Readers have asked me what I think of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011), which shares a name with my book The Reactionary Mind: Why ‘Conservative’ Isn’t Enough (2021). Some have accused me of cribbing the title from Professor Robin. To which I say this:
I’ve read Corey Robin’s book, whose title he cribbed from Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. The Conservative Mind is a book written by a conservative explaining what conservatives believe. I thought folks might like to read a book by a reactionary explaining what reactionaries believe. It’s an odd premise, I know. But I believe some people still buy books to read and consider other people’s perspectives—not to line their ideological birdcages.
I’m sure Corey Robin is whip smart and a very nice man. But, I didn’t think much of his book. (Neither did Mark Lilla, for that matter.) I bought it as a college student at my local Barnes & Noble, thinking—ah, youth!—it would be a reasonably fair survey of reactionary thought. Well, it’s as fair as a North Korean parole board and about as subtle.
Here is Professor Robin’s thesis:
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different banners–the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism–and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overtly and covertly. That march and demarche of democracy is the story of modern politics or at least one of its stories.”
This book is about the second half of that story, the demarche, and the political ideas–variously called conservative, reactionary, revanchist, counterrevolutionary–that grow out of and give rise to it. These ideas, which occupy the right side of the political spectrum, are forged in battle. They always have been, at least since they first emerged as formal ideologies during the French Revolution, battles between social groups rather than nations; roughly speaking, between those with more power and those with less. To understand these ideas, we have to understand that story. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on–and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.
Now, he’s wrong on at least three levels.
Firstly, he makes no distinction between “conservative” and “reactionary.” We may as well be talking about a book called The Communist Mind: Liberalism from John Stuart Mill to Pol Pot.
Secondly, it uses “reactionary” as a term of abuse, which is the only reason that Professor Robin uses it at all. But, again, it’s written in a thick ivory-tower accent, so you don’t realize right away that it’s a libelous screed. It’s like hearing William F. Buckley telling Gore Vidal he’ll sock him in the goddam face, though not nearly as entertaining.
Thirdly, it ignores the fact that, within the reactionary (as opposed to the conservative) movement, there are two tendencies.
The first tendency are reactionary elitists. This would entail men like Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald. They come from society’s upper crust. Broadly speaking, they look to preserve their own prerogative as ruler. They tend to be distrustful of the masses and believe themselves better qualified to exercise political power.
The elitists are a small minority of all reactionaries. But, for obvious reasons, they’re also the most literate, meaning you’re more likely to read about them in the library of Brooklyn College.
The second tendency are reactionary democrats. They argue that modernity is bad because it deprives the common man of his wealth, power, rights, religion, customs, traditions, security, and general wellbeing. A few of them wrote high-level political theory, but most did not, which may be why Professor Robin hasn’t heard of them.
The phrase “reactionary democracy” was coined by Isaiah Berlin. It’s not perfect, but it does the job. Berlin used it in reference to the philosopher Johann Georg Hamann—who, he says, both inaugurated and typified the idea of reactionary democracy. He was the first to really criticize the Enlightenment “from below.” So, Berlin writes that Hamann
protests, not of course against Kant’s disapproval of childlike dependence on the part of subjects, but against his conception of the liberty of action due to truly enlightened men. Who has given the State, or its ruler and his hired professors, the right to tell others how to live? Who has certified them as ultimate authority—this self-appointed elite of sages and experts who have declared themselves infallible and presume to dictate to others? For him enlightenment and despotism—intellectual and political (for they are one)—march hand in hand.
Naturally one can disagree with Hamann. But he’s not speaking from the position of a disenfranchised elite. He may well have agreed with that indigent scribbler Louis Veuillot: “If I could reestablish a class of nobles, I should do so at once, and I would not belong to it.”
Reactionary elitists and reactionary democrats naturally share a fondness for traditional aristocracy. But theirs is a pure and literal aristocracy: “rule by the best,” meaning the most competent, not the most “enlightened.”
Reactionaries view statecraft as a trade like any other, which is why they prefer hereditary rulers. Aristocrats begin learning their trade on their fathers’ knee, as Christ learned carpentry from St. Joseph in his workshop. They don’t see government as a venue for philosophers. On the contrary: they feel that too much book-learning gets in the way of good old-fashioned know-how. The reactionary would prefer to have their toilet unclogged by the local plumber than a Ph.D in hydraulic engineering.
For this reason, Robin and Berlin both accuse reactionaries of “anti-intellectualism.” Again, that’s wrong. As Hamann makes clear, a “visionary” ruler can do nothing but use the power of the State to impose his views on the masses. If he contents himself with the plain business of government (paving the roads, repelling invaders, etc.) he doesn’t need any special training in political science. But if he believes his duty is to “enlighten” his subjects, then he must necessarily cross the threshold from aristocrat to tyrant.
Objectively speaking, Hamann is right. This has proven to be the case everywhere in history. In his book The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc (another reactionary democrat) describes how Henry VIII abolished the feudal privileges of the Church and the serfs (the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the centralization of land ownership, etc.) to finance the Protestant Reformation.
Richard III could never have changed the national religion of England, if only because he lacked the means. None but the social-climbing Tudors, who laid claim to virtually all wealth and power in England, could have dreamed of breaking from Rome and establishing themselves as “Supreme Governors” of a national church. Virtually all of the many rebellions which occurred under the House of Tudor were fought to defend the Catholic Church, reverse enclosure, or repeal new taxes.
