CRF Blog

The Reactionary Mind: An Exchange

by Damon Huss

Back in January, I posted on Mark Lilla’s negative review of The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin’s history of political conservatism. Robin writes a rebuttal in The New York Review of Books:

My book argues that conservatism is a reaction against movements of the left — from the French Revolution to feminism. While this is a revisionist claim, it required no elaborate digging on my part to make it. I simply looked at what conservatives have said about themselves. Robert Peel, who practically invented Britain’s Conservative Party, defined its aim as opposition “to the restless spirit of revolutionary change.” Russell Kirk, one of the intellectual architects of the American conservative movement, described conservatism as a “system of ideas” that “has sustained men…in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation.” George Nash, court historian of that movement, identified conservatism as “resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary.” All this, and more, I cite in my book. [more]

Mark Lilla’s surrebuttal:

[Robin] argues there are no such things as conservative principles, only ideological “improvisations” for defending hierarchy and privilege shared by a heterogeneous cast of characters running from Tocqueville and Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt and Phyllis Schlafly.

The point of my review was to distinguish conceptually between conservatism, which is informed by a view of human nature; reaction, which is informed by a view of history; and the right, which is a shifting, engaged ideological family that, in this country, includes a few genuine conservatives, radical libertarians, neoconservatives, social issues reactionaries, evangelicals, foreign policy hawks, e tutti quanti, who have disagreements among themselves. (As for Burke, who was a genuine conservative but also an engaged politician, it’s not surprising that he sometimes disagreed with himself.) [more]