The ideologues of traditionalism

Image: Frank Cone


The extreme right and the “crisis of the modern world”


Recently, the growth of far-right movements has made them real possibilities for government in several Western countries, something unthinkable until then. In Brazil, this becomes clear when we observe that an increasing number of people consider themselves “conservative” or “right-wing”. How to understand this phenomenon?

In the last two Brazilian presidential elections, more than 50 million people voted for the extreme right. Now, it is not reasonable to assume that they all take radical, racist, misogynistic, homophobic positions, condoning violence and contempt for democracy. There are many blacks, homosexuals and former Workers' Party voters among them. So what prompted your votes? What made them start to believe that Bolsonarist hate speech would be the best option to respond to their dissatisfactions?

Obviously, there is no single answer to these questions, but everything indicates that this reality was created through a process of polarization, which tends to simplify understandings. Something like this: are you against or in favor of the way the world we live in is, and “against” fits a lot of things: the communist threat, “gender ideology”, atheism, excessive State intervention, government corruption, etc. It is not difficult to gather indignation.

The extreme right presents itself and defines itself by its reactionary positions, generally interpreted as a rejection of social transformations and an effort to maintain privileges. However, it is necessary to take a step further, or rather, a step back, and try to understand how the current phenomenon of its rapid growth has very old theoretical foundations, which are not limited to moral prejudices and economic interests.

Resuming the trajectory of these ideas can be important so that we can understand their motivations and mistakes, and perhaps contribute to the construction of strategies capable of denouncing their most perverse developments. In this way, it is necessary to reject Manichaean polarizations, which oppose progressives to reactionaries, and seek the factors responsible for many of our conflicts and discomforts in the foundations of our modernity.


The crisis of the modern world is the title of a book written by René Guénon, in 1927. A few years later, in 1934, Julius Évora released a work called Revolt against the modern world. It was the beginning of the traditionalist spiritual and philosophical school, formed by a group of alternative, eclectic thinkers, with relatively few followers, which never gained wide recognition in universities, and also goes almost unnoticed in current philosophy teachings. The central point they defend is the refusal of the founding premises of modernity, which would be rationalism, individualism, materialism and secularism.[I]

For followers of this philosophy, tradition is founded on characteristics opposite to these: collective identity, the spiritual/affective dimension and religion, all of which would produce social cohesion and personal identity, something that would have been lost in modernity. .

In this sense, they consider that materialist rationalism, typical of modernity, produced a replacement of what was symbolic and transcendent by a world marked by literality, that is, a world disenchanted, or enchanted only by things and bodies.

What is important to note is that, despite being little known by the majority of the population, important “influencers” from great world leaders, such as Steve Bannon, from Donald Trump; Alexandr Dugin, by Vladimir Putin; and Olavo de Carvalho, from the Bolsonaro family, drank from its fountains.

But what does that matter? What does it matter what these dark characters think? Isn't Steve Bannon the one from Cambridge Analytica, who manipulated metadata to influence voters in favor of right-wing candidates? Isn't Alexandr Dugin that eccentric ultranationalist? Isn't Olavo de Carvalho the pseudo philosopher, astrologer, who fills all his speeches with swear words? Maybe they are more than they seem.

Despite the countless differences between them, if we want to better understand the growth process of the extreme right today, it is important to note what is convergent in their thoughts, and recognize that this is much more important than their idiosyncrasies.

It is clear that most supporters of far-right movements have not read Renée Guénon, Julius Évola, Alexandr Gudin or Olavo de Carvalho; like most liberal Democrats have not read Adam Smith or John Locke. But, in some way, their thoughts constitute the narratives from which the understandings, projects and actions that transform our societies are constructed.

In fact, it is not a linear process, as if thoughts create realities, but much more a dialectical process between understandings and social experience, where contradictions produce movements. A framework of understanding, a grand narrative, seems to be necessary to bring together and give consistency to a variety of feelings and perceptions that seek a way to manifest themselves.

