Julius Evola's reactionary revolt against the modern world


At one point in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, our protagonist, a shiftless Californian in search of class and culture at a sequestered, elite east coast college, talks about the feeling he gets when he studies Ancient Greek late into the night. Breaking from the reverie, he says that in this he sees, briefly, the world with “5th century eyes,” a world “disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home”. I thought about this line a lot as I sat doing the emails and admin that make up so much of contemporary life and listening to nasal American crypto-fascist men stumble over the words of Julius Evola, recording themselves to upload their voices to YouTube where I could listen to them back. Wouldn’t we all like to see the world with fifth-century eyes? To have rituals that bind us to eternity, to spans deeper and truths larger than ourselves, and to not have to commute and wait for things to load and feel our lives to be small, disconnected slivers?

If there is an intellectual movement that holds such an attainment close to its heart, it is Traditionalism, a once obscure school of twentieth century thought among whose key thinkers is the increasingly discussed Evola. Born in Italy in 1898, he was raised Catholic –– a belief system he was to reject early in life –– and later fought as a young man in the First World War. After the war’s end, he became briefly involved in the Italian modernist art movement, Futurism, and then, after forming a friendship with Tristan Tzara, with Dada –– with some speculating that during this Futurist period, while moving in the social circles around movement’s de facto leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, he first met Benito Mussolini. Evola’s interest in art waned early, however, and by the age of 24 he had stopped painting entirely. In the late 1920s he turned to writing, establishing the philosophy, a mix of politics and occultism, that would be his life’s work.

The key themes of Evola’s writing are his antagonism to modernity and his quest for the transcendental. While one of his earliest works, Pagan Imperialism, published in 1928, made the case for reinhabiting the spirit of ancient Rome, he also incorporated elements from a wide variety of spiritual traditions into his thinking, with a particular focus on the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita. His 1934 book Revolt Against the Modern World is subtitled “Politics, Religion and Social Order in the Kali Yuga”, with the Kali Yuga being the age of Kali, Hinduism's vengeful demon, and the final of the four ages in the Hindu cosmological cycle characterised by violent, materialistic conflict. For Evola, such an age was the contemporary world.

Generally considered Evola’s masterwork is his Revolt Against the Modern World, first published in 1934, and it is a book that provides the clearest distillation of his ideology. Through myths and legends just as much, if not more than, histories, Evola believes we can sense how to order society. His vision is an intensely hierarchical one –– so definite as to be unquestionable by those within it –– and he asserts that in a society so ordered every act and relationship would become loaded with meaning, with roles so fixed that they become in essence sanctified. Inhabiting this traditionalist world of meaning would allow access to new plains of being and belonging, and collapse the bridges of distance and alienation that exist between us and the ancient past.

If Evola’s contemporary appeal is growing, part of that no doubt comes from the plausible deniability of his connections with fascism. While he was certainly sympathetic to the interwar far-right (his love of hierarchy and ideas about warrior castes led him to an admiration of the German SS), he was not explicitly a Nazi, nor was he an unabashed supporter of Mussolini; the fascist governments of the 1930s and 40s, he believed, were insufficiently anti-modern, insufficiently anti-Christian, and without commitment to an aristocratic hierarchy. Yet he hardly stood in principled opposition either. Evola was, as he termed himself, a “superfascist”, essentially believing that the Fascist regimes were not extreme enough, that they were too left wing. Nor had he any objections to anti-Semitism, even going so far as writing a complimentary introduction to a 1937 edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book that he said should be neither “ignored nor dismissed”. He considered Italians to be an inferior people, less suited to embodying fascist ideals. In 1941, in response to a lecture he gave in Austria where he suggested that Italy should merge with the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” his passport was withdrawn. In that instance Mussolini intervened on his behalf, but Evola’s relationship with the Italian fascist leader was complicated, although far from distant, and he was denied membership of the Fascist Party in 1939, in part due to his open criticism of the regime.

