The Reactionary Mind:
Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
In a recent post on his website, author Corey Robin claimed that in writing The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, his goal was to “understand the right—not to criticize it or show why it’s wrong, but to get inside its head, to examine its leading ideas, and bring its sense and sensibility into focus.” To achieve this end, Robin presents a collection of previously published essays, which offer a scope of modern conservatism, while being unified by Robin’s overarching belief that it is fundamentally counterrevolutionary.
From the outset of the book, Robin sets up an interesting argument that the evolution of the American conservative movement has been built on the foundation of the social change and progress foisted onto the country by its liberal opponents. That, ultimately, conservatives could not really be what they are without that which they are moved to fight about, that which they are desperate to keep, that which they are frightened to allow. Without this oppositional (revolutionary) force to react against, the American conservative would have no ideological raison d’etre. The first section of the book consists of a series of essays that examine the history of this reactionary force, and a few of its modern manifestations. Robin believes that conservatives are hardly so stupid as to think they can wholly recapture the past, to recreate the “Old Regime,” so instead they turn their attention to redesigning a form of it, constantly forced to capitulate elements of the society they wish to see, so as to at least have something which they recognize and can find comfort in. However, Robin argues that despite their slow, reactionary crawl through historical time, the basis of the conservative social setup is one of subjugation. In the conservative ideology, as Robin portrays it, this need for control and superiority cannot be stopped by mere liberation movements, but instead those movements are only really able to redirect its flow. While the forms of subjugation become less overt, their existence is paramount to the conservative idea, and to the rear-view vision conservatism has for America. Accordingly, it makes sense to see conservatives move from one battle for control to the next. From slavery to segregation to heinous levels of incarceration of minorities to abuses of civil liberties in the name of national security, some form of mastery, domination, is required to give conservatism an identity. The examination of this desperate, if not maniacal quest to maintain control is well executed by Robin, despite being somewhat unexciting. This likely has less to do with Robin’s abilities as a writer than the history itself.
Even more interesting than the discussion of conservative ideology is Robin’s detailed examination of the use of revolutionary methods used to meet these conservative, counterrevolutionary aims. Robin argues that not only do conservatives derive their ideas in reaction to the progress they see undoing their nation, but they learn from these social and political upheavals, to better help in the fight against them. In the conservative battle against feminism, Robin shows Phyllis Schlafly using remarkably similar language to that of her counterparts. “[S]he railed against the meaninglessness and lack of fulfillment among American women; only she blamed these ills on feminism rather than on sexism,” he writes. Instead of refusing to acknowledge that things are changing, conservatives instead opt to fight the battle of why that change is taking place. Throughout this analysis, Robin effectively demonstrates that conservatism is nowhere close to stupid, simplistic, or void of ideas. “Nothing, as we shall see, could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.” Instead, the conservative mind is hyper-aware of certain things, particularly loss and danger, and shows a remarkable ability to adapt to the fluctuating speed of history.
The second section of the work looks at the role of violence in the conservative worldview. Focusing mostly on what Robin sees as the insatiable, and even constitutive, element of subjugation, Robin earnestly articulates the foreign policy movements of the neo-conservative movement, while displaying that these hardly suggest a death to true conservatism but are more honestly an inevitable, desirable extension of it. In addition, the reader is treated to a thorough demonstration of how torture and restrictions on civil liberties, even of American citizens, makes sense from a conservative standpoint, despite the constant cries for liberty. However, despite some interesting moments, it is in this area particularly where the book runs into the same problem that so many of its sort do. Choosing to put together a series of older works can (and in this case does) make sense in order to put an argument together and provide the depth and breadth necessary. Unfortunately, some of the essays that Robin has put in here, while perhaps serving this pragmatic purpose, read as somewhat tired, outdated, even irrelevant. Not to say they are strikingly unoriginal, but simply that the subjects touched on have been parsed every which way over the past decade. This can make it difficult at times to enjoy the book, even if it aids in your overall understanding of Robin’s argument.
All told, The Reactionary Mind is a worthwhile read for those who wish to understand how the American conservative movement is so adept at performing multiple resurrections. Time and time again, those on the left and the center are left scratching their heads as pseudo-populism manages to reach the conservative base, rallying it back from its supposed death, leading it into town halls across the country to eat away at the progressive health care bill, to fight against yet another national transformation, to read and react in another effort to hold onto whatever it is that has become quintessentially American. This book provides an effective explanation for just how that happens, and yes, just how it will happen again.