Defining Conservatism

The New Inquiry – Redefining the Right Wing

An exchange between Daniel Larison and Corey Robin about conservatism and reaction.

In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political theorist Corey Robin frames right-wing ideologies as impulses “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.” These fighting words were taken up by Daniel Larison, writer and editor at the American Conservative, and their email dialogue is reproduced here, with some edits and informative links added.

29 comments on “Defining Conservatism

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  1. Wow talk about not getting it, is an understatement, so the Tory right is tagged with Fascism, but the left’s chiliastic presumptions, say in Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, they got off scot free,. Going back earlier, who was right on the French Revolution, Burke or Paine, and what it would inevitably become. Burke was understanding of reform (his Javertian turn against Hastings of the East India Tea Company was a sign) but he knew that when you topple an entire society, Pandora’s box insues. He wasn’t prescient enough to see the immediate consequences of this, in the subsequent Continental wars. In this sense, Wehner and Kristol were much more sanguine about the current wave, than a typical
    Tory even of the Disraeli stripe would allow for.More on that later.

    About the Russian Revolution, same things can be said, the February one, as opposed to the October Coup, has more merit, butlike Laski put it, it didn’t go all the way. The latter is the reason, that Wells, and Shaw, and Stephens were so enthusiastic. , not to mention Reed, although he was ultimately consumed by the Tiger he was riding,

    • Miguel, that you and Jonah Goldberg really, really want to believe that “fascism” is somehow the essence of “leftism” doesn’t necessarily make it so, and being declared “not the same as Fascism” is not getting off “scot free.” “Fascism” does not mean “bad” or “thing we don’t like.” Even Goldberg argues against losing historical and ideological specificity in the usage, just before he himself begins to suppress fascism’s key identifiying characteristics on the way to his pseudo-history. But we’ve been through that discussion before, not that it made any impression on you, apparently.

      That Mussolini at one point saw himself as a socialist, or that the Nazis promiscuously adopted the language and in some cases the tactics of left-aligned political avant-gardes of their time may be important in understanding the phenomena, and the influence worked int he opposite direction as well, but fascism and statism are not the same thing, as the traditional conservatives and quasi-socialists in the respective movements soon discovered if they didn’t get with the various programs. American conservatism isn’t a leftism just because Ronald Reagan used to be democrat and union “boss.” American neo-conservatism isn’t a leftism just because Podhoretz was a nuttty leftist before he became a nutty rightist.

      People who would have been very happy in a Bismarckian or Wihelmine state ended up trying to assassinate the Fuehrer. Those who might have been running the Red team, or running a parliamentary leftist opposition, or putting the finishing touches on a German New Deal, were instead providing welcome parties for the Jews, Gypsies, and Russians who ended up joining them at the Concentration Camps.

      The world’s a complicated place, and people are 97% water, most neither fish nor fowl, and a lot of ’em just plain foul.

        • I suppose that represents some kind of syllogism in your mind, right next to your true “point,” also invisible to others.

          Answering the question “Who was right on the French Revolution, Burke or Paine?” might be a good High School essay topic. I would have sought to defend the position that they were both right in some senses, both wrong in others, though Burke was entirely capable of distinguishing between an attractive and valid idea and the incapacity of particular revolutionaries to realize it justly, on an artificially accelerated schedule.

          Eventually, it becomes a philosophical question: What do we mean by the words “the French Revolution”? Are we referring to an epoch or to an idea, or to a series of events and ideas, to be understood to one extent or another in one or another historical context?

          Or we can just say with the novelist that “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” A Christian shouldn’t have any difficulty holding that contradiction in his mind – the idea that the worst tragedy in all of history could also be the best and most important event in all of history. That’s how we human beings roll.

          • This quote from Burke in 1784, found in Foreman’s Georgianna, the source for the film the Dutchess, seems apt in many ways:

            ‘As to any plan of conduct in our Leaders, there is not the faintest traces of it-nor does it occur to them that any such thing is necessary. Accordingly everything is left to accidents’

          • You are confusing things, of course, but Goldberg and his allies may turn out to deserve the label “liberal fascist” as much as or more than anyone. It may even have been the true, semi-unconscious motivation behind his writing the book and taking the approach he did. Attacking liberals as the true fascists may be the prototypical liberal-fascist gesture.

          • Yes the difference between classical liberals, the ones here and down south,
            versus no good reactionaries like Santa Ana, and Rosas, and progressive liberals, who missed the boat entirely.

    • Fox continued to defend the French Revolution, even as its fruits began to collapse into war, repression and the Reign of Terror. Though there were few developments in France after 1792 that Fox could positively favour[42] (the guillotine claimed the life of his old friend, the duc de Biron, among many others) Fox maintained that the old monarchical system still proved a greater threat to liberty than the new, degenerating experiment in France.

  2. now Fascism, developed by a former Socialist, Mussolini, had the same tendencies, that’s why some who should have known better like those mentioned above and even Dubois for a time, saw some point in it. But it shares the subordination of the individual to the State model, therein lies the rub. Similar sentiments can be noted in its’ Teutonic cousins, until the Hartzberg
    conference at least, where it acquired some bourgeois trappings. Mao was less publically supported, in the early years, the scope of his Kurtzian horror as with Year Zero would only be acknowledged later. Then we come to the Cuban Revolution, that proves the left still hadn’t learned anything from the previous 40 years, neither really had the Company
    as well until ’59, except for those ‘Dead Enders’ that Hoover had seeded in the 40s, back during the war.

