In the tumultuous European aftermath of the First World War, the breakthroughs of mass democracy confronted a right-wing backlash that came to adopt anti-status quo pretentions historically identified with the left. The spectacle of industrial warfare was felt to have possessed a higher world-historical significance, cruelly travestied by post-war upsurges of subaltern classes demanding social reforms bordering on revolution. In post-war Italy and Germany, the armed exploits of demobilized veterans and patriotic volunteers offered a bonding experience of collective violence, celebrated in a discourse of heroic resistance to governments of national humiliation. Spengler’s assessment of this outcome expressed the exasperation felt by men of property and education: ‘The Labour leader won the War. That which in every country is called the Labour Party and the trade union, but is in reality the trade union of party officials, the bureaucracy of the Revolution, gained the mastery and is now ruling over Western Civilization.’footnote1 A miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling, the ‘revolution from the right’ was essentially a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses.

Intellectuals heartened by this counter-offensive sought to give it greater spiritual meaning as a struggle to overcome the illusions of the nineteenth century, framing the current tribulations of modernity—war, economic dislocation and class struggle—within an epochal perspective on the destiny of the Occident. Even writers who played no role at all in these events would come to feel the gravitational force of this new problematic of the anti-systemic right. While this discourse incubated in the civil-war conditions of Central Europe, it resonated more broadly from London to Bucharest. Beleaguered elites often liked the sound of this ‘transvaluation’ to an extent that is now hard to fathom. One must recall that in this late autumn of European colonialism, a shared language of race and nation linked conservative establishments to zealots of the extreme right. The idea of a white supremacy over all other peoples ran deep, although defiant voices from an outer world of native multitudes could increasingly be heard in the metropoles.

In a world-political atmosphere saturated with racial phantasms, a certain rhetoric of the decline of the West spoke to widespread fears that a wracked and drifting post-war Europe was being thrust off the stage of world history by American creditors and a Bolshevik Russia. The latter in particular was a cause for alarm. What could Christian-bourgeois Europe do before this ruthless new despotism, bent on inciting the exorbitant demands of Western workers and an uprising of ‘the coloured races’? Responding to these perceived existential threats, there arose a new, metaphysical variant of anti-semitism that descried a single, nihilistic will to destruction operating behind these multiple fronts, one that needed to be overcome by an opposed will.

The works of the most distinguished right-wing political writers of the period—Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger or Leo Strauss, for example—cannot be reduced to the semantics of this zeitgeist without effacing their conceptual specificity. But its leitmotifs do, in fact, inhere in their work, as subtext and background music. ‘The rise of the masses’, ‘the spirit of technology’, ‘the destiny of the West’—such were the distinguishing phrases of a mythological discourse infused with a visceral structure of feeling. In such cases, the competing claims of close reading and the critique of ideology are mirrored in the ambivalence that individual intellectuals themselves exhibited towards this ‘metaphysico-political vulgate’,footnote2 an ambivalence at work in a certain art of writing.

Writers in the orbit of this ideological formation made themselves legible to like-minded contemporaries by playing off a repertoire of standard binary oppositions (culture versus civilization, for example); inverting the positive and negative terms of an inherited opposition (the ascetic worker versus the materialistic bourgeoisie); proposing paradoxical equivalences (Americanism equals Bolshevism); replacing a vulgar category with a more auratic equivalent (‘existence’ in place of ‘life’, various substitutes for race); evoking the imperilled advent of a new and as yet unnamed saving power, and so forth. In other words, playing off the terms of this problematic generated an atmosphere of meaningfulness for readers at the time, yet it is precisely these dimensions of the ‘political unconscious’ that subsequently became opaque, raising hermeneutic obstacles for later readers.

In what follows, I will consider formulations from an assortment of writers who were the predecessors and instigators of this ‘conservative revolutionary’ backlash, those who were swept up in the later political dérapage it made possible, as well as a number of those who addressed the perceived evils of revolution and reform from outside of its specific idioms. These latter cases are included to exhibit the proximity of certain shades of conservativism to this counter-revolutionary outlook, unsettling familiar political classifications that tend to sharply separate the two. In the period under consideration here, conservatives and even many liberals, fearful of challenges to an older status quo of property and privilege, often shared fundamental assumptions with the radical right.

The roots of this anti-progressivist, ‘irrationalist’ moment in European cultural history are the subject of a number of well-known studies that situate it within different narratives of modern civilization and its discontents. In The Destruction of Reason, Georg Lukács proposed that a great intellectual sea change set in with the defeats of the revolutions of 1848. In this highly German-centred account, the anticipation and experience of a revolution promising universal emancipation drove an extraordinary trajectory of radicalization, unfolding from Kant through Hegel and Hölderlin to Marx. The thesis of this study was that a profound fear of opening the floodgates to more radical change led the educated and propertied middle classes of Western and Central Europe to abandon the struggle to bring down the Old Regime, inaugurating a long era of intellectual backlash that finally culminated in the reactionary nihilism of the inter-war period.