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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  380 ratings  ·  55 reviews
Late in life, William F. Buckley made a confession to Corey Robin. Capitalism is "boring," said the founding father of the American right. "Devoting your life to it," as conservatives do, "is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." With this unlikely conversation began Robin's decade-long foray into the conservative mind. What is conservatism, and w ...more
Hardcover, 290 pages
Published September 29th 2011 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published August 9th 2011)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,288)
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Bill  Kerwin

Corey Robin's take on conservatism has helped me understand not only the Tea Party and other right-wing political groups, but also the EWTN element of the Roman Catholic Church.

People who call themselves "conservatives," Robin argues, are not conservatives, but rather reactionaries. (In my opinion, real conservatives--who usually do not call themselves "conservatives"--conserve; they are part of a living tradition, doing their best to preserve and adapt it, helping their tradition to adjust to
...more
Micah
I'm doing an interview with the author for Guernica magazine, probably within the month. Given the book's subtitle--"Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin"--I was expecting this to be a massive, meticulous, and painstaking excavation and rethinking of conservative thought, in chronological order from the French Revolution to the 21st century. It's actually a collection of essays, mostly book reviews. But I'll be damned if this isn't one of the best, most fascinating collections of book r ...more
Karol
The Republican primaries were the perfect time to read about this. I love political theory, but it's rare to see a scholar really dig deeply into conservative intellectual thought, especially as far back as the French Revolution. This might be the first time I felt the subject was adequately explored. It reads as a series of essays that fall into one of two parts - the first emphasizing the role of the conservative as a counterrevolutionary, the second about the importance of violence in the ide ...more
Avi
I'm tempted to one star it, but I've read worse. The theory felt like Foucalt-lite. And the second half of the book didn't even feel like it was an attempt to write about the mind, just "reactionaries." I really wanted a psychological study of conservatism (or types of conservatism). This wasn't it. It was so crude that it even attempted to lump all "Conservatism" under a single word for hundreds of years. It's sort of laughable in a philosophically naive way. But also somewhat intellectually re ...more
Laura Brahm
The beauty of Robin's book is that he doesn't get sidetracked by typical liberal-conservative debates over things like gun control, taxes, or whether "conservatives are just stupid." Instead he takes conservatism seriously at its theory and practice, traces its roots and, in so doing, ultimately reveals the bankruptcy and nihilism at its core. What conservatism is really about, he argues, is the belief in fundamental, "natural" inequality: between the rich and poor, CEO and worker, husband and w ...more
C. Derick Varn
So much for the Utopianism of the left, we have to understand the inverse utopianism of the right? Indeed, The Reactionary Mind is a braid of linked essays divided into two related sections. The first section is the popular manifestation of conservative intellectual tradition, and the second is on the profound relationship between conservatism and violence.

First, a few caveats: there are a few points in which I have somewhat profound disagreements with Robins, and second I found some of the essa
...more
Colleen Clark
Feb 21, 2012 Colleen Clark rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Colleen by: Chris Hayes/Up with Chris
Shelves: politics-terror
I bought this book on the recommendation of Chris Hayes from his MSNBC show Up With Chris when he invited Corey Robin and introduced him as someone who had written one of Chris' favorite books of the year.

Before I started to read it there was an article in the NYTimes (1/19/12) "Online Fracas For a Critic of the Right" with links to two book reviews - NY Times Book Review and NYRB. So I had conflicting opinions about the book before I opened it.

Well, I agree with Hayes and think the 2 reviewers
...more
Sagar Jethani
Rather than serving up a historical overview of conservatism "From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin", as the subtitle promises, author Corey Robin has produced a familiar, if unoriginal, polemic against the destructive impact of today's Republican party. The briefest of historical narratives is offered early on, providing the reader with a basic understanding of Burke and the French Revolution as a defining moment for conservatism as a political idea. But these topics are quickly dispensed with so th ...more
Kate Woods Walker
At the close of The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy's Future by Carol Gilligan and David A.J. Richards, another five-star book, the authors ask why patriarchal men are so fearful of meeting females on equal footing. Corey Robin, in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, has the answer.

