In political science, a reactionary or reactionarist can be defined as a person or entity holding political views that favour a return to a previous political state of society that they believe possessed characteristics that are negatively absent from the contemporary status quo of a society. As an adjective, the word reactionary describes points of view and policies meant to restore a past status quo.
The word reactionary is often used in the context of the left–right political spectrum, and is one tradition in right-wing politics. In popular usage, it is commonly used to refer to a highly conservative position, one opposed to social or political change. However, according to political theorist Mark Lilla, a reactionary yearns to overturn a present condition of decadence and recover an idealized past. Such reactionary individuals and policies favour social transformation, in contrast to conservative individuals or policies that seek to preserve what exists in the present.
Reactionary ideologies can also be radical, in the sense of political extremism, in service to re-establishing past conditions. In political discourse, being a reactionary is generally regarded as negative; the descriptor "political reactionary" has been adopted by the likes of the Austrian monarchist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, the Scottish journalist Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie, the Colombian political theologian Nicolás Gómez Dávila, and the American historian John Lukacs.
The French Revolution gave the English language three politically descriptive words denoting anti-progressive politics: "reactionary", "conservative" and "right". "Reactionary" derives from the French word réactionnaire (a late 18th century coinage based on the word réaction, "reaction") 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 in 1799 in a translation of Lazare Carnot's letter on the Coup of 18 Fructidor.
During the French Revolution, conservative forces (especially within the Catholic Church) organized opposition to the progressive sociopolitical and economic changes brought by the revolution; and they fought to restore the temporal authority of the Church and Crown. In 19th Century European politics, the reactionary class included the Catholic Church's hierarchy and the aristocracy, royal families, and royalists. They believed that national government was 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 labelled the legitimist reaction. In the Third Republic, the monarchists were the reactionary faction, later renamed conservative. These forces also saw "reaction" as a legitimate response to the often rash "action" of the French Revolution, hence there is nothing inherently derogatory in the term reactionary and it is sometimes also used to describe the principle of waiting for an opponent's action to take part in a general reaction. In Protestant Christian societies, reactionary has described those supporting tradition against modernity.
In the 19th century, reactionary denoted people who idealized feudalism and the pre-modern era—before the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution—when economies were mostly agrarian, a landed aristocracy dominated society, a hereditary king ruled and the Catholic Church was society's moral centre. Those labelled as "reactionary" favoured the aristocracy instead of the middle class and the working class. Reactionaries opposed democracy and parliamentarism.
The Thermidorian Reaction was a movement within the French Revolution against perceived excesses of the Jacobins. On 27 July 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.
With the Congress of Vienna, inspired by Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the monarchs of Russia, Prussia and Austria formed the Holy Alliance, a form of collective security against revolution and Bonapartism. This instance of reaction was surpassed by a movement that developed in France when, after the second fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration or reinstatement 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, an "unfindable house".
It was the Declaration of Saint-Ouen that prepared the way for the Restoration. Before the French Revolution, which radically and bloodily overthrew most aspects of French society's organisation, the only way constitutional change could be instituted was by extracting it from 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 18th century, those gentry whose fortunes and prestige had diminished to the level of peasants would search diligently for every ancient feudal statute that might give them something. The "ban," for example, meant that all peasants had to grind their grain in their lord's mill. Therefore, these gentry 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, for example, the French Revolution permitted common citizens to go hunting, one of the few perquisites that they had always enjoyed everywhere.
Thus with the Bourbons Restoration, the Chambre Introuvable set about reverting every law to return society to conditions prior the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV, when the power of the Second Estate was at its zenith. 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. Use of the word "reactionary" in later days as a political slur is thus often rhetorical, since there is nothing directly comparable with the Chambre Introuvable in the history of other countries.
In the revolution's aftermath, France was continually wracked with the quarrels between the right-wing legitimists and left-wing revolutionaries. Herein arose the clerical philosophers—Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, François-René de Chateaubriand—whose answer was restoring the House of Bourbon and reinstalling the Catholic Church as the established church. Since then, France's political spectrum has featured similar divisions. (see Action Française). The ideas of the clerical philosophers were buttressed by the teachings of the 19th century popes.
During the period of 1815-1848, Prince Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, stepped in to organise 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 defeat of Napoleon.
After the Congress, Prince Metternich worked hard bolstering and stabilising 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 nationalist 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 modernising existing structures by gradual reform. Despite Metternich's efforts a series of revolutions rocked Europe in 1848.
In the 20th century, proponents of socialism and communism used the term reactionary polemically to label their enemies, such as the White Armies, who fought in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. In Marxist terminology, reactionary is a pejorative adjective denoting people whose ideas might appear to be socialist, but, in their opinion, contain elements of feudalism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism or other characteristics of the ruling class, including usage between conflicting factions of Marxist movements. Non-socialists did also use the label reactionary, with British diplomat Sir John Jordan nicknaming the Chinese Royalist Party the "reactionary party" for supporting the Qing dynasty and opposing republicanism during the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.
Reactionary is also used to denote supporters of authoritarian anti-communist régimes such as Vichy France, Spain under Franco, and Portugal under Salazar. One example of this took place after Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On 26 October 1958, the day following the Nobel Committee's announcement, Moscow's Literary Gazette ran a polemical article by David Zaslavski entitled, Reactionary Propaganda Uproar over a Literary Weed.
Reactionary feelings were often coupled with a hostility to modern, industrial means of production and a nostalgia for a more rural society. The Vichy regime in France, Franco's regime, the Salazar regime in Portugal 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" ("the earth, it does not lie") in an indication of his belief that the truest life is rural and agrarian.
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, Giovanni 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 as it carried the centralised State beyond even what had been seen in absolute monarchies. Fascist one-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 German Nazis did not consider themselves reactionary, and considered 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, they idealised tradition, folklore, classical thought, leadership (as exemplified by Frederick the Great), rejected the liberalism of the Weimar Republic, and called the German State the Third Reich (which traces back to the medieval First Reich and the pre-Weimar Second Reich). (See also reactionary modernism.)
Clericalist movements, sometimes labelled 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.
"Neo-reactionary" is a term applied to, and sometimes a self-description of, an informal group of online political theorists who have been active since the 2000s. The phrase "neo-reactionary" was coined by "Mencius Moldbug" (the pseudonym of Curtis Yarvin, a computer programmer) in 2008. Arnold Kling used it in 2010 to describe "Moldbug" and the subculture quickly adopted it. Proponents of the "Neo-reactionary" movement (also called the "Dark Enlightenment" movement) include philosopher Nick Land, among others.