The Alt-Right Apocalypse

Blake Smith in Hindu Eschatology and the Reactionary Mind

The election of Trump heralds a “Dark Age” of ignorance and violence, warn standard-bearers of centrist liberal opinion like The New Republic and The Atlantic. The far right is inclined to agree. A range of groups whose members increasingly think of each other as part of a common ‘alt-right’, from neo-Nazis to more subtle advocates of white identity, like Richard Spencer, see our current era as a time of degeneracy and decay, fated to destruction. Some voices on the alt-right, such as the hosts of the, notorious for its podcast The Daily Shoah, initially saw Trump as a leader who would halt America’s demographic transition toward a non-white majority. But even before what have been seen as the disappointments of his first months in office (strikes on Syria, little progress towards a wall on the Mexican border, the presence of Jews in his cabinet), others insisted that a Trump presidency would do nothing to change the fact that, as the pseudonymous Lawrence Murray phrased it for “we do in fact live in a dark age. The Dark Age even. Capital letters, fam. Kali Yuga.”

The Puranas, canonical texts of South Asian religious traditions, describe the Kali Yuga as the final stage of a four-fold cycle by which the universe is continually created, destroyed, and born anew. The era of wickedness, the age of the unlucky throw of the dice, the Kali Yuga is a time of moral perversion in which knowledge of true religion is almost forgotten. But when iniquity reaches its height, the savior-destroyer Kalki, final avatar of the god Vishnu, will return riding a white horse, flaming sword in hand, to return the universe to its original purity. The image recalls the Book of Revelation’s image of Christ, likewise on a white horse, bearing a sword and dealing wrath. But the similarities are only image-deep. The Christian Apocalypse is a singular crisis, while the Kali Yuga is one stage in an endlessly repeated cycle: there will be, and have been, an infinite number of dark ages. And we are living in one now. According to most traditional Hindu religious scholars, the current Kali Yuga has been going on for centuries, indeed millennia. The end of the world is not a future to be awaited in hope or fear; it is our own moment.

The alt-right is making the Kali Yuga its own. Prominent alt-right websites feature essays citing South Asian religious texts and warning that Aryan prophets foretold the moral dysfunction and coming destruction of the modern world. On Twitter, Tumblr and other social media outlets, semi-ironic memes calling on readers to “Surf the Kali Yuga” circulate, sometimes embedded with Nazi imagery. Discussions of the Kali Yuga are part of the alt-right’s larger strategy of appropriating exotic, esoteric and often deliberately wacky vocabulary and iconography from other discourses. It has been effective. By regularly denouncing such alt-right symbols as Pepe the cartoon frog, groups like the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center risk coming across as peevish, paranoid, or simply confused to those who are either unaware of these images or familiar with them from other, non-political contexts.

But the Kali Yuga is more than a new addition to the alt-right’s arsenal of “meme magic.” Since the early twentieth-century, far-right thinkers have been adopting South Asian eschatologies for their own political ends. Figures who sympathized with fascism and regretted its defeat in the Second World War, like the Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1989-1974) and the Franco-Greek convert to Hinduism Savitri Devi (1905-1982), promoted the idea that the contemporary West is undergoing a final collapse that will end with a purifying ordeal and the emergence of a heroic new order. Contemptuous of Christianity, which, like Friedrich Nietzsche they saw as a Semitic religion that promoted weakness, Evola and Devi were fascinated by the polytheistic traditions of South Asia. They drew on Hindu sacred texts to construct a vision of the world in which the current Kali Yuga, the dark age of hedonism and materialism, was soon to be destroyed by Kalki.

The Kali Yuga came to the awareness of Europe and North America, however, not through the apocalyptic fantasies of the far right, but through the eclectic occultism of the Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky. An entrepreneur of the occult, Blavatsky fused Western esoteric traditions derived from Plato with South Asian spirituality. The founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, she became one of the first widely-read Western writers to discuss the Kali Yuga, foretelling a new age of enlightenment and peace. Blavatsky’s influence was as eclectic as the sources of her philosophy. Her cosmopolitan outlook inspired radicals like Annie Besant, who, after becoming president of the Theosophical Society in 1907, devoted its resources to Indian independence. But by entwining South Asian and European traditions, Blavatsky also seemed to support the emerging idea that behind the historical parallels between societies across Eurasia was a far-ranging “Aryan race.” Occultist groups searching to recover a lost Aryan spirituality in Europe and South Asia sprung up across early twentieth-century Europe; their presence among the leadership of the Nazi Party is notorious, if often exaggerated. Today’s alt-right flirts with ideas derived from the Third Reich’s Ahnenerbe, the Nazi organization that searched the world for traces of Aryan greatness. But in its discussions of the Kali Yuga, the alt-right is indebted less to the Third Reich than to Evola and Devi, a pair of thinkers who watched Hitler’s empire collapse, and who turned for comfort to Hindu visions of the end of the world.

Julius Evola introduced the Kali Yuga to far right politics. Author of works on Yoga and a correspondent with the great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, Evola was also a qualified supporter of Italian Fascism; he found Mussolini, and indeed Hitler, to be insufficiently reactionary. In Evola’s eyes, the leading tendencies of Western modernity corroded the moral and spiritual traditions that make life in society possible. Liberal democracy, the market economy, and socialist parties all appeal to individuals’ vulgar desires for material comfort and equality. He preached a return to hierarchy, in which people would subordinate themselves to a spiritually awakened aristocracy. The Italian Fascists and German Nazis alike, he despaired, focused their rhetoric on populist appeals to the everyman, and much of their policy on providing work, housing, and leisure for middle-class families. They were, no less than the democracies, essentially bourgeois regimes. Well before the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, Evola became convinced that far-right movements could succeed only through spiritual rather than political methods, and he began to see Hindu traditions as a resource in the struggle for Europe’s soul.

