What the hell is history good for?
This is the first Peterfest, in its contemporary form, where I stand before you… not a graduate student, but a doctor of philosophy in history. I also stand in front of you fortunate- I am gainfully and remuneratively employed in something that I am reasonably ok at, but not what I went to school all those years for, exactly. But that isn’t the reason I am asking, “what the hell is history good for?” To the extent I ever really know why I ask the questions I do — never my strong suit — I think it’s out of curiosity about the other. How do people understand history, that of themselves, the societies they live in, the world as a whole? What do they talk about when they talk about history?
One of the interesting things that’s happened in the last few years is that a number of things I learned about over the course of a long and advanced history education have jumped the gap from academic obscurity to something you might hear on the news or quoted at you by a rando online. One example of this is how “American exceptionalism,” a real grad-school honker of a phrase, the sort of thing that was considered a “problem” for sententious tenured types to go back and forth over, slipped the bounds of academe and has become something that presidential candidates need to swear fealty to. As a student of the history of the far right, this happens in even more jarring ways. One example of this has been the lurching of the figure of one Julius Evola into public consciousness, culminating (so far) in news stories parsing who this guy was and why Steve Bannon talked about having been influenced by him.
By the time I started seeing his name in CNN articles, I had known about Evola for a decade. Like many subjects of my birthday lectures, I can’t remember exactly when I first heard of him, but I vaguely remember it being in some kind of a role-playing game supplement. This is fitting- Evola was, basically, a cartoon villain. He was an minor Italian nobleman who got involved both in occultism and fascism. He survived the war and was at the center of a circle of neofascists, including some terrorists, until his death in the 1970s.
In the way I often wind up with projects — picking something that happens to pop into my head and sticking with it until it’s done without quite knowing why — when I was in my very first semester of grad school at the New School, in the fall of 200coughcough, I took a class on the history of fascism and decided to write my term paper on Evola. To the extent I really had a thesis question going in, it was about the concept of “traditionalism,” a movement Evola claimed to belong to. What tradition did Evola mean- how did he conceive tradition? How would he remake society to fit his vision, how did it differ from other fascists, so on and so forth.
I remember going in thinking that Evola was basically Tolkien but mean. That he would harken back to some “traditional” way of life — that of the Italian peasantry, say, or medieval Europe — and project his ideal society on to that. It’s curious to see what people cherry pick, how they try to implement stuff like that… alas, that would be too simple. Soon after cracking open “Revolt Against the Modern World,” I found that the tradition that Evola’s traditionalism refers to is not any of the actual existing bundles of ideas and social arrangements handed down across generations that actually exist on Earth, in his time or any other. Instead, the tradition in question was a body of occult knowledge, roughly coincident with western esotericism. In the Traditionalist telling, this knowledge was handed down from teachers to students through a process of initiation since time immemorial- many of them refer to it as coming from Atlantis or Hyperborea or some such made up place. In some versions of it, the Tradition were the broadly-believed folkways of some distant past, but in recorded history, the Tradition was the property of an intellectual elite who guide society, or should anyway, in accordance with its unchanging rules.
Traditionalism, in turn, was part of a larger wave of movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sought to eschew western rationalism in favor of more emotionally satisfying alternatives. A lot of bored bourgeoisie on both sides of the Atlantic dabbled in one or another flavor of spiritualist or occult shenanigans at this time- this was the time that saw Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley become international celebrities. Traditionalism was a few notches more intellectual than many of the esoteric fads of the time, spreading amongst theologians, anthropologists, and art historians who dedicated study to finding “timeless” spiritual truths across a variety of historical and geographical contexts.
