When I first heard Corey Robin speak on radio shows such as Behind the News with Doug Henwood and Against the Grain I was immediately intrigued by his critical insight and originality. After reading his blog for several months, I finally had the pleasure of reading his book, The Reactionary Mind. While most of its points will be familiar to those who have read his blog or heard him speak, the book does not disappoint.
What strikes the reader immediately is the book’s uniqueness: few leftists or liberals attempt to engage with conservative or right-wing ideas seriously on an intellectual level (such ideas typically being dismissed as mere reflections of base self-interest), so Robin’s exploration of the intellectual history of conservatism is uniquely informative and, we can only hope, supremely useful for combating such ideas. We can be glad that someone on the left whose mind and pen are as sharp as Robin’s is willing to partake in the probably frustrating and tedious task of poring over the entire pantheon of right-wing thought.
Robin’s primary claim in the book is that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, modern conservatism throughout the centuries represents a continuity in its underlying features. He writes:
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency the prerogative of the elite.
…Historically the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom. (pp. 7-8)
This is the fundamental element of conservatism. Although its manifestations may alter, this does not mean that conservatism is a cynical defense of privilege: “The conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” (p.16)
Furthermore, conservatism thrives upon opposition. Since it is inherently a reaction to claims of emancipation, it is “about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time.” (p. 28)
The primary way the right is able consolidate its power is by making the privileges it defends seem popular; because the push for equality on the part of women, for example, presents a real loss of power for a large number of men, it is able to attract mass support to uphold systems of domination that seem to only benefit a few. Thus, Robin’s views on the modern Right run directly contrary to the more commonplace views of someone like Thomas Frank in whose view the working class is essentially duped into acting against their own economic interests by the right’s emphasis on cultural/religious issues. Robin’s perspective is also remarkably distinct from that of Noam Chomsky, who repeatedly emphasizes the radical world-transforming aims of neoconservatism as running directly contrary traditional conservatism. Robin’s exploration of conservative thought as manifested over the ages through figures from Burke and Hobbes to Goldwater, Wolfowitz and Kristof is deeply persuasive in countering such more (ahem) traditional views about conservatism by the left.
Another notable thing about the book is that while most of the chapters were written as separate essays or articles for various journals, together they form a unity that makes it seems as though they were all intended to be published as chapters for the book. All too often books made from essays collected over time seem quite fragmented, thankfully The Reactionary Mind is anything but.