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Reactionary: Not Just a Right Wing Phenomenon
The backwards radical
If you'd asked me a few months ago what the term reactionary meant I could have told you that it was associated with the right-wing and that it was usually used as an insult rather than a self-identifier but beyond that I couldn't have told you what it actually meant. It's one of those political terms I've heard floating around for years but never paid direct attention to. There seem to be quite a few of these in politics as we saw in the last instalment with the term Radical.
But as it turns out reactionary is a word with an interesting history. While it was originally synonymous with right-wing what really surprised me and piqued my interest was that it doesn't have to be a right-wing phenomenon and that there are in fact left-wing reactionaries as well. Like the terms radical and revolutionary it's a term that has strong associations with one side of the political aisle but these associations are contingent rather than necessary; in truth they are ideas that transcend the left/right division.
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Reactionary Origins in the French Revolution
The term reactionary — along with our entire political distinction between Left and Right — has its origins in the French Revolution. The National Assembly was a revolutionary assembly of representatives of the commoners of France that pushed for economic reforms that overthrew the old regime of monarchy and feudalism.
Initially the Assembly was just about reforming French society but it ultimately led to the dethroning and execution of Louis XVI. Over the next decade it was the ruling body of the country until Napoleon took sole power in 1799.
The Assembly quickly became divided with those favouring revolution gathering to the left of the Assembly's president and the supporters of the king gathering to his right. One of those who gathered to the right Baron de Gauville at this time wrote:
"We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp"
As the Revolution progressed and the National Assembly became the Legislative Assembly in 1791 the so-called "Innovators" took up the place to the Left, the "defenders of the Constitution" took up the right and between them in the centre were the "Moderates".
This curious accident of history — the organisation of a room full of politicians during the French Revolution — has given us our working image of politics. It's those to the left, those to the right and those in the middle.
This is also where the term reactionary originates from. Its first appearance in the English language was in 1799 with the translation of a letter by one of the leading figures of the French Revolution Lazare Carnot. The term reactionary in this context referred to the political group who wanted to peel back the Revolution and return to pre-modern feudal monarchy.
Today the term reactionary is used in much the same way. Where a conservative is someone that wants to conserve the status quo, a reactionary is someone who wants to go back to a previous time that was more glorious — to the status quo ante (ante, as poker players know, being the Latin word for "before"). It's not just about preserving the system, it's an idealisation of a previous form of the system.
Where Progressives want to pull the system onward towards improvement, and the Moderate Conservatives and Liberals want to keep the system more or less the same, Reactionaries want to push the system back. Like the Progressives, the Reactionaries see something very wrong in the current system but the direction of their solution isn't onward towards novelty but backwards towards some idealised past. They are both radical sentiments that see the current state as problematic but the tendencies pull in opposite directions. Though as we'll see in a second even this distinction isn't so clear cut and we'll be looking at reactionary elements in this Progressive movement.
The reactionary idealisation of the past has resemblances to the great poet Homer who, writing in the dark age that followed the Bronze Age Collapse, idolised the age of the heroes that was passed. Then there's the five declining ages of man that Homer's poetic contemporary Hesiod wrote of. There's the Yugas of India. And then most similar to our modern reactionaries there was the Ancient Roman poet Ovid writing at the dawn of the Roman Empire. In Ovid's account the four ages of man have been nothing but a story of decline from the golden age — when people lived in peace and in harmony with nature — to the silver age, the bronze age and now the iron age in which everything has gone wrong and people have become corrupt and selfish.
This is the spirit of reactionism. We are seen to live in an age of decline and decadence. For the reactionary there is something horribly wrong with our time and the solution lies in the past. This reactionary element was prominent in the Fascist parties of the mid-20th century which harked back in the case of Italy to Ancient Rome and in the case of Germany to some ancient Germanic racial purity.
But probably the most iconic and on-the-nose reactionism is Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again". There is no purer example of the reactionary spirit than Trump. We can even see it in his response to the Korean movie Parasite winning big at the Oscars:
"Can we get Gone with the Wind back please. Sunset Boulevard. So many great movies"
It's almost a caricature of reactionism but it's the perfect embodiment of it in the 21st century. There were similar reactionary sentiments in Britain around Brexit.
Left Wing Reactionaries
But reactionary while much more common on the right can also show up on the left. American political scientist Mark Lilla writes about how progressives in the 90s were convinced that Americans didn't grasp the truth about the Reagan Revolution “since if they did, they would overturn it.” On the left there is a sense that this Neoliberalism that Reagan and Thatcher pioneered has been a disaster. These progressives reactionaries want to take us back to a time before Neoliberalism before Americans believed:
"that economic growth will do more for them than economic redistribution, and that to grow rich is good. It is taken as axiomatic that the experiments of the Great Society failed and that new experiments directed by Washington would be foolhardy. Regulation is considered dépassé, and unions are seen as self-serving, corrupt organizations that only retard economic growth."
These popular Neoliberal beliefs undercut mass adoption of a progressive mandate and has since sucked in the centre-left and now dominates the mainstream political worldview.
An even better example of left-wing reactionism can be found among the anarcho-primitivists who make Rousseau's image of the noble savage an explicit ideal. This is a group who believe that civilisation as a whole has been one major disaster and so the best thing we can do is go back to our pre-civilised roots before all this inequality and greed set in. Civilisation is evil and so the desire which is both Progressive and Reactionary at the same time is to get rid of the miseries of civilisation and return to a more harmonious way of living. There are similarities with Ovid here and also with the philosophy of the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.
The term reactionary then doesn't just apply to the right wing. But as we all know language evolves and it looks like reactionary is moving from being a taxonomic term which allows us to categorise certain elements of the political landscape and is well on the way to becoming a purely rhetorical term.
With very rare exceptions, nobody identifies as a reactionary. The negative connotations of the term have become so popular that to self-identify as one is the move of a provocateur. One progressive commentator Aaron Huertas coined the term "Reactionary Centrist" in a 2018 post which he defines as:
"someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right"
The article makes some really interesting observations about the political landscape but when it comes to the term reactionary, the only purpose of the term seems rhetorical. There doesn't seem to be a pre-existing status quo that these centrists are seeking to return to. It enlists the word reactionary not for its descriptiveness but for its negative connotations.
And so while this instalment has focused on the descriptive historical definition of reactionary it seems that this version of reactionary may be rapidly going extinct. The rhetorical version of the term which simply invokes — with negative connotations — right-wing is likely to be the only future of the term reactionary. In which case this article is an exercise in history rather than politics or philosophy.