By Michael C. Williams
Early in September, a new institution of higher learning opened its doors in Europe. In itself, this is not usually a particularly noteworthy event. But this is no run-of-the-mill college, nor are its founders conventional academics. The school in question is the Institut de Sciences Sociales, Économiques, et Politiques (ISSEP), based in Lyon, France. Its founder is Marion Maréchal, the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of Front National, and the niece of Marine Le Pen, who now heads the Front’s successor party, the National Rally.
Although as yet a modest and non-accredited operation of about 60 students, the ISSEP has big ambitions. Amongst its supporters are Paul Gottfried, one of the most sophisticated political thinkers of the “old” American right, and co-inventor of the label “the alt-right,” and Raheem Kassan, the former UK editor of the Breitbart News operations. It is also reported that Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s former Chief Strategist and Breitbart News executive, has agreed to provide informal advice and support.
And the new school has already succeeded in hosting a series of prominent figures on the French Right, including (last month) Eric Zemmour, author of the controversial book The French Suicide.
What is one to make of this? The idea that universities are dominated by leftists and liberals who systematically exclude conservative perspectives and professors is, of course, a longstanding conservative complaint. But the ISSEP represents more than an attempt to redress this purported imbalance. It represents the opening of another front in the culture wars being waged by the far right as part of its attempt to alter the global political landscape. In fact, the strategy behind organizations such as the ISSEP paradoxically reflects the influence of one of the left’s most significant intellectual figures, Antonio Gramsci. It is one fruit of the decades-long attempt to build what historian Dominique Venner once called a “Gramscianism of the right.”
As Jean-François Drolet and I have recently argued, the conservative appropriation of Gramsci’s revolutionary legacy first took place during the 1970s. This involved a change of tactics within the French radical right, which until then had been guided by the “integral nationalism” of Action Française philosopher Charles Maurras. Whereas Maurras insisted on the importance of decisive and confrontational political engagement, however, many of the young people who founded the French “New Right” in the late 1960s were former activists who shared a deep awareness of the wide range of intellectual activities that must necessarily precede any form of political action.
Organized around the Groupe de recherche et d’études sur la civilisation européenne (GRECE), they abandoned the extra-parliamentary militancy of the far-right. Instead, they pursued a long-term strategy premised on the notion that all great political revolutions in European history were the actualization of an evolution that had already taken place in the realm of thought and culture. This is what Alain De Benoist, the key intellectual figure in the French New Right, often refers to as “metapolitics.”
Yet focusing on cultural and intellectual issues was never an end in itself for this movement. Its objective was also to build a foundation on which more conventional political initiatives and routes to influence might succeed. Seen in this light, ISSEP represents an attempt to take this strategy to the next level. The goal now is to deploy the intellectual and cultural resources of the New Right as a platform from which a new cadre can move beyond cultural metapolitics and begin to challenge directly for positions within the administrative structures of the state. As Maréchal states, “The role of the school is to raise up a new conservative elite, in business, culture, and politics. A patriotic elite that knows its own culture, history, and civilization, and that believes that the framework of the nation is important still.”
Viewed in light of the wider “Gramscian” strategy of the far right, initiatives such as the ISSEP may ultimately be as significant as the electoral success or failure of the National Rally, or the popularity of Ms. Maréchal’s aunt. Small and relatively obscure at the moment, the Institut is one of a series of similar initiatives, including a “Milan-based political training institute run by Armando Siri, the right-hand man of Italy’s deputy premier, Matteo Salvini, and a project in a medieval monastery outside Rome, run by Benjamin Harnwell, a former British lawmaker and a Catholic ideologue.”
Gramsci would have readily recognized these initiatives as part of a wider “war of position” seeking to change the dominant forces and ideological hegemony in and across societies.
Michael C. Williams is Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His research interests are in International Relations theory, security studies, and political thought. His most recent book (with Rita Abrahamsen) is Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011).