The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society. The quarrel between revolutionaries and reactionaries, on the other hand, has little to do with nature. It is a quarrel over history.
The term “reaction” migrated from the natural sciences into European political thought in the mid-eighteenth century, thanks to Montesquieu, who had picked it up from Newton. Originally, though, it was not associated with the concept of revolutions, which were then thought to be rare and unpredictable events, not part of some process of historical unfolding. That changed in 1789, when partisans of the French Revolution squared off against those who spoke openly of a Counter-Revolution that would set the world aright. The euphoria of rebellion, the collapse of the Old Regime, the Terror, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon gave history a secular eschatological charge, which destroyed many of the remaining moderates. For European radicals, the French Revolution was a cosmic epiphany that began an unstoppable process of collective human self-emancipation. For reactionaries, too, it was an apocalyptic event, signaling the end of a process that had placed Catholic Europe at the summit of world civilizations. One group saw a radiant future, the other saw nothing but the deluge. But revolutionaries and reactionaries did agree on one thing: that thinking seriously about politics means thinking about the course of history, not human nature.
There have always been two kinds of reactionaries, though, with different attitudes toward historical change. One type dreams of a return to some real or imaginary state of perfection that existed before a revolution. This can be any sort of revolution—political, religious, economic, or even aesthetic. French aristocrats who hoped to restore the Bourbon dynasty, Russian Old Believers who wanted to recover early Orthodox Christian rites, Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the conventions of Mannerism, Morrisites and Ruskinites who raged against the machine, all these were what you might call restorative reactionaries.
A second type—call them redemptive reactionaries—take for granted that the revolution is a fait accompli and that there is no going back. But they are not historical pessimists, or not entirely. They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over. Ever since the French Revolution reactionaries have seen themselves working toward counterrevolutions that would destroy the present state of affairs and transport the nation, or the faith, or the entire human race to some new Golden Age that would redeem aspects of the past without returning there.
This was the shared vision of Joseph de Maistre, the most bloody-minded of the French counterrevolutionaries, and twentieth-century European fascists. Fascists hated so many aspects of modern society—representative democracy, capitalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, bourgeois refinement—that we forget they were anything but nostalgic for Church and Crown. They had contempt for weak German aristocrats with their dueling scars and precious manners, and reserved their nostalgia for a new Rome to be brought into being through storms of steel. There was nothing conservative about them.
Americans’ assumptions about human nature are basically liberal today. We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn’t constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves. Most intellectuals who call themselves conservatives today accept as self-evident the truths enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which no traditional European conservative could. Some of them have drawn from European conservatism when they write about the constructive role of civil society, the habits and mores needed to exercise liberty, and the limits of government action. But strictly speaking, they are go-slow, curb-your-enthusiasm liberals like Tocqueville, not conservatives like Burke or T.S. Eliot or Michael Oakeshott. As for those like Congressman Ron Paul who promote a minimal state and an unregulated economy, their libertarianism is actually a mutation of early liberalism, not conservatism. This is important to bear in mind.
On questions of history, however, Americans are all over the map. As we were reminded in the run-up to the last Iraq war, every now and then the prophetic strain in our political rhetoric inspires eschatological fantasies of democratic avant-gardism, with Lady Liberty replacing the French Marianne on top of history’s barricades. Then reality intrudes and Americans revert to the converse fantasy of American exceptionalism, which must be protected from history through isolation and self-purification. We have also had our share of restorative reactionaries, from Southern nostalgics for the ol’ plantation, to agrarian despisers of the great American cities, to racialist despisers of the immigrants they attracted, to no-government oddballs who think they can go it alone, to trust-fund hippies who went back to the land, to lock-and-load eco-terrorists who want to take us off the grid (after they recharge their Macs). What we have not seen much of, except on the fringes of American politics, are redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos. At least until now.
The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. How that happened would be a long story to tell, and central to it would be the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology. The first neoconservatives were disappointed liberals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, who saw the failures of a large number of Great Society programs to deliver on the unrealistic expectations of its architects, and consequently began to appreciate the wisdom of certain conservative assumptions about human nature and politics. Kristol’s famous quip that neoconservatives were liberals who’d been mugged by reality captured the original temperament.
