Last updated on December 27, 2017, at 3:02 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 26, 2017, at 10:00 a.m. ET
PARIS — The man the alt-right claims as its spiritual father is a 74-year-old who lives with four cats in a Paris apartment around the corner from a Creole restaurant, a West African clothing store, and a Peruvian supermarket.
His name is Alain de Benoist, and he has published more than 100 books in his nearly 60-year writing career that encompass topics from anthropology to paganism. As the leader of a movement begun in the 1960s known as the “New Right,” he won one of France’s most prestigious intellectual prizes, was a columnist for several of its leading newspapers, and helped build the canon of fascist and radical writers familiar to political players ranging from Richard Spencer to Steve Bannon.
His core arguments are at the heart of many nationalist movements around the world, echoed even by those who do not know his name. His work helped give an aura of respectability to the notion that European “identity” needs to be defended against erasure by immigration, global trade, multinational institutions, and left-wing multiculturalism.
Today, de Benoist generally avoids social media and remains very much a man of the printed page. His Paris apartment is a refuge from the country home where he keeps a personal library of more than 200,000 volumes, a collection so vast he says it has become a burden. His study houses an art collection that includes a modernist portrait of de Benoist with his face encased in what appears to be a mask of metal. A poster for a talk he once gave in Turkey hangs on the bathroom wall, opposite a poster featuring different breeds of cats.
He now sees himself as more left than right and says he would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US election. (His first choice in the French election was the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.) He rejects any link between his New Right and the alt-right that supported Donald Trump.
“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons,” he said.
De Benoist’s views have changed a lot over his career, and he has written so extensively and in such dense prose that it can be hard to figure out what he believes today. (For English speakers, this challenge is complicated further by how little of his work has been translated.) He’s denounced racism but opposes integration. He rejects demands that immigrants assimilate or “remigrate” but laments “sometimes-brutal” changes they bring to European communities. He says identities change over time but wants them to be "strong." He disavows the alt-right but collaborates with some of the most prominent people associated with the movement.
Over the course of an afternoon, he grew frustrated with questions about how his ideas link to today’s politics, saying, “You treat the New Right as a political subject, but for us it is an intellectual subject.”
It wasn’t the far right that brought de Benoist’s writings to the United States. A left-wing journal called Telos, which was drawn to de Benoist’s critique of US foreign policy, first published his work in 1990s. Telos translated his Manifesto for a European Renaissance in 1999, in which he laid out a philosophy that has become known as “ethnopluralism” — arguing that all ethnic groups have a common interest in defending their “right to difference” and opposing all forces that threaten to erase boundaries between “strong identities.”
Whatever his intentions, this argument caught the eye of a new generation of white nationalists, in whose hands ethnopluralism became a kind of upside-down multiculturalism. They were not white supremacists, they claimed, but they believed that everyone was better off in a world where ethnicities were separate but — at least theoretically — equal.
De Benoist came of age following the war over independence for Algeria, which sparked a debate about whether Muslims could ever really be French, and whether France had made itself vulnerable by inviting them in.
After 130 years of French rule, Algeria had increasingly become part of the French republic, and Muslims increasingly a part of France. Algeria’s split from France in 1962 sparked tensions about whether French values could transcend differences of race, ethnicity, and religion. And the hundreds of thousands of Algerian residents — both ethnic Europeans and Muslims — who moved to France in its aftermath fueled a bitter debate over who could truly be French.
The New Right began as a cadre of young men once aligned with Nazis and fascists who believed these questions were life-and-death for the future of Europe. But they broke from the far right in the late ’60s, reinventing themselves as intellectuals, drawing on both the right and the left as they worked their way into mainstream debate.
It’s no accident that ideas de Benoist first formulated in France in the mid-20th century are now upending the politics of the 21st. And it is perhaps inevitable that the people laying claim to de Benoist’s legacy are dragging him back into the kind of far-right world he tried to escape.
De Benoist was born in the Loire Valley west of Paris in 1943, when France was under Nazi occupation. His parents moved him to Paris as a child, where he attended elite prep schools before entering the Sorbonne, one of France’s most prestigious universities.
He began his writing career at just 17, publishing a couple articles with an editor, Henry Coston, who’d been in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. Coston had been a leader of the Association of Anti-Jewish Journalists during the German occupation and published works like the pro-concentration camp pamphlet I Hate You. De Benoist said he was not aware of Coston’s anti-Semitism — he met him because he was friends with Coston’s daughter — and thought of Coston as someone who “mainly wrote about economics and banks.”
