Political Concepts: Reaction


I want to quickly expand on my answer to JdM’s query on the meaning of reaction. So this will be short(ish).


Before we do reaction it helps to start with revolution. The history of the term is fairly well known: like crisisrevolution originally mean “a turning point, an upheaval”. A revolution was, in effect, a revolution of Fortuna’s wheel. Thus revolution referred both to great historical cycles in general (the rise and fall of men, of cities, of civilizations) and also to especially significant inflection points in those cycles, but also more broadly to any sort of tumultuous or wide-ranging changes.

By a series of changes I will pass over, revolution acquired two additional, and not necessarily coherent, connotations which eventually eclipsed the original meaning.

  1. Changes in the leadership and government of a state, particularly: a coup.
  2. Changes in the fundamental structure of a society: a reformation or transformation.

Obviously a revolution which replaces five or six of the king’s key ministers — or even the king himself — is a very superficial thing, and fundamental transformation of social order is exactly the opposite. But because one of these two revolution will tend to make the other possible (inevitable, sometimes?), this odd tension in usage has persisted down to our own time. Roughly speaking, to speak of a revolution rather than a rebellion plays up the intention of the revolutionaries to seize governmental and administrative power, and plays down their intention (or ability) to raise an army and fight for control of the state in the field. But to speak of a revolution rather than a civil war places an emphasis on what the revolutionaries intend to do with their power: two traditionalist factions may fight a civil war over a narrow factional disagreement even if both sides share a consensus about how the state will be run after the war, whereas a self-consciously revolutionary faction challenges the conservative ruling faction precisely to destroy the status quo.

The tension between these two meanings of revolution appears to correspond to a tension in the development of constitution.

As the etymon suggests, constitution originally meant simply the fundamental structure of a state or society: what constituted it. From classical times it was a commonplace that the fundamental structure of a community (for example, whether it had a broad base of prosperous citizen-farmers who owned their own property and could afford their own arms) dictated how it organized itself for war, and what form of government it had. Over time, the emphasis on the constituent elements of the state grew weaker and the emphasis on the coordination of relations between them (for example, laws defining the privileges of commoners and nobles, or customs surrounding the meeting of the Estates General) grew stronger; within this second connotation, the description of political procedures and offices became strongest.

The reader will no doubt appreciate that the core meaning of constitution corresponds to the revolution in social structure, whereas the derived meaning corresponds to revolution qua coup. Thus we can say that a revolution is a revolution in the constitution of a state, with all the ambiguity between political procedure and social structure this implies. We can even (polemically!) define constitutionalism as systematic equivocation between the faith that political procedures can be enshrined in a basic law and the pious hope that the ratification of a new basic law actually causes society to develop a new basic structure.


Two weeks ago the commenter J. de Maistre asked whether it was really accurate to think of Napoléon Bonaparte as reactionary. In the context of Our Thermidor, and Napoleon’s it made sense to group N.B. in the same category as the reactionaries, which was my guiding concern there. But as a matter of semantics, J.d.M. raises an important question about the relationship between revolution and reaction, on the one hand, and reaction and reactionaries, on the other.

I have discussed revolution at length in order to more quickly say what reaction is. In a political context, a reaction is a reaction to a revolution, in either of its two modern senses. To the extent that a revolution is a coup, a reaction is a counter-coup to restore the original government to their positions. To the extent that a revolution is a project of social transformation, reaction is reversion to the old social order. And to the extent that revolution is both coup and chaos, a reaction is an attempt to seize the reigns of government to return political power to men who will seek to undo the damage the revolutionaries have done.

