Right Collectivism – The Other Threat to Liberty

I don’t think populism would be a danger at all if we had a free society... Populism is only a problem when expressed politically.

Jeffrey A. Tucker, who is the Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), has published the book “Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat to Liberty” in September. Last week, our Kai Weiss talked with him via Skype about the book and the threat of right-collectivism.

Kai Weiss: Let’s start off with an easy question. What was the purpose of writing this book? Why was it important right now to take a closer look at the right-collectivist movement?

Jeffrey Tucker: Right collectivism is on the rise around the world, both in Europe and the US – and in Latin America, as a response to the perceived weakness of the far-left. What people do not understand is that right-wing collectivism is in fact a coherent ideology. It’s not just purely reactive, it’s not just anti-leftist. It is for something, and – I think very crucially and critically – it’s anti-liberal. And many people do not understand this. What happens typically is that you get well-meaning people who decide they don’t like left-wing socialism, and they are looking around for movements that they can join to oppose them. And some of them might have libertarian impulses, or they might just simply want freedom. They don’t understand what they are getting involved with these right-fascist movements that have a deep and rich anti-liberal agenda that dates all the way back to the early 19th century.

The purpose in writing the book was to discuss this alternative tradition of statism. It’s another way to control people, it’s another cultural model for managing society from the top-down. That’s what we are talking about. The reason my book makes a contribution is that there has not been much talk about this in many decades – especially for Americans this is the new kid on the block. And people are so naïve, they don’t even recognize it when it’s staring them in the face. They don’t understand it. And I know this to be true, because within the last several years I have been at gatherings of libertarians for example, and had a speaker stand up, and advocate that magical combination of views: anti-immigrant, anti-trade – or mercantilist protectionist, in favor of strongman, top-down management of society, a worship of police, a despising of the free press, and a putting down of intellectuals. That’s the rough outlines of the ideology, all these points, all combined into one speaker. And people can go sit there, and think: “Oh that is a fascinating view.” They are completely oblivious about what this could actually mean, and where it actually comes from. So the purpose of my book was really to trace out a family tree of the rise of what I call right-wing collectivism, but I think is more accurately called right-Hegelianism.

What distinguishes right-collectivism from other sorts of collectivism? In which way is it different?

Right-collectivism is different from left-collectivism because right-collectivism throws out the parts of socialism that the bourgeoisie tends to despise the most. One of the things that annoys the middle class and the bourgeoisie about left-socialism is that it tends to be against religion, it tends to be suspicious of family, and it tends to want to take people’s property in various forms of regulation, taxation, and so on. Right-collectivism or right-Hegelianism is very happy to give you your religion, your family, and your property so long as all these institutions serve the nation-state. The nation-state becomes really the central unit of right-Hegelianism, it becomes the focus, really the end of history, “the source of happiness” – which actually is a quote by Donald Trump. That is a classical right-Hegelian view: the end of history is with the nation-state. The people organize according to nationhood and are dictated to by a great leader. All of this has a history: This concept of nationhood by itself deserves to be unpacked because we don’t really know what that means anymore. In particular libertarians and liberals cannot discuss this topic of nationhood with any kind of intelligence or coherence – which is another reason I wrote my book: to help people who are opposed to despotism, to tyranny, in favor of freedom, think and talk about important topics like nationhood in a way it’s coherent.

Would you say that nationhood is inherently evil, or can it also have positive manifestations? 

There are five bad ways to conceive of nationhood and one good way. The five bad ways are: race, religion, language, geography, and dynasty – like a shared dynastic, a hierarchy, or something like this. Those are the five bad ways because all of these ways conceived as nationhood are potentially coercive to you – whether you want to exit or enter, there will be conditions.

If you don’t speak the language, you’re excluded. If you do speak the language, you are included – you may not want to be included, by the way, but you will be included. And this is true for religion, for race, for geography, for dynasty, and for language. All five of these are coercive in an inclusionary way, and coercive in an exclusionary way. So when people talk about the nation, you really need to stop them, and say: “Hold on, do you mean race, language, religion, geography, or dynasty?” And chances are that they will be a little shocked and go “a little of both, a little of all of those things.” But wait a minute, you can’t just be a little of all those things. But the fact that I’m a white Catholic with a dynastic history which traces back 300 years in this country, and I live in this country, does that require anything of me in your vision of nationhood? Am I allowed the right to exit? Either intellectually or physically? These are the critical questions, and if you get this wrong, you are potentially erecting something like a prison state.

So what is the one way in which nationhood makes sense? I think we have to go back to a brilliant lecture from 1882, by Ernest Renan, a French historian, who gave it the end of the liberal era the best summary of what nationhood is, and it really comes down to an affair of the heart: Where are your affections? What do you love the most in life? What association, what group-based association seems to elicit the best in you, the things that you love?

In that sense, I can be an American, and feel pride in my country, and in my Americanness. Or, I might read a book about Portugal, and fall in love with it, and consider Portugal my nation. There is nothing wrong with that. A liberal view of society permits people to have a wandering sense of nationhood. It doesn’t forbid attachments, but it asks that your attachment extends from the heart and never be coerced by others. In that sense, we can legitimately talk about nationhood, but it’s a very tricky topic, and I’m highly suspicious of people who are constantly throwing out this weird nationhood, and talking about national identity – the nation as the source of our happiness, without ever being willing to explain to us what precisely they mean by that.

When it comes to religion as an aspect of nationhood, there’s an interesting book by Rod Dreher from The American Conservative called The Benedict Option, who doesn’t necessarily advocate for building a Christian nation, but he basically says that all Christians should come together, collaborate, and retreat from society.

Rod Dreher has turned against liberalism, and how that manifests itself is a little bit random. And one of the reasons why I wrote my book is to warn people that if you are against liberalism, you might be trending in a left-Hegelian or right-Hegelian direction – and I think he’s trending in a right-Hegelian direction, even though he doesn’t know it. This idea of a Christian nation of course is true, but you know, Rod Dreher I think identifies himself as being Eastern Orthodox. There are many Christians in this country that do not regard this as Christianity. I think he was raised a Roman Catholic. There are many Christians in this country who wanted to exclude Roman Catholics from immigrating into this country because they did not believe they were Christians. So Christianity is a big, big category that extends all the way from the Quakers of Pennsylvania to the Russian Orthodox of Belarus. And if you look at the two groups, they virtually have nothing in common, so Christianity is not the basis of a group identity, and it certainly cannot be the basis of nationhood.

As for retreating, on a practical level, that can be non-destructive and even valuable, insofar as it means taking greater control of your domain and bearing full responsibility rather than outsourcing that to the civic culture. Dreher’s sense of the corruption of our times is too despairing for my tastes. He goes way too far to inspire his desired end of complete civic detachment. I wish he could be more precise to say: the political sector is corrupt to the bone but the rest of civic culture contains vast health and vibrancy. How can you start a business, have a successful career, or live a good and full life if you are completely detached from the source of life in society? Full retreat might work for monastic life but it can’t for an enterprising life in commercial society.

Right-wing “populist” Viktor Orbán for example often talks about his goal of retaining “cultural homogeneity” in Hungary. Let’s say you are a Catholic, isn’t it in a way natural to want to be, to live with other, “like-minded” Christian people, or is that a falsehood where you go down the road to collectivist thought?

No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – I generally do not. That’s the reason we have Churches, that’s why we have Sunday. And you can look at other traditions like the Hasidic Jews that tried to extend their sense of identity to pervade many aspects of life: who you marry, the ceremonies, your education, and so on. And sometimes these actually can become very coercive.

