The epigraph of Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints is a quote from the British expatriate novelist and travel writer Lawrence Durrell: “My spirit turns more and more toward the West, toward the old heritage. There are, perhaps, some treasures to retrieve among its ruins … I don’t know.”
Raspail, a lifelong anti-immigration activist, was never assured of the white West’s innate virtue. It was “civilized,” yes, but the true judge of a civilization’s right to exist was whether it could defend itself. In our obsession with “rights” and “international law,” we’d lost sight of the world’s real moral logic: kill or be killed. In doing so, we’d consigned ourselves to the latter fate—to be killed—and worse, we would deserve it.
This is the logic of The Camp of the Saints, published fifty years ago in France. Its central plotline concerns a fleet of hundreds of ships, packed with thousands of migrants, en route to France from the shores of an overpopulating India. Conditions aboard are desperate. Children publicly fornicate, while the man leading the armada, referred to only as “the turd eater,” consumes his own feces. (Raspail’s fixation with feces pervades the novel; the boats’ very fuel is human excrement.) Yet liberal journalists, who believed the migrants to be on a “mission to cleanse and redeem the capitalist West,” insist upon the necessity of welcoming the hordes into Europe. The terrified masses of southern France fled to the North, while government officials shouted down the lonely dissidents who dare call the fleet what it is: an invading force.
Yet The Camp of the Saints, for all its lengthy, gratuitous depictions of the migrants’ crudeness and repellant hygiene, is a novel concerned equally with Western impotence as with Eastern barbarity. It is a reactionary diatribe against the very tenets of postwar liberalism: human rights, international law, and liberal universalism. As Nathan Pinkoski favorably noted in a defense of the novel for the Catholic integralist journal First Things, “Raspail wishes to hold a mirror up to our own society: He is concerned with ‘us,’ not ‘them.’”
For decades, the book has been a foundational text of the Far Right’s “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Yet its influence extends beyond the seediest extremes; in fact, The Camp of the Saints gave “sensible” conservatives—including Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr., and Silvio Berlusconi—ideological cover under which to unite both strands of their movement once and for all. Fear of “white genocide”—and the brutal, racist measures needed to stop it, measures premised upon rejecting the postwar, liberal notions of universal human rights and dignity—entered the range of acceptable political disagreement.
Consider what the book offered to even these “sensible” readers: as the flotilla rounds the Cape of Good Hope, the South African apartheid regime floats out barges of food and supplies. The migrants refuse; the press is thrilled, believing it to be a political statement against apartheid. Convinced the migrants will accept supplies from “more virtuous nations,” Western governments, churches, rock stars, and charities organize another supply mission. No dice: the migrants again refuse the supplies and, further, strangle the mission’s crew. The liberal press attempts to contain coverage of the murder. After the fleet crosses the Strait of Gibraltar, the French president finally wakes up to the threat. But it is too late. Midway through addressing the nation with his plans to repel the invaders (of which he has none), he breaks down, calling upon the troops to massacre the migrants. “Cowardice toward the weak,” he insists, “is cowardice at its most subtle, and, indeed, its most deadly.” Most soldiers, unwilling to commit the atrocities needed to defend their way of life, immediately desert their positions. (One, here, is reminded of Nietzsche’s insistence upon morality as cowardice.)
Worse than the book’s plot, perhaps, is that it is finding new audiences today. As the ideas espoused by The Camp of the Saints grow more accepted in polite political conversation, so too does the Right feel more emboldened to publicly pay it homage. In 2015, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Far Right National Rally, tweeted: “Today, it’s a migrant submersion. I invite the French to read, or re-read, The Camp of the Saints.” In a series of leaked emails, Trump administration senior advisor Stephen Miller suggested to a Breitbart editor that “someone should point out the parallels [of the European migrant crisis] to Camp of the Saints.”
Unfortunately, we are still living in Raspail’s shadow.
