The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robin, Oxford University Press, 280 pages
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College. He is of the progressive-intellectual tendency. He runs a wordy blog, where he takes issue with others of the same kidney: Ezra Klein, Susan Faludi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jonathan Chait, and such—earnest liberals picking thousand-word nits over each other’s positions on fine points of policy. Sample blog posts: “That Old Centrist Magic: Jonathan Stein Responds to Jonathan Chait” (1788 words), “The Way We Weren’t: My Response to Yglesias’ Response to My Response to His Response to My Response” (1660 words, and one of a series, as you can tell), “The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex” (2,071 words).
These are the kinds of people who believe that American workers are cruelly deprived of labor union representation by scheming bosses (monocles, tail coats, top hats), that asking voters to identify themselves at the polling station is a sinister plot to deprive poor people of the franchise, that conservatives are sexually repressed, that Christians are stupid, and that it is possible to have a functioning society in which nobody is subordinate to anybody else.
I am vaguely aware of these people by name, though prior to picking up Corey Robin’s book I had never read to the end of anything that any of them has ever written. Progressive polemic just isn’t my thing. This over-intellectualized, smells-of-the-lamp, logic-chopping, what-you-said-he-said-isn’t-what-he-actually-said argumentation over minutiae of progressive ideology especially isn’t my thing. I don’t mind it in the sense of being riled up by it. It doesn’t rile me up. It just sends me to sleep.
I therefore consider it a triumph of self-control to have finished The Reactionary Mind. I had a modest assist for the first couple of dozen pages: the hope that Robin was going to distinguish the reactionary mind from the merely conservative mind and say something interesting about the former by contrasting it with the latter. Now and then, finding myself in the company of liberals, I have yielded to the temptation to shock the easily shocked by responding to questions about my own conservatism with: “I don’t think of myself as a conservative, really; more like a reactionary.” Be nice to be able to follow through with some scholarly justifications.
And I do think there is an interesting distinction to be made between the reactionary and the conservative. When someone quoted the Bible to the third Duke of Norfolk, His Grace retorted: “I never read the Scripture nor ever will read it; it was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past.” That was in 1540, when New Learning included the notion that a gentleman of rank ought to be literate. The Duke, a true reactionary, was having none of it. It may not be possible to be as reactionary as that nowadays, but that’s the gold standard.
Robin would have run a mile in terror from the third Duke of Norfolk, even before that gentleman had had the chance to sic the ducal dogs on him. The nearest Robin gets to this true reactionary spirit is Joseph de Maistre, whose forthright throne-and-altar conservatism marks the rightmost boundary of the book’s discussions. Burke is another favorite, much quoted, though Robin is sufficiently well read to note the quibbles about Burke’s conservatism. (I don’t know how things go in the U.S, but British students are always surprised to learn that Burke was a Whig, not a Tory.)
Contrary to the book’s subtitle, though, Burke is not the earliest of the figures Robin discusses. He gives over a whole chapter to Thomas Hobbes, working through the knotty issue of whether the English Civil War was revolutionary (in overthrowing the monarchy) or counter-revolutionary (in seeking to restore ancient liberties usurped by the monarch). The terms of the argument are, as Robin admits, hard to pin down, as the key concepts underwent great changes after 1789. Still, he makes a good case that Hobbes was a counter-revolutionary in spirit. He then proceeds to condemn Milton Friedman’s dealings with Augusto Pinochet of Chile as a Hobbesian “marriage between free markets and state terror” and Margaret Thatcher’s victory over her labor unions likewise. Uh-huh.
That chapter on Hobbes—it is one of the two or three of the book’s 11 that almost rise to the level of being interesting—is in fact a reprint of a 2009 review in The Nation. Most of The Reactionary Mind is warmed-over journalism like that. All 11 chapters originally appeared elsewhere as articles or reviews, dated from 2001 to 2011. Only the 36-page introduction and the three-page conclusion are original. The book is therefore an essay collection, not a continuous argument. Nor have the essays been much edited. Favorite quotations are repeated with irritating frequency: Oakeshott on conservatism as a disposition shows up on page 21 then again on page 221; Irving Kristol on the end of the Cold War having deprived conservatives of an enemy is on page 60 then again on page 127; Bill Buckley disparages conservatism’s enthusiasm for markets on page 128 then again on page 162; and so on.
The book’s most recurring theme is conservative attachment to the tragic. Nietzsche makes many appearances. Thus: “Conservatives thrive on a world filled with mysterious evil and unfathomable hatreds, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the cosmic race against corruption and decline.”
