Alain de Benoist’s Vivid Memory
F. Roger Devlin
Part 2: An Agitated Youth
Part 2 of 3
Alain de Benoist
Mémoire vive: entretiens avec François Bousquet
Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2012
When Benoist was a teenager, his father purchased a small country house to the west of Paris. Here he began to spend part of his summer vacations and most of his weekends in the company of a group of boys and girls his own age. One of the girls in the band had a father who was a journalist and author. This fascinated the young Benoist, and he determined to make the man’s acquaintance.
The man was Henry Coston, a longtime anti-Jewish polemicist and, under the occupation, an enthusiastic collaborator. The young Benoist knew none of this, being mainly interested to meet a man who lived by his pen. Coston described himself as an author of books on “big money,” and gave Benoist one of his works, entitled The Financiers Who Run the World.
In the summer of 1960, when Benoist was sixteen years old, Coston invited him to contribute to a large reference work he was compiling on French political parties and movements. Benoist wrote several articles, including the one on Action Française, signing them “Cédric de Gentissard.” By Christmas, he was a published author.
“The youth at that time was incredibly politicized,” Benoist recalls. “At the lycée Louis-le-Grand, half my fellow pupils belonged to a political party (not so today for even one percent of high school and university students). Most were socialists or communists.”
Perceiving that Benoist was still searching politically, Coston recommended he get in touch with the Jeune Nation movement and its student branch, the Fédération des étudiants nationalistes (FEN). When he arrived at Jeune Nation’s headquarters, a young woman said to him “you want to be a militant, my friend? Start by sweeping this floor!” Benoist conscientiously fulfilled the task; she took his information and said “you will be contacted.”
From 1961 to the end of 1966, [recalls Benoist,] I passed a total of six years on the extreme right. It was a short time, really, but undeniably marked me for life, both because of the political situation—the end of a world—and because of my age: there is always a part of our adolescence we do not survive.
The FEN maintained at least forty chapters in all the important university towns of France. They held semiannual meetings for chapter leaders in Paris, as well as summer camps for the general membership, which were a mixture of sporting activities and political training. Benoist was employed mainly in writing and editing various newsletters: “I often slept on an inflatable mattress I kept under my desk, in order to resume work the more quickly the next day.”
The FEN’s official goal was to fight against the ”marxification” of the university, and it also supported French Algeria. Members distributed tracts, put up posters, staged public meetings and demonstrations, and (not least) got into fistfights with political opponents of their own age.
I loved the electric atmosphere of the demonstrations, the movements of the crowd, the way in which slogans and cries spread, the confrontations with the police, the smell of teargas. In February 1961, during a demonstration in place de l’Etoile, I was arrested and remanded in custody. My mother, who had come to take me home, was picked up too!
We used to tour all the local chapters of FEN, criss-crossing France in a little car stuffed with tracts and propaganda material. We usually slept in the woods, in sleeping bags, or simply in ditches beside the road, under the open sky.
[Once] we went to brush slogans in tar on various buildings in Chartes—including the cathedral. Each group was assigned a driver with a getaway car. When my group went to our car, we found it had disappeared: the driver had chickened out. We were arrested by the police. Although covered in tar, we energetically denied the evidence; we ended up paying a heavy fine.
Meanwhile, Benoist continued his studies.
Philosophy class had a capital importance for me, for I had a feeling of finally being at home. Although up to that time I had had a purely literary and artistic education, the discovery of the great systems of philosophical thought found in me a prepared heart. It seemed to me that I already had an essentially philosophical spirit without knowing it. I learned the history of philosophy at a great pace, discovering Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Bergson, Sartre. . . .
This brought me not so much a way of understanding the world, nor of changing it, but of interpreting it. The world ceased to be a pure given, neutral, something à propos of which agreement could immediately be reached. Henceforth it existed as something which could gain access to the human understanding only through a meaning attributed to it—which, of course, posed the problem of the criteria of such appreciation. At least, that is how I understood philosophy, as an interpretive key.
It was thanks to philosophy that I realized the need to have a Weltanschauung, a global conception of the world. Without such a conception, things had no meaning. [I don’t mean] an a priori conception, which seeks willy-nilly to fit the real to some sort of Procrustean bed, but one formed on the basis of observation of the world and a systematic interpretation of what is observed.
Benoist matriculated at the Sorbonne in the department of law, following a curriculum in general philosophy, history of religion, ethics and sociology. Yet he refused to sit his exams; obtaining degrees was looked upon as “collaboration with the regime” in his circle of political militants! As a result, Benoist was ineligible for advanced studies later; to this day, he holds no academic degree.
In 1963 Benoist began writing for Dominique Venner’s new monthly, Europe-Action. The magazine had little in common with traditional throne-and-altar traditionalism; it promoted “first, the idea of European nationalism; second, an explicit anti-Christianity; third, a biologizing interpretation of society, implying both ‘biological materialism’ and racism (delicately renamed ‘biological realism’).” Benoist estimates that Europe-Action attained a circulation of approximately 15,000.
He began to travel a lot, becoming a sort of foreign correspondent for the publications with which he was involved.
In each country, I scoured the bookstores and went to see the most diverse political parties and movements. In London, I visited both the Anglo-Rhodesian Society and the African National Congress. In New York, I met Thomas Molnar and Ralph de Toledano. The next day, I went to Harlem to make purchases at the Black Muslim bookstore. In Washington I went to visit the Democrats as well as the Republicans, and then the Nazi party, based in Arlington, VA. In Mississippi, I attended a grotesque nocturnal ceremony of the Ku Klux Klan, where even the grandmothers and babies were decked out in white hoods.
Meanwhile, the movement was changing character. Many of the militants began to devote their efforts to electoral politics. They formed a National Movement of Progress in 1966, but its electoral performance was dismal. Another faction, with which Benoist identified, preferred to move in the direction of what in America would be called a “think tank”: “I proposed to dissolve the FEN and replace it with an Institute of Doctrinal Studies, which was rejected. If one is determined to seek the origins of the ‘New Right,’ then this is the turning point to which one must refer.”
Asked by the interviewer whether in retrospect he sees his years of militancy as a waste of time, Benoist strongly denies it:
Militancy is a school, one of the best there is. It is a school of discipline and deportment, of exaltation and enthusiasm, a school of self-sacrifice. It’s also a crucible of friendship like few others: being militants together creates a bond which endures across time and, sometimes, triumphs over anything else. You have many illusions, believing your impact will be increased in the same proportion as you mobilize yourself completely, but you [also] get the feeling of giving a meaning to your existence.
All this being said, it is a school one must know how to leave. Nothing is more ridiculous than those old militants who keep trotting out the same slogans for decades. The militant is not only someone who gives of himself completely; he is also a partisan in the worst sense of the term. He repeats a catechism; he refers to a collective “we” which relieves him of all personal thought. The “good militant” is a true believer who prefers answers to questions, because he requires certainties. And like all believers, he puts aside all critical spirit and glories in his sectarianism.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World & Me
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The de la Poer Madness: Before and After Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls”
“He Doesn’t Worry Too Much If Mediocre People Get Killed in Wars and Such” Tito Perdue’s The Smut Book & Cynosura