A major project of mine for the last three years has been to trace the origin and development of the ideas that led to today’s alt-right activists. They have emerged on the political scene suddenly and with impressive ferocity. Some people just assume that they represent nothing but a melange of hate and racism.
This is too simple. Even the most dumbed-down political movement is built by slaves of defunct philosophers. But which ones? And does the worldview cohere to the point that we can anticipate the patterns and policies of this group?
To reconstruct the history of this school of thought is not easy. It is not usually thought of as a school of thought in the way we think of Marxism, for example. A half-century has passed since these ideas have been a pressing issue.
What’s in a name?
What do we call this school of thought? Following Ludwig von Mises, I prefer the designation right-Hegelian, but there are plenty of other terms that could apply, including fascist, national socialist, right-collectivist, and so on.
What we are looking for here is a distinct (and ultimately predictable) collection of attitudes concerning the individual and the state. It is historicist, believing that the narrative of time is driving us toward some end state. It is nationalist. It is identitarian: usually about race but also about religion, gender identity, and intelligence. It believes that commerce should track identity and nation, not economic interest. It is also statist: its vision of what society should do and look like requires mass violence to achieve.
It has nothing to do with the traditional liberalism of Adam Smith or John Locke, or the conservatism of Edmund Burke, Joseph De Maistre, or Machiavelli. It departs dramatically from those models to long for a full reconstruction of the state and society, to make it conform to an edgy drama of how life should be. In this way, it is a twin of Marxism, just with a different cultural feel and moving ideological pieces.
Another way to think of this list: if you are tempted by the alt-right, here is your family tree. Do you like what you see?
Slaves of philosophers
To come up with this list, I’ve followed breadcrumbs left by Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and modern authors Tom Palmer and Thomas Leonard. Here is my best effort at a short biographical list, based on each person’s pivotal influence:
Johann Fichte (May 19, 1762 – January 27, 1814) studied theology at the University of Jena, wrote theological works such as Foundations of Natural Right, and was a professor and rector at Humboldt University, and became a dedicated opponent of liberalism.
G.F. Hegel (August 27, 1770 – November 14, 1831) received his theological certificate from Tübingen Seminary and taught philosophy at Jena, Heidelberg, and the University of Berlin. His followers split into left- and right-wing branches that adopted his theory of history, which culminated in one or another form of anti-liberal statism.
Friedrich List (August 6, 1789 – November 30, 1846) worked as an administrative professor at the University of Tübingen but was expelled and went to America where he became involved in the establishment of railroads and championed an economic “National System” or industrial mercantilism.
Thomas Carlyle (December 4, 1795 – February 5, 1881) was a Scottish philosopher who wrote books such as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, The French Revolution: A History, defended slavery and dictatorship, and coined the term “the dismal science” for economics precisely because economics opposed slavery.
John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, a philanthropist, became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, and founded the Guild of Saint George in opposition to commercial capitalism and mass production for the masses.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain (September 9, 1855 – January 9, 1927) traveled around Europe and, becoming highly enamored of Wagner and German culture, and a leading Hitler celebrant. He advocated blood-thirsty anti-Semitism and wrote The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century which emphasized Europe’s Teutonic roots.
Frederick Hoffman (May 2, 1865 – 1946) was born in Germany, became a statistician in America, and wrote The Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro characterizing African-Americans as inferior to other races, but casting aspersions on Jews and non-caucasians. The monograph was published by the American Economic Association.
Madison Grant (November 19, 1865 – May 30, 1937) graduated from Yale University and received a law degree from Columbia Law School, after which his interest in eugenics led him to study the “racial history” of Europe and write the popular hit book The Passing of the Great Race. He was a leading environmentalist and a champion of nationalized forests, for strange eugenic reasons.
Charles Davenport (June 1, 1866 – February 18, 1944) was a professor of zoology at Harvard who researched eugenics, wrote Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, and founded the Eugenics Record Office and International Federation of Eugenics Organizations. He was a major player in the construction of the eugenic state.
