Philosophy Politics

Modernity and the Historicism of the Neo-Reactionaries

Venture into any neoreactionary (hereafter NRx) site or blog, and one thing is clear.  They are unfettered “identitarians” proclaiming “racial realism”, and a withering criticism of progressivism with deep writings about the organic evolution of culture through history.  Any student of philosophy will immediately recognize them for what they are: historicists.  The irony of the NRx assault against progressivism and “the Cathedral” is that they follow the third wave of modernity in recognizing the dangerous precipice of first wave progressivism: Spionza, Hobbes, and Locke’s materialistic universalism, and also the problems of the second wave of progressivism that critiqued the first: Rousseau, Marx, and what we call the “Left” in politics.

Who are the neo-reactionaries of recent fame? Most agree that a Silicon Valley computer programmer and blogger, Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug) was one of the early prophets of the movement in its current form, along with a former lecturer in philosophy Nick Land.  Land coined the term “Dark Enlightenment,” and Moldbug—from his blog “Unqualified Reservations,” began a scathing critique of Whig Historiography and the “Cathedral” of Progressivism: the NRx equivalent of the Marxian concept of Superstructure-Substructure-Subaltern.  The NRx movement also has buzzwords to identify itself, as well as give welcoming space to those who share similar views and would recognize such buzzwords as having entered a sort of “safe space”: Identitarian, Racial Realism, (restoring the greatness of) Western civilization, traditional gender roles, “our people,” and from within the fringes of the movement, “cultural Marxism” and an obsession with Jewry (especially one Leo Strauss).

We’ll parcel out these new revolutionary Jacobins, for that is what they are.  Behind the veils of German Romanticism and Idealism, behind the claims of Western civilizational greatness, and behind the appropriation of romantics like Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, and their revival of American scholars like Richard Weaver and James Burnham, we’ll discover the bleeding heart of the NRx movement and the more specific “Alt-Right” phenomenon rising like a tsunami across both sides of the Atlantic.

Among the more polished intellectuals and academics that the NRx movement follows: Friedrich Hayek, any of the Austrian school economists, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and the Mises Institute crowd, Hans Herman Hoppe, etc., something becomes patently clear.  Their lead thinkers are mostly Anarcho-Libertarians.  (Libertarianism was originally a philosophy that grew out of the anarchist movement, but in this re-contextualization has embraced open market economics rather than socialism per its original founders.)  Far from embracing the conservatism of the ancient framework—the pursuit of the highest good—the NRx crowd serves the other half of the “jealous god of liberty.”  The difference is, the NRx believe that they have the proper “up from slavery” and “out of serfdom” freedom that went terribly awry from the injection of the modus vivendi impulses of Hobbes and Locke, and the puritanical pursuit of a zealous commonwealth of justice inherited by dissenting Protestants (namely, the Puritans).

It should come, then, as no surprise that figures like Nietzsche and Spengler are often given lip service—if not adored despite misappropriating their philosophies.  This is telling for any conservative for several reasons.

The issue of Romanticism is problematic because Romanticism was not a cut and dry alternative to Enlightenment bourgeois liberalism and progressivism.  The Rousseauian and German Romantic strand, it is true, vehemently rejected the sterilizing, mechanistic, urbanizing, rationalistic, and materialistic (capitalist) tendencies of Anglosphere progressivism and the logical end-point of the philosophies of Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and Baruch Spinoza.  This movement recognized, beginning more with Rousseau, offered a scathing moralistic critique of bourgeois materialism (liberalism).

But at the same time, from Rousseau to Nietzsche, this dissenting strand of Romanticism equally subscribed to Enlightenment ideas: the mastery ethos, the belief in History (progress; they merely think there was a radically break in the past—hence becoming “reactionary” rather than conservative who reject the very notion of Historical progress since conservatism is about the health of the soul and striving of fulfilling the telos of human existence), and the will to power/revolution.  We fool ourselves to think that the fascist and Stalinist movements—filled with their social engineering impetus—are not equally part of the same Enlightenment progressive tradition of reorganizing and reshaping nature and society toward some higher ideal.

In part this was the insight of Leo Strauss.  The romantics, while reasonably terrified by the prospects of bourgeois liberalism, were nevertheless still under the post-nominalist and post-Hobbesian frame of mind.  Per Burke, far from being a conservative in the ancient/classical disposition, he was nothing more than a moderate “organic evolution” progressive who recognized the fragility of human society but equally subscribed to the notion of progress, individualism, and ordered liberty.

