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Roots (or Rhizomes?) of ‘Rootedness’
Notes towards an intellectual history of the palingenetic right’s revolt against the disembedding processes of Western modernity
Roger Griffin, Oxford Brookes University
1 Apologetic preamble
1.1 Since I was invited to contribute to the conference programme at a late stage and at a time I have several publishing deadlines to meet, I cannot offer a fully fledged paper, but rather a little chick of one barely out of the egg. Unfortunately, the same commitments make it impossible for me to attend the conference in person. I will be represented by Matt Feldman, a postgraduate student at Oxford Brookes University who has run a series of workshops on cultural, ecological, and political aspects of globalization, published an article which adopts what might be called a ‘Chomskian’ perspective on globalization, and has some specialist knowledge of Heidegger’s stand on ‘modernity’. On the Friday AM session he will make a presentation of my embryonic paper followed by some observations of his own on the topic. All I can offer at this point in the proceedings is some notes towards a synoptic history, as far as I know yet to be written by any intellectual historian or historian of the ‘right’, of elements within the European tradition of anti-secularizing and anti-rationalist thought that can be seen as anticipating contemporary radical right anti-globalization arguments. Naturally I will pay special attention to the Conservative Revolution, and its deliberate use by the New Right in shoring up its ‘anti-Western’ stand. In this way I hope to contribute to preparing the ground for the Saturday afternoon session on ‘Anti- and counter-globalist tendencies among the extreme right’ and indirectly (or rather in absentia) to the general discussion.
1.2 The main thrust of my virtual paper is that contemporary arguments against globalization put forward by the extreme right concerning the erosion of cultural difference, the undermining of a sense of ‘home’, the progressive loss of identity, and the need for ‘roots’ are nothing new. Instead they can be seen as modern permutations or rationalizations of a long tradition in Western thought dating back at least to the 16th century which treated the rise of secular individualism and rationalism as a pernicious force undermining the very foundations of human existence. They were extensively rehearsed in the first part of the 20th century in a number of intellectual currents and individual cosmologies associated with the ‘revolt against positivism’ and rejection of the Enlightenment project. Moreover, some elements within the contemporary right consciously draw on one national current or cluster of thinkers associated with this ‘revolt’ known collectively as the Conservative Right in order to legitimise and articulate their stand against the West in its present cultural dispensation.
1.3 I contend that it is important to deconstruct the often impressively erudite and cogent discourse woven by some of the more intellectually creative ideologues of the New Right and Third Positionists by locating the contemporary strands of ‘anti-Western’ thought within their historical context. Once they are seen historically as the latest permutations of a long-term struggle for hegemony over the secular humanist tradition that has fed sustained episodes of anti-democratic politics, some of extreme ‘barbarity’ in Western history, it becomes easier to see through the veils of euphemism and detect the political agenda that is both underpinned and veiled by a scrupulously metapolitical discourse.
2 Methodological premises
2.1 My conceptual framework for investigating the roots of the cult of rootedness would be a synthesis of two basic components:
2.1.1 Theories of modernity and postmodernity that stress the way the growth of rationalization, secularisation, non-traditional knowledge, and the growth of an atomized ‘society’ tend naturally to generate a backlash in the form of a reassertion of the irrational, the metaphysical, traditional knowledge, and community (Turner). Ingredients for such a model would be taken from such ‘classic’ thinkers of the late 19th century (who themselves register a reaction against a secularising and homogenizing modernity) as Weber, Durkheim, Tönnies, and Sombart, and some modern theorists of modernity such as Marshal Berman, David Harvey, and Anthony Giddens (whose concept of the ‘disembedding’ force of modernity is particularly relevant to analyses of the metaphysical dimension of the anti-globalization movement as a whole).
2.1.2 Poststructuralist theories of cultural processes that warn against any attempt to create a seamless narrative out of history, cultural or otherwise, since it dramatizes, mythicizes and ideologizes the past instead of forensically investigating it. (The New Right and the radical right in general is particularly prone to weaving mythicizing narratives of historical and cultural processes in a spirit which is scientistic rather than scientific). In particular I would deploy the distinction created by Deleuze and Guatteri between the arborial (and strictly mythical) way of conceptualizing social processes that leads to the use of organic metaphors such as ‘roots’ and ‘decay’, and the rhizomic concept of them which allows them to be seen non-teleologically as full of contingency, discontinuity and diverse episodes of decay and rebirth which cannot be reduced to generalizations about the life of a single organism called ‘society’ or the ‘nation’.