Henry H. Goddard (August 14, 1866 – June 18, 1957) was a psychologist, a eugenicist, the Director of Research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys. He popularized IQ studies and turned them into a weapon used by the state to create a planned society, creating hierarchies determined and enforced by public bureaucrats.
Edward A. Ross (December 12, 1866 – July 22, 1951) received a Ph.D. from University of John Hopkins, was part of the faculty at Stanford, and became a founder of sociology in the United States. Author of Sin and Society (1905). He warned of the dysgenic effects of permitting women freedom of choice to engage in commercial work and pushed laws to prohibit women’s work.
Robert DeCourcy Ward (November 29, 1867 – November 12, 1931) was a professor of meteorology and climatology at Harvard University and co-founded the Immigration Restriction League, fearing the dysgenic effects of Slavic, Jewish, and Italian intermarriage. His influence was key to the closing of borders in 1924, trapping millions in Europe to be slaughtered.
Giovanni Gentile (May 30, 1875 – April 15, 1944) was an Italian neo-Hegelian idealist philosopher, who provided an intellectual foundation for Italian Fascism and helped write The Doctrine of Fascism with Benito Mussolini. He was briefly beloved by the American press for his intellect and vision.
Lewis Terman (January 15, 1877 – December 21, 1956) was a eugenicist who focused on studying gifted children as measured by IQ. Ph.D. from Clark University, he became a member of the pro-eugenic Human Betterment Foundation, and was president of the American Psychology Association. He pushed strict segregation, coerced sterilization, immigration controls, birthing licenses, and a planned society generally.
Oswald Spengler (May 29, 1880 – May 8, 1936) graduated from Halle University, Germany became a teacher, and in 1918 wrote Decline of the West on historical cycles and changes that sought to explain Germany’s defeat in the Great War. He urged a new Teutonic tribal authoritarianism to combat liberal individualism.
Ezra Pound (October 30, 1885 – November 1, 1972) was an expat modernist poet from America who converted to national socialism and blamed WWI on usury and international capitalism and supported Mussolini and Hitler during WWII. A brilliant but deeply troubled man, Pound used his genius to write for Nazi newspapers in England before and during the war.
Carl Schmitt (July 11, 1888 – April 7, 1985) was a Nazi jurist and political theorist who wrote extensively and bitterly against classical liberalism for the ruthless wielding of power (The Concept of the Political). His view of the state’s role is total. He admired and celebrated despotism, war, and Hitler.
Charles Edward Coughlin (October 25, 1891 – October 27, 1979), was a massively influential Canadian-American priest who hosted a radio show with 30 million listeners in the 1930s. He despised capitalism, backed the New Deal, and plunged into hard anti-Semitism and Nazi doctrine, publishing speeches by Goebbels under his own name. His show inspired thousands to protest in the streets against Jewish refugees.
Julius Caesar Evola (May 19, 1898 – June 11, 1974) was a radically traditionalist Italian philosopher who focused on history and religion and worshipped violence. He was admired by Mussolini and wrote adoring letters to Hitler. He spent a lifetime advocating for the subjugation of women and holocaust for Jews.
Francis Parker Yockey (September 18, 1917 – June 16, 1960) was an American attorney and dedicated Nazi who wrote Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics which argues for a culture-based, totalitarian path for the preservation of Western culture against the influence of the Jews. He said the fall of the Third Reich was a temporary setback. He killed himself in prison where he was being held for passport fraud.
It was Yockey who had a powerful influence on Willis Carto (1926-2015), the primary agitator for fascist/Nazi theory and practice in post-war US media, founder of publishing outfits and institutions that kept Nazi doctrine alive for decades. He, along with a few other devoted Nazis, is the actual organizational bridge from prewar to postwar Nazi theory and practice.
Those are the main players. What about today’s alt-right? The names are well known by now but it is probably too soon to discern which among the bad boys of the alt-right wield decisive influence and which are just along for the ride. What matters much more is that even they are largely unaware of the deep heritage of their belief system, which for two hundred years has taken a hard stand against anything most people would recognize as freedom.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of Liberty.me, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.