On French Politics, Populism, Trump, Hungary, & Being a Right-wing IntellectualAlain de Benoist
Translated by Garrett Deasy
The following is an interview with Alain de Benoist that was published by the Hungarian magazine Mandiner on November 4, 2017. It was translated from the original French.
1. During the last few years, we have seen – with Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, but also in the powerful display of anti-globalist forces in a number of Western countries – a certain renewal of the nationalist, identitarian idea. What view do you take of these events?
A cautious view. The renewal of the nationalist idea, or “identity,” that we talk about is much vaster than the populist force which works for us today in all the Western countries. You could say that populism is the only truly new political phenomenon of the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. Certainly, the word is still ambiguous in public discourse; it is used in a polemical way to mean anything and everything. But it is perfectly possible to give a more rigorous definition. It is precisely to understand this more clearly that I recently published a book entitled The Populist Moment.
Populism is a way of articulating political and social demands that, from the start, and with an anti-hegemonic perspective, stands up against the elites (political, financial, and the media), which is considered as an oligarchy cut off from the people, and which is only preoccupied with its own interests. One sees how populism substitutes itself for the old Left/Right divide, which is a horizontal and a vertical divide: those beneath versus those above. I will add that populism is not an ideology (since it can be reconciled with practically any ideology), but is above all a style.
The causes of this phenomenon are well known: the obsolescence of the Left/Right divide due to a “recentering,” and of the offers of the old “government parties,” a crisis of defiance toward a dominant political class that is increasingly “transnational” and de-territorialized, the harmful effects of globalization and mass immigration of which the working classes are the first victims, a a crisis of relations, a loss of meaning, and a standoff between the “peripheries” and the globalized cities, and so on.
2. Under Macron, “the reservoir of protest will become explosive,” you recently wrote. What consequences can the increasingly tense conflict between the urbanized globalist elite and “the people” bring about?
More than “conflict,” one should in fact speak of a pit. An immense pit is being dug (and won’t stop expanding) between the majority of the people and the political class that governs them. In a country like France, this pit also has a geographic value: it pits those on the peripheries against those in the big cities, who are the only ones who profit from globalization. The working class, whom the middle classes want to push further away, suffers the full force of a triple exclusion: political, social, and cultural. In this way, defiance becomes anger, and this is how the “reservoir of protest” has every chance of becoming explosive. The rise of structural (rather than cyclical) unemployment, the politics of austerity, the consequences of the hasty creation of a single currency, the aggravation of insecurity, the school crisis: all of these exacerbate the situation.
3. The presidential elections shook the French Right. Les Républicains sought to rebuild after their collapse, while the Front National, torn by an internal crisis, is looking for an ideological path that will be capable of gaining the voters’ trust. How do you judge the situation of these parties?
The last presidential election was truly historic. For the first time since these elections have taken place, we witnessed the rise to power of a man who was practicality unknown two years before, and who received only twenty-four percent of the vote in the first round – without representing a previously existing party. It is also the first presidential election in which the two finalists in the second round, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, had such unusual platforms that they could not be defined according to a Left/Right distinction.
For these reasons, the election of Macron has caused a total recomposition of the political landscape. The big losers were the old parties, who had taken turns governing for decades. Today, the Socialist Party is nothing more than a field of ruins. The Communist Party has almost disappeared. Macron launched a “counter-populist” movement that reunites the liberals of the Left and the liberals of the Right. To the Left, France only accepts Jean-Luc Mélanchon, who is considered to represent a sort of “Leftist populism,” and who has played his cards right. To the Right, Les Republicains are more divided than ever between the conservatives and the liberals. As for the Front National, it is in exactly the situation you describe.
Emmanuel Macron’s objective is to count on a big centrist group that will not oppose him, like the “extremes” of the two sides do. But I am no longer sure that he is succeeding. In the space of a few months, his popularity has dropped enormously. Despite his parliamentary majority, his electoral base remains very fragile. In trying to please everyone, he immediately began deceiving everyone, especially the working classes, about whom he cares nothing and to whom he has said nothing concrete. For now, it is necessary to wait for the current recomposition to finish, which will require one to two years, or less. On the Right, the future is particularly uncertain. Many dream of a grand conservative party that will take over from the Front National and the Right wing of Les Republicans, but it is impossible to tell how this would emerge in the short term.
4. “The Right already doesn’t care for intellectuals very much . . . it is ideologically disorganized,” you stated after the elections. You believe that people on the Right ceded too much territory to the Left. Previously, the French Right leaned on a philosophical tradition and extremely rich literature, marked by great authors such as Joseph de Maistre, Léon Bloy, Charles Maurras, Georges Bernanos – and one could go on. How did this “dis-intellectualization” of the Right come about?
