Radicals, liberals, and progressives have dismissed conservatism as a mental defect ever since it emerged as a distinctive brand of political thought with the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. According to Thomas Paine, Burke’s opposition to the revolution was based on an “obliteration of knowledge.” Several decades later, John Stuart Mill asserted that, although not all conservatives are stupid, “most stupid people are conservative.” In the mid-20th century, Theodore Adorno diagnosed conservative views as symptoms of a pathological “authoritarian personality.” More recently, some neuroscientists have argued that conservatives have bigger amygdalae than liberals. This turns out to be far from complimentary: the amygdala is the region of the brain associated with feelings of fear and disgust rather than thinking.

Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, rejects such reductive accounts. As the title of his recently published The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin suggests, he thinks conservatives do have functioning brains. The purpose of the book is to “get inside” them more deeply than other writers on the left have been able to do.

The results of his exploratory surgery are provocative. Robin concludes that conservatism is neither a disposition in favor of the tried and true, as the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott proposed, nor a principled commitment to limited government, as many contemporaries believe. Instead, he argues, conservatism is a “reactionary ideology” that defends hierarchy against the upheavals that began with the French Revolution.

Robin’s own conception of politics as a perennial struggle for liberation owes something to Marx, but his description of conservatism as an “ideology” does not mean that he regards it as a fig leaf for self-interest. On the contrary, conservatism “provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.”

The flexibility and power of the conservative ideology, in his view, comes from the fact that the structure of this argument can be preserved even as the identity of the “lower orders” changes. What’s important is that conservatives insist on the right of the better to command the worse, however conceived, against the revolutionary claim that no one has the inherent authority to rule anyone else.

Robin has been criticized for assimilating modern American conservatism to its European forebears. In particular, he has trouble making sense of the populist and libertarian appeals that have characterized the movement from the Goldwater campaign to the Tea Parties. George III had Burke right when he thanked him for supporting “the cause of the gentlemen.” But Sarah Palin?

Yet excessive generalization is not the book’s greatest flaw. The main problem is that Robin is so eager to make the connection between past and present that he does not develop the classic position in detail. A “consistent and profound argument” deserves careful analysis. In The Reactionary Mind, we get a few intriguing but not exactly dispositive quotes from Burke and his Francophone disciple Joseph de Maistre.

That’s a shame, because Robin is onto something that many of his critics have missed. Classical conservatism is a coherent theory of opposition to the French Revolution and its consequences. And it does insist on hierarchy in human affairs, both public and private. But what the great sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “dogmatics” of conservatism cannot be understood by reflecting on Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, or other 20th-century publicists who loom large in The Reactionary Mind. The counterrevolutionary ideology has to be articulated on its own terms before it is connected to the dilemmas of contemporary politics.

  •   •   •

The French Revolution was not the first revolution in human or even European history. Mobs had ruled the streets before; princes had often enough been deposed. Yet Burke insisted that that the Revolution was “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world.” What was so astonishing about it?

Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… . But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from they way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

The social connections that the French conservative Louis de Bonald dubbed “relationships” are not necessarily political. Every society needs a government, but government is only one part of society. Like the structures of political rule, however, relationships are inherently hierarchical. Although they aim to secure a common good, one party or element to every social connection always has the capacity to make decisions concerning the disposition of the whole. For Bonald, the model for this capacity is God’s rule over the universe, which is reproduced in microcosm in the kingdom and the household. Burke presented the same idea using another classic theological image: the chain of being that descends from heaven to earth, articulating divine influence over the created world as it passes through a succession of smaller units including the nation, the feudal manor, and the family.

It would be misleading to extract the conservatives’ argument for authority from this religious context. Although not all were conventionally pious, the classical conservatives agreed that human relations could only be understood as part of a providential order of Creation. But this does not mean that they insisted on their principles in defiance of experience. History and daily practice show that authority permeates human interactions. Each of us constantly defers to superiors and directs inferiors, if only our own children. It is true that children eventually grow up and establish households of their own. But the structure of authority remains the same even if the persons who occupy the various positions change.

