Review: ‘The Reactionary Mind’ by Corey Robin

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah PalinThe Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As an historian of ideas, Robin concentrates on the patterns of thinking within conservatism, but never seems to say that conservative actions and policies stem entirely from ideology. Indeed, he frequently points out the ruptures between theory and practice… yet he can usually find hidden resonances within the conservative idea/s that are consistent in ironic, unexpected ways, ways that often make seemingly paradoxical dissonances between theory and practice seem much more explicable.

Disjointed, of necessity (since this is a compilation of previously published essays on a variety of subjects), there are still clear and original linking ideas which are spelled out mostly in the new introduction. Conservatism is fundamentally a reaction to the loss of privilege, or the challenge to privilege from the oppressed. Conservatism is much less enamoured of stasis, familiarity etc than it thinks it is. Conservatism is much more depressive and melancholy than many people think. It is dependant upon left-wing ideas to provide it with negative stimulus. It is animated by a preoccupation with violence. It is more revolutionary than it pretends, being often as critical of ancient regimes as of radical challenges. Etc.

Robin delineates these ideas with a selection of profiles and intellectual traceries, hunting down the lineages of certain preoccupations through history. The most entertaining chapter is probably his thorough and brief (it need not be extensive to be thorough) takedown of that malignant mediocrity Ayn Rand. The most piercing is probably his analysis of the malaise that afflicted and spurred on conservatives after the supposedly-desired triumph over communism. The analysis of conservatism as an ever-changing yet essentially consistent range of ideas that prize the retention of privilege is tested and found highly persuasive as he charts conservative disillusion with capitalism triumphant after the end of the Cold War.

It’s hard to imagine anybody interested in modern politics coming away from this book without a lot more to think about.

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