Late in life, William F. Buckley made a confession. Capitalism is “boring,” he told me. “Devoting your life to it,” as conservatives do, “is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.” Since that conversation ten years ago, I’ve been asking what is conservatism and what’s at stake for its proponents. This book is my answer.

From the French Revolution to the Tea Party, conservatism has been a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.

Available in paperback for only $13! Order now on Amazon.


“I confess to being one of those who likes to divide conservatives into their parts as opposed to treating them as a whole. Robin makes a vigorous case that I am wrong, and I am tempted by his analysis….Robin is an engaging writer, and just the kind of broad-ranging public intellectual all too often missing in academic political science.”

The New Republic

“And I think that the best model [of conservatism] is, as I said the other day, the Corey Robin notion that it’s about preserving hierarchy.”

—Paul Krugman, New York Times

“A very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism.”

The Guardian/Observer

“‘The Reactionary Mind’ certainly cuts hard against the common view that the radical populist conservatism epitomized by Sarah Palin represents a sharp break with the cautious, reasonable, moderate, pragmatic conservatism inaugurated by the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke….This counterrevolutionary spirit, Mr. Robin argues, animates every conservative, from the Southern slaveholders to Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia, to name just a few of the figures he pulls into his often slashing analysis.”

New York Times

“…ground-breaking book…”

Rolling Stone

“If conservatives have been the ‘left’s best students,’ Robin teaches the Left to become better students of the Right.”


“This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.”

Times Higher Education

“‘The Reactionary Mind’ demands to be taken seriously by conservatives, and it helps that it’s written with panache. The series of scholarly strikes Robin makes against conventional wisdom are often exhilarating.”

The Daily

“Robin, a New York-based political scientist and regular contributor to publications like The Nation and the London Review of Books, has written an original book with an armful of theses that shed revealing light on the whys and wherefores of right-wing politics in the United States and beyond.”

The National

“Stemming from a conversation he had with the late William F. Buckley, Robin’s book provides clear, well-documented insight on how the right came to be what it now is.”

Washington Times

“I feel sure that if trapped on a desert island with the man, I should soon commit suicide.”

The American Conservative

“We asked our editors what they’ve been reading lately, and almost all of us have been reading for Occupy Wall Street. We recommend Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind, the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.”


“Corey Robin’s extraordinary collection, constantly fresh, continuously sharp, and always clear and eloquent, provides the only satisfactory philosophically coherent account of elite conservatism I have ever read. It’s all great, a model in the exercise of humane letters.”

—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland

“This book is a fascinating exploration of a central idea: that conservatism is, at its heart, a reaction against democratic challenges, in public and private life, to hierarchies of power and status. Corey Robin leads us through a series of case studies over the last few centuries, showing the power of this idea by illuminating conservatives both sublime and ridiculous.”

—Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University

“Beautifully written, these essays deepen our understanding of why conservatism remains a powerful force in American politics.”

—Joyce Appleby, UCLA and past president of the American Historical Association

“A wonderfully good read. It combines up-to-the-minute relevance with an eye to the intellectual history of conservatism in all its protean forms. Some readers will enjoy Corey Robin’s dismantling of Barry Goldwater, Antonin Scalia, and Irving Kristol; others will enjoy his demolition of Ayn Rand. Some will be uncomfortable when they discover that those who too lightly endorse state violence, and even torture, include some of their friends. That is one of the things that makes this such a good book.”

—Alan Ryan, Oxford University

Order now on Amazon.

48 Responses to “Book”

  1. troy grant November 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    Watching your C-Span interview I find a fatal flaw in your book. You don’t consider the scientific description of the conservative mind as seen in the classic study in Psychological Bulletin, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” by John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway as it applies to left wing conservatism (Stalin, Pol Pot, Caescescu, etc). You make the common mistake of identifying conservatism as a strictly right wing feature leaving left conservatism to be identified as whatever one wants. The scientific definition of conservatism does not differentiate between left and right because its characteristics are common to both sides. That coupled with your right libertarian slant and the right wing bombshell doing the interview, leaves a lot to be desired. You would both be a good fit for FOX, not C-Span.

