Millions of ordinary Germans believed in the compelling narrative that Hitler was unifying the true German Volk under one national umbrella. From Austria to Poland, his land-grabs were justified by the idea that national borders ought to carve out distinct ethnic and cultural groups.
Since the end of World War II, this all-too-common way of thinking has fortunately declined. State citizenship has largely re-formed into a more secular, ethnically neutral affair. In most liberal democracies, for instance, there are no longer formal racial restrictions on who may become a citizen, and members of ethnic minorities are freer than ever to rise to the top of political and business hierarchies on their individual merits.
In addition to being good for ethnic minorities themselves, this progress has helped to ensure peaceful relations between such states. After all, if I am treated as an equal citizen in my own country, there’s little need to agitate for a neighbouring country to absorb me into their embrace.
Unfortunately, this progress is far from complete. The old disease of ethnonationalism still runs rampant in some parts of the world.
In an article last year, Vladimir Putin waxed lyrical about how once “Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole.” He invoked their shared descent from the “Ancient Rus” to undermine the legitimacy of the relatively recent borders in Ukraine, erected to “divide a common people.” His brutal invasion of Ukraine over the past few weeks has shown his willingness to act on this belief.
Meanwhile, Xi Jinping recently declared that bringing Taiwan into China’s fold would “serve the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including compatriots in Taiwan.” It matters little to him that the Taiwanese people happen to be living quite contentedly as an independently governed nation.
This ethnonationalist rhetoric reflects a deeply held, dangerous ideology that most Westerners are too young to take seriously. We tend to be socialised as individuals first, picking and choosing as we grow up from a multicultural buffet of ideas and practices. The idea that we might possess an essential, enduring racial or cultural identity that defines us politically strikes most of us as bizarre.
It is high time for westerners to appreciate just how many people around the world still find ethnonationalism appealing. While it is extraordinarily difficult to know what the bulk of the population really believes in authoritarian regimes, recent polling suggests that about a quarter of Russians want eastern sections of Ukraine to become parts of Russia, while support for these regions staying within Ukraine is down at 10%.
The problems associated with Ukraine and Taiwan are the most plausible triggers for a third world war. This makes it more important than ever to recognise and defuse the key driver of both: the basing of political identity on ethnicity.
Liberalism defies this all-too-common historical trend, refusing to reify cultural groups into politically meaningful categories. It does this by taking real flesh-and-blood individuals as society’s basic constituents, acknowledging their equal moral status and right to participate in the political process. Liberals presuppose that individual human beings are autonomous and will take different routes in their search for meaning in life. Therefore, they should not be locked into fixed social categories from birth. Unlike fascists, they don’t think a strongman should be anointed to channel the “will of the people,” enforcing a particular mode of life upon everyone else. And, unlike communists, they don’t reduce society to a crude class war between workers and owners of capital. Rather, liberals believe in mostly voluntary associations between individuals: everyone should be free to choose how to live their lives—culturally, spiritually and economically.
Another cadre of thinkers—often labelled postmodernists—pose their own unique threat to liberty and geopolitical stability. The nature of this threat was illustrated in a recent conversation between postmodernist historian Thaddeus Russell and Russian political theorist Aleksandr Dugin.
Russell often rails against the hypocrisies and crimes of the west, especially those of the US government, while Dugin is infamous for his many Russian-centric, anti-liberal tomes arguing for the return of empires with ethnically defined borders. It is no accident that his ideas conveniently legitimate every strategic move of the Russian dictator.
Dugin begins the discussion by laying out his philosophical take that modernity is the root of all our current problems. He describes the monumental fall from grace that occurred when the European Enlightenment decided to abandon the notion of sacredness, reducing all inner experience to the result of external influences. The materialism and physical determinism of modern science, he claims, meant the end of Christian notions of immortal souls, a transcendent reality and divinely sanctioned power hierarchies. In short, Dugin really misses the good old days of domination by Orthodox Christianity—interpreted by the intellectually superior clergy (led by wise thinkers like himself, of course) and enforced by a competent military class.
Like all good sophists, Dugin has set up a compelling straw-man account of science with which almost no scientist would agree. It is a paranoid vision in which the mechanical, physical models of scientists replace and erase the moral and spiritual essence of humanity. In reality, most scientists simply try to enhance our understanding of natural phenomena, drawing on a set of tools that has itself improved as we have discovered better ways to avoid fooling ourselves. They do not consider their theories a substitute for the rich explanations of human nature and wellbeing found in the humanities, but a supplement to this understanding, from within their limited domains.
Dugin’s dismissal of “modern science” as dogmatic and reductionist is the kind of laughably crude analysis you would expect from someone who has not engaged with much philosophy or science from outside Russian Orthodox theology.
His profound ignorance of how science works is revealed by his absurd claim that quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrödinger showed that “science is just the projection of the human mind” and that therefore “there is no reality.” Here Dugin revives an old trope of mystics, adopting quantum theory to undermine the objectivity of science. Like those mystics who came before him, he simply doesn’t understand quantum theory: he is just playing word games in a desperate bid to dismiss the legitimacy of explanations that collectively threaten the foundations of his ideology.
