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 crisis, revolution 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.
- Changes in the leadership and government of a state, particularly: a coup.
- 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.