In this process, there is often a conflict between “ideological gurus”, who are often authentic in their beliefs, and pragmatic and opportunistic politicians, who are more attached to power than to ideas. They tend to resort to these philosophical reflections, extracting from them ideas and values ​​that are useful to trigger dissatisfaction and desires among part of the population. The next step is to produce narratives, in tune with a certain common sense, that contest the “current system”, and call on the people for a movement to return to traditions.


Even considering these “deviations” in relation to the original traditionalist thought, it seems important to consider that the current extreme right movements only became possible through criticism directed at some consequences of modern liberalism, especially the radicalization of individualism, the disregard of cultural history of each social group, the difficulty of producing feelings of collective belonging and proposing projects aimed at the common good.

Currently, with the exception of ecological movements, the most powerful in terms of collective actions (outside the extreme right field) are identity movements which, however important they may be, are still limited to the defense of specific social groups, and not to the proposition of a society project.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding the reasons why the extreme right has grown so much, while the left seems paralyzed: the existence, or not, of a society project. As the future seems uncertain for everyone, which generates insecurity, especially in a society undergoing a marked process of transformation (globalization, accelerated development of communication technologies, etc.), the Far Right looks to the past (make america great again, TFP – tradition, family and property), while the left does not know what to propose for the future.

On the other hand, the original traditionalists did not recognize themselves as conservatives, as they rejected the modern notion of linear time and its belief in progress. For them, following Eastern philosophical traditions, time is cyclical, which made them believe that, at some point, we would once again have holistic, hierarchical societies with reference to some transcendent principle/entity.

However, the contemporary appropriation of traditionalism, in its project of co-opting the masses, generally does not make this distinction, adopting the strategy of valuing the past, and lamenting the loss of references that organized their lives, such as religion, family and homeland. , at least in the way they were conceived and experienced in the past.

It is not difficult to understand that social transformations can generate reactions and setbacks. Let's imagine a dystopian scenario, but not at all unlikely: Artificial Intelligence has started to direct our lives. Every choice we make – people we interact with, professional directions, leisure activities, things we acquire, the worldview we create – has become guided by algorithms, after all, they know more about us than we do ourselves.

Furthermore, in this “new society”, exclusive relationships are condemned, as they represent an unacceptable form of restriction of freedom; the education of our children is guided by activities and methods with proven effectiveness for the formation of functional young people who are well adapted to social life; artistic production is policed, because any challenge to this new way of experiencing social relations is considered “politically incorrect”, the main media only touch funk and country.

Faced with this situation, it would be reasonable to assume that many of us would adopt nostalgic positions, in the sense of valuing certain aspects of the old ways of living. After all, we all need a certain stability in our worldviews and lifestyles. And, even when we promote eventual changes in our lives, we like to think that they were the product of our choices, and not imposed from outside.

But, modern-contemporary society does not wait. In the span of a generation, changes have occurred in the scope of both work relationships and those involving family, affections and sexuality, more radical than what had happened in the last century. And the pace of these transformations is increasingly accelerated, trampling on the singularities and rhythm of all cultures.

On the other hand, if it is difficult for everyone to adjust to social changes, review their concepts and deal with nostalgia, what is essential for the preservation of our social ties is the coexistence of different ideas, values ​​and ways of living, that is , the adoption of non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian positions.


Making it difficult to adopt this tolerant position, we realize that the evolutionary perspective still remains hegemonic, which tends to believe in the linearity of progress, causing a mistaken overlap between technological scientific advancement and cultural diversity. It is as if liberal-democratic-capitalist rationality constituted the apex of civilization, and that, therefore, the most developed countries would have the right, and the moral duty, to export this model to all humanity. Something similar to the evangelizing zeal of the colonial powers.

In this sense, Christianity would have been a precursor of universalism in modernity, in that it proclaimed a single truth. Before that, it was common for the different peoples who maintained contact with each other to assume a position of tolerance and respect in relation to each other's beliefs.