Traditionalism is, necessarily, backwards-looking- at one point, we had humanity united in timeless spiritual wisdom, and now… we don’t. Some versions of the Traditionalist intellectual canon led down benign, hippie-ish roads; the idea that every religion leads towards the same basic truths so you should be nice to people from all of them is a Traditionalism-inflected idea- they’re all pointing back towards some primeval truth. But more often that not, Traditionalism took the intellectual trajectory that most of the irrationalist philosophies developed at its time took- violent reaction against social change. For the most part, this meant more of a passive rejection of a “Modernity” seen as corrosive of the Tradition but too advanced to take head on. So you saw the creation social networks dedicated to urging people — almost inevitably young alienated bourgeois intellectuals — down the path of initiation to… whatever kind of secret sacred knowledge which, inevitably, various Tradition-peddlers squabbled over. Eventually, this was more or less absorbed into “New Age” stuff. The furthest out on a limb the Traditionalists put themselves was Evola’s interventions in Fascist Italy, which culminated in him becoming a recruiter for Hitler’s SS, on the idea that he could steer them into becoming an initiatory order in the Traditionalist mold.
I got my copy of “Revolt Against the Modern World” from a dopey New Age press based out of Vermont. The introduction from the editor takes great pains to separate Evola from fascism, in a way that has since become familiar to me, because random fascists get mad at me because I wrote a couple of rude dismissive sentences about the book on goodreads. This happens at least once a year. Mostly they argue that Mussolini and Evola didn’t get along, that Evola looked down on fascists as low class. This is actually true enough. What they neglect to mention is that whole “worked for the SS” bit, or the fact that Evola’s problem with fascism is that it wasn’t extreme enough- did not reject modernity, did not go all the way in creating a new elite, was too willing to negotiate with authorities like the Vatican, and, at first, wasn’t racist or antisemitic enough. Evola makes clear, in “Revolt Against the Modern World” and other works, that the Tradition is the sole property of the Aryan race- that Aryan blood may not be enough to ensure initiation, but it is a prerequisite. To answer the obvious question dogging any traditionalist, whether in the big-T sense we’re talking about or the small-t sense of people who just fetishize the past, that is- if the past was so great, why did people change it? Evola provides a common enough answer- the Jews did it.
Evola survived the war, and one consequences of his disdain for Mussolini is that he was far away enough from the failures of actual existing fascism that he could become a rallying point for postwar neofascists. The story goes that all the leaders of the postwar Italian fascist party, as well as of the little groupuscules that took part in the Years of Lead, all went to Evola’s manor to kiss the ring, and an Italian cop has been quoted as saying that at one point in the seventies, finding volumes of Evola’s work in someone’s apartment was as damning as finding explosives. For my money, Evola was a snitch- he was connected to Operation Gladio, a NATO effort to train and arm “stay-behind” armies in case the Soviets invaded which, surprise surprise, mostly funded guns to right-wing groups and mafias, and there’s no way Evola would have stayed free and openly involved with fascist terrorists for so long without giving someone — the Italian police, the CIA, whoever — something. He would have been an ideal informant and control rod for when the Italian police wanted to keep control over their sometime-assets, the Italian fascist terrorist gangs. You can imagine the goodreads fascists love it when I suggest that.
I don’t quite recall when I found the second seed of this lecture, either, but it was sometime around the same time- 2008 or 2009, where I somehow found out that a prominent public figure was running around calling himself a traditionalist: Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. I was immediately tickled by a vision of this aggressively ignorant lace-curtain cretin passing what time he didn’t spend screaming on TV or sexually harassing women in a study lined with many leatherbound books and vaguely spiritual trinkets from foreign lands, leafing through the works of Evola, Rene Guenon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy as he ponders the ineffable mysteries of the perennial Tradition. While in many respects the works of the Traditionalists are fatuous, these were highly-educated people — highly-educated, kind of stupid, and profoundly amoral, the pre-1945 European upper class mold — and it shows in their writing. So it was an amusing picture, and like many of the amusing pictures in my head, made up of compound obscurities and so difficult to share with others.
Of course, O’Reilly meant no such thing. It’s not always easy to extract a kernel of consistent meaning from contemporary pundits, but as far as I can tell by “traditionalist” O’Reilly means “maintaining existing social and cultural arrangements except insofar as they harm me or people like me.” O’Reilly’s “tradition” is stoutly populist, or, anyway, based in a sentimental portrait of Reagan Democrats or the “Silent Majority,” far from the proudly elitist, intellectual bent of Traditionalism in the occult sense. But really it’s just an occasion to screech at liberals or leftists for meddling with “tradition,” as in “traditional marriage.” O’Reilly doesn’t hate gay people, he informs us, he just hates liberal judges and bureaucrats redefining tradition all on their own. The term also allows him to avoid the self-description “conservative,” thereby maintaining a fig leaf of nonpartisanship back when that still mattered.