In 1945, Evola was injured in a bombing raid on Vienna and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, most of it confined to a small apartment in Rome paid for by his ideological admirers. Yet, despite his reclusiveness, he was revered in Italian neo-fascist circles. Towards the end of his life he published widely in neo-fascist outlets, and many involved in these tendencies made the pilgrimage to Rome to meet him. In 1951, he was put on trial for promoting Fascism, he would testify to being merely an “ideological accessory” to the attempts to restore the Fascist Party in Italy, and involved only on a “purely intellectual and doctrinal level” as an opponent of liberalism. Ultimately he was found innocent.

Evola lived until 1974, and his last book of note was Ride the Tiger published in 1961. The “tiger” of the title is liberal modernity, and the book advises a withdrawal from political life (framed as the debated concept of “apolitia”) and the practice of a preservation of the spirit of tradition within oneself in order to live alongside the tiger without being corrupted by it. It is something close to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for pagan traditionalists, encouraging a retreat from public life and from advancing one’s own beliefs as political or social aims so that they may be better protected and preserved until such time as conditions become more favourable.

In some ways, this is what Evolaism did in the latter part of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first: largely disappear, to be read only by members of the far right who wished to mark themselves out as more politically and intellectually advanced than the street brawling skinheads. Yet, in 2015, prominent Swedish neo-nazi Daniel Friberg –– one such intellectually aspirant member of the far right –– wrote a blog calling in Evolaist terms for the far right to “strangle the tiger”, arguing that liberal modernity was sufficiently weakened, lagging under the weight of its own decadence and contradictions, and that the time had come to dismount and take up arms. Such murmurs soon grew, and by the 2010s, at the fringes of an ascendant radical right, Evola's influence was increasingly prominent.

As the American writer Benjamin Teitelbaum says in his book War For Eternity, it was sometime in July 2014 that Steve Bannon first publicly discussed the work of Evola and his engagement with traditionalism. Two years later, Bannon would be running Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the American presidency. A few months later again, he would be in the White House. For Teitelbaum’s book, which primarily focuses on Bannon and Alexander Dugin, the Russian Traditionalist with links to Putin, Bannon sat for a series of interviews where he discussed his traditionalist influences, something he says he first encountered while serving in the navy, a ritualised and deeply hierarchical environment. Since then, Evola has found something more-like mainstream influence, and not just in the Whitehouse. In Hungary, the far-right party Jobbik listed him on their website as recommended reading; as did that of Greece’s Golden Dawn. On Instagram, Joe Rogan discusses the Kali Yuga, while on twitter the Tucker Carlson-platformed writer “Raw Egg Nationalist” discusses Evola.

Evola is often discussed alongside Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher who gained intellectual notoriety in the interwar years across Europe. Both he and Evola figure in the small group whose work the historian Mark Sedgwick terms the “required reading for today’s intellectual radical right”. Spengler's best known work is The Decline of the West, published in two parts in 1918 and 1922; a book Evola was to translate into Italian in the 1950s. The book puts forward a theory of cultures as organisms, and crucially, as cyclical, possessed of recurring stages of assent, potency and decadence. Evola too embraced cyclical ideas of history, drawing on Hindu time cycles and on the work of the French Traditionalist Rene Guenon, his contemporary and great influence. Ideas about the cyclical- rather than progressive-nature of history are widespread in conservative intellectual writing; consider William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning (from which the play Heroes of the Fourth Turning takes its name), or even Ross Douthat’s Decadent Society. However, they also feed more extreme currents, and it is Evola’s ideas about the course of history that constitute perhaps his most dangerous legacy, as one of the thinkers underpinning radical accelerationism.

Such a view of history is shared by accelerationism –– a term most commonly associated with the cultural theorist Nick Land, but also prominent in the writing of neo-reactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin and others in the radical right milieu –– which holds that the conditions of the current age are in the process of collapse, failing under the weight their own follies and contradictions. In this, they maintain, it is possible, through certain actions, to accelerate the coming of the next age. These contradictions, for those who follow Evola, usually relate to things like the validity of democracy or the assertion that there is no racial hierarchy of intelligence. Militant accelerationism, often drawing explicitly on Evola, features heavily in the thought of neo-nazi groups such as the Atomwaffen Division in America and others in the Iron March network and elsewhere, who advocate (and carry out) political violence as a means of bringing about the collapse of modern liberal society.