We have to be conscious of the fact that “the Right” never existed. There have only ever been Rights (in the plural) in history and in different directions. Maistre, Bloy, and Maurras, whose names we cite, have been above all representatives of the counter-revolutionary Right, traditionalist, and “reactionary.” But we also have to count the “Bonapartiste” Right, in the space in which Gaullism stood, and with the “Orléanist” Right, which is to say the liberal Right, which is generally hated by the other two. Every time we tried to make a lasting fusion of these three Rights, it failed completely. And things are still complicated by the rallying of the bigger party of the Left on the model of the market society and the ideology of individual rights.
The “de-intellectualization” of the Right clearly fits into a general decline in the level of political thought, but it also has its own characteristics. People of the Right were always more reactive and more reflexive. They understand far less than the Left the necessity of intellectual points of reference, of a body of theory, of a conception of the world. In this space, a lot of them stick to religious convictions in a world that is getting precisely less and less religious. The intellectuals are sometimes considered handlers of hollow concepts who retreat into abstractions, preferring the ethic of conviction to the ethic of responsibility (Max Weber), and ultimately have no sense of reality. This rebuke surely contains a bit of truth, but it does not resolve the question. In the political world, it is still something else. Parties generally don’t like ideas, because ideas divide in that they seek the opposite of reconciliation. What’s more, their leaders have practically no culture in terms of political philosophy. That’s the reason why, without even realizing it, they either adopt the ideas of their enemies, or think it’s clever not to oppose them.
5. How can or should an intellectual of the Right act in a world increasingly open to progressive ideas? Dominique Venner’s fate shows that a certain feeling of despair can lead to tragic consequences.
It is not at all disastrous that Dominique Venner committed suicide under the conditions of which you are aware. What he most wanted has been realized: to give an example of what he called “comportment,” in choosing a way to end things according to what he considered to be a deep conformity with his style, and the idea that he was doing it for himself. But this did not stop him from saying in his writings, up until the last moment, that he was fully confident in the capacity of Europe to awaken from its “slumber.” How can an intellectual of the Right act in the world? Like all intellectuals, I suppose: by trying to understand, and understanding, the world in which we live, and by reflecting, writing, publishing books and articles, contributing to journals, by participating in the greatest possible number of debates, and so forth. This is what I have done myself for more than half a century, without illusions about the influence that theoretical ideas exert today, but also without believing that this is all useless. Ideas walk in silence, and one is sometimes surprised to discover their consequences!
6. “I feel more to the Left than Manuel Valls,” you stated in response to the attack on the former Prime Minister. You believe that the traditional Left/Right divide is no longer valuable (at first, you declined to embrace the term “New Right”), and you entered into a discussion with a number of anti-liberal thinkers of the Left. How can this dialogue and cooperation enrich the movement against the dominant ideology?
The Left/Right divide became useless, not only in the intellectual field, but also for understanding the great events of our time. All of these big events created new divides of a transversal type. It is this evolution that enables debate; indeed, the reconciliation between the people who were able to take very different paths. The evolution of certain authors like Régis Debray, Jacques Julliard, Michel Onfray, Alain Finkielkraut, Serge Latouche, and so on is quite significant in this regard. Certainly, the borders always exist, but they are displaced.
7. Pope Francis and his approach to modernization is being applauded by progressive circles. You have taken a critical stance regarding the Catholic Church. What do you think of its current evolution?
I am sympathetic to the way in which Pope Francis has taken a vigorous position in certain social and political domains. I especially appreciate his critique of the logic of profit, his condemnation of liberal capitalism, and his perspective on ecology. I am in total disagreement with his take on the migrants, which seems to me to promote a utopian altruism so devastating it can never be reversed. Demonstrating a charitable soul is certainly necessary for a sitting Pope. But one is no longer in the realm of charity when he demands that others relinquish their own identity for the benefit of others, and to open their borders as if there were no one on Earth but “citizens of the world.” In affirming that “individual security is more important than national security,” it seems to me that the Pope is disregarding the notion of the common good, which is a shame.
Many Catholics and Christians are clearly upset with these statements, and I understand their displeasure. But we should also admit that Christianity is by definition a universalist religion. To believe in one God implies a belief that “all men are brothers.” This should not a priori prevent respect for specific cultures and ways of life, but one knows well what sense this universalism can introduce. When the majority of believers are in the Third World, it will be increasingly difficult for the Church to support identitarian solutions.
