The Jesus Dictionary: A Conversation With Father Renaud Silly, OP

It is a great honor to present this conversation with Brother Renaud Silly, OP, historian and theologian, who speaks about the Dictionnaire Jésus (the Jesus Dictionary), the major work recently published by the École Biblique de Jérusalem and Éditions Bouquins. This Dictionary which makes available the current state of knowledge about Jesus, drawing upon all necessary scientific, theological, and philosophical areas of expertise.

The Dictionary is an impressive work (comprising some 1300 pages), but one that is also highly accessible, for it does not neglect the needs of the lay reader who is well rewarded by the depth and erudition. Father Silly oversaw the work, as the director of the entire project, and he speaks with Christophe Geffroy, the publisher of La Nef magazine, through whose courtesy this article is here translated.


Christophe Geffroy (CG): How did the idea of the Jesus Dictionary come about? What was your goal, and what was your working methodology?

Father Renaud Silly (RS): The person who had the idea was the director of Bouquins, Mr. Jean-Luc Barré [the publisher]. We had previously published Bossuet in his collection, and this inspired him to call upon us to produce the Dictionary. He gave us carte blanche, without imposing any particular angle or contributors.

Brother Renaud Silly, OP.

As for the École Biblique, the immense wealth of its recent research was just waiting to be made accessible to the general educated public. In the middle of the last decade, the success of certain books, ill-informed we believe, made us feel the need for a work that spans the entire spectrum—those who have been given the capacity to work directly on the sources (the “scholars”) have a moral duty to guarantee the dissemination of their work to those who do not possess it. Otherwise, we fall into the opposite trap of popularization and autarkic specialization. You likely will recognize in this way of thinking about the relationship to knowledge an echo of the ancient Dominican motto “contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere” (“contemplate and teach others”).

CG: This Dictionary was conceived in “a scientific spirit,” we read on the back cover. What does this mean?

RS: “Scientific” means many things, from the experimental method of the hard sciences to the discussion of all contradictory propositions in the human sciences, already practiced by Saints Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. To be readable, the Dictionary could not afford either. On the other hand, it deserves the term in the sense that it is directly linked to a scientific project of the École Biblique de Jérusalem: La Bible en ses Traditions (The Bible in its Traditions), under the direction of Brother Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP.

Sacred Scripture exists in three dimensions: it has a past—the conditions of its composition, a present—the text with all its refinements, and a future—its impact on culture, morality, etc. To understand it, it is therefore necessary to combine knowledge of the environments that produced it, literary methods of analysis, and to be attentive to its reception, in particular that for which it is an authority. The Bible in its Traditions is a method of global understanding of Scripture, without exclusivity or reductionism. It is a way of letting revelation breathe in a space that is appropriate to it. Who can contest the scientific nature of such an approach?

CG: Is it compatible to be in this “scientific spirit” and therefore open to new discoveries and at the same time faithful to the faith and to the teaching of the Church whatever happens? How does the scientist who is also a man of faith react when a discovery seems to go against the teaching of the faith?

RS: In faith, certainty is God who is at once the source, the cause and the object of the knowledge that faith possesses of him. The uncertainty lies in the assent we give to him—in other words, in not wanting to believe in God, even though He is the end of our understanding (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ii-iiae q.2 a.1 resp.). If faith saves, it is because it is a voluntary act. The vices that can thwart the operation of the will are, however, manifold: laziness, negligence, superstition, pride, to name but a few.

In short, sympathy for science, hard work, the breadth of knowledge cannot substitute for the adhesion by which the soul submits to the truth of God who reveals himself freely to it. This is the formal reason for faith as a theological virtue. In short, the scholar, like all other Christians, has no other alternative for remaining on the right path than to cultivate virtue.

But we must hasten to add how liberating the supernatural act of faith is for the scholar, for it relieves him of the need to search by force for a proof of faith that the texts, even and especially the sacred ones, will never offer him. The Lutheran theory of sola scriptura obliges one to solicit the texts, to make them say what they do not say. Since fiction cannot hold for long, sola scriptura has caused dogma to fall one after the other. And in return, it is the Bible itself that has become a source of uncertainty and doubt. As Father Lagrange wrote, “It is from [the Reformation] that the study of the Bible dates, not the study of the Bible, but rather the doubt about the Bible.”

CG: You have not sought to take a new, but a renewed, look at Jesus. What do you mean by this?

RS: In 1980, a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem was interpreted as that of Jesus. In 2002, an ossuary was presented as that of James, the “brother of the Lord,” which would have confirmed the authenticity of the 1980 tomb. In 2006, a Gnostic gospel “of Judas” appeared, according to which Jesus himself asked the traitor to hand him over. In 2012, in the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, the master presents Mary Magdalene as his wife. All of these “discoveries” turned out to be forgeries or misinterpretations of authentic texts. The ephemeral excitement that surrounded these publications shows our imaginary and infantile relationship to reality, which makes us give in to the craving for novelty (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4).

But there is no scoop to be made about Jesus. In faith we know all we need to know about him. As far as authentic knowledge is concerned, made up of meditation, of going deeper, of the patient dwelling of the truth deposited in us—this on the other hand is always in need of renewal. The Word came to “dwell with his own” (Jn 1:5); He is therefore there, in the midst, but it is we who are absent: “you were within me, but I was outside myself, and it was in this outside that I sought you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, x, xxvii, 38).

There is always a need to renew one’s knowledge in order to free oneself from hasty patterns of thought, from the conviction—certainly false—that one has done all the work of the Gospel and has nothing to expect from it. This must be done in the school of the great texts, but also of the humble reality unearthed by archaeology and the related sciences.

A few years ago, stone jars were discovered at Cana (cf. Jn 2:6)! They are probably not those of the miracle, but it shows that this village was populated by very observant Jews, the very milieu of Jesus. Study is an asceticism, surely the greatest asceticism there is! Has the Latin Church nurtured greater ascetics than St. Jerome or St. Thomas, those hard workers? But for those who devote themselves to this effort, the Word is always new (cf. Rev 21:5).

CG: In making this Dictionary, which points were the most difficult to synthesize? And what are the most difficult topics to resolve from the point of view of faith?

RS: The Resurrection of Jesus, to which we wanted to give a place in proportion to its importance. The very fact of the Resurrection is not recounted anywhere [outside the Gospels]—because there were no outside witnesses; and the evangelists did not embroider wonderful stories when they did not know! So, we have to fall back on credible witnesses of the Risen One, since we did not see him rise. But this only shifts the problem: they are women, whose testimony has little legal value! One recalls the misogyny of a Renan who described the testimony of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning as follows: “Divine power of love! Sacred moments when the passion of a hallucinated woman offered the world a resurrected God!”

Let us add to this that the Resurrection is, by definition, impossible to describe since it tells of the passage (the “passover”) of Jesus to a new Creation which we cannot experience; that the mode of the Resurrection of Jesus does not correspond to that foreseen by the prophets of Israel—teaching rather a general and simultaneous resurrection. Yet the resurrection constitutes the intimate heart of the proclamation of Christian faith and hope (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). It is impossible to ignore it without betraying the Gospel.

We are left amazed by the simplicity of the means with which the sacred authors overcome this immense difficulty. The resurrection narratives are the least retouched of all the Gospels. They are delivered to us almost in their raw state. They ask us to let ourselves be measured by the event and the word that tells it. To accept it is to grow in faith, and thus to rise a little with Christ. The resurrection narratives form the synthesis and the summit of the Gospel’s power of conviction. They invite us to reread all the teachings of Jesus as seeds that make life sprout where there was nothing.

CG: It is common to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. What do you think of this approach? And is faith still credible in the light of current scientific knowledge?

RS: The expression you quote belongs to the genre of “thinking” (sorry to abuse this beautiful word) by slogan. It is based on the conviction that the “faith” accumulated representations of Jesus, which would have satisfied certain requirements of the religious spirit, as the Church grew outside its original environment.

The Jesus of faith therefore becomes the sum of the answers demanded by the new Christians according to their cultural situation. The divinity of Christ would be the most visible of these borrowed identities, developed in contact with Hellenistic populations familiar with divinized heroes. Hence the need to peel away, by means of criticism, the “Jesus of history” from the various accretions that mask him. Alain de Benoist’s book illustrates this method and shows its limit via the absurd. In tearing off the tunic of Nessus which would be the Jesus of faith, one realizes that the layers are so well integrated with the object studied that the object loses its skin, flesh and bones. In the end, there is nothing left. One wonders how this so-called “Jesus of history,” so insignificant, could have left such a trace.

But this distinction is wrong. The Jesus of faith is nothing other than the trace left by the Jesus of history, the sum of his impact, as it were. Jesus initiates recourse to the testimony of the prophets to speak of him (Mk 12:35-37); he sends out on mission (Mk 6:6-13); he takes care to establish an authentic transmission of his words and actions (Mk 8:18-21); he projects his disciples into a time when they will have to keep his memory in order to understand (Jn 13:7); he institutes the signs that will give body and shape to this memory, especially the Eucharist (cf. Lk 22:19). Between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, there is no unbridgeable gap.

CG: The Bible is undoubtedly the most examined work in the world, dissected from every possible angle, especially since the development of the historical-critical methods. Does the Bible emerge strengthened from these examinations and analyses; or, on the contrary, weakened in its credibility?

RS: Science can be a very violent thing. Laboratory experiments, which give rise to many ethical problems, bear witness to this. There is a certain science which, legislating on phenomena, imposes on them extrinsic grids of analysis which destroy them. One thinks of the Duke of Chevreuse inflicting a thousand tortures on dogs or cats to try to prove that their cries were caused by the shaking of small springs, in accordance with the Cartesian theory of animal-machines.

The undivided domination of the hard sciences in the Western noosphere has resulted in the increased use of intrusive criteria on the Bible. Christians who believe in supernatural revelation do not defend it by subjecting it to these same criteria. Biblical fundamentalism, so regularly condemned by the pontiffs, must appear to us for what it is: a complicity with the dissolution of the Bible by historical methods. Moreover, it is futile: by leaving the choice of weapons and terrain to the adversary, we expose ourselves to certain defeat. But to write an ancient history of Israel by following the biblical account is to provoke the derisio infidelium.

The Bible is strengthened if one analyzes it according to its own criteria, those of ancient literary genres; and if one makes the effort to understand its language, which is often disconcerting. It is thus a precious source for the historian. But the Bible is much more than that—a matrix of culture, religion, morality, philosophy and dogma. On this contemplative domain, that of the spirit, aggressive science has little hold.

CG: The literature on the Bible is so vast now that it is impossible for the educated man of today to know it all. How can you find your way around, and how can the researcher, such as you, take into account all that is published seriously on the Bible?

RS: Give preference to authors who do not simply compile the results of others’ research, but have direct access to the sources and are able to discuss them. The others do not know what they are talking about. Exclude anything that practices methodical deconstruction—its conclusions have no solidity; they fluctuate according to fashion.

CG: Many people think that the Bible is nothing but a series of myths far removed from real history and that it often relates stories that they consider far-fetched and impossible—the fall in the Garden of Eden, the flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, for example. How should the Bible be read? Are there several levels of reading? And how can one distinguish between what belongs to history, to theological teaching or indeed to myth?

RS: Neither the flood, nor the stories of the fall, or the tower of Babel can be proven “scientifically.” Those who claim otherwise are lying or mistaken. Their historicity has nothing to do with the historiographical models claimed by the evangelists, or the deuteronomistic historian (Deuteronomy), or the priestly models (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah). All of these follow very rigorous paradigms—though different from modern ones. Did the Bible in Gen 1-11 collect myths? If one understands this term as a divine revelation about the origin, inaccessible de jure to human observation, then why not. But this must be seriously corrected—because they are very different from the myths vilified by the philosophers.

CG: Our European countries of ancient Christianity, with rare exceptions, such as Poland, have evacuated the question of God, so that the number of truly convinced Christians has become a tiny minority—our contemporaries are much more ignorant of Jesus than hostile. How can we make them rediscover this Jesus who saved the world?

RS: Like Christ, I don’t believe in strategies, tactics or structures of Christianity. Nor do I believe in sociology to prophesy to us whether Christians will be many or few. All that is thinking according to the world.

But I believe that the power of conviction of the Gospel remains intact, if it is preached for what it is—the teaching of the Master who makes faith germinate in souls eager for truth, who tears his disciples away from a world for which he himself has not prayed (cf. Jn 17:9), to which no promise of eternity is attached (cf. Mk 13:31).

The disciple of Christ is the one who receives in his heart this prayer of Bossuet: “O Jesus, I come to you to make this Passover in your company. I want to pass with you from the world to your Father, whom you wanted to be mine. ‘The world is passing away’ (1 Jn 2:17) says your apostle. ‘The face of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31). But I do not want to pass with the world, I want to pass to your Father. This is the journey I have to make. I want to make it with you…. O my savior, receive your traveler. I am ready. I do not care about anything. I want to pass with you from this world to your Father” (Meditations on the Gospel, “The Last Supper”, Part I, Day 2).


Featured image: “Salvator Mundi,” by Leonardo da Vinci, painted ca. 1500.

The End Of Christianity: An Interview With Chantal Delsol

Chantal Delsol is a philosopher and writer. A Catholic, conservative-liberal and European federalist, she is one of the most brilliant French intellectuals of our era. A member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, she is a professor at the University of Marne-la-Vallée, where she created and directed the Hannah Arendt Institute, specializing in East-West relations. She is the author of some forty works of political philosophy, including Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, Le principe de subsidiarité (1993), L’identité de l’Europe (ed., 2010), L’âge du renoncement (2011), Populismes : les demeurés de l’histoire (2015) and Le Crépuscule de l’Universel (2020). We interviewed her, with French historian Arnaud Imatz, on the occasion of the publication of her latest book, La fin de la chrétienté (2021).


