| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
“”That is the land of lost content;
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A reactionary is a politician or political philosopher who wants to reverse political changes and seeks to restore society to a state believed to have existed before. It is usually used pejoratively to describe a radical conservative opposed to modernity. Like much of the political language of left wing and right wing, the usage arose as a result of the French Revolution. Some authors have described them as reverse revolutionaries, for they also believe in radical change envisioning a utopia, except this utopia is to be found in the past.
The original use of the word "reactionary" (Fr. réactionnaire) in this political sense was to describe the position of monarchists in the French Revolution and its aftermath, a position otherwise known as legitimism. These reactionaries had two goals: the restoration of the House of Bourbon to the throne of France, and the restoration of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in French society. Its ideologues were the clerical philosophers such as Joseph de Maistre and François-René de Chateaubriand, and apart from the monarchs themselves, Prince Metternich was its most influential leader.
To the extent that the restoration of monarchy was in fact achieved, they "succeeded" after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Their success, however, did not last long. A 1830 revolution replaced Charles X with the supposedly more liberal Louis Philippe I, who himself was ousted in 1848 by the Second French Republic.
After this, the position of French monarchists became progressively more 'problematic'. Those who wanted a monarch in France were divided between those who wanted one of Charles X's descendants to become king (and that line of succession was complicated by domestic issues, religious factors, and Salic law) versus those who favored Louis-Philippe and his descendants. And a third alternative candidate was available: the restoration of the Bonapartes to the throne of France, which actually happened during the Second French Empire, which also did not last long.
As the experience of the restored House of Bourbon suggests, it proved impossible to simply discard all of the social changes that took place during the French Revolution. The restored kings never actually had the unbridled power their Ancien Régime ancestors had, and the old forms of government proved inadequate to scotch popular agitations, which led to the sacking of one king, then to the abolition of the Bourbon monarchy in France. The strain remained viable in French politics in organizations such as the Action Française, which ultimately opted for Fascism in the 20th century.
Irredentism is one persistent and basic form of reactionary politics. The Neo-Confederates, who continue to fight the American Civil War, perhaps belong under this category as well. The most over the top version of irredentism stakes its claim on reversing the result of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century CE.
The reactionary impulse seems present in nature woo in its many manifestations; some strains of herbalism, organic food movements and related food moralism, and such things as natural childbirth seek to invoke the Good Old Days in various ways. It's doable in the 21st century mostly because we have the safety net of evidence based medicine.
More recently, the 21st century "neoreactionary movement" once again isn't really: rather, it's a highly speculative muddle that purports to admire various authoritarian polities from the past, though it's unclear whether they like kings, aristocrats, or dictators best. This gets thrown in the mix with men's rights activism, dot-com era cybertopianism (even as far as "transhumanism"), and standard-issue Internet libertarianism.
Other movements that might be considered reactionary are Dominionism, which seeks to impose a Christian theocracy on the United States, and often seeks to sell itself as a return to the way things used to (and ought to) be. Fascist movements are often labelled "reactionary", with some justification: Italian Fascism sought alliances with the Roman church, and attempted to portray itself as seeking to revive the imperial glory of ancient Rome.
Common positions in Western Countries
- The American agitation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
- Banning gay marriage in areas where they've already been made legal, or otherwise rolling back civil rights for the LGBT community and other minority groups.
- Returning religion in public schools. This can span from wanting to have daily Bible readings in class to teaching creationism.
- Returning to a system of indirect selection of politicians or otherwise rolling back political freedoms. In America this would include trying to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of US senators) because it would strengthen "states' rights".
- Reinstating the Ancien Régime and/or an absolute monarchy.
- Reinstating the gold standard.
- Repealing progressive taxation.
- Paleoconservatism, which seeks to return to an older time of farms and small businesses run by families, with a heavy dose of religious fundamentalism added in.
- In the modern USA opposition to the New Deal and the Great Society. In Europe opposition to most of the modern welfare state, including single-payer healthcare.
- Some tough on crime policies, such as reinstating capital punishment where it is no longer used. Some may want to turn a blind eye to police brutality and return to a time when the police were given a greater benefit of the doubt in the name of upholding order.
- Anti-environmentalism, usually in the form of global warming denialism. Many would like to do away with most environmental regulations or government agencies such as the EPA.
- Fundamentalist Christianity, itself, developed Biblical inerrancy/literalism in response to the rise of Biblical criticism influencing mainline Protestant denominations. Not too long after, they decided they hated evolution too (but not geology), so created old earth creationism. Hating two academic fields was eventually insufficient so they started promoting young earth creationism to oppose geology. It is no coincidence that fundamentalists seem so anti-intellectual, as it is the basis of their faith.
- Any policy that can be classified as racist, as racism is no longer a scientifically acceptable position.
- Instating protectionist policies on goods and repealing civil liberties of immigrants.
- Reintroducing slavery or repealing labor rights so that labor isn't that different from it.
It's important to note here the difference between conservative and reactionary positions. If someone opposes gay marriage in a state where it isn't legal yet they would still qualify as a social conservative since they are "upholding" the existing order, even if it is with poor reasoning. On the other hand a reactionary seeks to repeal marriage rights in a state where it's already legal, effectively rolling back rights that were created. However it's been argued that most hardcore social conservatives are only marginally different reactionaries since they usually still desire to return to an older time but simply believe the best way to do this is to oppose liberal reforms in the moment.
The basic problem
The laughable spectacle of Mussolini trying to fill Caesar's sandals underlines the large amount of pseudohistory and shared fantasy present in the typical reactionary's vision of an idealized past. Movements like Dominionism and Fascism are in fact quite ordinary sorts of social radicalism, and the past they seek to restore turns out to have never existed anywhere. The Nazi version attempted to portray itself as restoring some kind of Volkisch Aryan utopia that turned to frank pseudoscience in an attempt to conjure itself an imaginary glorious past.
The basic problem with most forms of reactionary belief are that, with distance, past evils fade from view, leaving only the glorious landmarks that were built alongside them. Time unfortunately appears to be unidirectional, and the past simply cannot be restored in the present.
- As it happened, French Emperor Napoleon III's empire collapsed due to the emperor's fancying himself a commander equal to uncle Napoleon Bonaparte. His army was outflanked, surrounded, and annihilated in the first large engagement of the Franco-Prussian War, the Battle of Sedan, at which the French Emperor was also personally captured. So it goes.
- Rick Perlstein (December 16, 2013). "Why the GOP Is So Extremist and Reactionary". http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/grand-old-tea-party-0.
- Gained traction among the Tea Party
- What Can We Learn About Biblical Interpretation from Creationism? by Arthur McCalla