8. Chantal Delsol, the great Catholic philosopher, has declared that the terms liberal-conservative complement each other perfectly. On the other hand, you find that liberalism is inherently progressive, and – due to its socially atomistic view – forcibly provokes the annihilation of traditions. Three years ago, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used very similar arguments to call liberal democracy into question by declaring that his administration wants to create an illiberal state. Does liberal thought have no place in the ideological basis of the New Right?
When we talk about liberalism, we always risk descending into equivocation, since the word can mean different things. For nineteenth-century Catholics, liberalism was above all condemned for its “relativism.” Today, many on the Right only want “freedom of enterprise,” thus equating, falsely in my view, liberalism and liberty.
Chantal Delsol, whom I appreciate for her other writings, thinks it is possible to adopt positions which are “liberal-conservative.” This is not the case with me, for the simple reason that conservatism, in the best sense of the term, is in my eyes irreconcilable with the anthropology that is at the foundation of the liberal ideology. By this I mean the conception that considers man an egoistic and pre-social being, where the most rational tendency is to permanently seek to rationally maximize his personal, private interests. Moreover, liberalism is historically linked to the ideology of progress, which implies a depreciation of the past in principle, to which no consistent conservative can subscribe. From this point of view, which I have long developed in my writings, there is effectively no place in my thoughts for liberalism.
9. Do you follow political events in Hungary? What do you think of the policies of Orbán’s government, especially his migrant policy, which has been largely criticized by the political elites and European intellectuals?
I’m far from having a perfect understanding of what goes on in Hungary, but the example of Viktor Orbán seems really interesting to me, and I follow his initiatives with a great deal of attention and sympathy. In his criticism of the suicidal migration policy that has been adopted against the will of the people by the Brussels institutions, which he courageously chose to resist, Viktor Orbán shows that he is putting the needs of his people above all. He knows that he was elected by the Hungarians to defend Hungary, its identity, and its security, and not to implement the destructive Western ideology we are attempting to impose on them. As for the concept of “illiberal democracy,” which I also find highly interesting, it has by all evidence deepened. From the 1920s, Carl Schmitt had already shown what separates democracy and liberalism. The principle of liberalism is the liberty of the individual. The principle of democracy is the equality of citizens. Schmitt went so far as to say that a democracy is all the more democratic if it is less liberal!
10. Orbán has stated many times that it was necessary to defend the nation-state against Brussels. Meanwhile, Macron proposes to increase European cooperation. What do you think about the future of European unification, and how do you define European identity?
I’m not opposed to the principle of Europe, but I’m totally opposed to the way the unification of Europe happened and the way that it currently functions. From the beginning, things were done without regard for common sense. We prioritized commerce and the economy over politics and culture. The people were never involved in the construction of Europe (and when they expressed a different opinion, they were ignored). Instead of working for the creation of a European power, which is to say an autonomous entity capable of serving as a pole of regulation in a multipolar world, we stuck to a European market which has never even taken pains to secure its borders (hence the bizarre idea of including Turkey). Instead of making decisions from the bottom up, according to the principle of subsidiarity, we have allowed the unelected members of the European Commission to decide everything by themselves. We divested the member states of their sovereignty (political, economic, financial, budgetary, etc.) without allowing this sovereignty to be restored at a higher level. The result is that the Europe of Brussels is both powerless and paralyzed vis-à-vis everything positive that it could do, while its bureaucracy, completely stripped of legitimacy, deploys greater efforts to weaken those counties that oppose its plans.
Otherwise, I pay a lot of attention to connections which in this context unite the Central European countries of the Visegrád Group. This rearrangement seems to me to carry some hope. Historically speaking, it is necessary to consider the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose influence is far from disappearing. Whatever the countries of the Visegrád Group can somehow do inside the European Union to counterbalance the power of the countries of Western Europe seems to me to be an excellent thing. This further shows that European identity is not one-dimensional, but that it is comprised of large zones of culture and civilization that bear witness to its bountiful diversity.
11. Despite your ideological differences, you were close to Thomas Molnar. How do you remember him?
I was a friend of Thomas Molnar’s from the early 1960s until his death. I say this to point out how closely we were connected. During these years, I corresponded with him a great deal, which I hope will be published one day. In 1986, we also published a book of debates on religious and spiritual questions entitled The Eclipse of the Sacred, which was translated into Italian some years later. Thomas and I would meet in France, Italy, Spain, and the United States. I remember him as a true and courageous friend whose sense of humor was never diminished by his principle of pessimism. To him we owe a number of important works, of which some writings were done directly in French, on the American mentality and ideology, of which he was a remarkable analyst.
