U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book

Mark Lilla’s much-discussed review of Corey Robin’s much-discussed book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, is truly awful. Not only is Lilla’s tone glib, unsurprisingly, but the review is really bad history, which might come as a surprise, since Lilla has gained renown as the New York Review of Book’s expert on conservatism.

Lilla dismisses Robin’s thesis out of hand, without so much as examining it (a fault expertly dissected by Alex Gourevitch in his brilliant critique of Lilla at the Jacobin blog). Such is common practice in the NYRB, where books serve more as openings for essayists to write about what they would rather write about. Usually I am OK with this standard practice. But the harshness of Lilla’s dismissiveness, seen in the ugly comparison he makes of Robin’s thesis to one of Glen Beck’s maniacal chalkboard conspiracies, demands a higher standard of engagement. His seemingly damning charge—“The Reactionary Mind is a useful book to have—not as an example to follow, but one to avoid”—needs to be supported. It is not.

My goal today is not to review Robin’s book. We will be running a full review of it here at USIH soon. If anyone wants to understand Robin’s thesis, go to his blog, where this post—“Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism” (which won third prize in the 3QuarksDaily 2011 Politics and Social Science contest)—summarizes it nicely. Robin seeks to overturn the notion, held by many, including such notables as Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan, and, well, Mark Lilla (who indicted the Tea Party as “Jacobins” in an earlier NYRB essay), that conservatism used to be a wise, reasonable, and pragmatic sensibility, but has recently been overtaken by reactionaries who seek to destroy rather than conserve the current order. In contrast, Robin argues that reaction was always-already the key to understanding modern conservatism, dating back to Edmund Burke, who Robin shows, in an important revision, was willing to upend the old aristocratic order to turn back the tides of Jacobinism. In short, Robin theorizes that although conservative rhetoric and argument morph to fit various contexts of space and time, at its core conservatism is about counterrevolution. He writes:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.

As most of his critics have pointed out, including our own Ben Alpers (in his excellent recent post, “Lumpers, Splitters, and Essentialists”), Robin is a lumper, not a splitter, or in Lilla’s disdainful eyes, an “über-lumper.” I don’t necessarily have a problem with Robin’s particular style of lumping because, even if I might disregard the term “reactionary,” which is admittedly loaded, I think Robin is correct inasmuch as conservative thought, in its many variations, is usually, if not always (or essentially), an attempt to rationalize or valuate hierarchy. Despite his outwards stance, Lilla is not against lumping, per se, given that, in skewering Robin as an “über-lumper,” Lilla does a breathtaking bit of lumping himself:

[Robin offers] history as WPA mural, and will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Thirties, remembers the Sixties, or was made to read historians like Howard Zinn, Arno Mayer, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill at school. In their tableau, history’s damnés de la terre are brought together into a single heroic image of suffering and resistance. Their hats are white, immaculately so. Off in the distance are what appear to be black-hatted villains, though their features are difficult to make out. Sometimes they have little identification tags like those the personified vices wear in medieval frescoes—”capital,” “men,” “whites,” “the state,” “the old regime”—but we get no idea what they are after or what their stories are. Not that it matters. To understand the oppressed and side with them all you need to know is that there are oppressors.

Like I said, breathtaking.

No, Lilla’s real complaint with Robin is not for lumping, but rather, that Robin’s particular version does not allow for the celebration of a distinct branch of conservatism that Lilla wishes to celebrate: you know, the wise, reasonable, and pragmatic type. In this sense, Lilla’s essay, like all his NYRB essays on the topic of conservatism, comes across as a more sophisticated version of the argument put forward by Sam Tanenhaus in his thin 2010 book, The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus divides conservatives into two categories: real and pseudo, or, in his terminology, “realist” and “revanchist.” He argues that realistic conservatism is dead at the hands of revanchists, and that the nation is the worse for it. Similarly, Lilla draws a bizarrely arbitrary line between conservatives and reactionaries, arguing that, until recently, Americans who went by the conservative label were decidedly un-reactionary.

As I asked in a critical review of the Tanenhaus book, on what proof does this “golden age” of responsible conservatism rest? On the way William Buckley, Jr. reframed his worldview when he ran for mayor of New York, even though so-called revanchists continued to consider him a hero? On California Governor Reagan’s response to campus unrest, which was wildly popular among John Birchers, the quintessential revanchists? On Nixon’s contradictory presidency, Watergate paranoia and all? Tanenhaus’s (and Lilla’s) version of Burkean conservatism did not die; it was never alive (and as Robin makes clear, the very notion of Burkean conservatism—as wise, reasonable, and pragmatic—is a mythical construction).

It’s facile but wrong to divide conservatism as Tanenhaus and Lilla do. Yes, there have been plenty of conservatives who have been more moderate in their temper than Robert Welch, the conspiracy-driven founder of the John Birch Society. But they tended to have a great deal in common with Welch, in terms of political ideals. The lauded conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, who touted Burke and Disraeli as his heroes in his philosophical work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, was as anti-statist as they came in many of his actual policy positions. For instance, Kirk called federally subsidized school lunch programs “a vehicle for totalitarianism,” the Hayekian slippery slope otherwise known as the “road to serfdom.”

What Tanenhaus and Lilla seek to do above all else is cordon off the reputable, what used to be called the “Vital Center,” from the disreputable to their left and right. But Vital Centrism, as analysis, and as prescription, is no better now than it was in 1949, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. made a less facile case for it. In fact, it’s a whole lot worse.

In a footnote to his recent post on the Lilla review, Ben writes: “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.” Agreed, though I would take this a step further: Lilla’s problematic history undermines his argument time and again. For instance, the following sentence is one of the least historically informed I have ever read: “In the 1970s, if you thought that public schools were being used for social indoctrination, that power over them should be decentralized, and that children would be better off learning at home, that put you on the far left. Today those views put you on the right.” Huh? Yes, there might have been a few hundred left-leaning holdouts from the free school movement around in the 1970s, who sent their children to private, progressive schools, if they could afford such schools, out of a desire to evade the capitalist reproduction machine. But compare this to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who joined the Christian day school movement in the 1970s. Someone familiar with the history of American conservatism ought to know something about how resistance to public schools was part and parcel of the rising Christian Right in the 1970s.

Some of the most influential evangelical writers of the 1970s—Francis Schaeffer, Rousas John Rushdoony, and Tim LaHaye—placed education at the center of their plans to redeem American culture. They contended that the schools had been taken over by an elite who sought to spread an anti-Christian ideology they termed “secular humanism.” LaHaye, who later gained fame as the best-selling author of the premillennial dispensationalist Left Behind series, founded a network of Christian schools in San Diego in the 1960s and wrote a number of popular books in the 1970s and 1980s that provided readers with a framework for understanding secular humanism. More than an ideology, LaHaye described secular humanism as a religion in its own right. LaHaye dedicated his 1983 book, The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism’s Threat to Our Children, to “the growing army” of parents “who realize that secular humanism, the religious doctrine of our public schools,” is to blame for “the origin of rampant drugs, sex, violence, and self-indulgence in our schools, which are not conducive to the learning process.” LaHaye aimed his rhetorical onslaught against an educational establishment that he believed was “determined to jam atheistic, amoral humanism, with its socialist world view, into the minds of our nation’s children and youth, kindergarten through college.” LaHaye listed all of the traits that he thought defined a religion, and argued that secular humanism evinced all of them, including “a stated doctrine or dogma,” “a priesthood,” “seminaries,” and “open acknowledgement of its position.”

No doubt Lilla considers LaHaye and his sort beyond the pale of his wise, reasonable, and pragmatic conservatism. But if anything, conservative intellectuals of the type that Lilla might celebrate have learned from Christian Right activists like LaHaye that the way to political victory is through this combustible mix of anti-statism and traditionalism, what I have elsewhere called the “culture wars dialectic.”

Lilla implies such a dialectic is at work in his analysis of the neoconservative trajectory:

The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. How that happened would be a long story to tell, and central to it would be the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology. The first neoconservatives were disappointed liberals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, who saw the failures of a large number of Great Society programs to deliver on the unrealistic expectations of its architects, and consequently began to appreciate the wisdom of certain conservative assumptions about human nature and politics. Kristol’s famous quip that neoconservatives were liberals who’d been mugged by reality captured the original temperament.
Sometime in the Eighties, though, neoconservative thinking took on a darker hue. The big question was no longer how to adapt liberal aspirations to the limits of politics, but how to undo the cultural revolution of the Sixties that, in their eyes, had destabilized the family, popularized drug use, made pornography widely available, and encouraged public incivility. In other words, how to undo history. At first, neoconservatives writing in publications like Commentary and The Public Interest (which I once helped to edit) portrayed themselves as standing with “ordinary Americans” against the “adversary culture of intellectuals,” and to that end promoted “family values” and religious beliefs they did not necessarily share, but thought socially useful. Yet by the Nineties, when it became apparent that lots of ordinary Americans had adjusted to the cultural changes, neoconservatives began predicting the End Times, and once-sober writers like Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Bork started publishing books with titles like On Looking into the Abyss and Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

Although Lilla is correct in that Himmelfarb and Bork raised the stakes of their culture war rhetoric—particularly Bork, who singled out the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the beginning of all that went dangerously wrong—Lilla is incorrect in his assertion that neoconservatism underwent dramatic changes. It changed in focus, from domestic to foreign policy, but I do not think it dramatically changed in tone. The neoconservative reaction to the cultural revolution of the 1960s began in the, wait for it, 1960s.

In the wake of the 1960s, neoconservatives did not merely interpret liberal or New Left movements such as “women’s liberation” as hostile to traditional family values. They also understood these movements as dangerously anti-capitalist, dangerously anti-American. Midge Decter captured this argument in her harsh 1972 rebuke of feminism, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation. Decter contended that modern American women had it better than ever, for example, in their newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet, she pointed out, even with such advances, or perhaps because of them, the “women’s liberation” movement protested in increasingly fevered tones that women were subjected to patriarchal strictures. Decter countered that, far from wanting more freedom, feminists feared their newfound freedoms, because with them came new responsibilities. For instance, if women were going to enter the workplace like men, then they had to be prepared to compete alongside men in the dog-eat-dog world that men had long grown accustomed to. In short, Decter believed that feminists wanted to shirk the responsibilities of living in capitalist America. Her cultural critique of feminism doubled as a defense of capitalism. Decter was of Robin’s “reactionary mind.” So what is Lilla’s complaint again?

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting post, Andrew! And thanks for the kind words about my earlier post.

    Though I agree that Lilla is far too dismissive of Robin and that he makes the significant historical mistakes that you correctly point out above, I do think that he raises some points (about views of human nature and history) that are potentially valuable…if taken out of the rather essentialist context in which he puts them and applied with a lot more historical care.

    A couple more thoughts…

    1) Though you’re right to compare Lilla’s (and others’) attempts to discover a sensible conservatism to Vital Centrism, Schlesinger’s “Vital Center” was, of course, a self consciously liberal construction. Just another small instance of the fact that the lines between (at least some forms of U.S.) conservatism and (at least some forms of U.S.) liberalism are frequently blurrier than either Robin or Lilla would suggest them to be.

    2) I’m repeatedly surprised at the attempts by people on the left (and, more broadly, people disaffected from the contemporary U.S. right) to try to find in the first generation of neoconservatives a kind of “usable past.” The late Paul Lyons’ otherwise interesting and thoughtful book American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, for example, suffers from a terrible case of nostalgia for a (largely imaginary) early neoconservatism as the kind of searching, vital conservatism that would be a worthy opponent for appreciative American liberals. In some cases, this attraction to the early neocons comes from the fact that they were clearly intellectuals (and in some cases New York Intellectuals); in Lilla’s work it might be more directly connected to his own neoconservative ideological past. In any case, there’s really not much for those on the left to be nostalgic about in the early history of neoconservatism, as you correctly suggest above.

  2. Nicely combative, Andrew. You are flexing some polemical muscle in your rebuttal to Lilla. I too also thought Ben’s recent piece on the Lilla-Robin debate very nicely done and precise in helpful ways. I have a question for you both and one comment.

    First the question: what happened to using terms such a “bigot” or “racist” or “elitist” or “extremist” when describing the pitched battles over rights for the various groups that comprise the underclass? It seems to me that conservative or even reactionary does not quite capture the actions taking place.

    Second, our fellow intellectual historian Kevin Mattson wrote a book in 2008 that makes an argument similar to Robin’s, though his period is exclusively post-1945 America. Take a look at a promo for the book here: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/rebels_all.html

    Kevin followed it with a more popular book on Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” two years later.

  3. I don’t think you’re typology applies to the mom in the street–even people who are politically liberal in the US consider themselves “conservative”, but this conservatism isn’t revanchist–it’s an instinctive wariness of the potential harm that their betters can do in the name of markets and individualism. I have Latin-American immigrants in particular in mind: there is some first-hand experience there with the dark side of progress (NAFTA, e.g.).

  4. @Ray: I really like Mattson’s Rebels All! and think it deserves more attention.

    Some of the discussion generated by the Lilla review concerns imagined pasts in which conservatives were notably more “reasonable” than they are today. Andrew (and Corey Robin) are completely correct in rejecting the notion that, e.g., William F. Buckley was a level-headed moderate, totally unlike today’s apocalyptic reactionaries. But I think Mattson’s book–which very specifically concerns post-war America–demonstrates that one doesn’t have to imagine a golden age past to write about conservatism in a way that recognizes that it does change and that it is different in different times and places.

  5. Conservatives had a theoretical (or actual) fear of the “lower orders”? No, that cannot be an accurate view of the conservative movement, as opposed to those most desirous
    to characterize the myriad impulses on the right as simply “reactionism”.To say there is no qualitative difference between Burke and say,Joseph de Maistre, is a saying quite a lot,as Conor Cruise O’Brien has pointed out). This despite Kirk’s apparent penchant for hyperbole. (Then, too, his remark about the federal subsidization of school lunches has far less to do with the notion of the well-being of little kiddies (bereft of the abilities of Mom and Dad making Fluffernutter sandwiches) than the more often-than not,well-entrenched, high-handed policies of municipal or state educational apparatchniks, not to mention the still indispensible U.S. Department of Education. It should also be noted, too, that anarchists like Paul Goodman, were as fervently opposed to the bureaucratic gigantism of the NYC BOE, as my paleo-conservative father Charles Witteck, Jr.). The Buckley mayoral run was as taken as seriously as I don’t know, a mayoral run by Norman Mailer. Burke seemed to very much be in favor of an organic “polity” which grows over long periods of time, and was passionately opposed to the Jacobins because he did not believe that political ends could, or should be produced, overnight, by fiat, as it were.

Comments are closed.