O’Reilly’s a funny figure- in most respects, from his ignorant outer-borough bluster to his fake populism to his record of sexual harassment, he was exceeded by Donald Trump, and where O’Reilly was, eventually, punished for the latter, Trump has been continuously rewarded for it, all the way to the White House. He does seem to have played a key role in poisoning the brains of Baby Boomers who might have slipped the grasp of traditional Republican pied-pipers ala Rush Limbaugh, a sort of gateway drug for people who don’t generally start shrieking like a tea kettle when they think about unions or the estate tax but who can be rooked by a self-assured white guy telling them their resentments of a changing society are legitimate, and leading them down the path to Trumpism from there. But he clearly was not where the action was by 2016- I wonder how much his downfall was linked to the way that now that Trump was around, O’Reilly was surplus to requirements.
Certainly, the people injecting “Traditionalism” and Traditionalists into the discourse in recent years fancy themselves stronger stuff than the average Fox News host, let alone one willing to occasionally throw liberals a bone. Steve Bannon namechecking Evola is pretty close to the amusing picture of O’Reilly leafing through the Baron’s weighty tomes- Bannon is a man in much the same mold, and frankly I’m not convinced he’s read any of the books whose title he likes to throw around- maybe Jacques Raspail’s grotesque white genocide fantasy, The Camp of the Saints, but this is a guy who made his fortune out of opportunism and bluster. But it is in keeping with Bannon and other Trump hangers-on saying what was the quiet part on Fox News — white nationalism — loud. We also have the Traditionalist Workers Party, an altright formation involved in street-fighting in Charlottesville and elsewhere. TWP was founded by a nerd named Matt Heimbach, who later became famous for destroying his own group by having an affair with his right-hand man and father-in-law’s wife and getting arrested for beating several of the people involved.
Heimbach’s career as a fascist militant leader, such as it was, entailed playing what could be called trailer-park schtick, or redneckface, or something, which culminated in the sordid little tangle with his wife and father-in-law that imploded his group. Heimbach is from solidly middle class circumstances from a leafy Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and is a university graduate. His organization liked to posture itself as the defenders of a white working class defined culturally- a classic right-wing populist move, using race and culture to try to rope the masses into a project that will only benefit the few. This entailed a bifurcated concept of “Traditionalist.” On the one hand, Heimbach is a deeply pedantic cherry-picker of right-wing obscurity, citing figures like Evola and Romanian fascist occultist Corneliu Codreanu as influences. On the other, his movement embraced a kitschy caricature of the white working class, based in stereotypes of “rednecks,” as the object of its efforts, the “tradition” his group meant to uphold and defend. When Heimbach ordered his movement to spread out amongst the Appalachian and Rust Belt masses and make the inhabitants problems their own, like Mao but stupid, the reaction was predictable- people didn’t buy it. But Heimbach bought all the way to taking his expensively-educated corpus to a rural Indiana trailer park and undertaking the sort of domestic arrangements a deeply patronizing and none-too-bright fetishist of a stereotypical version of white America might consider appropriate for the surroundings. One wonders how many descents into the most degraded forms of identity politics are seeking that sort of LARP-ing catharsis more than any given political outcome…
Heimbach and his goons weren’t the only people on the newly effervescent fascist right to cite Traditionalism as an influence. The spread of the far right online has facilitated what I think of as the wiki-ing of political signifiers within the space. Figures that you would have to seek out in the sort of books that mostly gather dust on university library shelves now have wikipedia pages, that are often linked to the wikipedia pages of more familiar figures or movements, put on convenient curated lists of figures from given traditions and movements, and so on. This doesn’t entail a deep engagement with figures like Joseph de Maistre, Nicolas Gomez Davila, or, to cite a figure pretty popular on right-wing memes, Julius Evola. You don’t need to slog through Evola’s long-winded explanations of the descent of man from the aryan Atlantis golden age to use him in a meme on facebook communities like “Fully Esoteric Techno Fascism,” which at various points have had five-figure memberships, for whatever that’s worth. Presumably, at least a few of the fascists lapping at my goodreads heels are members.