    The four authors write: “”People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption and ambiguity; and to explain, order and justify inequality among groups and individuals.” To come to this conclusion the authors examined 88 different psychological studies conducted between 1958 and 2002 that involved 22,818 people from 12 different countries. They boiled that information down into a number of psychological attributes that are closely associated with people who are politically conservative.

    A synopsis can be found here:

    • Jazper January 4, 2014 at 12:51 am #

      Of course, it’s an old, old, old and very boring proposal that conservatism is simply a defense of (unjust) hierarchy or inequality. Naturally that’s how it seems to those with absolutely no sympathy for the Right, no understanding of it, no intuitive grasp of the non-Leftist values that drive it. A mark of the shallowness of Robin’s prog-left-lib reviewers — that they all cite this old, boring misconception as a “fascinating” or “provocative” thesis. What they really mean, most likely, is that they themselves have always believed the same tired canard and slander, and they’re very happy to see it reconfirmed. A first step towards a proper understanding of the Right: distinguish “conservatism” from Reaction, and distinguish the old Right of throne, altar, nationalism, etc. from the new Right of Homo Economicus (Rand, etc.). To lump together these deeply incompatible positions as “conservatism” is just idiotic. Many of the positions under discussion are more different from each other by every important measure than from the “democratic” or “leftist” positions with which they are supposed to contrast.

      • Cat Food February 9, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

        As a rightist myself I’m a bit perplexed as to what you find so disagreeable about Corey’s thesis. Of course a classic throne and altar conservative differs from a libertarian or a Randian objectivist in many important respects, yet we have to consider what binds them as movements of the right in the first place. How could Nietzsche, GW Bush, and Hayek all be men of the right despite their vast differences? It’s because they reject egalitarianism, the battle cry of the left. To be on the right is to oppose the proposition that everyone should have equal socio-economic and political power. I may not be in Corey’s court because I find leftism unfeasible but I think we see eye to eye on this basic point. I suppose the reason some liberals and conservatives might find this thesis ‘new’ or ‘revisionist’ is because Americans in general are illiterate when it comes to basic European political terminology, hence those laughably awkward moments when Americans call fascists leftwing or think George Washington was a libertarian.

  2. Evildoer April 3, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    I really enjoyed and gained insight from the book. I was a bit disappointed that most of it was the old articles themselves. The format left most of the conceptual heavy lifting to the introduction and the book could have been much better if it were written from scratch. It also opened the door to some criticism. Yet I was really shocked by Marc Lilla’s review and his reply to your reply. It was not serious criticism. It was almost character assassination. His nonsense about “false consciousness” which seems to me almost the opposite of your argument, was particularly unbelievable. He practically revoked your Licentia Docendi. Given that this attack came from an establishment that is generally left of center, I think that calls for an explanation. Why is your argument to threatening at this particular moment in history, not the the Right, but to people like Lilla. I hope you take the time to offer a reflection on that question.

    • Wynona's Big Brown Beaver August 22, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

      This was very good and led me to go and read that review and exchange. I think there really is something to this and I’m seeing more of “it” all the time…although I don’t really have a name for it. And I think that “it” has a whole lot to do with class. You’ll notice that Lilla makes ZERO mention of economics, and is all about elite, highly Eurocentric political and cultural ideas. This is part of the problem in the US, the arbitrary split between politics and economics and the unspoken bias towards classism it serves…to which Lilla clearly is either totally ignorant, or more likely, simply does not want to talk about, and doesn’t want anyone else to talk about, as well. He simply doesn’t “get” it and doesn’t want to. He wants the issue brushed under the rug, to paint teaparty loonies as extreme cases and not a driving force at the center of US politics, evidently believing that some moderate coalition of establishment Democrats and Republicans can still get together and run the country responsibly. At least for the upper-middle class and their superiors, anyway.