Some were even launched to defend local government—that is, government by a local aristocrat, as opposed to the totalitarian monarchy. We see this theme, too, in reactionary rebellions across Europe. “Local patriotism” was a major concern for the French royalists; their defeat, and the ultimate triumph of Napoleon Bonaparte, led to the establishment of France’s first real bureaucracy. As Pierre Paul Royer-Collard reflected,
From an atomized society has emerged centralization. There is no need to look elsewhere for its origin. Centralization has not arrived with its head erect, with the authority of a principle; rather; it has developed modestly, as a consequence, a necessity. Indeed, where there are only individuals, all business which is not theirs is necessarily public business, the business of the state. Where there are no independent magistrates, there are only agents of central power. That is how we have become an administered people, under the hand of irresponsible civil servants, themselves centralized in the power of which they are agents.
Likewise, the Spanish Carlists were ardent regionalists, and the defense of fueros (a kind of local franchise) lay at the heart of their philosophy. The great Carlist statesman Juan Vázquez de Mella once declared: “The modern state does not recognize the juridical existence and rights of the guild, nor of the municipality, nor of even of the family, unless sanctioned by its express will.”
Other reactionary democrats focused on economics rather than politics. For instance, William Cobbett rejected industrial capitalism in favor of agrarianism. “If the cultivators of the land be not, generally speaking, the most virtuous and most happy of mankind,” he wrote, “there must be something at work in the community to counteract the operations of nature.”
Cobbett wished to abolish the servile state imposed on England by the Tudors. He was a radical, yes. But his aim was to restore the modest government and economy which prevailed during the Middle Ages—the “natural democracy” of feudalism.
In fact, Cobbett was so reactionary that he opposed the drinking of tea (“a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age”) and encouraged men to return to the old practice of drinking ale at breakfast.
Perhaps the best-known reactionary democrat, however, is Benjamin Disraeli: the middle-class Jew who went on to become the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the Conservative Party.
Early in his career, Disraeli was a leader of the neo-feudalist movement known as Young England. Young England’s goal was to unite the two most traditional orders of British society, the peasantry and the aristocracy, against the progressive bourgeoise. Disraeli said of Young England:
They trusted much to popular sentiment, which rested on an heroic tradition and was sustained by the high spirit of a free aristocracy. Their economic principles were not unsound, but they looked upon the health and knowledge of the multitude as not the least precious part of the wealth of nations. In asserting the doctrine of race, they were entirely opposed to the equality of man, and similar abstract dogmas, which have destroyed ancient society without creating a satisfactory substitute. Resting on popular sympathies and popular privileges, they held that no society could be durable unless it was built upon principles of loyalty and religious reverence.
But it’s G.K. Chesterton, I think, whose writings truly embody the spirit of the reactionary democrat. As he said, “It grows plainer, every day, that those of us who cling to crumbling creeds and dogmas, and defend the dying traditions of the Dark Ages, will soon be left alone defending the most obviously decaying of all those ancient dogmas: the idea called Democracy.”
Here’s an almost explicit reference to the natural democracy of feudalism. But just in case this isn’t clear, GKC goes on:
Modernity is not democracy; machinery is not democracy; the surrender of everything to trade and commerce is not democracy. Capitalism is not democracy; and is admittedly, by trend and savor, rather against democracy. Plutocracy by definition is not democracy. But all these modern things forced themselves into the world at about the time, or shortly after the time, when great idealists like Rousseau and Jefferson happened to have been thinking about the democratic ideal of democracy.
A true progressive might applaud men like Henry VIII and Napoleon for modernizing the state and centralizing the economy in order to drag Europe out of the Dark Ages. But there’s no use in pretending that the masses fought for such “progress,” only to be opposed by skittish kings and ruthless bishops. Historians are fond of that caricature, but who knows less about history than historians?
Mind you, this isn’t even mentioning less polemical groups like the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Vendeans, Sanfedismo, the Jacobites, and the Cristeros. All were supported overwhelmingly by peasants or the urban poor. All stridently opposed both liberalization and centralization in their governments. All were inspired by deep religious conviction. And all but the Cristeros (who existed in a republic) sought to preserve the authority of the aristocracy.
That is to say, none of them possessed or wanted to possess any sort of political power. All of them were fighting to defend the traditional liberties of the commoner against “enlightened” despots.
“But that’s not who I’m talking about!” Prof. Robin might complain. “I’m talking about Edmund Burke and Donald Trump.” Well, I’ve argued before that Burke is overrated. I might even agree with Professor Robin that he was blinded to the abuses of the Ancien Régime by his own position in the British aristocracy—which, by the late 18th century, was dominated by the heirs of Henry VIII’s “New Men.” And if you want to call Burke and his heirs conservatives, I won’t protest. They can fight their own battles.
But reactionaries are a different kettle of fish. We’re a distinct tendency within right-of-center politics, and we can’t be lazily conflated with conservatives. We’ve been fighting against oligarchy since men of Robin’s ilk were stealing gold chalices from monasteries and melting them down for pocket money. We were standing up for the little guy back when Robin’s pals in powdered wigs were dragging “counter-revolutionary” peasants to the guillotine.
Again, he may argue that such atrocities were necessary to achieve this glorious modernity of ours. But to say that reactionaries are interested in nothing but “the felt experience of having power” is a lie—albeit a clever one.
Worse than that, it’s a lie that belies the ongoing use of centralized power and wealth to advance progressive dogmata.
I’m not going to waste time repeating well-known examples of such abuse, like the Supreme Court imposing both abortion and same-sex marriage on the United States, or corporations’ ongoing efforts to impose transgender ideology on states by threatening to boycott them. Our oligarchs always has been, and always will be, men of the Left.
I only hope that sincere, well-meaning liberals will come to realize that their heroes are not freedom-fighters. They’re tyrants. And if they really do hate the idea of wealthy elites imposing their views on ordinary, hard-working men and women, they’re not “progressives.” They’re reactionaries.