A short book drawn from a series of essays analyzes the contemporary relevance of the oft-maligned “reactionary,” who isn’t retreating into the past so much as reclaiming it.
Though the revolutionary impulse has been analyzed to the point of overkill, Lilla (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, 2007, etc.) suggests that its opposite pole has been all but ignored, that “we have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied conviction that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.” The author proceeds to argue that the revolutionary spirit is all but spent, that its reactionary counterpart is on the ascent, and that liberal relativism has been exposed in the process. He says that this strain is not restricted to the right and that reactionary “tropes can also be found on the fringe left, where apocalyptic deep ecologists, antiglobalists, and anti-growth activists have joined the ranks of twenty-first-century reactionaries.” Lilla opens with biographical essays on three intellectuals (Leo Strauss the best known among lay readers), grounding the book in the religious reaction of “theoconservatism,” though the analysis provides context dating back to Socrates and Plato. The essay on Strauss underscores a “distinction between nature and convention,” pitting the latter against the moral authority of the former. “It was only a matter of time before modern thought…descended into relativism and nihilism,” he writes. The author’s accounts of terrorism and the anti-Muslim backlash in France make the analysis vividly contemporary, showing how previously it was anathema in France to be “a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress. Today it is permissible.” Within this context, he claims that Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Submission deserves to be compared with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Most American critics weren’t nearly that generous, but the author is less concerned with literary value than with ideas and arguments.
Lilla provides a welcome corrective in restoring analytical balance but is less convincing when he veers toward polemics.