OCTOBER 23, 2016
IN THE ERA of Brexit, ISIS, and the candidacy of Donald Trump, could there be a more pressing topic than the nature of political reaction? These movements are all reactionary — characterized, first and foremost, by their rejection of the present. They are revolutionary in effect, boldly heralding swift and comprehensive change — but they are wary of progress. They have vision, but it is a nostalgic one, aimed over the shoulder. The usual ideological categories seem inadequate to account for them. Mark Lilla takes on the challenge of making sense of them. In The Shipwrecked Mind, he attempts to sketch out the nature and some of the sources of reactionary politics.
All but one of the essays collected in The Shipwrecked Mind first appeared in the NYRB. They make rather odd book-fellows: three profiles; two round-up reviews; a report from the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting; and a meditation on Don Quixote. One piece in particular — about the use leftist academics have made of the apostle Paul — bears only the most tenuous connection to the book’s ostensible theme. Maybe it was included to pad the volume out to its still-slim 144 pages? At that length, the book could hardly be a full history of reaction. To be fair, Lilla himself tries to tamp down our expectations:
The Shipwrecked Mind makes a very modest start. It is the fruit of my own aleatory reading over the past two decades and offers a series of examples and reflections rather than a systematic treatise on the concept of reaction.
Why enter the field with so small an offering? Lilla thinks any attention to reaction is worthwhile, because it fills a void: “We have theories about why revolution happens, what makes it succeed, and why, eventually, it consumes its young. We have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied conviction that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.” Lilla’s insistence that he is bravely exploring terra incognita highlights a bizarre silence that symbolizes the book’s shortcomings.
That silence reverberates with Lilla’s unnamed predecessor. If you ask a person well read in political theory to recommend a book on reactionary politics, they will almost certainly mention Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. It was published in 2011 and stirred up a controversy. Lilla himself reviewed it in the NYRB and subsequently engaged in a brief polemic with Robin in the magazine’s correspondence pages. We can be sure he’s aware of the other book. But nowhere in his own does he mention Robin, much less cite him.
Lilla prefers to shadowbox with his opponent. They disagree about at least two things. First, the motivations of reactionaries: Robin understands them to be motivated by the loss of power. In his book, he says reaction is about the “experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” By contrast, Lilla believes reactionaries are motivated by a philosophy of history that expresses itself as nostalgia. Second, the relationship between conservatism and reaction: Robin sees conservatism — for all its ideological talk of human nature, fiscal prudence, and small government — as, at heart, a reactionary movement. Lilla, though, writes, “Reactionaries are not conservatives. This is the first thing to be understood about them.” This is strangely categorical. Does he think no reactionaries are conservatives? (A few pages later he calls the National Review a reactionary magazine. They would be surprised to discover they’re not conservative.)
Perhaps that demarcation explains the odd choices Lilla makes of exemplary reactionaries. The first three essays profile Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin. While the last two of these fit his account of reaction well, Rosenzweig is an odd person with whom to begin. A Jewish philosopher-theologian, his major work, The Star of Redemption, attempts to reconcile and distinguish the religious purposes of Judaism and Christianity. Rosenzweig argued that Judaism’s rituals and beliefs have reference to eternity, Christianity’s to history. Thus, Jews should, in Lilla’s paraphrase, “live in relation to the past but only in the sense that each Jewish holiday reenacts an old drama that bears more relation to eternity than time.” Lilla apparently believes this idea is enough to brand Rosenzweig a reactionary. I find this hard to swallow. Liturgies oriented to eternity are very different from speeches extolling the good old days, and recommendations for a minority religious group are very different from reactionary aspirations for entire societies. One can easily imagine how Rosenzweig’s ideas could become reactionary. If they were wedded to a call for actions beyond the private observance of law and ritual, then they might take on a more frightening aspect. Imagine his words combined with a call to proselytize by force, or a call to revanchism — the reconquest of a lost and supposedly ancestral territory — as in certain strands of Zionism or in the ideology of ISIS. But as it stands, why nominate Rosenzweig a reactionary, when someone like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is available and more clearly fits the bill?
My suspicion is that some of these essays are only “about” reactionary politics in retrospect, threaded onto the necklace of that theme for the purposes of putting together a book. But that’s not true of every chapter. Two essays in particular speak directly to Lilla’s problematic.
“From Luther to Walmart” is a round-up review of several books of Roman Catholic history. Lilla connects them to the venerable tradition of religious counterrevolution, an intellectual movement that reared its nostalgic head in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789:
The golden age of lay Catholic historiography was the nineteenth century, when counterrevolutionary thinkers such as Bonald, the young Lamennais, Maistre, and Donoso Cortés refined the World We Have Lost narrative that has nourished reactionary political movements ever since. But in the twentieth century lay and clerical writers developed a kinder, gentler variation of it that has not lost its appeal among Catholics. Let’s call it the Road Not Taken.
These counterrevolutionaries are commonly considered the fountainheads of reaction as a political tradition. Lilla’s essay draws lines between their seething polemics and the gentler, but no less reactionary revisionism of contemporary religious historiography.
