The Reactionary Mind

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The Reactionary Mind
The Reactionary Mind.jpg
Author Corey Robin
Country United States
Language English
Subject Conservatism, politics
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 304
ISBN 0199793743
305.32 21

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin is a 2011 book written by political theorist Corey Robin. It argues that conservatism from the 17th century to today is based on the principle "that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others".[1]:18[2] Robin argues that rather than being about liberty, limited government, resistance to change, or public virtue, conservatism is a "mode of counterrevolutionary practice" to preserve hierarchy and power.[1]:17


The book begins by redefining conservatism as an attempt to preserve hierarchy in the wake of a democratic movement. One example of this 19th century slogan is given:

To obey a real one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.[1]:17

Robin goes through the history of conservatism starting with Edmund Burke and argues that traditional definitions of conservatism as an attempt to preserve some kind of tradition are inadequate. He cites passages from Burke and Joseph de Maistre which criticize the old order for being decadent and needing to be recreated. Thomas Hobbes's social contract is given as a conservative solution to a new order which is able to preserve itself under threat.[1]:62

Robin argues that in the modern era conservatives are often more concerned about preserving power in the private sphere, which finds struggles against causes such as labor movements and feminism.[1]:42

Reaction and controversy[edit]

The New York Times called it "a diatribe that preaches to the converted" while blogs such as Crooked Timber (a blog Robin contributes to) have defended it.[2] The New Republic gave a lukewarm review, saying that "Robin's arguments deserve widespread attention. But they [sic] way he has presented them almost ensures that they will not get it".[3] Mark Lilla criticized Robin's argument, arguing that Robin's definition of conservatism "can be reduced to this: "those who react against movements of the left" react against movements of the left - which is a tautology, not an argument" and that one needs to "distinguish 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".[4]

Alex Gourevitch praised Robin for attempting to develop a comprehensive understanding of conservatism and for trying to examine conservative ideas rather than dismissing them outright. He also praised Robin for examining how conservatism can learn from the political left. However, Goutrevitch also criticsed Robin, arguing that Robin dismissed important differences between different branches of conservatism, as well as similarities between the political left and right, which Gourevitch felt hurt Robin's thesis. He also questioned if conservatives actually intended to defend hierarchies or if these are simply a consequence of conservative ideals, observing examples such as libertarianism, which often results in hierarchies yet libertarians regard themselves as defending freedom and opposing domination while viewing leftists as introducing their own forms of domination.[5]

The book was also criticized by Sheri Berman, who argues that Robin mischaracterizes right-wing populism, arguing that "taking right-wing populism seriously means accepting that those who support it believe what they say and have agency, rather than viewing them as being used or manipulated in the service of the elites. Robin clearly does not believe these things. He tries to explain his views of populism using a variety of odd and even nonsensical terms". Berman also notes that "[t]he feudal, elitist and hierarchical conservatism that Robin stresses did exist, but it was the conservatism of the ancien régime and it is a tradition conservative thinkers and activists have been slowly abandoning ever since". Berman concludes that "[Robin] repeatedly characterizes conservative leaders and thinkers as manipulative, repressive, "enlivened" by violence, and committed to the oppression of the "subordinate classes" or "lower orders".[6]

Christian Gonzalez, writing for the National Review Online, argued Robin's "theory of conservatism is grounded in an interpretation of violent, revolutionary irruptions as “emancipatory” and of counterrevolutionary thought and practice as “oppressive.” Remove that interpretation of history and his thesis collapses." Gonzalez argues that there are reasons to reject this thesis, such as the French and Russian revolutions leading to tyranny, as well as leftist apologia for both the crimes of Stalinism during the 1930s and the dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Gonzalez also argued that conservative figures have criticized social injustice and arbitrary hierarchy, such as Edmund Burke's criticism of slavery, his support for the American revolution and criticism of British imperialism in India, as well as Roger Scruton's support for dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia. Gonzalez did praise Robin's rhetorical ability and argued that he had the ability to challenge the assumptions underlying conservatism but ultimately concluded that his work "functions primarily to confirm old liberal prejudices about conservatives".[7]

John Derbyshire negatively received the book, accusing Robin of naive utopianism, arguing that Robin "wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary. It is astounding that Robin does not know this".[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e Robin, Corey (2011). The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ a b Schuessler, Jennifer. "Corey Robin's 'Reactionary Mind' Stirs Internet Debate". The New York Times. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  3. ^ Wolfe, Alan. "One Right". The New Republic. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  4. ^ Lilla, Mark. "'The Reactionary Mind': An Exchange". Retrieved February 25, 2017.
  5. ^ Gourevitch, Alex. "Borrowed Energy". Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  6. ^ Berman, Sheri. "A Response to Corey Robin". Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  7. ^ Gonzalez, Christian. "A Response to Corey Robin: Conservatism Isn't about Preserving Privilege". Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  8. ^ Derbyshire, John. "Wrong About the Right". Retrieved February 28, 2017.