Corey Robin, the Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

By Beland, Daniel | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Corey Robin, the Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin


Beland, Daniel, Canadian Review of Sociology


COREY ROBIN, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011, xiii + 290 p., index.

In October 2011, only weeks after the publication of this book, Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain perfectly illustrated the blunt nature of contemporary U.S. conservatism. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in reaction to the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cain told protesters that "if you don't have a job, and you're hot rich, blame yourself." Although it does not count as "theory," this quote illustrates what Robin sees as the nature of conservatism that he defines as "the theoretical voice of the animus against the agency of the subordinate classes" (p. 7). For this left-leaning professor from City University of New York (CUNY), conservatism "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, agency, the prerogative of the elite" (p. 7). Although Cain is hardly a conservative luminary, his quote points to what Robin depicts as the reactionary nature of conservatism, which emerges as a backlash against emancipatory social movements (e.g., unionism and feminism) that challenge existing public and private hierarchies. Although it adapts to the changing nature of its enemies on the left, for Robin, only a long-term historical and comparative perspective on conservatism allows us to grasp the ideological unity of the political right. According to him, this unity actually lies in its regressive nature: "not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative (...) but all conservatives are, in a way or another, counterrevolutionary" (p. 34). Considering this, U.S. conservatism, far from being "exceptional" as scholars had previously argued, is embedded in the same ideological logic as European conservatism. By constantly returning to the work of its founders--Joseph the Maistre and, especially, Edmund Burke, Robin draws striking parallels between these long-dead, European conservatives and key figures of today's conservative movement in the United States (the book's subtitle is "Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin" for a reason, although Palin herself is only mentioned on a few occasions).

Ironically, although the unity of conservatism is the boldest argument of The Reactionary Mind, the book itself lacks unity, as it consists of a loosely assembled collection of previously published essays. After a lengthy and fascinating introductory chapter, Part I of the book, appropriately titled "Profiles in Reaction," deals with figures ranging from Hobbes to Ayn Rand and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

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