Extremists: Studies in Metapolitics
Edited by Greg Johnson
San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2016
Extremists: Studies in Metapolitics is a highly original book that contains the transcripts of nine of Jonathan Bowden’s orations: one on vanguardism followed by profiles of Thomas Carlyle, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Charles Maurras, Martin Heidegger, Savitri Devi, Julius Evola, Yukio Mishima, and Maurice Cowling. The orations are well-served by this collection because it allows the reader to peruse or linger over the text at leisure. It’s worth listening to them online as well to get a sense of the power of Bowden’s oratory.
The first chapter introduces the theme of the importance of vanguardism. Bowden argues that political success is contingent upon the existence of a revolutionary vanguard that would lead the charge by adhering to a radical ideological vision drawing upon the energy of undiluted extremism. He did not disavow extremism because he believed in the necessity of committing ideologically to absolute principles and ideals. Rather than compromising on such principles and operating within the confines of public opinion, a vanguard would seek to redefine political discourse itself.
He references the Communists as an example of the success of the vanguard strategy. Lenin argued that the most class-conscious elements of the proletariat must unite to form a revolutionary vanguard that would seek to energize the masses and over time lead the proletariat forward to revolution. These vanguard groups consisted initially of an extremely small number of dedicated revolutionaries, but within a couple of decades their ideas had become a world-historical force that transformed the face of society. The motto of Iskra (“Spark”), a Russian socialist journal founded in 1900, comes to mind: “From a spark a fire will flare up.”
Bowden believed above all in the power of ideas and emphasizes throughout these lectures that everything is ideological. Every politician (every person in general, even those who eschew ideology and abstraction) is merely the reflection of a certain set of ideas that he imbibed at some point in his life. It is the role of a vanguard to create and advance ideas that later gradually trickle down into the realm of politics, where they eventually become absorbed into the mainstream.
He also believed that in order to really mobilize people, one must communicate to them on an fundamental, unindividuated level by invoking a quasi-religious sense of purpose and idealism. More broadly he believed that there are certain cardinal spiritual truths that exist beyond man, even beyond history itself, and that the absence of a belief in such on a civilizational scale leads to cultural confusion and disintegration, as in the West following the collapse of Christianity. Bowden references Alain de Benoist in saying that our civilization has become spiritually void. The figures profiled in this book essentially each attempted in varying ways to address this. A number of them turned to the ancient world, whether directly or indirectly, and sought effectively to transpose ancient modes of thinking into a modern context. This alone is extremely radical; by contrast the reference point of most center-Right conservatives rarely stretches beyond five or six decades ago. Conservatives merely attempt to patch up certain symptoms of modernity in a sort of heuristic fashion, whereas extremists seek to reshape modernity entirely. Bowden colorfully likens the extremist attitude to “watching the news on the BBC, attacking the TV with a hammer, then attacking the cathode-ray oscilloscope inside the TV . . . and then seeing that blow up.” This element of destruction is present in all forms of extremism. But what distinguishes extremists of the Right is that they seek to harness this destructive energy ultimately to create new forms of civilization.
Something that Bowden brings up a couple of times is that in ancient Greece, the gods were worshiped both by ordinary citizens who believed in the literal existence of the gods and by intellectuals who perceived them as metaphors or symbols, and both were a part of the same culture and took part in the same traditions and rituals. Interestingly the Greeks did not actually have a word for “religion” as we understand it. The closest terms that exist to this are eusebeia (“piety,” in the sense of fulfilling traditions by paying respect to the gods) and threskeia (“ritual worship” or “cult”) as well as the three elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries: dromena (“things done”), deiknumena (“things shown”), and legomena (“things said”). One’s personal theological opinions were tangential to the social function of religion and the enactment of religious ritual.
Thus Charles Maurras was able to defend a form of fundamentalist pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism despite being an agnostic, because he saw Catholicism as a symbol of France that united the French people as a nation. Moreover he believed (like Maurice Cowling, Mishima, Evola, and others) that civilization withered and disintegrated in the absence of a sense of the sacred. Savitri Devi similarly in all likelihood did not believe that Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu in a literal sense but rather consciously sought to create myths that could form the basis of a new religion. The power of myth is great enough that it can evoke reverence and incite the fire of religious conviction even in those who don’t fully believe in it.
Bowden also argues that Thomas Carlyle was essentially a religious thinker. This is one of his best lectures. Carlyle was a product of Victorian Britain but stood in opposition to the fads of his era–utilitarianism, laissez-faire capitalism, democracy, etc.–and extolled heroic and anti-materialist ideals, notably in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. In Past and Present, he contrasts the conditions of nineteenth-century English workers with medieval monastic life, seeing in the latter “a sort of integratedness of life, a solemnity and a stoicism of purpose that moderns lack,” in Bowden’s words. Bowden notes that in his prose style Carlyle abandoned the dull, detached tone common in nineteenth-century works on philosophy and history; instead his prose is fiery, immediate, and filled with “re-Aryanized Old Testament fury.” Bowden likens Carlyle to a religious prophet and sees him as an intellectual descendent of Heraclitus, who believed that fire was the greatest element and that fire gave rise to all things.
