The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
by Corey Robin
Oxford University Press, 290 pp., $29.95
In 2004, then Senator Barack Obama brought the Democratic Party convention to its feet by declaring that there is “not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.” He learned differently. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote recently in The New Republic, the American fantasy of a postpartisan politics runs back to the earliest days of the republic.1 Politicians who exploited it for their own purposes did well; those who genuinely believed in it failed. And it’s a good thing, too. Modern democracy depends on distinctions among factions, principles, and programs, the clearer the better.
But the current public dissatisfaction with our parties is not just about partisanship. It also reflects a sense that the labels we use to distinguish factions, principles, and programs have lost their value. What does it mean to call oneself a liberal or conservative today? Does it make sense to distinguish “progressives” and “reactionaries,” or are those just terms of abuse and self-flattery? It’s hard to know how to talk about the new classes of rich and poor created by the global economy, and their strangely overlapping political commitments. Or where on the linguistic map to put the new populisms spawning around the world, some anti-global, some anti-immigrant, some libertarian, some authoritarian. Words are failing us.
Though it sounds dull, we actually need taxonomy. It is what renders the political present legible to us. Getting it right, though, requires a certain art, a kind of dispassionate alertness and historical perspective, a sense of the moment, and a sense that this, too, shall pass. Political scientists, intent on aping the methods of the hard sciences, stopped cultivating this art half a century ago, just as things started getting interesting, as new kinds of political movements and coalitions were developing in democratic societies. We’re in a similar moment now; we need a guide. That’s why Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind is a useful book to have—not as an example to follow, but one to avoid.
Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College, has been writing thoughtful essays on the American right for The Nation and other publications over the past decade. The Reactionary Mind collects profiles of well-known right-wing thinkers like Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater, and Justice Antonin Scalia, and some deserters who turned left, like John Gray and Edward Luttwak. There are also a few that look beyond our borders, including an excellent piece on Hobbes as a counterrevolutionary thinker. But the book aims to be more than a collection. It is conceived as a major statement on conservatism and reaction, from the eighteenth century to the present. And this is where it disappoints.
The problems begin in the opening paragraphs, where Robin lays out his general picture of political history. It is not overly complex:
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overtly and covertly…. Despite the very real differences between them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation—even wives in a marriage—in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power.
This is history as WPA mural, and will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Thirties, remembers the Sixties, or was made to read historians like Howard Zinn, Arno Mayer, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill at school. In their tableau, history’s damnés de la terre are brought together into a single heroic image of suffering and resistance. Their hats are white, immaculately so. Off in the distance are what appear to be black-hatted villains, though their features are difficult to make out. Sometimes they have little identification tags like those the personified vices wear in medieval frescoes—”capital,” “men,” “whites,” “the state,” “the old regime”—but we get no idea what they are after or what their stories are. Not that it matters. To understand the oppressed and side with them all you need to know is that there are oppressors.
What distinguishes Robin from the old-style left historians is that he’s genuinely interested in the right and wants to paint its portrait—though, again, he’s committed to keeping it simple. In fact, he thinks that much of our confusion about this subject stems from the fact that we have been taken in by conservative intellectuals who lay out benign-sounding political principles, and historians who accept them as defining different streams of right-wing thought and activity. Robin will have none of it. To his mind, the fundamental truth about the right is that it has always wanted one and only one thing: to keep down those who are already down. This is what unites Edmund Burke and Sarah Palin:
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.
If you accept these claims, then you will have no trouble accepting what Robin says in the book’s most extraordinary paragraph:
I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably: not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative…but all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary. I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Winston Churchill, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Nixon, Irving Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and George W. Bush interspersed throughout.
Glenn Beck’s blackboard was never half this full.
Robin is a lumper, an über-lumper, which may please his beleaguered readers on the left, but makes his entire enterprise incoherent. He fails to see that it is based on a glaring fallacy of composition: he posits a class, isolates a characteristic of one of its members, and then ascribes that characteristic to every member of the class. Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre and George W. Bush are both on the right in Robin’s scheme; following his logic, since Maistre spoke flawless French, Bush must too. Which would be some national secret. Yet that’s exactly how Robin proceeds, until he has corralled everyone he doesn’t like into a pen and labeled them all conservatives and reactionaries and right-wingers, terms he fails to distinguish. (More on that in a moment.)
But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past century, it is that la destra è mobile. The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again. In the 1970s, if you thought that public schools were being used for social indoctrination, that power over them should be decentralized, and that children would be better off learning at home, that put you on the far left. Today those views put you on the right. Are we to think that these shifts were only about how best to keep power from the people?
And what about all the factionalism within the right? Isolationist paleoconservatives at magazines like The American Conservative hate “American greatness” neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard for their expansionist foreign policies and unconditional support of Israel, and the feeling is mutual. Theoconservatives at the journal First Things who resist gay marriage drive libertarians at the Cato Institute up the wall. There are serious and consequential disagreements on the right today over immigration, defense spending, the Wall Street bailouts, the tax code, state surveillance, and much else. Who wins those arguments could very well determine what this country looks like a generation from now. Robin registers none of this.
An opportunity has been missed. Robin is not wrong to think there are two tribes in modern politics, and the terms “right” and “left” are as good as any other to describe them. But within each tribe there are clans that do more than express more radical or moderate versions of the same outlook. Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites. To understand why the distinction between them still matters, we need to remind ourselves what the terms “conservative” and “reactionary” originally meant.
“Liberal” and “conservative” first became labels for political tendencies in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, but the philosophical distinction between them was settled by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks in large part to Edmund Burke. After the Revolution, Burke argued that what really separated its partisans and opponents were not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and hierarchy, but instead two very different understandings of human nature. Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.
What makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society. Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.
Though philosophical liberalism traces its roots back to the Wars of Religion, the term “liberal” was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century. And it was only later, in its confrontation with conservatism, that liberalism achieved ideological clarity. Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption, more than any other, shapes the liberal temperament. It is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice. Liberals, like conservatives, recognize the need for constraints, but believe they must come from principles that transcend particular societies and customs. Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom.
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.
'The Reactionary Mind': An Exchange February 23, 2012