AskDefine | Define reactionary

Dictionary Definition

reactionary adj : extremely conservative [syn: reactionist, far-right] n : an extreme conservative; an opponent of progress or liberalism [syn: ultraconservative, extreme right-winger]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /ɹɪˈækʃənəɹi/, /rI"

Extensive Definition

Reactionary (or reactionist) is a political epithet, generally used as a pejorative, originally applied in the context of the French Revolution to counter-revolutionaries who wished to restore the real or imagined conditions of the monarchical Ancien Régime. Through the 19th century, reactionism was used to refer to those who wished to preserve feudalism or aristocratic privilege against industrialism, republicanism, liberalism, and in some cases socialism.
Later on in the early 20th century, the term also came to describe those favouring a stronger role of the Catholic Church in society.

Etymology and history

Reactionary comes from the French word réactionnaire, coined in the early 19th century. It was the first of the two words coined (the other being conservative, from the French word conservateur) for the opposition to the French Revolution. "In parliamentary usage, the monarchists were commonly referred to as the Right, although they were often called Reactionaries." This is the first time the word was used to mean "A movement towards the reversal of an existing tendency or state" or a "return to a previous condition of affairs."
The earliest English-language use cited in the OED is by John Stuart Mill in 1840: "The philosophers of the reactionary school—of the school to which Coleridge belongs."
In the 19th century this term was used against individuals and groups that idealized either feudalism or the pre-modern era that preceded the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution when economies were largely agrarian, the landed aristocracy dominated society, a king was on the throne and the church was the moral centre of society. Thus, those labeled reactionary once favoured the aristocracy over the middle class and the working class, even though they later favoured the conservative bourgeoisie---they were against democracy and parliamentarism.
the term 'reactionary tories' is also applicable to the Tory government from 1815-22 in England. The 'reactionary' tory government aimed to ensure autocratic and landed class supremacy. The most famous contribution of the Reactionary Tories was the introduction of the Corn Laws which imposed a high tariff on Imports with the aim of encouraging middle class workers to buy British goods. However, the corn laws did just the opposite and the major food group of the British people (bread) was too expensive to buy. This resulted in starvation for the working class.

Meanings of reactionary in particular contexts

In Marxist terminology, reactionary is generally used with a pejorative meaning to refer to people whose ideas might appear pro-working class but in essence contain elements of feudalism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism, or other ruling class characteristics.
The term reaction appeared in Europe during the French Revolution, when conservative, and especially Catholic, forces organized to oppose the changes brought by the revolution and to fight to preserve the authority of the Church and Crown. Reaction was especially opposed to the most radical tendencies such as Jacobinism.
In the context of 19th century European politics, the reactionary class were the Roman Catholic hierarchy (namely the clergy), the aristocracy, royal families and royalists and all those who supported traditional monarchies and the involvement of the Catholic church in government. In France, those who supported traditional rule under the direct heirs of the Bourbon dynasty were called the legitimist reaction. At the time of the Third Republic, the monarchists were the reactionary faction which was later changed to a much milder term of Conservative. Furthermore, the revolution set precedents in undermining (or even completely eliminating) the power of the aristocracy through the confiscation of feudal estates. Under the liberal monarchists of 1789, some of the vast estates of the clergy and aristocracy were confiscated; in 1793, the process continued with the estates of condemned nobles; and in 1797, the egalitarians of the Conspiracy of François-Noël Babeuf experimented with the abolition of land ownership in some parts of France. The revolutionary slogan of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" was not an empty embellishment but the essence of Enlightenment philosophy; that of secularization, egalitarianism, classlessness and democracy, which motivated the masses to action on the barricades.
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.

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 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.

The Restored French Monarchy

With the Congress of Vienna, the monarchs of Russia, Prussia, and Austria 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 Restauration, 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. 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.

The clerical philosophers

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the French state was in constant turmoil between the forces on restoration of the right and revolutionaries on the left. Herein arose the clerical philosophers Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and François-René de Chateaubriand, whose solution was to restore the former absolute monarchy and reinstall the Roman Catholic Church as a state church. This pattern of thought was to become recurrent in French reactionaries, who generally long for a pre-Revolutionary Golden Age and wish to repudiate the two centuries of changes after the Revolution (see Action Française).
De Maistre became famous as the philosopher of reaction during the Restoration. His writings were the authoritative sources of reactionary ideas. Holding to a pessimistic view of human nature, he repudiated the principles of the French Revolution and its political and social institutions for they originated in what he saw as the anti-Christian Enlightenment. According to him, it was God that created the state and not a social contract; order and stability were paramount in a society and this could only come about by obedience to an absolute monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church; law was the expression of the customs and traditions not the fickle opinion of the people. He defended authoritarian government, a hierarchical social order based on natural inequality. In the book, L 'Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, he attacked Bacon's materialism.
De Bonald was of the same cloth as De Maistre but not as talented. In a sense, he only buttressed the convictions of already convinced reactionaries. Attacking the French Revolution as creating individualism and centralization in government, he championed the cause of absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church as the only means of securing tranquillity. De Bonald proposed restoring the medieval guilds as a way of ensuring the rights of all classes.
Chateaubriand was an eloquent writer. So much so that he was described as a Rousseau in Catholic dress; he is often considered the first Romantic writer. He was not a reactionary per se; he accepted the changes brought by the revolution but not the revolutionary principles. He thought to mingle the new institutions with the old memories, traditions and ideals of the ancien regime. By enveloping the Restoration in Catholic trappings, he sought to give the Bourbon regime stability and devotion of the people. Chateaubriand wrote novels (such as Atala) with Christian themes and the Genie du Christianisme, among others.
These men advanced and promoted Catholicism without necessarily adhering themselves to its teaching, in an attitude that will be later reflected by Charles Maurras, an agnostic who supported Catholic clericalism. They saw the Catholic Church as essential in maintaining a conservative social order and the monarchy. They mark out the beginning of the mentality of reaction to the liberalizing forces of modernity and democracy.

Metternich and containment

The unleashing of democratic forces and ideas of the French Revolution had far-reaching consequences which threatened the established order of monarchical governments and promoted social unrest everywhere. Reaction set in against republican and liberal forces.
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.

Late 19th and 20th century

In Western Europe in the 19th century, liberals sought to create representative, very secular regimes in the place of monarchies, which were considered undemocratic, and which had often been influenced by the Roman Catholic Church's teachings and clergy. Events such as the French Revolution brought dramatic changes in that respect. The reactionaries were thus those who wished for a Restoration of the ancien regime, namely, parts of the aristocracy, the Catholics (often farmers and rural middle class) and the royalists, often lumped together in the "alliance of the Throne and the Altar".
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.

Occurrences of the word reactionary

  • "For the Bentham group Burke finally represented sheer reactionism".
  • "The philosophers of the reactionary school — of the school to which Coleridge belongs."
  • "The French aristocrats became hopelessly reactionary and lent a willing ear to every plot, to every scheme, to every suggestion to overthrow the unconstitutional system established by the Charte, in order to restore the Old Regime."
  • "Such men regarded Socrates' attacks upon the choice of officials by lot (which then obtained in Athens) as reactionary, even dangerous to the republic."
  • "If belief in the old-fashioned virtues of self-reliance, thrift, government economy, of a balanced budget, of a stable currency, of fidelity of government to its obligations is reactionary, then you should be reactionary."
  • "Goods prohibited to import: weapons, ammunition, explosives, military technical equipment, drugs, toxic chemicals, debauched and reactionary products..."
  • "At the same time it must be emphasized that the Church, with all her "reactionary", royalist, personalistic and clerical aspects, was the strongest stumbling-block to the victory of National Socialism."
  • "We again renamed it, this time Raja’iyah Airfield (that is, Reactionary,' a favorite pejorative term used by the 'progressive' Arab regimes at the time). The airfield served us and the Jordanians very well." Norvell B. DeAtkine, formerly U.S. envoy to Jordan, in a recent memoir about the U.S. embassy there c. 1970.
  • "It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything Reactionary is the same; if you don't hit it, it won't fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself."
  • "That was the chief of police of Malibu. A real reactionary."
Tener un hijoPlantar un árbolEscribir un libro("To have a son, to plant a tree, to write a book") is the perfect "reactionary" pattern; a synthesis of patriarchalism, agriculture and artistry.
This saying also has the merit of illuminating the critical differences between reactionaries in a strict sense and advocates of capitalism (who may, in certain circumstances, become their allies). To capitalism, agriculture isn't a matter of "planting a tree" because it makes one's estate look prettier, gives the children some shade, or in general represents part of a way of life. Agriculture under capitalism is a matter of mass production, sophisticated technology, and standardized futures contracts traded at commodity exchanges. Orange trees are planted when the orange concentrate futures market gives that signal -- an attitude anathema to reactionaries.



