judaism and the American Idea(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978). Also German jurist Georg Jellinek argues in Die Erklärung der Menschen-and Bürgerrechte (Leipzig: Duncker and Humbolt, 1904), p. 46, that “the idea to establish legally the unalienable, inherent, and sacred rights of individuals, is not of political but religious origin.”

28. John Schaar, “Equality of Opportunity and Beyond,” inEquality, op. cit. , 230.

29. Ibid., p. 236.

30. Ibid., p. 235.

31. Murray Milner, The Illusion of Equality (Washington and London: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1972), p. 10.

32. Antony Flew, The Politics of Procrustes (New York: Promethean Books, 1981), p. 111.

33. Milner, op. cit., p. 11.

34. Claude Polin, Le libéralisme, espoir ou péril (Paris: Table ronde, 1984), p. 211.

35. Ibid. p. 213.

36. Julien Freund, Politique, Impolitique (Paris: ed. Sirey, 1987), p. 336. Also in its entirety, “Théorie des besoins,” pp. 319-353.

37. Loc. cit.

38. Ibid., p. 336-337.

39. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 165 and passim.

40. Max Scheler, Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen (Abhandlungen and Aufsäzte) (Leipzig: Verlag der weissen Bücher, 1915), p. 58.

41. Claude Polin, Le totalitarisme (Paris: PUF, 1982), p.123. See also Guillaume Faye, Contre l’économisme(Paris: ed. le Labyrinthe, 1982).

42. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Book, 1958), p. 478.



Sunic, Tomislav. “Historical Dynamics of Liberalism: From Total Market to Total State.” Journal of Social, Political, & Economic Studies, Vol. 13 No 4 (Winter, 1988). < http://www.tomsunic.com/?p=235 >. (See this essay in PDF format here: Historical Dynamics of Liberalism).

Note: This essay was also republished in Tomislav Sunic’s Postmortem Report: Cultural Examinations from Postmodernity – Collected Essays (Shamley Green, UK: The Paligenesis Project, 2010).

This essay is also available in Spanish translation as “Dinámica histórica del Liberalismo: del mercado total al Estado total”, published in Sebastian J. Lorenz’s Elementos, N° 28, “Contra el Liberalismo: El Principal Enemigo” (Junio 2012), <http://urkultur-imperium-europa.blogspot.com/2012/06/elementos-n-28-contra-el-liberalismo-el.html/ >. (We have made Elementos N° 28 available for download on our site: Elementos Nº 28 – Contra el Liberalismo).


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