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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  1,990 ratings  ·  247 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 (first published August 9th 2011)
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Paige McLoughlin If you want to understand the rotten core of the right-wing everywhere here is the place to see it. The right's project is and has always been the pro…moreIf you want to understand the rotten core of the right-wing everywhere here is the place to see it. The right's project is and has always been the protection of Privilege, prerogatives of power, and Hierarchy. This book lays out the heart of right-wing politics down to its evil essence. Delicious.(less)

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Bill Kerwin
Sep 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics

Corey Robin's take on conservatism has helped me understand not only the Tea Party and pro-Trump movements, but also the triumphalist EWTN element of the American Roman Catholic Church.

People who call themselves "conservatives," Robin argues, are not conservatives at all, 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 traditio
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: criticism, sociology
Cultural Criticism Is a Tricky Business

Corey Robin’s essay on contemporary conservatism was published in 2011, five years before Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger (See: and Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind (See: The Reactionary Mind covers much of the same ground at a time when the contours of that ground were less clear than they have become. And, unlike the later books, it was written more for academic consump
May 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recs, 2020
Thinks through the history of modern conservatism, from the wake of the French Revolution to the present, in an impressionistic sort of way. In the lengthy first part Robin builds a convincing case for seeing conservatism as a politics of privilege for the democratic age: populist, prone to violence, laden with a sense of victimhood, and holding a tense relation to established authority. From there he surveys and critiques a wide range of disparate thinkers and politicians, including Burke, Haye ...more
Dec 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Apr 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed Corey Robin's collection of essays on conservatism and I do like his approach and analysis. But one must be aware and understand he approaches things from the left. That is where he stands and it's a good idea to be aware of that, I think. Also this is far from comprehensive, it is a slight collection of essays that represents more of an outline or sketch than anything.

I don't know enough about the history of conservatism, so I'm a bit leery to accept all the arguments in here where so
W.D. Clarke
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved it. It's great for academics and the general reader both. Even if you are in the field there's a lot you'll get out of it. His reading of Edmund Burke is superbly and subtly argued. I wrote a much longer review on my blog here. If/when I have time, I'll try to scale it down here, but here are the first few paragraphs:

In the new edition of 2011’s The Reactionary Mind, Cory Robin updates what is sure to become a classic in the history of political thought.

As I write this the populist, Trum
//2020 Update: still impressed with the insights from an otherwise mainstream liberal; hats off for the time spent inside the reactionary mind!

The Good:
--This book’s 1st edition later became hyped in corporate media as “the book that predicted Trump”. Make sure to read the 2nd edition (2017), which has updates such as replacing Palin with Trump, and focusing more on reactionary economics.
--I was worried this would be another mainstream centrist Liberal fluff-piece. While we roll our eyes at cor
C. Varn
Jun 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 22, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a somewhat disjointed collection of essays that is rescued in the end by the author's uncharacteristically elegant (for an academic) prose. The argument of the book is summed up in the first and last essays: conservatism is at heart a movement based around resistance to the emancipation of society's lower orders. The essays in between riff on different themes from Nietzsche to Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia and are of varying quality. I don’t think that anyone who is already generally famili ...more
Sagar Jethani
Feb 12, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: political-theory
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
May 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
NOTE: I read the 2018 version of this and that's the one I highly recommend because he talks about Trump a lot.

This is the book that I've been waiting for to help fully explain this past election. I've read every post-election memoir and doomsday book and they've all left me cold (if not enraged). But in this brilliant book, Robin links Trump to Hobbs and Burke and Hayek and Bush and every other conservative counter-revolution. Granted, this book is not super flattering to conservatives, but I
Charles David Edinger
Sep 16, 2014 rated it did not like it
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
Apr 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Laura Brahm
Oct 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
One of my all-time favs. This most recent edition draws the lineage of thought in ever starker relief. The new Trump bits are great, but nothing will ever match Robin’s savage evisceration of Ayn Rand. I purchased the audiobook, so I could listen to it each morning, and let the brutal owns wash over me like an enlivening allegro vivace.
Jim Coughenour
A philosophically entertaining examination of the reactionary roots of contemporary conservatism, from Burke and Hobbes to the impresario antics of Donald Trump. I liked Corey Robin's short definition:
Conservatism is an elitist movement of the masses, an effort to create a new-old regime that, in one way or another, makes privilege popular.
A couple months ago I read Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, which aimed to explain why a community of white southerners supported an ec
C. Scott
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fairly uneven book - but the good parts are truly excellent. Reading the first two chapters, newly added for this edition, I was blown away. I found Robin's critique of conservatism absolutely devastating - it was soooooo friggin great! The early section of the new edition makes this book worth the price of entry. If Robin had been able to maintain that level of incisiveness and deadliness this would have been not a five star book but a six or seven star book. We would have to add grad ...more
Kate Woods Walker
Jan 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Colleen Clark
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
tom bomp
Jul 23, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Connor Kilpatrick's review for the eXiled says it better than I can:

Robin’s thesis is simple: ignore the Right-wing taxonomy. Conservatism–despite the seemingly incompatible respective ideologies of free-marketeers, slavers, neocons, neofascists, Buckleys, Federalists, Bloombergians, traditionalists, Tea Baggers, Randians, McCarthyists, libertarians, Birchers, Goldbugs, Jesus Freaks, J .Edgars, pro-lifers—has been, in reality, firmly united behind a single mission since the French Revolution: t
Julia Deng
Oct 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Rubin is at his best when he's gleefully shitting on other people. The chapter on Ayn Rand, titled "Garbage and Gravitas," is particularly fun. The Scalia chapter is a good read too. Other than that, I don't feel like I got a whole lot out of this book.

I wonder if this book is trying to do too much. It's cultural criticism and biography and intellectual history all at once. I don't feel like it's especially innovative in any of these areas. Maybe I'm just misunderstanding its essential project?
Nicolas Brannon
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Christopher McQuain
Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Lucid, sobering, impressively learned and, rarest of all, EARNS and rigorously supports every last shred of its counter-intuitiveness (it's not merely contrarian in the manner of op-ed poseurs; there are real stakes Robin takes seriously enough to patiently and forbearingly develop and account for his ideas and arguments, rather than merely declaim or opine). Offers all the pleasurable discomfort of fresh, new, expansive thoughts. ...more
A striking and incisive analysis of conservatism that could do with more elaboration than a decade-spanning collection of essays.


The Second Edition improves on the first, expanding on conservatism’s relationship with capitalism via essays on Burke as von Mises avant la lettre, the Neitszchean dimensions of Hayek and Ayn Rand’s metaphysical kitsch.
Jan 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Krista Danis
Jul 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Corey Robin's analysis of modern American conservatism in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin was assembled in 2011, long before the catastrophe and chaos that has taken over/decimated our government today. There is, however, an eerily predictive quality about his essays, and the continuity of criticism that is illuminated by this collection. In his conclusion, Robin quotes Edmund Burke in the following appropriately placed statement on conservatism, "'It is our i ...more
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Corey Robin is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.

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