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A reactionary (sometimes: reactionist) is someone who seeks to restore conditions to those of a previous era. The political attitude of a reactionary is reaction, reactionism (sometimes: reactionaryism). Reaction is always presented against something that it opposes.

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. (1)

A reactionary is sometimes described as an extreme conservative, but whereas a conservative seeks, in the simplest terms, to preserve the status quo, a reactionary seeks to return to the situation of a prior time. In particular the term is used to describe those who are seen to oppose "progress" and particularly revolutionary change, and is used in revolutionary contexts interchangeably with the word counterrevolutionary.

Classical 19th century reactionaries and their heirs 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, reactionaries once favoured the aristocracy over the middle class and the working class, even though they later favoured the conservative bourgeoisie. In that context, reactionaries are against democracy and parliamentarism.

Reactionary is nowadays mostly used pejoratively by political groups, especially those of the "left-wing", to qualify politicians that they accuse of wanting to reverse some progress that they claim has been beneficial to society.


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.

Rarely, the term may be also be used in a positive sense of self-description by people who believe in strict obedience to a god or to various social structures that they consider immutable (the social hierarchy, the "natural law", the "original laws of the state", the "loyalty to one's tribe").

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. (1) The term was also used in Protestant countries to describe those who support tradition against modernity.

In the 20th century the term was often used to describe opponents of Socialist or Communist revolution such as the supporters of the White Army who opposed the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. It was also applied to supporters of highly authoritarian and anti-Communist regimes such as Vichy France, Francisco Franco's Spain or Antonio Salazar's Portugal. Franco was a reactionary in the usual sense of the word; he sought to defend the authority of the Catholic Church and the power of the Spanish state against democratic leftist forces, and he wanted to revert Spain's political situation to an authoritarian regime after a period of democracy.

European reaction

The reaction arose in Europe in response to the French Revolution, which, to some extent, embodied the ideas of the Enlightenment. Upon the regicide of the French King Louis XVI, the revolutionists signalled a "worldwide uprising against all monarchists, an uprising to be led by France's armies." (2) 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 revolutionary 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 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 Restauration. 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.

Before the French Revolution, 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 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 revolutions of 1830 and 1848 indicated that the people wanted a democratic republic.

The clerical philosophers

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the French state was in constant turmoil between the forces of 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 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 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 progressive 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, secular regimes in the place of undemocratic monarchies which had often been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. 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 and the royalist's, 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.

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 Petain, 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.

Clerical fascist movements in Europe were arch-reactionaries in their promotion of a corporatist model of social relations, in their opposition to the reforms brought in by the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 and in their promotion of the church against liberal anti-clericalism.

On the other hand, secular fascists such as Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini attacked reactionary policies, particularly monarchism, in the Doctrine of Fascism of 1932. 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 Doctrine that fascism "is not reactionary but revolutionary". Conversely, they also explained that fascism was of the "right", not of the "left". However, in contradiction to his statement in Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini said at other times 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" (Gerarchia, March, 1923 quoted in George Seldes, Facts and Fascism, eighth edition, New York: In Fact, 1943, p. 277) Fascism and particularly Nazism are generally considered to be reactionary due to their rejection of liberalism and glorification of feudalism, tradition, ancient history and social arrangements prior to the Industrial Revolution. In Doctrine of Fascism he and Gentile wrote ""Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and the economic sphere." Mussolini and the Italian fascists showed a desire to bring about a neo-feudal social order (though without serfdom) in their enthusiasm for the corporate state.

Modern parties such as the Front National may also be called reactionary, for they seek to revert changes brought to their countries in the last decades through European integration, free trade and immigration.

American reaction

Since there never existed an American version of the absolutist monarchies in Europe, it is difficult to define the term "reactionary" in the context of the 18th century in America. One possible interpretation is that the first "reactionaries" in American history were the Tories or Loyalists who supported King George III and the British Crown, while the "revolutionaries" were the Founding Fathers. As with any revolution, the American Revolution consisted of "revolutionary" insurgents fighting against "reactionary" loyalists of the old regime. However, it may be argued that many leading American revolutionaries were far less radical in their views than their European counterparts, and that therefore, by European standards, the Founding Fathers might be leaning more towards being conservative than "revolutionary".