It is a truism of progressives (both the overt kind, and the cuckservative variety) that today’s radical is tomorrow’s conservative. This is an accurate observation, as it goes, but of course it assumes the inevitability of progressive victories. Every revolutionary has some vision of the state of the reformed social structure which, whether for ideological or self-interested reasons, would be perfect for him. Thus the progressive who becomes revolutionary to seize an opportunity to reform the state becomes increasingly satisfied with the (increasingly chaotic) social structure as the revolution goes on. Past a certain point, he is completely satisfied with the new situation the revolution has created, and considers further changes gratuitously risky or downright counterproductive: he is now a conservative, who wishes to conserve the state he previously deformed.

The difference between a revolutionary-turned-conservative and the cucks who go by that name in America today is that actual conservatives were not afraid to fight to conserve the state in its actual form, just as they previously were not afraid to fight to subvert the state. If a conservative perceives that the leadership of the post-revolutionary state are revolutionaries who want to further mangle the basic structure of society, then they will of course try to stage a coup to prevent that program. If he perceives that these diehard revolutionary leaders have already changed society in ways that are too radical for his tastes, he will try to repeal their reforms as well.

Thus revolutionaries typically create conservatives within their own ranks, and as the revolution goes on the growing strength of this internal counter-revolutionary faction, whose members have political and social preferences “to the right” of the current leadership, makes some form of reaction near-inevitable, unless the revolution peters out of its own accord. As the conservatives defeat/purge radical revolutionaries the post-revolutionary balance of  power shifts (just as it did in the initial stages of the revolution when the revolutionaries purged loyalists and moderates), possibly setting the stage for the most conservative among them to carry out further reactions.

The main reason I am sketching out the struggle between radicals and conservatives is to show that reactions do not require reactionaries, unless the latter label is applied so broadly that it becomes a tautology that any participant in a reaction is therefore a reactionary.


The thinnest sense of the word reactionary refers to a relative position along the political spectrum. Radicals/progressives want to introduce new social reforms, conservatives are happy with the current state of society and want to prevent any (further) social reforms, and reactionaries want to roll back reforms which have already been implemented. But this purely quantitative comparison suggests it is a matter of mere personal preference whether one happens to like some, all, or none of the already implemented or proposed social reforms in question. In the thin definition, one could simply change one’s mind about the value of a certain reform and go from being reactionary to conservative or vice-versa. This thin definition may be useful in certain circumstances but is not very illuminating.

The core application of reactionary, in the context of political revolutions, is to the regime loyalists who opposed reformism before the revolution, continued to defend the social order through the revolution itself, and are still plotting a full restoration of the ancien régime after the revolution. From the very moment that the revolution had its first success, a full reaction was their only goal (and quite likely the only goal they considered legitimate and just). For them, the appeal of reaction was never relative to the extent of disorder and anarchy the revolution had caused up to a certain point in time; they are essentially and absolutely reactionary.

From here the meaning extends, not just to those who were always and entirely in favor of reaction, but to those who, in light of the failures or dangers of the revolution (or simply a new assessment of their self-interest) do not just want to impede or repeal the most radical reforms, who do not have a certain preferred “stopping point” they want to return to, but actually want a thorough reaction which will undo most of the work of the revolution, or actually return to the pre-revolutionary status quo.

The most principled reason for a former revolutionary to renounce his radical ideals is that he originally did not believe that the stability of the traditional order amounted to much, but his own experience of the course of the revolution convinces him otherwise. That is, he is not worried about some discrete list of radical reforms that go “too far” for his delicate tastes. Rather, he has realized that however desirable some elements of the revolutionary program might seem in themselves, any violence to the social order begins an accelerating trajectory of degeneration and chaos, and the only hope for equilibrium is to seek refuge in tradition.

This particular justification for reactionary ideology, I think, is the main sense implied by reactionary in a general sense, outside of the context of specific political revolutions. Many people may be reactionary in the thin, limited sense about specific issues. (Corollary to Conquest’s First Law: everybody is reactionary about something.) Some are even reactionary about many issues, or become so over time (like the former revolutionaries) as the ground disappears from beneath their feet. But the most reliable sign of a consistently reactionary approach to politics is the principle that the destruction of traditions, hierarchies, and loyalties sets the stage for further destruction, at an uncontrollable and ever-increasing pace.

