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BOOKS OCTOBER 27, 2011

One Right

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
by Corey Robin
Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $36.75

AS THE REPUBLICAN Party lurches toward nominating a presidential candidate to run against Barack Obama, we are likely to hear talk of deep splits within the conservative movement. Tea Party activists, who hate state intervention into the economy, will be distinguished from social conservatives, who love state intervention into matters of sex. Ayn Rand’s militant atheism, so attractive to one half of the party leadership, will be contrasted to the equally warlike Christianity that appeals to the right’s other half. Pundits will discover that aggressive interventionists touched by neoconservatism are not the same thing as America-first nationalists influenced by isolationism. Some liberals will cheer. Long accustomed to divisions within their own ranks, they will for once take glee in the splits and bitter exchanges of their antagonists.

Don’t be fooled by any of this, argues Corey Robin. Against nearly all other leftists writing about rightists, Robin believes that there is only one kind of conservatism. Whether expressed in the lofty words of Burke or the rambling ravings of Palin, conservatism is always and everywhere a resentful attack on those who seek to make the world more fair. Take away the left and you destroy the rationale for the right. It is only because the modern world takes justice seriously, at least in theory, that we have thinkers and activists determined to put their bodies on the gears to stop the machinery from moving forward.

Robin treats conservatives as activists rather than as stand-patters. “Conservatism,” he writes, “has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike.” Burke, in Robin’s view, began this tradition, and figures such as de Maistre, de Bonald, and Sorel carried it forward. If we take all of them as the genuine articles, there is no need to draw a line between conservatives and reactionaries: all conservatives are reactionary. Conservatives are unified, and united in their rage. Their most passionate hate is directed at those they believe were assigned by God or nature to second-class status but still insist on their full rights as human beings.

For Robin, what began in the late eighteenth century has reached a kind of culmination in the early twenty-first century. Republicans in love with Ayn Rand express the same romantic protest against modern complexity as evangelical Christians lamenting for families of yore. Whatever their differences, both movements are counter-cultural, even counter-revolutionary. That is why they are the rightful heirs of all the European thinkers whom Robin evokes. Everything about these contemporary right-wing activists—their militant theatrics, their artificial populism, their refusal to compromise—was anticipated two centuries ago. “Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian Right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the very beginning.”

Robin adds a distinctive wrinkle to the common claim of Burke’s responsibility for modern conservatism. He says that it was not his Reflections on the Revolution in France but his Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful that deserves the most attention. Power, as Robin summarizes Burke, “should never aspire to be—and can never actually be—beautiful. What great power needs is sublimity.” Owing to this emphasis on the sublime, Burke ought not to be read as a defender of the old regime. Not only had the Bourbons lost both their beauty and their sublimity, they had also become pathetic and decadent, lacking the capacity to justify themselves (and thus requiring thinkers such as Burke to carry out the thankless task).

Conservatives, says Robin, long for an imagined world too rarified ever to survive; they are theorists of loss. That is why, no matter how small the circle of privilege they defend, they have a certain appeal to the much larger collection of ordinary people whom they otherwise hold in contempt. Who has not experienced loss? Who would not want to return to an ideal world? The sacred is always more appealing than the profane. Try to make the world a more just place and you eliminate the sublime from it.

“The sublime,” Burke wrote, “is the sensation we feel in the face of extreme pain, danger or terror.” For all the emphasis on stability and tradition, conservatives admire revolutionaries because the terror they unleash gives us a glimpse of precisely such wonders. As Robin correctly points out, de Maistre preferred zealous if misguided Jacobins to lazy and self-satisfied nobles. Owing to its militancy, conservatism is zealously promoted by outsiders: Burke was Irish, de Maistre a Savoyard, Disraeli a Jew, Hamilton a West Indian. The same tendency can be witnessed today. It was not WASPs who revived the contemporary right but Jews and, downplayed by Robin, Catholics, who “helped transform the Republican Party from a cocktail party in Darien into the party of Scalia, d’Souza [sic] Gonzalez, and Yoo.”

Just as de Maistre could barely hide his Jacobin sympathies, the contemporary American right, in Robin’s account, is lock, stock, and barrel a product of the 1960s. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet,” a Texas evangelist declares in Robin’s pages—a near perfect expression of the extent to which reaction against the gains of the 1960s could only be expressed in the language of the movement being denounced. Abby Hoffman prepared the way for Michele Bachmann. Mere economic protest does not get you the characters that constitute the Republican base today. For that you need people who genuinely believe that the world is coming to an end.

No other contemporary American figure captures this conservative combination of resentment and activism better than Antonin Scalia, the subject of one of Robin’s most interesting chapters. Despite talk of being faithful to texts, Robin argues, Scalia uses his power on the court to impose on the country the classic conservative mantra: the world is falling apart, and so only the obedience to rules, no matter how seemingly arbitrary and unfair, can save it from doom. “No Plato for him,” Robin writes of this intemperate and deeply reactionary judge. “He’s with Nietzsche all the way.” This at first does not seem quite right: Nietzsche is hardly a theorist of obedience to rules. But once we realize that for Scalia rule-following is only for the masses, while those on top get to do all the rule-writing, Robin’s take on the man strikes me as warranted. There are times when Scalia goes out of his way to remind us of how cruel the world can be—and how helpless we are in the face of these very cruelties. Scalia has buried himself deep inside the right-wing counterculture where winners, calling themselves victims, are given rights, while losers are instructed never to complain even as their rights are stripped from them.

I confess to being one of those who likes to divide conservatives into their parts as opposed to treating them as a whole. Robin makes a vigorous case that I am wrong, and I am tempted by his analysis—as far as it goes. To be sure, Robin exaggerates, and all too easily dismisses exceptions to his generalizations: he quotes Michael Oakeshott, and a bit too frequently, yet finally he has no choice but to throw him off the conservative bus. The very existence of such a thinker suggests that conservatism need not always be either as reactionary or as angry as Robin claims. Still, at least as regards reactionaries such as Scalia and Palin, a little rhetorical provocation seems justified. Robin is an engaging writer, and just the kind of broad-ranging public intellectual all too often missing in academic political science.

The real problem of persuasion lies elsewhere. In this book, Robin has chosen to republish essays, albeit with a comprehensive introduction, rather than to make a sustained argument. I cannot blame him for that; I have done the same myself. But at least one of the essays is so out of date that Robin repudiates it, and the entire second half of the book, while containing interesting asides on terror in Latin America or reactions to September 11, is only marginally related to the first half. Thus was lost an opportunity to develop an arresting theme, shape it with original and fresh examples, acknowledge its limits, and then make it part of our national conversation. Robin’s arguments deserve widespread attention. But they way he has presented them almost ensures that they will not get it. 

Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil: What it is And How to Combat It was published by Knopf in September.

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