Moldbug’s own subtitle of his blog (having now shut down to “mission accomplished”) is “Reactionary Enlightenment.”  Emphasis on the last word.

Reactionary philosophy is quite problematic to understand, in part, because the negativity that surrounds the word.  In philosophy, most scholars no longer refer to reactionary positions as “counter revolutionary” but now designate it as “counter historical,” itself a much more accurate term in my opinion.  What’s the difference?  Following the Enlightenment, and the emergence of the idea of History (History as following a meaningful path toward something, the idea that History itself has a telos), the reactionary was quietly okay with the progress of History until they were “mugged by reality” to borrow a phrase from the neoconservatives to explain their turn away from leftwing politics and an embrace of contemporary institutions and ideals: liberalism, market economics, and the dream of a pan-global liberal super state.

For reactionaries, they are implicit progressives—agreeing with the premise that History once had a glorious tract that civilization was progressing toward until something terrible happened.  From Cato to the French Counter-Revolutionaries, to the contemporary NRx crowd, there is a long tradition of this scapegoating of some virus infection that ruined everything.  This too reflects a certain historicism since Cato, the French Revolutionaries, and the contemporary NRx crowd all believed that their traditions and customs were unique to them and threatened by something foreign.  This implicit acceptance of History, as well as the two-fold criticism of Spinozan-Hobbesian materialism and Rousseauian moralism and leftism allows all students of philosophy to immediately recognize the NRx as the revitalized “third wave of modernity” per Strauss’s seminal 1975 essay “The Three Waves of Modernity.”

This too is the irony of German philosophy post-Hegel.  Even though Nietzsche and Heidegger, in particular, are criticizing the Hegelian mentality and process, both are equally revisionist Hegelians in their own right offering a Hegelian tale of decline rather than progress.  Both offer a sweeping philosophy of history, an ebb and flow, and rise and fall (they’re concentrating on the fall) of civilization as understood through the lens of History.  Whereas progressive historicism sees itself as rooted in a culture of liberty, equality, and freedom of choice—leading to an ever greater expansion of all concepts, third wave historicism was unmistakably counter-historical and “reactionary.”  Third wave modernism believed History had gotten derailed, gone off the tracks, and was now spiraling toward the Abyss of destruction.

Nietzsche was the most poetic and stern critic of modernity, but he was equally the child of the philosophy he was criticizing.  Nietzsche placed the blame on Christianity, believing that Christianity did away with the old gods of the nations and produced a transvaluation of values away from heroic and noble sacrifice (the Greeks, Romans, and broader Near East) and subverted it with “slave morality.”  The morality of pity, compassion, and love as Nietzsche famously expressed.  But this morality of Christianity was premised on the belief in the God of Abraham.  Christian philosophers regarded God as the supreme metaphysical Being, the Being that grounded all being to which one’s mind was called to understand whereby knowledge, power, fullness, beauty, and happiness abounded (cf. St. Bonaventure, The Mind’s Road to God, is the most explicit in this understanding of God, see Ch. V).

But when civilization realized that the God of Christianity was just another myth (myth being the central claim/story), “God [was] dead.”  This, for Nietzsche—contra the new atheists—was not something to be celebrated.  It was terrifying.  The old pagan customs were gone having been replaced by Christianity.  Now the Christian customs and morals were gone too.  It was not that people didn’t believe in God, per se, but that the “new god” was like the old grandmother god who wasn’t stern, didn’t rebuke, and didn’t care what the children did.  Nietzsche’s death of God remark was his witty observation that the God of Judgment was “killed” in order that the ugly and animalistic side of man was freed to do as he wished.

Oswald Spengler, a disciple of Nietzsche, in his work The Decline of the West takes a similar but perhaps “more positive” approach to religion.  Embedded in Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, nevertheless, is the recognition that religion gives people meaning and a purpose to direct their energies and faculties of life toward something. (Nietzsche thought this direction of energies and faculties from the Christian perspective, however, were porous.)  Spengler, likewise, identified the nobility of ancient religion (including early and medieval Christianity) as producing an ethos of creativity and life.  This, however, was subverted by the materialistic and godless metropolis which is a slave to capitalism and economics (society’s incarnation of liberalism of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke).

Nietzsche’s response was the Übermensch.  The Übermenschen were not a racially or genetically superior race of beings—as sometimes misappropriated by the racialist far right.  Far from it, this highlights Nietzsche’s own indebtedness to modernity.  Beginning with the medieval nominalists, reaching a full expression in William of Ockham, there was a revolution of the mind.  As God’s mind was absolutely free, so too was humanity’s will absolute free and creative since humanity was created in the image of God.  The freedom of the will (as opposed to classical free will per Sts. Paul and Augustine) became a new norm that reached a fuller expression come Hobbes, Locke, and the Enlightenment philosophers.