Regardless of the economic interests of exploitation, inherent to this “civilizing enterprise”, it is also a refusal of cultural relativism, that is, of accepting that each culture, or social group, has its own way of organizing its relationships and dealing with with its internal tensions.

On the other hand, from the perspective of a Marxist left, conservative positions are associated exclusively with social segments that hold privileges, which makes sense, as these are the ones that would have the most to lose from eventual social changes. However, the challenge of better understanding the reasons why, in democratic societies, there has been massive support for conservative right-wing platforms returns. Now, it is not credible that in countries like Brazil and Argentina, which recently elected presidents allied with the extreme right, there is a majority of privileged people capable of electing presidents of the republic with these platforms, which leads us to believe that they are not just privileges, especially economic values, which this population intends to preserve.

With reference to recent political movements in Brazil and Argentina, attention is drawn to the alliance that was built between right-wing conservative forces, especially religious ones, and ultra-liberal proposals, after all their assumptions seem to be antagonistic. Everything indicates that, once again, pragmatic interests have taken precedence over ideological positions (and this is not exclusive to the right, obviously).

The ultra-liberals disregarded the moralist platforms of the conservatives, favoring the defense of economic liberalism and criticizing the “corruption of left-wing governments”; while the conservative segments, many of them participants from the poorest sections of the population, disregarded, or ignored, that the ultraliberal proposals would tend to produce even more economic inequality. They want changes that impede change, that is, to join a front that combats certain social transformations that threaten their worldviews.

To found this unlikely alliance, it was necessary to find a common enemy, communism, which had to be fought. It doesn't matter if someone argues that there is no communist revolution project in the contemporary world, or that communist projects have never given much importance to identity demands, which bother conservatives so much.


Returning to traditionalist philosophers, it is not difficult to understand the reasons why the traditionalist/conservative perspective can be seductive in today's world. Let us analyze some of his theses.

First of all, let us follow Dugin's thoughts when he states that liberalism can only generate individualism, insofar as he proposes that we free ourselves from everything that connects us to each other, such as our social class, the government and our conditions of birth. An individual thus freed could not participate in any collective identity, after all he speaks and acts for himself.

And isn't this radicalization of individualism really at the root of many of our discomforts? Is it not related to the production of feelings of helplessness, anguish and disorientation? O ethos Individualism conflicts with what defines our humanity, as we constitute ourselves, sustain ourselves and move from our social insertions. We are currently becoming ill with individualism, because, as Lévi-Strauss said, “physical integrity cannot resist the dissolution of the social personality”. (LÉVI-STRAUSS, 1958, p.194)

Faced with this situation, it is not difficult to understand the reasons why far-right movements raise flags praising God, Country and Family, that is, this set of relationships that traditionally produce some form of collective identity and, therefore, cohesion and insertion. Social.

Another criticism of traditionalists towards modern society is directed at capitalist ideology. “Ideology”, because it became more than an economic model, as it consolidated a system of ideas and values ​​in which money and goods became the main objects of desire in our society.

The ideologues of traditionalism present a strong argument to support their thesis that modernity has become eminently materialist, by pointing out that the main movement opposing capitalism calls itself historical materialism, that is, it continues to privilege the material relations of production and consumption, to the detriment of the spiritual and affective dimensions of existence.

In this sense, capitalism and communism would be equivalent, and many of us, at some point, would end up suspecting that we are being deceived, and that the “best things in life are not things”.[ii]

The role assumed by science in modernity is also pointed out by traditionalists as a mistake that produces frustration and suffering. They are not unaware of the benefits arising from scientific/technological progress. Regarding this, there is no disagreement: science has been fulfilling what is expected of it, developing technologies capable of ending hunger, prolonging human life and creating conditions so that all inhabitants of the planet can have a minimally comfortable life.