If part of Evola’s contemporary appeal is his plausible disconnect from historic fascist atrocities, and another is the strange and to certain eyes utopian nature of the world he describes, his appeal lies equally in his obscurity. He is, in the words of the former director of the far right press Arktos (Evola’s English-language publisher), “more referenced than read” –– being into Evola as opposed to say, Nietszche, or even Carl Schmitt (with whom Evola corresponded at some length) is the far right political theory equivalent of announcing oneself to be “not like other girls”. Evola is also, for want of a better word, quite vibey; he wrote a lot, and his work has wide-ranging applications. Whether you are a young Republican looking for some esoteric intellectual cred, a statue avi twitter user looking for theoretical justification for your posts about ancient wisdom and contemporary decadence, or a man embedded in the far right media ecosystem planning to kill 5 people in Denver, Colorado, there will be something for you to adapt to your purposes in his body of work.

Of the contemporary texts most clearly influenced by Evola, one is Bronze Age Mindset, the political manifesto of the anonymous writer Bronze Age Pervert, and a book which holds not insignificant sway over the young American right (as the American Conservative writer Nate Hochman puts it: “every junior staffer in the Trump administration read Bronze Age Mindset”). The clue to the book’s content is in the title: it focuses on the supposed lost connection to the ancient and vital, the core of human potential, brought about by the “bugmen” of liberal modernity. Yet, it’s not just in the general ideas about “retvrn” that Bronze Age Pervert’s Evolaist influences become apparent; his views on biology and evolution also tack closely to those Evola expresses in Eros and The Mysteries of Love: The Metaphysics of Sex (1958), where he argued that to explain human sexuality in biological or procreative terms, rather than in ritual or transcendental terms, as part of the broader quest to separate us from the higher parts of ourselves. As such, Bronze Age Pervert rejects the idea of evolution. “Biology”, he writes, “gives little opportunity for the kind of thinking that penetrates the mystery of nature”; “Darwinism is the product of bug-thought. In the end it won’t show you the way out of the prison of the ages”.

Bronze Age Mindset is stunningly racist and anti-Semitic; Evola thought Hitler was too interested in democracy. These are not people whose influence is anything other than cancerous. However, we are remiss if we fail to understand that what they describe, and what their writing purports to offer, is in its own way utopian, presenting the idea of a different and complete world. Teitelbaum quotes a description of Traditionalism as “dungeons and dragons for racists”, but this seems a little off; it’s closer to A24 fascism –– deep greens and sanctified meaning laced into ritual across grand expanses of time that collapse into one another. Early in his book, Bronze Age Pervert describes the ancient philosopher Empedocles, who threw himself into a volcano believing that he would become a god. “What Mount Aetna was to Empedocles –– is there something like that to you? Is there something like that at all anymore?”

It’s an unusually romantic way of talking about how you’d like there to be fewer Jews and black people. It is certainly far more enchanting than more conventional strands of Christian nationalism. The political right is often seen as representing a desire for the status quo, or a restoration of some disappeared tradition. For the most part, this is the case; conservatism is about conserving, not about stark divergence. In recent years Mark Fisher has become perhaps the left’s foremost theorist describing the desire to break out of capitalist stasis and imagine a radically different world. It is foolish, however, to assume that this is a desire limited to the political left. As Mathew Rose writes in his exploration of anti-liberal radical right thinkers, A World after Liberalism, the appeal of the theorists he analyses lies in the fact that “we are too often denied, and too often deny others, the freedom to entertain radically different views of what it means to be a human being”, and that these thinkers offer just such a freedom. Evola’s writing certainly contains a view of a radically different world, one which however repellent can be both enchanting and enticing, particularly if you are sitting in a room somewhere, feeling disconnected.

Morgan Jones is a writer who lives in London and is a contributing editor of Renewal.