De Benoist calls his brief work with Coston a “footnote” in his history; the Algerian War was the conflict that defined his early career.
He entered politics in the early ‘60s as a leader of a group called the Federation of Nationalist Students. That group lent support to something called the Secret Army Organization (OAS), which united former soldiers, fascists, and champions of the French empire in a desperate campaign to block Algerian independence. As independence became increasingly inevitable, the OAS unleashed a terrorist group that killed almost 2,000 people and nearly assassinated the president of France.
De Benoist became close with an OAS member named Dominique Venner, who in 1963 helped launch a magazine with De Benoist as part of the team. Europe-Action became a key voice on the right trying to define what it now meant to be French.
Before the war, France had gone further than nearly any other European country in making colonial residents full citizens, according to historian Todd Shepard. Algeria elected 55 Muslims to the Parliament, including a vice president of the National Assembly. The leader of the Senate — and the first in line of succession to the president — was a black man from Guiana. France had also taken special steps to erase differences between European and local communities in Algeria, including affirmative action for Muslims in government jobs and a campaign to help Muslims “modernize” by casting off the veil.
But France’s rule was brutal, using torture, assassination, and collective punishment to crush calls for independence — tactics that made France a global symbol of the evils of colonialism. Even many in France embraced the cause of Algerian independence because they’d come to believe keeping the territory betrayed France’s egalitarian values.
The right took a different lesson, Shepard said in an interview. For people like Venner, the war proved that it was foolish to include “Arabs” in a European country, and that France was too weak to defend itself from the countries now rising in the ashes of France’s former empire. And with nearly 1 million people moving to France from Algeria in the war’s aftermath, they believed the question of identity would determine if France — or Europe — could endure.
“France and Europe must accomplish their nationalist revolution in order to survive,” Venner wrote from prison in a manifesto that cited Lenin, Hitler, and Mao as models. Force alone was not enough to accomplish this, he argued. The right must also win the battle of ideas, formulating a “new doctrine” to be “a rudder for thought and action.”
In this moment of crisis, Venner and de Benoist’s Europe-Action called for the West to unite as “the community of white people.”
Instead of the kind of nationalism that had led Europeans to fight against one another, de Benoist argued that they should unite around race.
“Race constitutes the only real unit which encompasses individual variations,” de Benoist wrote under a pseudonym in 1966. “The objective study of history shows that only the European race (white race, caucasoid) has continued to progress since it appeared on the rising path of the evolution of the living, contrary to races stagnant in their development, hence in virtual recession.”
And so he endorsed the kind of racial science that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. “Replace natural selection,” he recommended, “with a careful communitarian eugenics policy aiming to reduce the flawed elements and the flaws themselves.”
De Benoist now disavows this essay and other work from these years, saying he “said a lot of stupid things before” growing disappointed “not only with the radical right, but also with politics.”
“For me, my intellectual life started in 1967, in 1968,” de Benoist said. “This is where I completely changed.”
In reality, the journal he started around that time published continued to write about “biological realism” for many years after. But during this period, he joined with former Europe-Action and Federation of Nationalist Students colleagues to form the New Right, which would gradually stop emphasizing a racial hierarchy and instead focus on “identity” and “human diversity” as social goods that must be carefully preserved from homogenization.
De Benoist went on to develop a philosophy that draws on — and challenges — both the right and the left. But his work’s key preoccupations would echo Venner’s revolutionary manifesto for the rest of his career: the beliefs that politics can be reshaped through the spread of ideas, that Europe needs to return to its cultural roots, and that identities must be forcefully defended from erasure.
He also dined once a year with Venner, de Benoist said, until his death in 2013. Venner died still trying to shock Europe into a nationalist revival. He shot himself in Notre Dame Cathedral, a gesture he said was intended to awaken “French and European memory of our identity” before France falls “into the hands of the Islamists.”
Like the alt-right, de Benoist’s New Right wanted to craft a new right-wing ideology to break into a debate they believed was controlled by the left.
In some ways, de Benoist was very much in step with his French generation in rebelling against authority. In May 1968, left-wing student protests at Paris’s universities sparked a political uprising that transformed France. Clashes between students and police in the streets of Paris were followed by a nationwide general strike, which brought the country’s economy to a halt for two weeks and ultimately forced President Charles de Gaulle into retirement.
De Benoist was in Paris for most of May and “shared the enthusiasm of ’68,” he said, adding, “I didn’t share the reaction of the rightist people who said ‘this is horrible and anarchist.’” He even dropped out of university in 1965, he said, believing getting his degree would be “some kind of collaboration with the system.”
