For a part of the political spectrum that is so notorious for disparaging intellectuals, the radical right is very appreciative of those prominent libertarian voices that stand out from the crowd and champion men’s rights, anti-immigration, and second amendment rights. As universities grow increasingly uncomfortable employing academics or welcoming speakers who promote hate speech and undermine their safe space policies, right-wing intellectuals – from Jordan Peterson to Milo Yiannopoulos – pack out auditoriums on their speaking tours and attract millions of followers on social media. Despite the significant differences between the heyday of fascism and our own times, there is much we can learn from the past about why the radical right cherishes intellectuals who challenge received wisdom and validate their deeply held opinions.
Many libertarian intellectuals today complain about being marginalized by the academy and describe themselves as members of the “intellectual dark web”, a category popularized by Bari Weiss in 2018 that includes iconoclastic public intellectuals who spurn political correctness and promote ideas that are frequently synonymous with those of the radical right. Such people are not as rare in higher education as they would like us to think, however, and it is still easier for a right-wing historian, political scientist, or philosopher to get a job than it was for comparable thinkers on the far left in interwar Germany or Austria.
Nationalism, race theory, and eugenics were the dominant ideologies of 1920s and 1930s Europe, when right-wing professors used their influence to give jobs to their protégés as lecturers or newspaper columnists and exploited their positions on university committees to prevent disciplinary measures being taken against right-wing students accused of assault or disturbing the peace. In many parts of interwar East-Central Europe radical right movements were not exactly mainstream though, and activists cherished outspoken intellectuals who championed their ideas.
One such intellectual whose career is particularly instructive is the Romanian philosopher, Nae Ionescu (1890-1940). Ionescu studied in Germany during the First World War, receiving his PhD from the University of Munich in 1919, at a time when Germany was a dirty word in allied Romania. Ionescu quickly received a teaching post at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Bucharest, working under the renowned philosopher, Constantin Rădulescu-Motru. Ionescu built his reputation through a popular series of lectures on mysticism, large sections of which he plagiarized almost word for word from Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 book Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. Ionescu taught that whereas logic allows us to know about “concrete things”, only mysticism gives access to “ultimate realities”. To truly know the world outside of ourselves, Ionescu said, we must transcend our own egos and “live that universe outside of myself”. He developed these ideas into an early form of existentialism he called Trăirism from the word a trăi, to live. Mysticism was a popular topic in 1920s Bucharest, and as one of the first people to discuss mysticism using patristic Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophy Ionescu developed a strong following among spiritually-inclined young people dissatisfied with the technological-industrial modernity developing around them.
Ionescu’s philosophy was also influenced by the French writer Georges Sorel, in particular by his book Reflections on Violence (1908), in which he argued that violence was a creative, life-giving force and that only revolutionary violence could overcome the “barbarism” of early twentieth century society. As a committed nationalist, Ionescu also believed that individuals exist only insofar as they are connected to collectives such as nations. “Nothing exists in the universe except collectives,” he wrote in 1931. “That which we call the individual is nothing but collective existence organized and unified in a particular manner.” According to Ionescu, nations are spiritual things, and in a famous debate with a right-wing Catholic theologian in 1930 he argued that Romanians are inherently Orthodox, such that it was not possible to be both a Catholic and a “good Romanian”. Unafraid of upsetting people, Ionescu championed antisemitism and wrote a biting antisemitic preface for a book about Judaism written by one of his erstwhile protégées, the Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian. By providing academic support for core right-wing ideologies and taking controversial stances on major public issues such as Orthodox-Catholic relations, the YMCA, antisemitism, and student violence, Ionescu soon became the darling of the radical right.
But it was not only his ideas that made Ionescu important for his followers. The old adage that ‘it is not whether we are right but how we make people feel that matters’ rings particularly true in Ionescu’s case. His students record that when he spoke to packed-out lecture theatres he challenged his listeners to contest the existing orthodoxy, to critique what they thought they knew, to think for themselves, and to act according to their convictions. Posing questions rather than giving answers, he made his students feel like their opinions mattered and that the fate of the world lay in their hands. To students who had been taught simply to parrot the writings of their elders and who lived in a country that was often seen as insignificant in European terms, Ionescu’s confidence in them and his iconoclastic questions were a revelation.
One of the most valuable things any teacher can teach their students is the ability to think for themselves as researchers, and Ionescu did so in a superb manner. He spent most of the 1930s as a supporter of the radical right and died in prison in 1940, convicted of being an ideologue and mentor for the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael. The same things that made Ionescu so successful in his day gifts power to the right-wing intellectuals of today. A combative public stance, a call to arms, and the ability to validate and inspire a public go a long way towards popularizing radical ideas in any society. Whether they are the right ideas is another question altogether.
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