At first, the publication of Camp of the Saints must have seemed a surprising throwback to an earlier era. After Pearl Harbor, America was swept up in a certain wartime anti-fascist fervor. The antisemites, cranks, and Nazi sympathizers—Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, the America First Committee types—seemingly vanished overnight. Even the Southern Democrats, whose ideology might have meshed with the Nazis’, embraced the war effort. And in the years following World War II, America demonstrated an instinctive revulsion toward anything that stank of European-style fascism.
Yet sometime beginning in the late sixties, stateside and overseas, the anti-fascist immune-response faltered. Internationally, the center right welcomed their long-lost Far Right brothers in from the cold. Though segregation had fallen, the Southern Strategy materialized. Conservatives stopped (publicly) saying the n-word, and started talking about “superpredators” and “inner cities.” Europe’s ever-more-competitive fascist parties began their long march into the political mainstream. This was the political climate in which Raspail penned The Camp of the Saints.
Raspail’s great innovation was divorcing white supremacy from antisemitism: In The Camp of the Saints, the enemy of the white race shifted from the conniving Jew to the sniveling liberal. The white genocide comes about spontaneously, almost by accident: Liberal intelligentsia—too tragically stupid to see the fault in their own ways—only recognize the threat until long after it is too late. There are no elaborate conspiracies, no Protocols, and no Mephistophelian Jews. In retreating from antisemitism, Raspail created a white supremacy which could be integrated into postwar “sensible” conservatism. Indeed, beneath the hysterics about imminent “genocide by replacement” lay the same old enemies: journalists, sentimental humanitarians, and squeamish do-good liberals.
Mainstream conservatives found much of themselves in The Camp of the Saints, and, therefore, much to praise. French intellectuals and journalists received the novel overwhelmingly positively, praising it as “prophetic” in the pages of Le Figaro and Le Journal du Dimanche. France-Soir described it as “a brilliant landscape of apocalypse, without doubt the strongest book of the season.”
And, upon its translation into English in 1975, the American center right intelligentsia received The Camp of the Saints similarly positively. Jeffrey Hart, at the time an English professor at Dartmouth, described it as “simple and brilliant” in the National Review.1 (Five years later, a handful of campus conservatives, including Dinesh D’Souza, would meet in Hart’s living room to found the massively influential Dartmouth Review.) Harvard academic and New York Post columnist Max Lerner wrote of its “irresistible pace of skill and narrative.” Anticommunist intellectual and philosopher Sidney Hook declared it a “macabre and gripping tale.” French-American literary scholar Germaine Brée proclaimed The Camp of the Saints to be “the Brave New World of the 70’s.”
Raspail-mania went all the way up to the Oval Office: in the early ’80s, Count Alexandre de Marenches, former director of the French external intelligence services and a then–special advisor to Ronald Reagan, slipped his boss a copy. A few weeks later, President Reagan met the count again. “I read the book you gave me,” he’s reported to have said. “It impressed me terribly.”
And so, 30-some long years since the fall of the Third Reich, the notion of an imminent white genocide became once again salonfähig, acceptable for discussion in the halls of power and the opinion pages of “reputable” newspapers.
It was those same conservative intellectuals who, 50 years ago, joined in chorus to praise one of the most plainly repulsive novels of the 20th century
Nostalgic liberals fondly remember National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.’s efforts to define the boundaries of conservatism and exclude the likes of the Far Right John Birch Society from mainstream conservative life. Yet, in 2004, Buckley praised The Camp of the Saints as a “great novel” that raised important questions about how the West ought to respond to mass immigration. Buckley, along with the entire “responsible” right, evidently always found white supremacy interesting; he’d just been forced, along with his entire circle of conservative intellectuals, into performative disdain because of its political radioactivity.
The Camp of the Saints found fertile ground among a conservative intelligentsia eager for cover under which they could bring the likes of the Birchers into the fold. The disagreement was always strategic, never principled.
Likewise, the fascist association had always been an obstacle for neofascists and their mainstream collaborators alike. If only for the sake of optics, the Christian Democratic right was never particularly comfortable sharing power with the types who did stiff-arm salutes. In the late 1940s, for example, the Italian Christian Democrats discreetly and reluctantly accepted backing from the fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in order to keep the Communist Party out of Rome’s city council.2 In March 1960, the Christian Democratic minority Tambroni cabinet again accepted backing from the MSI—only to collapse in scandal four months later, following immense antifascist political pressure.