He admired the tactics of the left, and it inspired him and other former far-right activists to undertake a long-term battle of ideas waged through a new think tank.
They called this project “metapolitics,” borrowing a term from the communist thinker Antonio Gramsci. They called themselves as the Group for Research and Study of European Civilization, or GRECE.
They were kind of a group of right-wing hippies. They organized solstice parties and sold spiritualist trinkets in their magazines. They declared themselves pagan because “the European peoples must draw from the origins of their spiritual identity.” The group, which was nearly all men, also embraced an ethic of free love in which “wife swapping” was common, former members said.
Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.
At one point, de Benoist even came to the defense of an author who celebrated pedophilia, writing, “Can one not have the right to prefer to stroke the hips of high school girls[?] … It seems to me, according to my scale of personal values, that it is more ‘scandalous’ to watch TV shows, to play the lottery, than to have a passion for fresh buttocks, nascent emotions and burgeoning breasts.”
De Benoist’s biggest enemy became liberal capitalism, which he saw as an all-consuming force bent on assimilating the whole world into a universal market.
But de Benoist’s writings from this period often stood the logic of the left on its head: Egalitarianism was the true racism because it sought to erase difference from the world. Democracy was the true totalitarianism because it insisted undemocratic systems were illegitimate. Individualism was robbing people of their identities because it weakened community bonds.
GRECE advanced its ideas through seminars, conferences, and an annual “summer school” that covered topics from the Italian fascist writer Julius Evola to neo-fascist alliances with postcolonial movements. The group had as many as 2,000 members by the late ’70s who organized local clubs around France, according to historian Anne-Marie Duranton-Cabrol. Outside of Paris, they were strongest in Mediterranean towns where the pieds noirs, the ethnic-French community who’d lived in Algeria for generations and militantly opposed independence, had settled.
The group’s journals, Nouvelle École and Éléments, did not initially sound that different from Europe-Action, and a lot of the same writers — including Dominique Venner — were early contributors. But by the mid-’70s, de Benoist had developed a new rhetoric of identity that challenged the left on its own terms.
De Benoist’s big idea from these years — one now finding new life today — became known as “ethnopluralism.” Instead of claiming Europeans were superior to nonwhites, GRECE championed the notion that all groups had a “right to difference,” and sought to appropriate leftist rhetoric about diversity. Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.
“The diversity of the world constitutes its only true wealth, for this diversity is foundational to the most precious good: identity,” de Benoist wrote. He declared himself of the right because he applauded the differences between people and the inequality that creates. He accused the left of promoting the “homogenization of the world” in the name of egalitarianism.
“Nations are no more interchangeable than people,” he asserted.
In this way, de Benoist declared himself “against all racism” in 1974 and denounced “xenophobia, generating prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and dishonor all those it reaches.” He claimed common cause with anti-colonial movements and Black Power, arguing that leftist anti-racism was actually racism of a different kind. Erasing differences between groups would lead to what he termed “ethnocide,” “the disappearance of ethnic groups as ethnic groups.”
In that same essay, he lamented interracial sex because it would lead to a homogenization of humanity just as the world was filling with “the same cities, the same buildings, the same stores, the same products, the same way of life.” And he still defended research claiming black people had lower IQs, though he asserted that “all races are superior” because, in essence, each race is special in its own way and only its own members can master the best attributes.
De Benoist spun together right and left, taking positions that seemed counterintuitive so often that his critics sometimes suspected he was doing so just to avoid being pigeonholed. GRECE even co-opted left-wing lingo by rallying around “the right to difference,” historian Todd Shepard said. Shepard traced the phrase's origins to a group called the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action, which celebrated the right to sexual difference with a manifesto titled Three Billion Perverts: The Big Encyclopedia of Homosexualities.
This intellectual reinvention helped de Benoist break into the rarefied circle of intellectuals who drive debate in France. His 1977 manifesto calling for Europe to rediscover the “roots” of its identity, View From the Right, won an award from the French Academy, and in 1978, he and others associated with GRECE were hired to create a new magazine for the major center-right paper, Le Figaro.
This was greeted with outrage in France, especially from the left wing.
“A vigorous group of right-wing thinkers is now challenging the left’s longstanding intellectual hegemony, proclaiming ominous theories on race, genetics and inequality rarely heard since the dark days of the Third Reich,” wrote Time magazine in 1979. The French edition of Playboy began an interview with de Benoist, “They very nearly compare you to [Nazi Propaganda Minister] Joseph Goebbels. Are they giving you too much credit?”
