Professor Robin’s collection of essays, and his work in and around it, occupy two different border areas at once, between politics and history, and between history and the philosophy of history.
Between politics and history: Professor Robin wants to discuss and, it would seem, intervene within contemporary political discussion. He wants, as someone once said, to change history, not just understand it. In addition to writing in The Nation and other publications concerned with current affairs, he’s a blogger and active Tweep, and may even be setting off on a TV career: He appeared yesterday on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, and, though it may be true that guesting on Up with Chris Hayes is in some ways hardly appearing on television at all, as one element in an extended book tour it’s rather more grand than a visit to someone else’s graduate seminar (even if in some ways the TV session felt that way).
Between history and philosophy of history: Any attempt to describe a “mind” is already a philosophical exercise. Robin’s sketches of a reactionary mentality are therefore inherently a set of philosophical as well as historical investigations. At the same time his chosen subject of conservatism from 1789 to the present acknowledges a very particular historical-philosophical framework, the one defined by Hegel as marking the end of history in principle. From 1789 – commencement of the French Revolution, Declaration of the Rights of Man – within this framework, history unfolds as the attempt to close the distance between universal freedom and equality as concepts and as a realized political-economic order. That the reign of the Hegelian modern – “thought and the universal” – brings liberation but also terror, war, and dispossession opens a space for the reactionary to speak in favor of anything else, and also, as Robin also stresses, in relation to real losses, material and otherwise.
Conservatism – modern conservatism, reactionary conservatism – for Robin is thus every attempt to resist or retard the process of liberation. When he unites disparate and variegated conservative political movements as “reaction” on behalf – we might say objectively on behalf – of the powerful against movements of emancipation from below, he has adopted the Left-Hegelian and Marxian perspective, a view of history as a struggle between two classes, one whose interests push it forward versus another whose position stands in the way, but the rules of contemporay political discussion – implemented and enforced by virtually the entirety of the ideological state apparatus, including all of conventional (bourgeois) political science as filtered down through “left” or “liberal” or “left-liberal” popular punditry – make it impossible for him to use the old names.
As a blogger with very little to lose, however, I can much more comfortably name them: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, with reactionary conservatives performing in the (formerly?) well-understood Petit Bourgeois role.
It is important to keep in mind not only the fact that Bs v Ps is or defines Hegel’s Lords v Bondsmen or Masters v Slaves for the modern era, but that it is or defines that relationship in a peculiarly modern way, since the Bourgeois, as Marx knew and as Hegel knew before him, is not the same as the prior era’s Master: He is a pseudo-Master because a Slave to his own property, therefore to money or capital, yet also in a crucial sense (in the very sense that the libertarian individualist after Hobbes defines the human being) to himself. Though the source of endless confusion and complexity regarding the character of political “consciousness” and its expression, this modified two-sided formulation still fits neatly within the Kojevian summary of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic: “Human existence ‘appears’ in the World as a continuous series of fights and works integrated by memory–that is, as History in the course of which Man freely creates himself.”
Conservatism is the other side in each and every particular fight, the human limitation on every work in this historical process of collective self-liberation, which is, for Hegel, history itself. Yet Robin cannot directly engage this discourse, whose terms were once upon a time familiar or at least adducible even in libertarian individualist, anti-Communist America, because the lips of a would-be public intellectual in America today close on the word “Marx” as around a cyanide capsule: if ever, only to spit it out.
For the same reason, responses to Robin’s book have often unfolded like exercises in red-baiting under observation of an absolute verbal taboo. It’s only at the end of Mark Lilla’s review that the Marxist specter finally appears to rattle his empyreal chains, conjured via a literary anecdote that casts George Lukacs, author of a seminal work much more on point than Lilla lets on, in the role of satanically nihilist monster. Lilla must have known what he was doing: Not exactly “calling Robin a Commie,” but warning those with ears to hear about the radioactive sacrifice zone whose invisible borders we would need to cross to embrace Robin’s argument fully and on its own terms.
We still live in a time during which self-avowed Marxian intellectuals ritualistically confess the sins of Stalin and Mao, and advise young people interested in “socialism” and struck by timeless passages from a certain Manifesto to find some, any other terms for their affinities, conclusions, and aims. I therefore cannot expect Robin to welcome anyone saying what Lilla politely refrains from saying, or says without quite saying. Yet in a different sense, it’s nothing that Robin himself has not already said or almost said: To trace the workings of the reactionary mind in history up to the present already refers to and, possibly, begins to re-invent, the opposite – in history, and up to the present.