Bernard-Henri Levy Debates Aleksandr Dugin in Amsterdam, 2019
"The Russian Renaissance can only begin in Kiev." "Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player. Now these processes slowed down very much. The Ukrainian maidan was the response of the West to the advance of the Russian integration." (Maidan--the central square in Kyiv--is the name for the protest demonstrations against the pro-Russian illiberal government of Ukraine in 2013, which eventually led to the establishment of a pro-Western liberal government in 2014.)
That was the Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin speaking in 2014. He was supporting Putin's annexation of Crimea, but he was criticizing Putin for not conquering all of the Ukraine as a step towards establishing a Eurasian Empire based on a fascist Traditionalism that could challenge the global power of American Liberal Modernity.
Recently, Dugin wrote an article saying that the aim of the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine was the "liberation" of the whole of Ukraine, which will bring "a completely different page in world history, . . . a multipolar world and a total change in the entire global world order." What he means by this is that while after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it appeared that the world order would be "unipolar"--with the United States as the one hegemonic superpower--now we can move to a "multipolar world," in which a Eurasian Russian Empire can challenge the power of the U.S. and stop the global spread of Liberal Modernity.
Dugin and other Right-Wing Traditionalists--like Steve Bannon--see the expansion of Russia as part of a global strategy to destroy the liberal democratic values of modernity promoted by the United States. Ultimately, these ideas of the fascist Traditionalists are rooted in the illiberal nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.
Previously, I have written posts (here, here, and here) on the intellectual tradition of illiberal traditionalism--from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Nazism, and finally to the American Alt-Right and European New Right today. For some time, I have wanted to write about how Dugin and Russian Eurasianism fit into that line of thought, which culminates in the global strategy of political leaders like Putin (and Trump) for pushing back against the international spread of American liberal democratic principles.
My thinking about Dugin's Eurasianism and fascist Traditionalism has been shaped by my reading of studies by Marlene Laruelle (2019a, 2019b), Charles Clover (2016), and Mark Sedgwick (2004), and by my reading of some of Dugin's writings--particularly, The Fourth Political Theory (2012). For understanding Dugin's entanglements in Steve Bannon's global far-right circle, I have learned a lot from Benjamin Teitelbaum's War for Eternity (2020). A recent article in the Washington Post offers a brief summary of Dugin's geopolitical Euroasianism and indicates how Putin has been following Dugin's plan exactly.
DUGIN'S LIFE AND THOUGHT
Dugin was born in Moscow in 1962. At the age of 18, he joined an anti-communist dissident group--the "Yuzhinsky group"--that engaged in various kinds of occult spirituality as a form of psychic rebellion against the soulless life of a communist totalitarian society. Dugin expressed his rebellion by embracing fascist and Nazi ideas. He discovered the writings of Julius Evola (1896-1974), an Italian fascist, who had adopted the ideas of the Traditionalist School initiated by the Frenchman Rene Guenon (1886-1951), an occultist mystic.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, he looked for ways to create an ideological fusion of fascism, communism, and Russian nationalism that would challenge the global hegemony of the United States and the values of liberal modernity that the U.S. promoted--individualism, materialism, secularism, democracy, and human rights. In the 1990s, he formed first the National Bolshevik Party and then the Eurasia Party as ways to promote his eclectic ideology that would support Russian global power projected against American liberalism. In doing this, he glorified Tsarist, Leninist, and Stalinist Russia.
Dugin is clearer about what he is against than what he is for. He is clearly against the liberal modernity promoted by the United States. But what he is for is often confusing and incoherent. Generally, his thinking combines four elements. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, he draws from the Traditionalism of Guenon and Evola. Second, he adopts fascist and Nazi ideas from the 1920s and 1930s. Third, he appropriates ideas from the European New Right of the past thirty years. And, finally, he tries to integrate all of this into a Russian Eurasianism.
Traditionalism is a revolt against the modern world as it began in the sixteenth century and then was deepened in the liberal Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to modernity, it is claimed, there was a divine order based on a universal religious tradition of spirituality that was diversely expressed in all of the organized traditional religions. The modern world has lost this spiritual tradition, because it has been corrupted by the soulless secularism, materialism, and individualism of modern liberalism. But once this corruption reaches bottom, the human longing for transcendent meaning will bring a cultural revolution that will renew the ancient Tradition.