On the other hand, if you enter into them voluntarily, I don’t see a problem with that. Group identity of that sort is not necessarily bigoted. However, I think it’s important to remember that in order for groups like that to thrive, and do well, they have to be relatively small, and they generally have to live within the context of a liberal society, which can in fact tolerate smaller cells of homogenous identity, so that’s one point –and that’s fine.

But the second point is this: within a market society, there is a constant tendency towards integration, ever more mixing of groups. You cannot stop it, because talents are widely dispersed. There have been politicians in the past that tried to become homogenous on their own choosing. The earliest origins of the Nazi party, of National Socialism in Germany, was “Do not hurt the Jews, use no acts of violence, but just stop doing business with them.” This is 1932. That did not work of course. Because if you want better vegetables, you will go to the Jewish grocery. You need a heart surgery, you are going to go to the Jewish doctor, and so on.

It turns out that in a market economy, there is a strong economic reason for continuing integration. There may be people who you despise, but actually, you find value in them in terms of voluntary exchange. The Nuremberg laws were passed as an emergency measure because you could not get people to become homogenous voluntarily. You have to do something to force them to become that way. So when I hear about people longing for homogeneity, the question is, let’s say I have a preference every once in a while for being heterogeneous. What will you do about it? That’s the question.

There is one very interesting theory that conservatives and leftists each like in their own way, and I would love to hear your opinion on it. It is by David Goodhart, a British journalist, and his theory is that you get the populism that you are seeing right now because there are two different kinds of people: there are “somewheres,” and there are “anywheres” in society. The “anywheres” are cosmopolitan, urbanized people who just want to live and travel around the world and don’t have any attachment to a group identity, while the “somewheres” are the people who do have some sort of group identity, want to keep their roots, and they want to live with “their” people. And because the “anywheres” are mostly in power, and – from the point of the “somewheres” – are dictating the lives of all others, there’s this backlash. Is that a comprehensible theory, or what do you think is the reason for the rise of populism?

I don’t think it’s completely comprehensible, and it sets up a very interesting irony actually, because there is no doubt that the rise of heterogeneity into a country that is unprepared for will create a backlash, and that backlash itself will become the major threat to liberty in that country. This is the great irony of all this: The problem is not the immigrants, the problem is the response to the immigrants. We have seen this again and again. F.A. Hayek actually writes that the rise of the Nazis was fueled in part by the growing heterogeneity of Jewish immigration itself, that it’s one thing to have Jews from Germany and from Poland, but when Russian Jews are bringing in new kinds of cultures, that gives rise to a totally unjustified, but populist resentment, which then becomes the source of authoritarianism and intolerance. It’s for this reason actually that F.A. Hayek himself was cautious about Muslim immigration to Great Britain, and spoke out with some concern about this – not because there was anything wrong with Islam, or that Islam can’t be integrated into British society. That’s not what he said. What he was concerned about was that their presence could be used as a kind of excuse for authoritarian crackdowns, for unscrupulous politicians to feed people’s irrational fears to create a kind of despotic response. To me, that’s a very interesting fact.

But here is what I think is wrong with that observation: a lot of times you don’t even need immigration to cause this paranoia. Just as an example, before Trump was talking about the problem of Mexican immigration into the US, all the polls showed a great deal of pro-immigrant sentiment in this country – and immigration had been declining for many years. If the US ever had an immigration “problem,” it would have been 30 years ago – it wasn’t three years ago. So Donald Trump was able to manufacture a kind of panic out of nothing, just by tapping into people’s fears. He kept saying: “We’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem,” and people listened to this and go: “Well, I didn’t know we had a problem, but he says we have a problem. I guess we have a problem.” And there’s a very base element to the human mind – and this is why all the right-Hegelian fascists have been very successful – that we fall back to thinking of personal identity. “Who am I? I am Christian, I speak English, I’m white, I’m male, I was born in Texas,” and so on. When we get lost and confused, then we begin to think our primary value is really biological and historical – and this is where populism becomes a very serious danger.

