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Wrong Reaction

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla reviews Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Like some other notable reviews, Lilla’s claims that Robin got the subject right but the argument wrong. Robin should have written a different book—the book that the reviewer, in this case Lilla, would have written. In the dismissive tone of a schoolteacher making an example of a bad student essay (“Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind is a useful book to have—not as an example to follow, but one to avoid”) Lilla absolves the reader, and himself, of the need to read Robin’s book with the necessary care.

And it shows: of the good points that Lilla does go on to make, Robin mostly agrees and makes them in his book. Having decided that Robin is an “über-lumper”– because The Reactionary Mind draws out what is common among otherwise very different conservatives– Lilla helpfully reminds the rest of the class that “if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past century, it is that la destra è mobile. The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again.”

Devastating! Except that Robin makes the same point: “Some conservatives criticize the free market, others defend it; some oppose the state, others embrace it; some believe in God, others are atheists. Some are localists, others nationalists, and still others internationalists. Some, like Burke, are all three at the same time. But these are historical improvisations—tactical and substantive—on a theme. Only by juxtaposing these voices—across time and space—can we make out the theme amid the improvisation.”

As the last sentence indicates, the aim of Robin’s book is to connect an account of the essence of conservatism to the obvious fact of its historical variation. That is why the book is mostly composed of a series of chapters examining concrete, historical examples—Hobbes, Burke, Rand, neoconservatism. The organizing assumption of these chapters is that conservatism revolves around a political principle that is consistent yet adaptive, an idea that is sensitive to context and capable of producing a wide array of concrete, if conflicting, prescriptions. The common principle binding together strange bedfellows is the rejection of the quest for equal freedom: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this 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.”

That conservatism is reaction makes it no less principled. Rather, reaction is inscribed in the political principle itself. But as reaction conservatism will assume a variety of forms depending on the particular struggle it is mobilizing against: “If conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific movement of emancipation, it stands to reason that each reaction will bear the traces of the movement it opposes….Not only has the right reacted against the left, but in the course of conducting its reaction, it also has consistently borrowed from the left. As the movements of the left change—from the French Revolution to abolition to the right to vote to the right to organize to the Bolshevik Revolution to the struggles for black freedom and women’s liberation—so do the reactions of the right.”

This historical adaptability and sensitivity to context is a theme Robin repeatedly comes back to throughout his book: “[Conservatives] read situations and circumstances…their preferred mode is adaptation and intimation rather than assertion and declamation…the conservative mind is extraordinarily supple, alert to changes in context…the conservative possesses a tactical virtuosity few can match.”

I have supplied so many quotes from the book to drive home the point that Robin is well aware of the problem of oversimplification and caricature. Rather than shy away from the challenge in the name of complexity and nuance, Robin rises to it. Here at once is an argument about what unifies conservatism—the rejection of equal freedom—and what accounts for its many diverse modes of expression: the reactionary, and thus context-dependent, mode in which conservative politics is carried out. Since every particular struggle for equal freedom bears the marks of its moment and its society, conservatism too modulates itself in response to the needs of time and place.

(As it turns out, even Lilla agrees that “lumping” together strange bedfellows as conservatives is legitimate. In a 2009 article for The Chronicle Review, Lilla lauded a course on “the various strands of conservatism” in which students “read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others.” With the exception of Bloom, Robin gives each one of the aforementioned his or her own chapter or includes him or her as part of a joint profile. )

Though Lilla claims to be reacting to the alleged simplicity of Robin’s argument, one suspects that he is really reacting to its substance. Not only is Robin an über-lumper, sniffs Lilla, but he, along with such lightweights as E.P. Thompson, Arno Mayer, and Eric Hobsbawm (talk about lumping!), is an über-lumper of the Left: “In their tableau, history’s damnés de la terreare brought together into a single heroic image of suffering and resistance.” This is a clever piece of rhetoric, tempting us to believe that the appeal to concrete, historical struggles is childish and populist, the work of a morally enthusiastic but misguided sophomore. We are meant to believe that the real, adult quarrels take place in some hermetically sealed domain of philosophical and intellectual disagreement.

Unlike today’s academic, however, most of the conservatives Robin examines were not spending their time in seminars. The conservative vision of figures like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh did not fully emerge and get articulated until the first real threat to slavery was posed during the debates over the tariff and then over slavery itself. After that, these same figures marshaled authorities from Aristotle to Jesus to the latest French sociology to articulate the necessity and desirability of slavery. Burke was a British MP when he penned his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, and it is unlikely that he saw the storming of the Bastille and deposing of Louis XVI as simply a convenient opportunity to expound on some metaphysical differences with friends.

The point here is not that ideological superstructure is crassly bolted onto the base of self-interest but that it is just not serious to try to locate the substance, much less vitality, of conservatism, or any other ideology, in metaphysical disagreement alone. If anything, metaphysical views often get forged in the heat of real battles. It is only when certain philosophical premises are challenged in a serious, even dangerous way, that they must self-consciously defend themselves—a point that conservatives have appreciated and that has formed the crux of the complex dialectic between tradition and reaction in conservatism generally. Conservatives did not need to marshal intellectual and philosophical resources against the idea of equal freedom until various dependent classes started to demand that kind of equality. (Would de Maistre really have made “individualism” his critical object had it simply been the calling card of a few philosophes, rather than part of the revolutionary assault on the privileges of the ancien regime?) One cannot wish away the role of these historical conflicts by dismissing Robin’s argument as Lefty sympathy for the damnés de la terre and then changing the subject.

