The Playboy Interview: Alain de Benoist
Translated by Don Camillo
Editors Note: This is a translation of a interview done with Alain de Benoist for the French edition of Playboy in 1979.
The surprising reflections of the leader of the “Nouvelle Droite” (N. B. Literal translation: “New Right”)
It was a tidal wave. This summer (N. B. 1979), the “New Right” swept the newspapers which, faced with such a phenomenon, eschewed its customary summer coverage of the Loch Ness monster, the famous Nessie which usually fills the papers during the months of July and August when the press has little to report.
The rise of the New Right suddenly mobilized all the editorialists, some seeing in this ideology a dangerous resurgence of fascism. The Left was unhinged in its coverage, from the Nouvel Observateur (N. B. Literal translation: “New Observer”, French newspaper generally classified on the far-left) to Pravda (N. B. Literal translation: “Truth”, Russian newspaper generally considered the officially mouthpiece of the former Soviet Union) which did not hesitate to compare the writings of the New Right to the platform and program of Adolf Hitler.
Louis Pauwels, director of the Figaro Magazine (N. B. French newspaper generally classified on the centre-right), where the New Right is given the latitude to express itself, was asked to explain the phenomenon. The scandal, however, revolves mostly around a young, thirty-seven year old intellectual named Alain de Benoist, who writes for the Figaro. Considered the thought leader of this movement, he has had to withstand violent criticism from his detractors.
Playboy, which was the first magazine in the world to write about the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (N. B. Literal translation: “New Philosophers”, former Maoist intellectuals), was also one of the first to signal the existence of the New Right, in a January 1979 article by Alexander Astruc. Today, Playboy revives the debate with an interview of Alain de Benoist, who has just published a book entitled “Les idées à l’endroit” (N. B. Rough translation: “Thinking Straight”) with publishing house Éditions Libres Hallier.
In this interview with Jean-Claude Lamy, he delivers what will certainly surprise those who condemned him before getting to know him.
Playboy: As the major theoretician of the New Right, you are the man to beat for leftist intellectuals, because, in their eyes, you peddle a dangerous ideology. They very nearly compare you to Joseph Goebbels (N. B. Reichsminister of Propaganda of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945). Are they giving you too much credit?
De Benoist: The style of those who make such comparisons reflect much more the methods employed by Goebbels than the portrait they paint of me. I believe, in fact, that in those circles, the existence of a right-wing ideology pleases nobody. The Left, which, with few exceptions, has never held political power since the War (N. B. The centre-right was firmly in power in France between 1958 and 1981), but conversely has always held cultural sway. For thirty years, the Left has had a monopoly over hearts and minds. Then, ten years ago, a number of clubs, groups, think tanks, newspapers, and magazines began to appear that sought to recreate a right-leaning intelligentsia on an entirely new basis. I am actually surprised to see so many recent articles written about the New Right, as if it were a new phenomenon. Because if we look back over the last ten years of media coverage, with few exceptions, there was complete silence in the press on the development of this school of thought. Until, of course, the day when it was no longer possible to no discuss it because it had found certain places in the media where it resonated and where its members were given the opportunity to express themselves. From then on, we entered a second phase, a very typical one, in which we were systematically disqualified; that is to say that everyone was encouraged to develop his own idea of what the New Right was, basing his reasoning purely on his own fantasies, encouraged not to engage in any meaningful debate on the subject, and to never cite the actual texts [of the New Right]. This is how certain people were able to depict the New Right as a “resurgence of fascism”! A cursory glance at New Right texts would suffice to demonstrate that the New Right has constantly pronounced itself, without any ambiguity, against all forms of totalitarianism and racism.
Playboy: Louis Pauwels believes that you are the only one at the Figaro Magazine representing this school of thought. I deduce, therefore, that your influence must be vast, because when I read this magazine I get the distinct impression that almost every article peddles the ideology that you represent and defend. Am I mistaken?
De Benoist: I am not the only member of the New Right to write in the Figaro Magazine. But Louis Pauwels, for whom I have a lot of admiration and affection, is first and foremost the director of a newspaper which is essentially pluralist. He is entirely correct in this. The Figaro Magazine is (and must be) open to all schools of thought distinct from Marxism; it is, therefore, natural that the New Right be represented there. What surprises me is that some people think that a newspaper director should mandatorily impose his opinions on his staff. Louis Pauwels has always been interested in my work, and that of Nouvelle École (N. B. Literal translation: “New School”, one of the publications of the New Right think tank “GRECE”, since 1968), the magazine that I founded ten years ago. When he gained access to such a widely distributed media (N. B. When he became director of the Figaro Magazine), it was natural that he should reach out to me and ask me to write a column about this school of thought.
