After Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Corey Robin, a professor of political theory at Brooklyn College, published a second edition of The Reactionary Mind. As its subtitle indicates, the book is a critical survey of conservative thinkers and politicians “from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.” Through a series of essays in which Robin discusses figures from Burke to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman to Ayn Rand, he seeks to prove a simple, if provocative, hypothesis: Since its inception, conservatism has devoted itself to producing theoretical justifications for power, privilege, and hierarchy.
Conservatives, naturally, would disagree with Robin’s rather uncharitable interpretation. They would insist that conservatism is about defending tradition, maintaining civil society, ensuring the smooth operation of the free market. Robin is not convinced. Against any conservative’s self-assessment of what the Right’s political project is, Robin writes that “conservatism . . . is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue.” No, he says, conservatism is about “opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.” (This is the prevailing view among many a smug liberal.) According to Robin, once we understand that “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected,” we can begin to see why conservatives have historically justified the husband’s domination of his wife, the master’s control of his slave, and the feudal lord’s command of his serf.
As proof of the conservative tendency to defend structures of privilege, Robin quotes from Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, and many others who allegedly concerned themselves with defending hierarchy. Burke, claims Robin, opposed the French Revolution because it threatened to overturn social inequities. Hobbes, on whom Robin confers the distinction of being the “first counterrevolutionary,” is charged with providing a justification for tyrannical government after the previous justification — the theory of the Divine Right of Kings — was abandoned. For Robin, these rightist and proto-rightist philosophers, along with other conservatives, are all motivated by the same drive: Protect the higher castes from the democratic challenges of the lower orders.
Well researched and brilliantly argued though it was, Robin’s thesis on conservatism presupposes a far-left conception of history that few people would feel comfortable endorsing. This is The Reactionary Mind’s great shortcoming. To accept Robin’s interpretation of conservatism requires one to accept his interpretation of history, which, as we will see, is morally questionable and inattentive to counter-evidence.
So what, exactly, does the Robin conception of history entail? Robin explains that ever since the Enlightenment, the Left has inaugurated great movements of “emancipatory politics.” Leftist movements have struggled on behalf of the oppressed and the downtrodden against entrenched power structures and their rightist apologists. Modern history for Robin, then, is the tale of an unceasing leftist struggle to defeat the Right; presumably, once that defeat is accomplished, human societies can finally set themselves to the task of turning capitalist depravity into socialist utopia.
In theory, Robin’s view of history might not sound so bad. In practice it is appalling: In his book we learn that his examples of leftist “movements for emancipation” include the French Revolution, “the nineteenth century’s movements against slavery and on behalf of workers,” the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the leftist activism of the 1930s.
Except for the case of abolition, which wasn’t a cause of the Left but of the religious Right (more on this in a moment), those are some rather peculiar examples of liberationist movements. Indeed, who today but the most recalcitrant Marxist can take seriously the description of the French and Bolshevik revolutions as emancipatory movements? It is true that Russia and France saw ghoulish monarchs overthrown by popular uprisings; it is also true that both countries descended into dictatorships far more barbaric than the ones they replaced. To call the French and Russian revolutions emancipatory is to ignore Jacobin terror and Leninist tyranny.
And what is one to make of the suggestion that the Left was fighting for “emancipation” in the 1930s? One wonders which Left Robin is referencing. The 1930s were the peak of both Stalinist crimes and of all the leftist apologetics for them. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm chronicles in The Age of Extremes, leftist conduct in the 1930s and early ’40s could hardly have been more unprincipled. Against the fascist threat, European and American Communists switched from supporting capitalist countries (the U.S. and the U.K.) to supporting Nazi Germany when it allied itself with Stalin’s Russia in their joint mission to obliterate Poland. Then the Western Communists switched again, this time to oppose Germany . . . but only when and because it had invaded the Soviet Union!
Some politics of emancipation.
It is important to bear in mind not just that Robin’s implicit approval of far-Left movements and governments is morally questionable but that it is indispensable to the arguments of The Reactionary Mind. His theory of conservatism is grounded in an interpretation of violent, revolutionary irruptions as “emancipatory” and of counterrevolutionary thought and practice as “oppressive.” Remove that interpretation of history and his thesis collapses. Only his historical presuppositions allow him to get away with his assertion that conservatives care about neither freedom nor equality but instead support “liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders.”
Modern conservatives claim the legacy of classical liberalism for themselves, citing as they often do the work of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson.
But it isn’t just that Robin employs a far-left vision of history as his point of departure. Some people might share that view, or at least be sympathetic to it. More troubling is that in this book he fails even to mention all the evidence that many conservatives have also demonstrated a keen eye for social injustice and arbitrary hierarchy. Edmund Burke, as Yuval Levin documents in The Great Debate, objected vociferously to the transatlantic slave trade, to British colonialism in the American colonies, and to imperial misdeeds in India. In the 18th and 19th centuries, deeply traditionalist religious organizations were among the most fervent backers of abolition.
Closer to our own times, conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton spent many years in the underground world of Communist Czechoslovakia agitating against that country’s repressive regime. (Curiously enough, Communist bureaucracies were among the greatest structures of privilege in the modern era, yet they counted on their most vigorous support from none other than left-wing intellectuals.) And it was Milton Friedman who in his 1962 Capitalism and Freedom criticized government-imposed racial segregation, arguing that the free market was better than government at serving minority populations. Robin neglects to consider any of this.
Overlooking Friedman’s work, though, is part of a larger problem in The Reactionary Mind. At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism. I suspect he overlooks this legacy because it fatally undermines his thesis. After all, few would deny that classical liberalism has played an emancipatory role in modern history — it liberated the state from religious constraints, made devastating arguments against monarchical absolutism, and embedded the principles of democracy and individual rights into the constitutions of many countries, most notably the United States. Modern conservatives claim the legacy of classical liberalism for themselves, citing as they often do the work of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson.
And yet Robin puts conservatism and classical liberalism in dialogue only in his (convincing) argument that Edmund Burke and Adam Smith disagreed on the question of where market value originates. Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored, probably because the legacy of classical liberalism has given conservatism a language with which to oppose social injustice, a point Robin prefers not to dwell on.
It is regrettable, then, that what Robin has accomplished in his book is not to provide an account of what conservatism “really” is — conservatism is not a blind defense of power, contrary to his conceptions. Despite his astonishingly wide reading, despite his masterly rhetorical abilities, despite his wizardry with the pen, the only thing Robin’s book bolsters is the unexceptional liberal claim that conservatives really are classists, racists, and sexists — or, at the very least, committed to preserving classist, racist, and sexist hierarchies. The Reactionary Mind could have been a work that made conservatives reconsider their assumptions, or that drove centrists away from rightist theory. Instead it is a work that opts for the tendentious over the persuasive. Whatever insight it contains — and it certainly contains much — is undermined by the unfortunate reality that the book functions primarily to confirm old liberal prejudices about conservatives. A shame.