12. Michel Onfray thinks that you are unjustly ostracized by the French intellectual elite. (One can compare your situation to that of Thomas Molnar who, after his return to Hungary, was pushed to the margins by Leftist intellectuals.) Will this privilege of stigmatization, this intellectual domination of progressives, persist in the future?
There are times at which the ostracism that we are experiencing very simply represents the price of liberty. At a time when “individual thought” and political correctness triumph (though it could more precisely be called ideological conformity), it seems to me that writers who possess a liberal spirit are increasingly ostracized in Western countries. At the same time, however, I get the impression that this system of exclusion is on track to break on all sides. The ideological ice, one could say, has begun to melt. There should be no doubt at all that, just like the Soviet system, the Western system will be dismantled one day. It isn’t optimistic to say so. This stems from the fact that nothing ever lasts beyond what it is capable of enduring. By definition, the history of man is always open. It is unpredictable, and this is what makes it exciting.
13. While admitting the importance of Donald Trump’s victory, you expressed a certain reluctance concerning his personality. How do you see his presidency? Some point out that the Washington establishment seeks to nullify the election and that Trump is ready to betray his promises. Will Trump be a “false hero” of the Right (in the same sense that Thomas Molnar considered de Gaulle as such in his book, The Counter-Revolution)? Is the famous Trumpian phrase, “drain the swamp,” the “Je vous ai compris” of the twenty-first century?
Donald Trump is an extravagant character, and I find that it does him great honor to compare him to General de Gaulle! I have no sympathy for those who attack him, but he is truly a difficult man to defend. Some of his positions are totally absurd, especially the ones that blatantly violate his campaign promises. Trump is obviously unpredictable. No one knows what he truly wants, and it’s far from certain that he knows himself. I fear that he hasn’t yet grasped what politics is. This is the reason why, since his election, I have distinguished between Trump the character, and the “Trump phenomenon,” which is the powerful movement against the elites in Washington that bears witness to the vigor of American populism. It is this phenomenon, in my view a positive one, that we must continue to analyze.
14. As for de Gaulle: GRECE was born out of the anti-Gaullism of the Algerian War, but how do you see the General today?
It would not be precise to say that GRECE was born out of the anti-Gaullism of the Algerian War. Algeria became independent in 1962, while GRECE was born six or seven years later. Between these two events, my feelings quickly became “Gaullist.” I approved of the politics of national independence that were conducted by General de Gaulle, his decision to endow France with nuclear weapons, and to leave the integrative apparatus of NATO, which was translated into the closing of all the American bases in France. I likewise approved of his historic speech in Phnom Penh and his trip to Canada (“Vive le Quebec libre!“, etc.). Finally, I appreciated his style, his magnanimity, his sense of grandeur. In the drama of French politics, he has had no successor.
15. You are very critical of the ideology of gender, the erasure of male and female roles. Yet you write in one of your essays that an authentic feminism could support the defense of European culture. What do you mean by that?
One of the great characteristics of European culture is having had a respect for women that we scarcely find in other cultures, especially in Islam today. At the same time, it is clear that, for a long time, European culture has remained patriarchal. Just to give one example, women only got the right to vote in France in 1946. I have always had sympathy for positive feminism. By that I mean an identitarian feminism, which doesn’t seek to transform women into “other men,” but to promote the values of femininity without belittling those of masculinity.
With the theory of gender, to which I dedicated a book, everything stands behind us. It’s not about promoting women, but asserting that there are no specific differences between men and women, which is a manifest lie. The assertion according to which “gender” doesn’t depend on sex in any way, where every human being is capable of constructing it from scratch and deciding his sexual orientation for himself, is also completely ridiculous. The theory of gender is basically a neo-Puritanism, related to what I called “the ideology of the same,” an ideology that reduces everything to sameness, wishes to erase all differences (between the sexes, races, and cultures), and manifests as an indomitable affinity for neutrality. In a world of androgynous people, relationships between men and women can only become increasingly difficult. It is necessary to choose between identitarian feminism (differentialist) and egalitarian feminism (universalist).
 Those who live on the outskirts (the “peripheries”) of Paris, who are far enough from the city to avoid the daily realities of multiculturalism, and far enough away from rural areas to be able to disparage those who live there.
 In France, those who are fiscally conservative are referred to as liberals, whereas libertaire is used to describe more socially liberal positions. Thus, “liberal” here refers to the Right wing of French politics.
 The main Right-wing party in France, which was known as the “Union for a Popular Movement” until the name was changed in 2014.
 “I understood you,” one of the most famous phrases in modern French history, was said by Charles de Gaulle in a speech addressed to the French in Algeria in 1958.