There have always been two kinds of reactionaries, though, with different attitudes toward historical change. One type dreams of a return to some real or imaginary state of perfection that existed before a revolution. This can be any sort of revolution—political, religious, economic, or even aesthetic. French aristocrats who hoped to restore the Bourbon dynasty, Russian Old Believers who wanted to recover early Orthodox Christian rites, Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the conventions of Mannerism, Morrisites and Ruskinites who raged against the machine, all these were what you might call restorative reactionaries.
A second type—call them redemptive reactionaries—take for granted that the revolution is a fait accompli and that there is no going back. But they are not historical pessimists, or not entirely. They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over. Ever since the French Revolution reactionaries have seen themselves working toward counterrevolutions that would destroy the present state of affairs and transport the nation, or the faith, or the entire human race to some new Golden Age that would redeem aspects of the past without returning there. . . .
All this [the apocalyptic redemptive reaction of the American Right] is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism, or with the aristocratic prejudice that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” which Corey Robin sees at the root of everything on the right. No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse. When I read the new reactionaries or hear them speak I’m reminded of Leo Naphta, the consumptive furloughed Jesuit in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who prowls the corridors of a Swiss sanatorium, raging against the modern Enlightenment and looking for disciples. What infuriates Naphta is that history cannot be reversed, so he dreams of revenge against it. He speaks of a coming apocalypse, a period of cruelty and cleansing, after which man’s original ignorance will return and new forms of authority will be established. Mann did not model Naphta on Edmund Burke or Chateaubriand or Bismarck or any other figure on the traditional European right. He modeled him on George Lukács, the Hungarian Communist philosopher and onetime commissar who loathed liberals and conservatives alike. A man for our time.
This is excerpted from the end of a January 2012 NYRB review of Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind, by Mark Lilla. I haven't read the book, but I read Robin's blog from time to time, and I learn things from him. I don't see myself as sharing his worldview, though, and I find Lilla's account of conservatism more compelling than I do Robin's.
I'd agree with Lilla that Robin has a rather reductionist view of conservatives. Robin's is a class warfare model in which ideology, one's thinking--is always about a deeper self-interested agenda. He sees conservatives as the group in any society that holds most of the power and has no other project except its own self-preservation. They are in that sense non-ideological, except insofar as they embrace whatever ideology de jour will support them in their self-preservationist project. Conservatives are in that sense pragmatists, not ideologues. They believe in nothing except to stay on top, and are intellectually adaptible to whatever type of thinking will support them in doing that. Some might believe their own self-justifying propaganda, but there's nothing more to it than the need to self-justify.
I think that there are plenty of people who call themselves conservatives that fit this description, and if they are Libertarian, they are, as Lilla points out, really Liberals. Liberalism is the ideology that justifies the ascendancy of the bourgeois over against the entrenched interests of the aristocratic old regime, and its laissez-faire/social Darwinist ideology was "new thinking" that justified bourgeois's holding on to power against the leveling masses that would take it away from them.
But Lilla argues that there's more to it than that. The philoophical difference between Liberals and Conservatives is not only about who's in power and who's not. It's about which side of the individual/society balance you think is more important. Liberals emphasize the individual and conservatives society:
What makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society. Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.
I'm temperamentally a Burkean conservative by this definition of it, and yet I've also argued that there's very little that's part of a living hertage given to us in a liberal, market-centered society that is worth conserving. I've argued that we're in a spiritual/cultural wasteland now, and that's ok if you accept it as part of a cycle. The challenge, though, is to live austerely in hope for the day we will be ready to enter Canaan, by which I mean the next renascent era of spiritual/cultural creativity. It will come. The purpose of this blog is to be attentive to the signs of the times in the expectation of its coming.
Plodding along in the desert is rather a bore, and I can understand what animates the Leo Naphtas and Glenn Becks. They are in the grip of the Savonarolan impulse that Lilla calls "redemptive reaction". They feel a loss, and they are made crazy in their grief. They blame those whom they see as responsible for turning paradise into a waste, and they long for cleansing apocalyptic fire. And this is where the difference between Lilla and Robin becomes important. The privileged pragmatists that Robin is talking about--the 1% from age to age--are in our own age making common cause with the redemptive reactionaries that Lilla is talking about. But Lilla understands something that Robin doesn't, which is that the pragmatists are playing with apocalyptic fire. That's a lesson learned the hard way by pragmatic conservatives in Germany in the 1930s. At what point did von Hindenberg learn that he was not the puppeteer but the puppet?