The second essay that tackles the theme head-on is “Paris, January 2015.” That was the month, you may recall, of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Lilla describes how this event served as an opportunity for a cohort of French reactionaries, already well established in their own camp, to trumpet their apocalyptic vision to “tens of thousands of French readers.” He focuses in particular on Éric Zemmour’s polemical history of postwar France, Le Suicide français (2014), and Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (2015). Nowhere else in The Shipwrecked Mind does Lilla’s vision of reaction or its relevance to the present appear with greater force: it is the most compelling part of the book. Here for example, on Zemmour:
[F]or an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it. The French right, with Éric Zemmour’s help, is advancing on this trajectory today. Le Suicide français gives readers a common set of enemies; it provides a calendar of their crimes; it confirms a suspicion that there must be some connection among these crimes; and it stirs in them an outraged hopelessness — which in contemporary politics is much more powerful than hope. All this at a time when the country is trying to wrap its collective mind around one of the great tragedies and challenges in recent history.
Lilla’s love for French culture and concern for the trajectory of its politics is palpable. Here he takes a text with a direct influence on the national zeitgeist and illuminates its significance as an instance of reaction. In this essay, I saw a glimpse of the book this could have been.
But we get much too little of that book in The Shipwrecked Mind, and the little we get is exclusively focused on Lilla’s thesis about the roots of reaction in the philosophy of history. In an afterword, he returns to this idea, presenting his argument for why we should not adopt the reactionary’s view of history.
To tell the reactionary kind of history, you must believe in “epochs” — the golden epoch of the past, the evil epoch of today. But “epochal thinking is magical thinking.” Reifying history gives rise to a further illusion — that a great and terrible rift divides the present from the past:
Apocalyptic history itself has a history, which stands as the record of human despair. The expulsion from Eden, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the crucifixion of Jesus, the sack of Rome, the murders of Hussein and Ali, the Crusades, the fall of Jerusalem, the Reformation, the fall of Constantinople, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the abolition of the caliphate, the Shoah, the Palestinian Nakba, “the Sixties,” September 11 […]
Because the reactionary is so convinced that all his present tribulations stem from one or another of these decisive events, he is inclined to imagine that an equally climactic event, perhaps one instigated or carried out by him and his friends, will set the world right: “the apocalyptic imagination […] is inclined to dream of a second event that will blow open the door of paradise.”
One problem with this account of reaction is that it seems too broad. What Lilla calls “apocalyptic thinking” tends to characterize the mindset of any group seeking a change from bad times. One finds this kind of thinking among Obama supporters in 2008 or Trudeau supporters in 2015 — people reeling from the catastrophes of previous regimes and putting their hope in a charismatic leader to bring back prosperity, peace, and the respect of the world. Are these groups really no different from Trump supporters in 2016? Lilla’s definition is too ambiguous to pick out the specific movements he has in mind. That, or it becomes an accidental criticism of representative democracy as such, a form of government whose periodic elections virtually require apocalyptic thinking to involve the apathetic public.
The same problem — a definition of reaction so abstract and formal that it applies to things that aren’t reactionary — makes a hash of Lilla’s claims about the history of the movement. In his preface, he pays lip service to the widely accepted view that reactionary politics entered world history in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Yet critics — and prophets — have been telling the kind of story Lilla identifies as reactionary pretty much as long as stories have been told. What is it about such stories that makes them specifically reactionary — i.e., specific to the tradition of counterrevolution that followed 1789? Ironically, Lilla himself demonstrates how historically imprecise his definition really is:
Cultural pessimism is as old as human culture and has a long history in Europe. Hesiod thought that he was living in the Age of Iron; Cato the Elder blamed Greek philosophy for corrupting the young; Saint Augustine exposed the pagan decadence responsible for Rome’s collapse; the Protestant reformers felt themselves to be living in the Great Tribulation; French royalists blamed Rousseau and Voltaire for the Revolution; and just about everyone blamed Nietzsche for two world wars.
So is reaction a tradition stemming from 1789, or a category of cultural pessimism pervasive from ancient societies to the present? This is only a problem because Lilla’s entire explanation of reaction amounts to saying it’s an idea about history.
To explain the self-proclaimed reactionaries of, for instance, the contemporary American alt-right purely in terms of the philosophy of history is to over-intellectualize them. Reaction is an ideology heavily larded with emotion. It seethes with resentment and disgust, insecurity and, yes, also nostalgia. To boil these emotions down to nostalgia, and then to abstract from nostalgia to the philosophy of history, is unhelpfully reductive. I don’t doubt that the “intellectual proxy wars over the present” that Lilla describes are real, but epochal thinking doesn’t make you vote for Trump or run away to Syria to restore the caliphate. These are revanchist revolutionaries, attempting to claw back lost privilege, especially privilege lost to those they regard as their historical inferiors.
Resentment, in other words, is at least as important a motivation for reaction as nostalgia. Whether out of a narrow interest in explaining politics through historiography, or simply because he didn’t get around to it in this brief collection, Lilla’s book falls short of a complete analysis. That doesn’t make it useless, but it’s not the first word it pretends to be, nor should it be the last.