In a recent interview with the magazine Wired, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described the path many intellectual conservatives take as either coming from English fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien or from Russian-American author Ayn Rand.
Conservatism finds itself at an intellectual crossroads: between the classical tradition of Christianity and the “post-Christian” path of Nietzscheanism. The thought of these two camps is embodied in two of the 20th century’s greatest writers and thinkers: English fantasy author and professor J. R. R. Tolkien and German author and thinker Ernst Jünger.
Two Twentieth Century Men
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 1892, was an English author, professor, veteran of the First World War, and philologist, who is best known as the author of the fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. A devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien infused his works with Catholic themes and symbolism, and has become a beloved author of many Christians.
Ernst Jünger, born in 1895, like Tolkien, was a veteran of the Great War, fighting in the German army from 1915 to the war’s conclusion in 1918. Also like Tolkien, Jünger was a prominent writer and scholar. His most famous work, Storm of Steel, has become a definitive account of life on the Western Front during the First World War. After the war, Jünger became associated with a group of right-wing German thinkers known as the Conservative Revolutionaries.
The Conservative Revolutionaries encompass German writers, thinkers and scholars living after the First World War, during the Weimar Republic, and who were critical of what they saw as the decadent liberalism and “bourgeois” values that were in place during the time. The group encompassed prominent thinkers such as Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Oswald Spengler. Rather than rooting their conservatism in Christianity or in traditionalism, the conservative revolutionaries grounded their thought in the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
This Nietzschean view of conservatism is contrasted with the Christian conservatism of Tolkien. The conservatism of Tolkien places an emphasis on smallness: it is in particular communities, living in a harmonious relationship with the created order, that man finds his fulfillment. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s fantasy world knows of the bucolic Shire, land of the Hobbits, and how this pastoral setting was inspired by Tolkien’s own boyhood.
In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien describes his political views as “lean[ing] more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.” Indeed this quasi-libertarian spirit suffuses many of Tolkien’s letters. But Tolkien’s libertarianism is not wholly the same as the type most of us would be familiar with today. Tolkien’s libertarianism is rooted not so much in the desire that individuals should be free to do as they wish – absolute license – but in a distrust of technocracy; a Catholic mistrust of modernity’s “myth of progress” and the growth of the managerial state. As he states in another letter, “I am not a ‘socialist’ in any sense – being averse to ‘planning’ (as must be plain) most of all because the ‘planners’, when they acquire power, become so bad….”
From Planning to Technological Empires
For Tolkien, the growth of the state was accompanied by the expansive power of technology. Having been a participant in the First World War, the first truly industrial war, and having witnessed the Second World War, Tolkien was aware of the destructive power the new machine age wrought. “Well the first War of the Machines [the Second World War] seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter – leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful”, as Tolkien wrote to his son in January 1945.
Famously describing the physicists of the Manhattan Project as “Babel-builders”, in reference to the story of the haughty men of the Tower of Babel who tried to build a tower to God in the Book of Genesis, Tolkien realized that even though the Allies were triumphant in their war on fascism, the new atomic and machine age was nothing to celebrate. Tolkien recognized, based on his Catholic faith, that technological development is partially motivated out of a desire for control and, placed in the hands of fallen Man, is a receipe for disaster. Even laborsaving devices, still relatively new in the early-to-mid 20th century, for Tolkien “only create endless and worse labour.” Even Tolkien’s home in Oxford was not spared, as he witnessed the countryside around him being despoiled to make way for motorcars and pollution. Technological progress had no been accompanied by moral progress, and, if anything, had mad man spiritually worse for wear.
Tolkien’s views on machinery and technology in many ways presage those of Pope Francis, who has spoken of the “technocratic paradigm” in his encyclical Laudato si’. This theme of the conquest and destruction of nature is a theme that runs clean through many of Tolkien’s works; as the forces of the evil orcs must consume ever more resources in their conquest of the earth. A Tolkienian conservatism must reassess not only our current relationship to the environment, but of modern man’s distorted and often unhealthy relationship to technology.
Technology and Pain
Jünger and the Conservative Revolutionaries also took the question of technology, although they did not all arrive at the same conclusions. Like Tolkien, Jünger recognized that the machine age posed new and deadly questions. In his metaphysical essay On Pain, Jünger proposes that mechanized warfare introduces a new relationship to pain. Pain is something that liberal, bourgeois society abhors, and it does everything in its power to reduce it or push it to the margins. For Jünger, the ability to objectify oneself was antidote to modern, post-Enlightenment hyper-subjectivity which places the individual as the locus of experience.
Jünger and the Conservative Revolutionaries were not traditionalists looking to reestablish an older order; they were truly revolutionary in that they sought to move beyond liberal modernity into a new, Nietzschean heroic age. And Jünger saw modern technology as the means to move into this new age. Jünger is one of the fathers of what might be called today “national conservatism”, an ideology that has seen resurgence in the last few years.
The interest that both camps have in the challenges posed by technology, and their somewhat converging views, have not gone unnoticed. There is significant overlap between the two worldviews, but neither are they completely compatible. It should also be stated these two views are not the only views out there, nor do they have exclusive hold on the future of conservatism; they are merely representative of two of the most prominent strands of thought.
A Legacy Beyond Their Lives
In his seminal book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks the question “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” With the death of the Enlightenment project, modern moral thinking must choose to dance on the ashes of the Enlightenment with Nietzsche or it must question the very foundations of the Enlightenment itself and return to the Aristotelian classical tradition. The political right finds itself in that very crossroads today: will it choose Tolkien or Jünger?
The influence of the Jüngerian radical right has manifested itself within much of the Trumpian sphere of influence. President Trump’s former campaign director Steve Bannon has spoken about the influence that Italian thinker and conservative revolutionary Julius Evola has had on his own thought. Indeed, much of Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric is directly descended, whether or not it is realized, from the Conservative Revolution.
The focus on the particular and local has become a cause célèbre of the new post-Trumpian right. With an increasing skepticism on the right of big business and the neoliberal economic consensus, some Republican politicians have turned towards Catholic Social Teaching as a template for reevaluating American economic policy. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has spoken about “common-good capitalism” and the need for economic policies that reflect the inherent dignity found in work and the dignity of workers. Similarly, Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has also called for areordering of the current economic system in favor of the common man, and has introduced legislation that seeks to curb the abusive practices of “Big Tech”. It is hard to say if Tolkien himself would approve of the use of government power in curbing the abuses of technology – I am inclined to believe he would be skeptical of the project – but a future conservatism, motivated by a Tolkienian spirit, must confront these questions.
The question now is: which path will conservatism take?
Tim Colvin is a grad student at Fordham University.