I don’t think by the way that populism would be a danger at all if we had a free society. If populism expressed itself in the form of people buying lots of junk food, binging lots of Netflix, and buying stupid things from Walmart all the time, I don’t mind that kind of populism – that’s peaceful, that’s beautiful. Maybe I don’t like your taste of music, I maybe think your food is terrible, but it’s fine by me. Populism is only a problem when expressed politically.

Would you say that all the right-wing “populist” movements that are gaining steam around the world are more or less fascist – or at the very least problematic, or are there also movements where you see some positives?

It’s very difficult to speak about that because I can’t know the specifics of for example the case in Austria, or the case in Germany – it’s very difficult for an outsider to look at these kinds of movements. The older I’ve gotten the less I trust my political instincts on other people’s countries because it can be very complicated. But I will tell you about the US’ case: Donald Trump has done some terrible things. He’s also done some very good things. They are happening at the same time.

Just as an example:  last week, his head of the Federal Communications Commission rejected net neutrality, which was a kind of price control over the use of internet, so it was a deregulation measure. The same week his Justice Department refused a merger between Time Warner and AT&T because Time Warner is the owner of CNN – he doesn’t like CNN, and he tries to punish a media that he doesn’t like, which is really an attack on free speech in the name of anti-trust. So one is good, one is terrible.

It’s a mix of things, and I think as liberals we need to be principled. We need to look at these cases and call them on a case-by-case basis. If a fascist regime cuts taxes and deregulates industry, we should say: “That’s good.” But if that same regime keeps out immigrants, sets up trade barriers, centralizes executive power, and unleashes the cops on drug users, we should say: “This is evil and it must be stopped.”

My main concern is that as an intellectual we need to be constantly celebrating the free society and constantly celebrating liberalism as an alternative to the despotism of the left and the despotism of the right – and I genuinely believe that our position is a third way, by just saying that society is better off left alone. Let us be free to choose and associate and speak – live how we want to. We won’t create a perfect world. But it will be the best possible world we can have. And most importantly: the liberal solution is the one that’s most compatible with human rights and human dignity. That’s the message to me that we constantly have to hammer home, and it’s a message we should never get tired of delivering. Because liberalism is what gave birth to civilization as we know it, and we must protect and guard it and treasure and fight for it, if we want to keep it – because it’s constantly under threat from both sides, the left and the right.

On the history of right-collectivism, you wrote that Hegel is the start with the release of his book Elements of the Philosophy of Right in 1820. In which way has Hegel influenced collectivism – obviously communism – but how did he influence the right collectivists? 

There was at the time he wrote the book and he became such a powerful philosophical voice in Germany lots of confusion about what was happening to the world – liberalism had already been unleashed, a new middle class was being created, dynasties were being overthrown, people had new kinds of mobility, families were being defused, because people had new choices and options, and the dynasties and hierarchies of history were giving way to new forms of social engagements, new forms of enterprise, and new levels of mobility. And there was a great deal of concern by 1820-or-so, where we are heading. Everyone had a sense that we are heading somewhere, there was a sense of a new direction to history, and Hegel stepped forward and tried to define how that looked like. He created a sort of historiographical map of the way history works. And it just so happens that his map was independent of human action and human choice. It was as if he created a meta-narrative for how we might imagine our place within the structure of this bigger thing called the wave of history. And in his vision – and all Hegelians think that there’s some kind of wind blowing in the structure of history, we are just carried along by it. That’s an appealing idea for people who don’t like the idea of just freedom, just life unfolding according to human choice. They want to believe that there’s some kind of logic, some sort of grand vision at work. And in his vision, there’s a culmination point of history – because history can’t have a direction unless it has an endpoint, and so the endpoint in the Hegelian point of view was – and it’s always this way – “All powers to the Prussian state, the Prussian Church” – that’s it. Because somehow the state always ends up being this magical thing that people think is going to solve all our problems. The left-Hegelians took his vision further and said: “Well, this is right, there is a direction to history. But it’s not just in Prussia, it’s all over the world, it’s humanity itself that’s being buffeted by these giant winds.”