Gabriele D’Annunzio likewise was a religious figure of sorts, a Nietzschean pagan who invoked the heroic paganism of ancient Rome (and ancient Greece, seen in the war cry he devised: “Eia, eia! Alalà!“) and in his theatrical balcony addresses combined politics with ritual in what Bowden refers to as an incursion of art into the political realm (also worth noting that he made music the foundational principle of his city-state of Fiume).
The topic of theatre arises again in Bowden’s lecture on Heidegger, in which he makes brief reference to Nietzsche’s views on ancient Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw Aeschylus (who was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries) as, in Bowden’s words, “the most hieratic, the most removed from everyday, the most transcendental, the most ur-ascending” of the Greek tragedians and criticized the realist dramas of Euripides on the grounds that the act of bringing “the spectator onto the stage” dampened the sense of awe and of the tragic itself that was present in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. He associated Euripides with the rise of Socratic rationalism and the attempt to wield human knowledge as a weapon against fate, which he argues lead to the gradual decline of tragedy and weakened its Dionysian character (Attic tragedy evolved from the dithyramb and Dionysian religious rites). Nietzsche argued that this form of metaphysical optimism precludes the existence of genuine tragedy because tragedy can only exist in a culture that is healthy and robust enough to confront certain realities about human existence.
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche also addresses the question of how to recreate a “tragic culture” in the modern era (at the time he saw an answer in Wagner’s operas; this was before his later disillusionment with the Wagnerians). A number of the figures profiled here in effect asked a similar question. Bowden relates that when Heidegger was asked by Paul Celan why he joined the NSDAP, he purportedly answered that the essence of National Socialism was comparable to the tragic sense of life of the Greek tragedians. In National Socialism he saw a reflection of the tragic Sophoclean notion that the decline of Western man could be traced back to his hubris (Vermessenheit) and smug optimism, which had manifested in modern subjectivism and the subsequent drive toward dominion and control (though ultimately he detected this same sense of “machination” in National Socialism and believed that it had become subsumed into modern materialism).
Nietzsche regards tragedy as a “healing substance” that the Greeks developed as a means of coming to terms with the terror of human existence and suffering. It’s a way of fixing one’s gaze directly at death and at that which is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. Bowden argues essentially that this is what drew Heidegger to National Socialism: “he thought it was a primordial movement that was bringing back, almost in an occultistic way, the partiality towards death, and in some ways it was bringing back the ancient world with modern technology.” He describes Savitri Devi’s synthesis of Hinduism and Nazism in similar terms as an attempt to meld modern technology with “the powerful primordial tragedy of the ancient world.” Savitri Devi was enamored of ancient Greece in particular.
Another figure who was strongly influenced by Greece and by ancient Greek literature and tragedy is Yukio Mishima, something which Bowden mentions briefly. Mishima traveled to Greece in 1952, where he visited ancient Greek ruins, and the experience transformed him. He wrote at the time: “Greece cured my self-hatred and my loneliness and awoke in me a will to health in the Nietzschean sense.” He began studying ancient Greek and eventually took up weight training three years later. Mishima eulogized the strength and beauty embodied in ancient Greek sculpture and likened the heroic ideals of the ancient Greeks and the ideal of dying of a noble death to Japanese bushidō. The samurai mindset was distinctly Japanese but it can be said that both ancient Greece and Japan were honor-based societies that extolled heroism and courage and broadly shared what Bowden describes as “a hierarchical notion of morality whereby honor and the esteem that one is held in by one’s warrior colleagues is more important than dualist preparations” (the ancient Greek word for “glory,” kleos, also signifies “reputation” and is a cognate of the word “to hear”). This sense of pagan, honor-based, hierarchical morality can be contrasted with the bourgeois slave morality that underlies egalitarianism and democracy. Bowden also makes mention of this in his lecture on Evola.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the extreme anti-system nature of many twentieth-century far-right radicals and their rejection of bourgeois morality and convention. They encompassed a wide range of individuals: artists, poets, mystics, madmen, adventurers, etc., but generally held this in common. Bowden notes in his lecture on Evola that “there’s a seamlessness between the poet-artist, the warrior, and the religious believer. They are different formulations of the same sort of thing, because they are always looking upwards . . . .”
The idea of “looking upwards” must be the mission of any potential revolutionary vanguard. It is only through adhering to an unwavering vision under the banner of an overarching quasi-religious myth that we can eventually rebuild our civilization and fill the spiritual void within it. This collection of Bowden’s orations will leave the reader convinced that the future rebirth of our civilization is possible.
1. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2004), p. 115.