Playboy: Are you a “militant” (N. B. Politically biased) journalist?
De Benoist: Probably not in the sense that you are implying. On the other hand, if you mean a form of “politically engaged” journalism, I would answer that all journalists are politically engaged. I do not believe in the supposed distinction between opinion journalism and news journalism. For me, all news is opinion. Man is an animal that gives meaning to his thoughts. There can be no “neutrality” in any of his actions. The mere fact of reporting on such and such a story rather than another — which is the obligation of all journalists, since they must sift through a mass of dispatches to choose what is newsworthy — is in and of itself an opinion, and reflects a specific opinion. Of course, we must aim for objectivity, or rather honesty in the views that we express, but I do not believe, unless one is an ectoplasm, that one can express a point of view without attaching to it, explicitly or not, an entire system of values, an entire conception of the world.
Playboy: So, to some extent, do you believe that the Figaro Magazine has become the Nouvel Observateur of the Right?
De Benoist: I do not think one can push that parallel very far. For it seems to me that the Nouvel Observateur is much more monolithic in the opinions that it publishes than the Figaro Magazine, whose character is essentially pluralistic and open.
Playboy: Do you feel that you are the Jean Daniel (N. B. Algerian-born Jewish journalist, founder of the Nouvel Observateur, generally classified on the “liberal” Left) of the Right?
De Benoist: The moody ruminations of the raincoat-clad Jean Daniel are completely foreign to me. I am, in fact, totally indifferent to those [melodramatic] Parisian humours. I simply express my ideas. “Qui m’aime me suive!” (N. B. Literal translation: “Whosoever loves me, follow me!” An ancient French war cry meant to rally the troops to their King.)
Playboy: In reality, what unsettles certain people about this school of thought — also rejected by the monarchists, heirs of Maurras (N. B. Founder of the Action Française, a Catholic, Integralist, Orleanist party still extant today) — is the genetic debate that it has opened. Sociobiology erected as a dogma is not acceptable when one remembers the atrocities of Auschwitz. Those millions of Jews (N. B. The “Holocaust”), were they not killed in the name of biological inequality?
De Benoist: The were not at all killed in the name of biological inequality! They were killed in the name of the crazy dream of a certain Adolf Hitler. As for sociobiology, the majority of its representatives in the United States are men who fled Nazi persecution! The truth is that the Left has projected fantasies — the myth of the mad scientist, the mad man with a syringe, etc. — on the work of the New Right. When one takes the trouble to refer to the texts, one finds in reality that the New Right does not in any way make biology the basis of its thought and, furthermore, that it rejects all biological materialism and any doctrine based on absolute biological determinism. In flipping through Éléments (N. B. Literal translation: “Elements”, another publication of GRECE, since 1973) and Nouvelle École, I realized that the articles concerning biology and genetics — and why would we not discuss them? — represented barely fifteen per-cent of what we had published. I am surprised, therefore, to see the discussion centered on this point, brushing aside all the articles that we have published in the fields of philosophy, politics, historiography, literary criticism, contemporary history, etc. And my astonishment only grows when sociobiology is brought up, because, if memory serves, the New Right has only ever published one article on the subject. I wrote it in the Figaro Magazine a few months ago. The article was intended to inform the French public of the debate that has been raging in Anglo-Saxon countries over the last three years on sociobiology, a subject about which, curiously, almost nobody was discussing here (N. B. France). I then presented the work of the American sociobiologists: around 300 academics from all political backgrounds. I explained how sociobiology was not at all my point of reference, and even less so a dogma for me. I wrote, verbatim, that sociobiology seemed gravely mistaken to me, because it focused solely on genetics and conveniently silenced what is specific to Man, that is to say his historical conscience, his culture, his capacity to create new forms of Civilization, etc. My criticism of sociobiology, therefore, was exactly the one that I was ironically criticized for not making…
Playboy: But it is still a disturbing aspect of this New Right that you represent?