Sadly, a French flourish does not, in fact, illustrate Lilla’s subtler, superior cast of mind. Once Lilla turns from his cursory, finger-wagging reading of Robin’s first chapter—which is really all that he discusses in his review—to supplying his own sketch of how the misguided student should have written his essay, we find little of the promised refinement and sophistication. If anything, we find more poorly digested lumps than those Robin is supposed to have served up.

Lilla’s counter-thesis is that the original distinction between liberal and conservative is “not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and hierarchy, but instead two very different understandings of human nature.” A conservative believes “society is —to use a large word [Burke] wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it.” Conservatives are thus not defending privilege per se but rather are hostile “only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions.” On the flip side, “Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds.” Robin’s mistake, in Lilla’s schema, is that he conflated this distinction with a different one—that of reactionaries and revolutionaries, who differ not in their view of human nature but human history.

It is hard to see how it is subtler, more attentive to nuance and detail, not to mention diversity of political experience, for Lilla to argue that the defining feature of conservatism is a commitment to a single metaphysical premise regarding human nature. And as Lilla goes on to explain in his analysis of the contemporary political scene, this distinction between metaphysical worldviews plays no part in the division between American conservatives and liberals—and one could extend that observation, though Lilla doesn’t, to Europe as well—so it’s hard to see what political significance it even has.

To make matters worse, Lilla is not just substituting his own crass simplification, he is also painfully wrong about what divides liberals from conservatives. After all, if liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there. This French sociological liberal tradition reaches a kind of apotheosis in Durkheim. His defense of Dreyfuss’s civil liberties was made on the basis of the theory, first presented in Division of Labor in Society, that society was progressing away from the form of solidarity that the French military wished to uphold towards a new, modern form of solidarity grounded in individual diversity. Durkheim’s essay “Individualism and the Intellectuals” was an even more pointed attempt to synthesize his methodological holism, or belief that society was prior to the individual, with a kind of moral individualism.

Nor are we just talking about French liberalism. There are similar attempts to articulate a kind of liberal individualism while rejecting the metaphysical or anthropological priority of the individual in L.T. Hobhouse’s “New Liberalism,” in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British Hegelian liberalism of T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, not to mention the early John Dewey. The later Dewey of Individualism Old and New (1930) and Liberalism and Social Action(1935) was also deeply suspicious of identifying liberalism with a set of metaphysical commitments regarding the anthropological status of the individual. If anything, he thought such commitments threatened to make liberalism stale and dogmatic, unable to respond to the new forms of social action required in response to the historical development of industrial capitalism, the modern state, not to mention the political agency of the working class. One might even say Dewey was, ahem, a pragmatist. And perhaps the most famous liberal political philosopher of the twentieth century, John Rawls, devoted the second half of his career to arguing that his liberalism was “political, not metaphysical”—his words.

It is only the social contract tradition (and maybe not even that), rather than liberalism or conservatism, that gives the impression that a metaphysical disagreement about the priority of the individual or society is the core axis of ideological dispute. You can get liberal views from any number of metaphysical standpoints and anthropological theses. One is even tempted to say that one of the core tendencies of liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth century was to rescue a kind of moral and political individualism from the implausible philosophical anthropology of the social contract tradition.

Yet more bizarre is Lilla’s view that a separate thesis on the philosophy of history separates not liberals and conservatives, but revolutionaries and reactionaries. It is difficult to know what exactly Lilla has in mind here, since apparently thinkers either have views about human nature or human history, but not both. Where does this leave a figure like Henry Maine, who made such a point of the historical transition from status to contract? One is even more at a loss when it comes to Burke, who Lilla appropriately identifies as an originator of modern conservatism, but whose arguably most famous quote is that society “is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” From this Burke developed a philosophy of history, no less crucial to his conservatism, in which the wholesale, revolutionary reinvention of society was impossible, bound instead to end in anarchy and violence.

On the flip side, Lilla’s representative of modern liberalism, JS Mill, made a view of history as the development of societies from passivity and dependence to active self-government a core part of his argument as to why the best form of government—a self-governing, liberal state—was not always possible. Among other things, this historical orientation underlay his defense of liberal imperialism, whose purpose was to subject peoples not yet fit for self-rule to the discipline of order—so that they might one day enjoy liberty.

Lilla’s final howler is not the mess he makes of liberalism and conservatism, but the way in which his definition of conservatism leaves us with no serious way of approaching yet another dimension of modern politics: the Left. Lilla thinks only conservatives assert the “metaphysical” priority of society over the individual. Yet the Left-Hegelians, and more important Marx himself, took the idea that society is prior to the individual (“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”) and made it into a radical critique of existing institutions, not a defense of them. Marx was not the only but perhaps the most important thinker on the Left to see that, if one believed the individual is a product of social relations, then the only way to create new possibilities for individual flourishing was to transform those very relations, until “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Here we are back to those pesky struggles for equal freedom.

A single metaphysical commitment regarding human nature does not take one very far in any political direction, let alone in understanding the ideological universe that one inhabits. It is political principles that do that work. That is the advantage of Robin’s approach over Lilla’s. I have my differences with Robin’s view, which I will be exploring in a forthcoming review, but Reactionary Mind deserves a far more serious and considerate assessment than it has received from, dare we say it, the liberal press.

Alex Gourevitch co-authors the blog The Current Moment, and is a post-doctoral research associate at the Political Theory Project, Brown University.


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