- Interview by
- Luke Savage
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 backdrop 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?
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 (or the immaterial) and the material. 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.
Let’s turn to Dugin, who some regard as Putinism’s house philosopher — analogous, in some ways at least, to the role Steve Bannon fleetingly played in the Trumpian project. He’s had a bizarre and eclectic trajectory that’s seen him try to organize a “National Bolshevik Party,” represent Russia in various diplomatic and political posts, and also fight in Georgia. Before we get to Dugin’s ideas or influence, what can you tell us about his life and overall trajectory?
It’s a crazy biography. Especially in his adult life, anytime you say, “Oh, he’s supremely influential. He’s [Vladimir] Putin’s brain,” he’ll do something that looks pretty lame, such that it seems like he’s just beguiled the media into building him up. But then if you say, “Oh, this guy is a joke. He’s a phony, let’s ignore him,” he pops up in some extremely tense diplomatic setting, and it seems like he’s a key Russian political operative who’s been underestimated. He has always bounced around on the edges. He’s had good instincts throughout his career, and this has been key to his success: he has a good sense of when to turn up or turn down his esotericism. He’s very interested in weird and spooky magic and esotericism. But he also has a more dry calculating realpolitik.
He wrote a textbook, for example, about what he saw as Russia’s role in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union called Foundations of Geopolitics. This is still, in my mind, the nucleus of his influence today. It’s been taught to a generation of military leaders and military elite in Russia since the fall of the USSR, and there’s almost no wacky time cycle stuff or Traditionalism stuff in there. It’s just about Russia’s divine right to push itself and its sphere of influence, how it can do that, how it can reimagine the world, and why it should reject the political map as it has been drawn by the West since the 1990s.
It also outlines a lot of practical suggestions for how Russia can subvert democracy in the West, and those suggestions include fomenting all kinds of ethnic separatism, anti-government trust, and media criticism. It even extends to contradictory messages just designed to create discord in the American body politic. He creates political parties that can be more radical than the Russian government. When Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, they will put him on the air on their state media channels in order to let him narrativize what they’re doing.
And it’s been quite clear. Charles Clover, a journalist from the Financial Times did a great analysis of this: it seemed quite obvious that Putin was listening to Dugin speak, because when Putin went out afterward he was recycling and learning from Dugin, almost letting him teach him how to characterize the war and Russia’s role in the world. But throughout all of this, he has basically had no significant official role in the Russian government. That’s what makes him so hard to characterize.
His influence indeed seems a bit difficult to pin down. On the one hand, the whole enterprise of Traditionalism scans as something quite fringe and abstruse, even within the already obscure parts of the far right. On the other, Dugin has held actual posts within the Russian state and has become an object of fascination within certains sects of the Western far right. To what extent would you say Dugin’s Traditionalism is actively shaping Russian politics, policy, and foreign policy? Or is it more the case that he’s merely synthesizing, articulating, and formalizing ideas and tendencies that were already present?
I think it’s impossible to answer that question definitively. The most that I can do is, when I hear someone else give an affirmative answer that’s too far in one direction, I can come up with reasons for why they’re wrong. Certainly his influence on narrative matters: pushing a more aggressive Russia matters, as does adding meaning to the war so that it is not just a war between two states but a war between two different ideologies. That’s where Dugin is useful and influential: when there’s a perceived opposition not only between East and West or between liberal values and conservative values but between modernity and tradition or materialism and spirituality.
If Russia is being characterized or ever characterized itself as a beacon of the immaterial and the spiritual in the world (which you do hear from Putin occasionally — we heard a version of it at the beginning of his speech on Ukraine right before the invasion) that’s Dugin territory. It’s in the most deeply messianic and eschatological framings of this war that you can see Dugin’s influence.
Dugin met Steve Bannon in Rome in 2018, and a quite predictable schism emerged in that meeting: the former believing that Western liberalism (and, by extension, the United States) is the great enemy, and the latter instead finding that in China. What can you tell us about that meeting? And what’s significant about these different Traditionalists having similar narratives but such different antagonists? It seems like that would potentially limit their ability to forge any common project.
You characterize it perfectly. This one of the problems with Traditionalism. I mean, I gave you a short overview of it, but even if you’d given me two hours to talk, it doesn’t get much more specific than what I said. There’s very little content to its major categories, despite everything, and that has I think prevented Traditionalists from advancing as political actors. Actually, they’ve tended to be these lone advisors who don’t have access to formal power, can’t hold political power, and can’t coordinate very well with other people. But, in this case, we saw two Traditionalists — Dugin and Bannon — attempting to coordinate with one another and attempting to leverage a common value system. And they ultimately were not able to because, as you put it, they don’t agree on the actors.
For Dugin, the source of modernity is the United States. For Bannon it’s China. He believes that China is the actual engine of globalization, of cosmopolitanism, of borderlessness, and that you have this little upper crust in the United States that interacts with it. So, for him, Americanism might instead be found in some sort of more archaic, even pre-revolutionary American essence that could coexist with Russia and maybe collaborate with it internationally.