What do these people — so many of them kids — mean when they say “tradition?” I found myself wondering if they meant it in the normative sense — roughly like what Bill O’Reilly meant — or in the sense that Evola and his peers meant it, as in a single esoteric body of thought? Well, gentle listener, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that some descents into their online content — primarily youtube videos, none of the ones who write essays that I found really address this — did not clarify the situation much. In fact, despite avowing themselves as followers of Tradition or Traditionalism or of specific Traditionalists like Evola, most of them seemed unaware of the bifurcation of meaning in the term. By default, this would seem to put them in the camp of meaning “tradition” in its lower case “t” sense. But they honestly weren’t even especially clear about that. Among other things, it seems like they were primarily making videos to engage each other, and so took for granted shared definitions of what is traditional and what is not. So the sort of detailing of what in specific people should do to be a traditionalist in their sense of word really wasn’t there in overview videos of “traditionalism vs cultural marxism,” say. Those just repeated some variation of “the world is bad- it’s the fault of cultural marxists, read Jews, messing things up- we need to go back to the before time,” without the latter being specified much.
A little more specific were, naturally, videos or other content that explored specific subjects. One branch of online traditionalism that probably outnumbers the Evola-fanciers are those who embrace one or another form of fundamentalist religious practice, generally unreformed versions of various conventional faiths. In classic internet style, this begin with relatively well-known denominations, like “TradCaths,” Catholic believers in various ultramontane pre-Vatican II forms of the religion some of whom can be found in real life, and has since split off into all kinds of varieties- TradProds, converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, which is seen as more traditional, people who trad so hard they become pagans (or Wahabbists), presumably somewhere there’s TradZoroastrians on some corner of the internet. The point is, some of them have something more material to say about what the tradition is. In keeping with people who are mostly teenaged recent converts who aren’t plugged in to any tradition offline, this mostly consists of things like “go to church” and “find likeminded people.” Probably most interesting were various traditionalist women. While a lot of what they said was warmed over TERF material, or stuff that insists that somewhere some mean feminist is telling them they can’t be a housewife, but there was also a lot of deeply-felt despair- the idea that feminism and modernity in general sell false promises to women, and the best they can do is transform themselves to find a good “traditional” man and attach herself to him.
My birthday lectures are typically about odd alleyways in the history of ideas, and this usually means dealing with people whose ideas were bad, or at least wrong. Pointing them out is easy. They wouldn’t be worth much if that’s all they were. I think there’s more to the story of the particular way in which these people are wrong.
When I first began looking into Traditionalism, way back when as a mere stripling masters’ student, I thought there would be some relationship between tradition as actually lived and the tradition that the Traditionalists claim to uphold. I didn’t think it would necessarily be a sensible relationship, and certainly didn’t think such a connection would justify anything politically, but I thought it would be there. I thought you could learn something from measuring the gaps between tradition as conceived by various actors, and the efforts to turn those conceptions into politics.
