U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lumpers, Splitters, and Essentialists

Mark Lilla has a thought-provoking review of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind in the January 12, 2012, issue of the New York Review of Books, though its interest is less in what he has to say about Robin than in his own argument about what is going on in American conservatism these days. Though Lilla sees himself as arguing from fundamentally different premises than Robin, in at least one crucial respect, I believe they make a similar mistake.
Lilla dismisses Robin’s book fairly quickly, calling Robin an “über-lumper”:

…which may please his beleaguered readers on the left, but makes his entire enterprise incoherent. He fails to see that it is based on a glaring fallacy of composition: he posits a class, isolates a characteristic of one of its members, and then ascribes that characteristic to every member of the class. Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre and George W. Bush are both on the right in Robin’s scheme; following his logic, since Maistre spoke flawless French, Bush must too. Which would be some national secret. Yet that’s exactly how Robin proceeds, until he has corralled everyone he doesn’t like into a pen and labeled them all conservatives and reactionaries and right-wingers, terms he fails to distinguish. 

I haven’t finished Robin’s book, but from what I have read of it, there’s at least a grain of truth to this accusation.  Certainly Robin’s project is to identify what he sees as the essence of conservatism, an essence that defines conservatives throughout Western modernity.  Conservatism, according to Robin, is always an “idea-driven praxis” and those ideas are, always and everywhere in the modern world, counterrevolutionary.  Robin is certainly a lumper…though whether or not this makes his project “incoherent,” as Lilla claims, is less obvious.
In contrast to Robin’s lumping, Lilla instead erects a model based on limited, but fundamental, splitting.  Lilla describes modern, Western politics in terms of two binaries:  liberal-conservative and revolutionary-reactionary, two divides which, in Lilla’s account have no necessary relationship to each other whatsoever:

The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society. The quarrel between revolutionaries and reactionaries, on the other hand, has little to do with nature. It is a quarrel over history.

Conservatives, in Lilla’s scheme, follow Burke (a much more conventional American version of Burke than Robin’s, it should be said) in believing that society is “metaphysically prior to the individuals in it,” while liberals believe the opposite.  As a  result, conservatives in this sense are suspicious of change and value cultural inheritance for its own sake, while liberals are suspicious of cultural inheritance and believe that society can always be changed so as to further maximize human freedom.
The  revolutionary-reactionary split, on the other hand, is a quarrel over the nature of (post-1789) modernity: revolutionaries like it; reactionaries detest it. Reactionaries, according to Lilla, should be further divided between “restorative reactionaries,” who dream of returning to some imagined pre-revolutionary state, and “redemptive reactionaries,” who believe there is no going back, and dream instead of simply burning down modernity in the hopes that something new and better will arise to replace it.  The former group, according to Ferguson Lilla, includes, among others, “French aristocrats who hoped to restore the Bourbon dynasty, Russian Old Believers who wanted to recover early Orthodox Christian rites, Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the conventions of Mannerism, Morrisites and Ruskinites.”  The latter group includes Joseph de Maistre and both Stalinists and Fascists.  
American politics, Lilla argues, has long included restorative reactionaries. But only with the rise of what Justin Vaïsse calls the “third wave” of neoconservatism–and its popular analog in the Tea Party–have redemptive reactionaries found a place in American politics.  The current deadlock in Washington and the rhetoric of the GOP presidential candidates all point, according to Lilla, to an apocalypticism that is entirely new in U.S. politics and that we should find alarming.*
Lilla’s review is interesting and well worth reading.  True to its introductory paragraphs, it is indeed built on splitting rather than lumping.  But, as Lilla himself suggests, compared to Robin, virtually everyone is a splitter. And Lilla’s splitting is both extremely limited in scope and extremely severe in depth.  While a bit more articulated than Robin’s all-conservatives-are-the-same taxonomy, Lilla still presents a political world with only two meaningful, transhistorical dimensions of controversy.  And Lilla wants to claim that the debate over human nature between his liberals and conservatives has nothing whatsoever to do with the debate over history between his revolutionaries and reactionaries.
The evidence for this last contention seems to be that certain folks on the left might be described as “restorative reactionaries”(e.g. Ruskinites, sensibly) and certain others as “redemptive reactionaries” (e.g. Stalinists, somewhat less plausibly).  But these examples can’t begin to prove that one’s view of the relationship between the individual and society has nothing to do with one’s theory of history.  On the face of it, it seems obvious that the two are related to each other…though as the case of restorative reactionaries on the left might suggest, this relationship is potentially complicated.  And it is precisely in their failure to account for such complexities that I find both Robin’s and Lilla’s views somewhat wanting.
Both Robin’s and Lilla’s arguments take essentialist approaches to understanding the contemporary American right. Both hope to find a transnational, transhistorical essence in the phenomena they’re analyzing.  For Robin, this essence is of a monolithic conservatism.  To Lilla, it’s an only slightly more complicated series of rigid binaries.  Both seem to understand politics as addressing a set of issues that has stayed more or less the same since the late eighteenth century and that yielded an essentially stable series of possible answers.
But terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” “right” and “left,” and even “revolutionary” and “reactionary” are themselves, constantly, the object of politics. They are fought over repeatedly and their meanings really do change. For much of the twentieth century, “liberal” was a positive word in American politics. When supporters of the New Deal and its legacy managed to coopt that word, opponents who considered themselves “liberals” in an older sense like Herbert Hoover and Milton Friedman tried to hang on to the term, but failed. In the Sixties, as “conservative” was becoming a positive word, at least within the GOP, some politicians who we now think of as moderate or liberal Republicans, like Henry Cabot Lodge, tried to argue that they, and not their Goldwaterite opponents, were the real conservatives. And Paul Goodman, far from the GOP and in a much more contrarian vein, tried to claim the mantle of conservatism for himself…and even he had a point in doing so.  
All politics may not, in fact, be local. But some politics really is. “Radical” meant something very different in, e.g., late 19th-century France than in the late 20th-century U.S.  Which is not to say that these–and other–uses of the term are not linked by a common history.  But that common history, like most histories, is complicated and sometimes contradictory.  Political actors cannot, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, simply claim that a word means whatever they say it does. And political history is rife with actors who try, unsuccessfully, to label their views with one or another of these words.  But the history of these terms–and the movements that they have described–is not the history of the coming-into-being of a series of transhistorical political principles.  An adequate historical account of these political terms is unlikely to reveal them to have been entirely philosophically coherent. And if your history does make them out to be so, you’re probably doing it wrong.
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* Though I think Lilla is correct to see an apocalyptic streak on the contemporary U.S. right, the idea that apocalypticism is a new phenomenon in American politics seems very problematic to me. 