Thus while a particularly disgruntled conservative with a long laundry-list of complaint about the degeneracy of modern society may earn the name “reactionary” by struggling for restoration, a systematic reactionary goes beyond his own personal list of complaints and takes a reactionary attitude towards reforms he finds congenial, as well.

15 thoughts on “Political Concepts: Reaction

  1. Napoleon was a reactionary. There is a wealth of primary and secondary testimony as well philosophical reflection on the point.

    Good take on “reaction” from a historical perspective. The problem, as one commentator noted, is that America does not really have an ancient regime.

    The following provides a wealth of historical and philosophical opinion on the matter:


    A reactionary is “someone who get’s down to the roots.” That is, a reactionary is someone who finds the basic premises of the current regime to be unsatisfactory (to say the least) and works for them to be changed. So there is a connection with the progressive here – but a (neo-reactionary) is the total opposite of the progressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks; glad you liked it. Fun link, if slightly consumed with virtue-signaling.

      I suspect radicalism’s “roots” metaphor is inherently pozzed, because it builds in the constitutionalist idea that there is some fundamental starting point (like the basic law, or the education/indoctrination of the citizenry, or something else) on which the progressives can build additional layers of their castle in the air.

      The cuckservative is, in this sense, just the radical reflected in the funhouse mirror; he agrees that there is some root which is the starting point for everything else, and he doesn’t want to return to the root because he fears harming the existing root.

      Reactionaries (I speculate) look back in time to the historical roots of a society (its historical origins) for ideas about what was stable in the past, but they don’t take seriously a distinction between the *ontological* roots of society and its ontological branches, as radicals and conservatives do. Thus why they find us so perplexing and “inconsistent”; sometimes we seem “very cautious” (which they interpret as “respect” for the “roots”) and sometimes we seem “daring” (which they interpret as “indifference” to the “roots”). In fact, we are mere realists…


      1. The “roots” quote comes from Francis Stewart Campbell who is a Catholic. (Thought it KL.) So, for him the starting point would be the Christian God. A Pagan Reactionary would emphasise the “return to nature” or Nature.

        That is true about the “caution” and “daring” aspect. Can you say more about what you mean by “ontological roots”?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I was just trying to find a way to distinguish between the reactionary willingness to brush aside generations of “progress” and return to older institutional forms (which can quite rightly be described as “roots”, in the historical sense) and the radical idea that the old society has some “base” or “roots” which much be torn up and transformed in order to subsequently change the “superstructure”/”branches”. The former are “historical roots”, the latter “ontological roots”; but this is a tentative distinction.


      3. Hmmmm… maybe. I guess the way I’m thinking of it, an “ontological root” is actually causally prior if the radicals are right (and, say, unfettering the means of production, or educating the “New Soviet Man”, will actually set the stage for the wholly new society they envision), but if they are wrong it is merely a fetish.


      4. The causes, you mean? In one sense, I guess. Here’s an analogy: the fundamental dynamics of biological systems really are chemical. The fundamental dynamics of chemical systems really are physical. “X then Y” is a little too pat as a summary of the sense in which one is the root and the other is the branch… but you can give a coherent account of causal dependence which clarifies this kind of priority-relationship. The problem with progressives (radicals and cuckservatives alike) isn’t that they have a bad or incoherent conception of causal priority, it’s that they are applying it to a field where it doesn’t work.


      5. The root problem with “root” thinking is that X claims that “if we only do X then Y will follow”.

        Surely you cannot be saying that cause and effect play no role in politics? You must mean that it cannot be reduced to some single cause or principle?


      6. No, of course they do. But just not ordinally.

        Three types of false causal claim:

        1. “X causes Y”, but actually ~X causes Y

        2. “X causes Y”, but actually Y causes X

        3. “Factors of type X cause factors of type Y,” but actually there is no sense in which X-factors influence Y-factors more than vice-versa.

