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Kuehnelt-Leddihn Revisited: The Leftism of the Alt-Right

Chris Roberts, writing for Columbia’s Critique and Praxis, suggested that the 21st Century alt-right “sprouted from the very same tree as the leftists they so loathe.” Not only were the intellectual forerunners and chief proponents of the movement largely critical theorists,—Guillaume Faye, Paul Gottfried, Alain de Benoist, Greg Johnson, and Richard Spencer among them—but on various issues they found “accord with the anarcho-communists…” and the rhetoric of identity politics. Thomas J. Main suggested in The Rise of the Alt-Right that this movement is most likely a derivative of “fascism and other reactionary philosophies,” though he also recognized some truth in alt-right proponent Steven Sailer’s claim that the alt-right was, to a degree, “Leninism minus Marxism.” Jeremy Frankel, conversely, is not one for ambiguity: the alt-right does not merely resemble a leftist movement, it is one. According to Frankel, since the alt-right ultimately opposes social conservativism, individualism, right-wing economics, and is both virulently racist and anti-Semitic, it must be in the same camp as the American conservative’s traditional opposition (i.e. with George Wallace’s American leftism). Although Frankel’s argumentation leaves much to be desired and is weakened by his D’Souzian characterizations of the Democratic Party and presumption that there has not also been a leftist influence on the Republican Party, his conclusion is nevertheless compelling, even if unoriginal[1]. After all, the place for racist, eugenicist, atheistic, and anti-capitalist movements captive to Sorelian myths and utopian ideals has historically been on the left. However, the alt-right would resist that placement as well, given it does not exactly hold the left in high regard either. Tossing the hot white-supremacist potato to the left may for a moment deal away the confusion, but it does little to clarify the alt-right’s actual relationship with either side.

Nearly a century ago, Ludwig von Mises documented the same problem of comparison and placement, specifically in the cases of Nazism and Fascism. Observing the games of avoidance and semantics that certain political groups were playing—to project unpopular or murderous ideologies into the philosophical encampments of their immediate opponents—he commented:

It is of much greater consequence that the communists have succeeded in changing the semantic connotation of the term fascism. Fascism … was a variety of Italian socialism … adjusted to the particular conditions of the masses in overpopulated Italy. … If one wants to assign Fascism and Nazism to the same class of political systems, one must call this class dictatorial regime and one must not neglect to assign the Soviets to the same class (Mises 523).

A similar problem has arisen in the situation of neo-fascism whose apologists claim it to hold a “Third Position” given its alleged hodgepodge of right-wing cultural views and left-wing economics. This concession, which ought not be made, again appears to be one of convenience; convenient only because, as Stephanie Lee Mudge writes in What’s Left of Leftism?, while meaningful as political categories, “right” and “left” are also “variable and contingent.” Crispin Sartwell is not even sure that the left-right framing is all too meaningful to begin with. In the The Atlantic he argued: “the arrangement of positions along the left-right axis … is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent … and any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions.” Concessions and wordplay (e.g. national socialism is not socialist) do not guarantee greater insights into these hard-to-place movements. Though the Political Compass and the Nolan chart are slightly more helpful in that they provide for the analysis of additional metrics otherwise ignored or flattened on a one-axis model, they still fail to explain how the extremes can touch or how a political philosophy can hold a superposition in two or more quadrants.

While turning the traditional left-right political spectrum into a Moebius strip would provide a satisfying visual to account for the alt-right’s commonalities with extreme leftism and the far-right—as would a line connecting the far ends of the parliamentary “U”—, we would again be left with a connection without an explanation. Provided Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s breakdowns of “left” and “right” in Leftism Revisited, which echo criteria found elsewhere, most notably in Ludwig von Mises Socialism, in F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, as well as in Peter Drucker’s The End of Economic Man, the problem of placement can to some degree be resolved, or at the very least, considered within a different framework.

Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was an internationally-acclaimed historian, journalist, and lecturer. He served both as an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute as well as on the Acton Institute’s board of advisors. He was greatly influential on the American conservative movement and on William Buckley Jr. in particular, who regarded him as the world’s most fascinating man. This self-professed ultra-liberal whose reservations about direct-democracy dwarfed Tocqueville and Madison’s, was a vociferous opponent of Nazism, communism, nationalism, and other totalitarian ideologies. In Leftism Revisited, Liberty or Equality, and The Menace of the Herd, he articulated great concern over the kind of philosophies and ideas that now inform and inspirit the alt-right.

In Leftism Revisited, Kuehnelt-Leddihn (hereafter referred to as KL) attempted to clear up the “semantic rubble in the vocabulary commonly used in the Western world,” at least with regards to key political terms, chiefly: “left” and “right.” He recognized the common-taken meaning of left or leftist: the historical arrangement of continental parliaments, but primarily in 18th Century France where conservative parties would be seated further to the right in the horseshoe of seats, next to liberals, then centrists, and finally, on the left side, radicals, “Socialists, Independent Socialists, and Communists.” KL figured the parliamentary dichotomy had been greatly confused in the 19th Century, especially after nationalists had come to be regarded somehow as rightists when Europe’s right, exemplified by Metternich, the monarchical families, and Europe’s ultraconservatives, were markedly opposed to the progeny of the French Revolution, especially nationalistic levelers. This confusion and his point that “the extremes never meet”[2] drove KL to ponder what characterized the extremes.

Generally speaking, for KL, the left stands for collectivism, coercion, and equalization; the right for personality, freedom, and variety. Citing national democracy, Jacobinsim, Nazism, fascism, socialism, and communism as leftist exemplars, KL summarized the right and the left’s conceptions of man, state, society, nation, church, political structure, ideals, welfare, laws, economics, and human cohesion.

Let us consider the alt-right in lieu of these criteria. “Alternative right” was first coined by paleoconservative philosopher Paul Gottfried in 2008. Although Gottfried developed the term with Richard Spencer at Taki’s Magazine and the National Policy Institute, he alleges that he has since been divorced from the movement. In an opinion piece he wrote for The National Post, Gottfried distinguished between the “Old Right position”[3] that “includes opposition to promiscuous foreign interventionism, the National Security State, social engineering, non-traditional mass immigration, and more” and the identitarian alt-right that seems preoccupied with dismantling liberalism, conservativism, and Jeffersonian democracy, while creating a white ethnostate.

The term “alt-right” no longer refers to dissident conservativism, but rather to the monster Gottfried hates to think he helped stitched together. According to Thomas J. Main’s The Rise of the Alt-Right, which confirms Gottfried’s diagnosis above early on, the alt-right in the United States today stands for: “the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and protectionist trade policies ... opposes feminism, diversity, globalism, gun control, and civil rights.” Main refers to one VDARE[4] contributor’s pseudo-manifesto, which clarifies their raison d'être: “The alt-right is ... a refusal to accept the frame imposed by those who are hostile to us on issues like morality, politics, and culture.” They regard liberal morality as a tactic to acquire or safeguard power; think of egalitarianism as a bad joke; and assert that racial superiority has been proven by science. Richard Spencer, who appears to be the pagan pontiff of the alt-right, regards conservativism and liberalism as the movement’s political foes along with anyone who disagrees with the proposition that “race is the foundation of identity.” Add America to that list of opponents.

The alt-right rejects the principles delineated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in the Federalist Papers. They will afford “no quarter for Parchment fetishists.” In an interview, Main ran an idea by Spencer—Hayek’s point in The Constitution of Liberty that people ought to be treated alike in spite of the fact that they are different. Spencer flat-out rejected it. The movement, like Spencer, does not recognize equality as a factual or political reality. Democracy, too, it rejects, leaving the movement open to the imposition of a fascist leader’s arbitrary will. Not only does the alt-right reject America’s core and founding documents, but the self-evident truths they advance with them. “Rights, political equality, the rule of law, electoral democracy, and constitutionalism” are to be discarded along with the rest. According to Jared Taylor, editor of the American Renaissance, the few values the alt-right does seek to uphold are not rooted in ideas, but in people. The success of the United States, therefore, is tied to race—to the European heritage of those who largely inhabit it. It is largely for this reason why the alt-right is at odds with Trump’s brand of nationalism. Though Spencer suggested to Main that Trump and Bannon “deserve credit for asking ‘is this good for us?’ when considering issues of trade, immigration, and foreign policy,” he could not reconcile himself or the movement with Trump’s meaning of “us.” For Trump and Bannon, the United States is a multiracial country with a multiracial future. For the alt-right, this is unacceptable.