2.2 Applying this distinction, it is important in the search for the roots of the New Right and Third Positionist to see examples of anti-rationalism in the past that are reminiscent (or rather premonitory) of contemporary strands of anti-globalization as parallel products of similar habitats of cultural/cosmological crisis occurring in very different ages, rather than postulating direct lines of influence of cause and effect. However, just as every original writer creates his own precursors (an insight taken from an essay on ‘Kafka’s precursors’ by Luis Borges), so every innovative form of thought tends to be concerned to legitimise itself by giving itself an intellectual ancestry. Thus, while it is particularly significant that the New Right and Third Position themselves legitimize their thinking by drawing on intellectual forebears in the past it would be misleading to take their own idea of their genealogy at face value, and important not to indulge in the sort of teleological intellectual history that produced the book published in 1941 with the title From Luther to Hitler (MacGovern).
2.3 In my ideal introduction to the opus I would thus be particularly concerned to warn the reader against the dangers of a certain type of intellectual history and philosophy of history that implies an organic lineage of currents of thought between a thinker such as Nietzsche and the New Right, or dramatizes the present as a Manichean struggle between two spiritual principles (the Enlightenment versus the Radical Right) that operate as arch-enemies deciding the fate of the world: the examples of Spengler, Rosenberg, Evola, and Hutchinson (The Clash of Civilizations) are clear warnings against undertaking such an exercise. The very idea of the ‘roots of the right’ (the name of book series edited by George Steiner) is thus suspect
2.4 But in a less arborial and more rhizomic sense it is possible to establish that there have been debates within the Western culture that anticipate or prefigure the present radical right attacks on globalization and on which some of its present ideologues consciously draw. If I were to read a major monograph or PhD on the topic of ‘the history of anti-globalization in Western thought’ I would expect to see reference to a number of thinkers or episodes in intellectual history treated not as unbroken teleological tradition of thought leading to the contemporary New Right, but as symptomatic of a long tradition of reactions against the prospect of a homogenized, rationalized world order.
3 Pre-precursors of anti-globalization
The High Renaissance sense of a loss of roots
3.1.1 Were my virtual, anti-arborial history of the precursors of anti-globalization and ‘anti-modernity’ to be comprehensive enough it would be worth spending a chapter on the tension that already existed within Renaissance and Early Modern thought between the ‘disenchanting’, secularising, universalising, and anti-traditional thrust of humanism and the backlash against this manifested in the rise of overtly irrationalist forms of magical, mystical and occultist thinking that sought to retain an anchorage in Tradition. Paracelsus embodies the backlash against the rise of reductionist science. Both these traditions could be accommodated within the same individual, as a study of Copernicus and Newton demonstrate (Koestler).
3.1.2 There would also be a case to be made, albeit speculative, for considering the role played as a causal factor in the Reformation, the Religious Wars, and the witch-hunting mania of the late Renaissance by a deep psychological and eventually pathological drive to preserve a traditional sense of metaphysical hierarchy, identity and roots against a theological and secular revolution that threatened to shatter the experiential wholeness of the world. The Church’s stand against the Copernican theory of the solar system (dramatized by Brecht in The Life of Galileo Galilei) can be seen as a stand against the de-centring, disembedding implications for the experiential universe of a non earth-centred and hence no longer anthropocentric world view. This stand adumbrates aspects of the contemporary radical right’s rejection of globalization (and certainly some of the themes of Heidegger’s ‘anti-modernity), even if ironically some sectors of it have recourse to an anti-Judeo-Christian neo-paganism to articulate their quest for primordial sources of identity (Koestler).
18th century precursors
3.2 The anti-teleological evocation of precursors to the current rightist revolt against globalization would move onto firmer ground in considering the backlash against the more rationalistic and mechanist aspects of the 18th century Enlightenment. Figures such as William Blake, Goethe, Rousseau, and Herder, are important in this context, the last three of which were also products of Enlightenment humanism. Herder’s concept of the Volksgeist is particularly interesting since it upholds the principle that each national spirit is equally valuable and is expressed in a people’s language, art, traditions, religion and culture with no suggestion of a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. This can be seen as a forerunner of the New Right’s stress on identity and its differentialist bid to preserve cultural bio-diversity.