Without hierarchy, they would not exist. Without some external measure of their supposed superiority, they are nothing. Without someone to stand upon, they ha
...more
Tom Marcinko
An important idea in politics. I think the author is on to something about conservatism. The idea deserves to be explored and demonstrated in greater depth, at book-length, in my opinion. But as a collection of essays it hangs together very well.
.....

Here's another I've been meaning to read for some time.

The thesis is that no matter what flavor conservatism seems to be -- libertarian, pro-capitalist, religious, pro-small government, pro-mega-military-industrial-security complex, faux-populist, o
...more
The American Conservative
'Corey Robin wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary. It is astounding that Robin does not know this. Observing his not knowing it drains the reader of all respect for his intellect and erudition.'

Read the full review, "Wrong About the Right," on our website:
http://www.theameri
...more
Jim
my first frustration was learning that the book wasn't what the title implied (of course, i could have figured that out with the tiniest bit of a homework). rather than the systematic history of contrastive thought i anticipated, it is a collection of robin's essays on the subject. so, yes burke and palin are mentioned, but it is hardly a comprehensive or systematic history of conservative thought.

robin's essays tend towards offering simple conclusions regarding complex questions — conservatives
...more
Charles David Edinger
Robin's extremely simplistic pamphlet adds nothing to anyone's understanding of the great Classical Anglo American Liberal Edmund Burke's thinking or philosophy. Like most empty-headed Progressive sheep, the author demonstrates his pathetic ignorance of Burke's historical context by referring to Mr. Burke as a "Reactionary" which is a wildly inappropriate label for one of the the leading thinkers behind the American Revolution's dramatic break with the authoritarian Collectivism that had held sw ...more
Arpit
This is the epitome of how unfairly liberals mis-characterize and misrepresent conservatives' motives and arguments. The Tea Party is the single-most important movement that has arisen in America, but the author is quick to dismiss them as "counter-revolutionaries" bent to deny "freedom to all" and defend their "privilege."

I could go further but the scathing reviews published in The New York Times and The New York Book Reviews do a pretty good job.
Phil
A fascinating journey into the mind of darkness. The author ties together conservative strains of thought that, on the surface, may appear dissonent, but when you unpack the history and logic, make perfect "sense." If you want to get a better understanding of how the modern American conservative "thinks," this is a must-read book.
Hadrian
A loose collection of essays describing the origins and future trajectories of current conservatism. Describes thinkers with worthy praise and demagogues with fiery condemnation. The part on Ayn Rand is especially critical.
Syed Ashrafulla
This book is a great example of the delusion of intellectuals. For all that Corey Robin finds fault in the Kristols I think that he is one of them. The countless times that the author characterizes conservatism by some snarky attribute, I wonder why it is that he cannot find a confirmation of the opposite value in his beloved leftists.

The worst part to me is his continuous attempt to deride conservatism as simpleton responses to dynamic events. The book is an attempt to classify conservatives as
...more
0spinboson
Short summary: Very interesting thesis, but not worked out well enough to be an instant classic.
"From life's school of war. -- What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxim 8)

As the title suggests, Robin's aim is to explain what drives the reactionary conservative, as well as reactionary political movements. His argument, in a nutshell, is that they are not concerned primarily with 'conserving' any particular status quo, or with keeping the rate of societal ch
...more
Sara
Robin uses Burke’s youthful essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful as a kind of leitmotif to tie together his reflections on the nature of conservatism – a slippery “blond beast,” identifiable less by a common set of “ideas” than by a common psychological predisposition, which he identifies as a will to power, to make one’s mark as a superman, and a desire to avoid boredom by experiencing “sublimity” in life through the vanquishing of obstacles. This approach rings true to me, underlying the man ...more
I
The subtitle grates: Robin spends a lot more time discussing the thoughts of, say, 19th century German historian Heinrich von Treitschke than he does Sarah Palin or any other contemporary pop Conservative. Frequent descents into Godwin's Law aside, there's more interesting content and analysis than I would have expected from what's essentially a book-length exercise in trolling Conservatives.