And he is right to perceive those ideas as a threat. Evolution by natural selection threatens creation myths. Astronomy threatens the geocentric worldview central to ancient religious texts. Basic physics threatens the existence of miracles. And biology threatens oppressive social hierarchies based on false ideas of innate superiority.
The interview should have ended when Dugin blurted out the remarkable announcement: “I don’t believe in biology.” Alas, it did not. Dugin went on to lament how modernism had caused all the destruction and mayhem of the twentieth century, since it was responsible for the three main conflicting ideologies: fascism, communism and liberalism.
Like all good demagogues, Dugin uses vague terminology to paint an impressionistically plausible picture. Modernism is one of those terms that can mean anything. Yes, fascism, communism and liberalism all emerged during the historical period known as modernity; but this does not mean they share a common intellectual ancestry. To imagine that World War II, for instance, was just the playing-out of contradictory ideas within modernist thought is to entirely misconstrue its meanings. There was nothing specifically modern, for example, about Hitler’s desire for increased living space for ethnic Germans, or his wish to expunge Jewish people from Europe. It was the truly modern and liberal nations that thankfully pushed back against this especially insane brand of hateful colonialism and racism.
The cruelty of Dugin’s premodern vision comes into sharp focus when he argues that homosexuality is indeed a sin, and that promoting it should be banned in Russia. He laments the attempt by liberals to coercively impose a “universalistic morality” upon Russia. Russell wholeheartedly buys into this crude cultural relativism, nodding along as Dugin decries the west’s attempt to forcibly turn Russia into “a homosexual country,” installing its “awful and abhorrent homosexual marriages, legalization of incest, and other forms of liberal perversions.”
It is one thing for Russell not to push back against blatant homophobic paranoia. But he also fails to recognize that Dugin’s supposed support for the idea that different societies should have different values completely ignores the struggles of minorities within Russia itself. It should be obvious to a postmodernist, of all people, that Dugin’s crude framing of Russian civilisation—as a unified, coherent blob in which hatred of homosexuality and of free elections is a consensus position—is nonsense.
The notion that ideas and practices are clustered together in perfectly ordered packages, endorsed by entire peoples and incomprehensible to other cultures, is a pernicious error—an error Karl Popper criticised as “the myth of the framework.” The reality is that in any decent, healthy society fundamental ideas are contested. There can be no singular, uncontested vision of what is true or good, false or evil.
In his own debate with Dugin, in 2019, Bernard-Henri Lévy pointed out that Dugin’s vision of cultures was a sad one of isolated blocks, forever closed off to each other’s deep and mystical collective souls. Lévy rejected this nihilistic depiction, arguing passionately that we should all seek to embrace the good ideas from any culture, while rejecting mistaken ones like Dugin’s.
For all his talk of pluralism and anti-imperialism, Dugin doesn’t really believe in not imposing his views upon others: he just doesn’t want particular views, like equal rights for LGBT people, imposed upon him.
Dugin’s views on feminism are no more promising. Orthodox Christianity is not well known for its promotion of gender equality, but Dugin tries to make the case that modernity was the real catastrophe for women. He endorses the western-developed notion of standpoint feminism, which he claims genuinely values the difference between the “male and female universes.” Dugin asks us to respect the sovereignty of the feminine mind and soul by not imposing masculine principles as universals. Again, his suspicion of universals places him in alliance with various postmodern thinkers.
Here we see again the dangers of abandoning universal standards, this time in the social sciences. While the development of standpoint feminism was no doubt partly motivated by a desire to give proper attention to previously undervalued female perspectives, Dugin sees in it a crude affirmation of a fundamental, unbridgeable difference in nature between men and women, justifying the ancient hierarchies he so adores.
Russell and Dugin eventually touch on more immediate geopolitical concerns: namely the fate of Ukraine. With the recent invasion still playing out, Dugin’s ideals are beginning to collide with reality in disturbing ways.
Dugin clarifies that he does not wish Ukraine to be absorbed into or conquered by the Russian nation. Rather, he would like to see Ukraine and Russia form a new state altogether, finally uniting a common people. He laments the lack of recognition of a “people’s right” to political self-determination that might support this struggle—as opposed to silly talk of individual human rights.
If this language feels reminiscent of Putin’s speech last year, that is no accident. All Dugin’s abstruse philosophising—his mystical claptrap—lines up conveniently with his authoritarian leader’s talking points, which has earned him the honorary title of “Putin’s Brain.”
Again, Russell fails to push back against Dugin’s recommendation that we regress into a world of ethnic empires; he raises no alarm about the endless wars this would necessarily provoke between nuclear-armed nations. This begs the question: why does a postmodernist like Russell so heartily agree with Dugin’s crude ethnonationalism?