3.3 Early and mid-19th century precursors
3.3.1 Another episode worth exploring in this context is the extreme conservative rejection of the French Revolution by De Maistre and De Bonald who upheld the need for roots, tradition, hierarchy in a discourse that portrayed the Enlightenment as an essentially nihilistic movements shredding the fabric of human existence and destroying its social and spiritual foundations.
3.3.2 Particular attention in this gargantuan panoramic survey would be paid to nineteenth century ‘Romantics’ who rebelled against what they experienced as the spiritual consequences of rationalization and ‘progress’, namely disenchantment and anomie. Figures who come to mind are Chateaubriand, a very right-wing Romantic, Fichte, a Romantic philosopher who combined a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism with an extreme ‘metapolitical’ German nationalism; and two left-wing artists close to Romanticism, Büchner and Heine, both of whom had a powerful sense of the vacuousness of rationalism and of the way experientially history was decaying into chaos, meaninglessness, fragmentation, and spiritual vacuousness. A key figure here would be Baudelaire, who was one of the first to register the disruptive impact on the cosmological experience of wholeness caused by modernity and in 1851 uttered the dire warning about the rise of progress made in America’s image (in Fusées, cited in Fromm: NB Harvey, Part I).
We shall perish by the every thing by which we fancy that we live. Technocracy will Americanize us, progress will starve our spirituality so far that nothing of the bloodthirsty, frivolous or unnatural dreams of the utopian will be comparable to those positive facts.
3.4 The fin-de-siècle’s stand against ‘globalizing’ forces
A number of cultural forces at work in the fin-de-siècle represent rejections of the Enlightenment project, some of them directed against the universality of reason, individualism, and human rights and towards a reassertion of cultural roots, community, and difference (and some of them emanating from the ‘left’, e.g. William Morris in Britain and Thoreau in the USA). Indeed, the core idea of the age of ‘decadence’ is that the world of technological progress and economic development represented a spiritual death. It would be important to dwell on the sociological theories of Durkheim (theory of anomie and mechanical solidarity), Weber (theory of rationalization and disenchantment), and Tönnies (theory of society/community) in this context to show how the founding fathers of modern sociology were exploring themes that have considerable bearing on contemporary New Right analyses of modernity. The main areas to be considered would be:
3.4.1 The ideologues of a conservative, radical right nationalism who see culture and history as the basic source of meaning and purpose in the modern age. Pride of place would go to Barrès (Sternhell), who is particularly important for the clarity with which he communicates an organic vision of the nation and stresses the role played by ‘roots’.
3.4.2 The growth of politicized racism and anti-Semitism (NB Pulzer) against the background of a generalized ‘revolt against positivism’ as embodied in figures such as Drumont and Maurras in France, and Langbehn, Lagarde, and Fritsch in Germany, not to mention a host of völkisch thinkers in Germany and elsewhere, all of whom in their own way stress the need for rootedness. G. L. Mosse’s work, Crisis of German Ideology and Fritz Stern’s on ‘The Politics of Cultural Despair’ are relevant here (Stern) as well as the work of Sternhell on ‘the revolutionary right’.
3.4.3 The ‘invention’ of national traditions and the discovery of cultural and linguistic heritages in various national cultures (cult of myth and roots: voelkisch thought; Eurasianism; the discovery of Finnishness; the Celtic revival; the intensification Slav patriotisms and of religious/racial hatreds histories, the invention of Zionism (Hobsbawm).
3.4.4 The occult revival associated with Madam Blavatsky theosophy, which was fused with anti-Semitism to produce Ariosophy and thereby had a limited impact on the genesis of Nazism (Goodrick-Clarke).
3.4.5 The rejection of liberal/ American materialism/ technocracy/ money: in the analyses of cultural analysts such as Spengler, Sombart etc and in modernist ‘neo-Romantic’ writers such as Rilke, Hölderlin, Hoffmansthal, Musil (NB Bradbury).
3.4.6 A number of cultural giants who in contrasting ways legitimise a radical rejection of the hegemonic forms of Western modernity in the name of some form of spiritual rebirth and renaissance of myth/religion: notably Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Wagner, D’Annunzio, but above all Nietzsche, whose equation of liberalism with nihilism and progress with decadence was extremely influential because it captured a general mood of disenchantment (Hughes).