Arnaud Imatz (A.I.): The question of the future of Christianity and Judeo-Christian civilization has been haunting people for at least two centuries. Hegel, Nietzsche, Heine, to name but a few, announced the “death of God.” Kant wished for a religion that was only “moral.” The secularist Michelet prophesied the decline of Christianity. Durkheim, Renan and so many others, atheists or agnostics, proclaimed the inevitability of dechristianization. Comte advocated a religious positivism. Marx claimed that religion is the opium of the people. Donoso Cortes or Christopher Dawson professed, on the contrary, that a society that has lost its religion sooner or later loses its culture. Péguy observed that we have passed from the Christian age to the modern age. More recently, the theoretician of the New Right, Alain de Benoist, welcomed the return of paganism; Marcel Gauchet predicted the end of the religious organization of the world and Michel Onfray predicted the end of Judeo-Christian civilization. We cab keep multiplying the examples.

In your case, you have published a work with the evocative and resounding title, La fin de la Chrétienté (The End of Christianity), with the Cerf, an old Parisian publishing house, founded by the Dominicans nearly a century ago. As a Catholic philosopher and liberal-conservative, you have revived and nourished the debate remarkably well. Christianity, you explain, has reached the end of its agony. And you immediately specify that you are referring to Christianity as a civilization and not to Christianity as a religion. Why this pessimistic diagnosis at the beginning of the 21st century?

Chantal Delsol (Ch.D.): First of all, to confirm what you say, yes, it is Christianity as a civilization influenced and governed by the morals and laws of Christianity, and not Christianity as a religion. Christianity is not at all, I believe, fading away or dying, but it is its control of societies, its civilization, that is collapsing. I do not believe my diagnosis is pessimistic. My look is dispassionate. I begin by observing the incredible upheaval of morals. These reveal the beliefs and concretize them. From the moment when it is no longer Christian dogmas that decide on morals (divorce, abortion, etc.); from the moment when it is multicolored ethics committees that decide, Christianity has disappeared.

Chantal Delsol.

A.I.: The Catholic Church continues to question the Christian cultural universe, implicitly showing that it is ashamed of Christianity. The declarations of Pope Francis are unequivocal in this respect. Francis even seems to want to be the representative of a post-Christian humanitarian morality, almost without transcendence, in which the afterlife and eternal salvation come to occupy a residual place. How and why has the Church as an institution, and more generally all Christian thought, renounced Christianity?

Ch.D.: You are really asking two very different questions.

First: Pope Francis—I don’t believe that he has renounced transcendence, but he is influenced by the times, which is not uncommon historically for Jesuits, who are always under the seduction of fashions and atmospheres. In 17th century China, they were the ones who bordered on heterodoxy by osmosis with the Chinese wisdoms. In the middle of the 20th century, they were the ones who “went along with communism” and so on. Francis is fascinated by ecological religion and by post-Christian humanitarianism.

The second question—that the Church as an institution and Christian thought have given up on Christianity because there is no other way; because no Western society accepts to live under the morals and laws of Christianity anymore. In the few countries that remain Christian by name, such as Poland, the Church is so radical and rigid that it is losing its last supporters. I can see it before my very eyes, live.

A.I.: In the analysis and description of the evolution of the Church, there are two main currents. For some, since the 14th century or the Revolution of 1789, or even the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) or Vatican II (1965), the Catholic Church has only adapted; it has tried more or less to act with the times; and this attitude leads it inexorably towards the abyss. For others, on the contrary, the Catholic Church has always fought against modernity; it has been frozen in power with clericalism and has never been resolutely open to the reality of the world. For the latter, the Christian God can be reborn in Europe through individual mysticism, or in a communal form, but only if the Catholic Church accepts to reform itself and to evolve, in particular on sexuality. In your opinion, is the present Church in the process of becoming “unworldly?” Or, under the guise of becoming “unworldly,” is it in the process of becoming more worldly?

Ch.D.: In fact, we observe both these two movements which exist at one and the same time, contradicting each other and giving rise, over the last two centuries, to sometimes severe quarrels between Christians. I believe that there is a real, substantial contradiction between modernity and Catholicism. The latter cannot accept freedom of conscience, nor individualism. It is holistic by its very nature. The latest developments in the pedophilia cases tragically describe the Church’s obligation to obey an age that is repugnant to it: to put the individual before the institution; that is, to become more or less individualistic. Only Protestantism is in tune with modernity. Today the tendencies within the Catholic Church are plural. Some are so worldly that they are Protestant. Others defend the old world to the hilt (I gave a conference the other day with a priest who sees the only solution in a return to the Syllabus). But one thing is certain: most clerics are uneasy, worried, tormented, and have no idea where they are heading.

A.I.: The near-coincidence of the dates of the extinction of the Marxist model and the end of Christianity is striking. Is it only fortuitous or accidental?

Ch.D.: Marxism was a response, in the 19th century, to the collapse of Christianity. It takes a lot of the Christian model and distorts it. It is part of the earthly utopias, present since the French revolution, which replace Salvation by salvation, in immanence and impatience. It did not last, because of its intrinsic madness. When it collapsed in 1989, Christianity simply reached the end of its long process of collapse (two centuries). The two extinctions are not comparable in terms of time and cannot be said to coincide: communism is a regime, Christianity a civilization, which is understood in the very long term.

A.I.: Speaking of the Western churches, my master and friend, the Calvinist historian Pierre Chaunu, drew up, as early as 1975, a damning observation in his book, De l’histoire à la prospective: “The intellectual and spiritual mediocrity of the leaders in place in the Western churches at the beginning of the 1970s is distressing. An important part of the clergy of France constitutes a social, intellectual, moral and spiritual underclass; from the tradition of the Church, this group has often retained only clericalism, intolerance and fanaticism. These men reject a heritage that crushes them because they are intellectually incapable of understanding it and spiritually incapable of living it.” Has the mediocrity of a good part of the clergy and probably even more of the hierarchs of the Church been a major factor in the acceleration of this decay?

Ch.D.: Chaunu is right, here as in many points. It must be very difficult for a Church to give itself a clergy. Today, frequenting many institutions held by the clergy and being active in these institutions, I am struck among our clergy by a kind of immobility and stupor (just as we have seen others), by an incredible authoritarianism, as if they were the only ones who had to rule the land and the sea, and judgmental (governance is everywhere opaque, obscure), and by a sick taste for honors, for positions (I see it directly at the Institute where I have a front row seat [[1] The Institut de France comprises five academies, including the Académie des sciences morales et politiques]). All this is sad.

I believe that it is very difficult to be a cleric today, in the midst of all these contrary winds. As for what is happening in the countries that are still clerical, like Poland where I spend a lot of time, it is frightening: the clerics are from another age, living richly on the goods of the Church, imposing on the faithful moral behaviors that are unimaginable today, brandishing from the top of their authority statements that are closer to witchcraft than to Christianity (“vaccines are made with embryos”). The Church here and elsewhere is in bad health. But was it ever healthy?

A.I.: The crisis of the various Protestant churches seems to be just as dramatic, if not more so, than that of the Catholic Church. Is this proof that the problem goes beyond Catholicism alone and that it is rather a question of the abandonment or collapse [lasting or temporary (?)] of religious belief in the West?

Ch.D.: It depends on which Protestantism you are talking about. Evangelical churches are doing well and spreading all over the world. One has the impression that the religion of our fathers only survives in those branches that have completely adapted to modern times: individualism, retractable personal choice, freedom of movement, adaptability of doctrine to temperaments. Some would say that it is not a religion at all anymore. But that is the way it is. The wind of modernity is stronger than anything else; you adapt to it or you die.

A.I.: If we distinguish between the Church as an institution and the Church as the mystical body of Christ (which presupposes the solidarity or communion of all Christians with the saints), a handful of believers is all that is needed for the Church to survive. But what would the Catholic Church, whose mission of evangelization is its primary duty, be if it closed in on itself?

Ch.D.: Of course, that is the big question! I believe that we are going to go through a very difficult period, a sort of catacomb period. The main thing for us is not to blow out the flame, to keep the pilot light on. But let’s not delude ourselves: it is very difficult to evangelize today, even though none of us want to use force (if we even could). There can be monks of Thibirine! That is evangelization. In the future, there will undoubtedly be better times.

A.I.: You note that the 21st century is religious, but that it is no longer Christian. You add that humanity, being imperfect and mortal, will always give itself religions, wisdoms and morals; that neither civilization nor morality will stop with Christianity. The void left by Christianity will be partly filled by multiple paganisms. But being a pagan also means praying. Because the real ancient pagans prayed, which is not at all the case today. An Italian friend of mine used to say, mocking his compatriots in the 1980s, “First they worshipped the Madonna. Then, when they stopped believing in her, they started worshipping the Duce. And today they worship the bumpers of their cars.” The same people now adore their touch-screen tablets. But of course they don’t pray to their tablets, any more than they pray to Mother Earth or Gaia. Can we really call these postmodern zombies pagans or neo-pagans?

Ch.D.: Yes, I think so. Of course, they are materialists! But at the same time, they reinvest esoteric, pantheistic/ecological beliefs, and all forms of pseudo magic. They are superstitious; they throw themselves on books talking about life after death; they believe in reincarnation. Well, obviously they love their smartphones; but they cling beyond the smartphone to all sorts of crazy credulities. They are humans, you know, despite their materialism! And like all humans, they are aware of evil and death.

A.I.: In La fin de la chrétienté, you do not say anything about the expansion of Islam in Europe and the West. Here again, two points of view clash. On the one hand, there are those who, like the majority of Western journalists, philosophers and politicians, have been repeating ad nauseam for forty years that this is a fantasy, that Islam is plural and diverse, that Western women will not accept to submit to Sharia norms and that human rights are so attractive to Muslims that sooner or later they will adapt. They are betting on a “modernized, reformed, open, contextualized, secularized, democratized Islam,” compatible with the Western model.

But on the other hand, there are those who take Islam seriously, alarmists, essayists and realist historians, who are generally insulted, like Bat Ye’or, Serafin Fanjul, Dario Fernández Morera, Rafael Sánchez Saus, etc., or who are simply ignored, like the Coptic Christian Raymond Ibrahim, author of L’épée et le cimeterre (2021). That they are wrong to point out that there have been “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West;” that Islamic teachings are the antithesis of the Western model; that the religious fervor of radical Muslims, today’s Islamists, overlaps exactly with ancestral Islamic dogmas; that Western reactions are age-old self-defense mechanisms; and finally, that current rivalries are a reflection of a very ancient existential struggle. What do you think about this?

Ch.D.: I agree that there is a very old existential struggle, as you say. And in this sense, there will be, for a long time, a will on the part of Islam to annihilate the West; firstly, because the Arab-Muslim countries cannot manage to govern themselves economically or politically (except to be rentiers); and this is humiliating for them; secondly, because the men of this culture are born with an ontological and undeserved superiority, that of being male and of being able to tyrannize women; and this is a power too enviable to be dispensed with so easily. That’s why we’re not done with the attacks and other problems. However, there is indeed a part of Islam that accepts modernity, especially under the leadership of educated women, it must be said (and this is quite understandable). The only question is: in a case of civil war, will moderate Islam join fundamentalist Islam by historical complicity, or will it join the modern West by cultural complicity?

A.I.: The Gospels say: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 and Mark 12:17), that religion and politics must not be confused. But in the face of Islamic terrorism, the indirect support it receives from the Islamo-leftists and the new challenges of violence and conflict at the infra-state level, I cannot help but think of the words, more than ever relevant, that your teacher Julien Freund addressed to the socialist-pacifist Jean Hyppolite, during his thesis defense: “Listen, Mr. Hyppolite… you think that you are the one who designates the enemy, like all pacifists. As long as we don’t want enemies, we won’t have any, you reason. But it is the enemy who designates you. And if he wants you to be his enemy, you can make the most beautiful protestations of friendship. As long as he wants you to be his enemy, you are. And he will even prevent you from cultivating your garden.” Can Catholics, whose “belief has become marginal,” do without power and force without condemning themselves and their religion to disappear along with Christianity?

Ch.D.: The Marxists, represented at the time by Jean Hyppolite, have disappeared. But the warnings of Julien Freund are still valid in another context! Yes, fundamentalist Islam represents for us an enemy, since it claims to be our enemy—and that is what counts. We are wrong to virtuously avert our eyes by claiming that since we love everyone, we have no enemy.

A.I.: You write, incidentally, that corporate fascism (what the political scientist Paul Gottfried calls “Catholic fascism” in his Fascism: The Career of a Concept), “was the mad hope of preserving Christianity.” But why take up this polemical concept, which only partially captures the reality of Catholic authoritarian regimes (Austria, Portugal, Spain) in twentieth-century Europe? The real fascism, the Italian one, that of Gentile and Mussolini, was part of the Hegelian tradition and the anti-Catholic one of the Risorgimento.

To take only the example of Spain, the history of the origins and development of the Civil War, and later of Francoism, cannot be limited to a simple “reaction” or desire to preserve Catholic Spain. The great intellectual figures of the 1920s and 1930s, the liberals, the founding fathers of the Spanish Republic, Ortega y Gasset, Marañon Perez de Ayala, and even the heterodox Catholic Unamuno, were all in favor of the military uprising of 1936 (after the failure of the socialist-Marxist uprising of 1934) and rallied to the “national camp”. But all were frankly hostile to fascism, agnostic or moderately Catholic.

In the national camp, only the Carlist (monarchist-traditionalist) movement, which was in a very small minority, wished to restore Spanish Catholicism in its entirety; it was anti-modern and as opposed to fascism as to liberalism. All the other parties, whose militants and sympathizers were in the national camp, monarchist-liberals, democrat-liberals of the Confederation of the Right (CEDA), republican-agrarians, radicals and republicans of the right and center, were nourished by agnostics or moderate Catholics who wanted to adapt tradition to modernity. Even the Falange, a marginal party in 1936, most frequently accused of being fascist, advocated a synthesis of tradition and modernity. The only common denominator of these parties was the opposition to the social-Marxist or anarchist revolution and the defense of national unity. The issue was more that of political and social survival than that of the preservation of Christianity.

The Church, persecuted in the Populist Front camp and restored by Francoism, was above all concerned with its independence, as evidenced by its opposition to Franco from the 1960s onwards. So why use the generic, idle term “fascism,” which we know was inherited from the propaganda of the Comintern, and which now serves only to insult and stigmatize the adversary?