Sometime in the Eighties, though, neoconservative thinking took on a darker hue. The big question was no longer how to adapt liberal aspirations to the limits of politics, but how to undo the cultural revolution of the Sixties that, in their eyes, had destabilized the family, popularized drug use, made pornography widely available, and encouraged public incivility. In other words, how to undo history. At first, neoconservatives writing in publications like Commentary and The Public Interest (which I once helped to edit) portrayed themselves as standing with “ordinary Americans” against the “adversary culture of intellectuals,” and to that end promoted “family values” and religious beliefs they did not necessarily share, but thought socially useful. Yet by the Nineties, when it became apparent that lots of ordinary Americans had adjusted to the cultural changes, neoconservatives began predicting the End Times, and once-sober writers like Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Bork started publishing books with titles like On Looking into the Abyss and Slouching Towards Gomorrah.
The new apocalypticism reached a fever pitch in a symposium published in 1996 in the widely read theoconservative journal First Things, edited by the late Richard John Neuhaus. The special issue bore the title “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” and was provoked by a court decision on physician-assisted suicide. The opening editorial put the following question before readers: Given that “law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality,” and that, due to judicial activism, “the government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed,” have we “reached or are [we] reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime,” and therefore must consider responses “ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution”? To raise such a question, the editors insisted, “is in no way hyperbolic.”2
This is the voice of high-brow reaction, and it was present on the right a good decade before Glenn Beck and his fellow prophets of populist doom began ringing alarm bells about educated elites in media, government, and the universities leading a velvet socialist revolution that only “ordinary Americans” could forestall. Apocalypticism trickled down, not up, and is now what binds Republican Party elites to their hard-core base. They all agree that the country must be “taken back” from the usurpers by any means necessary, and are willing to support any candidate, no matter how unworldly or unqualified or fanatical, who shares their picture of the crisis of our time. In the early Sixties, the patrician William F. Buckley joked that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston phonebook than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. In 2010, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.” This from a former student of Lionel Trilling. And he wasn’t joking.
Seen in this context, the current deadlock in Washington does not look so surprising. During the 2010 congressional election campaign, Republican candidates (and some Democrats) were put under enormous pressure to sign the Americans for Tax Reform “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which obliges them to oppose any increase in the marginal personal or corporate tax rate, and any limits on deductions or tax credits that aren’t offset by other tax cuts. To date, all but six Republican representatives and seven senators have signed this collective suicide note, making the group’s president, Grover Norquist, nearly as successful as Reverend Jim Jones. That’s how the apocalyptic mind works, though. It convinces people that if they bring everything down around them, a phoenix will inevitably be born.
The same faith has been expressed in the Republican presidential candidate debates, where the contenders compete to demonstrate how many agencies they would abolish when in office (if they remember their names), how many programs they would cut or starve, and how much faith they have in the ingenuity of the American people to figure it out for themselves once they’re finished. What’s so disturbing is that they don’t feel compelled to explain how even a reduced government should meet the challenges of the new global economy, how our educational system should respond to them, what the geopolitical implications might be, or anything of the sort. They deliver their lines with the insouciant “what, me worry?” of Alfred E. Neuman.
All this is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism, or with the aristocratic prejudice that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” which Corey Robin sees at the root of everything on the right. No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse. When I read the new reactionaries or hear them speak I’m reminded of Leo Naphta, the consumptive furloughed Jesuit in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who prowls the corridors of a Swiss sanatorium, raging against the modern Enlightenment and looking for disciples. What infuriates Naphta is that history cannot be reversed, so he dreams of revenge against it. He speaks of a coming apocalypse, a period of cruelty and cleansing, after which man’s original ignorance will return and new forms of authority will be established. Mann did not model Naphta on Edmund Burke or Chateaubriand or Bismarck or any other figure on the traditional European right. He modeled him on George Lukács, the Hungarian Communist philosopher and onetime commissar who loathed liberals and conservatives alike. A man for our time.
2 First Things, November 1996. On the background to this bizarre episode, see Damon Linker, The Theocons (Doubleday, 2006), Chapter 3. ↩
'The Reactionary Mind': An Exchange February 23, 2012
First Things, November 1996. On the background to this bizarre episode, see Damon Linker, The Theocons (Doubleday, 2006), Chapter 3. ↩