Pierre Terdjman, BuzzFeed News, December 27, 2017
The man the alt-right claims as its spiritual father is a 74-year-old who lives with four cats in a Paris apartment around the corner from a Creole restaurant, a West African clothing store, and a Peruvian supermarket.
His name is Alain de Benoist, and he has published more than 100 books in his nearly 60-year writing career that encompass topics from anthropology to paganism. As the leader of a movement begun in the 1960s known as the “New Right,” he won one of France’s most prestigious intellectual prizes, was a columnist for several of its leading newspapers, and helped build the canon of fascist and radical writers familiar to political players ranging from Richard Spencer to Steve Bannon.
His core arguments are at the heart of many nationalist movements around the world, echoed even by those who do not know his name. His work helped give an aura of respectability to the notion that European “identity” needs to be defended against erasure by immigration, global trade, multinational institutions, and left-wing multiculturalism.
He now sees himself as more left than right and says he would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US election. (His first choice in the French election was the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.) He rejects any link between his New Right and the alt-right that supported Donald Trump.
“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons,” he said.
De Benoist’s views have changed a lot over his career, and he has written so extensively and in such dense prose that it can be hard to figure out what he believes today. (For English speakers, his challenge is complicated further by how little of his work has been translated.) He’s denounced racism but opposes integration. He rejects demands that immigrants assimilate or “remigrate” but laments “sometimes-brutal” changes they bring to European communities. He says identities change over time but wants them to be “strong.” He disavows the alt-right but collaborates with some of the most prominent people associated with the movement.
Over the course of an afternoon, he grew frustrated with questions about how his ideas link to today’s politics, saying, “You treat the New Right as a political subject, but for us it is an intellectual subject.”
It wasn’t the far right that brought de Benoist’s writings to the United States. A left-wing journal called Telos, which was drawn to de Benoist’s critique of US foreign policy, first published his work in 1990s. Telos translated his Manifesto for a European Renaissance in 1999, in which he laid out a philosophy that has become known as “ethnopluralism” — arguing that all ethnic groups have a common interest in defending their “right to difference” and opposing all forces that threaten to erase boundaries between “strong identities.”
Whatever his intentions, this argument caught the eye of a new generation of white nationalists, in whose hands ethnopluralism became a kind of upside-down multiculturalism. They were not white supremacists, they claimed, but they believed that everyone was better off in a world where ethnicities were separate but — at least theoretically — equal.
It’s no accident that ideas de Benoist first formulated in France in the mid-20th century are now upending the politics of the 21st. And it is perhaps inevitable that the people laying claim to de Benoist’s legacy are dragging him back into the kind of far-right world he tried to escape.
Instead of the kind of nationalism that had led Europeans to fight against one another, de Benoist argued that they should unite around race.
“Race constitutes the only real unit which encompasses individual variations,” de Benoist wrote under a pseudonym in 1966. “The objective study of history shows that only the European race (white race, caucasoid) has continued to progress since it appeared on the rising path of the evolution of the living, contrary to races stagnant in their development, hence in virtual recession.”
And so he endorsed the kind of racial science that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. “Replace natural selection,” he recommended, “with a careful communitarian eugenics policy aiming to reduce the flawed elements and the flaws themselves.”
De Benoist now disavows this essay and other work from these years, saying he “said a lot of stupid things before” growing disappointed “not only with the radical right, but also with politics.”
“For me, my intellectual life started in 1967, in 1968,” de Benoist said. “This is where I completely changed.”
Like the alt-right, de Benoist’s New Right wanted to craft a new right-wing ideology to break into a debate they believed was controlled by the left.
De Benoist’s biggest enemy became liberal capitalism, which he saw as an all-consuming force bent on assimilating the whole world into a universal market.
But de Benoist’s writings from this period often stood the logic of the left on its head: Egalitarianism was the true racism because it sought to erase difference from the world. Democracy was the true totalitarianism because it insisted undemocratic systems were illegitimate. Individualism was robbing people of their identities because it weakened community bonds.
De Benoist’s big idea from these years — one now finding new life today — became known as “ethnopluralism.” Instead of claiming Europeans were superior to nonwhites, GRECE championed the notion that all groups had a “right to difference,” and sought to appropriate leftist rhetoric about diversity. Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.
“The diversity of the world constitutes its only true wealth, for this diversity is foundational to the most precious good: identity,” de Benoist wrote. He declared himself of the right because he applauded the differences between people and the inequality that creates. He accused the left of promoting the “homogenization of the world” in the name of egalitarianism.
“Nations are no more interchangeable than people,” he asserted.
In this way, de Benoist declared himself “against all racism” in 1974 and denounced “xenophobia, generating prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and dishonor all those it reaches.” He claimed common cause with anti-colonial movements and Black Power, arguing that leftist anti-racism was actually racism of a different kind. Erasing differences between groups would lead to what he termed “ethnocide,” “the disappearance of ethnic groups as ethnic groups.”
In that same essay, he lamented interracial sex because it would lead to a homogenization of humanity just as the world was filling with “the same cities, the same buildings, the same stores, the same products, the same way of life.” And he still defended research claiming black people had lower IQs, though he asserted that “all races are superior” because, in essence, each race is special in its own way and only its own members can master the best attributes.
One of his most bitter fights was with Guillaume Faye, who split with de Benoist in the mid-’80s as Faye began taking the kind of overtly racist positions de Benoist wanted to leave behind.
De Benoist may deny paternity of the alt-right and the nationalist revival, but his would-be children are scattered throughout the West.
A new generation of white nationalists — including many in the US alt-right and like-minded groups growing quickly throughout Europe — have signaled their debt to the New Right by calling themselves “identitarians.” They want to be seen as standing for “ethnopluralism” rather than the kind of white supremacy once championed in Nazi Germany or the American South. Even some more old-school white nationalists have adopted the name, recognizing the power of rebranding.
De Benoist rejects their calls for removing immigrants and demonization of Islam — but the nationalists have used the ideas he championed to justify their agenda. And from the US to Europe to Russia, his name is a kind of touchstone for those claiming to belong to a better class of white nationalist.
De Benoist is weary of being asked about the identitarian movement.
“What I think is they’re really small tendencies, extremely small tendencies of the lunatic fringe, desperately looking for legitimacy because they don’t have anyone to look toward,” he said.
He points out that only a handful of his books, most decades old, have been translated into English, and not the ones he considers to be the most important. “We don’t talk about the subjects I write about.”
De Benoist understood better than most that the far right’s path to victory was not to “shoot politicians and seize power — we need to take over book clubs,” Griffin said. “What he did was crystalize in a really cunning and deliberate way … a fascism that doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck — it looks like high-grade intellectual activity.”
When asked if he’d considered withdrawing his books from the white nationalist press that is his primary English translator, he said, “Sure I could, but who will publish me?”