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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin [Hardcover]

Corey Robin
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

10 Nov 2011
What is conservatism today? And what is its lineage? In The Reactionary Mind, political scientist Corey Robin (author of the acclaimed and prize-winning Fear: The History of a Political Idea) makes a strikingly bold claim about the right's political and intellectual foundations.

Robin contends that from the eighteenth century through today, the right has been united by a defense of inequality and privilege and by a deep hostility to all forms of progressive politics. The book ranges widely, covering figures as various as Edmund Burke and Antonin Scalia, John C. Calhoun and Ayn Rand, Joseph de Maistre and Phyllis Schlafly. While mindful of differences within the right, and of change across time, Robin insists upon the unifying themes of the "counterrevolutionary experience"—the defense of rule in the face of movements demanding freedom and equality. The variation on the right that one sees, Robin claims, is as much a product of tactical adjustment as anything else. The right has always learned from the left. Abhorring stasis, it has opted for a dynamic conception of society, involving struggle, violence, and war. This capacity for reinvention and partiality to violence has been crucial to its continued vitality.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (10 Nov 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199793743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199793747
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 14.2 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 644,069 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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This little book will continue to spark controversy: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our time. (Joanna Bourke, Times Higher Education)

Corey Robin's extraordinary collection, constantly fresh, continuously sharp, and always clear and eloquent, provides the only satisfactory philosophically coherent account of elite conservatism I have ever read. Then there's this bonus: his remarkably penetrating side inquiry into the notion of 'national security' as a taproot of America's contemporary abuse of democracy. It's all great, a model in the exercise of humane letters. (Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland)

This book is a fascinating exploration of a central idea: that conservatism is, at its heart, a reaction against democratic challenges, in public and private life, to hierarchies of power and status. Corey Robin leads us through a series of case studies over the last few centuries - from Hobbes to Ayn Rand, from Burke to Sarah Palin - showing the power of this idea by illuminating conservatives both sublime and ridiculous. (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University)

Beautifully written, these essays deepen our understanding of why conservatism remains a powerful force in American politics. (Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History, University of California-Los Angeles, and past president of the American Historical Association)

is a wonderfully good read. It combines up-to-the-minute relevance with an eye to the intellectual history of conservatism in all its protean forms, going back as far as Hobbes, and taking in not only restrained and sentimental defenders of tradition such as Burke, but his more violent, proto-fascist contemporary Joseph de Maistre. Some readers will enjoy Corey Robin's dismantling of different recent thinkers - Barry Goldwater, Antonin Scalia, Irving Kristol; others will enjoy his demolition of Ayn Rand's intellectual pretensions. Some will be uncomfortable when they discover that those who too lightly endorse state violence, and even officially sanctioned torture, include some of their friends. That is one of the things that makes this such a good book. (Alan Ryan, Professor of Political Theory, Oxford University)

About the Author

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and the London Review of Books.

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Challenging and useful 5 April 2012
Corey Robin's book has received a great deal of publicity since its publication, and rightly so. It's a controversial book in the best sense, which is to say that it has started some interesting controversies about the real nature of that type of political thought which we normally call "reactionary" or "conservative." Simply put, his thesis is that reactionary thinkers have (literally) reacted to social, economic and political advances since the French Revolution not by simply trying to turn back the clock, but by by embracing alternative, equally revolutionary, ideas. Rather than uncritically supporting the established order, he argues, the Right has frequently criticised it for being too soft and complacent, and so allowing the triumph of scandalous new ideas of freedom, rights and equality. For many of them, from Hobbes and Burke onwards, the need is to build an authoritarian, virile, warlike state which gets rid of such nonsense as rights and economic justice. Only in this fashion can civilisation and society be preserved, and such priorities come before questions of,say, support of free-market capitalism. It's an interesting and largely convincing thesis. I would have liked the book to give more practical examples of reactionary régimes: Franco's Spain and Pétain's France, for example, were both reactionary states, concerned to overturn modern ideas and reassert "traditional values", but both also also introduced a whole series of revolutionary social and economic ideas. Neither was a fan of the free market. Modern right-wing parties (like the French National Front) tend to combine the rhetoric of change with the rhetoric of a return to the past, in a way which a longer and more structured book could interestingly have dealt with. Read more ›
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Great research with interesting and poignant quotes, very current and and thoughtful, manages to be clear in thesis and argument throughout despite being a collection, providing the reader with a clear message and evidence to back it up..
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5 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a help to understand right wing "thought" 23 Feb 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
I read this on my kindle which only allows characters in a tweet to comment - but I wanted to say that although this book is a bit dense in bits and does assume that the reader knows a bit of history and a bit of historical philosophical/economic thought to follow some of the reasoning, it did go a long way to helping me understand a lot of the conservative/Republican/Libertarian thought going on right now. It helped me understand it in a psychological sense - I do not think there is much of a reasoning/logical sense to understand. I am beginning to see how the battle (maybe not the right choice of metaphor) is between a reasoning of how-can-we-make-the-world-better, or more equitable (on the left) versus an almost totally visceral/emotive power of what-makes-us-feel-like-heroes on the right - I know I am brutally paraphrasing in a way the author may not quite approve, but I now understand a bit more of why reasoning with someone on the right rarely if ever is successful, and why so much of what is happening makes so little sense. recommended reading - but it is not light bedtime reading. However I now feel, from reading this that my understanding of the political weirdness that seems to be especially the American scene right now is a lot more comprehensible than it was.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on conservatism 15 Jan 2012
By Iveta Kazoka - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
There is not much literature on what it means to be conservative (outside the very specific US context). OK, there is an essay by Michael Oakeshott, but it was written in ... 1956.