The fascism and Nazism of the first half of the twentieth centuries were revolts against liberal modernity that attempted to restore the ancient traditions of a collective human existence rooted in the national identity of the Aryans and other blood-and-soil peoples.
The third element of Dugin's thinking comes from the European New Right--from those thinkers in Western Europe who reject the cosmopolitan liberalism represented by the United States. These thinkers want to turn Europeans away from an Americanized Europe and towards a European Europe, in which each European country breaks away from American hegemony and from the European Union and affirms the traditional cultural identity and moral values of each nation as expressing its white Christian heritage.
The final element is Dugin's vision of Russia as the leader of the Eurasian continent stretching from Dublin and Berlin to Vladivostok and Beijing. Russia lies at the center of the Eurasian continent. At the other pole of geopolitics is the Atlanticist Anglo-American world--Great Britain and its North American colonies--that has led the movement for liberal modernity. This would set us a global battle between a rootless Atlantic world of Modernity and a rooted Eurasian world of Tradition.
Notably, Dugin identifies the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) as "the peak of the strategic success of Eurasianists." Dugin laments the break-up of this alliance between Germany and Russia in 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, as tragically failed opportunity for the illiberal Eurasianists to unite against the liberal Atlanticists.
Notice the historical logic of this. If Hitler had maintained his alliance with Stalin, illiberal Nazi Germany could have conquered most of Western Europe, while the illiberal Soviet Union took control of Eastern Eurasia. This could have checked the power of the Anglo-American Atlanticists (the U.S. and Great Britain) and prevented the hegemony of the U.S. after the war in creating the liberal international order.
In recent years, Dugin has found philosophic support for this bipolar vision of Liberal Modernity versus Illiberal Tradition in Martin Heidegger. Dugin has translated seven of Heidegger's works, and he has written two books about Heidegger. Dugin shows Heidegger's influence by using Heideggerian concepts like Dasein to explain geopolitics.
Against the background of Dugin's philosophic vision of geopolitics, one can understand why Putin invaded Ukraine. During the previous Ukrainian crisis of 2014, Dugin wrote:
"Our revolution will not stop in Western Ukraine. It must go further in Europe. . . . Europe faces a Revolution in both cases: if we, Russians, win, and if we stop somewhere under NATO pressure. If we win, we will begin the expansion of liberation [from American liberal] ideology into Europe. It is the goal of Eurasianism--Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. A Great Eurasian Continental Europe. And we will build it. This means the European Revolution will be a Eurasian Revolution. This is our last horizon."
Apparently, Putin decided to invade Ukraine with the thought that now was the time to start the Eurasian Revolution against American Liberal Modernity. If so, he might have been following Dugin's advice.
I should say, however, that there is scholarly debate over whether Dugin has really had this kind of influence over Putin. Marlene Laruelle thinks that Dugin's influence with Putin has been greatly exaggerated, because Putin has never publicly spoken about Dugin. Clover and Teitelbaum, however, lay out the evidence that Dugin has been working with Putin behind the scenes. I do not have enough knowledge to decide this debate. But it does seem to me that if Putin has not been directly listening to Dugin's advice, Putin has been taking advice from people passing on Dugin's ideas.
Even if Dugin had no influence at all on Putin's decision, it's worth studying Dugin's thought as a philosophic explanation and defense of Putin's expansionist foreign policy.
DUGIN AND BANNON, PUTIN AND TRUMP
We must wonder why Putin decided to invade Ukraine now--at the beginning of Joe Biden's second year of his presidency--rather than sometime during Donald Trump's four years in office. Dugin's writing suggests an answer: as long as Trump was president, Putin did not need to go to war to build his illiberal Eurasian Empire, but the election of Biden changed that, because it threatened to renew America's leadership of the liberal world order.
On November 8, 2016, election day in the United States, Dugin wrote an essay on "Clinton Is War, Trump Is Freedom". He wrote: "Hillary Clinton is the path of globalism, the unipolar world, and the continuation of U.S. hegemony." She represented the old world order of American liberal dominance of the global system that is coming to an end. But since she would go to war to defend that liberal world order, the illiberal regimes like Russia would be drawn into her wars.
