(Robin 2011) The reactionary mind

Robin, Corey. The reactionary mind: conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford University Press; 2011.

This book is a collection of Robin’s essays, revised and with an extensive new introduction, in which he addresses the problem of finding a set of defining and unifying principles behind the various manifestations of the political Right. Robin insists that such a set of defining and unifying principles for conservatism must exist; he rejects views of the Right as essentially heterogeneous, like the view of George H. Nash that conservatism in the USA is a fabric woven from the three distinct strands of libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-Communism. Robin finds the essence of the Right in the motivation to maintain or restore aristocratic structures of hierarchical power and dominance that have been threatened or overthrown by left-wing reform or revolution driven by those at the bottom (page 7):

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, agency, the prerogative of the elite.

Conservatives see the power of the elite as justified by their qualities of excellence, which in turn are proven dynamically, in a struggle for supremacy; the right to hold power is demonstrated by the ability to seize it. Robin explains the association between conservatism and violence (especially warfare, but also ruthlessness in the economic sphere) in terms of this emphasis on proof of excellence through struggle.  Robin also sees Nash’s three strands of conservatism as simply manifestations of this same emphasis in three different spheres of activity (page 16):

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. … This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in post-war America that unlikely alliance of the libertarian, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth.

Since conservatism emphasizes hierarchy especially in the private sphere—in what Robin calls “the private life of power”—it has the potential to offer elite status, at least in a relative sense, to large numbers of people. In responding to left-wing challenges, reactionaries have taken advantage of this potential to create right-wing populist movements with mass appeal.



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Last revision: February 24, 2013