Ch.D.: I don’t think that the term “fascism” is idle or a propaganda term. In my book on the political ideas of the 20th century, I preferred the term “fascism-corporatism;” and I had to change publishers because the first one absolutely wanted to include fascism and Nazism in the same chapter. I know that in fascism-corporatism there were many different currents of thought. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the real importance of a will to re-establish Christianity, this time more firmly and assuredly. This is true in Western Europe, especially for Salazarism and also for Franco. I worked a lot in Central Europe on these regimes and there it was even more obvious.

A.I.: The great majority of Catholics today say that power and conquest disgusts them. You say that only interiority counts, that we must accept to be a meager residual flock, mute witnesses, that we must educate by example, and walk towards the promise of the Gospel. But historically, could Christianity have existed and could Christianity, the “universal religion,” have gone beyond the stage of an obscure sect without the persuasive force of the legions of soldiers of Christ? Doesn’t the decline of the Church and the “Amishization” of Catholics risk condemning them to share the fate of marginal sects without influence on the world? What can the Catholic Church be without Christianity?

Ch.D.: If overcoming the dark sect can only be done by force and conquest, I prefer to remain a dark sect. Being a woman and having raised six children, I know that the greatest forces, those of love, are hidden. If someone wants to try to make me believe that the Church is different, that it needs legions to make Christianity a universal religion, then I will answer that I do not want a universal religion. I only believe in legions of angels.


Featured image: “L’église de la Sorbonne en ruine (Church of the Sorbonne in Ruins),” by Hubert Robert, painted ca. 1800.

The Beginnings Of Islam: A Conversation With Hela Ouardi

We are pleased to present this interview with Hela Ouardi who has recently published the third volume of the series, Les califes maudits (The Cursed Caliphs), Meurtre à la mosquée, Murder in the Mosque). She has previously published Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad (The Last Days of Muhammad). In these works she seeks to demythologize and thereby humanize the founder of Islam. Professor Ouardi teaches French literature and civilization at the University of Tunis.

Here, she is interviewed by Annie Laurent, for La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are bringing you this translation.


Annie Laurent (AL): Your work challenges the history of early Islam as it is generally transmitted, You teach French literature at the University of Tunis. How did you decide to dive into this work of a historian and is both iconoclastic and titanic?

Hela Ouardi (HO): There are two important points in your question. The first one concerns “questioning.” I think I am doing exactly the opposite insofar as I am trying to restore the true history of the beginnings of Islam and to highlight the mythical and mystifying character of the version “generally transmitted” as you say. At the beginning of my investigation, I asked myself this double question: where is this authentic version? Who is in charge of transmitting it? The answer to both questions is: nowhere and nobody. All that the Muslim knows about the genesis of his religion are bits of legendary and incoherent stories. So, I believe that my investigation is based on two major tasks that have nothing to do with any subversive attitude: to bring order to this history and to make it intelligible. The narrative approach in my books allows me to achieve this double objective.

Hela Ouardi © Albin Michel.

As for the relationship with my academic specialty, that speaks for itself. My literary training, far from making me a stranger to the work of historical investigation on the Muslim Tradition, has prepared me very well for it. The corpus of this tradition is a literary corpus par excellence (and we have only this to inform us about the beginnings of Islam—there is no archaeological trace dating from the period of the Prophet and even of his first successors). The historian of Islam is thus condemned to analyze a literary tradition. And here I must admit that I am a bit “like a fish in water” because my great familiarity with the analysis of texts puts me in a very good predisposition in this regard. The only notable change in relation to my previous research (French literature and civilization) is that of the language. However, as I am bilingual, the study of texts in Arabic and their rendition in French do not pose any particular problems for me.

AL: Your investigations refer to a multitude of Islamic sources, both Sunni and Shiite. How were you able to access them when many of them seem to be untransmitted, as if one wanted to make them suspect, so as not to interfere with the hagiographic approach to history?

HO: As I told you, there is no “official version” of Islamic history. On the other hand, I do not entirely agree with the idea of suspicion that you evoke: Muslims venerate the sources of Tradition without reading them and without knowing them; and all my work consists in revealing the contents of these books, to make them accessible by breaking a little the glass cage in which they have been imprisoned over the centuries.

AL: You point out that no text written by Muhammad or dictated by him to his secretaries has been preserved, even though, contrary to legend, he was not illiterate. Can you enlighten us on this point?

HO: Muhammad’s alleged illiteracy is a theological ruse to support the dogma of the Qur’anic miracle. In order to show that the Qur’an is a divine work and not a human work, the idea was conveyed that an illiterate man was not capable of producing such a scholarly and well-written book. In my books, I provide irrefutable evidence from the Muslim tradition that destroys the legend of the illiteracy of the Prophet of Islam. This legend has moreover imposed itself thanks to the semantic vagueness that surrounds the Arabic adjective “ummî” with which Muhammad is often tagged. This word designates at the same time the illiterate, the follower of a religion without a Book (at the beginning, Mohammed’s detractors refused to recognize his prophecy because he did not bring a sacred book). Finally, the word “ummî” can also designate a man from Mecca who was nicknamed “Umm al-qurâ” (this nickname appears in the Koran). So, you see, the vagueness surrounding Muhammad’s illiteracy is the pure product of lexical polysemy!

AL: The “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” This is the name reserved for the first successors of Mohammed, who are presented as models to be imitated even though they were particularly violent. Do you think you can convince your Muslim readers of the validity of the label “cursed Caliphs” that you attribute to them?

HO: I don’t want to convince anyone. I make Montaigne’s famous phrase my own: “I do not teach, I report.” So, I report facts that are not at all of my own invention or even the fruit of my interpretation. Thus, the label “cursed caliphs” does not reflect a personal position on these historical figures. It emphasizes a very specific event (on which Sunnis and Shiites are curiously agreed): the first two caliphs were cursed by Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, because they disinherited her; abused her so much that she died of grief (or of something else less natural!) only a few weeks after her father. This is a fact reported in great detail in all the sources, and I defy anyone to contradict me on this point.

AL: Your series stops at Omar, the second Caliph (634-644). Will you continue your research on the following ones?

HO: That is planned, of course; but the next two (Uthman and Ali) will not be included in the cycle of the “Cursed Caliphs;” they will be the subject of separate monographs.

AL: Don’t you fear being accused of disbelief or suspected of discrediting Islam as a religion at a time when it is presenting itself under worrying aspects from which Muslims also suffer?

HO: And you, when you get on the road, don’t you fear to have an accident? I don’t think about virtual threats because if I did, I wouldn’t do anything. Besides, whoever accuses me of being a disbeliever and of undermining Islam is in fact only accusing the “venerable” authors of the Muslim tradition, because I am only reporting what they say.

AL: In recent years, a growing number of Muslim intellectuals have called for a reform of Islamic thought. Do some of them join you in your enterprise of historical deconstruction? In other words, can Islam reconcile itself with history without risking annihilation?

HO: I prefer to speak of “historical reconstruction” because the mythification and the ideological instrumentation of the past have literally annihilated the history of Islam and have made of this religion a mummy, a timeless and anachronistic object. I regard my work as a restoration-reconstruction. I want to give life to this fossilized memory, by giving back to the founding characters of Islam their human dimension which would show them closer to us. So, Islam, by reconciling itself with history, does not risk annihilation; on the contrary: it will revive.

AL: Many emphasize the need to put an end to the dogma of the “uncreated” Koran, which blocks the contextualization of the most inappropriate passages for today’s world (the status of women, the legitimization of violence, etc.), while others stress the absence of a recognized authority that could assume such a responsibility. In what form do you see this resurrection?

HO: The resurrection will not take place at all on a dogmatic level, but by working on representations, such as, for example, humanizing the character of the Prophet and his Companions in films, serials, and documentaries that portray them so that they cease to be disembodied ghosts. And there, I think that the aesthetic appropriation of the history of Islam by artists, creators, playwrights, etc., could cause a lasting influence on the minds. The Renaissance in Europe was accompanied by atrocious religious conflicts. However, this period continues to shine on universal history, precisely because it was the bearer of a decisive aesthetic project. Islam awaits the aesthetic revolution that will revive it from within.


Featured image: The Angel of Bounty and the Arrival at the Second Heaven by Muhammad. Timurid Herat, ca. 1465.

Spain In The Americas: A Conversation With Marcelo Gullo Omodeo

This wide-ranging conversation with Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, the Argentine academic, analyst and consultant in international relations, is a great pleasure and honor to bring to our readers. His most book, Madre Patria (Motherland), effectively analyses the devastating impact that the Black Legend has had on the great achievements of Spain in the Americas, a period now disparagingly known as “colonialism.” He discusses his book with Javier R. Portella, the publisher of the journal El Manifesto.


Javier R. Portella (JRP): “Motherland,” “Motherland”…. What memories the beautiful title of your wonderful book brings back. Memories of childhood, of school… Memories of youth… No, not of youth. Even then, the word was beginning to disappear from our heritage. Little by little, the very idea of homeland was wrapped in the rancid dust of contempt. Eventually motherland and fatherland disappeared from the map. No one in Spain today would utter these two words. And in that Hispanic America which, in order not to call it so, is called—or worse, we call it that—”Latin,” “motherland” it still uttered. Is Spain still thought of as the Motherland? I have heard the expression in Argentina and somewhere else, it is true. But I am afraid that…

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo (MGO): There was lots of talk about it, my dear Javier, and then there was even more talk. The homeland is always the “being” where “being” develops its existence. Our being is America; but our being was given to us by Spain. That Spain that had been for centuries—and is again today—a “being” that is in danger, always threatened by extinction—first against the subjugating Muslim imperialism and then against the Balkanizing Anglo-Saxon imperialism.

Numerous men of letters, such as the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, the Argentines Manuel Ugarte and Manuel Gálvez, the Mexican José Vasconcelos, the Peruvian Enrique Santos Chocano, numerous politicians, such as the Uruguayan Luis Alberto de Herrera, the Peruvians Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and Luis Alberto Sánchez, the Colombian Eliecer Gaitan, the Argentines Roque Saenz Peña, Hipolito Yrigoyen, Juan Domingo Peron, the legendary Evita, but above all the vast majority of the Argentine and Latin American people, mainly its humblest sectors, felt Spain as our Motherland. I still remember Luzmila Méndez Ramírez, a humble and knowledgeable woman of Indian race whose mother-tongue was Quechua, born deep in the Peruvian highlands, who struggled all her life, being always a domestic servant, telling me, one October 12, while watching on television the demonstrations of the young people of Lima repudiating Spain: “Don Marcelo, they are wrong, Spain is our Motherland.”

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo.

Allow me to quote one of Eva Perón’s most moving speeches about Spain and the conquest of America:

“The epic of the discovery and conquest is, fundamentally, a popular epic. We are, then, not only legitimate children of the discoverers and conquerors, but direct heirs of their deeds and of the flame of eternity that they carried over the seas. October 12 is, for the same reason, a celebration of Hispanic culture, which touches Spain as well as its daughters in America. Let us fight as the men of Cortés, Mendoza, Balboa and Pizarro knew how to fight. This is my tribute to Columbus Day, the day of the people who gave us our being and bequeathed us their spirituality. May they be blessed!”

These words of Evita say it all.

In 1927, in the tango La gloria del águila, an emotional Carlos Gardel calls Spain “Madre Patria querida de mi amor” (Dear Motherland of my love). That was the feeling of the majority of the Argentine and Latin American population, before the “Black Legend” poison (through the cultural propaganda made by the “globalist left,” whose most important political expression today in Argentina is Kirchnerism) penetrated the spirit of the youth.

JRP: I am going to ask you something a little difficult perhaps, since there are many and substantial things in your book. I would like to ask you to summarize for me, concisely, the core, the essence of your defense of Spain and your plea against the Black Legend.

MGO: Spain’s defense can be summarized in a single sentence: Spain did not conquer America, Spain liberated America. In reality there was no conquest, but rather the liberation of America—as the Mexican Vasconcelos affirms—from “all that rank yerba of the soul which is the cannibalism of the Caribs, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the stultifying despotism of the Incas.”

In my work, Madre Patria (Motherland), making an objective analysis of history, I demonstrate in a simple but scientific way that Hernán Cortés did not conquer Mexico. It was the opposite of the story elaborated by the Black Legends because the political action of Cortes was oriented to help hundreds of nations to organize themselves, under his military and political leadership, most definitely, to stop being oppressed by the most bloodthirsty totalitarian state of all times.

The main dilemma was, for the nations dominated by the Aztecs, one of life or death. To continue under Aztec dependence would have meant, for the Tlaxcaltecs and Totonacs, for example, to continue being—literally—devoured by the Aztecs. Liberation meant ceasing to be the main food of the Aztecs. That said, the other contradictions were evidently secondary.

In addition, it is materially impossible to think that, with only three hundred men, four old arquebuses and some horses, Hernán Cortés could defeat Moctezuma’s army of three hundred thousand fierce, disciplined and brave soldiers. It would have been impossible, even if the three hundred Spaniards had had automatic rifles like those used today by the Spanish army. Thousands of Indians from the oppressed nations fought, together with Cortés, against the Aztecs. That is why the Mexican José Vasconcelos affirms that “the conquest was made by the natives.”

As I prove in my book Madre Patria (Motherland), Aztec imperialism was the most atrocious in the history of mankind: thousands and thousands of people from the subjugated peoples were sacrificed every day; a domination that demanded tribute—but tribute in blood. In what we now call Mexico, there was an oppressor nation and hundreds of oppressed nations, from which the Aztecs not only took away raw materials—as all imperialisms have done throughout history—but they also took away their children, their brothers, to sacrifice them in their temples and then distribute the dismembered bodies of the victims in their butcher shops as if they were pork chops or chicken legs—so that these dismembered human beings served as substantial food for the Aztec population.

The scientific evidence we have today leaves no room for doubt in this regard. Such was the quantity of human sacrifices made by the Aztecs of the people enslaved by them that, with the skulls, they built the walls of their buildings and temples. The main food of the Aztec nobility and priestly caste was human flesh of the oppressed peoples. The nobility reserved the thighs for themselves, and the entrails were left to the general public. This says it all—and that, precisely, is what the pseudo-thinkers and professors of the “globalist Left” hide, financed, until recently, by Baring or the Rockefellers, and, today, by Soros and company. If Hernán Cortés was successful, it was because he told those subjugated peoples that this was going to end: “…with us this will never happen again.”

