T.E. Hulme in uniform.
In my last post I outlined some reasons for my interest in the phenomenon of neoreaction, along with my concerns regarding its philosophical trajectory. My message to the neoreactionaries, if they care to listen, is that if neoreaction is to be anything more than a virtual pose, it must purge itself of Nietzschean influence. When I recently tweeted this statement, I received a small chorus of tweets in response asking “Why?” In this post, I will expand on the answer to that question that I outlined in my last post and save my suggestions regarding the reorganization of neoreaction for my next post.
To provide some counterbalance to any harshness in my criticism, I will state at the outset that I am a former fan of Nietzsche. I understand the tremendous appeal of his work, and I still consider him one of the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy. If I were not a Catholic, I would probably still be a Nietzschean. Nietzsche was not at all stupid, but simply wrong, and his enchanting philosophy of ‘life’ unfortunately helped to create our current ‘culture of death.’
Nietzsche has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but these interpretations can be distilled into what I would loosely label Right Nietzscheanism and Left Nietzscheanism. Both of these philosophies of culture situate Nietzsche as the philosopher who revealed the ultimate arbitrariness of conventional morality, who saw the will to power as the fundamental force in human life, and who positioned himself as the enemy of post-Socratic metaphysics, Christianity, and even the concept of truth itself.
Right Nietzscheans generally seek to reclaim the “master morality” that existed (arguably) in paganism until the rise of the “slave morality” of Christianity. There are even some who practice a sort of Nietzschean Catholicism, re-envisioning the Church (while drawing more upon its institutional authority and hierarchical structure than its teachings) as the embodiment of a Christian version of master morality. The more moderate Right Nietzscheans may seek a master morality in national traditions—those that have grown organically over time and are not contaminated by abstract morality.
A member of the neoreaction twittersphere suggested that I check out a transcript of a 2007 talk by Jonathan Bowden, which is available on Counter-Currents Publishing site as “Credo: A Nietzschean Testament.” It is a perfect example of Right Nietzscheanism.
Bowden says, “I believe that strength comes from belief, in things which are philosophically grounded and appear real to you.” In other words, belief functions as an expression of the will to power, as long as the things that you believe in “appear real to you” (italics mine). The belief may be completely unfounded, but that is beside the point; what you believe in must appear real, and you must believe as if it were real. Bowden’s valorization of Charles Maurras clearly displays this emphasis on belief over truth: “Charles Maurras was believed to be an atheist, but he led a Catholic fundamentalist movement in France. Why? Because if you are right-wing, you don’t want to tear civilization down just because you privately can’t believe. You understand the discourse of mass social becoming.” A Maurrasian Catholic accepts Catholicism not because the Catholic Church is the one true church but because the church performs a social function that keeps the population from dissolving into apathy and vice. Such a person, in my estimation, is not a Catholic at all.
Bowden seems to condemn relativism when he says that “Belief is an understanding that there are truths outside nature, and outside the contingent universe that’s in front of us, that are absolute. The left-wing view that it’s all relative, or we make it up as we go along, is false.” Bowden’s statement is deceiving, however, since the view of the New Right is ultimately just as relativistic as that of the left. There is only one absolute truth for Bowden (and Nietzsche) outside the contingent universe: the will to power. Other truths are only truths as long as they can be imposed and believed in, and if the will to believe dies, the truth dies with it. Later, Bowden seems to acknowledge the connection between modern relativism and his own neo-fascism: “So what appears with half an eye closed to be an atheistic, a secular, and a modern system, if you switch around and look at it from another perspective, is actually a form for traditional ideas of the most radical, the most far-reaching, the most reactionary, and most archaic and primordial sort to come back. To come back from the past.” The problem is that these archaic ideas from the past, reconstituted through the will to power, will not be quite the same as they were before. Like the reanimated beings that rise from Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery, they will be a little different, and a little unstable, with a tendency to turn against their owners.
Bowden exemplifies Right Nietzscheanism. Left Nietzscheans are, on a superficial level, very different; they view culture as a complex web of power relations—relations that pervade even the realms of language and knowledge. Following from Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, they see all social norms and the conceptions of truth that underlie them as arbitrary constructions. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose influence in academia (one of the great spires of the Cathedral) cannot be exaggerated, was the great proponent of this worldview. Much of the scholarship of the last thirty years in fields like art history, English, film studies, women’s studies, queer studies, post-colonial studies and the like has been influenced by his interpretation of Nietzsche, and much of it leans towards what is sometimes referred to as “social constructionism,” or the idea that our identities and beliefs are social constructs without essences. A recent manifestation of this type of thinking has been the study of the social construction of gender: if gender is a social construct, then obviously the stark male/female dichotomy can be broken down.