For Nietzsche, anyone could be an Übermensch.  An Übermensch was simply anyone who recognized—especially with the nihilism wrought by Christianity—that one’s will was completely free and creative, free from all constraints (both material and supernatural).  Thus, one only need to will oneself a future to overcome nihilism and the potentiality to become the “Last Man.”  The Last Man, a concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was Nietzsche’s explanation for what nihilism and materialism (liberalism) was working to produce: a civilization of insects concerned only with material security and improvement.  The thrill of life was destroyed.  And as Strauss notes, this wave of modernity culminated in fascism, while the second wave culminated in Marxist Leninism and Stalinism, while the first wave gave birth to what we now today as bourgeois liberalism/progressivism.

Again, the third wave was unique in that emerged after the second wave.  It inherited the criticism of bourgeois liberalism, but was equally terrified by the universalism of Rousseau and Marx.  This was the key “break” between the second wave and third wave of modernity.  While both assailed the materialism and universalism of bourgeois liberalism, both did so for different reasons.

Rousseau, in both his Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, launched a devastating critique of liberalism from a moralistic position.  Indeed, Professor Jonathan Israel (someone who is an ardent defender of the first wave modernism), in his book Revolutionary Ideas correctly links the Jacobins to Rousseau and this tradition of moralizing and puritanical criticism of the bourgeois ethos.  The Jacobins were terrified by the prospects of a liberal French republic akin to England (although England was a de-facto constitutional monarchy).

But from Rousseau, to Kant, Hegel, and eventually Marx, this second wave of modernity also promoted an alternative universalist construct to combat the liberalism of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke.  To counter a materialist and universalist philosophy, the second wave offered up an equally materialist and universalist philosophy—but one supposedly more moral, concerning itself with group solidarity rather than atomizing conflict among individuals, that also shared a certain re-Christianization of society from a moralist perspective.  (As many scholars have long known/asserted, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx all have a certain inverted traditional Judeo-Christian worldview in many ways.)

The third wave, however, beginning with the later German Romantics around the Jena School, sharply broke with the second wave.  The seminal figure in this movement would be Johann Fichte, one of the most unrecognized but important philosophers of the last 200 years.  It was Fichte, not Hegel, who first proposed the “Hegelian” dialectic of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.  (Although Fichte said that Hegel’s Dialectics contained the same Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis construct.)  Fichte, like many of the German Romantics, were initially celebratory sympathizers with the French Revolution (starting with the Jacobins), because they understood the Jacobin cause as one of anti-bourgeois liberalism which they also subscribed.

But when Napoleon emerged, and sought to expand a universal system onto the Germans, the Germans rebelled.  In Vienna, the old Habsburg Austrian Empire fought to preserve the old order of the Holy Roman Empire.  Throughout the universities of Germany, the German intelligentsia sharply rebuked this pan-nationalism of Napoleonism in favor of a distinctive historicism of unique culture, custom, and history.  The birth of true pluralism emerged from the romantic philosophers who emphasized difference and uniqueness, and sought to preserve such difference and uniqueness against the weight of universalism (which stemmed from the materialistic monism of Spinoza which was, and remains today, the bedrock foundation of liberalism).

Fichte’s “Address to the German Nation” was a seminal moment in the establishment of a pan-German nationalism that embraced Germanic historicism: Germany had a unique language, culture, mythological past, folk heritage, and history that united all the German states and principalities that stood apart from those of the French, Russians, or English.  Fichte is not only the father of German nationalism, some consider him to be the ultimate father of a certain Nazism since the Nazis picked up on many of the same themes Fichte promoted.  Furthermore, Fichte believed it to be the job of German education to educate German students in the traditions, culture, myth, and history of the German people to cement this pan-German nationalism and patriotism to the Fatherland to be the vanguard against foreign parasitic movements and philosophies that would threaten to erode the uniqueness of Germany.

But as Fichte produced this paradigm shift, the conflict between the new third wave and the first wave also led to conflict with the second wave.  In part, because Rousseau and Marx and the “Left” embraced a universalism of their own, steeped in a puritanical moralism that equally threatened to erode the uniqueness of the pluralism being developed among the German Romantics.

Does this not strike any reader familiar with the NRx crowd as being essentially the same as to what the NRx are advocating?