In reality, for the inhabitants of what we now call Mexico, the conquest meant that 80 percent of the population was liberated from the most macabre and monstrous imperialism that the history of mankind has ever known. And something similar to what happened in Mexico happened in Peru and Colombia.

If Spain has to apologize for having defeated the anthropophagous Aztec imperialism and the stultifying imperialism of the Incas, both the United States and Russia would have to apologize for having defeated the genocidal Nazi imperialism. Of course, the battles for Tenochtitlan and Cuzco were bloody, but as bloody, by the way, as the landing in Normandy or the battle for Berlin that put an end to Nazi totalitarianism.

JRP: There are many questions that surprise and catch the reader’s attention in your book. For example, it is the first time—I don’t think I’m wrong—that someone has made the connection between the denigrations that are launched against Spain by the Black Legend and by the Catalan secessionists. What can you tell us about it?

MGO: When during the so-called Transition most Spanish politicians of the Left and Right assumed, by commission or omission, the Black Legend as something true, they gave rise to Catalan separatists, taking refuge in the Black Legend (now accepted by the Spanish Right who wanted to get democratic credentials) saying: “just as Spain conquered and plundered America, so it conquered and plundered Catalonia. Spain is a historical devouring monster of peoples.” Then, based on that false premise, they began to indoctrinate children in schools to hate Spain and its common language. And it worked, because if the children were told that just as Spain had gone to America to steal and rape women, it had penetrated Catalonia to carry out the same misdeeds. It was logical to expect that when those children became adults they would say, we want the independence of Catalonia because we do not want to be part dominated by the “vampire” of peoples that is Spain. This axial fact—the indoctrination of children in the Black Legend—plunges Spain, almost inexorably, into territorial fragmentation.

Out of political sympathy, “Catalan separatism” promotes today, in Latin America, with the money of all Spanish taxpayers, and counting on the sympathy of the international imperialism of money, the “fragmenting indigenist fundamentalism.” The Catalan separatists, impregnated with hatred for Spain, would love, for example, that in the Ecuadorian jungle all traces of Spanish were lost; that in Peru, in the region of Cuzco, the use of Spanish was abandoned and only Quechua was spoken; that in Puno the exclusive use of Aymara was imposed and Spanish was forgotten; that in the south of Chile and in the Argentine Patagonia, the Mapuche language was imposed with blood and fire and Spanish speakers were persecuted. Catalan separatist nationalism and balkanizing fundamentalist indigenism are twin brothers, since both share the same eagerness to erase everything Spanish; thus serving the interests of those who want to deconstruct Spain and fragment the Spanish-American republics.

Peoples who do not know where they come from do not know where they have to go; or rather, where they are being led by those who have falsified their history—towards the edge of the abyss; that is, towards their historical suicide.

JRP: And since we were talking about the Catalan secession, another novel element of Madre Patria is what you reveal about South American independence. One is astonished when one learns that the Indians, during the matricidal wars against the Motherland… What happened then to the Indians, “the original peoples?” They were supposed to fight against Spain as fiercely as the Creoles, weren’t they?

MGO: The history written by the Black-Legendarians has always hidden the fact that the native peoples in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Chile were against independence. They have hidden it because that fact, historically irrefutable, as I show in Madre Patria, makes the whole Black Legend of the Spanish conquest of America fall like a house of cards. Francisco de Miranda—who commanded an army formed by the sons of Spaniards who had enriched themselves through smuggling—was defeated by the Jirahara Indians whose language was Chibcha; and Simón Bolívar could only crush the Guajira Indians, the Pashto Indians and the mass of blacks and mulattoes who fought against him to their last breath; and he could only crush them with the help of the thousand British soldiers, veterans of the European war, sent to his aid by His Gracious British Majesty. In the mountains of Peru, the Indians opposed independence and fought, led by the cacique Antonio Huachaca, in a struggle that incredibly lasted until 1839. In Chile, the Mapuche people in their totality, commanded by the chiefs Nekulman, Mariwán, Mangín Weno and Ñgidol Toki Kilipán, remained loyal to Spain until Spain was defeated, on the dawn of January 14, 1832, at the battle of the lagoons of Epulafquenen, by the “very white” Chilean general Don Manuel Bulnes.

There is no doubt, as the Marxist historian Juan José Hernández Arregui dared to affirm, that “the emancipation from Spain was not desired at the time by the American peoples.” That is why, when General Don José de San Martín landed in Peru and realized, at that moment, that independence was not wanted by the indigenous masses and that they had all fallen into a British trap, he desperately sought an agreement to put an end to the fratricidal war, through the creation of a constitutional Empire with its capital in Madrid. Unfortunately, Spain was then ruled by one of the most inept kings in its history, who opposed any kind of negotiation that would put an end to what was in reality a civil war, to what was literally a painful family war.

JRP: And, to conclude, a question to reflect with you on something that emerges from your book: What is it, dear Marcelo, in the soul of Spaniards—on both sides of the Atlantic—that makes us so absurdly, so stubbornly masochistic? What is it that makes us detest to such an extent the greatest thing we have ever done in our history?

Because, of course, it is clear that the Black Legend is an extraordinary operation of “political marketing” (you nailed it with this formulation) that has been set in motion by our enemies. But none of that would have worked—at any rate, not in such a colossal way—without our kind and solicitous collaboration. Starting with the deceptions propagated by a Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and ending with the consent, active or silent, of so many of our thinkers and writers. Only now, with the publishing boom of María Elvira Roca Barea and with what, hopefully, will also be the publishing boom of Marcelo Gullo Omodeo (which, by the way, I see has been a best-seller on Amazon for three months now) is something like an awareness of the truth and the greatness of what we are, because of having been what we were, and are finally beginning to grasp. And this, despite the stones thrown by our enemies… and those that we ourselves throw on our own roof.

But why this mania for self-blame and self-attack, in a way that—as you yourself point out—no other people would ever have allowed themselves to be belittled, degraded and attacked?

MGO: It is a question, my dear Javier, that breaks my soul because I have no answer. It is an enigma of history.


Featured image: “Marriage of Martin de Loyola to Princess Dona Beatriz and Don Juan Borja to Lorenza,” Cusco School, 1718. [This interview comes through the courtesy of El Manifesto].

On Democracy: A Conversation With Pierre Manent

This month, through the kind courtesy of La Nef magazine, we are so very honored to present this discussion with Pierre Manent, the well-known French political philosopher who of course hardly needs an introduction. Suffice to say that he is the author of very many influential books and articles on the condition and direction of modernity.

Here, Professor Manent speaks with Christophe Geffroy, the editor and publisher of La Nef, on the topic of democracy and Tocqueville, for is was Tocqueville who bets observed democracy and corollary, equality. Tocqueville figures prominently in several of Professor Manent’s books, including, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, and Democracy Without Nations.


Christophe Geffroy (CG): How can we best summarize Tocqueville’s political analysis of democracy? What definition does he give? What is his contribution, his originality?

Pierre Manent (PM): French political thought in the first half of the 19th century is exceptionally rich. The French Revolution had signified an unprecedented break in the history of Europe. The upheaval suffered, the immense task of reconstruction to be accomplished, all this stirred the hearts and sharpened the minds of all parties. However, it was in the liberal school, taken in the broadest sense, that political reflection was most acute and relevant. Its members accepted the new society as a fact—a fact to be understood and organized politically by founding a representative regime.

Three figures successively dominated the field of political reflection: Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, Alexis de Tocqueville. The first is the most explicit and—I would say—the most naively liberal. He wanted above all to defend, as he says, that “part of human existence which, of necessity, remains individual and independent, and which is by right outside any social competence.” His liberalism is of opposition. Guizot is, in short, the one who opposes. He looks at things from the point of view of the one who governs; he is concerned first of all with the “means of government,” so that the new power, he explains, must know how to discern and draw from the new society.

Pierre Manent. © Benjamin de Diesbach.

And Tocqueville? He perceives, with an acuity that belongs only to him, a new phenomenon that had not escaped his predecessors, but of which he is the first to perceive to what extent it modifies the conditions of human life in all its dimensions. This phenomenon is democracy. An old word, an old notion, an old reality. But now a brand-new reality: Equality, as an idea and as a feeling, and even as a passion, has acquired an unprecedented power over minds and hearts. Once we have understood that this fact is irreversible, we must learn to organize social and political life in such a way as to realize the human vocation in this new social and moral element.

(CG): In what way is Tocqueville a liberal author, who fits into this precise philosophical tradition?

PM: Tocqueville is a liberal. But in his case, the qualifier is not very illuminating. Certainly, he values freedom; he even celebrates it in grandiose terms. Certainly, he accepts the main doctrinal elements of modern liberalism, and first of all what he calls “the just notion of liberty” according to which each man “is born with an equal and imprescriptible right to live independent of his fellow men in all that relates only to himself.” But, at the same time, he vigorously denounces the “individualism” which “draws [each one] unceasingly towards himself alone and threatens to enclose him at last entirely in the solitude of his own heart.”

We can formulate the tension that runs through his thought and his soul in this way: On the one hand, liberalism is just because it places a principle of justice at the basis of the new society, whereas all previous human orders necessarily rested, in one way or another, on force. But on the other hand, it is imperative for him to combat the most serious tendency of a society founded on these principles, which is to divert the members of the society from the concern for the common good and thus to leave the highest faculties of man lying fallow. In terms of the contemporary French debate, one could say that Tocqueville is frankly liberal, but also more republican than liberal.

(CG): Today, Tocqueville is mostly remembered for his book Democracy in America and less for Ancien Regime and the Revolution. What is the contribution of the latter and how can we situate it in relation to the former?

PM: It is a book on the political history of France, very thorough, carefully and admirably written. He prepared and wrote it in the early years of the Second Empire, which was not yet “liberal.” Tocqueville’s outlook is very dark. The coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon, and the regime that was then installed, humiliated Tocqueville and discouraged him. Was France condemned to fail unceasingly at the doors of political freedom? How is it that after a Revolution that brought down the monarchical State, that even made a clean sweep of the society of old orders, and then, this new society found itself to be like the old one, and even more than the old one, under the hand of a State that was still “vertical,” as we would say today?

Tocqueville is very harsh on our Old Regime, but his indictment has little to do with revolutionary diatribes. In some respects, his book is even a “tomb,” in the poetic sense of the word, of the Ancien Régime and its “greatness.” One can read for example: “It will always be regretted that instead of bending this nobility under the empire of laws, [the Revolution] has cut it down and uprooted it. By doing so, it has taken away from the nation a necessary part of its substance and made a wound to liberty that will never heal.” But here is the indictment: “Class division was the crime of the old royalty, and later became its excuse.”

By devitalizing the old institutions that ensured the collaboration of the classes without replacing them with the institutions of political liberty, the monarchy locked everyone into their own condition, thus nourishing the individualism that was the condition of the Revolution and was found, even more virulent, among its major consequences.

CG: For Tocqueville, was the French Revolution part of a movement towards democracy? And what links are there between the revolutionary spirit and the democratic spirit?

PM: This is an essential point. Tocqueville is especially concerned to distinguish the two, which the French are inclined to confuse because of their historical experience: Democracy came for them with the Revolution. This confusion is particularly harmful in France because democrats believe they are obliged to be revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries to be against democracy. Thus, good citizens who should share the same affection for a regime that knows how to combine equality and liberty become irreconcilable political adversaries.

To show that the democratic spirit is essentially distinct from the revolutionary spirit is one of Tocqueville’s principal objects. American democracy provides him with the crucial experience that proves the thesis: The Americans live under an entirely democratic regime—if we except, of course, the institution of slavery in certain southern states—and they know a social and political life that is clearly better regulated than the French. This is because they were “born equal instead of becoming equal.” By a cruel irony that would not, I believe, have surprised Tocqueville too much, the American Democrats of today are inclined to reverse his thesis, and to see in slavery not the anomaly, but the ineradicable root of the American regime.

CG: Why was Tocqueville long forgotten in France, which was not the case in the United States, only to be rediscovered fairly recently and to have become an “indispensable” thinker of any analysis of democracy?

PM: It is undoubtedly because the social and political movement has led the French in the direction from which Tocqueville wished to turn them away. On the one hand, the revolutionary spirit found new motives in the extension of industry, which, in the eyes of socialists, especially Marxists, made a new and more radical revolution inevitable. On the other hand, opposition to democracy became independent of nostalgia for the Old Regime, and found in the new France a powerful resource in the form of nationalism.

One fact strikes me—after 1848, and more and more as we approached the new century, the generous and finely discriminating intelligence that characterized the political thought of the first nineteenth century gave way more and more to a fierce polemic that granted nothing to the adversary. Socialists and nationalists competed, if I may say so, in certainty and implacability. There are always great minds, or at least great talents, but imaginations are narrowed and hearts often shriveled.

Tocqueville returned to the public debate in France, first thanks to Raymond Aron who placed him in the history of social sciences, as one of the great interpreters of modern society alongside Marx, Comte or Weber. Then his star shone at the same time as that of Marx waned—the experience of communist totalitarianism made the idea of the despotic potentialities of equality strikingly relevant.

CG: Our democracies are in crisis, as the record abstention of the last elections confirms. Is Tocqueville a help in understanding this crisis and getting out of it?

PM: The current crisis brings to a climax the tendencies described by Tocqueville. As I said, democracy, as he understands it, is not so much a political regime as a spiritual regime; it is based on an extraordinarily powerful and pervasive affect, namely, the “passion for equality,” combined with the “feeling of similarity.” It is not only proclaimed that all citizens are equal before the law, or that a judge does not take into account the class, the race or the education of the accused when he judges. One wants to remove any mark of inequality or simply of difference in the social body.

The feeling of the similar, the compassion for the “suffering other,” are not only a constitutive part of the feelings of the social man, they form the very atmosphere of the collective life; they give it the tone; they are ordered by the social authority and more and more by the law of politics itself. This social religion certainly has its orthodoxy and its heretics—who would dare contest that men are equal and similar, if not perverse minds, or hearts closed to all humanity?

The consequence of this empire of the similar is that all the differences, natural or acquired, which structure human life—differences of the sexes, of generations, of the contents of life, of the forms of life, of human virtues and vices—all these differences which give human life its form and its meaning, its taste too—well, social religion commands us to refuse to take them into account in our words or our actions, and first of all forbids us to even see them.

