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 parliamentary usage, the monarchists were commonly referred to as the Right, although they were often called Reactionaries”. 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”.
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, thus, those labelled as politically reactionary favoured the aristocracy instead of the middle class and the working class, despite later favouring the conservative bourgeoisie; Reactionaries were against democracy and parliamentarism.
In Britain, the Conservative Party, as created by Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli, could be described as reactionary, to the purpose of preventing political radicalism from destroying the established monarchic order; therefore, by governing without a particular ideology, the Conservatives were reacting to events as they occurred.
In Marxist terminology, reactionary is a pejorative adjective denoting people whose ideas might appear pro-working class, but, in essence, contain elements of feudalism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism, or other socio-political characteristics of a ruling class.
In Europe, the term reaction appeared in the French Revolution, when conservative — and especially Roman Catholic Church — forces organized opposition to the progressive socio-political and economic changes wrought by the Revolution, and to fight to restore (preserve) the temporal authority of the Church and Crown, analogously, Jacobinism arose to combat reaction.
In nineteenth-century European politics, the reactionary class comprised the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy — the clergy, the aristocracy, royal families, and royalist 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 re-named to the softer Conservative. In Protestant Christian societies, reactionary described those supporting Tradition against Modernity.
In the twentieth century, reactionary denoted opponents of Socialist and Communist revolution, such as the the White Armies, and supporters, who fought a counter-revolutionary monarchist war against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. Reactionary also denotes supporters of authoritarian, anti-Communist, and fascist régimes such as Vichy France, Spain under Gen. Francisco Franco, and Portugal under Antonio Salazar.
Generalissimo Franco was a reactionary, per the usual denotation, in destroying the democratic Republic, by reverting Spain to mediaeval authoritarianism. He defended the order of traditional Spanish society, by giving the Roman Catholic Church a great role in governing, and used powers of the State to persecute liberals, moderates, and leftists.
In Vietnam, the Communist Government often labels opponent organisations as reactionary (phản động), linguistically, the word is in the country's laws.
The French Revolution was a political and a social revolution. It was political in the sense that it changed the form of government from an absolute monarchy into a democratic republic. It was social in the sense that it sought to reform society, in areas such as religion, education and law.
The overthrow of Robespierre signalled the reassertion of the French National Convention over the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins were repressed, 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.
It was the Declaration of Saint-Ouen which had prepared the way for the Restoration. Upon landing in France, the future Louis XVIII stated most notably that the lands of the aristocrats who fled, and which the Republic had sold at auction, were not to be confiscated nor was restitution to be given. Further, that the Napoleonic Code of Law was to remain in force, that the awards and social function of the Legion of Honor given to those loyal to Napoleon was not to be abolished, and that Napoleon's changes to the educational system, most notably the University of Paris, would remain. It was the desire to restore all these issues to their pre-revolutionary conditions that most dramatically defined a reactionary. And many of the Ultras held these notions, thus becoming far more reactionary than the King's own policies.
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.
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)
Joseph de Maistre is the Bourbon Restoration's philosopher of reaction; his writings are authoritative sources of reactionary ideas advocating authoritarian government of a society classified according to a divinely-established "natural inequality". A pessimist about Man's nature, he repudiated the Revolution's humanist principles and socio-political institutions, because they originated in the anti-Christian Enlightenment, saying it was God who created the State, not a human social contract; societal order and stability are paramount, yet feasible only via obedience to Church-annointed an absolute monarch; and that civil law expressed custom and tradition, not the fickle opinion of the people. In the book, L 'Examen de la philosophie de Bacon (The Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon), he attacked Francis Bacon's materialism.
Louis de Bonald, though less talented, was of the same cloth as De Maistre. He buttressed the convictions of already-convinced reactionaries; attacked the Revolution for creating individualism and centralization in government; championed absolute monarchy and the Church as the only means of securing domestic tranquillity. He proposed restoring the mediaeval guild system to ensure the rights (and obligations) of every French social class.
François-René de Chateaubriand was an eloquent writer described as Rousseau in Catholic (black) dress, and is considered the first Romantic writer. Although not reactionary per se, he accepted Revolutionary change, but not its social principles. He mingled new institutions with old memories, traditions with ideals of the ancien régime, so, in dressing the monarchic Restoration in Catholic trappings, he sought to the Bourbon Régime's stability via the people's devotion. Moreover, de Chateaubriand wrote Christian-themed novels, such as Atala and Genie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianism).
These reactionaries promoted Roman Catholicism without practicing it, a realistic attitude later practiced by the agnostic Charles Maurras, a supporter of Roman Catholic clericalism. Politically, they saw the Church as essential in maintaining a conservative social order and the Monarchy. Collectively, they are the intellectual originators of the mentality of negatively reacting to progress, to the liberalizing forces of modernity and democracy.
During the period of 1815-1848, Prince Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, 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.
In France, at the beginnings of the Third Republic, the parliamentary left-wing consisted of the Republicans and the right-wing of the royalists, roughly speaking. "Reactionary", "conservative", "right-wing" and "royalist" were thus almost synonymous. In reaction to the alliance of monarchist and clerical forces (the latter wanting a major official role and influence for the Church), strong feelings of anti-clericalism flared out at the left-wing. In 1905 the liberal left-wing government decreed the confiscation of all Church property in France, expelled all religious orders, despite the massive opposition of the Catholic citizens, especially in rural areas.
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 France, Francisco 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. As an example, 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. Mussolini also said that "fascism is reaction" and "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 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 certainly something not to be found in the period prior to the French Revolution. The spirit of Hegel's total philosophy was opposed to a return to a Christian-based society, stressing instead the role of the State.
The Nazis also certainly did not consider themselves "reactionary" and in fact numbered the forces of "reaction" (Prussian monarchists, nobility, Roman Catholics) among their enemies right next to their "Red Front" enemies (communists) in the Nazi party march Die Fahne hoch. The fact that the Nazis called their 1933 rise to power the National Revolution, already tells that they ideologically detested the opposition to state revolutions from the clerical side. 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 Reich) has led many to regard the Nazis as reactionary.
Those Clericalist movements sometimes labeled as Clerical Fascists 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 a return to the pre-revolutionary model of social relations, with a strong role for the Church. Their utmost philosopher was Nicolás Gómez Dávila.
The American Klu Klux Klan is also regarded as reactionary. Formed as a response to the freeing of African slaves and the flooding of immigrants in the United States, the Klan sought to uphold "law and order," white dominance, and traditional morality often, if not always, though violent means.
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