De Benoist: I do not see what is “disturbing” about commenting on scientific hypotheses. I do not hold up Science as an absolute; it is nothing more than a means of informing contemporary thought. As for biology, it is obviously a subject of interest, just as physics had been in the first part of this century (N. B. Twentieth century). No more, no less. The study of behavioral genetics has shown that heredity is probably more important than some ideologues (N. B. The Left) once thought. To make note of this fact and to remind the Left about it, which conveniently pretends to forget about its existence, does not mean that we want to found a doctrine based exclusively on the findings of biology. A few years ago, I was received by Austrian Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz. He welcomed me into his home, among his geese, and said: “You know, if one says that Man is animal, one is not wrong. But if one says that Man is nothing more than an animal, then one is wrong.” (N. B. Italics in the original.) He was right, of course, because he was criticizing what Arthur Koestler — one of the thought leaders of the New Right — calls “reductionism”. Man is a living being, which implies a certain number of limitations and constraints. But to fall for a determinism which wants to make the whole social structure rest on a biological analysis would be, I repeat, an absurdity, pure and simple. Again, Man is not guided by his species, nor by his instincts; he has freedom of choice, free will. In Man, biological determinations are purely potential. Man is, above all, a creature of culture.
Playboy: To assert that the influence of the environment (N. B. The “nurture” of “Nature versus nurture”) is almost negligible seems wrong to me, because a mind will develop differently according to its social environment, even if one is Mozart of Einstein.
De Benoist: That is quite obvious. And I do not neglect the role that the environment plays. To say that this role is secondary, does not mean that it is negligible. I just think that, contrary to what eighteenth-century egalitarians believed, Rousseau’s partisans, that people are not born as virgin wax slates on which the environment alone would inscribe all the differences that we then see in daily life. I believe that the environment plays a favoring or inhibiting role, and it is quite obvious, for example, that education and social facilities are essential. This is why I am favorable to a pedagogy which makes it possible to identify the capacities of each child. Equality must be introduced at the outset so that the inequality of arrival (N. B. Post-education) is more just and not based on class privileges.
Playboy: One can come from humble origins and work in modest positions, but still have genius?
De Benoist: But of course! It is evident that the numerical majority of the most gifted individuals is found in the most disadvantaged social strata. Every élite must be rooted in the people. The Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, who at the turn of the century (N. B. Twentieth century) was one of the theoreticians of this question, reminded us that the élite must “circulate” (N. B. Let in new blood), for from the moment it transforms itself into a caste, it creates a situation of perfectly unjust privileges against which all revolution becomes legitimate. There is, moreover, no élite in the absolute: one is always better than another per a specific criterion. A just society is the one which permits the best, in all fields, to reach the place they deserve, which is also where they can most effectively help others.
Playboy: Do you consider yourself a very intelligent man?
De Benoist: No, I consider myself an intelligent enough man. I know a lot of people who are more intelligent than I am and I feel true pleasure in meeting someone who is superior to me.
Playboy: Did your origins (N. B. Your background) destine you to become what you represent today?
De Benoist: Not at all. My father was in the perfume business, which is far from journalism; my mother comes from a family of half-Breton, half-Norman peasants. Furthermore, my family was politically and ideologically deeply divided. No, I do not see any precedent for the ideas that I espouse today and the profession that I practice today. I lived in Tours (N. B. 200 kilometers southwest of Paris, on the River Loire) until the age of seven or eight. Then, my parents moved to Paris. After studying at the Lycée Montaigne and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand (N. B. Two of France’s most prestigious secondary schools, attended by the children of the élite), I went to law school and the Sorbonne (N. B. The original University of Paris, among the oldest in the world). I then very quickly turned to journalism. I would add that what I learned at university has helped me the least in life. On this subject, I would have many criticisms to make. I have no a priori sympathies for people with diplomas. There are many imbeciles among them and I know many wonderful people who do not hold a diploma. This does not prevent them from having a sense of creativity or from being magnificent humanists.
Playboy: Were you still at university in May 1968?
De Benoist: Non, I had just finished my studies. In May 1968, I was working at l’Écho de la Presse et de la Publicité (N. B. Literal translation: “The Echo of the Press and Publicity”), a trade journal. But I had gone down to the barricades like everyone else, as a spectator watching this interesting psychodrama play out in the Quartier Latin (N. B. Literal translation: “Latin Quarter”, where medical students used to live and study in mediæval Paris, where Latin was the language of instruction).