Some scholars note that, while the U.S. Constitution might be seen as conservative in contrast to the rhetoric of the earlier Declaration of Independence (drawn up by Thomas Jefferson) with its grand abstractions about 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness', the Constitution was in the Burkean, not the reactionary mode of conservatism. Thus, it preserved the United States both from the radical decentralization proposed by Anti-Federalists as well as the more extreme conservative vision of those who, like Alexander Hamilton, hoped for a stronger executive and central government.

From the democratic forces, the Founding Fathers of the United States "represented the crest of reactionary movement of their own day." (4) They sought to balance the demands of the democratic elements with the keeping of the Senate, modelled on the House of Lords to, as in the words of Woodrow Wilson, "to check the sweep and power of popular majorities". (5)

In later American history, many have argued that the Confederacy was inherently reactionary in its desire to prevent economic industrialization. Others see it as a conservative effort to adhere to their interpretation of the original Constitutional norms. In either case, the American South has produced figures and movements that seem reactionary in retrospect. Among these are the literary and cultural critics known collectively as the Southern Agrarians along with their sympathizers. The most reactionary of these was perhaps Donald Davidson, who adhered to his agrarian beliefs long after many of the other members of the original group had ceased to embrace much of their original agenda.

After the publication of the so-called agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand , in 1930, many of the contributors to that book published in the periodical The American Review. Published and edited by the fascist Seward Collins, The American Review served as a vehicle for further examination of agrarian and anti-modern proposals, including the distributism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

During the same period, other areas of America saw the rise of reactionary spokesmen. Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit won over a huge audience with his radio broadcasts, which were notable for their harsh criticism of the New Deal and their anti-Semitic charges against Jewish bankers and their socialist and communist tendencies. Herbert Hoover was constantly attacked by his critics for his resistance to the New Deal. He said, "If it be reactionary to be for free men then I shall be proud of that title for my remaining days" for his philosophy was "True American Liberalism utterly denies the whole creed of socialism". (6)

The reactionary is considered to be the antithesis to the radical, though dramatically reversive change can itself be considered radical.

A modern American reactionary group is the John Birch Society.


  • "Every nation has the government that it deserves".
    —Joseph De Maistre Letter 1811.
  • "A people who can neither read nor write, whose last word is the dagger-fine material for constitutional principles!...The English constitution is the work of centuries...There is no universal recipe for constitutions."
    — Prince Metternich
  • "Even corrected by a prince, parliamentarism will always appear as the regime of the competition between parties. It will mean the oppression of minorities. The leaders of parliamentarism will always represent parties, fellowships, personal rivalries, quarrels between clans."
    —Charles Maurras
  • "The Kings of France were the fathers of the Nation."
    —Charles Maurras

Occurrences of the word reactionary

  • "For the Bentham group Burke finally represented sheer reactionism". Modern Humanists, JM Robertson , 1891, pg 91. Oxford English Dictionary.
  • "The philosophers of the reactionary school-of the school to which Coleridge belongs." London & Westminister Review, J. S. Mill, l840, Mar., pg 276. Oxford English Dictionary.
  • "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." Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, pg 159.
  • "Such men regarded Socrates attacks upon the choice of officials by lot (which then obtained in Athens) as reactionary, even dangerous to the republic.", The Searching Mind of Greece, John M. Warbeke, F.S. Crofts & Co., NY, l934. pg 137.
  • "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." Addresses Upon the American Road, Herbert Hoover, pg 139.


Tener un hijo
Plantar un arbol
Escribir 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. (7)

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.

See also


  1. The Governments of Europe, Frederic Austin OGG, Rev. Ed., The MacMillan Co., l922, pg 485.
  2. The French Revolution, Robert Sobel, Ardmore Press, NY, l967. pg 85.
  3. as quoted in The Menace of the Herd, von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pp 200-201; referencing Vorläufer des Nationalsozialismus, A. Ciller, Ertl-Verlag, Wien, l932. p 135 (for first quote) and pp 141-142 (for second quote).
  4. The Story of American Democracy, Political and Industrial, Willis Mason West, Allyn and Bacon, NY, l922. pg 276.
  5. Ibid. Quoted from Division and Reunion, pg 12.
  6. Safire's Political Dictionary, William Safire, under the heading "Reactionary" and the second quote from, The Challenge to Liberty, pg 57, by Hoover.
  7. Liberty or Equality, von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, pg 186.


(**) Republicanism in the French revolutionary meaning meant self-government with a constitution, which is often described as a "democratic republic" or a "constitutional democracy".


  • 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.

Last updated: 08-29-2005 17:33:20
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13