Dugin wasn’t interested. He was very amused by the effort and saw it as a positive development that things were really changing throughout the world and in the heart of the United States at a time when it looked like Hillary Clinton was about to take over (in his mind, she’s basically an avatar for ultimate darkness), then all of a sudden out of nowhere there’s a Traditionalist underneath Trump who’s pushing things forward.
He kind of doesn’t care about the content of their discussion because he thinks that other, greater forces are at play and Bannon is just a tool for them. For Bannon the meeting was frustrating though. And it’s ever more so today because what he really wanted was to see a realignment. He wanted a Russia that was part of the West and to align with Brazil, which he saw as an island of European tradition and cultural essence — the whole plan being to unite to isolate China.
Not only did he not convince Dugin to go and start propagandizing for this realignment, but the whole thing is completely falling apart. It’s in shambles today. So a lot of the story that I have to tell is about failure. It’s about failed attempts to coordinate behind the scenes and it’s based in much more obscure and alienating ideas than what most people realize or associate with right-wing populist movements. That doesn’t mean, of course, that real damage is not taking place along the way.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which had a variety of motivations but has a clear ultranationalist impetus, is increasingly looking like a failure if not a disaster for Vladimir Putin — both in terms of thwarted military objectives but economically as well. Perhaps the answer to this question is obvious but, assuming this impression is borne out in the coming weeks and months, do you think the result will weaken or buttress the ultranationalist ideas and themes associated with Dugin? What does the future look like for Traditionalism in Russia and beyond?
So there are a lot of questions there. A military failure or even catastrophe is my impression too. The Traditionalists obviously don’t like that. They do, on the other hand, like the sanctions though. Dugin is really excited about those: McDonald’s is gone, all of these Western businesses are gone. There’s increasing management of the informational sphere, which he loves. Russia has broken off from Western finance, the disturbance of the global capitalist capital system, and flow of money and goods. Traditionalists like Dugin love all of those things. If that’s the ultimate outcome of a failed military campaign, I think he would still think the campaign was one of the best things Russia’s ever done — even if he wants to have Ukraine and would still like to see them bent under the will of Russia and pulled away from the West.
Everyone who follows him, including me, anticipated when the sanctions were announced that he’d be pleased by them. Just yesterday, for example, amid news about the internet being managed, he came out and said, “Oh, this is fantastic. This is great.” I think he’s probably in a stronger position now. I don’t think that you’re going to see — and this is one criticism of the sanctions — you’re not going to see everybody turn on Putin for this reason. In many cases you’re probably going to see them rally in defiance and embrace a new identity. That will be the one way that they can maintain some dignity in the face of some severe economic conditions. So that will strengthen him. And it will strengthen this cause: of creating this island, an island of Russia. What will happen with Traditionalists in the future? It’s ultimately very tied up with individuals, because this is not a mass movement.
So to answer that question is to consider what is going to happen with these particular figures. Olavo de Carvalho — who was the one who had probably the most unquestionable influence because he was Bolsonaro’s guru — no one really doubted that he had a faction of the cabinet that were all Olavists. He died, and his faction has been weakened and is splintering as a result. It’s not clear what’s going to happen or if he’ll be replaced in the Brazilian political context with another Traditionalist, maybe merely an ultraconservative (but that’s not quite the same thing). When it comes to Dugin, I have a feeling he could be bolstered by the outcome, even if it’s a military defeat.
It was a fad in 2018–19 when I was writing my book to say that Bannon has become irrelevant, but nobody says that anymore — that discourse, in the United States at least, has just faded. He’s not a political leader. He’s not going to be the chief advisor to any president anymore. But his platform and his podcast have risen slowly to become arguably the most important media in the MAGA [Make America Great Again] movement. It’s the clearing house for candidates who are advancing Trumpism and the MAGA agenda. And, if that fails, he’ll come up with something else. He’s not going anywhere.
But here’s the other thing to bear in mind about Traditionalism. These figures — Duggin, Bannon, Olavo, and Tibor Baranyi in Hungary — all more or less popped up independently of one another at the same time, at least in a big picture historical sense. We’re only talking about a couple decades here, but there’s no one before them who’s anything like them. Without wanting to sound too spooky myself or participate in Dugin’s strange eschatologies I wonder if it says something about populism that its claims also are fairly vapid and ill-defined . . . and when you have that much of a vacuum in terms of messaging and ideology, I think you’re going to get a real cross section of outsiders.
Dominic Cummings in Britain, even though he wasn’t a Traditionalist, was very much wanting to probe the outer edges of anti-liberal, anti-modern thought. I think that’s going to keep happening. For the real radical ideologues who want a dramatic alternative to the status quo, right populism is going to provide them space. And it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see more of these figures in the future. Not in large numbers, but perhaps in positions of power and influence.