  3. The Beats, Ginsburg and Kerouac, did eventually catch on, even though Mailer along with a whole panoply of the ‘cool kids’ didn’t and still have not. Then we come to Vietnam, the prototypically liberal’s war. which with annoying regularity, the right
    was left to defend, since the former had even forgotten why they supported it in th first place,

  4. That’s not even arguable, is it Bob, it was Douglas and Van Den Heuvel Sr, wh sought out Diem, Vietnam was deemed the test for Rostow’s theory, and ultimately there was no end objective,

  5. n 1962, he became U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s assistant, and was involved in Kennedy’s 1964 and 1968 political campaigns. As special assistant to Attorney General Kennedy, vanden Heuvel played the key role in court, orchestrating the desegregation of the Prince Edward County school system, which expanded the scope of the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education.[2]

    In 1965, he joined Stroock & Stroock & Lavan as Senior Partner where he practiced international and corporate law. He is currently Senior Counsel to the firm.

    In the 1970s, vanden Heuvel, as Chairman of the New York City Board of Corrections, led a campaign to investigate conditions in the city’s prison system. He has had a lifelong involvement in the reform of the criminal justice system.

    He served as U.S. Ambassador to the European office of the United Nations in Geneva (1977–79)[3] and United States Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations (1979–1981) during the Jimmy Carter Administration.[4]

      • That Vietnam was a peculiarly liberal catastrophe rather than a simple American (or perhaps an imperialist) catastrophe is a common view among American conservatives, bob, and there’s some truth to it in my opinion, although we’re far enough removed in history from the 1960s to need to attach some qualifiers. What “liberal” means now and what it meant then aren’t necessarily the same thing, just as neither means what it meant 100 years earlier. Since Vietnam was also a “protypically” anti-Communist adventure, understanding the war as “liberal” might begin at some point to interfere with the habit of Don Miguel and those like him of eventually equating liberal (or neo-liberal) centrism with leftwing radicalism. It muddies the water further that at least since the ’70s, and arguably longer, conservatives have been much more likely than liberals to imagine that Vietnam was winnable or could and should have been won, or to attack the common critiques of the war once mainly a province of the far left, now much closer to consensual on the broad left (i.e., “liberals” included).

        It all seems confusing and impossible, but that’s to be expected when we insist on starting out from confused and impossible premises.

        • Well put.

          I do think VN was a bipart disaster. When on my HS debate team debating VN, Eisenhower’s domino theory came up a lot as both goal and justification for the war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed unanimously in the House and w 2 Dem no votes in the Senate. The Reps were against only the Butter part of Guns and Butter. They were fine w the Guns part.

          All that, and your comments can be part of an interesting discussion. But one has to actually make points and arguments for that to be true.

          • I haven’t looked at that historical moment in much detail, or anyway not in a long time. Based on nothing much, I would have guessed that somewhere in either house there would have been at least a few traditional isolationists of the left and right – LaFollette-style progressives, America First-style conservatives – hanging around somewhere.

  6. It began in 1950, after the fall of Chiang Kaisek, when we decided to fund France’s second intervention in Indochina, as part of the Marshall Plan, a typically liberal measure. Now around the time of Dien Bien Phu, there were suggestions to intervene
    rather directly, but that fell through. Lansdale, who had succeeded with Magsaysay, tried to replicate events with Diem, a former minor functionary of the Bao Dai regime

    Anyways, Robin, misinterprets yet again the reason for the Iraq expedition, if one wants to be Thucydidiean about it..( Which in itself is ironic as Donald Kagan, points out in a monograph, how Thucydides, characteristically diminishes his own role in the Syracuse expedition,) This also applies to the Egyptian venture as well. Back in the early 50s, two up and comers at the Company. a former Glenn Miller bandmate named Stewart Copeland (yes of those Copelands) and an Ad Man, Eichelberger, decided to ‘ride the Tiger’ and stage their own coup against Farouk, using an ambitious Army
    officer, Colonel Nasser, Needless to say, it didn’t quite work as expected, even though the latter decides to create a political police, a Moukharabat, Nasser for other reasons allies with the Soviet Union, and his putative successors,
    Mubarak and Suleiman, end up finishing up at Frunze, So the Mubarak regime is at least partially made in the USA.

    • yup, miggs, it was them Containers caused us to lose the Cold War. real men woulda figured that we needed to go full-Strangelove and win the real way.

      now, we still gotta use petrochemicals to brighten up the surface of the planet after dark

      curses upon that Cowardly Kennan

      • Oh, yeah, nukes. I’m assuming below that we could have gone after ’em real hard before anyone had enough in the way of nukes to make the WHOLE planet glow. I think Miggs imagines a kind of worldwide American Reich established by coercion, compulsion, and conquest. Either that or, well really I think this is most likely, he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what we could have done substantially differently.

    • Yes, well in what alternative universe were we even remotely interested in and capable of pursuing aggressive land wars in Asia and I guess Europe? It would have been about the only thing we could do destroy our strategic position and well-being, and, oh by the way, would likely have meant another worldwide cataclysm before the rubble from the last one had even been cleared.

      The Marshall Plan was, incidentally, a bipartisan plan passed by a Republican congress, though that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t “liberal.” It might mean that “liberal” and “American” were almost the same thing at that historical moment. Certainly a lot of conservatives thought so at the time. A lot of them also thought that the Communists were going to win.

      • that Marshall guy hated America…..just like his great-great-great whatever did right at the beginning. all that “judicial review” stuff almost destroyed America and lead directly to the ouster of our greatest commie-killing Cold Warrior….Richard Nixon……the best president ever to come out of California….or I’ll drink a Pink Lady.

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  1. […] to respond, I also happened to be finishing Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (see also our headline thread).  Its conclusion turned out to be right on point:  “Conservatism,” Robin claims at […]

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