Evola outlined this vision in Revolt Against the Modern World: Politics, Religion and Social Order in the Kali Yuga, first published in 1934, and revised, with a still more pessimistic perspective, in 1969. Citing Sanskrit texts such as the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu, written between 200 BCE and 200 CE), Evola argued that pre-modern Europe, before the decadence of liberalism had sent in, was an example of an Aryan caste society governed by worthy aristocrats. In the modern era, the lower castes of merchants and workers had risen up to overthrow this sacred order with demands for political rights and material welfare. Evola predicted that America and the Soviet Union, each representing in different ways the liberation of the lower castes, would destroy Europe and each other in a nuclear holocaust that would end the current “cycle” of history. He suggested that a spiritual elite might survive this global conflagration, and that, indeed, it might be in their interest to accelerate it. Revolt Against the Modern World ends with a lengthy quotation from the Vishnu Purana which describes, as Evola glosses the text, how a handful of righteous men will remake the world after Kalki brings a “new and final epiphany.”

The importance of Evola’s ideas to the emergence of the alt-right is difficult to overstate. Mainstream media outlets have begun to pick up on his influence, not least on Steve Bannon, an advisor to Trump linked to alt-right media. But journalists have often been more invested in pointing to the radicalness of Evola’s ideas, or to the imagined contradictions of alt-right support for a philosopher who despised Christianity, than they have been with making sense of Evola’s appeal. Evola was a widely-read thinker with a broad outlook on history and religion, and he frankly discussed the shortcomings of fascist regimes. Rejecting the Third Reich’s supposedly scientific racism, Evola gave little importance to genetics or pseudo-Darwinian ideas about race. He argued that a feeling of racial or national belonging was something to be created and maintained through myths rather than an expression of objective relationships among people. Skeptical of economic or political solutions to Europe’s decline, he considered that the primary struggle was in the realm of culture and identity. He saw historical traditions as a resource from which images and stories could be drawn to provide a new sense of purpose for a messianic vanguard. His ideas are at home in a post-modern alt-right that avoids straightforward identification with Third Reich and seeks to shape dominant narratives rather than openly pursue political power.

Evola’s hope for the appearance of Kalki in the form of nuclear war seems almost genteel alongside the prophecies of Savitri Devi, who abandoned her career as a scholar of mathematics in France to take up residence in India as a student of Hinduism. A sympathizer both of Indian independence and of the Nazi regime, Devi took the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945 as a shock. She began to preach that Hitler had been an avatar of Vishnu, and that he would return in the form of Kalki to finish his divine mission of cleansing the earth of Jews. In books such as The Lightning and the Sun (1958) Devi insisted that, quite literally, Hitler was a god and Jews the embodiment of evil. Her ideas were long relegated to the furthest fringes of the far right, with Devi living out her final years in a dingy, cat-filled apartment on the outskirts of Delhi. But shortly before her death in 1982, there were signs of a revival. The crypto-fascist esoteric novelist Miguel Serrano derived a theory of ‘Esoteric Hitlerism’ from Devi’s prophecies (which he interpreted metaphorically). American white supremacists like William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries (1978), a novel depicting an apocalyptic race war in which white Americans massacre everyone else, admired her vision. Today, her prophecies that Hitler will end the Kali Yuga can be found on alt-right websites from Counter-Currents to the Daily Stormer.

Neither Serrano and Pierce, nor most members of the contemporary alt-right, believe what Devi preached. Nor are they all committed to some form of apocalypse in which America’s evolution as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country is abruptly reversed by a “Day of the Rope,” as The Turner Diaries phrased it. The Kali Yuga functions in alt-right discourse as a catch-all for what alt-righters see as the degeneracy of the twenty-first century: promiscuity, miscegenation, and, above all, the erosion of white identity and white power in a changing America. It both justifies a pessimistic attitude toward current events (do not hope for too much from Trump, we are, after all, still in the Kali Yuga) while also holding out the possibility of a sudden transformation. It has distinct advantages over other kinds of apocalypses. By using a concept from South Asian traditions, alt-righters, often divided among various kinds of right-wing Christians and neo-pagans or atheists, can give a spiritual aura to their movement while avoiding the controversies that would ensue from committing to a Christian eschatological framework.

Appeals to the Kali Yuga, however strategic or ironic, do more than play with an exotic signifier. They anchor the alt-right in a historical movement that extends beyond the Third Reich, whose collapse remains a troubling explanandum for neo-Nazi movements. They link the alt-right to mystics and philosophers, rather than a particular regime or policy, and connect it, beyond Evola and Devi, to the ancient religions of South Asia. Citing the Manusmriti or the Puranas suggests that by attacking “degeneracy,” the alt-right speaks for a millennia-old moral consensus shared by many societies and only recently perverted in our own. This logic also underwrites recent, tongue-in-cheek proposals on the alt-right to adopt “white sharia,” a return to patriarchal order inspired by Islamic law. The alt-right can thus appear, as figures like Richard Spencer insist it to be, not an exceptional eruption of white racial animus, but as a normal expression of an impulse for collective self-preservation against the destabilizing forces of modernity. Sincere or not, the Hindu-inflected apocalyptism of the alt-right should be taken seriously. So should the movement’s religious dimensions: behind the sardonic facade of “meme magic” is a spiritual longing and, for some, a violent messianism.

Blake Smith is the Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute. He holds a PhD in European History from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. His research on European Orientalism has been published in journals such as the History of European Ideas, French Cultural History, and the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient.