I describe myself as a reactionary. I’m not a fan of other people applying the label, because the problem with reactionary thought is that much like right-wing thought, there’s no universal understanding of it. I don’t think this is even a goal you would want to work toward, but Kuehnelt-Leddihn has some good definitions for right-wingers and reactionaries and I use his as the basis for my own.
When browsing Twitter I came across a tweet that’s fairly interesting. I don’t really know the person who tweeted it, and I don’t want to get them in trouble or tick them off, so I’m copying the text as a quote. If they see this and want to have credit, I’m more than happy to do so in an edit.
“I’m not a reactionary, but I can’t just make myself not see that the dominant institutions and power structures, nationally, in the US are vocally anti-racist, pro-gay pride, and pro-trans rights. Obviously with regional counter-examples. So much LW discourse just ignores this” [sic]
This raises some questions about what it means to be a reactionary, both in how people perceive the term and what it actually is.
What is Reaction?
Reaction falls on a spectrum from progressive to reactionary. Contrary to the initial assumptions, this is not an inherently left-wing or right-wing scale, though there are correlations and some presuppositions that apply to this description.
To get into the idea of the reactionary properly, we must have classifications to define what they are not.
Progressives are easy to define. They want to alter and shape society to match a vision of something novel. Utopian fantasy can accompany this. Political eugenics, for instance, is a progressive ideal—the idea that controlled breeding makes a better society coupled with the idea that a state or social institution is the best arbiter of that. Compare this to the laissez-faire attitude favored by those like myself, which concludes that individual decisions in child-rearing will lead to better (or at least acceptable) outcomes.
Of course, eugenics is not strictly a thing of the right, something we’ve seen in recent days with the left’s bemoaning of “undesirable” children.
Of course, many of these “unwanted” children are merely unwanted because of hedonic reasons, but you can see bona fide progressives making arguments based on crime rates and social issues, something that puts the lie to their soft and tolerant façade that only really favors multiculturalism to put a finger in the eye of reactionaries and conservatives.
A middle-ground between progressivism and conservatism is rationalism. Some variant of this has been around forever, but Enlightenment thought is the foundation for the modern version. This teaches that the human mind can come to conclusions about how to improve society, though it also recognizes some room for error, self-interest, and lack of knowledge to get in the way.
This is where we see traditional liberalism, what we might call classical liberalism, as well as most “moderate” movements in democratic discourse (though, of course, these moderates may present themselves as conservatives—this is the case with the Republicans in the US).
Rationalism and progressivism are the two hallmarks of democracy, and they have a mutual relationship, since rationalism can produce better defenses for progressivism than the utopian ideals of progressive thought leaders (Marx being an ur-example of progressivism).
Take, for instance, Milton Friedman’s ideas for income tax withholding and negative income tax. On their surface, these should solve issues, but a conservative would rightly point out that these give the state more power (since individuals have less awareness of what exactly is happening with their money) and that they carry essentially the same negative externalities as progressive visions.
Of course, Friedman wasn’t intending to alter society meaningfully, he was just going for optimization, and this sort of utilitarian thinking is a hallmark of the rationalist way of thought.
Conservatism is a way of thought governed by tradition and preservation. Unlike the modern conservatives, who are mostly rationalists with rose-tinted glasses shouting “stop,” true conservatives fall into the school of thought of Chesterton’s fence.
Many classical liberals are conservatives because they have familiarity with classical liberalism (or a myth of it) in modern society. Conservatives are susceptible to subversion by progressives, typically through historical illiteracy but also through a creeping shift, since conservatism is very much normative rather than prescriptive in its social aims.
Conservatism is not overly intellectual—it is more intellectual than progressivism (in the genuine sense, since progressives are likely to be indoctrinated rather than well-educated)—but this is not a central goal for conservatism like it is for rationalism or reactionary thought.
Conservatives, for instance, are usually constitutionalists and pro-democracy in the American context, but they would oppose most changes (unless they buy into rationalist thought or succumb to progressive subversion) that democracy brings.
What is reaction?
We have defined the most common alternatives, so now we can get into the answer to the question. A reactionary is one who believes that society has gone deeply off-course. Further, a reactionary believes that the solutions to this involve resolving problems, typically created by progressives or their allies, that come from elements of the social order, rather than problems that are inherent in human nature across all times and societies.
This is distinct from conservatism, because the reactionary must establish a positive vision as opposed to the conservative’s focus on the absence of change. It may be very well to prevent change in society, but it may also be necessary to root out rot, especially after incursions from progressive thought.
The reactionary looks at the left’s cries of “liberty, brotherhood, and egalitarianism” and condemns them.
Where is the liberty in the French Revolution, the Bolshevik terror, or the creeping bureaucracy of the modern state?
Where is the brotherhood in a targeted dismantling of tradition, the family unit, and religion?
Where is the egalitarianism in targeting the strong and the productive for expropriation by the wretched and degenerate?
In progressivism’s agenda, there are only lies.
One can be free to conform to the base hedonism of the mob, or one can have the true freedom of mastery, which includes overcoming base impulses. One can have brotherhood in the family, in creed, and in a social order, not in the mass of unindividiated man. One can have equality in freedom from aggression and parasitism, not in being subjected to the whims and the idols of degenerates.
All else is a myth, all else is a lie, and all else is a sin.
The Myth of Dichotomies
Of course, reaction is not strictly opposing the left. This is a necessity by accident, and not by essence.
Where reactionaries oppose progressive visions, it is because of progressivism’s natural tendencies and not the fundamental character of reaction. In the same way, reactionaries oppose rationalist and conservative thought that deviates from what society ought to aspire to.
When we look at the institutions that are vocally “anti-racist, pro-gay pride, and pro-trans rights” we see they are parroting the progressive line. Of course, they may not be progressive, since both rationalists and progressives will adopt progressive ideas at varying rates, but they have attached to that line of reasoning.
For instance, I would not consider myself a racist. I also do not have the knee-jerk response to racism that the left has—it is uncultured and often shows a lack of thinking, but that doesn’t mean that the “anti-racists” have any more moral outlooks (given their frank admissions of hostile racial animus against Asian and European groups, they have just as much of the uncultured hatred in them as old-school racists), and their similarly brainless espousal of ideas based on in-group signaling rather than hard and rational thought.
This ties into the same issues that I wrote about when I called racism degenerate, though it is a different angle of the same problems with racism.
Likewise, being a medieval anarchist, I don’t see any issue with gay people living without fear of the law kicking down their doors. I have many concerns with the gay pride lifestyle (namely the pride part—the irony of a celebration named after one of the classical deadly sins has not escaped many commentators), and it is incompatible with my religious beliefs, but I will tolerate any non-aggressive action. I am also intelligent enough to discern the difference between homosexuality and pederasty—no mercy should be shown to those who prey on children.
Transgender individuals, likewise, should be free to act in any way they will accept the consequences of. The limit, of course, is that it should not impose consequences on others. I believe we can and should protect children from the influence of the queer lobby, and anyone who commits fraud on minors and vulnerable people should be subject to legal liability (and potential criminal repercussions, such as ostracism and exile).
I say this to point out that I do not hold the exact opposite of progressivism, nor do I think this is a valid position for reactionaries. A focus on holding the antithesis of the progressive viewpoint, besides being a massive vulnerability if it ever became weaponized, would turn reactionaries into nothing more than ornery conservatives, holding on to a myth rather than an understanding of what it means to be opposed to the folly of progressive and rationalist thought.
Reaction and the March of History
The reactionary is not past-oriented like the conservative, but we base our assumptions on principles and experience.