4 The ‘Conservative Revolution’ in Weimar Germany
After this extensive preamble, the epic virtual history of the roots of the New Right would then move on (probably in volume 2!!) to its main subject, the emergence in Weimar Germany of a powerful intellectual current, or rather a cluster (and certainly not a monocentric, formal ‘movement’) of numerous highly individual writers, who in their different ways attack the ethos of liberal humanism and material progress in the name of values associated with ‘re-embedding’ human reality and who have assumed renewed significance in the context of metapolitical antiglobalization.
4.1 It would be stressed that the sense of ‘crisis of civilization’ in the inter-ar period was generalized in Europe (turning The Decline of the West into a bestseller) and not the monopoly of any one country. T. S. Eliot, D. H Lawrence, Hamsun, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, H. G. Wells, Svevo and a host of other writers register this crisis and respond to it by asserting different solutions, even if it just the celebration of lucidity about the absence of solutions.
4.2 I would then dwell on the particular configuration of the spiritual crisis in Weimar Germany, with particular reference made to Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. The extended interpolated essay ‘The Decay of Values’ in the novel is a revealing commentary on the progressive collapse of meaning and a sense of centre, written by a (very metaphysically inclined) liberal humanist rather than a right winger. It powerfully evokes the generalized longing of the average German citizen by 1930 for a leader:
to take him tenderly and lightly by the hand, to set things in order and show him the way;... the Leader who will build the house anew that the dead may come to life again; ... the Healer who by his actions will give meaning to the incomprehensible events of the Age, so that Time can begin again
4.3 The rise of Nazism would then be briefly presented as a radical solution to the sense-making crisis which became pandemic in Germany after the Wall Street Crash, a solution that on an anthropological level expressed a mass urge to restore a sense of home, centre, order, and symbolically renew time itself. It was in this context that the Jew became the embodiment of everything that could perceived as a solvent of centredness and home (money, cosmopolitanness, rootlessness, international capitalism and Marxism, outsiderdom, lack of creativity etc.).
4.4 Attention would be brought to the fact that the term ‘conservative revolution’ was actually used to describe Nazism by one of its former converts, Hermann Rauschning. In an important passage written in 1941 he explains that, though he came to see Nazism itself as nihilistic, he had first been attracted to it since it seemed to present an antidote to the nihilism that at the time he identified (in true Nietzschean fashion) with liberalism and humanism. In Rauschning’s own words:
Ten years ago, things were seen in a different connexion. National Socialism, or rather, that which we associated with it, that which we meant to make it, seemed to us to be a possible instrument of that counter-movement, perhaps actually its political form. The things, on the contrary, which to our opponents stood for the essence of human history, for ‘progress’, for ‘enlightenment’, for ‘human liberation’ from bondage to nature, tradition, and prejudices, seemed to us to be phases of that progressive nihilism. (Rauschning, 52)
4.5 My (increasingly ambitious and unrealisable) magnum opus would then devote an entire section to evoke the way Armin Mohler created an elaborate ideal type of a particular current of cultural anti-globalization with his doctorate supervised by Professors Schmalenbach and Jaspers and submitted in 1949 in Basel, and that appeared a year as Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918-1932(Mohler). The doctorate consisted of an extended essay identifying the main themes of ‘the Conservative Revolution’ followed by a ‘bibliographie raisonnée’ of hundreds of writers and intellectuals whose works articulated a deep rejection of the Weimar Republic and of hegemonic Western values (liberalism, rationalism, democracy, materialism, progress etc.). The outstanding features of his ideal type are:
4.5.1 Mohler focuses exclusively on the non-Nazi protagonists of an anti-liberal revolution, whom he describes as the ‘Trotskyites’ of the Conservative Revolution, even though they include a number of figures who were deeply embroiled in Nazism, even if only temporarily, such as Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Gottfried Benn.
4.5.2 He acknowledges Rauschning’s application of the term to Nazism but invokes instead Hoffmannsthal’s use of it in 1927 in an essay called ‘Literature as the spiritual space of the nation’ that identifies two basic drives that lie at its heart: the quest for attachment/roots (‘Bindung’), that prevails over the search for freedom, and the quest for wholeness, that attempts to transcend all division and fragmentation.
