What is reactionary politics

The reactionary is the new revolutionary

Nationalists, Islamists, but also deep ecologists and anti-growth activists - the modern type of reactionary has many faces. What they have in common is their erudition, their political nostalgia and their militancy.

The books on the nature and effects of the revolution are legion. One could almost speak of a genre of its own - it is hardly possible to keep track of what has been published on the subject in the more than 200 years since the French Revolution. The revolutionary has long since gained iconic quality and has advanced to become a fascinating figure of modernity beyond relevant literature. Even if he has thousands of people on his conscience like the Argentinian Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna, he has a lot of sex appeal and adorns T-shirts and stickers as the protagonist of another, higher human order. As much as the memories of the revolutionary attempts after 1789 have faded, many seem to dream of being smaller or larger revolutionaries in their field and in their everyday lives. It's the cliché of the advertising industry tout court.

In contrast, nobody voluntarily surrounds himself with the odeur of the reactionary. The reactionary is seen as a sinister figure, as someone who quarrels with the course of things, as a dull, unreasonable, and even consistently unsympathetic contemporary. To this day he remains a blank slate, more of an enemy, from which one sets oneself apart, as a protagonist of one's own worldview and theory of action. And this, although he has meanwhile overtaken the revolutionary in terms of his effective power.

Foreign in your own country

Skepticism about progress is now part of the good form among intellectuals in the West, including and especially among those who portray themselves as progressive. This skepticism can be identified in two degrees of intensity. The gentle question goes something like this: Can we really have good reason to assume that our children will one day have it better than us? And to put it bluntly: Who would deny that the collapse of our order is imminent, be it because of climate change, neopopulism or the development of robotics and artificial intelligence?

But despite all the skepticism: Anyone who thinks this way implicitly sticks to a narrative of progress, otherwise he would not be able to diagnose its interruption or end. And this narrative frame of reference still determines the perception of the two characters to this day.

The revolutionary is commonly seen as an agent of progress, even if the (terrible) results of his actions do not always coincide with his (presumably honorable) intentions and point backwards. The reactionary, on the other hand, has been regarded since the French Revolution as a yesterday who endeavors to stop the course of history and to oppose it with all his might. Even if he operates with the most modern means of technology, he should be the force of regression and thus nothing more than a counter-revolutionary.

This labeling determines the discourse to this day, but it is misleading. It is the American historian of ideas, Mark Lilla, who recently introduced a new, fruitful perspective for the first time: Revolutionary and reactionary are not opposing figures, but together form a single tilting figure.

Both feel like strangers in their country or their time, both see themselves as enlightened agents of a higher order that must be enforced at all costs, both are in their own way militant humorless moralists who see themselves as the avant-garde of humanity and on the crowd of the deluded look down around them. What distinguishes them is only the nature of their utopia. While the revolutionary is aiming for a bright future that has never existed before, the reactionary has a glorious past in mind that has always been lost.

New system criticism

The reactionaries are neither on the right nor on the left, but wear very differently colored robes, green, black, brown, red. Nationalists, populists and Islamists are just as much a part of them as deep ecologists, anti-globalizers and anti-growth activists. What they have in common is criticism of the system. The liberal-democratic-soft-capitalist status quo of the world to which they refer is profoundly rotten in appearance, in other words: either corrupt, decadent or cynical. The merely apparent order must finally be exposed for what it is: a great disorder. From this, thanks to the guidance of suitable protagonists of the reaction, a stabilized order should emerge again, in which the permanent social conflicts are lifted in a new harmony.

With his election campaign slogan borrowed from Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, the incumbent President of the USA, delivered a sentence whose argumentative pattern connects all reactionary types: Make X great again. The emphasis is on the last word, on "again": there was once a good time or a golden age when the world was all right. Then something unexpected happened - corruption by globalized elites, oppression by the decadent forces of the West, the triumph of technology - something that upset the pre-established harmony and maneuvered the course of things into a dead end. Unlike in fairy tales, however, there can only be one thing at the end of the reactionary narrative: the second catastrophe, or better: the rescue through the coming catastrophe.