Postmodernists tend to reject principles and narratives that purport to be universal in application as mere fictional tools used by the powerful to enact ideological control over their subjects. One might expect that this would make them highly critical of authoritarian political regimes. They are often quick, for instance, to denounce the tendency of the US government to play global policeman. Indeed, this is easy—all it requires is pointing out obvious contradictions between stated ideals (installing freedom and democracy) and actions taken (bombing civilians). However, it is much harder to condemn political oppression within other cultures without recourse to universal moral theories.
Postmodernists are much more attractive to western audiences than either Marxists or ethnonationalists, because their critiques usually contain more than a grain of truth. After all, western governments have committed all kinds of crimes and blunders in the name of the shiny and modern slogans of universalism. They are right to criticize certainty: we should not consider ourselves infallibly wise, especially when thinking about policies that may harm millions of people. In his brilliant 1973 television series, The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski struggled to find words to respond to the enormity of what happened at Auschwitz, finally landing on those of Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Starting from this position of reasonable scepticism towards political ideologies, postmodernists unfortunately tend to go a step too far, throwing out the concept of truth altogether.
What they fail to appreciate is that truth and certainty are distinct concepts. Truth is a logical property: it applies to propositions. For instance, the statement “The sky is blue” can be true or false. Certainty, on the other hand, is a psychological property. It applies to conscious minds—e.g. “John is certain that Jesus walked on water.”
Conflating these two concepts and rejecting them both entangles the postmodernist in a contradiction: one cannot hope to avoid the trap of certainty without making use of the concept of truth. Without truth, how do you distinguish between that which you believe and that which is really the case? You can’t: without truth, there is only what you believe. You have sealed yourself inside a closed system.
A related mistake of postmodernists is to reject theories that make universal claims, such as those that say something objective about human nature or the good life. Here they wrongly conflate a theory’s scope (universal or partial, subjective or objective) with how that theory is implemented or enforced.
To take a non-political example, consider Newton’s laws of physics. They are universal, in that they purport to apply to all of space and time. But they may or may not be coercively taught to people as the only legitimate way to understand reality. Imagine a state called Newtonia that banned all other theories of the cosmos except those of their cherished seventeenth-century idol. This is the kind of nonsense that postmodernists rightly reject: the claim by an earthly authority to possess the final word on the truth about a topic.
But it would obviously be silly to go on to reject Newton’s claims themselves as untrue, simply because of their universal aspiration. A universal (or objective) theory is one that makes a claim about how things work independently of anyone’s perspective or position. It seeks the truth as opposed to Steven or Anne’s truth.
Such theories are obviously crucial in physics: Earth’s gravitational field clearly does not vary depending on who is thinking about it. But objective theories are no less important in ethics and politics. They are what we deliberate about when trying to figure out better ways to organize society, or simply how to act decently ourselves.
After all, we don’t just want to know what feels good to us in this moment—we want to know what the right thing to do is, and what will bring about the best outcomes for everyone. This requires us to grapple with deep, universal explanations of how phenomena in the world, including ourselves, really work. How we choose to apply such theories is a separate question altogether.
This partly explains why postmodernists tend to reduce discourse to the status of mere power dynamics. Once you reject all universal or objective theories, all you are left with are partial, subjective assertions. In other words: relativism. You have your practices, we have ours. There is no impartial standpoint from which to deliberate over who is right: such a question only arises out of an imperial drive to control.
The related postmodern insistence that the self is entirely a social construction also enables authoritarianism by denying there are any natural properties of selves that might be violated by authoritarian rules.
Michel Foucault, perhaps the most famous and influential postmodernist, argued that the self is precipitated by social power dynamics. This directly undermines the liberal principle that moral propositions can apply neutrally to all rational agents embedded in radically different social and political contexts. In other words: it denies any basis for universal morality, including human rights.
This key point was illuminated in the classic televised debate held in 1971 between Foucault and Noam Chomsky. Towards the end of the debate, Chomsky made the reasonable case that, when seeking revolutionary social change, one should be guided by an idea of a more just society that supports fundamental human qualities, not merely by the desire to take power from the oppressors. Foucault responded by declaring that the proletariat does not wage war against the ruling class because it considers that to be just; rather, it wages war simply to take power. Once the proletariat is in charge, and all classes are dissolved, Foucault claimed that there will be no need for the concept of justice. In other words, Foucault reduced the concept of justice itself to mere rhetoric used to justify the behaviour of the class who happen to hold power.
Foucault’s denial of a coherent idea of justice that transcends cultural differences partly explains how he went on to express support for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ushered in a highly oppressive Islamist regime. It has been argued that this “perplexing affinity” between his postmodern mind-set and the Revolution was rooted in their shared opposition to imperialism and colonialism, and rejection of modernity. According to this analysis, Foucault finally found the exciting “political spirituality” he had been searching for in this tumultuous moment, seeing the Revolution as an authentic release from oppressive Enlightenment discourse.
In Dugin, Russell has found his own perplexing affinity with a new anti-Enlightenment muse. We can only hope that he and his listeners do not follow him too far down the ethnonationalist road, for that way lies the ruin of all.