For many conservatives, caught in the contrary pulls of tradition and contra-deviation brought out in the apophenic desire to preserve without a positive vision, there is a downward spiral toward alternative forms of progressivism, such as those presented by fascism and national socialism, which may wear the skin of certain traditional mantras but lack the underlying qualities of reactionary thought (remember that these regimes were still anti-family, anti-individual, and anti-creed when it suited them, albeit perhaps to a less extreme degree than the flagrantly self-destructive and openly leftist alternatives of communism and democracy more broadly).
However, even conservatives can fall victim to the myth of historical progress. Reactionaries do not need to adopt a position of hating everything new. In fact, we understand that age is not always a sign of quality, especially with institutions. These are only as good as the people who maintain them.
Reactionaries do not always have different principles (though they very well might, and it is common that progressives lack universal principles), but they approach them with a fundamental zeal distinct from progressives, rationalists, or conservatives.
Take, for instance, the non-aggression principle that lies at the foundation of both liberalism and libertarianism.
The progressive who applies the non-aggression principle will warp it to fit their ends. Words that cause offense become aggression, while outright expropriations are not under the progressive view. Of course, the end state of this is the same totalitarianism that progressives must in the end always favor—the secret dictator hidden in their hearts cries out for it!
Rationalists will typically mix anything they touch with utilitarianism. If you look at the non-aggression principle through an optimization framework, then you wind up with David Friedman endorsing the military industrial complex for protection against Russia, since the alternative of Russian aggression (a bogeyman in the first place) is much greater than the aggression of taxation to fund military projects.
Conservatives view the non-aggression principle solely in the way it has been interpreted in the past, i.e. through precedent. In this, we can see how Locke would argue that one who declares war on another is an aggressor and any response is appropriate, but also argue that a king can claim legitimate authority over subjects whose ancestors swore fealty to his great-grandfather. After all, to refuse the right of the king would be to enter a state of war against the king, in Locke’s circular logic.
Reactionaries apply principle to the extreme. The tax man, the degenerate pushing agendas on your children, and the common thief are all aggressors. Unlike the regime libertarian, the reactionary libertarian would not argue that the proper response to someone breaking into your house and threatening your family is to ask them to leave—the reactionary would point out that an aggressor is open to retaliation.
In this sense, the reactionary is timeless, not rooted in the past. They can work toward a vision that differs from the past, though unlike the progressive they seek a return to or re-evaluation of principles, rather than a utopia at the end of the rainbow.
An important distinction that sets the reactionary apart from the conservative is how they perceive history and the past. Not that the reactionary finds nothing admirable in the past—we would agree with the utility and morality of certain institutions, much like staunch conservatives.
However, the reactionary has a more skeptical view of history. We see the Whig school of history, aligned with the progressives, which argues that history is a march toward progress (though they do not concur with a Marxian idea of the end of history), being adopted by many conservatives. This is not so perverse as it seems, because the Whig school has been the norm for over a century, and is certainly more apt than the utopian Marxist interpretation of the Great March toward the end of history.
The reactionary looks at history as a series of norms and deviations. The reactionary is not necessarily in favor of the historical norm—we do not need to reject the industrial revolution, as entertaining as memes of a particular mathematician reacting to current events may be—but view it as instructive.
All deviations come with costs, and with deviation comes the potential for error. The difference between the reactionary and the conservative is an understanding that everything we live in may be a deviation.
In fact, it is not only possible for our constructed realities to be a deviation, but it is almost certain. Unlike the postmodernists, the reactionary does not assume that everything constructed is artificial (in the colloquial sense of the term). What people make is just as real as the natural world. The proper level of analysis is testing it against time, morality, and aesthetics to see if it is worthwhile.
Once again, the reactionary differs from the conservative because we are much more willing to get rid of things. As a medieval anarchist, I advocate for ridding humanity of the state as a territorial monopolist and moving to a polycentric legal order and a libertarian social order (in the vein of Hoppe).
Rothbard sums up our view nicely.