  • Liberty or Equality, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Christendom Press, Front Royal, Virginia, l993.
  • Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, Social Forces in England and France 1815-1870, J. Salwyn Schapiro, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., NY, l949. (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, l965.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, 20 Vol. 31 references on the use of the term.
reactionary in Danish: Reaktionær
reactionary in German: Reaktion (Politik)
reactionary in Estonian: Reaktsionäär
reactionary in Spanish: Reaccionario
reactionary in French: Réaction (politique)
reactionary in Hebrew: ריאקציה (אידאולוגיה)
reactionary in Georgian: რეაქციონიზმი
reactionary in Latvian: Reakcijas laikmets
reactionary in Dutch: Reactionair
reactionary in Portuguese: Reacionário
reactionary in Russian: Политическая реакция
reactionary in Swedish: Reaktionär
reactionary in Vietnamese: Phản động
reactionary in Chinese: 反动

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Bircher, Bourbon, Colonel Blimp, Epistle side, Methuselah, Tory, antagonistic, antediluvian, antipathetic, antiphonal, antique, atavistic, back number, bellyacher, bitter-ender, blimp, breakaway, clashing, clockwise, complainant, complainer, conflicting, conservatist, conservative, contradicting, contradictory, counteractant, counteracting, counteractive, countervailing, counterworking, crab, crank, cranky, croaker, crotchety, dad, decanal side, dexter, dextral, dextrocardial, dextrocerebral, dextrocular, dextrogyrate, dextrogyratory, dextropedal, dextrorotary, dextrorse, die-hard, diehard, dissident, dodo, elder, extreme right-winger, faultfinder, fogy, fogyish, fossil, frondeur, fud, fuddy-duddy, granny, griper, grouch, grouser, growler, grumbler, hard hat, has-been, hostile, imperialist, inimical, intransigent, kicker, kvetch, longhair, malcontent, matriarch, mid-Victorian, monarchist, mossback, murmurer, mutterer, nonconformist, nonprogressive, off, old believer, old crock, old dodo, old fogy, old liner, old man, old poop, old woman, old-line, old-timer, opposing, oppositional, oppugnant, orthodox, patriarch, perverse, pop, pops, querulous person, radical right, reacting, reactionarist, reactionist, reactive, rebel, recalcitrant, recessive, recidivist, recidivous, recto, reflex, reflexive, refluent, regressive, regular old fogy, relic, renitent, repugnant, resistant, respondent, responding, responsive, retroactionary, retroactive, retrocessive, retrograde, retrogressive, retrorse, retroverse, returnable, reversible, reversional, reversionary, revertible, revolutionary, revulsionary, revulsive, right, right field, right hand, right of center, right side, right wing, right-hand, right-wing, right-winger, right-wingish, rightist, royalist, social Darwinist, sorehead, square, standpat, standpatter, starboard, starboard tack, starets, tory, traditionalist, traditionalistic, ultraconservative, unprogressive, whiner, white
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