What Am I Reading?: "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump"



This book by Corey Robin attempts to be an overview of the conservative movement from Burke to Trump. I hesitate to say that there is an argument in the book. Robin certainly thinks so, but I do not think he hits his target. Essentially he tries to argue that conservatism is marked by the attempt to maintain hierarchies, to keep power in the hands of an aristocracy. Here is an example:

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. Submission is their first duty, and agency the prerogative of the elite. 
The thing this misses is that for the conservative the elite and lower classes can have movement between them. He does note this, but there is always a hint of disapproval as if  one man's ability to prove himself in some endeavor is an injustice. For instance,

What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.
Say we agree to this, which I do. How exactly does that distinguish a progressive (or leftist, they aren't the same) from a conservative? It doesn't, because everyone no matter what political ideology views certain groups as lower, and that others are higher. The only difference between the conservative and the progressive (or leftist) is that we view different people of lower and higher orders. The Conservative will not think that wanting to limit marriage to male and female relationships is oppressive, but simply the definition of marriage. As a counter example to Robin's definition, does anyone for a minute think that Robin thinks that a neo-Nazis should have power? Obviously not, but this is Robin, a progressive, wanting to keep some lower class from having power. So, does that make Robin a conservative? No, of course not. Robin misses the essence of conservatism. It is true, of course, that the conservative seeks to place those of whom he approves into places of power. That only makes sense in a republic. We put people in place who we want to do our bidding.

Arguably the conservative wants even more mundane rights for the "lower classes" than the progressive. Robin even notes that, "by virtue of polity, Burke allowed, men had a great many rights - to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more." That doesn't sound like a repressive society to me. The only thing Burke did not think the lower classes had access to was a, "share of power, authority, and direction in the management of the state." There isn't anything inherently conservative about this. I am sure Lenin didn't want the Russian Democratic Liberals running things alongside of him, because he didn't think they were fit to lead by reason of their ideology.  Robing goes on and tries to give other defining features of conservatism like the idea of struggle found in Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, as interesting as Burke's writings are on this I fail to see how it gives us an essential definition of what Conservatism is or what a Conservative believes. The Bolsheviks after all also praised the military life and struggle for the revolution. In fact Trotsky thought that the revolutionary struggle should be on going. Again, we don't claim Trotsky as a conservative.

Unfortunately, Robin never gives us a true definition of what Conservatism is, because he is missing the mark. There are many different types of conservatives, Burkean conservatism is only one type. Robin thinks he can draw a line from Conservatism to Trump, but this seems wrong to me. I don't think there is a clear line, there may be possible lines that lead to a Trump presidency, but the best we can argue is that conservatives supported Trump in the election out of necessity. Trump isn't a conservative but maybe conservatives thought he was more in line with their principles than Clinton. Robin tries to say he is, but he isn't. Trump is a populist that tapped into a populist impulse that had some overlaps with Conservatism, but so what?

So what exactly is conservatism? I think we need to actually look at someone like Russel Kirk. Kirk wrote a fairly famous essay Ten Conservative Principles in it he gives us twelve principles that various types of conservatives may share. Not every conservative will share everyone, but if you share most of them you can be called a conservative, Conservatism isn't an ideology like Liberalism, progressivism, or Marxism. I would call it a family of ideas that have relative similarities. Here is Kirk's list:


  1. The Conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
  2. The Conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
  3. The Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of conscription. "The Individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man's petty private rationality. 
  4. The Conservative is guided by the principle of Prudence. Which is, "the idea that any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences. Liberals and radicals are imprudent says the Conservative for they dash at their objectives without giving heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away." The motto for this would be : "Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries."
  5. Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. "For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgement and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation.
  6. Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility. "Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults..." "Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created."
  7. Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
  8. Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  9. The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and human passions. 
  10. The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. 
I consider myself a conservative. I agree with a lot of the points above but not all. My point is this: that Robin puts conservatism on a Procrustean bed. The result is one sided, and misrepresents the tradition as a whole. As I was reading through the book I could see numerous places where I couldn't recognize what he was saying as conservative. He could pull some quotes from here and there, but he focused on a very narrow selection of writers. 

There were many interesting insights in the book, but at the end of the day I am not sure it tells us much about Conservatism from Burke to Trump. I also have a problem with Robin lumping Conservatives with reactionaries. This may be for another post, but I view reactionary thinkers like DeMaistre to be removed from Burke or DeTocqueville. 

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