Like the third wave modernists, both identify a rupture with the past.  Both are fearful of the universalism of liberalism.  Both are equally fearful of the materialist and atomizing aspects of liberalism.    And both sought to preserve the uniqueness of the pluralism of difference against all other philosophies and systems that threaten to either erode such difference or produce a vague sameness of all persons, cultures, and customs.

Within the NRx movement, we see this basic foundation go off into different paths.  Among the “Alt-Right” (and by “Alt-Right” I’m referring explicitly to the pan-White racialists and identitarians of North America and Europe), this pluralism of uniqueness is misappropriated (quite deliberately) to mean some form of pan-White nationalism and consciousness:  The “Saxon” race, or “Teuton” race, etc.

Here, I would like to point out that while such people often pay lip service to Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Spengler and Schmitt, none of them are actually proper adherents to the German Romantics and Idealists.  They merely borrow some of the concepts and twist them to fit their racialist ideology and philosophy.  The “other” is a threat to the uniqueness of the White race and White values: crusader, builder, conqueror, and entrepreneur.  (But as if this isn’t true of other cultures?)  As such, they’re not that important.

The more important wing of this tradition is the contemporary NRx movement itself, those who are openly sympathetic to Moldbug, and the neoreactionary label.  While they often promote a racial realism that imitates the Alt-Right, the NRx crowd is much more aligned to the heart of German Romanticism and Idealism than the misappropriating Alt-Right.  There seems to be three components to the contemporary NRx movement: one libertarian, one “traditionalist”, and the other accelerationist capitalist.

The acceleration wing surrounds itself around Nick Land, and various science-fiction writers (like Vox Day).  They combine a certain techno-futuristic social traditionalism with a grand hope for a glorious scientific and technological future embracing trans-technological capitalism as the pathway forward for humanity.  (More accurately, a “new humanity” defined by technology and capital.)  This crowd of the NRx movement openly sympathizes with the Anarcho-Libertarian Austrian philosophers and economists previously mentioned.  To this crowd men like Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard are early forerunners of their movement—or at least have many intellectual ideas regarding the economic-heavy elements of this movement.

The problem with this part of the NRx movement is that they are apparently unaware of the inherent antagonism between atomistic capitalism against collective community.  As such, notable Catholic thinkers like Thomas Woods and Lew Rockwell are often criticized by traditionalist Catholics for holding to economic theories that have long been condemned by the Roman Catholic Curia (since proper Catholic theory views economics as part of Moral Theology to which Catholic Social Teaching is meant to embody and the economics of distributism that undergirds Catholic philosophy).

The libertarian wing, some might call it an offshoot of paleolibertarianism, is closely aligned with trans-traditional capitalist wing of the NRx movement that celebrates the combination of technological progress, “accelerationism”, with Austro-libertarian economics and traditional gender roles.  In a way, the paleolibertarian wing of the NRx movement seems to be somewhat Catholic in orientation, in general agreement more with Woods and Rockwell than with Land, Vox Day, and the various NRx blogs that promote this awkward combination of technology, capitalism, and traditional social and gender roles (despite the long history of traditional conservative criticism of capitalism and technology as eroding any form of social and cultural traditionalism).

From this, the more openly neo-traditionalist wing of the NRx movement is the one that is most interesting to study.  This wing of the NRx crowd openly opines democracy, prefers monarchism or a similar strong-man system of government, and tends to be religiously conservative (although not exclusively so).  But insofar that this wing is still historicist in mentality, and not “ancient” as Leo Strauss defines, they embody something akin to conservatism but not quite.

Conservative philosophy has its roots in Socrates and Plato, but reaches a fuller expression in the works of Aristotle and appears in some of the various Roman philosophers too, traces of it mostly found in Cato.  In Catholic conservative circles, the neo-Platonic Aristotelianism of the Greeks reaches in apogee in the pre-nominalist philosophers of the Catholic tradition.  This conservatism regards the telos of humanity to be the pursuit of the “highest good”, to use Platonic language.  In non-Christian circles, this would be the commonwealth of justice and virtue of Cato.  In Christian circles, the highest good is God.

In both schools liberty is not about freedom of the will and freedom of choice but in conforming oneself to the dictates of the highest good and entering into community (Aristotle’s natural community since humans are “political” animals).  The community is established and exists to help all reach the flourishing of being in the pursuit of the highest good.  Traditions and customs—the ancient traditions so steadfastly guarded by conservatives—emerge post-community to reinforce the stability and harmony of the community, and also reinforce the direction of the person to the highest good.

