Richard Wolin – Ghosts of a Tortured Past: Europe’s Right Turn

In the Winter 2011 issue of Dissent, Richard Wolin reflects on the numerous right-wing victories in Europe the past decade, as well as the rather ambivalent role of the intellectual in combating the ethnocentric or “racial state”:

The question of why so many intellectuals succumbed to the totalitarian temptation is one of the most haunting historical conundrums of our time. Counterintuitive though it may seem, many of them did so in the name of preserving Culture against its perceived debasement by the leveling tendencies of mass society. Thus, in the view of many right-leaning intellectuals, fascism—or an idealized version thereof—was politically attractive insofar as it favored the creation of new elites: a new political and spiritual aristocracy that would be capable of restoring hierarchy, order, and meaning to a bourgeois world in which values were in free fall. When it came to addressing such questions, in the eyes of many intellectuals, both right and left, liberal democracy’s responses seemed ambivalent and slack. Fascism, which flaunted an emblematics of virility in what was viewed as an age of advanced cultural decline, seemed to offer redemption from the perils of social leveling endemic to modern democracy…

…At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, to be an intellectual meant standing up for principle rather than servile loyalty to a specific political cause. It meant speaking truth to power, rather than bending truth opportunistically for the sake of a radiant utopian future. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know how oppressively dystopian that future in almost every case turned out to be. Thus, it is not hard to fathom why, following the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973, there arose a robust antitotalitarian sensibility that had a defining impact on European intellectual and political life. The ethical foundation of the New Europe is the idea of human rights as it has developed in opposition to the totalitarian temptation in both its left- and right-wing variants.

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