The Reactionary Mind:
Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
by Corey Robin
Oxford University Press, 2011, 304 pp.
Conservatism is idea driven. Its idée fixe is the defense of inequalities of wealth and power against challenges from below—that is the thesis of Corey Robin’s provocative new book, The Reactionary Mind. To some this might seem familiar, even obvious. But the common opinion on the Left is that conservatives are fire-breathing idiots, who make up in heat what they lack in light. Robin’s book is a welcome correction of this simplistic view and puts the debate where it ought to be: on the force and content of conservative ideas.
The Reactionary Mind is presented in two parts, but it is really composed of three. The first, comprising a substantial introduction and first chapter, advances the thesis through a brisk, sometimes virtuoso, reading and reconstruction of conservative thinking from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre to Michael Oakeshott and the greater and lesser Kristols, Irving and Bill. The most absorbing, and possibly most original, aspect of Robin’s discussion is of the anti-traditional, even radical, character of conservatism. If conservatives are unified by the “animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” they are not static defenders of existing institutions. For Robin, the raw power of movements for revolution and reform often cast doubt in conservative minds about the value of old hierarchies: “If a ruling class is truly fit to rule, why and how has it allowed a challenge to its power to emerge?”
On Robin’s telling, conservatives have met this challenge by separating a defense of hierarchy and privilege from the blind defense of tradition. They have even showed a tendency to admire the vim and vigor of new historical actors and have often attempted to absorb and redirect them toward the creation of new relations of domination and subjection. Not only are conservatives not necessarily traditionalists, argues Robin, they often cheerfully celebrate the liquidation of an enfeebled ruling class so as to install a more vigorous and virtuous one in its place. According to Robin, “this is one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of conservative ideology. While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left . . . they often are the left’s best students.” The conservative will to power also accounts for the tendency of conservatives to see violence as a regenerative force. An early chapter on Hobbes and a concluding chapter on Burke are especially strong meditations on the often violent and revolutionary character of counterrevolution and contain some of the most insightful writing of the book.
THE SECOND part is a series of “Profiles in Reaction”: a rogues’ gallery ranging from Hobbes to Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia. The Scalia profile stands out as Robin’s most intriguing portrayal of a conservative mind. Robin finds a quotation from Scalia who, though hostile to liberal constitutional theories, bemoans the intellectual lassitude of his conservative fellow-travelers: “American judges have no intelligible theory of what we do most.” But what makes Scalia “even sadder” is that conservative legal thinkers are “unconcerned with the fact that we have no intelligible theory.” Here, on Robin’s account, is where Scalia’s heavily theorized originalism displays all the tropes of conservative revanchism. It takes over the grudgingly admired ideological dynamism of the Left to revivify the theory and bolster the rule of a beleaguered elite. That, as Robin notes, is why Scalia takes special umbrage at being called “‘wooden,’ ‘unimaginative,’ ‘pedestrian,’… ‘hidebound.’” The proper conservative embarks in no stale celebration of tradition, he brings to life a theory of the Constitution as protection against reform.
THE FINAL part, “Virtues of Violence,” probes the often nihilistic but almost always sympathetic attitude of conservatism toward violence. The cases range from the use of national security to advance particular political and ideological agendas through to the counterrevolutions in Latin America and the neoconservative war project. This section is written as a series of thematic overviews, and the contrast with the previous section illustrates the superiority of profiles as a genre for exploring the “reactionary mind.” When he reminds us of the Cold War repression of homosexuality in the name of national security, of the Guatemalan death squads, or of the Iraq War, it is harder to see how his definition of the reactionary mind fits. But when Robin zeroes in on specific individuals, we see the natural affinity that he thinks exists between reaction and violence.
For instance, during an interview in 2000, William F. Buckley confessed to Robin that “the trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market…is that it becomes rather boring…The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.” Irving Kristol, whom Robin interviewed the same year, also decries mainstream “business culture,” finding in empire the only remaining opportunity to assert real power. “What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world,” Kristol asks Robin, “and not having an imperial role?” Here is the conservative mind working overtime now that former (left-wing) enemies have abandoned the barricades. Where the defense of the market was once heroic, and thus worthy of the conservative, now it is plodding. Only through the agon of violent confrontation with an external foe can the conservative re-enchant his or her politics.
Each of these chapters, except the long introduction, began life as articles in places such as Raritan, the London Review of Books, and the Nation or as chapters in edited collections. As such, the forest of Robin’s overall argument is sometimes lost in the trees of each individual review or essay. The essays also have a critical, occasionally polemical, edge that could put off the stodgier academic professionals. But then again, how is someone to write about conservatism as a living ideology without making judgments?
This may be one reason why there is some ambiguity in Robin’s analysis about what counts as conservatism and, given this ambiguity, who actually belongs in his book. In Robin’s view, conservatism is difficult to pin down because it is inherently reactionary. “Conservative” policy proposals, metaphysical commitments, and rhetorical tropes, Robin argues, will therefore vary based on what they are reacting to. There are no governing policies or cultural ideas—just the desire to preserve a system of domination. Fair enough, but the question remains, does a conservative need to consciously aim to reconstitute hierarchies? Or is a hierarchical society just the necessary and probable consequences of his or her ideas?