Playboy: Did “this interesting psychodrama”, in your opinion, have an impact on the life of today?
De Benoist: I felt very mixed feelings about the events of May 1968. The romantic side of this spontaneous revolt against bourgeois values, which I reject as much as the rioters did, had seduced me. We were witnessing a desperate attempt to recreate a sort of revolutionary purity that the political apparatus had helped to degenerate. At the same time, it was the advent of the New Left; the origins of the New Right can also be traced back to this period, since Nouvelle École was created in March 1968. It is interesting, historically, to note that the New Right and the New Left were born more or less at the same time. I do not think it was a coincidence. It was a generational phenomenon, in the sense that a number of young people who were twenty years old at the time felt as uncomfortable in the Old Left as they did in the Old Right, and both sides wanted to start anew.
Playboy: Which suggests that there are close identities between the New Right and the New Left…
De Benoist: There are certainly convergences, but there are also, of course, divergences. It would be completely stupid to want to assimilate one with the other. Nevertheless, the fact that it is the same generation that often analyses identical problems — even if it draws different conclusions — is significant. For example, we have common positions such as anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, struggle against superpowers, a desire for rootedness, support for regionalism, criticism of consumerism, and the idea that cultural power is at least as important than political power, if not more so.
Playboy: I suppose you are a loyal reader of Libération? (N. B. Literal translation: “Liberation”, a daily newspaper founded by existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973, generally classified on the far-left)
De Benoist: Yes, and I read Libération with a lot more pleasure than le Monde (N. B. Literal translation: “The World”, a daily newspaper generally classified on the centre-left, France’s newspaper of record, comparable to the New York Times on the American Left)
Playboy: How did you become a right-wing man?
De Benoist: Essentially by anti-conformism. I am someone who is totally indifferent to Parisian worldliness, this small spectrum of ephemeral rumours, fashions, enthusiasms, of squalls and screams that form the web of this micromilieu.
Playboy: Are you considering a career in politics?
De Benoist: Absolutely not. I have no political ambitions. It is not my temperament, it is not my taste, and it is less and less so [moving forward].
Playboy: Do you vote?
De Benoist: It happens, I vote sometimes. Let us say that in this respect I do not differ from the vast majority of citizens. But my focus in life is elsewhere. I am passionate about the intellectual debate taking place in France and abroad, where I often go.
Playboy: Can the advanced liberalism of Giscard d’Estaing (N. B. President of the French Republic from 1974 to 1981, generally considered to have been on the centre-right) be included in the philosophical idea of the New Right?
De Benoist: We would have to define what you call “advanced liberalism”, because it does not seem to me that it is going very far. The New Right is essentially tolerant and anti-dogmatic. It criticises liberalism in the philosophical sense of the term. That is to say that it criticises the eighteenth-century conception of liberalism, with its predominance of the economy over politics and over the idea that men are born free and equal.
Playboy: Would it make you happy to become a star?
De Benoist: Not at all. I despise the “star system”, even when I benefit from it. Again, I am not someone who is looking for publicity. Let us just say that I feel close to Régis Debray (N. B. Marxist activist), who denounces this in his book Le pouvoir intellectuel en France (N. B. Literal translation: “The Intellectual Power in France”), than to Bernard-Henri Lévy (N. B. Algerian-born Jewish “public intellectual”, generally classified on the bourgeois Left).
Playboy: In the debate on the New Right, God is also being discussed; personally speaking, what place has He occupied in your existence?
De Benoist: Paradoxically, he has held a fairly large place in my life. I have never ceased to question myself about the existence of God. I even published a book entitled Avec ou sans Dieu (N. B. Literal translation: “With or Without God”). Let us just say that I have a somewhat personal idea of God.
Playboy: Like what?
De Benoist: I am not a monotheist, but I believe I have a deep sense of the sacred. For me, reality as a whole is a form of divinity.
Playboy: Do you think you could one day meet God?
De Benoist: The idea of God is something with which I can collaborate by participating in turn to Creation.
Playboy: Do you feel at ease in your time? (N. B. Do you feel at home in the “Current Year”?)
