On history’s progress and its “reactionary” enemies

James Bowman reviews Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin:

In short, he has merely reproduced the left’s classic self-verifying system, also known as arguing in a circle or begging the question. That is, if you first assume that history has a direction and that, ipso facto, this is the right direction, then it follows that anyone standing in the way of or in any way interfering with history’s arrival at its predestined end must be (a) wrong and (b) futile in his opposition—in short a “reactionary.” But without that prologue, that intellectual framework which gives the word its meaning, it has no meaning. Assuming that we alleged reactionaries do not believe in the inevitability of history’s direction and destination and that the word “reactionary” cannot be said to apply within our universe of discourse, then someone like Professor Robin, who uses the word, is communicating his ideas about it—assuming he is communicating, assuming he has any ideas—only to those who share his own belief system. To everyone else, his words are gibberish.

The word “reactionary” is a legacy of the French Revolution, invented by the revolutionaries to describe those who stood in the way of the revolution’s progress. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this original meaning of the word has more recently, and “loosely,” come to mean only “extremely conservative,” which is how most people now use it. But speaking as an extreme conservative myself, I don’t think I have ever heard “reactionary” used quite without a hint of its revolutionary subtext. In any case, Professor Robin is as much a purist about the revolutionary language as he is about his revolutionary principles and wants to wrestle it back into its original meaning as expressive of a revolutionary’s point of view. The reactionary is the enemy, however he may attempt to adapt himself to progressive ideas.

Conservatives and liberals may believe they are reasoning with each other and with the revolutionaries, but Professor Robin knows better. All their carefully considered thoughts are worthless to him, since they are all merely reactionaries—just as, to an Islamic terrorist, both they and the revolutionary professor are merely infidels. Opponents of the revolution may be monarchists, democrats, republicans, moderates, anarchists, or merely conservatives who dislike change, but to the revolutionary, the particular form their opposition takes is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that it opposes. When the revolutionary knows that about someone, he knows all he needs to know. And also, all too often, what he needs to do. In the first identification of the “reaction,” you have the beginning of the Terror.

To say, as the author does, that “conservative ideas are a mode of counterrevolutionary practice” is another way of saying that they are not ideas at all. Only revolutionary ideas are truly ideas, since counterrevolution is, by definition, only a reaction against them. And if conservatives have no ideas worthy of the name, then they are outside the realm of discourse in which and in which only the professor and his ideological confrères can operate. In a way, then, he must be understood as saying the opposite of what he says, since only conservative ideas can be ideas as they are normally understood by people outside his ideological bubble. Revolutionary “ideas” are really only reflexes: the reflex to destroy, wherever it appears, any accumulation of power or privilege in the hands of a few. Ecrasez l’infame!

— “The Echo Chamber” (The New Criterion, April 2012)

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