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Not to be confused with its antonym "radical".
That is the land of lost content;
   I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went
   And cannot come again.
—A.E. Housman

A reactionary is a politician or political philosopher who wants to reverse political changes and restore society to a state believed to have existed before. So basically, all politicians. It is usually used as a snarl word to describe a conservative opposed to modernity. Like much of the political language of the left and right wings, the usage arose due to the French Revolution. Some authors have described them as reverse revolutionaries, for they also believe in radical change and envision a utopia, except this utopia is to be found in the past. A synonym for reactionary is regressive, as an antonym for progressive.

Reactionary monarchism[edit]

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.Wikipedia 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 MaistreWikipedia and François-René de Chateaubriand,Wikipedia and apart from the monarchs, Prince MetternichWikipedia was its most influential leader.

To the extent that the restoration of the monarchy was, in fact, achieved, they "succeeded" after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Their success, however, lasted only a short time. An 1830 revolution replaced Charles XWikipedia with the supposedly more liberal Louis Philippe I,Wikipedia who himself was ousted in 1848 by the Second French Republic.Wikipedia

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 lawWikipedia) 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,Wikipedia which also did not last long.[note 1]

Later editions[edit]

As the experience of the restored House of Bourbon suggests, it proved impossible to discard all of the social changes that took place during the French Revolution. The restored kings never actually had their Ancien Régime ancestors' unbridled power. The old forms of government proved inadequate to end popular agitations, which led to the sacking of one king and the abolition of the Bourbon monarchy in France. The strain remained viable in French politics in organizations such as the Action Française,Wikipedia 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 to this category. The most over-the-top version of irredentism stakes its claim on reversing the result of the Bar Kokhba revoltWikipedia in the second century CE.

The reactionary impulse seems present in nature woo in its many manifestations; some strains of herbalism, organic food movements, 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 because we have evidence-based medicine as a safety net.

More recently, the 21st century "neoreactionary movement" once again isn't really: instead, 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 mixed 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 labeled "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. Tankies can also be considered reactionaries, as they want a return to the past glory of the Soviet Union and other so-called communist states that have since turned capitalist.

Common positions in Western countries[edit]

The right wing of the Republican Party has repeatedly been referred to as "reactionary", as has the British political party UKIP.[1][2] Common positions among modern Western "reactionaries" include:

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, they would still qualify as a social conservative since they are "upholding" the existing order, even if 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 from reactionaries, since they usually still desire to return to an older time, but believe that the best way to do this is to oppose liberal reforms at the moment.

The basic problem[edit]

For more information, see: Nostalgia

The laughable spectacle of Mussolini trying to fill Caesar's sandals underlines the 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 Volkisch Aryan utopia that turned to frank pseudoscience to conjure itself an imaginary glorious past.

The fundamental problem with most forms of reactionary belief is that, with distance, past evils fade from view, leaving only the glorious landmarks built alongside them. Time, unfortunately, appears to be unidirectional, and the past cannot be restored in the present.

See also[edit]


  1. As it happened, French Emperor Napoleon III'sWikipedia 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,Wikipedia the Battle of Sedan,Wikipedia at which the French Emperor was also personally captured. So it goes.