        The radical idea that you are going to start with “écraser l’infâme” = X, and then X will have effects of type Y, and then the Y-effects will cause Z (and so on), with effects flowing outward from a revolutionary refoundation to the goal they desire is sometimes wrong in casual ways because the radicals have screwy ideas about the basic question of whether X causes Y *at all*, but more fundamentally the fallacy is that there is no “first step”, there is a casual network between X, Y, and Z, with the ancien regime representing an equilibrium point and the post-revolutionary regime representing a boulder rolling downhill.


  2. What a dilemma it is to pinpoint “reaction,” as your notes here show. I personally dislike the use of the adjectives “radical” and “revolutionary” when applied to right-wing thought. Sure, strictly speaking being a radical means getting down to the root (radix) of things. But it has a historically specific meaning as a suffragist, or a Chartist type of figure. Hence in some countries there are still parties that go by the moniker “radical-democratic,” not because they necessarily support direct democracy or some Gracchus Babeuf type of “conspiracy of equals,” but rather as a nod to the historical legacy of the parliamentary radicals.

    The problem here boils down to whether there exists an ur-ancien regime, that is to say a general archetype of an “ancien regime” one can temperamentally and/or ideologically yearn for, and hence the possibility of there being a *general* counterrevolutionary in the same way modern progressives are *general* revolutionaries, always coordinating and finding new fences to tear apart.

    Although I do not fully accept Susan Reynolds’ thesis that an ur-feudalism cannot be defined, I don’t think an archetype of an ancien regime exists, either. The leftist can be an eternal antinomian whose Fabian march of reform after reform can be justified under mantras of “science,” “efficiency,” “justice,” and so forth – ideals that in of themselves appear innocuous, and can be argued for from seemingly “common sense” utilitarian premises. The rightist is in an intrinsic rhetorical disadvantage. His appeals to transcendent values, to slippery slopes, to futility or to perversity (see also Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric Reaction) all appear like sterile and canned arguments of some self-interested miser standing in the way of clear improvements.

    Moreover, the rightist is always constrained by the de facto constitution that the preceding leftists have set up, and more often than not has internalized a great deal of its values, meaning his opposition, his *reaction*, is always temporally bounded in a way that antinomian leftism isn’t. Leftism can travel “forward” in time seemingly indefinitely (the future being the long-term reflection of their present institutional control), while right-wing reactions can’t travel back in time very far at all. Leftism defines what value is n, and rightism rarely goes further than n-1.

    Are Guizot and Royer-Collard now reactionaries? By all accounts, they were the eminent liberals of their day. But their understanding of liberalism meant that representative institutions were not a participatory right, but a carefully guarded trust. Hence they could justify such things as press restrictions and acts against political combinations, as well as defending the sacral inviolability of a (constitutional, i.e. one who does not exercise prerogative directly but acts only through ministers) monarch. Were they illiberal all along? I don’t think so. They were anti-democratic, but I think even today they could be liberals. Heterodox ones, but still.

    It’s also fascinating how many ultra-royalists were constitutionalists. In fact, the opening of the French Revolution had the Monarchiens club, represented by people like the Baron Malouet and Jean Joseph Mounier, who were both staunchly royalist, anti-popular and yet avid admirers of English aristocratic liberalism and its constitution. Montlosier was the same, being so committed to Gallicanism that he bitterly opposed any ultramontane influence and even the Jesuits. Laurentie was an exception to this, however. But I believe it is the Monarchiens who truly deserve the epithet “conservative” and ought to be regarded as its founders.

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    1. Excellent thoughts…

      I share your aversion to applying radical/revolutionary to the extreme right, but I am also wary of getting committed to defending myself from that attribution. IOW, “radical reactionary” is a bad semantic fit, but suspect special pleading is a losing rhetorical move – there are ways in which a counter-revolution is indeed like a revolution and it’s better to own it and be proud of it than skulk, if people want to raise the issue.