What is also regarded as unacceptable to the alt-right, along with religion in general, is Christianity, which they regard as a poison that has weakened its forefathers; a religion that did not bring about social good in the world but one that was brought about by good people: “Europe effectively created Christianity—not the other way around.” Greg Johnson, another proponent of the alt-right, claimed that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.” Spencer invokes Nietzschean critiques of Christianity, not as a means of arriving at a compatible form but to discredit it along with American conservativism. The chieftains of the alt-right are virtually all neo-pagans or militant atheists. They reject deontological ethics and fully embrace race-centered utilitarianism, in line with their scientific materialism and biological determinism, leaving little room for transcendentals or traditional religiosity. Therefore, it is not merely America’s founding documents and its dominant religion they rebuke, but the higher authority and metaphysical reality the majority of country appeals to.

To the extent that the alt-right has a preference for an economic system, it would like to end laissez-faire economics and consumer capitalism, and have the government exercise more influence over the economy and trade, particularly in the form of protectionist policies. The alt-right also appears happy to see a broadening of the welfare state that exclusively promotes and privileges white interests.

The alt-right is ultimately: identitarian, which it evinces both in its veneration for whiteness and European heritage as well as in its revulsion for all other races; atheistic or at the very least anti-religious; collectivist and anti-individualist; anti-capitalist though uncommitted to an alternative; for legal positivism; desirous of rebuilding society from scratch; and convinced it can socially plan that same society using various forms of coercion. This last point—its drive to create and plan a new society—is an expression of a leftist and “nihilistic tendency to recreate and refashion all forms of human experience after a tabula rasa of total revolution.”

Though the alt-right satisfies most of KL’s criteria for the left, it is an outlier in at least one category. For instance, KL reckoned the family under leftism to be horizontal in terms of dynamics. This is certainly at odds with the patriarchal conception of family held by the alt-right, where wife is subordinate to husband and required to produce white children. Spanish Falangism and Italian fascism are arguably also out of place on the KL’s left for their stratification of the domestic sphere. This is the sort of contradiction Sartwell was referring to in reference to the political spectrum. It seems, therefore, that while an extremely helpful guide and an additional tool for arrangement, KL’s binary will rarely if ever produce absolutes. It will, however, produce hybrids whose connections can be better understood. Barring the discrepancy in the “sexes” category, to the extent that the alt-right is a hybrid, it is a predominantly leftist hybrid.

The alt-right has defined itself by what it is not and with appeals to something that never was. Its talk of tradition is a misdirection; a way of blurring the line between itself and the American right, as well as the conservatives its elites despise. So far as tradition is concerned, the alt-right is content to discard it wholesale, unless by tradition what is actually meant is racial or ethnic homogeneity and genetic continuity, in which case they will stake their lives on it. This fanciful notion that there was a time when nations kept to themselves and migration was not a thing is just that: a fantasy held by leftists gripped by a racial myth, all petrified by variety, personality, and freedom, as well as by the exchange of ideas. They belong to the left, and their ideology is contiguous with the worst of the 19th and 20th Century.


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[1] Frankel’s fellow Daily Wire writer Michael Knowles made a similar point one year earlier on PragerU’s YouTube channel.

[2] “Extreme cold and extreme heat, extreme distance and extreme nearness, extreme strength and extreme weakness…none of them ever ‘meet’” (KL1 37).

[3] The Old Right of the 1930s-1950s was, according to Sheldon Richman, a movement against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

[4] VDARE is Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration website, which he started in 1999. Despite Brimelow’s contention that VDARE is not a white-nationalist website, it has run articles by numerous anti-Semites, racists, race scientists, and white supremacists.

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