Mises was the one that alerted me to this. You know, sometimes a great intellectual like Mises says something and it changes your whole outlook. In a lecture in 1956, just in passing, he said the Hegelians split into two factions: the right-Hegelians and the left-Hegelians. The left-Hegelians culminated in Marx, the right-Hegelians culminated in Hitler. This is a passing comment he made, and it was the most fruitful observation I’ve ever heard, because it helped me reconstruct these ideological tendencies, and this is what led to my book.

Do you think that there’s any kind of direction that history has?

I think liberalism itself had this tendency in the late 19th century: the liberals all believed there was some kind of inevitability to the idea of progress. That now that we have discovered the key to peace and prosperity, humanity will never go back. And they were wrong. They were just wrong. And I think we need to be cautious about this, my friend, I really do. History really is built by the choices we make. And we can make very bad choices, and we can make very good choices, and I think that that is the proper conception of the molecules of history. It really comes down to the choices we make, and I think that is the correct liberal view.

What I was quite shocked about was that in one chapter you were quite vicious on T.S. Eliot, who is mostly seen as a conservative. Russell Kirk for example traced the history of conservatism in his The Conservative Mind “From Burke to Eliot”. Could you elaborate on how T.S. Eliot fits into right-collectivist thought?

 Yes, but one quick comment on Russell Kirk, and if somebody reads this and wants to correct me on it they are welcome to, but I’m almost certain that I’m correct about this: this was a later edition of the book. T.S. Eliot was added to later editions, but F.A. Hayek was included in earlier editions and was excluded later.

So I knew Russell, he had dinner at my house several times, he was a friend. He trended anti-liberal as the years went on. And when he first wrote that book in 1954 he did not think of conservatism as being anti-liberal, he thought of himself as a Burkian – certainly, Burke is part of a liberal school of thought. As time went on he evermore tried to distinguish his writing of conservatism from classical liberalism, which I think is very regrettable.

If you think Eliot is a liberal you only need to read Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. T.S. Eliot has a top-down view of what society should look like, and how it should operate – like a snobbery, an elitism that overcame his liberal impulses if he ever had any – I don’t think he ever did actually – but he celebrated elites, hierarchies, a kind of trickle-down theory of cultural enlightenment, and it would not surprise you at all to see him putting down and disparaging the products of capitalism, which in fact is what his most famous poem The Waste Land is all about. It’s about mass consumer culture, which is capitalism – so give me a break. And it will not also surprise you, given the time in which he was writing, that he was highly sympathetic to eugenics, and wrote in favor of it, and worried about the decline of the race by being mixed with inferior peoples. It all follows.

You do enough research in this area, you don’t overly get surprised, you know exactly where these guys are going: It might start with some snobbery, that leads to a kind of elitism, a celebration of the king, and “Blood and Soil,” and then, of course, goes on to pseudo-science that celebrates eugenics and resents capitalism – and I’m sorry to say, but this is T.S. Eliot. And you could probably describe what I wrote as being “vicious,” but believe me, I was toning it down. Because I’m telling you, Mr. Eliot is not from Great Britain. He was from St. Louis. He’s an American. He emigrated to this other country, and put on a costume of some British aristocrat, and dedicated the rest of his literary service on behalf of a tradition that wasn’t even his. I smell a rat in this guy’s work, and I very much resent it actually, and I’ve lived with it for far too long.

It’s funny that you mention it, because I was describing in a casual conversation with a friend all about T.S. Eliot and I went on this tirade similar to what I’m saying to you now – and she said to me: “Wow, what did he ever do to you?” And I said: “Oh, I’m sorry, he died not long after I was born.” She said: “Oh, I thought … It seems so personal for you.”