      He seems like a suburban Reagan Democrat, completely cut off with the “soccer moms and plumbers” he believes he is taking seriously, but really only condescends to, while attacking those who actually would put forth pragmatic solutions to their problems. He likely made no fuss in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, supported the bailouts, and thinks Obama’s non-anger at the rise of shootings of unarmed black men by police is the right response, and could give 2 shits about the US propping up right-wing dictatorships around the world. He will support Hilary Clinton in 2016 and won’t be too harsh on the idiots the GOP, so as to not seem too “biased.” He seems like the personification of the establishment liberal that is killing the liberal class, as described by Chris Hedges’, “Death of the Liberal Class.” His claiming to “take seriously” working class folks and their ideas was nauseating. I’d love to see him at a local bar, ordering a small glass of wine, and talking politics with said plumber friend, quoting fascists and using french. Clearly, a true man of the people. Almost like he has a nostalgic idea of the world before the 1990s, sees the current world changing, and wants to maintain the status quo, as a moderate measure towards social stability. Hmm…maybe that’s why he attacked Robins, because by implication, that would all make him a bit of a reactionary now wouldn’t it? And not only him, but all his elitist friends in the 1%. Again, notice his complete disregard for economic matters, class, and their relation to politics and ideas. There are no material concerns, let’s all just focus on European intellectuals. And absolutely no “radical” critiques of the current structure of US economy, please. That’s just going over the line, evidently. So he wrote a review in that bastion of US neoliberalism, the NY Review of Books. Who reads that? Well, other elitist liberals, for one. And he thinks his and their ideas of what the reactionary mind looks like needs to stay the same. Again, that change thing for him…

      Lilla’s review was made to scare other establishment liberals (really center-right bourgeois with a strong tolerance of intolerance and social inequality) from reading The Reactionary Mind. It is a smoke-screen of shallow understanding of US and world history (due to having his Eurocentric head too far up his eurocentrist ass) and its main tactic was constant “splitting.” He even calls Robins a “lumper.” Lumping is often characterized as mentally lazy, not seeing distinctions, etc. Actually, it is just as difficult to see common underlying patterns, and more difficult than pointing out meaningless distinctions. It also adds clarity to complex issues, if done properly. If he were only to add a class or economic element to his tortured logic, then all those distinctions between reactionaries and conservatives, etc., begin to look pretty weak and kind of pointless. He knows damn well that money filled the gap between the old aristocracies and the new capitalist social orders. Yes, a few nobles withered away. Most did not. Also, he said fascists were not conservative? Didn’t the nazis first attack liberals, unions, and socialists? Uh, Franco? He deserves a smack in the face for that one. Yes, fascists weren’t conservative, and Zionists aren’t colonizers. Good work, liar.

      Lilla’s review is just one example among many of the “muddying the waters” approach to any clear-headed analysis of power relations within a capitalist society today. Better to attack the messenger in hopes that other elites won’t take notice and get any “ideas.” He has too much going for him to challenge the comfortable “consensus”, preferring more of what he feels entitled to, and rattling the cages of the authoritarian far-right in the US, to him, seems like a foolish idea that can only cause more problems. Maybe, if the far-right acts out, they are the one’s responsible and the ones to blame for the next round of crimes they commit? Lilla is the northern whig politician who tolerates the gag rule in Congress, forbidding any discussion of slavery. What a coward. Lilla and other establishment liberals do not want clarity on the far-right in the US today. This is a weird, and in my opinion, clearly cowardly and self-serving stance. It is basically the NPR approach to the far-right today. Basically, NEVER talk about it, and when you do, make sure you use your extra cushy gloves and make no serious jabs. I think they fear the far-right. If so, all the more reason to expose them, not pander and cower to their bullying. Well, one way to destroy clarity is to introduce mind-numbing and meaningless distinctions, differences that don’t really matter much. Lilla doesn’t want people to have a clear view of the mind of the reactionary, or conservatism, because that would result in change and (gasp) possibly spark action. Instead, he prefers we believe conservatives aren’t “that bad” after all, that we all just accept the current social order and not look to deeply into the words and deeds of anti-liberal authoritarians living in supposedly liberal democratic society, and just patiently wait for all that wealth to start to “trickle down.” And it should start any day now, as all good establishment liberals have been saying, since pro-apartheid Reagan.