Indeed, the real life, ordered by a complex mixture of equality and inequality, of resemblance and difference, is so to speak overlaid by an unreal but obligatory life, where the law commands that we ignore the difference of the sexes, erases the mention of the father, and continuously reforms the language so that this one cannot designate another subject of attribution of what it is to be human in general. They even want to erase the difference between the human species and the animal species. Thus, the democratic religion commands us to live in a humanity without anything human of its own, without form or order, without any other task than to erase any trace of form or order, and finally any trace of meaning.

CG: The pandemic and the often liberticidal measures taken to contain it have shown that our fellow citizens are more attached to their well-being than to their freedom. Is this in line with Tocqueville’s analysis of the nature of democracy?

PM: Compassion is primarily concerned with physical suffering. It is the “pity” of which Rousseau speaks, in which the “animal spectator” identifies with the “suffering animal.” In the absence of a moral education, we limit ourselves to “feeling with” the “sensitive” animal. Together with the progress of medicine, the feeling of the fellow man and compassion have encouraged the construction of these extraordinary “health systems” which are one of the most admirable achievements of modern civilization. Let’s not kid ourselves—we all want to be well cared for!

But the more collective resources and attention are focused on a particular area, the more unbalanced our common life is likely to be. If we only know how to see suffering bodies, and if the only commandment that makes sense to us is to remove or alleviate physical suffering, then we are handing over not only our bodies but our souls to the machinery of prevention and cure. If our societies have become so organized around the concern for health, it is first of all of course that this concern is universally shared, but it is also because other human concerns have withered away. The desire to control everything, which is natural to governments, finds a docile subject among members of society whose imagination and ambition are increasingly narrowed, and who no longer know how to attach themselves to something greater than their “naked lives.”

CG: What role does Tocqueville see for religion in the balance and viability of a democratic society? Does the decline of Christianity in the West threaten democratic vitality?

PM: In a humanity sucked in by the vortex of sameness, transcendent religion, and primarily the Christian religion, introduces difference par excellence. One can think that, at the beginning, it is the desire to bring the transcendent back to us, to domesticate the Most High, that has engaged us in the movement of democratization and homogenization that is reaching its extreme phase today in the West.

If this is the case, the vital prognosis of our civilization is threatened, because how can we revive the concern for transcendence when we are caught in a social and moral movement motivated by the refusal of transcendence? In fact, Christianity itself is today profoundly affected, if not transformed by this rejection. Current Christian preaching tends to be confused with the religion of human likeness. There is a reluctance to take seriously the object of faith. Christianity is deliberately confused with “other religions.”

CG: Do we find in Tocqueville a link between nation and democracy? In other words, for him, can democracy be envisaged anywhere, on any scale and independently of a specific history anchored in a culture and a religion?

PM: Tocqueville’s analyses presuppose the national framework; he speaks of “European nations” or “democratic nations,” but he does not thematize the question of the nation. Tocqueville elaborated his thought before the national question became central to European life. His general approach can, however, enlighten us.

As the progress of democratic equality made European societies more similar, they experienced more keenly their national character, which came to the fore both in their mutual relations and in the relationship of each nation to itself. The internal homogenization was, so to speak, counterbalanced by the ever-increasing value placed on national specificity.

While the different nations were coming closer together in their social form and seemed to be moving towards the same future, each one turned with predilection to its original past. National history became constitutive of the self-consciousness of each to a degree that Europe had never known. The institutions that were directly linked to the national past, the pre-democratic institutions, such as the army or the Church, were able to acquire an unprecedented prestige or role—that of embodying the nation, and possibly providing a point of reference for the rejection of democracy.

Modern democracy has developed within the national framework, and in this sense democracy and national form are closely related. On the other hand, in the nationalist impulse, the nation appears as the synthesis and protector of all those differences that democracy tends to erase, at the risk that these differences serve above all as fuel and pretext for anti-democratic passion.

Today, in North America and in Europe, the democratic movement wants to “do away” with the nation that has nourished and protected it for so long. That is why it is turning with particular aggression against national histories. While an imaginary similarity is imposed on all elements of present life, the past becomes that reserve of differences from which our memory and imagination must be purged.

The nation as it developed in Europe combined the past, the present and the future; it synthesized the three dimensions of time in a way that no political form had been able to do before. Today, the passion for similarity and indistinction between men has reached such a degree of virulence that the present devours both the past and the future: The past because it was so different; the future because it might be very different.


The featured image shows a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, painted in 1850.

Europe Is Not A Nation. The Union Is Not A State: An Interview With Ryszard Legutko

Should the European Parliament exist? What is the ultimate purpose of the supranational structure known as the “European Union?” The philosopher and statesman, Ryszard Legutko tackles these questions with elegant clarity and razor-sharp wit.

Ryszard Legutko is a member of the European Parliament. He is the author of The Demon in Democracy, Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State, and, most recently, The Cunning of Freedom.

The conversation that follows, with the journalist Karol Gac, first appeared in the Polish weekly, Dorzeczy (November 7, 2021). We are so very pleased to present this first English translation.


Karol Gac (KG): In which direction, in your opinion, is the European Union heading?

Ryszard Legutko (RL): It’s heading toward oligarchy that is being created by European institutions and the strongest West European countries. And since Europe is dominated by the Left, this oligarchy is united by leftist ideology, aiming at radical restructuring of European societies. While it is true that the powerful states do not necessarily want to dissolve into this European mass, nevertheless they strengthen European structures because through them they pursue their interests. For example, those structures are used by Germany, which for historical reasons cannot impose itself too much with its political power; or by France, which dreams of French leadership in Europe; or smaller countries, such as, the Netherlands and Belgium, which want to strengthen their position in this way. The oligarchy that is emerging is therefore particularly dangerous – it is ruled by the powerful group of a few countries, which use institutions to seize powers not conferred upon them by treaties, and impose an extremely harmful ideology.

KG: Are we witnessing a Hamiltonian moment and an attempt to build a European superstate?

RL: For the European Union, any opportunity is good to advance centralization. It seemed that the poor response to the pandemic would discredit the EU institutions; yet these institutions took advantage of the pandemic by creating programs for a reconstruction fund and a common debt, which is, of course, another step towards centralization. They immediately claimed for themselves jurisdiction over who gets the funds and who does not. This may be a Hamiltonian moment, but it is important to remember that this trend has been going on for a long time.

Ryszard Legutko in the European Parliament.

KG: Given this, isn’t the dispute over the primacy of law fundamental?

RL: Of course, it is. In Polish history we have repeatedly stood up for freedom. It is no different now, when we oppose the new despotism that the European oligarchy is trying to impose on the rest. The primacy of European law is a relatively new invention. In the past, this concept appeared in rulings of the CJEU [Court of Justice of European Union], but it was just the judges’ hypercreativity. We know the judges cannot make law. The law is enshrined in the treaties; and there is not a word in them about the primacy of European law. Pulling the general principle of the primacy of European law out of the hat now is the most ordinary political sleight of hand and proof that violating the Treaties with impunity has already become an everyday practice in the European Union.

It is characteristic that in the European Parliament, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, did not even try to justify her position, when she responded to the speech of Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. And she did not use any arguments, because no such arguments exist. If they did exist, we would be constantly reminded of them. So, what von der Leyen was left with were threats! That is why Poland can’t back down on this issue. If we give in, in the face of obvious lawlessness, it will be tantamount to surrendering power over Poland to Brussels and its superiors.

KG: However, observing the recent disputes with Brussels, one can come to a conclusion that the EU institutions are acting according to the principle, “What can you really do to us?” We seem to be pointing out that there is no basis for this in the treaties, but these things happen. The law of the stronger?

RL: Definitely. The European Commission, supported by Parliament and unopposed by the major political players, has introduced an unmitigated heavy-headedness into European politics. Actually, the signs of it had been visible before, but the official signal was given by Jean-Claude Juncker when he described the Commission as a “political” institution – if political, then engaging in political conflicts and power struggles. Previously, the Commission was something like a secretariat that prepared projects for implementation. It seemed that von der Leyen would break away from the Juncker model; but she did not. Another institution that does a lot of bad things is the European Parliament, previously derided as decorative. Well, that has changed. It is now a politically rampant institution, controlled by the Left and, as the Left does, it wants to build a brave new world. The despicable role is played by the European People’s Party – the largest group in the European Parliament – which has long since abandoned its Christian-democratic identity. Its leader, Manfred Weber, has made it into a lickspittle dragoon of the left, directing all its energy to fighting the remnants of the political Right.

KG: It seems that the European Union has been at a crossroads for several years. Perhaps the main reason for the Union’s crisis is simply a crisis of its institutions?

RL: The main source of the EU crisis is the European Union itself. Its rulers do not draw conclusions from what is happening. The reaction after Brexit was characteristic; when instead of decreasing the intrusiveness of interference in the affairs of member states, they increased it. Why is this so? The Union contains fundamental structural errors. The most detrimental to the Union is the principle of an ever-closer union. This slogan means that the regulations and laws that have been written down are actually provisional and that their violation and stretching can be tolerated, provided that it serves the purpose of greater federalization and integration. This of course results in contempt for the law, as we see in the Court of Justice of the EU. It is a political institution where government appointees use the law to deepen the centralization of the union. The judges of the CJEU behave politically and their rulings are sometimes completely bizarre and expose their political agenda.

Here is an example. Hungary sued the European Parliament over the activation of Article 7. The issue was that twelve hours before the vote, we received instructions from the Bureau of the European Parliament that abstentions would not be counted, which was a clear violation of the Treaty. The Treaty explicitly stipulates that in the case of votes on Article 7, all votes cast count. So, it seemed that the Hungarians had to win. However, the CJEU ruled that the abstentions could be considered as votes not cast. This is sophistry of the most shameless kind. With such an attitude to the law, it is difficult to gain respect for the European judges and treat the CJEU as a bastion of the rule of law.

Another structural error of the Union is that its institutions are not accountable to the electorate. Who are the commissioners? They are people parachuted in by governments and approved not individually, but as the European Commission in its entirety by the European Parliament. They have no responsibility because they are not accountable to any electorate. Being not accountable to their voters, they can ignore; but they are rather soft-spoken when it comes to confronting the powers that be. Who is Vera Jourova, a Czech commissioner, a figure who emerged out of nowhere, and what legitimacy does she have to threaten and bully the Polish government? An institution acting in this way must sooner or later degenerate, and this is happening before our very eyes. As for the European Parliament, it should not exist at all. The Union is not a state and Europe is not a nation.

KG: All the more so since the European Parliament was created on the assumption that there is a European demos. Meanwhile, we know perfectly well that it does not exist, because there are many nations in Europe.

RL: We have a completely bizarre situation in which 650 MEPs (out of about 700) are deciding on Polish affairs, but they are not accountable to the Polish electorate. The whole idea of parliamentarianism is that the representatives are accountable to the voters; and here we have zero accountability. That is why the European Parliament has degenerated the fastest and the most spectacularly. It is an unbalanced chamber with no respect for rules, including those of decency. The creators of the Union, if they acted in good faith, assumed that the European institutions would self-limit; but they did not create any effective mechanisms that would force those institutions to do so. The art of system building lies, among other things, in creating means to inhibit the natural tendency of institutions to grow, to increase their power, to create pathologies. To cure the Union of its ills, a fundamental reform is needed.

KG: We have the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. What is the point of having so many EU institutions if, at the end of the day, it turns out that decisions are taken either in Berlin or within a narrow circle, in a rather non-transparent procedure?

RL: This is another of the structural flaws of the European Union. There are at least three power structures in the EU. The first is what is enshrined in the treaties. The second is the real power structure. Germany is the dominant power because it is the strongest country; and no matter what we write into the treaties, that power is not invalidated. It is simply a fact. The system enshrined in the treaties cannot therefore operate in isolation from the real system of power; and this makes the decision-making process unclear and arbitrary. And then there is a third power structure that goes beyond the EU but is very much embedded in it, namely, ideological power.

The Euro-enthusiasts like to repeat the slogan that the EU is unity in diversity. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is no diversity in the Union. There is one ideological model established by the Left; its consequence being the growing despotism. Consequently, the people who are thriving in the Union are former communists. For them, it is like their second youth. Look, for example, at the former communists, once Poland’s prime ministers, who are now MPs. The EU probably brings to their minds the memories of the good old days of proletarian internationalism and the alliance of brotherly parties. In addition to the old communists, there is, of course, the new left with their gender ideology. All this makes the EU a somber place. Unfortunately, Poland and Europe are dominated by a mystified image of the EU, where its dark side is ignored. We won’t learn about this side from professors of European studies, because they either don’t know or don’t want to know how the EU works – and what they do is not far from ordinary propaganda.

KG: Assuming that the EU will continue in the current direction, is this project tenable?

RL: Everything is tenable for a while. The question is, for how long? Many people want the EU to continue its existence, not least because of its demoralizing nature. We can imagine a person entering – forever, as he hopes – into this large, complex system, receiving a very good salary, being fed with the ideology that he is working for a better Europe, or pretends cynically that that he is doing it. But such a person is not quite representative of the current mood. There is growing discontent among citizens, mainly in Western Europe. No wonder that a lot of us expect that the political forces that criticize the EU will come to power and stop the current trend. Until there is a political counterweight to the ruling oligarchy in the EU, the process will unfortunately continue. If a few relatively conservative and sovereign governments were to be formed, the situation could improve. If not, the dissatisfaction will grow and take various forms, also more violent than now.

KG: And maybe this counterbalance will be created by Poland? Some time ago the Law and Justice Party gave an impetus to create an international alliance of right-wing forces.

RL: Those who want more oligarchy in the EU (including the European Parliament and the European Commission) launched a big project called the “Conference on the Future of Europe,” which is a preparation for the next federation leap. There must be a response from those who oppose it. In the West European countries, a large part of the citizens, who look critically at the EU, do not have sufficiently influential political representation, and their voice is eliminated from the public sphere. That is why East European countries, like Poland, have a role to play.

KG: When joining the EU, many people thought it was a gentlemen’s club, where there was a community of values, and decisions were made together. Maybe Poland perceived and still sometimes perceives certain things too naively, and we have just received lessons in realpolitik?