You have both in conservatism or even liberal conservatism – I’m thinking of Röpke, Nisbet, Jefferson, and so forth, this kind of advocacy for natural authority, a natural elite so to say, which develops in society. Is that in and of itself bad?

It is not, and I try to make this very clear in the book: that when I talk about right-Hegelianism or right-wing collectivism, I’m really not talking about conservatism. Certainly not talking about Tory-, Burkian-style conservatism – I’m not even talking about traditionalism as such, like the Joseph de Maistre-variety, I’m not even talking about religious fundamentalism as such. I am really talking about an ideological apparatus that detaches the motion of history from choices from individuals themselves. It’s a pure ideology, and I don’t think conservatism in that classic British sense, or even in the classic European sense, is necessarily ideological. It’s a kind of impulse, a preference, a caste of mind, an affection. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, and I really do want to separate out that classical form of conservatism from what I’m talking about.

Though what I would say if you want to immunize yourself completely and fully and wholly from right-Hegelianism, the best solution is just to embrace the liberal tradition, which I have a very broad definition of what that is, and basically extends from St. Thomas Aquinas all the way up to Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard – so I think it’s a big tradition. And it’s not complicated, it just says that society is best off when people are permitted to say what they want, to do what they want, to believe what they want, trade with whom they want, so long as they don’t hurt anybody else. That’s it. That’s why I think the core of the liberal claim is that we should resist trying to manage the social order towards any particular end other than freedom. To me, that’s the core of the liberal claim. If you believe that, then I want you on my team.

There’s a bit of confusion – or at least I have a problem with – seeing right-collectivism on the “right”, and also when I’m thinking about “right” I’m thinking about Edmund Burke. It’s kind of difficult to comprehend why both are on the same side.

I get that, and I’m not sure I entirely understand why we continue to use these terms “right” and “left.” But the reason I do this in the book is that I somehow want to distinguish Carl Schmitt from Karl Marx – and they are not the same person. Strangely they have a lot in common, but – certainly, Karl Marx never knew Schmitt, but he would despise him, and vice versa. These are different flavors of a poison that turns out to be equally deadly, but they definitely taste different.

And honestly, I think there’s another sense where we use the terms “right” and “left” that is not in reference to the tradition of German philosophy, but rather returns to the positioning of the French parliament: for the old regime, or for revolutionary liberalism, and that’s where it gets a little bit complicated. Your view on the French revolution, this can get to be a very messy issue. Mises himself celebrated the ideals of 1789, he had a great deal of affection to the French revolution as it was briefly conceived, but the results I think were definitely indefensible. So in that sense, that’s not the way I mean “right” and “left.” I want to very carefully distinguish this from something like Burkian conservatism.

But I want to use the terms in the same way, because here in the US the rise of neo-Nazi movements – as incredible as that may seem – they certainly think of themselves as being on the right. So in a sense it’s out of deference of their own self-description, even though you will find very similar views between the far-right and the far-left – in our election season in 2016, you could hear a speech by Bernie Sanders and hear a speech by Donald Trump, and 80 percent was basically the same.

For the last question I initially wanted to sound very pessimistic so that you can have an optimistic ending, but then I read in your book: “When it comes to politics, it’s the 1930s all over again.” What hope is there? 

What I mean with that is literally that when it comes to politics, it is the 1930s all over again. So my hope is that politics are not going to matter as much anymore in the future. I think politics is doomed, it is so disgusting – like, why do we keep doing this? Why can’t our politics basically be liberal? I don’t know, but I think the future of liberalism is outside of politics. It’s within technology, it’s within education, it’s within culture, and more and more people who believe in human dignity and human rights and human freedom and human flourishing need to pursue other avenues for realizing their dreams besides an exclusive focus on political organizing and that sort of thing. This is definitely my sense.

Thanks for the interview!

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  • Kai Weiss

    Kai Weiss is the Research Coordinator of the Austrian Economics Center, a board member at the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute, and a graduate student in politics at Hillsdale College.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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