De Benoist survived these attacks for over a decade. He began to lose his prominence in the 1990s, though, after a dozens of intellectuals launched a campaign implicitly targeting the New Right as a tool for “legitimizing the extreme right” and threatening “both democracy and human life.”
Some in his own circle believed the opposite: that he was so invested in pleasing the mainstream that he refused to follow his ideas to their logical conclusions — calling for the removal of immigrants. Some GRECE members defected to the National Front, whose then-leader, the openly racist and anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen, represented exactly the kind of old-school nationalism GRECE wanted nothing to do with.
One of his most bitter fights was with Guillaume Faye, who split with de Benoist in the mid-’80s as Faye began taking the kind of overtly racist positions de Benoist wanted to leave behind.
An unlikely hero in his own right to the new nationalist movements, Faye spent years as a radio humorist and occasional porn actor before penning a series of books calling for a “reconquest” of Europe from Muslim immigrants. Today, Faye told BuzzFeed News, he is a “drunk,” but he is still working on a book about Europe’s impending collapse titled The Future Civil War.
“I am racist, yes, of course.… It was a dangerous racism for the others" in GRECE, Faye said.
Almost as soon as de Benoist had formed his ideas about the “right to difference,” Faye wrote that this principle meant rejecting “a multiracial society” and forcing immigrants to “consider their return to their home country.” Faye began calling for “all-out war” in the ’90s, and de Benoist denounced him to the press while Faye was on trial for hate speech for his book from 2000, The Colonization of Europe.
Now, Faye sees de Benoist essentially as a cuck.
De Benoist “is a man of the system, not a revolutionary,” Faye said. “What I said at that time was get rid of [immigrants] first, and then we’ll do ethnopluralism.”
In short, Faye said, “I believe in the civil war.… He is against the civil war.”
De Benoist may deny paternity of the alt-right and the nationalist revival, but his would-be children are scattered throughout the West.
A new generation of white nationalists — including many in the US alt-right and like-minded groups growing quickly throughout Europe — have signaled their debt to the New Right by calling themselves “identitarians.” They want to be seen as standing for “ethnopluralism” rather than the kind of white supremacy once championed in Nazi Germany or the American South. Even some more old-school white nationalists have adopted the name, recognizing the power of rebranding.
De Benoist rejects their calls for removing immigrants and demonization of Islam — but the nationalists have used the ideas he championed to justify their agenda. And from the US to Europe to Russia, his name is a kind of touchstone for those claiming to belong to a better class of white nationalist.
In the US, one of de Benoist’s most influential followers is Richard Spencer, who, like de Benoist, had passed through elite universities. Spencer said he discovered de Benoist in 2003, when he was on a fellowship to study in Germany. At the time, he aspired to be a director and put on “crazy intellectual productions” of operas by Richard Wagner.
From the US to Europe to Russia, his name is a kind of touchstone for those claiming to belong to a better class of white nationalist.
Spencer recalled mail-ordering the translation of Manifesto for a European Renaissance and then repeatedly reading de Benoist’s only full-length book then available in English, On Being a Pagan. This led him to the other white nationalists that helped form his vision to create a whites-only “ethnostate.”
Spencer said he sees de Benoist, essentially, as a personal role model of how to make toxic ideas more palatable.
“It’s a lot better for these ideas that Richard Spencer becomes the icon of quote ‘racism’ in America in the [21st century] … instead of people who are goofier, not as intelligent, not as presentable or so on,” Spencer said. “Richard Spencer is a meme — I don’t think you’re being too narcissistic to say that … I need to take on that burden.”
By the time Spencer discovered the French New Right, there were like-minded New Rights in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe reinterpreting their own fascist traditions. In a direct nod to GRECE, the Italians called their journal Elementi, and the Germans called theirs Elemente. In Russia, philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who dreams of a Eurasian empire and once held a position close to President Vladimir Putin, called his first journal Elementy and listed de Benoist on his editorial board until de Benoist asked to be removed.
The spread of these ideas was limited, however, because no one was translating his work into English. That changed about ten years ago when publishing firms including California’s Counter-Currents and Sweden’s Arktos Publishing made it their mission to popularize the New Right in the English-speaking world. Their creators also launched websites that were early incubators of ideas picked up by the alt-right.
