Though the alternative right largely consists of young men, it draws on the ideas of old men and, indeed, dead men: long dead, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Julius Evola, and more recently dead, like Samuel Francis, Joe Sobran and an Englishman, Jonathan Bowden.
Jonathan Bowden was among the most influential figures on the far right. Author, artist, filmmaker and activist for groups including the Monday Club and the British National Party, Bowden was best known as orator. My first impression of him was unflattering: he sounded like Peter Cook’s fabulously tedious comic creation EL Wisty. Yet Bowden’s imposing style, combined with his broad reading, made him an impressive speaker, inspiring traditionalists, nationalists and racialists on both sides of the Atlantic before his early death in 2012.
A true eccentric, Bowden was impoverished and obscure, typing his essays in the comfort of a public library. His private life remains mysterious, not least as he was, it is alleged, an energetic fabulist. His novels were dense, abstruse and almost unreadable. His films were unintentionally comic. One suspects that his ambitions exceeded his opportunities and, indeed, his talent.
Nonetheless, he was talented. He instilled excitement and energy in his admirers, and offered, from the breadth of his literary, philosophical and esoteric knowledge, a counter-cultural canon of authors who reflected his elitist and essentialist ideals, running through Evola to Eliot to the “Angry Young Men”, like his friend and mentor Bill Hopkins. In doing so, he strove to, and to some extent succeeded at, energising and intellectualising the far right. One can see his influence in Richard Spencer, who was his admirer and friend. Bowden foreshadowed the “Alt-Right”, indeed, saying in an interview in 2009 that the far right would thrive as a dissident force, spreading its ideas less through politics and activism than through the Internet.
Bowden was not constrained by stuffy, tweedy attitudes of traditional conservatives, or the sour resentment of the Blackshirts’ successors. He was modernist in temperament and taste, believing that destruction and creation were essential to life. He opposed liberal guilt and right wing defeatism with his insistence on pride and the pursuit of glory. His speeches and his writings were mired in racial epithets and conspiracy theories. He wanted to renew the soul of Western civilisation.
What Western civilisation? One that was aristocratic, authoritarian and enamoured of its glory, and its power, and its strength.
Nature has become sentient in us which means we must incarnate natural law as a principle of being. It’s called becoming in my philosophy. The right, even if you don’t use that term, stands for nature and for that which is given.
What does that mean?
It means conflict is natural, and good. It means domination is natural, and good. It means that what you have to do in order to survive, is natural, and good. It means that we should not begin every sentence by apologizing for our past or apologizing for who we are.
The right believes that inequality, and conflict, and even domination are natural to some extent. But good? Less so, or Genghis Khan would be considered a greater man than any European. Bowden slides, throughout his work, from saying we should not be ashamed of past conquests and conflicts (which I agree with given that conquest and conflict have been ubiquitous) to implying that we should glory in them, which is less defensible. The right, as I imagine it, is at its best when nature (in its objective sense) is balanced with culture (religious, artistic and institutional) to maintain stable, mutually beneficial societies.
Bowden would have thought this tedious and bourgeois. He sought a life of vital, dynamic intensity. I think, perhaps presumptuously, that what animated him was less oikophilia or racial animus than boredom – intense boredom – with secular liberal and consumerist societies, where “people have an absence of belief” and are consumed by “McDonalds, Coke and Political Correctness“. I can sympathise, in two senses, but the importance of the distinction undermines his Weltanshauung.
Societies need radicals: bored, curious, energetic men and women who prod the boundaries of the possible. Artists. Scientists. Adventurers. Warriors. But they are exceptions to the rule. Most people need belief as a cohesive, consolatory force, uniting friendships, families and communities. Extreme ideologues of the left and right grow impatient with their small pleasures and simpler ways but attempting to unite them with great animating forces – racial, classist or religious – culminates destructively. They are too meaningful and too meaningless; exceeding the scale of a normal man’s imagination while also being too arbitrary and impractical to assuage ideologues. Thus, they lurch between conflicts, each violent effort to achieve their aims obscuring their essential hollowness. Sublimity is necessarily exceptional. Transcendence requires a basic ordinariness beneath it.