So Corey Robin has written the most enlightening book on conservativism there is. In contrast to romanticized perspective of Michael Oakeshott, in this book conservativism is being viewed more as a revanchist outlook which develops as a reaction against emancipation initatives of the left.

Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia are treated quite harshly in the book - it is not for me to decide whether such attitude is or is not justified, but those two chapters are quite entertaining to read. The author does not insist that all conservatism is bad or silly though, the idea that stuck in my mind after having finished the book is that "the conservative speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value". I consider this to be a profound observation that in itself would have been a sufficient reason to read the book.
53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holds together well (and I appreciate the occasional invective!) 24 Nov 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm so glad I ignored the NYTimes review of this book. Corey Robin provides a coherent synthesis of a whole host of thinkers and thinking, bringing them under one "conservative" umbrella. Robin connects each piece of his argument to an overarching logical framework and I therefore don't understand what it means that he is preaching to the "converted" and this is just red meat for lefties. While progressives may be more open than a conservative to Robin's ideas, this book doesn't preach or rally leftist troops at all. Rather, his book provides a comprehensive explanation, that sort of which I've never run across before summarized in this fashion, of conservative motives and thinking. Just because he pops Ayn Rand once or twice doesn't take away from a solid book.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and not what you think 10 Jan 2012
By T. Tucker - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A lot of people seem to think that is book is an anti-conservative screed. In fact, it's a pretty sympathetic portrait of conservatism that gets to the appeal of conservative philosophy, in particular its inherent romanticism. As a political observer, I've always had trouble understanding how conservatives think. This book helped me a lot with that.

The introduction is the strongest part of the book, in my opinion. There is a bit of meandering in the middle -- in particular the discussion of two former conservatives and of American policy in Latin America seem a bit tangential to the overall discussion. Still, a very good, informative read overall.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read for Understanding Modern Conservatism 3 Aug 2012
By Michelle Nickerson - Published on
This is a beautifully written collection of essays that I recommend to anyone interested in the history of modern conservatism. Note to conservatives: It will become clear early on that Robin is not from the right, but don't let that put you off...let it provoke you. The nuances with which Robins engages conservative philosophy and artfully brings 18th and 19th century political thought to the modern political landscape should please readers across the spectrum. -Michelle Nickerson, author of "Mothers of Conservatism"
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive essays on the conservative ideology 3 Mar 2012
By whiteelephant - Published on
Corey Robin puts forward his unifying thesis of conservatism in the introduction and first chapter of 'The Reactionary Mind'. To Robin, what unites the disparate trends of conservatism is their reaction to the egalitarian challenge posed by movements of the left. Robin argues persuasively that conservatism "is not a commitment to limited government and liberty -- or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue." These are mere conceits or misunderstandings of the counterrevolution. "Radicalism is the raison d'être of conservatism; if it goes, conservatism goes too." But in the process of fending off the challenge of the left, conservatism requires more sophistication than a mere defence of the ancien regime. Indeed, Robin cites notable conservatives from Burke to Maistre to Goldwater as being contemptuous of the hierarchies of their day. In doing battle with the left, conservatives are notable for their appropriation of the techniques and language of their opponents, as well as their revolutionary outlook. The revolutionary claims that inequality is a human creation and can be undone - the conservative adopts this outlook in defence of recreating a grander, more pure hierarchy. "The revolutionary declares the Year I, and in response the conservative declares the Year Negative I."

This book is worth reading for these sections alone, which deftly elucidate the conservative ideology (although I doubt conservative readers would agree). Beyond this, the book is actually a series of previously published essays, nearly all of which are excellent - both in terms of insight and prose. In these, Robin applies his ideological framework to a variety of conservatives - from Thomas Hobbes to Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia to Barry Goldwater. The last few essays, focusing on the neoconservative movement and war, are quite insightful. To Robin, "conservatism requires defeat; failure is its most potent source of inspiration," meaning its practical triumph can explain its theoretical malaise, both in the late nineties, and again today.

Highly recommended, as Robin is able to tie conservatives present and past in a way that exposes the flawed notion that today's conservatism has somehow departed from its history.
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