On Paleocons and Pagans

The following brainstorming session between Keith Preston and David Heleniak was pulled, with slight editing, from the discussion page of

KP: Have you seen this latest from Gottfried?

How would you reply?

DH: I disagree with him that Peter Gay’s book on the modern pagans of the Enlightenment is incorrect.  Rather, Gay is correct: the Enlightenment was fundamentally anti-Christian.

While paleoconservatives like Dr. Gottfried, Pat Buchanan, and Bill Lind are great on issues like Cultural Marxism, the therapeutic state, democracy worship, and war, they are conservatives, and do not hate the state, as Murray Rothbard would like everyone to do:

For example, in addressing anarchism, Dr. Gottfried has made it clear that he values the state, though not in the form it is in currently, and not a minimal state either, from what I gather here and there (I’m more familiar with what he’s against then what’s he’s for, probably because he writes more about what he’s against then what he’s for).

This stems, as I argue in (my free eBook book) Rousseau and the Real Culture War (, from the belief of conservatives in some form of the doctrine of original sin.  Conservatives may be non-Christian or even atheists, but they distrust human nature (implicitly accepts the anti-human part of the doctrine) and see the State as necessary for society to function.  They may concede that spontaneous order is possible in the economic realm, but not in the social realm.

As to Gay, here’s an approving article of his book by Dr. Chris Tame:

Here it is in html:

As Dr. Tame notes, the Enlightenment is one of those shining moments in recorded human history.  To read into his article Rothbard’s notion of the court intellectual versus the opposition intellectual, the Enlightenment was one of the rare times the opposition intellectuals were partially victorious.  Christ and Paul were unwitting court intellectuals.  As Rothbard said in Anatomy of the State, one trick of the court intellectuals is to disparage human nature, which leads to the conclusion that the State is necessary to keep evil humans in line.  The creation of the doctrine of original sin was a great moment for the State.

On a related note, Christianity as I define it, is anti-this world.  I define it as a salvation religion revolving around the radical fall of and resulting utter depravity of man; the death and resurrection of a savior, Christ; and the need for humans to accept Jesus as their savior in order to avoid the eternal fires of hell, a supposedly just punishment levied on Adam’s heirs for “the original sin” (in Adam’s fall, we sinned all).  One can define Christianity differently, and then the conclusion would be different, but based on my definition, I side with the young pagans Dr. Gottfried talked about in the article.  The pagan West was basically culturally healthy before it was infected by an Eastern disease, Christianity.  To the extent it remained healthy, it remained pagan.  For a long time, the Catholic mass was spoken in Latin by near illiterate parish priests who didn’t know Latin.  No message was spread that way.  And until the printing press, it would have been difficult for local priests to “get the memo,” that is, receive and understand directives from above.  At the peasant level, Europeans continued to tell pagan folk stories and even perform pagan rituals like having sex in the fields to encourage a good harvest.  At the aristocratic level, court priests (there’s a term) actually wrote pagan inspired Chivalric romances to edify and entertain the lords and ladies.

So Dr. Gottfried is right that Cultural Marxism is a Christian heresy and he’s right that traditional Christians should see Cultural Marxism as their enemy, but he’s wrong that traditional Christianity is a good thing.  I do view them as allies, however, since at this point the State is no longer their ally.  The State religion is a mixture of democracy worship, Cultural Marxism, and therapeutism.  It no longer needs traditional Christianity.  Traditional Christianity without its tie to the State is merely a belief system that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.  If neo-pagans and traditional Christians could team up to bring down the State religion, that would be great.

KP: Dave, how would you respond to these quotes from John Gray?:

“The prevailing idea of what it means to be modern is a post-Christian myth. Christians have always held that there is only one path of salvation, that it is disclosed in history, and that it is open to all. In these respects, Christianity differs radically from the religious and philosophies of the ancient world and from non-western faiths.

In the polytheistic cults of the Greeks and Romans, it was accepted that humans will always live different ways. When there are many gods no way of life is bonding on all. Worshipping one god, Christians have always believed that only one way of life can be right.

“Enlightenment thinkers like to see themselves as modern pagans, but they are really latter-day Christians: they too aim to save mankind. The ancient pagans did not believe that the mass of mankind could be saved. Or, for that matter, that it was worth saving.”

Gray seems to hold to the view that Enlightenment thinking is largely a secularization of Christianity rather than a rejection of it, given the perceived shared characteristics between the two (e.g. universalism, egalitarianism, the progressive view of history). Gray’s view is similar to DeBenoist’s. I assume you would disagree with this. From what I remember of your book, you argue that PC is not a derivative of Enlightenment thinking per se, but of Rosseauan ideas that are the source of the secularized Christianity we see today in movements like PC, and that are actually a kind of counter-Enlightenment. Am I reading you correctly here?