People with a thirst for meaning should avoid projecting their impatience onto people with more limited ideals. Ideologues who have dreamed of glory have, time and again, fuelled their ambitions with the blood of people who would have settled for less. Besides, any idea of martial glory died with weaponised warfare. Even if one can feel the romance of the sword and the steed there is none in the drone and the Massive Ordnance Air Blast.
Still, if that is a conservative critique of Bowden, Bowden had an intriguing critique of conservativism. He described its British form as “philistine” and “anti-intellectual”. There is something to this. Our limp liberal consensus has enabled such cultural incuriority that Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s adviser, is thought well-read for having skimmed The Art of War. Bowden was no scholar, as the notes of his republished books attest (he once conflated the names of Iain M. Banks, the Scottish novelist, and Ian Stuart Donaldson, the English Nazi) but he was well-read, versed in the literature of the left and the right, as well as horror novels, existential philosophy, true crime and comic books. Even literate conservatives can stick to well-worn classics (like Burke’s Revolutions and Oakeshott’s Rationalism) but Bowden took ideas and inspiration from everywhere. There are dangers to such an eclectic approach, such as incoherence, or ideological appropriation. Still, I think we should be open-minded and eclectic, not just as old and eccentric books can be relevant to our ideas but as they can become relevant to society. Who would have thought that Samuel Francis, a dead and, even in his lifetime marginalised, author would have been made so relevant by the Trump campaign.
Bowden was also right that conservatives can be too averse to theory. They enjoy the business of politics; of stalling or stabilising social changes. But what to do when it changes? They are split between people who pine uselessly for its original state and people who naively advocate for the preservation of the present. Bowden’s modernism, on the other hand, demanded that the present be transformed according to the values of the past. This was nothing new. It had been the spirit of Pound, Eliot and Lewis, who he described as “the classicism of the Old World coming back to the Old World via the New World”. It had been the spirit of fascism. On the other hand, it is not an essentially fascistic idea (having no necessary inclination towards racial fetishism, militarism, corporatism et cetera). It implies respect for historical accomplishments, awareness of the conditions of modernity and an attempt to bring the two together so as to avoid both empty nostalgia and crude presentism.
Bowden also held that conservatives were “afraid, terribly afraid”. Of what? Of being called a Nazi. This is somewhat true, of course, but what was his suggestion? If not quite agree then almost. If he was accused of being a fascist he would claim “there’s nothing wrong with fascism”. If asked about the Holocaust he would dismiss it as irrelevant. He would sympathetic to fascism and saw Hitler, at worst, as an extreme anti-communist phenomenon. How this can be squared with carving Poland and invading France is a question without an answer. Even right wingers with no attraction to leather and lebensraum find this idea appealing, because it is absolutist and because they think the left embraces its ideological extremists. That is false (as evidenced by the treatment of Noam Chomsky). Leftists have neatly disassociated themselves from Mao and Stalin, by portraying them as perverters of Marxism or by emphasising their liberal and democratic elements so as to make accusations of totalitarianism seem ridiculous. Conservatives with a sensible loathing of Nazism should not fear the charge but bluntly, firmly and with some finality emphasise its ridiculousness. After all, the Europeans who fought to beat the Nazis were, in general, to the right of latter-day conservatives. Even Eliot and Lewis, who Bowden so admired, had condemned Hitler long before the gates of Auschwitz had been flung open.
Bowden, who was such a passionate elitist, found it difficult to get on with the tattooed baldy contingent of the far right. He stormed out of the BNP after anonymous rumours charged him paedophilia, decrying its “low-grade lycanthropes and psychotic criminals”. (“The stench of this rabble, lumpen and canaille,” he carried on, “Is displeasing to me.”) He was a rather sad figure, and a rather comic one, but his voice resonates because it is both urgent and determined, unlike Cameronite complacance or the miserablism that hangs around Mail and Spectator columnists. That spirit, in an age of desiccated rationality and baffled relativism, is the preserve of extremists. Even if we dislike their ideas we should appreciate that fire. It can illuminate, and warm, and smelt, and burn. But it must be contained.