The Reactionary Prophet of Russian Ultranationalism

An interesting read for it’s insight into Bannon and the like.

Most have probably never heard of Aleksandr Dugin or the global Traditionalist tendency to which he belongs. But the Russian thinker — and his analogues in Brazil, America, and beyond — have appeared to exercise real influence on the global right from a position of relative obscurity. Blending ultranationalism and anti-modernist ideas, Dugin’s philosophy has quietly become an important part of the intellectual backdro​​p to Putinism, and an object of fascination among reactionaries throughout the West.

Who are the Traditionalists and what are their core ideas? To what extent is Dugin’s thought playing a role in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and how should we understand its influence on Russian politics as a whole? With these questions in mind, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Benjamin Teitelbaum: an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and author of the 2020 book War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right.


Nationalism is obviously a core feature of the contemporary right, and we’ve also heard a lot about the more nebulously defined “populism” since 2016. Your recent book has a lot to say about these things, but it’s concerned with something a bit more obscure and arcane called Traditionalism.

For those unfamiliar with the term, what is Traditionalism and how would you characterize its role/influence throughout the global far right?BT

Traditionalism is first and foremost a spiritual and religious school rather than a political ideology. It does bleed into the far right, but it’s certainly more than that too. There are those who say it has no relationship with the Right and I don’t believe them. It’s not an accident that, when it intersects with politics, it enters politics through the old, non-liberal right.

As far as politics is concerned, Traditionalists believe that there was a true religion once upon a time — the Tradition with a capital T — that’s been lost as the ages have moved forward, and its truths and insights have splintered into various traditions throughout the world. Hinduism, it’s believed, is the best of those because of its antiquity and its integral preservation. But also esoteric Islam, Christianity, and all of those branches. And the Traditionalist devotes themself to one of those branches, most often while engaging in a sort of comparative religion to try and reconstruct what that Tradition was.

Two things that have mattered for the figures who’ve carried Traditionalism into politics are, first, cyclic time: a belief that time is not linear and that instead we’re always coming back to a past. And more specifically that time is cycling in a downward trajectory or downward motion wherein, as time goes forward, things get worse, except for at one exceptional moment when there’s a return to a golden age, after which decline sets in again. The other key concept for Traditionalists is social hierarchy and a caste hierarchy that very much parallels that of Hinduism, with a Brahmin caste on top and a Shudras or slave caste on the bottom — that hierarchy has a number of principles within it that end up mattering for politics.

One of them is an opposition between spirituality and the immaterial. The upper castes are at times, in the eyes of some Traditionalists, racialized. If historically there’s an association between Aryans and the Brahmins, for example, that takes on a more modern understanding of Aryanism for Traditionalists where this is a sort of hyper-white racial group opposite non-Aryan others at the bottom of the hierarchy. The top is considered masculine, whereas the bottom feminine; the top is qualitative, whereas the bottom is quantitative in that hierarchy. And this interacts with the time cycle, such that when we are living in a dark age, according to Traditionalists, we’re also in an age defined by materialistic pursuits where politics, culture, and society are not just materialistic, but also quantitative in their values.

So you’re going to get governmental systems that are the opposite of theocracies. Instead, they’re going to be systems focused on quantities of bodies — which would be democracy, communism, and so on. Also, and this is key, as you’re moving from a golden age to a dark age, the hierarchy itself disintegrates and everyone falls to the lowest level. Implicit in that concept is the notion that, when we’re in the dark age, there are no boundaries, there are no borders, we will not suffer anybody having a distinct essence, destiny, identity, or place.

However you can imagine extending the concept of boundaries and borders, a Traditionalist will go there: this can be racial boundaries, boundaries between men and women, national boundaries, epistemological boundaries — the notion that, instead just one of them being related to Enlightenment science, and that the whole world needs to fold into that single community.

For Traditionalists, the way to get out of that is, first, moving through a dark age and to see the modern institutions which enabled this new interconnectedness or borderlessness blown apart (destruction, in other words). But in its place they want to see a new world of boundaries where men and women are different from each other, where different cultural groups, ethnicities, and races are separate from one another, where national boundaries reemerge, where federations and empires disintegrate if they really are colonizers, where there are different understandings of truth that are allowed to coexist without commingling and influencing each other. That’s the real goal here.

When it comes to Traditionalism’s influence on populism and nationalism today, that influence is not because it’s popular. There’s no critical mass of people, let alone voters or supporters, for these movements who are stealing away in the middle of the night to Sufi tariqas to subvert Enlightenment epistemologies or something. Instead, Traditionalist influence comes from a small handful of very well-positioned individuals. The ones that I focus on in my book are really three: Steve Bannon, Brazil’s Olavo de Carvalho (who died recently), and Aleksandr Dugin in Russia. None of them are politicians themselves. None of them evangelize with their Traditionalism or seem to advocate for it publicly. But they all have a history with it. In Carvalho’s case he was formally initiated into a Traditionalist sect by a man named Frithjof Schuon (and Carvalho has a Muslim Sufi name, which is very odd given that he became so influential in the [Jair] Bolsonaro government).

Aleksandr Dugin learned Italian in order to translate the works of far-right Traditionalist thinkers, wants to name schools after Traditionalist thinkers, and speaks in those terms. Bannon will call himself a Traditionalist with varying degrees of qualification. But that has been his consistent interest throughout much of his life. He seems like a real dilettante in other ways — bouncing from person to person, job to job, pursuit to pursuit — but he’s been interested in alternative spirituality in general and also anti-modern alternative spirituality (and Traditionalism in particular) for a very long time. It’s been consistent.

So those are the three key figures, but some Traditionalists have also been advisors in Hungary’s Jobbik Party. There’s something to be said about its influence on populist parties in France, Austria, and, to a smaller extent, Scandinavia as well. There have been some individuals who have found themselves there, but none of them have been as successful, or come as close to power as Bannon, Carvalho, and Dugin.

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