Many ambiguities continue to surround the term “right.” A century after the word entered the jargon of party politics, and forty-five years after the military defeat of fascism, there is still no comprehensive theory of the right. What exactly does it represent in a time of “soft” politics and the end of “hard” ideologies? Does it make much sense to talk about the right-left dichotomy in a society that is weary of politics and impatient with beliefs in “historical necessity”? The more one tries to narrow the idea of the “right,” the more we are at a loss to find a suitable and overarching definition.

In the series of essays comprising The Nature of the Right, Roger Eatwell, J.S. McClelland, Arthur Aughey, Roger Woods, Michael Billig, and Nöel O’Sullivan have made a serious attempt to sort out the intellectual origins of the various rightist tendencies that have shaped European and American politics. As these writers remind us, “right” is a word that has been subject to different interpretations in different places and epochs. For instance, right-wing intellectuals of the French Third Republic, in the first half of the 20th century, are today a poor source of inspiration for the constitutionally minded and progress-loving rightists in America. By and large, on the European front, a variety of conservatives and right-wingers have pursued their agendas with greater intellectual rigor than have American conservatives. European conservatives, even in the Americanized Europe of the postwar era, find little echo among American conservatives, let alone neoconservatives.

I commend O’Sullivan and Eatwell for their careful treatment of issues and ideas that have preoccupied generations of conservative scholars and activists. They are justly dismissive of the stereotypical rightist intellectual watchdog of Daumier’s paunchy bankers, and equally so of the notion of him as a bloodsucking monster bent on the destruction of all that is good in the world. Instead, they and the other contributors provide a historical and chronological survey of rightist thought and thinkers, and of the historical context in which these have thrived.

Eatwell et al., are clearly aware of the potential of the right at a time when the walls are coming down all over Europe and communism appears to be disappearing. The rightists in France, in Germany, and in England have acquired an impressive intellectual artillery, and it could be their ideas that are revived in the 21st century.

Roger Woods recalls that to have been a rightist revolutionary in Weimar Germany meant primarily to have been opposed to the Versailles diktat and to the creeping economic anomie that had swept across defeated Germany in the aftermath of the First World War; while Carl Schmitt—and also Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jlinger—were only several among a large number of conservative theorists whose reputations are well-maintained today by their young disciples in Europe. By contrast, writes J.S. McClelland, a man of the right in the French Third Republic was typically a reactionary imbued with the teaching of Charles Maurras, anti-Semitism, and an almost pathological hatred of Germans.

Nöel O’Sullivan devotes considerable space to GRECE, an erudite and freewheeling group of intellectuals better known as the French New Right. This New Right advocates a fusion of all rightist traditions, and tops itself with an unabashed call for the rejection of Judeo-Christian monotheism and its replacement by a resurrected European paganism. Undoubtedly, given its influence in the French and Italian academic establishments, the New Right may soon become an éminence grise behind the European body politic. The major figure of the New Right, Alain de Benoist, has openly stated that liberalism and vulgar commercialism are today a far greater threat than communism to the European community. Drawing on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, and also on that of Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and Regis Debray, the French New Right is a unique conservative movement, light-years removed from the biblically minded and buck-loving “New Right” in America. Unlike the traditional European rightists, Benoist is trying to achieve a vision of Europe stretching from the Urals to the Iberian peninsula. For him, the looming danger is global democracy under the auspices of Wall Street and Mickey Mouse.

Although the contributors on occasion have trouble separating themselves from their biases. The Nature of the Right is nonetheless a useful vade mecum for those wanting an introduction to political ideas and sensibilities that have long been obscured by liberal and socialist trends; it is a pity, however, that the authors have not examined more closely the differences between Anglo-American and European conservatives. In spite of the merit of this small volume, a comprehensive book on the nature and meaning of the right remains to be written.


[The Nature of the Right, Edited by Roger Eatwell and Nöel O’Sullivan (Boston: Twayne Publishers) 193 pp., $15.95]