The First Counter-revolutionary | The Nation


The First Counter-revolutionary

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Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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Ayn Rand was a melodramatist of the moral life: the battle is between the producer and the moochers, and it must end in life or death.

How did the conservative ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school become our economic reality? By turning the market into the realm of great politics and morals.

Revolution sent Thomas Hobbes into exile; reaction sent him back. In 1640 parliamentary opponents of Charles I such as John Pym were denouncing anyone "preaching for absolute monarchy that the king may do what he list." Hobbes had recently finished writing The Elements of Law, which did just that. After the king's top adviser and a theologian of unlimited royal power were both arrested, Hobbes decided it was time to go. Not waiting for his bags to be packed, he fled England for France.

Eleven years and a civil war later, Hobbes fled France for England. This time, he was running from the royalists. As before, Hobbes had just finished a book. Leviathan, he would later explain, "fights on behalf of all kings and all those who under whatever name bear the rights of kings." It was this seeming indifference about the identity of the sovereign that was now getting him into trouble. Leviathan justified, no, demanded, that men submit to any person or persons capable of protecting them from foreign attack and civil unrest. With the monarchy abolished and Oliver Cromwell's forces in control of England and providing for the people's safety, Leviathan seemed to recommend that everyone, including the defeated royalists, profess their allegiance to the Commonwealth. Versions of that argument had already gotten Anthony Ascham, ambassador for the Commonwealth, assassinated by royalist exiles in Spain. So when Hobbes learned that clergymen in France were trying to arrest him--Leviathan was also vehemently anti-Catholic, which offended the Queen Mother--he slipped out of Paris and made his way back to London.

It's no accident that Hobbes fled his enemies and then his friends, for he was fashioning a political theory that shredded longstanding alliances. Rather than reject the revolutionary argument, he absorbed and transformed it. From its deepest categories and idioms he derived an uncompromising defense of the most hidebound form of rule. He sensed the centrifugal pulses of early modern Europe--the priesthood of all believers, the democratic armies massing under the banner of ancient republican ideals, science and skepticism--and sought to convert them into a single centripetal force: a sovereign so terrible and benign as to make any challenge to such authority seem not only immoral but also irrational. Not unlike the Italian Futurists, Hobbes put dissolution in the service of resolution. He was the first and, along with Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of counterrevolution, a blender avant la lettre of cultural modernism and political reaction who understood that to defeat a revolution you first must become the revolution.

And how has he been treated by the party of order? Not well. In an essay about Bishop Bramhall, a royalist who locked horns with Hobbes, T.S. Eliot (an adroit blender himself) called Hobbes "one of those extraordinary little upstarts whom the chaotic motions of the Renaissance tossed into an eminence which they hardly deserved." Of the four twentieth-century political theorists identified by Perry Anderson as "The Intransigent Right"--Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich von Hayek--only Oakeshott saw in Hobbes the faintest glimmer of a kindred spirit. The rest viewed him as the source of a malignant liberalism, Jacobinism or even Bolshevism.

Custodians of the old regime often mistake the counterrevolutionary for the opposition because they can't detect the alchemy of his argument. All they sense is what's there--a newfangled way of thinking that sounds dangerously like the revolutionary's--and what's missing: the traditional justification for authority. That makes the counterrevolutionary a suspect in their eyes, not a comrade. They're not entirely wrong in this. Neither left nor, strictly speaking, right--one of Hayek's most famous pieces of writing is called "Why I Am Not a Conservative"--the counterrevolutionary is a pastiche of incongruities: high and low, old and new, left and right, irony and faith. That pastiche is essential, for what a counterrevolutionary is trying to do is nothing less than square the circle--make prerogative popular and remake a regime that claims never to have been made in the first place (the old regime was, is and will be; it is not made). These are tasks no other political movement has to undertake. It's not that the counterrevolutionary is personally disposed to paradox; it's just that he's forced to straddle historical contradictions, for power's sake.

But why even bring Hobbes before the bar of conservatism, the right and counterrevolution? After all, none of these terms appear to have come into circulation until the French Revolution or later, and most historians no longer believe that the English Civil War was a revolution. The forces that overthrew the monarchy may have been looking for the Roman Republic or the ancient constitution. They may have wanted a reformation of religious manners or limitations on royal power. But a revolution lay nowhere in their sights. How could Hobbes have been a counterrevolutionary if there was no revolution for him to oppose?

Hobbes, for one, thought otherwise. In Behemoth, his most considered treatment of the issue, he firmly declared the English Civil War a revolution. And though he meant by that term something like what the ancients meant--a cyclical process of regime change, more akin to the orbit of the planets than a great leap forward--Hobbes saw in the overthrow of the monarchy a zealous (and, to his mind, toxic) yearning for democracy, a firm desire to redistribute power to a greater number of men than previously had enjoyed it. That, for Hobbes, was the essence of the revolutionary challenge, and so it has remained ever since--whether in Russia in 1917, Flint in 1937 or Selma in 1965. That it was inspired by visions of the past rather than the future need not detain us any more than it did Hobbes--or Benjamin Constant or Karl Marx, for that matter, both of whom saw how easy it was for the French to make their revolution while (or even by) looking backward.

Hobbes clearly opposed the "democraticals," as he called the parliamentary forces and their followers. Quentin Skinner's contention in Hobbes and Republican Liberty is that Hobbes expended a considerable sum of his philosophical energy in this opposition and that his greatest innovations derived from it. His specific target was the republicans' conception of liberty, their notion that individual freedom entailed men collectively governing themselves. By unfastening the links between personal freedom and the nature of political power, Hobbes was able to argue that men could be free in an absolute monarchy--or at least no less free than they were in a republic or a democracy. It was "an epoch-making moment in the history of Anglophone political thought," says Skinner, resulting in a novel account of liberty to which we remain indebted--unhappily, in Skinner's view--to this day.

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