DH: You are reading me 100% correct.

What distinguishes paganism from salvation religions like Christianity is not that pagans don’t care about the salvation of the masses but that pagans don’t believe humans need salvation.

As far as the Enlightenment thinkers being egalitarian and universalist, didn’t Voltaire say that he would rather obey one lion than 200 rats of his own species and, through Candide, that we must cultivate our own garden?  (As far as believing in the inevitable march of human progress, I doubt it, as they saw the Middle Ages as an unfortunate decline from the glory of Greece and Rome, and surely realized such a period could happen gain.)

I accept the Objectivist view (recognizing, unlike the orthodox Objectivists, that exceptions/qualifications will have to be made) that the Enlightenment led to the American Revolution (good) while Rousseau led to the French Revolution (bad).  The American Revolutionary thinkers like Paine and Jefferson believed in spontaneous social order, which to me leads to the conclusion that localism and benign neglect should be the rule.  They believed too (I don’t know about Paine) that there is a natural aristocracy, which the ENR would agree with.  ENR thinkers differ with the American Enlightenment thinkers in that while both are elitist, I think the American Enlightenment thinkers believed a natural aristocracy would emerge in the presence of a government governing best by governing least, whereas the ENR thinkers envision a natural aristocracy seizing by force their rightful place at the top of society and then governing society from above quite a bit.  There doesn’t seem to be an idea of benign neglect in ENR thought, which is, ultimately, statist.

KP: Rothbard interpreted Marxism as a kind of secularized Christianity where “alienation” replaces original sin, the class struggle replaces the metaphysical dualism of Christianity (e.g., Good vs Evil, God vs Satan), and the communist utopia replaces the Kingdom of Heaven. Would you agree with this interpretation? Presumably, the Marxist view of alienation is a derivative of Rosseau’s ideas about the noble savage and all that?

So would you trace American PC Liberalism to Rousseau or to the left-wing of American Christianity (“social gospel”) or directly to orthodox Christianity? I assume you would probably say it’s the latter, which is different from Gottfried’s view. Gottfried, as I understand, traces the PC Left to left-wing progressive Christianity, which was then exported to Europe and is the real source of PC in Europe. Lind, however, sees PC as a European import from the Frankfurt School. Where do you think the confusion is coming from?

DH: Rothbard’s take on Communism, which I agree with, is not unique to Rothbard. I first heard it from (excommunicated) Objectivist George Walsh, whose lectures on tape I listened to in law school and highly recommend. I later heard it from Objectivist John Ridpath (not as hip as Walsh), whose lectures on tape are worth listening to. Walsh has a good line: Something like “Adam didn’t eat the apple. He sold it on the commodities market.” I borrowed the line in my book. I believe Marx got the idea from Rousseau, but unlike Rousseau, who believed in an experimental case-by-case solution for the secular fall, advocated a one size fits all, revolutionary approach.

Rousseau’s proposed solution, pragmatic progressivism, is the brand of Leftism adopted by the American progressives like John Dewey who grew out of the social gospel, which I suspect was influenced by Rousseau. I agree with Gottfried that PCism grew out of the social gospel rather than the Frankfurt school, though, of course, there could have been cross pollination going on. I simply would like to trace the influences on PCism back further to Rousseau. I need to work on this. Rousseau begat x, y, and z who begat Social Gospellers x, y, and z. In regards to public education, I can draw a clear line from Rousseau to Dewey (influences on Dewey, direct and/or indirect, include Pestalozzi, Fichte, Horace Mann, Froebel, and a relative unknown guy called Francis Wayland Parker). An avenue I plan to explore is the influence Rousseau had on the Unitarians and the Transcendalists, with the prime suspect right now being William Ellery Channing.

So as with Rothbard/Walsh/Ridpath idea linking communism to Christianity, where I agree but go back further to Rousseau, I agree with Gottfried regarding PCism but take it back further to Rousseau. He’s the real transformative agent, not Marx and not any particular Social Gospeller.

Another thought: While the Lind explanation for Cultural Marxism focuses on Marxism, saying it is a strategy for Marxists to achieve Marxism, the Gottfried explanation actually sees the term Cultural Marxism as a misnomer, and that it isn’t really a strategy of Marxists to achieve Marxism but something else.

KP:  Dave, how would you relate postmodernism to previous intellectual genealogies? Given its roots in Foucault, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, do you regard it as a kind of neo-paganism? Perhaps a paganism of a non-rationalist or post-Enlightenment kind? Or do you see it as another form of counter-Enlightenment? If so, does it have any relation to previous counter-Enlightenments?

DH: I see post-modernism as part of the Counter-Enlightenment movement, a kind of neo-Puritanism in the sense that Puritanism is a rejection of reason.  Perhaps it is the epistemology department of Cultural Marxism.