While Foucault’s philosophy in its rawest form is not explicitly political (since in a Nietzschean world without moral absolutes there is no reason to prefer one political system over another), it is often employed by those pursuing egalitarian or liberationist political projects. As a sort of Nietzschean progressivism it has trickled down to the rest of the population and as a result we get Oprah and Ellen spreading the gospel of empowerment. They are empowering women, queer people, coloured people, or anyone else who has ever been marginalized in the past. And of course they must do this by funneling power from those who are male, straight, white and ‘privileged.’ Thus, the source of value for both those in both the ivory towers of the Cathedral and its daily talk shows is the same as that for the barbarians at the gate. Relativism makes strange bedfellows.
To summarize, Nietzsche’s philosophy allows us to both recognize all the moral regimes of history as arbitrary constructions (the practice of Left Nietzscheanism) and reconstruct any moral regime of the past by replacing what were considered absolute and unchanging values with power-values (which is the practice of Right Nietzscheanism). When an older moral regime is reconstructed, the reconstruction will be different from the original in that those living under the original regime viewed its structure as something ‘given’—something rooted in truth or nature or the will of God—while those living under the reconstruction can never achieve that same level of naiveté. The inhabitants of the reconstruction must always struggle to believe, even when they know, on some level, that the principles that guide them are rootless. Such is the difference between a Norse pagan of the ninth century and the twenty-first century neo-pagan. Does the latter really believe that Thor and Odin exist?
Both the Left Nietzschean and the Right Nietzschean are lost in the void of modernity, their only guide being the one, endlessly malleable, source of value that Nietzsche recognized: the will to power.
A note for clarification, from a discussion regarding this post at Throne and Altar (3 February 2015): I did not mean to suggest that there is no distinction between neoreaction and Bowden’s neo-fascist neo-paganism. Bowden is from the sphere of the European New Right, and I used him as an example of Right Nietzscheanism in its clearest and most recognizable form. Neoreaction does not always explicitly draw from Nietzsche, and I know that neoreactionaries do not embrace neo-paganism, but it seems to me that neoreaction is about what I would call the science of power. All of the various political alternatives to democracy that they toss about are judged in terms of their effectiveness, and not their rightness. In some ways, the neoreactionaries are more like the Left Nietzscheans (Foucault and co.), in that they are obsessed with power structures, as if power is the only currency. They are reading politics through the eyes of Nietzsche. Even the libertarian tendencies in neoreaction seem loosely connected to Ayn Rand’s interpretation of Nietzsche.
To provide an antidote to all this stifling Nietzscheanism, I will briefly introduce a thinker whose photo graces this site: the amateur philosopher T.E. Hulme (1883-1917). I have not seen Hulme’s name mentioned in NRx circles, which is a shame, because in his time he was a true neo-reactionary. His life was cut short by enemy artillery in World War I, but he managed to have a lasting influence on modernist artists and writers like T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and (to a lesser extent) Ezra Pound.
Hulme’s form of reaction was ‘classical’ rather than ‘romantic,’ privileging clear ideas over vague mysticism. He believed strongly in the idea of original sin and rejected the humanist idea that people are naturally good. He sought absolute values: those which are as true today as they were 1000 years ago. Here is Hulme describing his brand of reaction in relation to what I have referred to above as Right Nietzscheanism:
“Most people have been in the habit of associating these kinds of views with Nietzsche. It is true that they do occur in him, but he made them so frightfully vulgar that no classic would acknowledge them. In him you have the spectacle of a romantic seizing on the classic point of view because it attracted him purely as a theory, and who, being a romantic, in taking up this theory, passed his slimy fingers over every detail of it. Everything loses its value. The same idea of the necessary hierarchy of classes, with their varying capacities and duties, gets turned into the romantic nonsense of the two kinds of morality, the slave and the master morality, and every other element of the classic position gets transmuted in a similar way into something ridiculous.”
This passage is from Hulme’s seminal essay “A Tory Philosophy,” but I have quoted it from a review in the New Criterion by Roger Kimball, which incidentally serves as a decent introduction to Hulme. (If I can find my copy of “A Tory Philosophy” I will provide a proper citation.)
Here is Hulme describing his position regarding religion:
“I want to emphasize as clearly as I can, that I attach very little value indeed to the sentiments attaching to the religious attitude. I hold, quite coldly and intellectually as it were, that the way of thinking about the world and man, the conception of sin, and the categories which ultimately make up the religious attitude, are the true categories and the right way of thinking. . . . It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma” (Hulme 70-71).
Dogma is superior to sentiment, and truth superior to tradition—this is the core of Hulme’s message. Hulme’s innovation was to free reactionary thinking from the romanticism and historicism of the nineteenth century, and the new paths he revealed have not yet been fully explored.
In my next post I will offer suggestions for a reorganization of neoreaction in the spirit of Hulme.
Hulme text cited:
Hulme, T.E. “Humanism and the Religious Attitude.” Speculations. Ed. Herbert Read. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. 1-71.