On the other hand, Dugin wrote: "Donald Trump is the America we almost lost"--the America described by populist nationalists like Patrick Buchanan that wanted to withdraw from liberal globalism. This America could be great again, but it would not be a global power enforcing the liberal international order. This would be a multipolar order in which illiberal autocracies like Russia and China could advance their illiberal values. So if Trump is elected, Dugin declared, "the world will be a different place tomorrow."
And, indeed, this came true. On November 10, 2016, two days after the election, Dugin wrote an essay on "Donald Trump's Victory." Dugin explained how this was a great victory for Putin: "Putin, standing in the vanguard of the struggle for multipolarity, led up to this. November 8th, 2016 was a most important victory for Russia and him personally. There is no alternative to the multipolar order, and now we can finally create the architecture of this new world order--not through war, but through peace. Trump has brought this with him."
Dugin wrote: "Trump's America is traditional and conservative, healthy, and worthy of respect. This America said a resounding 'no' to globalism and the expansion of liberal ideology."
Consequently, "we should abandon simplistic anti-Americanism, which was completely appropriate when the U.S. was ruled by the globalists." Now, "European liberals have lost their advisor," and thus liberal values must fade in Europe as long as America is no longer projecting liberal culture around the world.
Dugin observed: "Some retort that we overestimate Trump. Yesterday, they scoffed at us when we predicted his victory. Today, our time has come. This is a window of opportunity, and it is open. If we fail to use it now, then we will have only ourselves to blame."
Then, on November 14, 2016, six days after the election, Dugin wrote on "Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire." Here he explained that "anti-Americanism is over" for Russians who want to promote illiberal autocracy around the world, because not only will Trump turn America away from promoting liberalism abroad, he will also lead a revolution to overthrow liberalism in America. When Trump promises to "drain the Swamp," we should see that "the Swamp is an ideology--Liberalism." On the day before the election, the center of the liberal global order was in America. On the day after the election, that center was gone.
Now, with the election of Trump, we no longer have a global order with two opposing poles--America in the West promoting liberalism and Russia in the East promoting illiberalism. Now we see the West turning into the East. "Now they have turned into two eschatological promises: Putin's Greater Russia and America liberating itself under Trump. The 21st century has finally begun."
This alliance between Putin and Trump was manifest in the alliance between Dugin and Steve Bannon. In November of 2018, Dugin and Bannon met in Rome. This meeting was kept secret until Teitelbaum reported it in 2020 in his War for Eternity based on his extensive interviews of Bannon and Dugin. At the time, Bannon and Dugin had to keep this secret, because the Trump movement was being criticized for its ties to Putin and Russia, and so publishing the story of this meeting would have been an explosive scandal for the Trump administration.
Bannon had been identified as perhaps the mastermind behind Trump's election. He then joined the White House staff in 2017 as a close political strategist for Trump. After he was fired in August of 2017, Bannon began to build a global network of far-right thinkers and politicians to advance illiberal populism in Europe and elsewhere. Bannon had begun collaborating with people like the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Viktor Orban in Hungary. He was also organizing schools in Europe to teach future nationalist leaders about political activism and ideology (including Traditionalism). His meeting with Dugin was part of that project.
Bannon is not the only Alt-Right thinker who has looked to Dugin. For example, I have written previously about "Bronze Age Pervert," who endorses "Eurasianism" as a form of the European Ethnostate under a military dictatorship favored by the Alt-Right.
Dugin and Bannon met for eight hours of conversation over one day in a hotel room in Rome. They talked about the philosophical ideology that might bring together Trump's America and Putin's Russia as allies in the fight against Liberal Modernity. A big part of their conversation was about how Martin Heidegger's philosophy might support this.
Teitelbaum reports Dugin's thoughts about Bannon:
"This American emerged from a wasteland, a society forged to modernism with no connection to its soil, no connection to history, and no sacred roots. To be American is to be without Tradition, which has made Bannon's rise all the more spectacular. For there, among the ruins of modernity and materialism--in the midnight kingdom, at the midnight hour--a sudden blast of light. The Russian sees Bannon's rise to power as the beginning of a successful revolt against the modern world, one foretold by ancient mystics and detailed in the writings of underground twentieth-century spiritualists. Bannon isn't a person; he's an eschatological sign."
". . . We are Traditionalists, Dugin thinks to himself, and it is our time" (Teitelbaum 2020, 3).
Like Dugin, Bannon had become a Traditionalist from his reading of Guenon and Evola. But despite this agreement on Traditionalist metaphysics and spirituality, Bannon and Dugin disagreed about some points of geopolitical strategy. Bannon thought that America and Russia needed to find common ground as part of the Judeo-Christian culture in fighting against China, Turkey, and Iran. But Dugin thought the spiritual fight against Liberal Modernity should be allied with China, Turkey, and Iran.
They also disagreed about Dugin's anti-Americanism. Dugin thought that America was the only state created in modernity, and that while both America and communism belong to modernity, Russia has premodern historical roots in Tradition. He thought that while he had been born into the rootless nothingness of communism, Bannon had been born into the rootless nothingness of America. Both of them had found their way out of nothingness into Tradition.
Bannon responded by arguing that the modern nothingness was not the real America:
"That's liberalism. Liberal modernity. It's not a people. That's a set of ideas--dangerous ones--put forward by people from around the world. When people say that America is an idea, that's what they're talking about, these so-called universal values that can't help but infect everything. But that is the thing--America isn't an idea. It is a country, it is a people, with roots, spirit, destiny. It's the working class and middle class, it's that group of people that have been perennial to us, from the fuckin' Pilgrims and the Puritans on. And what you are talking about, the liberalism and the globalism that live in America, real American people are victims of that. We're talking the backbone of American society, the people who give the country its spirit--they're not modernists. They're not the ones blowing trillions of dollars trying to impose democracy on places that don't want it. They're not the ones trying to create a world without borders. They're getting screwed in all of this, by an elite that doesn't care about them and that isn't them" (158).
Bannon insisted that the real Russia and the real America are united in their fight for spiritualism against materialism. Russia is fighting for the spiritualism of the Eastern Orthodox tradition against the materialism of communism. America is fighting for the spiritualism of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition against the materialism of liberalism. (Dugin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Actually, he's an "Old Believer"--one of those who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Russian Orthodox Church as they were before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666.)
In a way, Dugin seemed to agree with Bannon in 2016 when Dugin said (in "Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire") that Trump was leading the real America in a conservative revolution fighting against the Swamp of liberalism, and therefore Russian anti-Americanism was no longer necessary. Trump and Putin could be seen as "two eschatological promises." As long as Trump was fighting against liberalism in America, Putin could advance the cause of illiberal autocracy across Western Europe and the rest of the world.
But that was all changed by the election of Biden in 2020. Now, the Swamp of liberalism is back in control of America, and Putin has no alternative but to go to war against a unipolar global order with a hegemonic American liberalism. This was made clear in Biden's first year when he repeatedly declared that the world order was defined by a battle between the liberal democracy of America and its allies and the illiberal autocracy of Russia and China.
In these circumstances as created by Biden's election, Putin had to invade Ukraine and push up to and perhaps beyond the borders with the NATO countries. He had to do this to advance the cause of Dugin's illiberal Eurasianism rooted in Traditionalist spiritual values.
Right now, we cannot be sure of the outcome. But I see evidence just in the first few days of the war that Putin has already lost the war--because of the resoluteness of the Ukrainean people in defending their homeland, the strength of the U.S. and the NATO allies in resisting Putin's invasion, and the superiority of liberal democracy over illiberal autocracy.
Even if Putin occupies most of Ukraine, there will surely be a Ukrainian insurgency that he can never defeat.
Far from being smart, as Trump has said, Putin's invasion is dumb.
Clover, Charles. 2016. Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.
Dugin, Alexander. 2012. The Fourth Political Theory. London: Arktos Media.
Laruelle, Marlene. 2019a. "Alexander Dugin and Eurasianism." In Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the Threat to Liberal Democracy, edited by Mark Sedgwick, 155-69. New York: Oxford University Press.
_____. 2019b. Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Oxford: Routledge.
Sedgwick, Mark. 2004. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. 2020. War for Eternity: Inside Bannon's Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers. New York: Dey St., HarperCollins Publishers.