Here’s my off-the-cuff view of history (If I ever wrote something formal on this, I’d have to find sources to back me up):

Puritanism is a pure form of Christianity, focusing heavily on the doctrine of original sin.  The doctrine does not only say that humans are inherently anti-social and damned to hell unless they accept Jesus as their savior but also that they have no way of knowing the world, that is, the human faculty of reason is impotent and therefore humans must blindly accept representations made to them by their religious superiors on faith.

GrecoRoman paganism, peaking with Aristotle, saw the world as understandable and reason as effective.  Then came Jesus and Paul, who introduced the doctrine of original sin, which was fully fleshed out by Augustine.  The Dark Ages that followed Augustine were, as Leonard Peikoff says, dark on principle.  They weren’t entirely dark, however.  Christianity did not conquer completely.  The peasantry and the aristocracy both maintained some paganism and hence respect for reason.  The intellectuals, however, were by and large bad.

After the Crusaders brought Aristotle’s works back to Europe, Aquinas integrated them into Catholic thought, elevating the status of reason amongst intellectuals.  Rejected at first by the Catholic Church, his views became the accepted position, and Augustine, though still paid lip service, was thrown into a dusty corner.  This led to a general renaissance in learning and creativity, called the Renaissance in regards to the development in Italy.  The Reformation that followed was explicitly a reaction to the pagan corruption of Christianity, as Luther railed against the whore reason and the whore Aristotle.

Then came the Enlightenment, when paganism and the respect for reason flourished.  Following this, Counter-Enlightenments struck back, taking many forms, e.g., great Awakenings in America and German Romaticism in Europe, through guys like Hegel and Fichte.  The proto-post-modernists that the ENR like and post-modernists like Richard Rorty are part of it too.  As Objectivists like Stephen Hicks point out, however, popular culture in America is still fairly “modern,” that is, shaped by the Enlightenment.  The problems in regard to post-modernism are to be found in the Academy and in high culture.  This stuff needs to be defeated along with the popular manifestations of the broader movement of Cultural Marxism (e.g., the depiction of fathers are bumbling idiots and the pervasive guilt felt by members of the “oppressor classes”) and the legal manifestations like hate crime laws, hate speech laws, and special courts for special (politically incorrect) crimes.

KP: I’ve looked into these different theories on the origins of PC myself, and there seems to be something of a convergence going on. On the most immediate level, it can be traced to the New Left and, at least in the U.S., the New Left was heavily influenced by the Frankfurt School and by left-wing Christianity. Both Marcuse and William Sloane Coffin, for instance, were important figures in the New Left in the U.S. The New Left was also influence by Antonio Gramsci, who had similar views to the Frankfurt School on the role of cultural institutions. Of course, there are earlier examples of a social gospel/Marxist convergence. Archbishop Hewlett Johnson’s Stalinism is a glaring example. Go back further enough and you find Rousseau.

However, I think the influence of Communism in Eastern Europe, Asia, and China on PC is sometimes ignored in favor of purely American or Western European explanations. Tomislav Sunic, for instance, has pointed out how Communist Yugoslavia had many of the characteristics of the West today: hate speech laws, ethnic quotas, multiculturalist education, etc. Some of the earliest hate speech laws in the West were introduced by the Communist deputies in the French parliament. The French CP was arguably the most Stalinist of the major European CPs, and such laws were similar to laws of that type in the East (Hoxha’s Albania, for example).

Some of the earliest uses of the term “politically correct” I have found in American politics are traceable to Maoist-influenced groups that emerged from the New Left. These groups were often admirers of the Cultural Revolution, and PC often resembles Maoist self-criticism.

DH: I wish I could devote more time to the intellectual history behind PC.

The intellectually easy answer to “this or that?” is always “both!” but in the case of PC “both!” might be right.  The twin forces of what I’ll call Eastern Communism and Western Protestant Christianity are probably both responsible for PC.  It could be the perceived problems (racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, the patriarchy) come from cross pollination while the proposed solutions can be traced to distinct traditions.  For example, perhaps hate speech laws came out of European Communism while “therapeutic jurisprudence” (e.g., domestic violence crimes being tried in the family courts) came out of Western Protestant Christianity.  I think it is remarkable how similar the Prohibition Era scheme to try violations of vice laws in equity courts mirror the DV systems of today.



The Prohibition Era was clearly a Protestant phenomenon, so it seems reasonable to assume the DV court scheme is as well.

Another avenue to explore: Pol Pot studied Rousseau in Paris when he was college student.  Rousseau’s idea that young children are most immune to the corruption of Capitalism (he didn’t use that word, which I believe was coined by Marx) was apparently the inspiration for Pol Pot’s idea to recruit children to walk around Cambodia and point out those adults who had been most corrupted, selecting them for execution.  (I got this from a George Walsh tape, I’m pretty sure, but haven’t been able to find a properly published source for it.)

