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We Have the Left And Right All Wrong: The Real Story Of the Politics Of Nostalgia And Tradition

August 2, 2015 in Blogs

By Corey Robin, Salon

It's no longer the right who wants a return to the past.

Ever since Edmund Burke, founder of the conservative tradition,declared, “The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror,” pundits and scholars have divided the political world along the axis of time. The left is the party of the future; the right, the party of the past. Liberals believe in progress and the new; conservatives, in tradition and the old. Hope versus history, morrow versus memory, utopia versus reality: these are the stuff of our great debates.

In “The Reactionary Mind,” I argued that this view of the political divide is incorrect, at least as it pertains to the right. Beginning with Burke, conservatives have been less committed to tradition or the past than to a hierarchical vision of society. In Burke’s case, it was aristocrats over commoners; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be masters over slaves, employers over employees, husbands and men over women and wives. And so it remains: the most consistent feature of contemporary American conservatism is the GOP’s war on reproductive freedom and worker rights.

When it comes to history, conservatives have demonstrated a flexibility about time best captured by an aristocratic character in “The Leopard,” Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s novel about nineteenth-century Sicily: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” In defense of an established order of power, any innovation can be countenanced, any past disposed of. Time, in other words, is not the key.

But if the right’s window does not open onto the past, must the left’s open onto the future? Not necessarily, claim two fascinating new books: Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” and Kristin Ross’s “Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.” When it comes to past and future, they show, the left can be as ambidextrous as the right. What’s more, it may be the left’s ability to look backward while marching forward …read more


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