That—similar sentiments can be found all through the book—sounds profound and scholarly, but in fact could be applied to any kind of active politics above the level of Coolidgean-Clintonian serenity. It fits Al Gore’s current activities quite well, for instance.
On the positive side, The Reactionary Mind at least does not snarl or sputter. It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.—the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann—is quite absent. For this relief much thanks. Nor is the book as immaculately humor-free as most leftist productions. At any rate I suspect the author is deadpanning in one or two places. For example: “It remains an unfortunate reality of American higher education that social scientists and historians can get through their training with only the most passing acquaintance with conservatism.” Good one, Cor.
The only trace of bile shows in Robin’s assertion, repeated many times, that conservatism is all about the resentment felt by privilege under threat. “That is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”
And again: “‘All conservatism begins with loss,’ Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser.”
That’s as close to a sneer as Robin gets. I feel sure that if trapped on a desert island with the man, I should soon commit suicide; but he really seems to harbor very little malice. (I pass in silence over the omission of any recognition, here or elsewhere in the book, that there might be things of value whose loss is worth preventing.)
None of this can surmount the book’s essential dullness, though. Why is it so dull? In the first place because there is plainly visible, behind the author’s considerable reading in political history and philosophy, a shallow and jejune utopianism. Corey Robin wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary. It is astounding that Robin does not know this. Observing his not knowing it drains the reader of all respect for his intellect and erudition.
Thus Che Guavara gets a passing mention, glowing romantically like a meteor crossing the sky—alas, too distant for us to see the spatters of blood and brains on his uniform from the numerous counter-revolutionaries he insisted on dispatching in person, apparently just for the pleasure of it.
And thus, apostrophizing liberal civilization, Robin scolds that
You claim to believe in the rights of man, but it is only the rights of property you uphold. You claim to stand for freedom, but it is only the freedom of the strong to dominate the weak. If you wish to live up to your principles, you must give way to their demiurge. Allow the dispossessed to assume power, and the ideal will be made real, the metaphor will be made material.
As if the thing had never been done! And “only the rights of property”? Which country does Corey Robin choose to live in?
At its lowest point, Robin’s utopianism leads him into bald falsehoods. “Inequality and hierarchy are not natural phenomena but human creations.” Oh yeah? Go to the ant, thou sluggard—or the moose, or the chimp. Or, after meditating briefly on the metaphysical foundations of that “not natural,” to any human society that has mastered more than an acre of ground and lasted intact more than three months.
In the second place, this book is dull because it does not discuss any of the truly interesting topics in our political life today. Probably the most pressing of current issues is the $2 trillion gap between U.S. federal revenues and disbursements. Corey Robin has nothing to say about it. Welfare-state bloat and the privileging of public-sector employment over private are not addressed, much less criticized. There is no discussion of demography; and a search of Robin’s blog with keyword “demography” returned no results.
Immigration, education, ethnic disaggregation, affirmative action, global inequality, the raising of children: nothing. What does our author think of the “disparate impact” doctrine that is currently being deployed for the destruction of our municipal fire departments? He does not tell us. Is there, in his opinion, any hope for rational government in a nation like Haiti, with a mean population IQ of 70? He probably thinks it unspeakably outrageous even to ask such a question. Nor even do the shallower waters of multiculturalism have any interest for him. Islam? Assimilation? Women in submarines? Buggery in the barracks? No comment.
All right, this is a set of essays on the history of conservatism from a dozen arbitrary points of view. Nobody should expect the author to have something to say about everything. Still, having given us an entire chapter on Guatemala, a sink-hole of zero importance, you’d think that a word or two on India or China might not be out of place. (Or if it must be sink-holes, why not Cambodia? How’d that business of allowing the dispossessed to assume power work out there, Prof.? Was the ideal made real enough for you? The metaphor material enough?) Having brought up the sainted Salvador Allende, why not a few approving words for his European equivalents: Walter Ulbricht, Wladyslaw Gomulka, and Mátyás Rákosi?
Well, I have done my duty. I have read a book of early 21st-century American liberal polemic and have passed an opinion on it, as per contract. I look forward to receiving my reviewer’s fee, and I nurse the fervent hope that I may now make it clean through to the Garden of Rest without ever again having to read Corey, Ezra, Susan, Ta-Nehisi, Jonathan, Jonathan, or Matthew at length greater than one paragraph.
John Derbyshire is a National Review contributing editor and the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.