The rupture that separates the present time from the golden age is to be resolved by a rupture of the rupture, and the golden age is to be restored. So the reactionary is betting that the dialectic will work in history. With this construction it is inconceivable that the situation after the disaster could be much worse than the situation before. The reactionary strives forward into the past. For this, just like the revolutionary, every means is right for him and no price is too high. Whoever wishes for a war or a final battle to overcome the status quo has, rightly, not lost his mind, but does exactly the opposite: he massively overestimates the human mind.

Political nostalgia

Every reactionary is obsessed with the Scriptures in his own way. Unlike the revolutionary, he does not understand fantastic stories that take place in a utopian future, but rather those that are supposed to have taken place. He is very different from a conservative, with whom he is often compared as if he were his radicalized brother. But unlike the conservative, the reactionary is not really interested in the past and its intertwined connections with the present, nor in traditions, behaviors and forms of knowledge that have proven themselves and therefore could be of great use to today's society. Conversely, he assumes a fundamental break between old and new times. The reactionary does not want to remember, but only wants to measure the distance in his preoccupation with history that separates him from what has been.

Mark Lilla gives the basic mood of the reactionary a name: political nostalgia. It is the special sensorium for the shine of the past that never ceases to shine. For the reactionary, the lost past is the fixed point of his endeavors after he has begun to perceive the present as a foreign country. That is why he devours books that tell of an intact time and an untouched place, be it the paradise of Adam and Eve before the fall, the Greece of the pre-Socratics, the Mecca of Muhammad, the short period of total egalitarianism during the French Revolution or the experience the Paris Commune, the constitution of a borderless world at the end of the 19th century. Like revolutionaries, reactionaries, however close to the people, are representatives of a self-appointed book-armed elite of chosen people.

At the height of the time

The reactionary, like the revolutionary, has that secret knowledge that Popper once described as the basic assumption of "historicism": the little reserved knowledge about the course of things. Suddenly the reactionary knows why he has alienated himself from his time - because he belongs to a different time. He realizes that it cannot be a coincidence when he reads these books - he is one of the chosen ones who, as if struck by lightning, recognize why everything not only goes wrong, but had to go.

His singular position in the recognized social or natural process - be it due to his race or class, his nationality, his religion or simply his biography - allows him to gain an insight that others must be denied. The moment he realizes this, he already has a mission. Because for him to understand means to act. Those who belong to the inner circle of the enlightened have - seen from within - no choice. And so he wants to bring higher insight to all other people with strength and violence.

The reactionary does not want to preserve it, but rather to turn the existing system off its hinges. It is not dull, but well-read. He's not a yesterday, but a very modern figure. One could say: He is the revolutionary at the height of a time that is in a state of permanent change. He wants to overcome the existing corruption and decadence through an order that he understands as lost and therefore claims to restore its splendor, although it never existed.

As uncompromising as the reactionary acts, it is also true that his strength is merely borrowed. He gets it from all the alarmists and catastrophists who conjure up the end of democracy, the end of capitalism, the end of the habitable planet earth. When the mood of doom reigns, the reactionary feels really in his element. That is why it is currently experiencing a boom in the West - because those who have little do not harbor great fear, rather those who have a lot to lose are afraid.

Mark Lilla's new book

zz. · Mark Lilla presents the book of the hour with «The shine of the past». He analyzes the thought and action patterns of reactionary thinking using the example of numerous personalities, phenomena and currents, and he does this just as soberly as wisely. His book contains a lot of explosive substance and has sparked numerous debates in the United States. The present essay by René Scheu is a shortened and slightly adapted version of his foreword.

Mark Lilla: The glory of the past. About the spirit of the reaction. NZZ Libro, Zurich 2018. 140 pp., Fr. 34.90.