Many of these premises were wrong, ranging from what the Traditionalists thought tradition was, where it was located in an imaginary universal esoteric tradition as opposed to in folkways, to their interest in politics, which seldom has had anything to do with real organizing or governance. The crux of the matter — the point at which we can learn something from these loosely connected tales of mostly foolish, mean people believing mostly foolish, mean things — is both simpler and more complicated. We need a hermeneutics of bullshit here.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The wave of interest in the occult and esoteric philosophy that arose in the late nineteenth century had little meaningful connection to the western esoteric tradition that existed before the Enlightenment, which was not always a single, unitary tradition itself. Modern esotericism is a mish-mash of found parts. And there were more parts to find than ever before. The rise of the historical profession occurs in the same late nineteenth century time frame, and with it a moment that both made archives more available than before, and many of the early professional historians at the time were just as backwards-looking and conservative as the Traditionalists would be, and just as willing to cherry-pick to construct a past that suited them- leftists at this time mostly eschewed history for sociology and economics. The late nineteenth century esoteric wave is also awash in orientalism, just as its descendant, contemporary New Age thought, is today. This was the high point of European imperialism, remember, which opened up vast stretches of the world to exploitation by any bored white person with money. You can imagine given how little concern for human lives they had in the colonies how little concern they had for the actual contexts of the beliefs, practices, and in many cases actual artifacts they ripped off from colonized people. This was also the period of the second industrial revolution. Where the original industrial revolution dealt with things like textile manufacture and railroads — stuff that, while impressive, one can see reasonably easily how it works — the next wave of innovation the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved advances in the use of electricity, in chemistry and chemical engineering, and early atomic experiments – that is, things that you can’t really see working, things that are explained in metaphors of “waves” and “particles” and “frequencies,” in short, stuff that looks and sounds like magic. The past, the world, and even the properties of the universe made up a vast buffet of choices to stir together whatever kind of worldview you wanted- not for nothing did the Traditionalists and other esoteric groups provide much of the intellectual window-dressing for what we today call cafeteria-style religion or spirituality.
We can, if we choose, do a “first as tragedy, then as farce” comparison with the youtube traditionalists of today. Say what one will of figures like Evola, or more prominent figures of the reaction against rationalism from Nietzsche to Henry Adams, but they were highly educated, even when they were stupid. They put a lot of effort into learning difficult things, like Sanskrit and various obscure ends of history, to put together the pastiches that they did. They were reacting to a sea change in culture and political economy brought on by the industrial revolution and the fear of the revolt of the masses, and they played their part in shaping major historical movements and events. Whereas today… well, the fact that a lot of the yelling about defending tradition takes as its object children’s cartoons tells you a lot. In the end, contemporary traditionalism is an inept copy of an inept pastiche, and part of the context they are putting it in is that education today really doesn’t prepare people to do the kind of reading to even meaningfully extract the kernels of non-wisdom in the original material. So- tragedy (though with certain farcical elements), farce (though a pretty sad one), reflecting at each other back and forth like a hall of mirrors, the end.
But… but. At risk of being one of those “what if the whole world is a simulation, MAN” guys… our traditionalists did not enter this hall of mirrors when they first started formulating or believe their ideas. Because what was the picture of history they came in with? From both, a self-regarding dream, a pastiche of elements chosen, if not always consciously then reliably, more to obscure truths than to illuminate them. Raised under the shadow of a certain specter haunting Europe, which became all too material during events like the Paris Commune, the history created by intellectuals at the time was, in many instances, an ingenious project of mystification, reifying the bulwarks of order in Europe — the nation, the state, the church, class society — backwards into the past.
We live in a similar age of reaction, but with a big difference: the sheer density of messaging that is possible given modern media technology and the comparatively clear slate that America’s unique situation affords it. Disregard the history one learns in school- lord knows enough people do, and not always for ideological reasons. Think instead of the stories about the past implicit in the very social structure and built environment of the sort of boys who are posting videos about “tradition vs cultural marxism.” Think of the sheer amount of history — from the destruction of the Native Americans to slavery to industrialization to the assimilation of European immigrants to the postwar Keynesian state to the actual invention of things like mass-produced automobiles and everything that goes with them — that is taken for granted in day to day life in the suburbs and exurbs of our broad land. I’m not even talking about avoiding guilt, though there’s enough that- I’m talking about simple mental bracketing. Naturally, the instinct of most of us here is to eschew that sort of bracketing- we are all curious people, we all want to learn, we are all critical. But as an experiment, think along the grain of the implicit sense of history of most white Americans. We can ease our way into it. I read two complementary suburban histories recently- Kevin Kruse’s “White Flight,” about the Atlanta suburbs, and Lily Geismer’s “Don’t Blame Us,” about some towns not far from where we are now. The people who formed those suburban communities in their current form drew intentionally from a variety of histories — that of the antebellum South in the case of the white-flight suburbs of Atlanta, that of a “progressive” Yankee past for Newton and Lincoln and towns like that — to help form a sense of identity for communities that were, effectively, made up of uprooted (if materially comfortable) people in a materially new way of life for them. So we start with a comparatively robust — if shallow and basically inaccurate — historical imagination of these places. Then think a few generations forward, as these stories fade into the background and the lifestyles and social orders they explained come to be seen as self-evident facts of life. Beyond “inadequate,” what would a historical sense that started from the premise that what we have is natural and normal look like?