From this point of view, the radicalism of the French Revolution was not that it aimed to alter relations of authority in favor of the previously subordinate. The desire of subjects to rule kings, servants to dominate their masters, sons to command fathers might be misguided. But it was readily understandable, and certainly nothing new. The real issue was the Revolution’s implicit aim of establishing a condition in which nobody would obey anyone else unless he agreed to do so. This aspiration, the conservatives insisted, was not merely unwise, but actually insane.

The point of Joseph de Maistre’s counterrevolutionary theory of sovereignty, which Robin correctly links to Thomas Hobbes, is thus that someone must be in a position to decide and command if any relationship is to function. On the political level, Maistre strongly preferred monarchy, but he acknowledged that even the tyranny of the majority is better than anarchy. For without some authoritative element, society would be impossible.

 •   •   •

Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.

No one should be mocked or oppressed because of the way he earns his living, Burke insists. Yet he echoes Aristotle’s argument against political participation by tradesmen when he insists that “the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”

The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.

Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.

But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.

Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.

Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.

Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”

The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.

In The Reactionary Mind, Robin tries to efface this distinction by quoting Maistre’s arguments that the restoration of the king would require the participation of the people. But he ignores Maistre’s insistence that the restored order be monarchical—and indeed that the crown continue in the line of succession that had been interrupted when Louis XVI was executed. The template for the populist dictatorship that Robin associates with conservatism was not the Bourbon Restoration. As Burke foresaw, it was the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom even Maistre opposed.

  •   •   •

There is more to the reactionary ideology than I have been able to consider here. This sketch, however, should be enough to support some conclusions about the character of conservatism as it developed at the end of the 18th century.

First, conservatism was not simply a posture or disposition. Instead, it was an elaborate system of ideas comparable to the liberal rationalism that it opposed. This ideology may be reactionary, but it is by no means stupid. That is why it was credited by great progressives of the 19th century, including Auguste Comte, as the source of the profound insight that man is not a solitary creature but exists only in and through society—with all the constraints that entails.

Second, the central principle of conservatism was authority. Specifically, conservatism was an attempt to justify theoretically the political and social hierarchies that the French Revolution challenged. This means that classical conservatism is inextricable from anti-egalitarianism. Its major premise is that men are not created equal—and that they actually become less and less so as they develop their faculties through the enactment of various social roles.

But despite its anti-egalitarianism, classical conservatism cannot be assimilated to anything like fascism. This is not because it is more or less “extreme,” a comparative adjective that has no ahistorical meaning. It is because conservatism insists that authority is constituted but at the same time limited by the network of relationships that make up society.

Some of the counterrevolutionaries did, in their darker moments, despair of restoring institutions whose roots had withered. Maistre even suggested that the revolution was God’s judgment on a sinful humanity. But, as the political theorist Mark Lilla recently pointed out in The New York Review of Books, the characteristic vice of the original conservatism was pessimism rather than mad hope that a new world was to be born from the destruction of the old. As Maistre concluded in his Considerations of France, “the restoration of the monarchy, what they call the counter-revolution, will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of revolution.”

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much. In addition to the historical distance, the concept of individual rights imposes an unbridgeable theoretical gap between the two positions. Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.

These appeals are most obvious in the libertarian strand of the movement, which cannot simply be dismissed as an apology for economic exploitation. They are most destructive, however, when they are used to motivate and justify our perennially adventurist foreign policy. According to the ideologues of American exceptionalism, there really is such a thing as Man in the abstract. And Man has the same rights and desires in Afghanistan that he has in Arizona. The purpose of government is to secure these rights. To the extent that it aims to do so universally, the government of the United States is therefore the universal government, with the responsibility to reorder all the traditional loyalties and obligations that define “illegitimate” societies.

No matter which party endorses this vision, it is difficult to imagine anything more distant than from “the contrary of revolution” inspired by Burke and articulated by Maistre. For it is a mirror image of the very Revolution that they opposed. In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin suggests that Americans need to understand conservatism better in order to resist it. If he were to make good the promise of his title, he and others of the left might find something to admire.

Samuel Goldman is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University.