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The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange

In response to:

Republicans for Revolution from the January 12, 2012 issue

letters_1-022312.jpg
Mark Peterson/Redux
Tea Party supporters at the Washington Monument, April 15, 2010

To the Editors:

Mark Lilla [“Republicans for Revolution,” NYR, January 12] makes three claims against my book The Reactionary Mind: it fails to take seriously the statements of “conservative intellectuals who lay out benign-sounding political principles”; it’s simplistic, situating the opposition between left and right in a “not overly complex” history of oppressor versus oppressed; it elides changes and cleavages on the right. It’s difficult to find my argument amid these claims, so let me restate it here.

My book argues that conservatism is a reaction against movements of the left—from the French Revolution to feminism. While this is a revisionist claim, it required no elaborate digging on my part to make it. I simply looked at what conservatives have said about themselves. Robert Peel, who practically invented Britain’s Conservative Party, defined its aim as opposition “to the restless spirit of revolutionary change.” Russell Kirk, one of the intellectual architects of the American conservative movement, described conservatism as a “system of ideas” that “has sustained men…in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation.” George Nash, court historian of that movement, identified conservatism as “resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary.” All this, and more, I cite in my book.

Lilla is correct that I believe conservatives oppose these movements because they threaten public and private hierarchies of power. Again, I provide ample evidence for this. But he seriously distorts my position when he says that I depict conservatives as “black-hatted villains” whose ultimate vision is “simply a defense of privilege.” As I write in the introduction:

No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges…the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. When [Edmund] Burke adds…that the “great Object” of the Revolution is “to root out that thing called an Aristocrat or Nobleman and Gentleman,” he is not simply referring to the power of the nobility; he is also referring to the distinction that power brings to the world. If the power goes, the distinction goes with it.

Conservatism is a moral vision in which excellence depends upon hierarchy. Inequality is the means, not the end—that is a belief, I show, shared by everyone from Burke to Ayn Rand, the slaveholders to Ludwig von Mises.

Lilla claims that I gather the oppressed “into a single heroic image of suffering and resistance” over and against which stand the oppressors. My book explicitly argues against any such romance of the oppressed. Citing everyone from John Adams (“common beggars in the streets…plume themselves on that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others”) to Phyllis Schlafly, I show that the lower orders often join, and have good reason to join, the conservative cause: in fending off a democratic movement from below, conservatism gives them a taste of lordly power they otherwise would not enjoy.

Race, as John C. Calhoun discovered, turns all whites into a ruling class:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class.

In the family and the factory, fathers and foremen get to play the part of a lord. Conservatives also court those talents that can be demonstrated on the battlefield and the barricades. That’s one of the reasons it attracts outsiders, from the Irish-born Burke to the immigrant neoconservative. Far from hiving off oppressor from oppressed, I argue that the right succeeds by turning paupers into princes and beggars into Bonapartes.

Lilla finally claims that I ignore differences on the right. “La destra è mobile,” he writes. “The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again.” I agree, which is why I wrote on page 36:

Some conservatives criticize the free market, others defend it; some oppose the state, others embrace it; some believe in God, others are atheists. Some are localists, others nationalists, and still others internationalists. Some, like Burke, are all three at the same time. But these are historical improvisations—tactical and substantive—on a theme.

The fact that conservatism is reactionary doesn’t mean it is always the same. To the contrary, it changes across time and space, in response to the movements it opposes. That’s why there are eleven chapters following my introductory essay (upon which Lilla focuses nearly all of his attention).

Given the flimsiness of Lilla’s charges, his real beef seems to be that he does not like seeing today’s Republican seated next to yesterday’s Burke. But one can only keep them apart by pretending that Burke didn’t say much of what he said. If Burke simply believed, as Lilla writes, that society is an inheritance “best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action,” he would never have confessed that “our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut” or worried that the traditional features of a constitution “are the very things that make its weakness.” If he were unambiguously “hostile,” in Lilla’s words, “to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions,” he would never have howled that his comrades lacked a “relish for the principles of the manifestoes” and the “generous wildness of Quixotism.” Nor would he have declared that “acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal,” that “the madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools,” and that “every little measure is a great errour.”

But the Burke who rallied Europe against the French Revolution did say these and many other such things, as have his descendants. This may be irritating or inconvenient for Lilla, but if he doesn’t like or believe the evidence I’ve presented, he should at least explain why it’s not relevant or how I’ve gotten it wrong.

Corey Robin
Brooklyn, New York

Mark Lilla replies:

Though, as I said in my review, Corey Robin can be insightful when he writes profiles of some individuals on the right, his letter confirms my main point: when it comes to thinking about “the right” he’s hopelessly confused. The main confusion is conceptual and arises because he has no clear idea of what he means by “conservatism.” He could argue that there are genuine conservative principles that provoke conservatives’ “reaction against movements of the left,” and then criticize those principles and the people who hold them. This he does not do. Instead he argues there are no such things as conservative principles, only ideological “improvisations” for defending hierarchy and privilege shared by a heterogeneous cast of characters running from Tocqueville and Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt and Phyllis Schlafly. So his real claim can be reduced to this: “those who react against movements of the left” react against movements of the left—which is a tautology, not an argument.

The point of my review was to distinguish conceptually between conservatism, which is informed by a view of human nature; reaction, which is informed by a view of history; and the right, which is a shifting, engaged ideological family that, in this country, includes a few genuine conservatives, radical libertarians, neoconservatives, social issues reactionaries, evangelicals, foreign policy hawks, e tutti quanti, who have disagreements among themselves. (As for Burke, who was a genuine conservative but also an engaged politician, it’s not surprising that he sometimes disagreed with himself.)

Robin’s Manichaeanism distorts the historical reality of the conservative tradition, which includes the Disraeli who shepherded through the Reform Act of 1867, the Bismarck who laid the foundation for the German welfare state, and the Heritage Foundation, which first floated the idea of mandating that adult Americans all carry some form of health insurance. Though these proposals met challenges from the left, they were shaped by a recognizable conservative sensibility. Robin also ignores the liberal tradition, which gets no mention in his letter and barely a nod in his book. (The book’s index entry reads “liberalism, see left.”) There are good liberal reasons to resist “the restless spirit of revolutionary change,” too, since it can so often lead to despotism in the end (which is liberals’ great worry about the Arab Spring). Liberals stress the need for individual liberty, the rule of law, and stable constitutional structures, which are not revolutionary principles; does that make them reactionaries? In Robin’s eyes, perhaps it does.

He is correct, though, to note that I didn’t engage with his explanation of right-wing populism—for the simple reason that it was too weak and condescending to take seriously. Robin believes in false consciousness and in intellectuals’ ability to see through it; that’s why he can claim that a conservatism seeking to free the world from all that is “ugly, brutish, base, and dull” gives “the lower orders…a taste of lordly power” and gives arriviste Irishmen and Jews their Napoleonic moments in the sun. I, like most people, take the populists at their word. When figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (and now Newt Gingrich) demonize educated elites and praise the wisdom of “soccer moms” and plumbers, they mean it. And those on the bottom rung who cheer and vote for them know what they are cheering and voting for. Corey Robin’s commitment to old leftist clichés about “the lower orders” blinds him to the most important and disturbing development in our politics today, which is the apotheosis of ugliness, brutishness, baseness, and ignorance as political ideals on the American right. And if you can’t see that, what can you see?

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