To those fascists who wished to see their parties become parties of government, a coherent party line—whereby the fascist right could shed its worst associations—no doubt came as a godsend.
In the coming years, leading fascists across Europe denounced antisemitism: As Raspail demonstrated, it was simply no longer needed. Lifelong fascists traded their military uniforms for suits, declaring that “fascism is history” while continuing to believe the same old things. The party line became not that the atrocities of fascism were bad, but simply irrelevant. In 1994, Silvio Berlusconi took the oath of office flanked by a cabinet that included five members of the neofascist National Alliance. “Fascism finished in 1945, and history marches on,” said Gianfranco Fini—a lifelong fascist and the leader of the National Alliance—that day.
The new fascists disowned antisemitism, and later even “fascism” itself, and, in the eyes of the conservative elite—Silvio Berlusconi not least among them—became acceptable colleagues. Having shaken their most frightening associations, neofascist parties entered the range of acceptable disagreement, and, in due time, became parties of government. (The transition was far from painless; In 2002, Fini found the need to beg his rank and file to stop doing the Hitler salute.)
Eight years after his party joined the first Berlusconi coalition, Fini sat for an interview with Ha’aretz. “As an Italian I must accept the responsibility in the name of the Italians,” Fini declared. “Italians bear responsibility for what happened after 1938, when the race laws were promulgated. They have … a responsibility now to take a position and ask forgiveness.” Commentators were quick to recall that, just a decade prior, Fini gave a newspaper review describing Mussolini as the greatest statesman of the last century.
The next year, Fini—who had, by then, secured his place among Europe’s most vociferous Zionists—began a state visit to Israel. “I know of the criticism aimed at him, but I think it’s a good thing he’s coming to Israel,” then–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, himself a center right figure, told the Corriere della Sera. “It is time to look to the future, not to the past.” The plan to integrate fascism into respectable, liberal-democratic politics couldn’t have gone better.
“There is an outstanding 1973 book on this issue,” Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, declared in July 2022 before launching into an anti-immigration tirade. “It is called The Camp of the Saints, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the spiritual developments underlying the West’s inability to defend itself.”
Great replacement theory is now policy in Italy, Hungary, and Poland, while also taking on steam in Germany, Sweden, and the United States. When Italy’s ruling Far Right coalition elected Ignazio la Russa—who began his political career as a member of the fascist MSI—to the presidency of the senate, the right wing daily newspaper Libero hailed “the definite legitimization not only of a party, but of an entire world,” and the emergence of Far Right politics from a 30-year long “political ghetto.” In the 50 years since its publication, great replacement has become an inalienable component of the Far Right—and even “respectable” right—playbook.
A crowd of about 1,000 assembled for the funeral of Jean Raspail, who succumbed to Covid mid-pandemic at age 94. Among them were many figures of the far and mainstream right: Marion Maréchal, a former French National Assembly member and granddaughter of Marine Le Pen; Philippe de Villiers, a former secretary of state under François Mitterrand; former National Rally MEP Bruno Gollnisch; the conservative commentators Gabrielle Cluzel and Ivan Rioufol; and Jean, Count of Paris, an outspoken monarchist. Marine Le Pen tweeted her respects: “This is a huge loss for the national family. We must (re) read The Camp of the Saints.” Bruno Retailleau, senate leader of the more moderate Republican Party, and many more supposed moderates, followed Le Pen in tweeting tribute.
Belief in a gentler, politer, and not-so-distant Age of Civility among conservatives is among the most touchingly pathetic pieties of liberal America. After all, William F. Buckley politely sparred with James Baldwin! His circle of tweedy National Review intellectuals had the sense to cut off the movement’s fringe!
By this logic, the spasms of the Trump era are aberrations from an otherwise noble, principled tradition. Yet Trump did not “take over” the Republican Party; he was let in. After all, it was that same Bill Buckley—and those same conservative intellectuals—who, 50 years ago, joined in chorus to praise one of the most plainly repulsive novels of the 20th century.