Arktos CEO Daniel Friberg said he discovered the translation of the Manifesto for a European Renaissance online as he was looking to push his movement from the radical fringe. Previously, he’d distributed "white power” heavy metal records and sold Nazi paraphernalia, but he shifted to create several websites dedicated to “metapolitics” that helped give Sweden an “alternative” media scene heavily resembling the US’s alt-right.
Through de Benoist, Friberg said, “I really realized what a treasure of ideas the right wing was sitting upon. It was there and then I really formed my ideological orientation.” Arktos is now de Benoist’s primary publisher in English, with seven titles in print.
De Benoist’s inspiration could also be found on a boat in the Mediterranean this summer, when a group called Generation Identity raised more than $200,000 for a mission intended to “defend Europe” by disrupting migrant rescues.
This group was sometimes covered by mainstream outlets simply as “hipster right” anti-immigration activists, but they trace their roots directly back to de Benoist, Guillaume Faye, and others who created the New Right.
Generation Identity began as the youth wing of Identitarian Bloc, which was founded by members of a far-right group that was banned in 2002 after a member tried to assassinate then-president Jacques Chirac. Around this time, de Benoist told BuzzFeed News, Identitarian Bloc cofounder Fabrice Robert sought him out to discuss “our respective political views.” Another former GRECE member, Robert Steuckers, told BuzzFeed News that Robert had attended an institute he’d created on the GRECE model in Belgium.
(Robert did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Generation Identity’s debt to Faye is clear from the call to action on their website.
“Our ideal is Reconquest, and we will see it through to the end,” the group wrote, borrowing Faye’s term. “In the face of the homogenization of nations and cultures, in the face of the tidal wave of mass immigration, in the face of a school system that hides the history of our nation from us to prevent us from loving it … Generation Identity is the first line of resistance.”
Generation Identity now has more than 250,000 Facebook fans split across several countries, and they are now making a push to expand. Several members have joined the National Front, including one of the cofounders of the Identitarian Bloc. Others hawk a conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement” — believing Europe’s population is being supplanted by immigrants — and has made their “remigration” its top priority.
And while De Benoist may have distanced himself from remigration, Generation Identity’s most visible leader on the international stage, Austria’s Martin Sellner, insisted, “We’re taking the ideological and strategic action of Alain de Benoist.” It was de Benoist’s writings, Sellner told BuzzFeed News, that “got me out of the old-right scene and into the New Right.”
De Benoist is weary of being asked about the identitarian movement.
“What I think is they’re really small tendencies, extremely small tendencies of the lunatic fringe, desperately looking for legitimacy because they don’t have anyone to look toward,” he said.
He points out that only a handful of his books, most decades old, have been translated into English, and not the ones he considers to be the most important. “We don’t talk about the subjects I write about.”
“What he did was crystalize in a really cunning and deliberate way … a fascism that doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck — it looks like high-grade intellectual activity.”
But he also helps give them this legitimacy. He spoke to Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute in 2013 and continues to work with Spencer and Friberg even after the two men participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed. He has done interviews with Russian Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin and the American white nationalist Jared Taylor. Spencer’s Radix press will even soon publish a book that includes an essay newly written by de Benoist, alongside one by the anti-Semitic author Kevin MacDonald.
Many of de Benoist’s critics on the left, like the British historian of fascism Roger Griffin, believe his philosophy is an elaborate Trojan horse to smuggle his true beliefs into polite conversation.
De Benoist understood better than most that the far right’s path to victory was not to “shoot politicians and seize power — we need to take over book clubs,” Griffin said. “What he did was crystalize in a really cunning and deliberate way … a fascism that doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck — it looks like high-grade intellectual activity.”
But the anti-extremist scholar Jean-Yves Camus, who lives near de Benoist in one of central Paris’s most diverse neighborhoods, thinks the truth is more complicated.
“I do believe that he is no longer a racialist,” Camus said. “He’s the only one on the rightest part of the political spectrum who’s worth reading. And not just reading — you can sometimes agree with him, his criticism of postnational society, globalization.”
But de Benoist’s “kind of intellectual extreme right is dead,” Camus said. “There is a second generation, but this second generation is Identitarian Bloc, and it’s totally different.”
De Benoist is, above all else, eager to see his worldview live on — and doesn’t feel responsible for the people who are helping to make that happen.
“There are many people who find inspiration in what they read in ... my books,” de Benoist said. “But that's the fate of any writer, of any theoretician — he cannot control the way in which ideas travel."
When asked if he’d considered withdrawing his books from the white nationalist press that is his primary English translator, he said, “Sure I could, but who will publish me?”