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Reactionary (also reactionist) refers to any political or social movement or ideology that seeks a return to a previous state (the status quo ante). The term originated in the French Revolution, to denote the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to restore the real or imagined conditions of the monarchical Ancien Régime. In the nineteenth century, the term reactionism denoted those who wished to preserve feudalism and aristocratic privilege against industrialism, republicanism, liberalism, and socialism. Today the term is largely used by those on the political left pejoratively to refer to ideas they consider backwards, outdated and opposing to progress.

Usage and history

The French Revolution gave the English language two politically descriptive words denoting anti-progressive politics: reactionary and conservative. Reactionary derives from the French word réactionnaire (an early nineteenth-century coinage), and conservative from conservateur, identifying monarchist parliamentarians opposed to the revolution. In this French usage, reactionary denotes "a movement towards the reversal of an existing tendency or state" and a "return to a previous condition of affairs." The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first English-language usage was by John Stuart Mill, in 1840: "The philosophers of the reactionary school—of the school to which Coleridge belongs".

During the French Revolution, conservative forces (especially the Roman Catholic Church) organized opposition to the progressive socio-political and economic changes wrought by the revolution, and to fight to restore the temporal authority of the Church and Crown. In nineteenth-century European politics, the reactionary class included the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy—the clergy, the aristocracy, royal families, and royalists—believing that national government is the sole domain of the Church and the state. In France, supporters of traditional rule by direct heirs of the House of Bourbon dynasty were labeled the legitimist reaction. In the Third Republic, the monarchists were the reactionary faction, later renamed conservative. In Protestant Christian societies, reactionary described those supporting tradition against modernity.

In the nineteenth century, reactionary denoted people who idealised feudalism and the pre-modern era—before the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution—when economies were mostly agrarian, a landed aristocracy dominated society, an hereditary king ruled and the Roman Catholic Church was society's moral centre. Those labeled as reactionary favoured the aristocracy instead of the middle class and the working class. Reactionaries opposed democracy and parliamentarism.

Thermidorian Reaction

The Thermidorian Reaction was a movement within the revolution, against the excesses of the Jacobins. On July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor year II in the French Republican Calendar), Maximilien Robespierre's Reign of Terror was brought to an end. The overthrow of Robespierre signalled the reassertion of the French National Convention over the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins were suppressed, the prisons were emptied and the Committee was shorn of its powers. After the execution of some 104 Robespierre supporters, the Thermidorian Reaction stopped the use of the guillotine against alleged counterrevolutionaries, set a middle course between the monarchists and the radicals and ushered in a time of relative exuberance and its accompanying corruption. The Thermidorian Reaction was thus not reactionary in the more common sense of the term.

The Restored French Monarchy

With the Congress of Vienna, the monarchs of Russiamarker, Prussiamarker, and Austriamarker formed the Holy Alliance, a form of collective security against revolution and Bonapartism inspired by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. This instance of reaction was surpassed by a movement that developed in France when, after the second fall of Napoleon, the Restoration, or re-instatement of the Bourbon dynasty, ensued. This time it was to be a constitutional monarchy, with an elected lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. The Franchise was restricted to men over the age of forty, which indicated that for the first fifteen years of their lives they had lived under the ancien régime. Nevertheless, King Louis XVIII was worried that he would still suffer an intractable parliament. He was delighted with the ultra-royalists, or Ultras, whom the election returned, declaring that he had found a chambre introuvable, literally, a "house of government for which the like cannot be found." But later he realized that they were too ultra for a royal.

It was the Declaration of Saint-Ouen which had prepared the way for the Restoration. Before the French Revolution, which radically and bloodily overthrew most aspects of French society's organization, the only way that constitutional change could be instituted was by referring it to old legal documents that could be interpreted as agreeing with the proposal. Everything new had to be expressed as a righteous revival of something old that had lapsed and had been forgotten. This was also the means used for diminished aristocrats to get themselves a bigger piece of the pie. In the eighteenth century, those gentry whose fortunes had so diminished that they lived at the level of peasants went skulking for every ancient feudal law that would give them a little something. The "ban," for example, meant that all their peasants had to grind their grain in the lord's mill. So they came to the French States-General of 1789 fully prepared to press for the expansion of such practices in all provinces, to the legal limit. They were horrified when the French Revolution permitted common citizens to go hunting, one of the few advantages that they had always maintained everywhere.

Thus with the restoration of the Bourbons, the Chambre Introuvable set about reverting every law to return things not merely to the age of the absolute monarchy, but before that to the age in which the aristocracy really was a socially powerful class. It is this which clearly distinguishes a "reactionary" from a "conservative." The conservative would have accepted many improvements brought about by the revolution, and simply refused a program of wholesale reversion. Hence one should be wary of the use of the word "reactionary" in later days as a political slur, since there is nothing to compare with the Chambre Introuvable in other countries. For example, Russia certainly didn't have any such aristocrats after 1989. Later French kings similarly had trouble with their parliaments.