And here, at long last, we come back to “tradition” in the Bill O’Reilly sense of the term. Clearcut all sense of context — turn everything that happened to make our collective condition possible into so many bits of color for period entertainment pieces, or else ignore it all together — to prevailing social conditions, particularly ones that benefit you, and you’re more or less there. Consider one of O’Reilly’s pet crusades, the sanctity of “traditional” Christmas. Virtually everything we associate with Christmas was incorporated into our seasonal celebrations within the time O’Reilly or at least his parents were alive. In America in particular, Christmas celebration wasn’t done much until the late nineteenth century- the Puritans didn’t like it. It was mostly German immigrants who introduced many of our christmas traditions, like the tree, and then it was capitalism that did the rest, from our image of Santa, more or less invented by a soda company, to the exchange of gifts. Same with pretty much every other culture war shibboleth, from our ideas about marriage to veneration for police and the military to appropriate sports conduct. It’s wrong to say ideas about them were more liberal or progressive, or even more conservative, than the O’Reilly’s of the world present. They were mostly just stranger, and had a logic informed by deep context of the time. Where the late nineteenth century bourgeoisie created sophisticated history and literature to create an alternative context that kept away scary ideas, nowadays, we just go without it and let commercial culture or really just any random fucking thing fill it in.
So the contemporary traditionalist teen didn’t enter the hall of mirrors of flat, context-less history: he was born into it. I would argue that traditionalism is to our culture’s collective refusal to think critically about the past what libertarian is to capitalism. Libertarianism is a philosophy of capitalist inadequacy, of petty bourgeoisie and pedants incapable of doing what the real serious capitalists do, which is make the system and especially the government work for them. Traditionalism is a little sadder than that, if anything. As the social arrangements that nurtured our shared dream of an irrelevant past fray due to economic and cultural pressures, people who benefit from the arrangement — even just to the extent of securing a mediocre sense of self despite their mediocrity — begin to panic. If the older Traditionalists lamented the lost perennial wisdom of Atlantis, your contemporary alt-right traditionalist is obsessed with what he has supposedly lost — from incel laments for the wives they think they’re entitled to to things like “a sense of adventure” which isn’t even promised by their social order- it was promised by their society’s entertainment products! — and imagines further, apocalyptic losses. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine truly coming to terms with its history.
So- what the hell is history good for? I am not so precious as to refuse to call bad history history. I can’t, somehow. Selection is inevitably part of the historiographical process and selection is inevitably biased. The selections of traditionalists, of all the species discussed here — from Julius Evola to Bill O’Reilly to CrusaderPepe88 or whoever — are silly, sloppy, and paired to a morally wrong and destructive project. But I recognize enough of the impulses and the operations undertaken to see that it is in the same family of activity, just as a bad person is still a person. I’m not sure what history is doing for them- it doesn’t appear to be making them happy.
One of the great living historians, Susan Buck-Morss, once wrote: “the critical writing of history is a continuous struggle to liberate the past from within the unconscious of a collective that tends to forget the conditions of its own existence.” This forgetting, I believe, was an active, if not necessarily a conscious, process, going back at least as far as the beginnings of the project to contain the revolutionary fervor coming out of France at the turn of the nineteenth century. Traditionalism is one small piece of that process, perhaps more relevant as a morbid symptom of the failure of more robust mechanisms than as a movement in itself.
What do we gain from liberating the past, and remembering the conditions of our collective existence? Whole societies have lived in massive denial, after all- probably more than make even the most elementary kind of reckoning with their past. A critical understanding of history is no safeguard against mistakes or wrongdoing. I’m not so sanguine as to say that liberating the past from ignorance and fantasy liberates us from the past- there’s a lot more to liberation than that. But it allows the past to act as a meaningful guide, a thread to follow through the hall of mirrors and refractions of refractions of given off by those who’d have us live and die there with them.