      I agree with you about the conceptual importance of having some equivalent to the “ur-ancien régime” to avoid a vicious regress. (Tom Barghest has a witty piece on this at SM.) The “antiquissimus” regime must be conceptually prior rather than historically earlier, and the coordination of reactionaries on a joint project must come via realism rather than via a shared utopian dream.

      Don’t know of Reynolds. Imho feudalism is perfectly coherent as an ideal-type concept but certainly there was no “true feudalism” or golden age. The feudal system itself was as varied across time and space as the suzerainties within any given realm.

      I’ve never read Hirschmann’s Rhetoric of Reaction – that would be a useful one to review if you got a lot out of it. But the point you make about appeals to common sense is a sharp one. You’re walking around the edge of an enormous and fascinating quagmire which I don’t have the time to discuss write now (although if you e-mail me I promise I’ll get back to you on this topic eventually). Suffice to say the significance of the turn to common sense extends much further than either progressive rhetoric or the political differences between left and right considered as a whole.

      >Moreover, the rightist is always constrained …

      This paragraph seems to be working with a certain insight, but it gets off on the wrong foot; you seem well-read, you likely know something about primitivism, if you think back through your train of thought in light of Mably, Monboddo, etc. you’ll see the need to start afresh.

      Constitutionalism, as you say, is complicated. Some of the difficulties are conceptual; you’ll get a hint of this if you look at my replies to Vincent’s comments. (I’m sure you understand that treating the basic law as a foundation for social engineering is one thing, and accepting it as the basis for the structure of all social expectations is another. I alluded to this before when we were talking about Kant.) Some of them are civilizational, for the powers that be are ordained of God, and so Christian reactionaries are more constrained than the reactionary *sub specie aeternitas*.


  3. Thanks for the post, but I am as confused as JdM as to the likely end state of Reaction in America.

    One of Moldbug’s most exciting ideas was the suggestion that there was a stable equilibrium significantly to the right of where we currently are or have been for some time. This is implied in his discussion of a “Schelling” or game theory coordination point in a “Gentle Introduction.” The great strength of monarchism as a form of reaction is that the “return of the King” can be something multiple actors in a chaotic situation may move toward without first needing to come to an agreement or even communicate about it. America’s republican origins make it unlikely for us to rally to a King in a crisis. In addition, it is not clear who the King would be, given the deracinated state of the European aristocracy.

    Andrew Sullivan in his recent article described as “reactionary” the Claremont Institute folks who want the Constitution enforced as written in 1789. That goal is not practical, in part because it is not a Schelling point. We have been arguing about the Constitution for two centuries, and a succinct description of our current crisis is that whatever that Red States want is unconstitutional and whatever the Blue States want is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know if you read my blog regularly – if not, my thoughts in “You can’t get there from here” and “Restoration – a modest proposal” might interest you. (And in more abstract sense, “Tribalism: a model” and “Snowflake Theory”/”Snowflakes Redux”)

      I don’t take Moldbug’s point in the G.I. to be that he knows one specific solution, X, which is “the Schelling point”, and then he needs to provide evidence about X to substantiate the claim. It’s a more conceptual point about why there are *no* Schelling points in (what we now call) the cuckservative sector of the political space, but there are are Schelling points in more extreme sectors which seem “impossible” because people generally assume that the more moderate a reform is, the easier it will be. (If you look under the “Elsewhere” tab I discuss the logic of compromise in an essay on SM.)

      But maybe I’ve misunderstood – it’s a long essay, post the para you had in mind if you were trying to make a different point entirely.

      >We have been arguing about the Constitution for two centuries, and a succinct description of our current crisis is that whatever that Red States want is unconstitutional and whatever the Blue States want is.

      And the funny thing is that when you bring it up they just say “So? We’re winning!” 😉


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