Not just a knee-jerk

Richard Seymour reviews The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

November 29, 2011
2 min read

Conservatism is a strange animal. Lacking the programmatic expositions of both liberalism and socialism, its adherents represent it as a preference for the familiar, the traditional and gradual change. Critics of conservatism such as Ted Honderich have pointed out that this would make conservatism remarkably stupid, involving hatred of the new until it had become familiar, no matter the principle involved. Moreover, such a description fails to capture the breadth of conservatism, which encompasses everything from reactionary anti-capitalism to pro‑market liberalism. Robin’s elegant book, a history of conservative ideas from Hobbes onward, resolves this dilemma by treating conservatism as a counter-revolutionary doctrine.

Far from offering a knee-jerk defence of tradition, the reactionary impulse moves in two directions: ‘first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes’.

This is a hallmark of conservatism from its inception. As much as Joseph de Maistre hated the democratic, republican tumult of the French revolution, he was forced to address his counter-revolutionary appeal to ‘citizens!’ And far from defending a static order, conservatives warn that egalitarianism will lead to stagnation. This is the basis of Nietzsche’s fears about the ‘Last Man’, and of Ayn Rand’s championing of the ‘demigod creator’ against the ‘unproductive elements in society’ who would constrain him. Lastly, far from being staid traditionalists, they mostly tend to be adventurists and lovers of the turmoil of war.

Above all, conservatism is opposed to the populace assuming the rights and authority of government. Whether it is Calhoun seeking to exclude African-Americans from the polity, or Burke barring labourers from a share in the management of the state, conservatism is profoundly anti-democratic. Yet in an era when the masses are mobile, conservatives must offer popular participation in the hierarchies they defend.

For Maistre, the lower orders could share in the majesty of monarchy. For later conservatives, the task was to enable the lower orders to boss others around – women, black people and those lower down the productive chain.

Such is the case brilliantly expounded in Robin’s latest book, an invaluable guide to the reactionaries of our time.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank


1