4.5.3 He then enriches its connotations by associating it with the ‘German Movement’, one part of a general reaction against French rationalism and English empiricism that evokes the names Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Chesterton, Sorel and Barrès (21-4) in its wider European context. The German Movement/Conservative Revolution are presented as a struggle against the ideas of the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment, whose main thrust is to resist the imposition from outside of ‘Überfremdung’ (23-4), (the process whereby a foreign culture is superimposed on an original one), and hence to attempt to ‘win back a Germanness that has been buried for decades or centuries’. He specifically claims that the German variant of the CR has its ‘roots’ in Herder and the German Romantics (the marks of organic/arborial and hence scientistic thinking about intellectual history pervade Mohler’s work, despite his claims that it is a scientific rather than a speculative work on pp. 9, 211). The high degree of wilful homogenisation of distinctive intellectuals into a single ideal type (Nietzsche, for example was profoundly anti-nationalistic) is carried out with a conspicuous lack of methodological self-awareness. This is consistent with the narrative and mythopoeic rather than heuristic function of his inquiry which is anti-Enlightenment in ethos and breaks the ground-rules of Popperian scholarship in a way typical of the radical right, which is bent on generating life-enhancing values and an alternative meaning–giving ‘world-view’ rather than academic knowledge.
4.5.4 Incidentally, Mohler lays claim to a special German dimension to the international revolt against positivism by suggesting that there are various national permutations of nihilism (French, Russian etc). He sees the German one as an essentially creative one that associates radical destruction with the organic process of renewal and reconstruction (122-9), a point that presumably that protagonists of a Conservative Revolution in France, Russia and Belgium would dispute! The assumption that there are organic national traditions producing different types of nihilism again reveals the way in Mohler’s ideological thinking a mythicising scientism prevails over demystifying science.
4.5.5 A key theme of Mohler’s book is that the CR rejects non-linear time for a cyclic or spherical theory that makes it conceivable that there can be a sudden ‘Umschlag’ (pp. 106-141). By this is meant a dramatic reversion to an earlier set of values which are not ‘restored’ but assume a new expression appropriate to the new historical context: hence it is a revolution that conserves eternal values, or what Moeller van den Bruck calls ‘eine Wiederanknüpfung nach vorwärts’, ‘a reattachment with forwards’. In this process the nihilism of the modern age (identified with materialism, cosmopolitanism, the loss of roots and attachment, the breakdown of community etc) is finally and dramatically transcended by a new age of organic cultural health (it is the hopes for this that Rauschning projected onto Nazism before he became disillusioned).
4.5.6 A major point in Mohler’s thesis is that since the healthy form of German Movement was crushed by the Third Reich and that the chance to realize its objectives immediately disappeared (presumably with the Allied victory in 1945), we now live in an indefinite interregnum. ‘The world-view that was valid till now has collapsed and a new one valid enough to replace it and create allegiance is not yet discernible’. We now live in an age of secularisation, fragmentation dominated by individualism, materialism, pluralism, and linear time. It is significant that Mohler does not date the beginning of the interregnum from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933: by implication he was responsible for the ‘wrong’ version of a ‘healthy’ German revolution, nor does the text register any sense of horror at then human consequences of Nazism’s attempts to create a healthy ‘national community’ based on ‘roots’, ‘attachment’ and spiritual rebirth (Mohler has a whlole section on ‘rebirths’).
4.5.7 Mohler concludes (in 1950) by arguing that it is in the ideas of the Conservative Revolution that the seeds of radical solutions to the contemporary nihilism are to be found, even though the association of CR thinking with Nazism make it impossible for this to be recognized by more than a tiny elite at present. (For a taste of Mohler’s thesis see Appendix 2)
4.5.8 Despite such misgivings about Mohler’s analysis of the Conservative Revolution as an academic thesis, his vast bibliography does testify to the extraordinarily rich habitat created by Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany for literary and intellectual production that in a vast number of contrasting ways called into question the fundamental premises of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment project, and asserted the need for a metaphysical, meta-political revolution (what Nietzsche called a ‘transvaluation of values’) that would put and end to ‘nihilism’ restore a sense of roots and meaning. In particular his work is a crucial document for understanding the process by which the ‘revolt against nihilism’ has become ‘the revolt against globalization’.