Consider libertarianism. On the one hand, libertarianism arose in response to the mixed successes of the labor movement, the welfare state, and socialism. On the other hand, libertarians often present themselves as the true defenders of equal freedom. Unlike, say, the Burkes, Buckleys, and Kristols of the world, libertarians such as Hayek, Friedman, and Nozick at least claim they want to reduce domination and unequal rule. In fact, libertarians regularly argue that their opponents on the left are the false friends of equal freedom—that the left threatens to introduce its own forms of domination. To be sure, these arguments in practice often serve to defend enormous inequalities of wealth and power. But that does not change the fact that Hayek is speaking in earnest when he claims, in The Road to Serfdom, that “the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.” One might disagree with Hayek’s analysis of what promotes equal freedom and believe there is unequal rule where Hayek sees equality and liberty. But it does not necessarily follow that libertarians are conservatives in Robin’s sense. They are not rejecting the very idea of equal human freedom or necessarily mobilizing against challenges from below. The contested terrain between the Left and libertarians is different. There appear to be shared premises about the goal—freedom for all—but radical differences in social and political analysis.
What is at stake is more than mere classification. Robin has found in the long march of conservative thought a consistent drumbeat of reaction. Yet by illuminating an important continuity he may also have obscured politically important differences. Differences not only between conservatives but also between conservatives, liberals, and those on the Left. Robin convincingly dismisses an exceptionalist reading of American conservatism by demonstrating throughout the book the similarities amongst American and European conservatives. But he misses another set of similarities that has emerged from the exhaustion of many of the traditional distinctions between the Right and the Left.
There are recurrent periods of ideological exhaustion (the 1920s, the 1950s) in American political culture. But the end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism, and the disintegration of various organizations that contained the institutional memory of the “old left” generated a shock-wave of ideological disorientation that disrupted conventional axes separating the Left and the Right. Ideas and principles that were once considered predominantly left-wing have now drifted over to the right, and vice versa. As Robin himself has noted in an essay for the Nation, the Left has largely given up on the principle of freedom, leaving it to various groups on the Right to raise its banner. Yet human emancipation was once the Left’s calling card. Or again, one finds solid defenses of humanistic ideals from so-called conservatives just as much as one finds a strain of anti-humanism in the left-wing discourse around environmentalism.
It is hard to see this ideological jumble as merely another example of the counterrevolutionary appropriation of left-wing ideas by conservatives. Something else has happened that makes the characterization of conservatism more complex. One finds very conservative intellectual positions and related policies in the Democratic Party (think economic austerity) and even further “left” (environmental anti-humanism). Liberal humanitarianism did much more than neoconservatism to reconstitute the moral imagination of American empire and supremacy after the Cold War. The New Democrats championed the cause of the financial class and its fellow-traveling symbolic workers during the roaring “New Economy” 1990s. Yet Robin’s contemporary examples of conservatism come exclusively from the Republican Party. This draws the line at the wrong spot and undercuts the critical potential of Robin’s own analytic framework.
TO MY mind, one of the most compelling aspects of Robin’s book is that, by focusing on ideas rather than partisanship, he helps to cut through inherited distinctions of party labels. Unfortunately, Robin does not follow through on this when it comes to contemporary conservatism. This is because although The Reactionary Mind offers a sturdier and more meaningful guide to political differences than other exercises in ideological line-drawing, it only functions well in describing periods when the political struggle is well defined rather than chaotic and disarrayed. When the Left is weak and fractured, it will be equally unclear what a conservative is reacting against and thus what counts as conservative.
Separating Left from Right, as Robin suggests, would require taking the same sharp intellectual scalpel to the current “Left” as he does to the Right and to separate the rotting flesh from the sturdy bones. For instance, in recent years, Burke has served as inspiration for ostensibly “left-wing” anti-imperialism, Heidegger as a springboard for “left-wing” critiques of technology, Carl Schmitt as a touchstone for a new “radical” theory of democratic politics. In addition, other, less heavily theorized segments of the Left proclaim serious doubts about progress, universality, and the value of human freedom. These are not sound ideological bases for the Left. Indeed, one hesitates to accept that they are left-wing views at all. These tendencies do just as much to suppress emancipatory energies as the cast of characters that make it into Robin’s book and at this point, there are plenty of reactionary minds on the so-called left, not just on the traditional right.
One of the many lessons of Robin’s book is that what has made conservatism resilient is its willingness to learn from its enemies and to abandon rigid philosophical commitments when the to and fro of political battle requires it. But there is a deeper message in these pages. If he is right that conservatism runs on borrowed energy, then conservative strength measures the weakness of the real defenders of progress. In that thought lies, unexpectedly, a kernel of hope. Conservatives are not so omnipotent, and conservatism not nearly as hegemonic, as the Left sometimes thinks. The financial economy is not the only house of cards. If conservatives have been the “left’s best students,” Robin teaches the Left to become better students of the Right. It might learn a thing or two about its own power and possibility.
Alex Gourevitch is a political philosopher at McMaster University and has written on politics for the American Prospect, Washington Monthly, and n+1.