Classical conservatism doesn’t have an “understanding” of History and progress (or regress) because conservatism is of the ancient frame of mind.  It seeks the flourishing of humanity through a true humanism in the pursuit of the highest good (whatever that might be), and by striving for this highest good a true humanism without the conceit of social engineering emerges.  As St. Augustine says in De Doctrina Christiana, one is to love others more than self because to love others is a reflection of one’s love of God (which is the highest good in Augustinian Catholicism).  Likewise, the virtue philosophers of Greece and Rome note that self-virtue extends to others as a reflection of the high virtue attained in the pursuit of being a virtuous person.  (In Catholic circles, there is no rupture between virtue and God, virtue would be a high good meant to push humanity to the highest good—which is God.  Also, the virtue philosophers were often themselves religious—just from within the context of Greco-Roman “mythopoetic religion.”)

The militant core of the NRx movement might deride classical conservatives as weak.  Or more appropriately unwilling to fight.  There is something true in the assertions of scholars that conservatism, in a way, helps give rise to reactionary thought.  But at the same time, it should be clear to any student of philosophy that reactionary thought also sharply breaks with classical conservative disposition and philosophy in many key places.  After all, classical conservatism is completely free from having emerged in the third wave of modernity.  It is ancient in its origins.

The third wave which spawned classical reactionary thought and is just as much the foundation for the NRx movement, is ancient insofar that it recognized a break from the classical mind to the modern mind.  But, even those figures were unable to recover the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians.  In part, because of the implicit (inverted) Hegelianism within the third wave itself.  Beginning with Fichte, a new mythology—a new veil of sacrality—was constructed to combat the bourgeois liberalism that so terrified both the second and third waves of modernity.

Insofar that the NRx movement cannot shake itself off the seedlings of historicism, it will never be a truly conservative philosophical movement—even if they are among the few who openly embrace the term; and are not first wave liberals defending first wave liberalism against the second and third wave critics who call their defense of so-called classical liberalism “conservatism” (i.e. modern/mainstream conservatism in the Anglosphere, which is anything but conservative and fully liberal and bourgeois in its philosophical foundations).  This is also why all students of philosophy know that what is called “conservatism” by the press, media, and most self-described “conservatives” of any prominence are nothing more than universalist, globalist, liberals who are just organic evolutionary liberals of a certain modesty compared to the unrestricted social engineering ethos of modern progressives.

The conflict between “conservatives” and “progressives” is nothing but an intra-liberal battle between the children of Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Ricardo, Mill, and Rawls fighting over the “proper” direction and principles of the universalist and materialist middle-class.  Those who think life and politics is about “middle-class” and “jobs” and “wages” expose themselves for what they are: materialistic liberals, regardless of what label they describe themselves with.  The NRx is not liberal, but it is, in the traditional sense, progressivist; it is historicist to the core with a very particular reading of the unfolding of history.  The NRx believe there is a proper path to the unfolding of History, that something (liberalism) arose to derail this unfolding, and that they are working – like doctors – to cleanse this stain so that History can unfold again to its proper end of history.  The revealing hand of History is also being unveiled in this process.   One can imagine the NRx changing the lyrics to that most infamous scene in Cabaret to: “History, oh History, show us the sign…your children have waited to see.”


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding ArcadiaThe Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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1 comment

  1. The increasing popularity of NRx thought amongst people of the right and dissent, is particularly due to the incapability of the conservative movement to maintain its internal coherence and achieve political triumph against the adversaries of it. As it is stated, the discourse is Intra liberal debate that is concerned with economic efficiency and social relations, and eventually opinions vary within the constrained spectrum established. Such a Deterritoriliazation, as the NRx would call it, is the outcome of liberal hegemony and the subversion of the political discourse, so it becomes limited to the aforementioned criteria, while operating in the background as the supreme form of governance, that makes it possible for such a discourse to exist. Conservatism, and its adherence to capitalism and free markets as it manifests in the western world mostly, will inevitably become liberally dominated in any case scenario, for the reaps of capitalism, proliferate in its march toward globalisation. However the critique of consevatism might go, it is the only viable political thought that brings about a substantive social structure with the possibility of a virtuous life to lead, since the rule of law is the ideal of human social organisation that must obtain primacy above all other form of social phenomena, something every self-proclaimed conservative must understand. The third wave, where the NRx is found, propagates its social culmination in the state instead of the rule of law, and the state supremacy above all that is established, becomes so powerful with the overwhelming concentration of power, it becomes untenable.


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