Reactionary Progressivism?

Against Absurd Ideas

In Blame it on Fidel (2006), the French-Italian drama film based on Domitilla Calamai's Italian novel of the same name, nine-year-old Anna de la Mesa is enchanted by stories of princesses. Festivities inspire her. And she is pleased by formal manners and good graces. When her parents transform her life by becoming revolutionaries in early-1970s Paris, upending what had, until then, been a fairly conventional bourgeois upbringing, Anna is not happy. 

“Your daughter is a reactionary?” asks one of the many unfamiliar political activists who congregate in her new home every evening, waking her up with their never-ending conversation about Franco’s Spain, Allende’s Chile and women’s rights. The father answers the question: “She insisted on staying in Catholic school.”

Certainly, if being a “reactionary” means showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the kind of iconoclasm, hypocrisy and chaos that her mother and father visit upon her and her unsuspecting brother, then the “barbudos” (bearded revolutionary) in Anna’s living room is right—she is a reactionary. 

Anna is unimpressed by how her parents leave her and her brother in the care of their grandparents for weeks and months at a time and how her parents frequently exchange one childminder with another without warning. She views with disdain the way individuals are seen as, next to structures, unimportant in the revolutionists’ worldview and Anna is angered by how her father exposes her to danger on a demonstration during a lesson he gives in “group solidarity.”

If, however, the word “reactionary” means to be militantly nostalgic about a romanticised past, then Anna is not a reactionary. Besides being merely a child, she is also merely a conservative; she wants only to conserve the family environment in which she and her brother are cared for properly—an environment they know well.

So, Anna is or is not a reactionary depending on how the word is defined. But would it be such a bad thing to be a “reactionary,” at any rate, one way or the other? Rejecting the idea that reaction is simply “rooted in ignorance and intransigence," the historian Mark Lilla doesn’t think so. In The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), he protests against the treatment of reactionaries as “the last remaining ‘other’ consigned to the margins of respectable intellectual inquiry.” Moreover, he’s not the only sensible person to object to the reaction against “reaction.” George Orwell didn’t think so, either. 

While in 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used the term to describe and dismiss as trivial a whole tranche of socialists with whom they disagreed—so-called “feudal,” “petty bourgeois,” and German or “true” socialists—in the 1930s Orwell proclaimed that “nowadays... every intelligent person is a reactionary." In the age of the machine, reactionaries were right to see the present, not the past, as a foreign country—a country, increasingly, not worth living in. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell rightly identified the “underlying motive” of many contemporary socialists as “simply a hypertrophied sense of order.” These socialists were not interested in justice or common decency. Dull and priggish to a person, they were interested in efficiency and an idea of progress measured by the spread of labour-saving machinery.

Mechanical progress, for Orwell, was not progress. In making us safe and soft, machines, on the contrary, make “a fully human life impossible.” Orwell held an expansive conception of work. To work is “to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles.” Work, in short, is commensurate with life. Thus by eradicating labour, machines were eradicating life as well.

Orwell wasn’t really suggesting that we ought to go back; he was insisting only that we ought not to go any further forward with industrial civilisation. “In a world where everything could be done by machinery,” he wisely counselled, “everything would be done by machinery.” From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the truth of Orwell’s observation could hardly be any starker with Alexa an everyday feature of many people’s lives, sex robots now on the market and self-driving cars only just over the horizon.

As Orwell was gesturing already in 1937, to subscribe to reaction is in fact not to be a “reactionary” in the strict sense at all. On the contrary, to proclaim oneself a reactionary is to announce one’s progressive credentials. Now more than ever before reactionism and progressivism are the same. To react to the adoption of new technologies in one field after another is to seek to preserve a space where human life can flourish, where we can improve both as individuals and collectively. One does not have to sympathise with the environmental terrorist, Ted Kaczynski—an archetypal classical reactionary—to recognise the truth of his claim that many of our social and psychological problems today can be attributed to the fact that we have become so profoundly estranged from our natures. We are anxious, bored, depressed and frustrated because, quite simply, we are stultified, living atomised lives in dense populations abstracted from the natural world.

Unlike Kaczynski, who defended an ideology that is best described as anarcho-primitivist, Orwell was scornful of any attempt to revert to more primitive methods of production—at least, in the immediate term. For him, reaction didn’t mean radical nostalgia about pre-industrial societies. The rule of law, freedom of speech and association, representative government, and the expansion of scientific knowledge were all aspects of modernity that ought, within reason, to be celebrated and preserved. What reaction meant for Orwell was a pushing back against absurd ideas. 

This version of reaction has a history. For example, in an article published in 1912, the American journalist John Hunter Sedgwick wrote that the philosophic conservative and the moderate liberal, unhurried by passion and prejudice, are in fact reactionaries since they react to misconceived action. Still, addressing the negative connotations attached to the term, Sedgwick asked why the word “reactionary” should be fastened on the person who “looks back from a doubtful proposition to an undoubted proposition that has been proved by experience and should not be fastened,” instead, upon the person who “wishes to repeat a process that has already been found harmful to the common weal?” 

In contrast to the use of the word as an umbrella term for anti-revolutionists by the obnoxious “barbudos” who antagonised Anna in Blame it on Fidel, “reactionary,” in this sense, is a more apposite description of Anna’s parents. When they return from a political visit to Chile they bring back a jack-in-the-box as a gift for their daughter. After delivering a spiel on the wonders of state planning, the box springs open, revealing a grotesque jack. Anna’s father explains that, in Chilean culture, the jack is seen as sinister. The symbolism is clear: be careful of unintended consequences. One can, in short, be a reactionary progressive as well as a progressive reactionary. 

Of course, the causes that Anna’s parents defend—antiauthoritarianism, social justice, and gender equality—are all entirely worthy. However, in their hostility to reaction, they do not serve them well. As Orwell understood, while there is reaction without progress, minds that see “the debris” of some lost and superior way of doing things “flowing on the river of time,” as Lilla put it, there is no progress without reaction. Without reaction, arrogant conviction has free sway, and we all end up like neglected Anna after she quarrels with a friend over her parents’ new lifestyle, hair bedraggled and holes in the knees of her tights: namely, a mess. Technology and rationalisation have their limits. A purely disenchanted world, the world of our current reactionary progressives, is at best a well-intentioned travesty. At worst, it is a malicious dystopia. 

A guest post by
Writer and historian of ideas