“Who would want to repeal the 20th century, the century of horror, the century of collectivism, the century of mass destruction and genocide, who would want to repeal that! Well, we propose to do just that.” (Murray Rothbard, “A Strategy for the Right”)
The distinction between a reactionary and a conservative is that the reactionary does not have hero worship for things just because they are familiar. We look at Lincoln and see a blood-soaked tyrant, even if we oppose to slavery ourselves. We look at World War 2 not as a defensive war to save Eastern Europeans and Jews from Hitler’s aggression (a crafted narrative revealed as a fabrication: America only intervened after Pearl Harbor, not on account of those we turned away at our shores and sent back to German persecutions and extermination camps), but a consequence of progressive meddling in the social order (by the likes of Wilson) that gave rise to totalitarian regimes run by mass-murdering socialists.
We can look at this as reaction countering two forces simultaneously: barbarism and degeneracy.
Barbarism is the raw state of nature. It is what society exists to do away with.
There is some danger in adopting an entirely skeptical view of the natural world and humanity’s place in it, but this danger is much less than adopting the Marxist fantasy that the world was pure until the original sin of capitalism corrupted it.
In reality, there are both natural tendencies of people and natural tendencies of being itself that need to be suppressed for eudaimonia.
Reactionaries understand that just because something is ancient doesn’t mean that it is good. Of course, from a Christian perspective, we might view this as overcoming a fallen world, but we can also make an aesthetic and moral judgment that states that alterations to nature bring things more in line with what we desire.
Reactionaries oppose barbarism because it is backward and lacks fertility. It is not a vehicle toward an end, nor is it a desirable end in its own fashion.
The counterpart to barbarism is degeneracy, though these aren’t opposites so much as two mutually incompatible phenomena (though individual barbarians may also be degenerate, they cannot co-exist in a static relationship).
Degeneracy, as Hoppe and I use the term, is voluntary parasitism. This is important to distinguish from the rationalist idea of eugenics or the progressive ideas of individual or class defects.
A child is not degenerate because they need guidance and support, because this is not voluntary. Nor are the disabled degenerate, because they did not choose this. Obviously, the productive members of society are not degenerates, because they are not parasitic.
However, reactionaries understand that those who benefit from society without contributing to it have a degenerate element, whether this takes the form of social welfare and petty crime at the bottom of the social hierarchy (which encourages vicious cycles of negative competence), fraud and corruption in the echelons of what should be productive members of society, or banditry and extortion coming from the ruling elite.
Against the March of History
A fundamental misunderstanding of moderns has been to assign purpose and motive to history—or, perhaps, History.
In the minds of confused thinkers, History comes in stages and waves.
This is not an entirely inappropriate shorthand, because there are benefits to classifying historical epochs, but we understand that these are done with the benefit of hindsight.
Even in the epochal events we regard as turning points, there was no History behind the scenes. There was human action, and perhaps God’s providence, but no development in stages. The combustion engine was not a product of destiny, as much as it has shaped the world.
It is the same way with societies. Societies arise to combat barbarism and erode through degeneracy. The goal of the reactionary is to balance these two ends—to keep the wolves and bandits from the forest outside the walls, and to keep those within the walls from becoming complacent to the threats outside.
What is a Reactionary?
A reactionary looks at things that are wrong and sees them as a deviation from the norm of universal law. The fundamental laws and nature of reality do not change, though the physical conditions we live in might.
Unlike a progressive, the reactionary has no utopian vision. It is not just that there are laws that should be followed (charity, for instance) but also laws that must be followed (such as those of scarcity and limitation). Of course, things would be better if we adopted our course of action, but we are simply curing diseases, not restoring the Garden of Eden.
Unlike a rationalist, the reactionary is skeptical of the supremacy of the human mind. Nature and the universe are not so simple as that. Principles and experience inform our actions, but we are guided by law rather than plans.
Unlike a conservative, the reactionary has no love for the old for the sake of being old. We can reject barbarism and degeneracy with no mourning for what we throw away because we understand that these are poison.