The clerical philosophers

In the Revolution's aftermath, France was continually wracked with the quarrels between the right-wing Bourbon Dynasty restoration reactionaries and left-wing Revolutionaries; herein arose the clerical philosophers—Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, François-René de Chateaubriand—whose answer was restoring absolute monarchy and reinstalling the Roman Catholic Church as the official State Church of France. Since then, France's history features said recurrent patterns of political thought, with reactionaries longing for an erstwhile pre-Revolutionary Golden Age, by repudiating two centuries of progress since the Revolution in 1789. (see Action Française)

Metternich and containment

During the period of 1815-1848, Prince Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austrian Empiremarker, stepped in to organize containment of revolutionary forces through international alliances meant to prevent the spread of revolutionary fervour. At the Congress of Vienna, he was very influential in establishing the new order, the Concert of Europe, after the overthrow of Napoleon.

After the Congress, Prince Metternich worked hard bolstering and stabilizing the conservative regime of the Restoration period. He worked furiously to prevent Russia's Tsar Alexander I (who aided the liberal forces in Germany, Italy and France) from gaining influence in Europe. The Church was his principal ally, promoting it as a conservative principle of order while opposing democratic and liberal tendencies within the Church. His basic philosophy was based on Edmund Burke, who championed the need for old roots and an orderly development of society. He opposed democratic and parliamentary institutions but favoured modernizing existing structures by gradual reform. Despite Metternich's efforts a series of revolutions rocked Europe in 1848.

20th century

Warning against visiting "reactionary" websites in a Vietnamese cyber cafe
In the twentieth century, reactionary denoted opponents of socialism and communism, such as the White Armies, who fought a counter-revolutionary monarchist war against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. In Marxist terminology, reactionary is a pejorative adjective denoting people whose ideas might appear to be pro-working class, but, in essence, contain elements of feudalism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism or other socio-political characteristics of the ruling class. Reactionary also denotes supporters of authoritarian, anti-communist and fascist régimes such as Vichy France, Spain under Francisco Franco, and Portugal under Antonio Salazar. In Vietnam, the Communist Government often labels dissidents or opponent organisations as reactionary (phản động).

Reactionary feelings were often coupled with an hostility to modern, industrial means of production and a nostalgia for a more rural society. The Vichy regime in Francemarker, Francisco Franco's regime, the Salazar regime in Portugalmarker, and Maurras's Action Française political movements are examples of such traditional reactionary feelings, in favour of authoritarian regimes with strong unelected leaders and with Catholicism as a state religion. The motto of Vichy France was "travail, famille, patrie"("work, family, homeland"), and its leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain, declared that "la terre, elle ne ment pas" ("earth does not lie") in an indication of his belief that the truest life is rural and agrarian.

Fascism is generally considered to be reactionary, due to its glorification of ancient national history and some of the social arrangements prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The Italian fascists showed a desire to bring about a new social order based on the ancient feudal principle of delegation (though without serfdom) in their enthusiasm for the corporate state. Benito Mussolini said that "fascism is reaction" and that "fascism, which did not fear to call itself reactionary... has not today any impediment against declaring itself illiberal and anti-liberal."

However, Gentile and Mussolini also attacked certain reactionary policies, particularly monarchism and—more veiled—some aspects of Italian conservative Catholicism. They wrote, "History doesn't travel backwards. The fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet. Monarchical absolutism is of the past, and so is ecclesiolatry." They further elaborated in the political doctrine that fascism "is not reactionary [in the old way] but revolutionary." Conversely, they also explained that fascism was of the right, not of the left. Fascism was certainly not simply a return to tradition: it carried the centralised state beyond even what had been seen in absolute monarchies. Fascist single-party states were as centralised as most communist states, and fascism's intense nationalism was not found in the period prior to the French Revolution.

The Nazis did not consider themselves reactionary, and numbered the forces of reaction (Prussian monarchists, nobility, Roman Catholic) among their enemies right next to their Red Front enemies in the Nazi Party march Die Fahne hoch. The fact that the Nazis called their 1933 rise to power the National Revolution, shows that they supported some form of revolution. Nevertheless, the idealization of tradition, folklore, classical thought, leadership (as exemplified by Frederick the Great), their rejection of the liberalism of the Weimar Republic, and calling the German state the Third Reich (which traces back to the medieval First Reich and the pre-Weimar Second Reichmarker), has led many to regard the Nazis as reactionary.

Clericalist movements sometimes labeled as Clerical fascist by their critics, can be considered reactionaries in terms of the 19th century, since they share some elements of fascism, while at the same time promote a return to the pre-revolutionary model of social relations, with a strong role for the Church. Their utmost philosopher was Nicolás Gómez Dávila.

In the Middle East, examples of reactionary movements include Wahhabism, Salafism and the Taliban.

See also


  1. The Governments of Europe, Frederic Austin OGG, Rev. Ed., The MacMillan Co., 1922, p. 485.
  2. Cited in the OED as "J. S. MILL in London & Westm. Rev. Mar. 276"
  3. Gerarchia, March, 1923 quoted in George Seldes, Facts and Fascism, eighth edition, New York: In Fact, 1943, p. 277.


  • Liberty or Equality, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Christendom Press, Front Royal, Virginia, 1993.
  • Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, Social Forces in England and France 1815-1870, J. Salwyn Schapiro, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., NY, 1949. (with over 34 mentions of the word "reactionary" in political context)
  • The Reactionary Revolution, The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 1870/1914, Richard Griffiths, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., NY, 1965.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, 20 Vol. 31 references on the use of the term.

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