  3. troy grant January 4, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Conservatism from the left? What were Stalin, Pol Pot, Caescescu, Mao, liberals? What is a conservative if not an authoritarian regardless what wing he or she comes from?

    • Sarah February 19, 2014 at 12:25 am #

      Stalin was in favour of a new philosophy that, while theorized about for some time, was still untried . To be in favour of change, particularly sudden or violent change, is demonstrably not conservative, it is progressive or even revolutionary. Undoubtedly, once they were in power, the Communist parties became conservative. They wished to preserve the new status quo that they perceived to be good and/or that preserved their vested interests and power.

      Most of today’s Republican or Conservative movements in the West have for some time now been associated with economic libertarianism (free markets) and increasingly moving towards social libertarianism as well. Regardless of the fact that some of it’s members CHOOSE a traditionally moral or religious life for themselves, there is a growing discomfort with involving the State in the bedrooms of the Nation, amongst other things. Libertarianism is still considered conservative, quite ironically since the New Right is NEW, but it is demonstrably not authoritarian, at least, not in the normal sense.

      It is strangely not “Right” in the old sense either, since the Meritocracy was the child of the Left, born out of the removal of power entrenched in the remains of aristocracy (privilege by birthright, rather than merit). The New Right is the Old Left of the French Revolution and its sister the American Revolution. But that is the way of it, today’s progressive is always tomorrow’s conservative.

      You may need to rethink that authoritarian=conservative / conservative=authoritarian link.

      What also needs to be rethought is the progressive/revolutionary = always good and conservative = always bad
      If the status quo is “good” (just, fair etc) then preserving it is good and change is bad (potentially at least)
      If the status quo is “bad” (corrupt, unjust) then preserving it is also bad, and change to a better state is good

      Where people fall on the conservative – progressive continuum at any moment relates to A) what they think of the current status quo on the matter, B) where their personal interests lie, or C) both.

      • Troy Grant February 19, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

        Ruling cons have long known that demonizing liberals is a good way to beat libs and beat them they must as they often do. Libs are major obstacles to conservative’s greed. The result is that most liberals now call themselves “progressives” and shy away from the “liberal” brand. In fact, many libs defend conservatives, the authoritarians that rape, pillage and plunder the earth, perhaps believing still in the old “careful, frugal, traditional” definition of “conservative”.

        Humanist libs want peaceful change in the minds of men. Violent and revolutionary change is left up to radicals or left wing cons, authoritarians that may “win” a bloody war and will always run the government into the ground as all cons do. See “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern” by Alan Wolfe:

        Right Libertarians may be socially liberal, but ignore the glaring contradiction that monopolies destroy the free market they tout, and that produce the concentrated wealth/power destructive of liberty. Paleocon monopolists Koch Bros. are libertarians of convenience and the gun toting Tea Party they bought cannot be more conservative authoritarian.

        With your help, ruling conservatives with lots of money-power to conserve have been muddying the lib/con definitions for a long time. They do this with creation vs evolution, climate change and climate change denial, 99% thugs vs the 1% victims, corporations are people, private and public and so on. In all cases their profiteering is behind it. To conserve and expand what they possess, cons will lie, cheat, steal, authoritatively trying to satisfy their bloated egos at public expense.

  4. troy grant February 9, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

    The absolutist conservative right and left dislike nuance. To assume that because they tolerate gross inequality liberals want everyone to be perfectly equal is condescending and stupid.

    Conservatives may not believe in science, but most liberals know enough science to accept and welcome diversity as necessary for healthy ecosystems. What most liberals do not accept is the destruction of our earthly habitat by clueless conservatives that over-consume, pollute, lie, cheat, steal, maim and kill because its a “free market”.


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