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: Your last paragraph goes to a positive argument for some kinds of essentialism: namely, that present-day (or past) groups (be they political groups or otherwise) do in fact claim to have essential characteristics of some fill-in-the-blank perceived positive moment in history. Such is the case with those troublesome words: conservative, liberal, revolutionary, radical. So we find ourselves, as historians, in a morass of meanings that must be teased out. We find that middle ground between the particular (infinite splitting) and the general (forms of essentialism). So long as the claims of Robin and Lilla are caveated, or limited, we can find something truthful in their works. So it comes back to the historian’s presentation of complexity: did they attempt to find a nuanced middle ground? …I say all of this not having read a word of Lilla (other than in article form—this review being in my queue) and only having read Robin’s article-length work (*The Reactionary Mind* being, in fact, on today’s list of books to purchase). – TL

  2. “The former group, according to Ferguson, includes, among others . . .”

    Who is this Ferguson whereof you speak?

  3. I haven’t read the Robin book (yet!), but the Lilla essay is very interesting. Patrick Allitt’s _The Conservatives_ also takes what is an anti-essentialist position on this, arguing that there is no set of core conservative doctrines that might unify figures as diverse as Milton Friedman, John C. Calhoun, Alexander Hamilton, George Fitzhugh and Henry Adams. Allitt’s book, which is really designed for a general readership and which I have used in undergraduate teaching, sidesteps the issue a little, by claiming that a general disposition to favor the status quo is the unifying orientation of all conservatives–but this is a difficult fit for the various promoters of capitalist modernization that have fallen under the American conservative rubric, as well as the promoters of extreme individualism such as the libertarians of the past half century. Otherwise, the general idea is that conservatives are people who call themselves conservatives–which is the same tack that George Nash takes in his book on the Conservative intellectual movement. Many conservatives, however, would not want to accept this definition, precisely because it is based on a kind of (in their minds) liberal historical relativism and nominalism that strays from fixed and absolute standards. What seems fairly clear is that there is no way to talk about conservatism (or liberalism) without its relationship to what it opposes and has opposed. An interesting feature of both contemporary conservatism and contemporary liberalism is that both regard themselves as oppositional cultures of a minority, being besieged by a dominant mode of thinking, and define themselves accordingly–or so it seems to me. At the same time, as you say, conservatives can’t say that conservatism is anything they want it to be; the word carries with it a lot of residual meanings (like all words) that exact pretty heavy constraints.

  4. @ Varad: Nothing more mysterious than bad proofreading. It’s been corrected.

    @ Tim: I think you’re entirely correct that we can learn much from both Robin and Lilla; in many ways, I like both the sections of Robins’ book that I’ve read and the Lilla review. In a sense, I think they’re asking the wrong questions, but their answers are sufficiently smart and interesting that they are very useful in helping to construct answers to better framed questions.

    As for the essentialism of historical actors’ themselves: I do think we need to take it seriously, but I don’t think that doing so entails our embracing essentialism.

    @Dan: Great comment, with which I entirely agree. I hadn’t really thought of Nash as a nominalist in this regard, but I think you’re right that he is. The very neatness of the story he tells about modern conservatism (Traditionalism + Libertarianism + Anticommunism = Fusionism –> Conservative Triumph) obscures this a bit. But it helps explain the way that his story gets much messier in the various epilogues he’s added to the later editions of the book. Nash is smart enough not to simply assimilate the Christian Right to Traditionalism or Neoconservatism to whatever one might be tempted to assimilate Neoconservatism to. And the result it that the narrative gets much less neat when Nash extends it beyond 1980 (and its relative messiness raises questions about the neatness of what had come before).

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