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.
* 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.