De Benoist: No, I do not feel at ease, because it is an era that flatly denies the most flagrant evidence, where economic and social preoccupations take precedence over all others, where ideologies simply become fleeting fashions. You know, there is a sentence from Solzhenitsyn (N. B. Russian dissident against the USSR, defender of Orthodoxy and Civilisation) than resonated with me greatly. He said: “I left a system where nothing could be said; I arrived in a system where one can say anything and everything, but where it is useless.” It is truly a terrible sentence that characterises the world in which we live. Drowned in a flood of information, we can no longer discern the truth. This is no better than being watered with lies.
Playboy: Do you have hope for a better world?
De Benoist: I do not believe that the history of the world began with primitive communism or with the Garden of Eden, nor do I believe that it will end with the reign of God on Earth or with a classless society. History is a sphere that is constantly turning on itself and that men have the freedom to push in the direction they desire, provided they have enough strength and will to do so.
Playboy: How do you feel about the death of Pierre Goldman? (N. B. Jewish Pole born in France, Marxist agitator condemned for multiple robberies, assassinated in Paris by an unknown hit squad)
De Benoist: It inspires in me a vivid repugnance for his assassins. All attacks of this nature seem extremely reprehensible to me. In the case of Goldman, who certainly had a very complex personality, there is one aspect that cannot be denied: he went to the logical conclusion of his ideas and lived by them. For someone like me, who attaches fundamental importance to the way one lives out one’s ideals, this aspect of his personality was all the more sensitive to me. The worrying rise in violence seems unfortunately linked to the collapse of collective norms, which means that the notion of legality has less and less resonance with people, and I deeply regret this contemporary refusal of debates and dialogues of ideas.
Playboy: To view the world from the Right, is that not a vision that is as obtuse (N. B. narrow-minded) as to view the world from the Left?
De Benoist: This is the reason why, in the book I published two years ago, Vu de droite (N. B. Literal translation: “View from the Right“), I wrote that my ideas which are currently classified on the Right are not necessarily on the Right. I believe, in fact, that there are no right-wing or left-wing ideas, but a configuration which, in the context of a certain moment in History, places ideas on the Right or on the Left and labels them as such, even if they are sometimes the same ideas. It should be remembered that nationalism and colonialism were themes that were born on the Left before become identified with the Right; that Christianity, which was once sociologically on the Right, has gradually moved to the Left; and that a number of bucolic and rural demands formerly characteristic of the Right are today on the side of the ecological Left.
Playboy: Do you consider yourself a philosopher?
De Benoist: I am very suspicious of this term. Anyone today can call himself a philosopher; just look at the “Nouveaux Philosophes”… with them, I wonder where has philosophy gone? One has to be more modest than that. I am someone who is trying to participate in the debate of ideas.
Playboy: For you, is Sartre still alive?
De Benoist: Yes, Sartre is still alive. And I would add that he probably does not deserve all the praise he has received from the Left nor all the scorn he has received from the Right. There are many things in Sartrian existentialism with which I agree. I have a soft spot for his character. I never joined in the abject mockery of the Old Right when Sartre used to sell his Cause du Peuple (N. B. Literal translation: “The Cause of the People”) in the street. It was, in my opinion, something eminently respectable.
Playboy: With 1,400,000 unemployed people [in France] and all the economic problems of the day, do you really feel like you are on the Right?
De Benoist: It is a societal matter that goes far beyond the framework of ideology. The crisis of the international monetary system, the crisis of energy supply, the state of relations between Europe and the United States, these are the true parameters of the problem. I believe that we are headed for the collapse of the Russo-American condominium which has dominated the world since Yalta (N. B. Conference held in 1945 to divide Eastern Europe between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin), thanks in part to the actions of the young nations of the Third World, and perhaps also thanks to an awakening of the European countries. In this way, the global political game will become more and more diverse, instead of being the plaything of the superpowers. Our future is neither to become a commercial appendage of the United States of America nor a politico-military annex of the Soviet Union.
Playboy: As I listen to you, I get the impression that you also represent the New Left…
De Benoist: As I said earlier, there is a convergence in the analyses. But it when it comes down to identifying the causes or deducing the consequences, there we distinguish ourselves from the New Left. The New Right is resolutely existentialist, nominalist, and rejects the natural order. But what conclusions does the New Left draw? The idea that, in the end, all norms are equal and, therefore, not needed; whereas the New Right believes the contrary: if norms are social conventions, then man, in order to surpass himself, my voluntarily, heroically, create new ones.