To wit: people badly misunderstand, according to Robin, the animating impulse behind the intellectual tr
...more
Kay
I picked up this book because I really enjoyed his essay on the film Lincoln. Robin is a powerful essayist and a man who understands the conservative movement far better than most in it understand themselves. I will say that reading this book changed the way I thought about conservatism—or rather, it brought together a lot of random thoughts I had about the conservative movement into a coherent theory.

This book is a collection of essays that have been published elsewhere—something I didn't real
...more
Jack Graham
Superb.

As an historian of ideas, Robin concentrates on the patterns of thinking within conservatism, but never seems to say that conservative actions and policies stem entirely from ideology. Indeed, he frequently points out the ruptures between theory and practice... yet he can usually find hidden resonances within the conservative idea/s that are consistent in ironic, unexpected ways, ways that often make seemingly paradoxical dissonances between theory and practice seem much more explicable.
...more
Curt
Not an easy read, but an interesting take on conservatism as a continual reaction to progressive gains. The picture he paints is drawn from some of the original conservatives like Edmund Burke, writing in light of the French Revolution - and there is often admiration of the tactics and drive of the revolutionaries, along with an acknowledgement that the old regime has gotten 'soft' and was thus vulnerable. Often a desire for overt battle is part of the reaction.
Rebecca
Robin makes a provocative and unexpected argument that will challenge the conventional wisdom that conservatives and the far right (even fascists) are qualitatively different. He even shows intellectual links between the libertarian right, particularly Ayn Rand, and fascism. The essays were mostly originally published as book reviews, but they are well linked together and comment on consistent themes in conservative thought. In addition to drawing on a depth of knowledge in political theory, thi ...more
Andy
The ambitious premise is to try to define/understand conservatism through time and space. The author logically explores various popular assumptions about conservatism (it's about following rules, traditions, etc.) and explains why they are false. He makes a good case for his use of the word "reactionary" as a frame.

This is a collection of essays but they are connected enough that the whole thing works as a book. Robin is not a conservative but his points are based on quoting famous conservative
...more
Chelsea
I'm not sure what exactly I expected from this book, but it didn't really deliver. Sure, there were some curious ideas and philosophical bits thrown around in there that I liked to chew on, but for the most part the book seemed to lack a sense of coherence. I had a really hard time figuring out the point the author was trying to make, and the actual conclusion seems unclear as well.

I don't think I'd really recommend this book to anyone. The most I got out of it were some vague ideas about the h
...more
Tombom P
Interesting, but falls down in that it's a collection of disconnected essays with only a somewhat loose theme connecting them - contrary to what the book's description would lead you to believe. The book is most interesting as a brief survey of conservative thought historically. When it talks about the past decade it doesn't really connect the ideas about conservative thought that he's developed with modern movements. The introduction is really a pretty good summary of the whole book and probabl ...more
Brendan
Not a caricature, but a subtle understanding of a rich line of thought through the ages.
Horza
A striking and incisive analysis of conservatism that could do with more elaboration than a decade-spanning collection of essays.
Nicolas Brannon
A brilliant, indispensable book about the core motivations of conservatism that defines and explains the essential philosophical differences between Left and Right. This is a must-read for anyone on the Left who wishes to understand the Right in depth. This is not a book about scoring political points. It is about understanding in great detail the political cycle of the challenge to hierarchies and inequalities and the reaction, focusing on the reaction, the counter-revolution. Robin's depth of ...more
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“Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.” 16 likes
“Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, write letters and petitions, join movements, and make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete — better safety guards on factory machines, an end to marital rape—but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change in power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand — that vexes their superiors. Guatemala’s Agrarian Reform of 1952 redistributed a million and a half acres of land to 100,000 peasant families. That was nothing, in the minds of the country’s ruling classes, compared to the riot of political talk the bill seemed to unleash. Progressive reformers, Guatemala’s arch-bishop complained, sent local peasants “gifted with facility with words” to the capital, where they were given opportunities “to speak in public.” That was the great evil of the Agrarian Reform.” 2 likes
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