KP: I’ve encountered some Cultural Marxists, particularly feminists, who are hostile to post-modernism. Their position seems to be that post-modernism leads to cultural relativism, which in turn legitimizes cultures that are patriarchal, racist, homophobic, the whole laundry list. What do you make of this?

By proto-post-modernists admired by the ENR, are you referring to Nietzsche and Heidegger?

DH: Yes, Heidegger and Nietzsche are the proto-post-modernists I was referring to.

My understanding of post-modernism comes from what I picked up in grad school and from Stephen Hicks.  His book on post-modernism is available as a free eBook:

Now, for me Nietzsche is a mixed bag.  I understand him to be an unsystematic thinker and a jack of all disciplines.  He can therefore have very valuable things to say on some issues, like the psychology behind the development of slave morality.  But insofar as he is anti-reason, I am anti-Nietzsche.

I can see how some feminists would not like post-modernism.  Other feminists, however, use post-modernist thought to disparage supposed male “ways of knowing.” See Christina Hoff Sommers’ article Feminism and Resentment on this:

The point to draw here is something we already know, Cultural Marxism is not a monolithic force.  For example, there will be tension between victim groups, especially to the extent that when visualizing the various victim and oppressor groups as venn diagrams, there will be some people (most?) who are part victim and part oppressor.

Hicks predicts that post-modernism will not be around for long, partially because he predicts infighting.

Based on your experiences with feminists who do not like post-modernism, I should take back my suggestion that post-modernism is the epistemology department of Cultural Marxism, and say instead that it is a movement that is and sometimes is not part of Cultural Marxism.

4 replies »

  1. i always found it more than a bit intriguing that the philosophies associated with the radical left (existensialism, post-modernism, post-structuralism) share the same ideolocial influences (Nietzsche and Heidegger) and those on the radical right (the european new right, weimar-era conservative revolutionary). I actually notice a distinct parrallel between the thought of Michel Foucault and of the conservative revolutionary crowd. (In 1981, Jurgen Habermas actually accused Focuault of being the heir to their tradition.) This is leading to me the wonder if they are actually two different branches of the same family tree.

  2. The radical right you describe, I think it’s safe to say, puts its emphasis on groups of people rather than on individuals. Check out these quotes from Stephen Hicks:

    “Postmodernism rejects a universal human nature and substitutes the claim that we are all constructed into competing groups by our racial, economic, ethnic, and sexual circumstances.”–958-Why_Art_Became_Ugly.aspx

    “Traditionally, speech has been seen as an individual cognitive act. The postmodern view, by contrast, is that speech is formed socially in the individual. And since what we think is a function of what we learn linguistically, our thinking processes are constructed socially, depending on the linguistic habits of the groups to which we belong.”–546-Free_Speech_Postmodernism.aspx

    Off the cuff, I’d say both the radical left and radical right as you describe them divide humanity into groups and, epistemologically, say that the members of each group are incapable of thinking like members of the other groups. The radical left and radical right are both postmodern in that sense. The difference between them is which groups they view as good and which groups they view as bad.

  3. Sirs

    An interesting discussion, and I have only a few things to contribute. First, the Anglosphere has its own leftist tradition quite distinct from the continental, post Marxist Left. This has its origins in Anglo-Saxon culture (that culture which was defeated in 1066) but still has a definite ongoing integrity of its own. Key events in its development would be Magna Carta, the Baron’s Wars, the Puritan revolution, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and finally, of course, the War of Independence. Since then, it has lapsed in the UK, but still explains British working class antipathy to work/law/authority and other exceptionalist phenomena. I think this is at the root of the Anglo left (as it subsists), not the Enlightenment or Romanticism (much bigger influences on the Continent, esp. in France and Germany). Marxism has never taken root in the Anglosphere for this reason.

    Second, I think Christianity has been so distorted it is hard to call Christ a ‘Court thinker’. I have heard it said that the Sermon on the Mount was delivered in irony, a strong possibility. Reconstruction of Q does not indicate that Christ was founding a new religion. My guess is that Jesus thought he was in the end times, (indeed, most of his followers shared this view) and it is impossible to extricate this from all his utterances (the same is true of Paul). I recall Ouspensky discussing Christianity’s failure as a ‘social religion’ in this vein.

  4. Rookh,

    I think you’re right that Jesus believed he was living in the end times. I’ve heard it said that this explains his advice to turn the other cheek: “Since the world is ending, don’t worry about small slights like a slap to the face. You’ve got much bigger issues about which to concern yourself.”

    Still, he put forth an anti-this world philosophy and this philosophy proved to be useful to the ruling class. Hence, he was a court intellectual. I do qualify that is was an unwitting court intellectual, since I don’t believe his motivation was to prop up the ruling class.


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