Monday, January 09, 2012

Corey Robin’s "The Reactionary Mind" (2011): (1 of 4): classical liberalism in the US

Corey Robin argues that modern European and American conservativism is essentially reactionary and counterrevolutionary. He rejects the traditional distinction between conservative and reactionary:

I use the words conservative, reactionary and counterrevolutionary interchangeably: not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative – Walt Rostow immediately comes to mind – but all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary. I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia ... [etc.]
Robin is aware that he's making a controversial claim: "For many, the notion of a unity on the right will be the most contentious claim of this book." (Intro)

Thomas Jefferson
Robin's book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011) is a collection of his essays on various topics, most of them having to do with recent manifestations of American conservatism as embodied in various elements of the Republican Party. But in his introduction, he tries to tie them together with the notion that the Western tradition of conservatism is substantively the same as reactionary/counterrevolutionary thought. And thought is the correct word, because he largely makes the case via intellectual history, and with the frequent use of similar quotes from very different periods and contexts as proof-texts to illustrate his point.

As an historical generalization, this is weak. It’s certainly true that American conservatism has been deeply influenced, even intertwined with, truly reactionary ideas.

But as challenging as it may be to distinguish the two strands of thought, it is both possible and important.

Robin's analysis is ahistorical. American historians have sometimes shied away from talking about historical developments in class terms, in part under the influence of Cold War ideological concerns, i.e., the Other Side talked about class struggle as the driving force of history. But in general, blurring the role of class has been convenient for conservative ideology even apart from Cold War propaganda considerations.

On the other hand, the emphasis on the history of popular culture in history for decades has brought studies that looked more closely than ever at class considerations. European historiography generally hasn’t been so shy about discussing class as in the US.

The European context in which the ideas of many of the 19th century theorists Robin discusses was heavily shaped by the French Revolution. And it was widely understood in class terms. The Third Estate was a well-defined group in France of the rising capitalist class of merchants, businesspeople and bankers. The French Revolution was a political victory for that capitalist class, the Third Estate, which was heavily influenced by republican political ideas that were part of the larger classical liberal tradition of Charles de Montesqieu (1689-1755), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and John Locke (1632-1704). Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were major figures of classical liberalism, as were James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Sheldon Wolin observed that a conventional formulation of liberalism and conservatism in American history runs something like this: "Liberalism’s task would be to articulate the forces of change, while the conservative would seek to preserve fundamental forms and principles."

From the beginning, however, this division of labor did not work so neatly. For one thing, those Americans of the revolutionary era who could be loosely described as liberal or conservative shared a common political outlook. Jefferson and Adams, Paine and Madison, for example, subscribed to the values of liberty, property, security, individualism, and limited government based on the consent of the governed. The classic formulation of these ideas was Locke;s Two Treatises. In the eighteenth century these notions became most closely associated with the revolutionary ideology of liberalism. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were testimony to their widespread acceptance in America. As Louis Hartz argued several years ago, the American consensus evolved as a distillation of Lockean liberalism. As a result, American conservatism was drawn to the defense of [classical] liberal principles and practices. (Sheldon Wolin, "The New Conservatives" New York Review of Books 02/05/1976 issue)
Given the current meaning of "liberal" in the US as left, pro-labor, pro-civil liberties, pro-affirmative government, etc., discussions of classical liberalism can be confusing. But as a general matter, the liberals and conservatives (in today’s terms) of later periods were initially the left and right trends within classical liberalism. With the emergence of organized labor and other reform groups that became the Jacksonian democratic movement in the 1920s, a variety of left politics emerged that more explicitly challenged the power of organized money.

In American history, divisions between left and right among those supporting the American Revolution were evident early. Contrary to what Charles Beard and other Progressive era historians following him argued, the Constitution was backed by left-[classical] liberals and conservative-[classical] liberals; the opposition were conservatives (who wanted to stay with the Articles of Confederation) and reactionaries (who wanted a monnarchy). The Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties emerged during the Washington Administration, with early disputes over the issues like the payment of Revolutionary War debt (Hamilton and the Federalists backing the wealthy speculators, Jefferson and the Republicans defending the popular interest) and the Bank of the United States (Hamilton seeing as valuable especially as a tool for corrupting Congress, Jefferson opposing it for the same reason).

The Federalist Administration of John Adams passed notoriously reactionary, anti-democracy measures in the Alien and Sedition Acts, the USA PATRIOT Act of the 18th century. But Adams was a conservative supporter of the Constitution, and his career as a whole has to be understood that way. Actual reactionaries, High Federalists who wanted a monarchy or something very like it, wanted to prevent Thomas Jefferson from taking office in 1801. Adams refused to support them (although the fact that Jefferson's Republicans had the state militias of New York and Virginia under their control via Republican governors was necessarily a part of the political calculation for the Federalists).

Continued in Part 2

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