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Is "reactionary" (still) a useful term?

+1 vote
It seems like perhaps at one point in history the term had a concrete referent, but that due to overuse by Marxists, Bookchin and other leftists that it has become merely a hollow, near-meaningless slur.
asked Dec 5, 2010 by enkidu (6,700 points)
edited Dec 5, 2010 by enkidu
Oh yeah? Well, that's just like… your opinion, man.
The same thing can be said about any other overused term among Leftists, like "fascist," "sectarian," "stalinist," or even "leftist." Without a precise definition, or some kind of broader context than cursing, or at least a few characteristics, we're left with vague jargon for a specific in-crowd. Its residual power derives precisely from that vagueness, and the people who throw around such curses haphazardly count on that vagueness and the emotive reactions of their audience.

The term still has concrete referents; it refers to people who wish for a return to some previous status quo ante where people knew their place, where the rich and powerful were accorded unquestioned deference and respect, where the unwashed masses knew they were to keep quiet, and where crazy ideas like justice and egalitarianism were the harmless pipedreams of professional philosophers, housebroken intellectuals, and other court jesters. Being a reactionary does not necessarily mean that such a person has a plan of action for turning back the clock; it's more a wistful nostalgia for simpler times of rigid hierarchy and unchallenged physical and psychic domination by patricians over the proles.
If you post this as an answer I will totally vote on it!

The term still has concrete referents; it refers to people who wish for a return to some previous status quo ante where people knew their place, where the rich and powerful were accorded unquestioned deference and respect, where the unwashed masses knew they were to keep quiet, and where crazy ideas like justice and egalitarianism were the harmless pipedreams of professional philosophers, housebroken intellectuals, and other court jesters. Being a reactionary does not necessarily mean that such a person has a plan of action for turning back the clock; it's more a wistful nostalgia for simpler times of rigid hierarchy and unchallenged physical and psychic domination by patricians over the proles.
— by lawrence

1 Answer

+7 votes
The term still has concrete referents; it refers to people who wish for a return to some previous status quo ante where people knew their place, where the rich and powerful were accorded unquestioned deference and respect, where the unwashed masses knew they were to keep quiet, and where crazy ideas like justice and egalitarianism were the harmless pipedreams of professional philosophers, housebroken intellectuals, and other court jesters. Being a reactionary does not necessarily mean that such a person has a plan of action for turning back the clock; it's more a wistful nostalgia for simpler times of rigid hierarchy and unchallenged physical and psychic domination by patricians over the proles.
answered Dec 6, 2010 by lawrence (18,030 points)
I could care less what someone calls me. Besides the status quo in the US is what exactly, to live the way of the American Indians? I could handle that. That's a fairly high functioning anarchist society, in my opinion.
first, there is no single "society" of american indians. there are many. second, calling almost any of them "anarchist" is a stretch.
while i agree with lawrence's answer, i think a somewhat broader perspective is also applicable.

to me, "reactionary" implies that someone has responded (reacted) to something - an idea, a statement, an organization, someone's behavior, whatever - impulsively and without much critical thought.  a couple simplistic examples:

choosing to adopt a lifestyle (vague term alert!) that is contrary/oppositional to the lifestyle lived by one's parents, solely for the purpose of NOT being like their parents. ie, without any deep thought about what lifestyle(s) would meet their individual needs and desires.

dismissing everything bob black writes because he is a drunk and/or a snitch (missing out on some potentially useful perspective).

refusing to read a book/article/whatever because the first page(s) seemed overly intellectual/academic.  (reactionary anti-intellectualism, something i myself am guilty of at times)

just my view of the term.
Funky, you're use of the term has much more to do with what it sounds like (and how pop psychologists use it) and almost nothing to do with the way it's used as a political signifier. A reactionary is not just "one who reacts (possibly without thinking too deeply)." Reactionaries are certainly reacting to something, but what? Modernity, republicanism (as in, anti-monarchism), socialism (as in, legislating against the worst excesses of capitalism). The term came to describe folks who were against progress - specifically the many ameliorative policies promoted by progressives. The binary is Progress versus Reaction. Reactionaries are not those who have an instinctive/emotional response/rebellion/refusal to something or someone (like all your examples), but those who are reacting to the erosion of traditional values more at home in the Middle Ages.
did i neglect to mention that i am a pop psychologist?

actually i know you are technically right. i just hate to use such a limited definition, when the word (broadly applied) fits so well for exactly the kind of responses i used as examples (and so many more).

"The binary is Progress versus Reaction."

(aside from my deep-rooted hatred of binary thinking...)

when seeing those words independently of a specific, politically charged context, viewing them as binary opposites makes absolutely no sense to me. if they had no meaning outside of that context, it wouldn't seem so limiting.

i guess i am a bit more flexible with my use of language (which i see as purely a tool) than some. if it causes confusion rather than clarity, i'll try not to. but hey, screwdrivers are intended to be used to turn screws; sometimes i use them for different purposes, and they work. a tool is a tool.

but i appreciate your contextual definition/explanation of the term.
Where you see "a limited definition" I see historical context. Words mean something specific, especially those charged with political content; a word "broadly applied" means far less than it could or should.

I'm not a fan of binary logic either, but the origin of the term "reactionary" comes out of that logic. One need not be happy about the origin or the continued invocation of the term as "limited," but to use it incorrectly as you seem to insist upon, rips it out of its own context. At the very least, that is sloppy; at worst it is dishonest.

I am not inflexible in my use of language; what interests me is precision and description. Perhaps the result of that is a more rational and detached tone (it has previously - and more than once - been suggested to me that this is the case with much of my writing). But the deliberate stirring up of emotion through the use of "flexible" and "broad" definitions is the project of populists and demagogues, and is best left to them.
"but to use it incorrectly as you seem to insist upon, rips it out of its own context."

2 comments on that.

1 - you apparently ignored or missed this statement i made:   "if it causes confusion rather than clarity, i'll try not to. "

2 - assigning context to a word unto itself ("rips it out of its own context") seems like putting the cart before the horse. (some might even call it reification, but i'm not clear enough on that word's meaning). for me it is very much the context in which the word is used that gives it its meaning, not vice versa, as your statement makes it sound.

bottom line:  i don't really care about all the extraneous stuff you mention (populists and demagogues, whatever the fuck). what i do care about: you have pointed out, in seemingly honest discussion, what the word means to you (and according to you, to everybody else), and how that differs from how i used it. cool, i heard you.  because clarity is my primary goal in this kind of mediated communication, if i am using that word in discussion with you, i will do my best to use that definition.  i can adapt to context. simple. done.
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