May 20, 2018


A Response to Corey Robin: Conservatism Isn't about Preserving Privilege (CHRISTIAN ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ, May 19, 2018, National Review)

Well researched and brilliantly argued though it was, Robin's thesis on conservatism presupposes a far-left conception of history that few people would feel comfortable endorsing. This is The Reactionary Mind's great shortcoming. To accept Robin's interpretation of conservatism requires one to accept his interpretation of history, which, as we will see, is morally questionable and inattentive to counter-evidence.

So what, exactly, does the Robin conception of history entail? Robin explains that ever since the Enlightenment, the Left has inaugurated great movements of "emancipatory politics." Leftist movements have struggled on behalf of the oppressed and the downtrodden against entrenched power structures and their rightist apologists. Modern history for Robin, then, is the tale of an unceasing leftist struggle to defeat the Right; presumably, once that defeat is accomplished, human societies can finally set themselves to the task of turning capitalist depravity into socialist utopia.

In theory, Robin's view of history might not sound so bad. In practice it is appalling: In his book we learn that his examples of leftist "movements for emancipation" include the French Revolution, "the nineteenth century's movements against slavery and on behalf of workers," the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the leftist activism of the 1930s.

Except for the case of abolition, which wasn't a cause of the Left but of the religious Right (more on this in a moment), those are some rather peculiar examples of liberationist movements. Indeed, who today but the most recalcitrant Marxist can take seriously the description of the French and Bolshevik revolutions as emancipatory movements? It is true that Russia and France saw ghoulish monarchs overthrown by popular uprisings; it is also true that both countries descended into dictatorships far more barbaric than the ones they replaced. To call the French and Russian revolutions emancipatory is to ignore Jacobin terror and Leninist tyranny.

And what is one to make of the suggestion that the Left was fighting for "emancipation" in the 1930s? One wonders which Left Robin is referencing. The 1930s were the peak of both Stalinist crimes and of all the leftist apologetics for them. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm chronicles in The Age of Extremes, leftist conduct in the 1930s and early '40s could hardly have been more unprincipled. Against the fascist threat, European and American Communists switched from supporting capitalist countries (the U.S. and the U.K.) to supporting Nazi Germany when it allied itself with Stalin's Russia in their joint mission to obliterate Poland. Then the Western Communists switched again, this time to oppose Germany . . . but only when and because it had invaded the Soviet Union!

Some politics of emancipation.

It is important to bear in mind not just that Robin's implicit approval of far-Left movements and governments is morally questionable but that it is indispensable to the arguments of The Reactionary Mind. His 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. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that conservatives did not turn on such revolutions once they achieved power and demonstrated their mass murderous intent, it opposed the very idea of them because it understood what would happen. Robin's argument is even more peculiar as the end of two centuries of The Long War saw the revolutions favored by his side abandoned and the societies they damaged rather peacefully evolve towards the End of History model that the Anglosphere had achieved by 1776.

Posted by at May 20, 2018 8:44 AM