RL: That is indeed how we thought about the EU, although the EU was never such a club. But previously, in the ECC, there was a relative political balance, which today has been replaced by monopoly, and there was also a partial ideological balance, which has been replaced by mono-ideology. Let us not forget that as a result of the educational collapse, European elites today represent a very low intellectual level and are effectively grouped together. The old Europe that we longed for under communism is as alien to the European Union as vegetarianism is to cannibals. The experience of the Union has also given us the opportunity to get to know ourselves better. The emergence of a group of compatriots who do not want the sovereignty of Poland must be shocking. Not many years have passed since the fall of communism, and still 1/3 of Poland prefers to be governed by someone from outside. It is a very dangerous signal. If these proportions were different, it would be easier for Poland to take a leading role and act more boldly in Europe and create a broader sovereignist and reformist front in the EU.


Of History And Nations: A Conversation With Stanley G. Payne

It is a great privilege to have had a conversation with Professor Stanley Payne, the foremost Hispanologist of our time, which we are delighted to bring to our readers. Professor Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has authored several important books, including, A History of Fascism 1914-1945, The Spanish Civil War, Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II, and Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.


The Postil (TP): Please tell us a little about your own personal history. Was there a single event, or even a series of events, which shaped you and your career?

Stanley G. Payne.

Stanley Payne (SP): There was nothing distinctive, cosmopolitan or noteworthy about my early life. I was born in the small town of Denton, Texas (between Dallas and the Oklahoma border) in 1934, and I was what would later be called a “Depression baby.” We certainly lived in modest circumstances and in 1944 joined the wartime migration to California, where I finished growing up. I was given a Christian education, largely Seventh-Day Adventist, but left that faith while still a teenager, partly due to its fantastic interpretations of the Bible. I returned to Christianity only after my marriage at the age of twenty-six. My general upbringing, I would place within the broader context of Anglo-American Calvinism, and there was nothing in that to prepare me for a life dealing with the Hispano-Catholic world. This sectarian, non-conformist background did perhaps prepare me to be more independent rather than merely following the most conventional patterns.

TP: What brought about your life-long interest in Spain?

SP: There was almost no Hispanic influence at all in North Texas in those days, but in 1943 the Texas Board of Education ruled that all children should receive some sort of language instruction from the fifth grade on. I developed an interest in Spanish and later minored in the language as an undergraduate. Around the age of 19-20, however, my main focus lay on Russia, though I had no opportunity to study the Russian language. In 1955, when I entered graduate studies at Claremont University, Russian history was not an option. That summer I read The Spanish Temper, by the British literary critic and avocational Hispanist, V. S. Pritchett, a work that strongly appealed to my imagination and first gave me the idea that the history of Spain—then virtually unexplored outside that country—might be both interesting and important. Moreover, I had academic advisors—the Latin Americanist Hubert Herring at Claremont and the noted Franco-Italian specialist Shepard Clough at Columbia—who encouraged me to become in effect an autodidact in this new field.

The history of Spain is absolutely extraordinary and is generally misunderstood, more than that of any other Western country, but I have never considered myself a mere “Hispanophile,” despite my dedication to getting its history straight. Modern Spain has been unusually divided and conflictive. The Spanish are regularly misconceived as “individualists,” which is a misnomer. They are better described as factionalists who exhibit great loyalty to factions, local groups and regions, and often express limited individualism. One may speculate that this is due to a lesser impact in Spain of the medieval Roman Catholic insistence on exogamy, compared with other Western countries. If that were so, it would be an ironic commentary on “Catholic Spain.”

An important and attractive aspect of Spanish culture and society is the great value placed on friendship, a relationship especially cultivated in that country. My Spanish friends have been very generous and helpful, and I owe much to them, as does all my work. It is important to me always to acknowledge their assistance.

TP: As the foremost historian of twentieth-century Spain, where would you locate yourself within the tradition of historiography? Is there a school of history that you naturally align with?

SP: My work has followed the general methodology and style of Anglo-American empiricism, within the framework of national histories and comparative European history, but follows no special school or trend. My initial mentor in Spain was the great Catalan historian Jaume Vicens Vives, who was both Catholic and Catalanist but certainly not a mere “nationalist historian.” Vicens was a critical empiricist who was revisionist in the best sense of the phrase, and also came to emphasize the kind of social and economic history that previously had been largely ignored in Spain.

TP: We live in a time which has a rather fraught relationship with the past, a time which seems to want to overcome history. How do you respond to the current vogue of presentism? Is it a passing phase? Or, does it portend something darker?

SP: At the present time infinitely more is known about history than ever before, but contemporary culture and education devalue and ignore the study of history in a manner totally unprecedented in the history of Western civilization. Many factors contribute to this, one of them the quasi-religious character of contemporary progressivism, which seeks to annul comprehension of the past in favor of a timeless future utopia of pure virtue. This is the expression of a kind of millennialist attitude, which probably has some distance to go.

TP: Your many and magisterial books on Spanish history have analyzed the period from 1917 (when the constitutional monarchy collapsed) to the government of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-1930), and the Second Republic (1931-1939), during which was fought the Spanish Civil War. Why are these two decades in Spanish history so important?

SP: Modernization, particularly as economic transformation first became a major problem in seventeenth-century Spain, but the early transition to liberal politics in 1810 initiated a century and a quarter of intermittent political convulsion. Both dimensions merged to produce two decades of intense political and social conflict—paralleling the great European political Kampfzeit of the interwar period in the past century—that served as the conflictive climax to this era. No other country both achieved temporary democracy and also employed it to tear the country apart so thoroughly.

TP: Your profound work on fascism and Spain is certainly paradigmatic. What led you to focus on this aspect of Spanish history?

SP: The initial choice was almost serendipitous, in that it had nothing to do with “fascism.” I simply had to find a topic to initiate graduate research, and Hubert Herring suggested the figure of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which struck my fancy. I had no intention at that moment of focusing on “fascism,” which I would scarcely have been able to define. But one thing led to another. I rather grandiosely subtitled the eventual book “A History of Spanish Fascism,” which it really was not.

TP: The term “fascism” is much bandied-about nowadays. Is there a proper way that we should understand it?

SP: In the 1950s, when I began, any concept of fascism was simplistic. All work was monographic or national in character, but failed to solve the greater issue of “fascism” in general, and that led to the international “fascism debate” of the 1960s and 70s.I participated in the latter, perplexed about the problem of how to define and analyze a “generic fascism,” if any such thing existed. I finally managed to work this out in my Fascism: Comparison and Definition, which appeared in 1980, the first book to present a systematic and detailed definition and analysis of the problem. This stemmed from my concern to make major Spanish developments—fascism or revolutionary civil war, for example– understandable within a broader comparative historical framework.

In the twenty-first century “fascism” has become a meaningless term, an “empty signifier” that serves as all-purpose pejorative and stigmatizer without serious cognitive content. Academic specialists, including myself, employ the term as an “ideal type” construct to refer exclusively to the revolutionary nationalist movements in interwar Europe, which had specific characteristics of their own that have not subsequently been repeated to any significant degree as composite features, and probably cannot be. Fascism was destroyed militarily in 1945 and then became subsequently superseded by massive historical change, which made it impossible to develop equivalent movements in radically differing contexts.

TP: Your first book, Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism, reads like a great Greek tragedy. Could you briefly describe the Falange and its spirited and tragic leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera?

SP: Falange was the only true “fascist-type” movement in Spain, composed of young radical nationalist activists reacting to the anti-nationalist revolutionary process in Spain, where what passed for fascism was in consequence more clearly counterrevolutionary than in any other country. The Falangists were serious about their radical national syndicalist socioeconomic program, but in a country of secondary importance such as Spain, how this worked out was going to depend in large part on geopolitics.

I have said elsewhere that José Antonio Primo de Rivera has managed to become “everybody’s favorite fascist,” the least fascistic of all the European national fascist leaders and the one most nearly attractive as an individual. As observed by some of his rivals, such as the key Socialist chief Indalecio Prieto, his personality did not fit the fascist type. In the case of José Antonio, it was a matter of hereditary politics, since he was the eldest son of Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, the moderate dictator of the 1920s, virtually the only bloodless European dictator, who earned the grudging respect even of some of his enemies. José Antonio felt that he must vindicate authoritarian nationalist politics in Spain to complete his father’s work but did not fully understand the extent of the radicalization to which he himself was contributing. His own interests were more literary than political and he even considered resigning in favor of a leftist leader willing to adopt Spanish nationalism. So there are two schools of thought regarding the “good” and the “bad” José Antonio. The noted French intellectual Arnaud Imatz has written the best favorable account, and the Catalan historian Joan María Thomás the best critical biography.

TP: Looming behind all this, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, about which you have written extensively. Briefly, what led to this conflict? And how should we understand it?

SP: The Spanish war was the great European conflict of the years preceding World War II and often drew more comment than the rise of Nazi Germany. It became a mirror of current politics, in which different commentators found and emphasized the aspect most important to them, whether “democracy,” “revolution,” “fascism,” “antifascism,” “communism,” “anticommunism,” “defeat of clerical reaction” or “defense of Western civilization.” The Spanish conflict became a kind of “do it yourself” kit. To a certain extent, at least, each of these differing perceptions could be demonstrated to be partially—but no more than partially—correct.

The root cause of the Civil War was the revolutionary process of the Second Republic, inaugurated five years earlier in 1931. Though every political ideology of contemporary Europe was in play in Spain, the two basic alternatives under the Republic were whether the new regime was to be a constitutional democracy or give way to a violent mass revolution. After the failure of multiple armed revolutionary insurrections, adoption of the “evolutionary” fascist approach of forming a coalition and exploiting the system enabled the revolutionaries to gain dominance by 1936, initiating the revolution under the legal cover of the Republic. Though the left’s banner was “antifascism,” paradoxically they followed the pseudo-legalist tactics of Mussolini and Hitler, not the insurrectionary tactics of Lenin or the earlier Spanish extreme left. When that became clear by July 1936, moderates and conservatives felt they had no choice but to fight back.

The era 1905-49 was a time of civil war in Europe, the biggest revolutionary civil war that in Russia from 1917 to 1921, the most widely publicized that in Spain from 1936 to 1939. No one had ever tried to treat all this as a whole, so near the end of my career I wrote a brief account, Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (2011).

TP: We have all read of Hitler’s intervention in the Civil War, made famous by Picasso’s painting, Guernica. But the Soviet Union also intervened. Please tell us about the role of the Soviet Union in this conflict, which you also outline in your book, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism. How would you characterize the role played by communism in Spain from 1917 to 1939?

SP: Soviet intervention began in 1920, when Comintern representatives catalyzed organization of the Spanish Communist Party. For fifteen years this was inconsequential, Spain’s worker left being led instead by the Socialists and anarchists. In 1935, however, the Comintern switched from straight revolutionary tactics to a two-track policy, promoting the Popular Front and evolutionary politics to accompany a longer-term revolutionary strategy. This was very successful, to the extent that by the spring of 1936 Moscow was to some extent pulling back, trying to check explosive revolutionary energies from a premature outburst. Comintern policy posited a three-step long-term process: a) victory for an all-left Popular Front government, which would eliminate all centrist and rightist forces by pseudo-legal means; b) followed by formation of a Worker-Peasant government of communists and certain allies of the worker left, which would prosecute full revolution; c) followed by a final Communist regime that would consummate the process.

In the spring of 1936 Spain was the only country in Europe dominated by the illiberal, mostly revolutionary, left. Moscow saw clearly that the surest path to revolution lay in pseudo-legal evolution that avoided any complete blow-up until the left achieved total dominance of all institutions, but the extreme revolutionary left would not accept go-slow tactics. The Comintern sought to avoid civil war, which might ruin a sure thing, and its fears were justified.

When the right finally rebelled, Moscow tried to impose a politics of all-leftist “republican democracy” that averted and channeled revolution, but the anarchists and Socialists outflanked and massively outnumbered the Communists, launching the only violent mass revolution ever to occur in twentieth-century Western Europe. With Soviet assistance, Spanish Communism expanded greatly and eventually became a partially but not totally hegemonic force. Communist policy was to channel and control the revolution while concentrating on the war effort. This was by far the most rational policy adopted by any of the worker parties, but it never achieved full unity.

For the Soviet Union, the Civil War posed a great dilemma. It had been intervening in Spain politically for years, injecting considerable money into the revolutionary process, but direct military intervention was much more complicated and risky, and was harder for Moscow than for Rome and Berlin. Stalin did not decide on limited direct military intervention for two full months. He then sent much armament, but scarcely as many as 3,000 Soviet personnel ever set foot in Spain, concentrated in aviation and armor. There was never any Soviet infantry, though the Comintern organized the 35-40,000 men of the famous International Brigades (modeled on the Internatsionalisty who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war). This was facilitated by the agreement of the irresponsible Republican government to ship most of Spain’s gold reserve (then the fourth largest in the world) to Moscow. The goal was to achieve leftist victory and also to counter the initiative of Germany, hopefully encouraging Britain and France at least indirectly to assist. By 1938 Stalin realized this was not likely to happen, and even offered to withdraw if Germany would do the same. That was impossible, so he strongly encouraged Republican resistance to the end, though the other leftist groups finally turned on the Communists, correctly accusing them of dominating their allies and falsely accusing them of abandoning the Republican cause.

The Comintern’s only success lay in gaining broad Western intelligentsia acceptance of its preferred narrative—supposed “republican democracy” against fascism, the dominant myth of the Civil War, which survives to this day.

This whole topic is one on whose study I embarked rather adventitiously. In the late 1960s Jack Greene began to direct a series for W. W. Norton on ten “Revolutions in the Modern World,” and asked me to undertake a study of the Spanish case. This intrigued me, since theretofore my two main research projects had dealt with the Spanish right. I was then a young professor at UCLA and had the advantage that two of the main collections of documents on the Spanish left were found in the Bolloten Collection at the Hoover Institution and the Southworth Collection at UC-San Diego. My resulting The Spanish Revolution (1970) attracted some attention at the time, named one of fifty “books of the year” by “Book World” of the Washington Post, but was the first of my books to be criticized by the left. The latter had received very favorably my critical treatment of two major aspects of the right, but could not tolerate the same treatment accorded the left. After more than 50 years, this now dated study still remains the only general account of the entire Spanish revolution in any language. The subject remains a virtual taboo in a field dominated by political correctness.

