Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind has attracted plenty of attention both favorable and otherwise. I don’t want to offer a full-scale review, but to respond to the central thesis. As I read Robin, his central claim is that the current situation in which people who call themselves “conservative” are in fact radical reactionaries is not an aberration, but the norm, and that this has been the case ever since the first self-conscioulsy conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.
I’d put this more broadly – conservatism (and, it’s opposites, progressivism radicalism) are, in essence ideas about process, but the most people active in politics are more concerned about pursuing particular goals than about the way they get there.
To illustrate the point consider the standard claim about conservatism put forward by Michael Oakeshott in 1956 (also cited by Robin)
“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
Now consider how someone who actually held these views in the Britain of 1956 ought to have regarded trade unions. Of all British institutions, they were surely amongst the most familiar and factual, embodying the preference for actual present benefits over utopian projects. Yet that was not, as far as I can tell Oakeshott’s position at all (though his refusal of an honour from the Thatcher government may suggest some reconsideration later in life).
Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.
I think this is broadly correct. Although there are people with the conservative disposition described above (and also, people who are attracted by radicalism as such), there is no inherent correlation between conservatism as a disposition and support for the political views commonly associated with conservatism.
There is an accidental association reflecting the fact that, taking the last two or three centuries as a whole, the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital. Under such circumstances, people of conservative disposition will generally be found in opposition to the progressive demands being put forward by workers and their supporters.
The crucial test comes in periods such as the Bourbon restoration, or the neoliberal resurgence of the last thirty years or so, when the direction of change is reversed. Genuine conservatives in these circumstances seek to preserve those advances that have been embedded in the way society works (such as the New Deal in the US). Conservative politics on the other hand, is dominated by reactionaries seeking to restore (an idealised version) of the status quo ante, and gains the support of those with a radical disposition (Newt Gingrich is an ideal example). It’s certainly possible to find examples of the first kind (the “Wets” who resisted Thatcher for example) but they are clearly in the minority.
Long ago, I planned a book based on Raymond Williams Keywords, and blogged entries on topics including conservative, progressive and reform, which made some of these points. Corey Robin has done a much better job, and his book is well worth reading.