The problem begins when expectations regarding scientific rationality exceed their possibilities of achievement. Science is objective. It will not clarify for us whether God exists or not; nor whether there is anything beyond death; nor what are the engines of our passions; nor what is the best way to live in society, or how to end wars. In other words, science has little to say about the great questions of existence.

It is interesting that this same consideration was made by René Descartes, considered one of the founders of modern science. In an attempt to reconcile the truths of science with those of religion, and to explain the nature of human errors, he proposed one of the first psychological theories of modernity, stating that God endowed us with only two faculties, understanding (intelligence) and will (desire), the first of which is limited (only God would be omniscient), while the second would be potentially infinite. Thus, every time humans assume the intention of using their rationality to deal with issues that go beyond their domain, they make an error.

Far-right strategists have realized that, more than rationality, it is affections that move and engage people, and have proven to be very effective in manipulating them. They connect with the resentments, frustrations and desires of the population, creating narratives where they legitimize these affections, identify those responsible for the discomfort and present themselves as “saviors”.    

They start from traditionalist criticisms of modernity, and there they find some weaknesses inherent to liberal capitalist democracies. These weaknesses really exist, and they generate conflicts and injustices. On the other hand, we cannot forget that these philosophers, in their attachment to traditions, often defended racist and misogenic thoughts, based on certain conceptions of order and hierarchy.

Thus, in the same way that Marx's critique of capitalism has remained pertinent throughout the ages, while his proposals and prophecies never came true in the way he predicted, traditionalist philosophers' critiques of modernity are capable of revealing some of the factors that produce malaise in current society, but they have also been perversely appropriated by the extreme right, producing much more conflict and polarization than social harmony.


Recent mass movements in Western society, such as the Indignados, in Spain; the Arab Spring, in North Africa and the Middle East; O Occupy Wall Street, in New York; and the movements of June 2013, in Brazil, demonstrate a high degree of popular dissatisfaction with the ways in which relationships are organized in contemporary societies. These demonstrations, organized mainly over the internet, and without the participation of political parties, reveal a challenge to traditional forms of political action, and highlight a diversity of dissatisfactions.

But, on the other hand, given the diversity of demands, many of which contradict each other, and the plurality of protesters' positions and priorities, nothing close to a social reform project was outlined. And, worse than that, in some cases the dissatisfactions were appropriated by the extreme right, which managed to construct a clearer and more objective discourse and proposals.

It is true that these right-wing projects, which resulted, for example, in the elections of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, were not sustained either, which was evident in their non-reelections.

It is clear to all of us that the challenge we will have to face as a society will be to review some of the founding assumptions of modernity, and find ways of coexistence between different world views and ways of living.

This is not something new, on the contrary, the communist project was already asserting itself as an alternative for social organization that was more just and equitable than the capitalist model; Likewise, the countercultural movements of the 1960s/70s also denounced the alienating nature of the values ​​and ideals that guided society at the time; and currently the different variants of the ecological movement criticize the harmful effects of our hegemonic social organization.

All these reaction movements have left, and continue to leave, important marks in our social imagination, contributing to the maintenance of utopias, which do not need to be realized, but are essential to point us in the direction of a path that is worth following.

As unlikely as it may seem, rescuing what is common in the motivations of traditionalist thought, communism, counterculture and the ecological movement can contribute to the dilution of polarizations, and to a better understanding of the origins of our suffering and conflicts.

*Eduardo Ely Mendes Ribeiro is a psychoanalyst and has a PhD in social anthropology from UFRGS.


Evola, Julius. Revolt against the Modern World. São Paulo, SP: Griffo Editora, 2023.

Guénon, René. The Crisis of the Modern World. Lisbon: Editorial Veja, 1977.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Time, 1958.

Teitelbaum, Benjamin R.. War for Eternity: the return of Traditionalism and the rise of the populist right. Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 2020.


[I] For the history of Traditionalism, and its influence on the “gurus” of the contemporary far right, see Teitelbaum, 2020.

[ii] Popular saying, of unknown author.

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