Much has been written about Alexander Dugin, the Russian firebrand often called “Putin’s Brain” by both his defenders and his critics. Dugin was born into a well-off Soviet family in 1962, and spent much of his youth rebelling against communism, flirting with everything from Satanism to fascism. Despite this, he greeted the end of the Cold War with ambivalence. Witnessing the humiliation of Russia by the United States left him with a deep resentment that pervades all his work. It’s the resentment of one who considers himself a superior man held back by decadent forces that somehow manage to eke out victory after victory. After a short career as an influential member of the National Bolshevik Party, Dugin published Foundations of Geopolitics in 1997, the first of many polemics against America, Atlanticism, liberalism, and, worst of all, McDonald’s. Since then, he has become an icon of the far Right in Russia and across the globe. His manifesto The Fourth Political Theory—a schizoid mix of Heideggerian-Deleuzian ontology, postmodern relativism, anti-liberal fist-pounding, and megalomaniacal geopolitics—has become the unofficial handbook of postmodern reaction. As chronicled by Benjamin Teitelbaum, Steve Bannon even made a special pilgrimage to pay homage to the master—despite the fact that Dugin has often described the United States as the cutting edge of “global idiocy.”
Michael Millerman, the author of Inside “Putin’s Brain”: The Political Philosophy of Alexander Dugin, has the dubious honor of having done more to popularize Dugin’s ideas among English speakers than anyone else. Millerman received his PhD in political science at the University of Toronto, writing a controversial thesis that was later turned into the monograph Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political, published by the far-right Arktos Media. In my review of that book for Merion West, I criticized Millerman for defending Heidegger and Dugin without drawing attention to their glaring moral and political failings. Millerman’s latest book repeats this error, treating Duginism with an alarming lack of critical scrutiny. Unfortunately, there is a growing demand for books that popularize modes of far-right and fascistic thinking that were supposed to have been buried after Auschwitz, but Inside “Putin’s Brain” stands out: it is one of the more ambitious whitewashing efforts I’ve ever read.
Millerman insists on treating Dugin as a “political philosopher,” where the “relevant points of reference are people like Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.” And not just any political philosopher, but one who describes himself as a “mythical Merlin” figure engaged in “supra-human contemplation” and who is at the same time the founder of an empire. Dugin’s grandiose aspirations are a touchy subject for Millerman, who insists that it is “all too easy for unimaginative, hollowed out professors of philosophy and political science to scoff at such an image. But the fact is that the philosopher-founder is a well attested topic in political philosophy.” What the “professors” are in fact scoffing at is the suggestions that Dugin belongs in such auspicious company. Indeed, it is too flattering to compare Dugin even with other far-right icons such as Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger; he’s clearly a minor-league intellectual figure, somewhere between Julius Evola and Olavo de Carvalho.
Still, it is fair to call Dugin a political philosopher if all one means by that is someone professionally engaged in the discipline regardless of the plausibility or attractiveness of his work. The title is not necessarily an honorable one. One can be a maniac and a political philosopher simultaneously, as Dugin demonstrates. At various points in his book, Millerman describes philosophy as an “auspicious activity.” At the conclusion of Inside “Putin’s Brain” he excuses his lack of engagement with the practical implications of Duginism, including Dugin’s support for the war in Ukraine, on the strange grounds that “nothing [Dugin] could say about oil prices” would be as important as his commitment to the “big questions and giving them their due.” In short, discussing the real-world implications of Dugin’s ideas would besmirch his dignity as a philosopher.
But Millerman is wrong. Any honest philosopher would readily acknowledge that a huge part of assessing a political philosophy is examining its practical implications. The chief topic of Plato’s Republic is only secondarily the metaphysical doctrine of the forms; justice takes priority, including questions about the responsibility of philosophers in and to the city. Emphasizing justice isn’t, as Millerman implies in Beginning with Heidegger, some excuse to constrain far-right thinking in the name of liberal prudence. Pre-Socratic thought may have begun in wonder and metaphysics, but philosophy only grasped what Paul Tillich would call its “highest concern” when Socrates began to contemplate questions of justice and goodness. One cannot simply bypass ethics on the way to metaphysics, or construct a metaphysical political philosophy that has nothing to say about what should be the first concern of any political community: justice. This is especially true when your metaphysical speculations are as fantastical as Dugin’s are.
Unsurprisingly, Millerman doesn’t want to scrutinize the practical or moral implications of Dugin’s philosophy too closely. One finds very few references to the wars of aggression that Dugin has defended—wars that have brought about immeasurable human suffering. Millerman does acknowledge that the war in Ukraine has led to a growing number of commentaries on Dugin, many of which are, in his judgment, the “hysterical ravings of overzealous liberal lunatics.” Millerman thinks that Dugin’s Western critics lack imagination; they focus on little things like war crimes and lose sight of the really important issues, such as Dugin’s theoretical dalliances with postmodern French theory.