Thirty years later, after the Soviet archives had opened, I was able to return to this area and develop a much more authoritative and documented study, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism (2003), which won the American Association of Slavic Studies’ Marshall Shulman Book Prize awarded for “an outstanding monograph on the international behaviour of the countries of the former Soviet bloc,” an unusual prize for a Hispanist to receive.

TP: Does the Civil War still matter for Spain?

SP: By the time of Franco’s death in 1975, a new generation of Spaniards had put the Civil War behind it. Leaders of the developed and modernized society left by Franco carried out a bloodless and peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, all national parties agreeing on complete amnesty for the past. At the same time, the history of the Civil War was researched and publicized at great length, leaving few stones unturned. There was general agreement not to employ the past in present political disputes. The Democratic Transition of 1975-79 was a remarkable civic achievement, imperfect like all human enterprises but nonetheless impressive.

In the twenty-first century, however, leftist parties in Spain have returned to their vomit, reverting to radical politics, adopting post-Marxist American-style doctrines that seek to control all culture and selectively demonize the past. Thus, the Civil War has been resurrected as a political banner and new legislation is pending to impose doctrinaire censorship and teaching content for historical discourse in Spain regarding the years 1931 to 1975. As has occurred on several earlier occasions in contemporary history, the Spanish left has adopted the most radical position on such matters to be found in any Western country.

TP: The man that emerged triumphant was Francisco Franco. Your own work on the Caudillo has been vast, to say the least. What is your view of Franco?

SP: Like all major historical figures, Franco was complicated, and he had a chameleon-like career. From the 1920s, however, he maintained three basic principles: a) loyalty to traditional Spanish Catholic culture; b) Spanish nationalism; c) preference for authoritarian government (with the exception of his relative loyalty to the Republican regime from 1931 to 1936). His dictatorship was quite liberal in its final years but Franco was never a liberal. Even in his final phase he believed that democratic government in the Western world was doomed.

TP: Has Franco been largely misunderstood or mis-characterized?

SP: Many historical figures have been demonized inaccurately, and to some extent that is true of Franco. He did not approve of the democratic Republic but did not join any of the military plots until the very last minute in July 1936, when the situation was sliding into chaos, if not worse.

Franco was a cold man and sometimes harsh, though the left somewhat exaggerates the character of his repression during and immediately after the Civil War. The revolutionaries had executed more than 50,000 people, while the rightist repression during the conflict had been equally brutal. Some months after first taking over, Franco ended summary executions but his regular military tribunals were quite punitive. The Francoist repression was no more deadly than that following other all-out revolutionary European civil wars, but that is a very low standard.

The three basic charges against Franco are accurate, namely, that a) he maintained a personal dictatorship for nearly four decades; b) politically, though never officially, he aligned himself with Hitler; and c) he presided over an extensive repression during and after the Civil War. You would not want all that on your conscience.

TP: In your book, Franco and Hitler. Spain, Germany, and World War II, you examine the balancing act that Franco undertook to thwart Hitler’s demands and Allied pressure. How did Franco manage to do that successfully?

SP: The first thing to understand is that Franco and most of his government definitely favored the Germans, convinced from 1940 to 1943 that theirs was the winning side, and this was added to gratitude for German help in the Civil War. A second thing to keep in mind is that the very early Franco regime had big ideas about expanding Spain’s role in the world, without thinking the matter through very seriously.

Franco was somewhat taken aback by the suddenness of the European war in 1939 and understood that at first Spain would have to be neutral. That changed with the fall of France in 1940, prompting great concern to profit from the German hegemony. Yet Spain was so weak after the Civil War that it would have required massive German military and economic assistance. Hitler literally could not afford that, and was particularly resistant to Franco’s insistence on taking over all Morocco, since that would have alienated Vichy France, at that point a German satellite. So Franco hesitated, demanding very favorable terms that were too steep to be met.

The point of inflexion came at the end of 1942, when it became clear that Germany might well not win the war. The Spanish regime had collaborated with the Reich in many policies but at that point began to draw off. Distancing was increased by the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, prompting the first limited “defascistization” of the Spanish regime the following month, a process that would slowly continue for many years. By the summer of 1944 Franco had to concede that Germany would almost inevitably lose, and began to draw nearer the Allies, who took a tougher line on Spain from May 1944. Franco was no genius here and made several basic mistakes, but avoided the direct plunge into war and successfully played off Spain’s unique geostrategic position, though the outcome for his regime was a near-run thing.

TP: Can we speak of a “Franco legacy?”

SP: Franco had three goals: to create a new, enduring political system; to revive neotraditional Spanish Catholic culture and to create a strong, prosperous, economically developed Spain. In the first enterprise he failed completely. The second succeeded for twenty-years, then began to fall apart. His legacy is the transformation of the Spanish economy, which largely took place under his rule. This fact greatly annoys the Spanish left, who continue to insist that this was a mere mirage, and that Spanish society failed to advance until after Franco died. This effort to extend Civil War propaganda nearly four centuries is contradicted by all the evidence

TP: You have also written about Basque nationalism. Could you tell us a little about nationalism in general, and then in the context of the Basque country?

SP: Nationalism has been the most dominant “political religion” of modern times, even more than socialism, but has taken many different forms. It is variably based on different combinations of history, ethnicity, political doctrine and language. Though it purports to be “natural,” it is a modern creation of varying combinations of these things. Whereas patriotism is often defensive and may be conservative, nationalism usually involves a project and is change-oriented. It was the dominant revolutionary force of the nineteenth century, and may be so again.

The three Basque provinces have formed part of the Spanish political system for more than a millennium, but Basque nationalism is a typically modern creation that was only invented at the close of the nineteenth century. It stemmed partly from the trauma of modernization in a conservative Catholic society with a strong sense of local identity, compounded by the dissolution of traditional structures.

The Basque provinces long enjoyed a series of provincial rights or fueros, but these had been greatly diminished. Their language consisted of a multiplicity of varying dialects which were disappearing, since most people spoke Spanish. Under the trauma of rapid modernization, regional identity or pride eventually morphed into a radical modern nationalism, partly in response to the general political crises of twentieth-century Spain.

Basque Catholicism began as traditionally ultra-Catholic, yet rapid secularization after 1960 encouraged rapid transformation. This produced an increasingly secular nationalism that took the form of a radical new messianism whose nationalist “martyrs” functioned as redemptive victims. Creation of a broadly autonomous Basque state within Spain did not satisfy but only exacerbated nationalism, which generated a massive wave of terrorism, though that has finally subsided. The latest success of nationalism has been politically to take over much of neighboring Navarre.

TP: Your book, A History of Spain and Portugal, is a comprehensive work of national history. Is there a characteristic relationship between these two countries that we must bear in mind?

SP: Portugal began as part of the kingdom of Leon-Castile, with parallel institutions, and these historical parallels have persisted, though with very distinct national personalities and cultures. Yet until recently, Portugal and Spain often excelled at avoiding and ignoring each other, despite proximity and similarities. Portugal is much smaller and much less complicated, and also less conflictive. It developed a very distinctive personality, yet, mutatis mutandis, the two countries have gone through parallel crises and developments throughout their histories.

TP: Does national history still matter?

SP: Yes, national history still matters, for countries nowadays continue to function primarily as national units, despite the European Union and contemporary globalization. Spanish historiography, for example, remains largely self-absorbed and strongly national, and that is true of most countries.

TP: Are there other projects that you are researching?

SP: Sixty-five years of major projects and book-writing did it for me. I no longer have the strength or energy for significant new projects.

TP: Any words of advice for younger scholars doing history today?

SP: The outlook is grim. Any young scholar interested in a career in history must undertake a sober assessment of the costs and stresses of trying to develop a professional life in the current environment of highly politicized institutions and an increasingly coercive culture. Employment prospects for the independent-minded scholar are meager. If I were young, I doubt that I would be able to get a job in most American universities nowadays.

TP: Professor Payne, thank you so much for the generosity of your time. It has been a great pleasure speaking with you.


The featured image shows, “The Muse Clio [the Muse of History],” by Pierre Mignard; painted in 1689.

Of Iran And Its Last Shah: A Conversation With Gholam Reza Afkhami

The last King of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, is commonly given a harsh verdict. But is this assessment fair, or even accurate? Through the kind and generous courtesy of Kayhan Life Magazine, we are so very pleased to present this interview with Gholam Reza Afkhami, who rectifies many of the assumptions about the late Shah. Mr. Afkhami is an academic, author and former Deputy Minister of Iran. He is currently a senior scholar and research director at the Foundation for Iranian Studies (FIS), a research institute in Washington, DC.

Mr. Afkhami served as Iran’s deputy interior minister in the mid-1970s, and Secretary General of Iran’s National Committee for World Literacy Program (1975–1979), a committee headed by Mohammad Reza Shah. After the Revolution in 1979, Mr. Afkhami moved to the U.S. and became a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute, from 1980 to 1983. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Life and Times of the Shah. He is here interviewed by Cyrus Kadivar, the London-based author, journalist and consultant.


Cyrus Kadivar (CK): As an insider, you had a unique opportunity to observe the Pahlavi dynasty’s daily workings. Eleven years ago, you published your epic biography of the Shah. How would you summarize the monarch’s personality compared to his father Reza Shah?

Gholam Reza Afkhami (GRA): I have learned most of what I know of the life and times of Mohammad Reza Shah by studying the history of Iran under the two Pahlavi kings and by communicating with those closely involved with their personal and political lives. The young Mohammad Reza acquired many of his father’s habits, though temperamentally he was his father’s opposite. Reza Shah was naturally aggressive. Mohammad Reza was shy and withdrawn, even when at the apogee of power. The father slept on the floor in an unadorned room. The son also lived in relative simplicity, though the difference in the circumstances of their respective birth and childhood made his surroundings more opulent. The father dressed invariably in a plain soldier’s uniform—no adornment, no medal, no pomp. The son was in full regalia when in military uniform. Normally, however, he wore civilian clothes. He was punctual, disciplined, and given to daily routines he almost religiously followed, even when on vacation. Like his father, he also walked around his office while receiving government officials and discussing state affairs.

CK: Mohammad Reza Shah married three times in his lifetime. Can you tell us about his relationships with each one of his queens?

GRA: His first wife, Fawzieh, an Egyptian princess, was chosen for him. She was beautiful, and he grew to like her, but Fawzieh remained cold and distant. With Soraya, his second wife, he truly fell in love, allowing her to dominate him in family matters. Much to the Shah’s chagrin, Soraya could not give him an heir, and refused to submit to an operation which might have enabled her to become pregnant. That refusal did not diminish the Shah’s affection, though it led to divorce, because the imperative of [producing] an heir to the throne trumped the Shah’s love.

The Shah’s third wife, Farah Diba, later Shahbanu Farah, was 21 years old when she married, almost the same age as the king’s other brides at the time of marriage. She was smarter, more energetic, more active, and considerably more interested in the affairs of the nation. More importantly, she bore the Shah a male heir in less than a year, which made her position secure, and the Shah’s relationship with her unique.

CK: What were some of the King’s personal hobbies?

GRA: The Shah was good at sports. He had learned skiing at Le Rosay [his Swiss boarding school] and, back in Tehran, never missed a chance to ski on the rare days that snow covered the rather primitive ski slopes of the Elahiyeh hills near Tehran and, in later years, of Shemshak and Gajereh on the slopes of the Alborz. He also skied in the Alps near his winter cottage in St. Moritz. He regularly played tennis, until it became difficult for him to continue because of his eyesight.

He was also an accomplished horseman, the kind who liked his horses sprightly and quick to the touch, requiring no encouragement to move. He enjoyed speed and courted danger beyond the boundaries of propriety for a king. His queens, though with him at different periods of his life, were equally afraid to be in the car when he drove, and they told him so. It was the same when he piloted a plane or a helicopter. He followed the rules, but also took risks, explaining that he was protected by the Almighty.

CK: Did the 1953 Crisis with Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh have an impact on the Shah’s psychology and his mode of governing after his dramatic restoration to the throne?

GRA: The Shah never forgot the effect of the first decade of his [reign.] Never again, he might have thought, as he flew back to Tehran from Rome. Never again would he be so poor and vulnerable as he was in Rome. Never again would he be the plaything of another man, as he had been of Mossadegh. Never again would he forget his father’s advice: any man worth asking for help in the arduous work of making a nation will seek your place if allowed. This was in 1953.

Twenty years later, by 1974, his country and the world had changed. He had solved the oil issue, his country was on the verge of having more income than it needed, the Iranian military had become one of the most powerful in the Middle East, significant economic and technological relations had been established between Iran and the rest of the world, and the Shah was satisfied that his country was making palpable progress. His problem now was of a different genre: he knew he was ill and had to prepare the country and his son for a future of which he could not be sure.

CK: The Pahlavi regime has been described by some historians and critics as having been politically repressive and socially progressive. Do you agree with that assessment?

GRA: Politically, the White Revolution, by increasing the mobility of the population, facilitated the political atomization of society, rendering a greater number of people accessible to the authority and command of central government. By focusing political attention on the Shah, it gradually eroded the authority of other central sources of power, leading toward a concentration of power in his hands. This suggested political power but not necessarily political repression. The regime, however, was socially progressive.

CK: Mohammed Reza Shah began his rule as a constitutional monarch. By the Seventies he was the King of oil and the supreme autocrat ruling over 34 million Iranians. He abolished the two-party system in favor of a single party, Rastakhiz, began to liberalize the political system, and in August 1978, after protests in the streets, he promised free elections. Did the Shah ever believe in democracy?

GRA: The Shah was deep down a democrat. Democracy, however, is first and foremost an expression of culture. He began to understand this during the first years of his reign, especially his experience with Mossadegh. His 1976 liberalization policy was likely a plan to prepare the ground for the Crown Prince to ascend the throne when he no longer would be able to continue.

CK: How would you describe Iranian society in the 1970s?

GRA: Iran under the Shah was an open society. The economic boom had made it possible for people from different walks of life to travel abroad by the hundreds of thousands each year, while foreigners came in by comparable numbers. Women were gradually achieving equality with men and increasingly participated in the kinds of work that had been traditionally reserved for men. All of this irked the traditional populations and puritans, but it was hardly an example of repression.

In the mid-1970s, Iran’s relations with the West were determined largely by Iran’s relations with the United States. By 1975, Iran had become a showcase of development among Third World countries, boasting one of the highest rates of economic growth, a superior record of social services, and a critical mass for takeoff in science and technology — making steady progress in fields ranging from women’s rights and environmental protection to intercultural and cross-cultural communication and literacy and life-long non-formal education. As a result of these and other changes, the country was a brain gainer in 1975, unprecedented for a Third World country at the time.

CK: And Jimmy Carter?

GRA: When in 1977 Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th president of the United States, the Shah was certain that he would survive him. Carter was ambivalent about the Shah, as reflected in his administration. When they first met on 15 November 1977 in Washington, the President found the Shah to be “a likable man—erect without being pompous, seemingly calm and self-assured, and surprisingly modest in demeanor.”

Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan later observed that “of all the people we had seen during that period — [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, [German Chancellor Helmut] Schmidt, [British Prime Minister James] Callaghan, [French President Valery] Giscard [d’Estaing], and scores of others—the Shah was easily the most impressive.” The Shah conducted “a tour d’horizon of the world,” Jordan continued, “describing with great accuracy the problems facing the West, the strategic importance of Iran, and the critical nature of US-Iran relations. He spoke for almost an hour without notes. It was more than a presentation—it was a performance.”

The Shah was pleasantly surprised to hear in mid-December that the President wished to spend New Year’s Eve 1977 in Tehran, in between trips to Poland and India. The most surprising event of Carter’s visit, however, was his toast at at the dinner the Shah gave in his honor at Sahebgharanieh Palace. Carter lavishly praised the Iranian monarch’s leadership and called his country ‘an Island of stability in one of the most troubled regions of the world.’

A few months later, the Shah began to suspect that the West was planning to unhinge his rule.

CK: Why did the king hide his illness from his people and most of his inner circle? Did his cancer impact his decision making and morale during the final months of his rule?

GRA: What would have happened if the Shah had disclosed his illness is a moot point. Chances are that nothing significantly different would have occurred from within the regime, but the opposition would have become more empowered learning that the Shah was incapacitated. The Shah, however, was not incapacitated, at least not as a result of his illness. Those who knew him intimately saw nothing debilitating in his mental or physical agility. His twin sister Ashraf believed he was in complete control.

His government and those he consulted with never suspected that he was ill. His generals saw some indecisiveness at the end but attributed it mostly to the pressures of the time. The two ambassadors who met him several times a week saw in him mood alterations, but nothing that would suggest illness. His friends who were with him almost daily during his moments of rest never thought he was ill.

“He was active; he did his exercises, and his demeanor was not changed,” said Professor Yahya Adl, an old friend going back to the times when he was still crown prince. Adl was a witness night after night to the Shah’s orders to his generals not to be violent enforcing martial law. He was not surprised, nor did he attribute it to the shah’s being ill or in any way not being himself. “He was always like this, since I have known him. He shunned violence, hoping some other way would be found to calm the situation.”

CK: Liberals, followers of Mossadegh, and leftwing opponents who supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the revolutionary movement later complained that their movement was ‘hijacked’ by Islamic fundamentalists. Do you agree with that view?

GRA: No. Neither of these groups was in a position to oppose Khomeini or successfully depose him after he had returned to Iran once the Shah had shown that he would not fight. Theirs was not a movement. It was at best a support for Khomeini’s movement.

CK: What were the Shah’s domestic challenges in the last years in power? Could he have done anything differently to save his throne?

GRA: In 1976 he opted for a new path. He experimented with decentralization of decision making, tried to rebuild the political structure through a movement called Rastakhiz that he hoped would evolve into a multi-party, democratic system. Had he had more time for civic organizing or been prepared to fight the far left and far right opposition, Iran and his son would have been the most precious legacy he would have left his people. He did not, and died a far better man, unwilling to succeed at the cost of his people’s life. Iranians lost a promising future. Less than three years later, he died in Egypt.

CK: Do you still regard the Iranian revolution as Thanatos on a National Scale, the title of one of your books?

GRA: In Greek mythology, Thanatos represents death. In his psychoanalytic interpretation of human life process, Sigmund Freud speaks of “the death instinct,” suggesting varieties of the urge toward self-destruction. In my representation of Thanatos, diverse groups of intelligent Iranians belonging to a spectrum of left to right, knowing little about Khomeini and what he stood for, abandoned reason and fact in favor of destroying a progressive system of government.

CK: Was the 1979 Iranian revolution inevitable? Could the Shah have done anything to forestall it? To what extent was he badly advised or contributed to his own downfall?

GRA: The Iranian revolution was not inevitable. It happened because it was made possible. It was made possible because the Shah’s military could but did not stop it. The military did not stop it because the military obeyed the Shah and the Shah would not allow it. The Shah did not allow it because, as always, he would not accede to causing his people’s death. And though he had a variety of advice, at the end, he himself became the cause of his own downfall.

CK: How would Iran have looked today if the Pahlavi monarchy had not fallen?

GRA: Clearly, Iran would be very different today had the Revolution not occurred. So would the rest of the Middle East. There would have been no Iran-Iraq war; Islamism would have been contained; untold number of Iranians, Iraqis and others would not have died, become maimed, or suffered displacement and exile; untold amounts of wealth, property, or infrastructure would not have been destroyed; clashes of civilizations likely would not have been invented, or if invented, believed [in] or implemented; the United States would not have been involved in war in the Persian Gulf; and, perhaps, globalization would have taken a slightly kinder hue. These, of course, are mere speculations. What has been and what might have been, however, can alert us to our past mistakes, present options, and future possibilities.


The featured image shows the official 1973 portrait of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Leadership As Service: A Conversation With Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

It is a great honor and delight to bring to our readers this wide-ranging conversation with Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, the well-known scholar, diplomat and business strategist. He is the author of many books, including, Practical Wisdom in Management, Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business, Common-Sense Business: Principles for Profitable Leadership, The Plot to Destroy Trump, Trump’s World, Davos, Aspen, & Yale: My Life Behind the Elite Curtain as a Global Sherpa. Dr. Malloch is interviewed by Nicholas Capaldi.


Nicholas Capaldi (NC): You once described yourself as a “recovering academic.” What did you mean by that?

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch (TRM): I meant, like a proverbial addict or drunk, I keep going back on the bottle no matter how I much I try to rid myself of the disease. Academic haughtier is like that. Having attained a Piled Higher and Deeper very early (nothing against earned degrees, per se), I was lured into believing in intellectual superiority and that the measure of a man’s value was the length of his erudite footnotes. My dissertation had forty pages of such. Know-it-all academics are too often pompous, arrogant, and full of themselves almost to a person. I know first-hand. Those who try to put on a humble façade are perhaps the worst of the lot.

NC: What helped you to recover?

TRM: Who said I had recovered? The plight is terminal. I have lapses. Like chronic cancer it is always with you. The best antidote is a dose of reality and repeated failure. For God’s sake, please keep academics out of real politics at all costs. As we know Marxists in particular, claimed over 100 million lives in the last century plus, and they have apparently not learned their lesson, quite yet. Such a great theory, we are told again and again, if only it could be tried. Well, it like all theories have generally been tried – and found wanting.

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch.

NC: What is Academics Anonymous?

TRM: Academics surely need a 12-step process to get off their benighted sauce. But alas there is no such cause or organization. It might be better if we either had more anonymous academics in the first place or just produced fewer of them. I no longer even believe everyone should attend college – a heresy, I know. I have written recently and convinced a US Senator to tax all foundations and universities and take that cache (roughly $8 billion a year) and sink it into a fund to apprentice young people – to learn useable trades.

NC: You have been involved in the world of business in several different ways: investment, strategy, executive education, have authored books on business and ethics, and have been director of international conferences/summits on topics, such as, entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance, etc. What have you learned from all of this?

Far more than I did sitting in a classroom. That is true even for the classes I myself taught. Book knowledge is fine; but only goes so far. To quote Augustine: “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”

Learning is a life-long process or journey and the minute it stops, you die. Terminal degrees are in fact terminal and breed a conceit and attitude that proves deadly to both the mind and the soul. Biting the fruit of the tree of knowledge lost us Eden. All things begin and cohere in and by the grace of the Creator and we should not forget this truth.

NC: Among your many hats, you have been a diplomat. How has this impacted your life?

TRM: Foggy Bottom, aka the State Department, The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the United Nations (Geneva) have given me real world experience and taken me to about 150 countries; some have merged, and others split. Much of it was negative power or lessons in the futility of nation-building. It certainly schooled me in the dangers of the administrative state and what has now come to be known as the “deep state.” My anti-globalism came as a direct result of my life in such places as described in grainy detail in my memoir, Davos, Aspen, and Yale. The statists and globalists fear me because I have been on the inside and know all their games and tricks.

NC: I understand you are persona non grata in the EU. Why is that?

TRM: That is, above all and beyond all the accolades, distinguished lectures, and honorary degrees I have received, my finest hour. I was made PNG by a vote of the European Parliament. Reason being, I was to be Trump’s ambassador to that august and feckless body – the very undemocratic European Union. It was a way of pissing on him while defaming me. You likely know I was on TV regularly in that period, backing Brexit and criticizing the EU. I said confidently on the BBC’s top evening show, “I had in an earlier diplomatic assignment been part of the team that brought down the Soviet Union and maybe there is another Union that needs a little taming.” I quickly became their nemesis and the papers famously called me, “The most feared man in Europe.” They said I was “malevolent.” My reply – they lacked a theory of good and evil, so how would they know?

NC: You have written on President Trump, and I believe you served him in several capacities. Given all the controversy about Trump, what do you make of his presidency?

TRM: Like all human affairs it was a mixed ordeal. My books praise him and his policies and give him high marks for attempting to “drain the swamp” and revive American Greatness. But he was not perfect by any means and made many bad personnel decisions. As an American Caesar he was a kind of Geo Deus as we called him, but he did not share well or distribute credit. As I said in my original endorsement in Forbes magazine, comparing him to Teddy Roosevelt and his economic nationalism of the last century, his twin faults were lack of humility and hubris. They could cost him dearly. Conservatives too can fall on these and other related vices.

NC: Was the 2020 US election fraudulent?

The best way perhaps to answer this question is to utilize the P.D. Woodhouse literary method of simile. Is Nirmal Dass Catholic? Is Nicholas Capaldi a masterful logician? Is Ted Malloch a WASP?

You get my drift. Not only was the election “fraudulent” in a thousand ways as demonstrated in detail by the journalist, Mollie Hemingway, in her definitive new book, Rigged, but the result has produced an illegitimate President, as I said in print and on air in November of 2020. Since then, unlike the mythical figure, Midas, everything Biden has touched has turned to stone. It is as if we are reaping the reward of our collectivist big lie. Our only hope is to restore electoral integrity.

NC: What is the future on conservatism?

TRM: With the fall of the institutions, including the all-important mediating structures, changing demography, and the dearth of spiritual backbone, I would have to say – less than auspicious. Perhaps, the worse things get, the more a remnant will rise to see again America’s exceptional role, the need for faith and the utter rootlessness and anomie of our current demise. There are a few signs of such renewal. My books are I believe, in retrospect, a commentary on the cycle of necessary virtue. Faithfully build wealth and prosperity – realize spiritual capital – save and invest using thrift as a guide – be generous – avoid the lure of always tempting vices – lead as an act of service – and renew the culture.

NC: What do you think is the future of the Republican Party? The next election? Indeed, of America?

TRM: Political parties historically come and go, and the present Republicans are mostly a sad bunch, with the RINO GOP establishment hardly distinguishable from their adversaries. The neo-cons are the cause of our ludicrous interventionism and failures abroad, and the paleos are stuck in the past and dying off at any rate. I think a more vibrant form of national conservatism with strong spiritual acumen and practice is the only and best route forward. We should win the US 2022 by-elections and retake the House and Senate, but we need all new leadership, not the same old drones and has-beens, to succeed. 2024 is far off and could be a replay; or instead witness the emergence of a new wave of younger, smarter patriotic conservative leaders. We know who they are and now need to place them in places where they can shine.

NC: Which writers have most influenced your thinking? Who are your mentors?

TRM: I grew up reading, at my father’s knee, the great books and the holy Bible. They are my legacy and formed my entire worldview. They are not replaceable and certainly not by tertiary and second-hand thinkers. I was fortunate in my education to have had many great teachers and mentors who shaped me and much of my thinking, for which I accept all the blame. At the pinnacle that included the brilliant neo-Calvinist, and himself the best student of the Dutch juridical scholar, Herman Dooyeweerd. That Burkean/Smithian tradition and systematic philosophy remains very much a part of who I am, what I believe, and how I think. They call it Anti-Revolutionary.

NC: Your friends know you to be a deeply religious person. What has been the role of faith in your life?

As Bill Buckley often reminded us, based on Voegelin, if he was honest, “You can’t immanentize the eschaton.” Too often, particularly in political life and its many ideologies, people have tried to bring heaven to earth. Since it can’t be done – a massive price has been paid; damage done in the name of some or other false idol.

My Scottish family coat of arms has as its inscription the Latin – “Ego in hoc natus sum, et ad hoc veni ut veritatem attesti.” I am and have been since birth a devout follower of the one Lord, our Jesus, the Christ, and follow the Westminster confession. I know my eternal resting place, which is most reassuring for my time and activity on this terrestrial ball.


The featured image shows, “Cincinnatus recevant les ambassadeurs de Rome [Cincinnatus receiving the ambassadors of Rome],” by Alexandre Cabanel; painted in 1843.

Nicholas Capaldi: Liberalism And The West

In this wide-ranging interview, Nicholas Capaldi, shares his ideas on liberalism and its many “fruits.” This is a riveting discussion of the current state of the world – and more importantly what can be done about it. Leading the discussion is Harrison Koehli.



The featured image shows, “Feestvierende boeren (Celebrating farmers),” by Adriaen Brouwer; painted ca. ca.1605-1638.