The difference between “conservatives” and reactionaries

…is this: If liberalism were a church, “conservatives” would be its heretics, while reactionaries would be its apostates. “Conservatives” yearn for an earlier, “truer” form of liberalism—be it the industrial society of the 19th Century for some paleos and libertarians, or the New Deal and/or Civil Rights era for some neocons. This is why one often hears American movement conservatives claiming, not without warrant, to be “just old-fashioned liberals.” And much like Chesterton’s heretics of old, the “conservative” insists that he is the real liberal: “It [is] the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who [are] heretics. He [is] orthodox.”

The reactionary, on the other hand, is an apostate: He has left the Church of Liberalism altogether, and has no more interest in claiming its orthodoxy for himself than Richard Dawkins has in claiming to be the real bearer of the Anglican tradition.

20 thoughts on “The difference between “conservatives” and reactionaries

    • I’ll read those links and try to comment intelligently when I get the time, but for the moment, note the scare quotes around the word “conservative.” One can be both a reactionary (properly understood) and a conservative (properly understood) at the same time–in fact, I’d argue both words mean the same thing,–but not a reactionary and a “conservative.” (Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had written “pseudoconservative” instead.)

      If we refuse to call ourselves conservatives, it should not be because we’re against conservatism (properly understood)–which, I would argue, we’re not–but because the word “conservatism” has become so (mis)associated with deeply unconservative causes and movements that using it in its proper sense could only cause confusion.

    • This is an easy question. Look at what Auster says:

      As I pointed out in our last exchange six months ago, at the very moment that American freedom is hanging by a thread, and there is a chance to stop or repeal Obamacare, you will not support that movement, because the people opposing Obamacare are not “right-wing” enough for you.

      He claims to believe that this trivial fight over whether the US government imposes a little more regulation on the most insanely regulated sector of the US economy is a question of world-historical significance. It’s a dispute in prudential judgement. How it comes out will make only a little difference. Freedom is hanging by a thread!! It’s the mostest importantest election ever!! Again!! Good grief. Conservative.

      • Well it was more of a rhetorical question. My whole point was that many in the orthosphere, e.g., named allies as respected (and as generally correct) as Larry Auster, have nevertheless a love-hate relationship (as opposed to the more proper hate-hate relationship) with pieces of the very leftism that brought us to the current mess. In fairness to Mr. Auster and many others listed on the Blogroll here, it is difficult to go “all the way,” i.e., to reject, as jacobin godless rationalist hogswill, the principles of the colonial rebellion which gave birth to this inarguably great nation–if for no other reason than she has been truly great and for so long. And to believe that the seeds of America’s own destruction were planted in her founding is well… a little unconservative… a little treasonous really. And even tho’ I now do believe exactly that, my eyes still well up whenever that certain Lee Greenwood song gets played.

        It is, in the end, every reactionary’s duty to love his mother… even in the light of increasing evidence that she’s a whore.

      • Of course, I should have seen that the question was rhetorical. I missed that, I think, because of the inexplicable fact that Mr Auster is held in high esteem around these parts.

        On patriotism, Steve, I agree, the right answer to the question “Is America exceptional” is “Yes, she is my country, and I love her above all others.”

  1. I think heretics is too strong a word. “Conservatives” differ from liberals on minor points of prudential judgement. Should the marginal tax rate on income for high earners be a little higher or a little lower? Shall we provide a little more or a little less welfare? Shall we invade three countries this presidency, or only two? Shall we say that killing babies so that their bodies might be used in medical research is a regrettable necessity or a highly regrettable necessity? Is homosex fabulous or absolutely fabulous? Are whites near the middle of their necessary period of sackcloth-and-ashes or near the end of their necessary period of sackcloth-and-ashes? Etc.

    The most you can say, I think, is that liberals suspect conservatives of being closet heretics. Perhaps you also suspect them. Sometimes I suspect them. But their heresy, if it exists at all, is not manifest.

    Though I follow you above with the scare quotes, I’m not sure you are right about the inauthenticity of conservatives. They seem quite conservative to me. They want to conserve the society we have now, perhaps moving a little left in this area and a little right in that area, but, on balance keeping things about the way they are. So, while it is not possible to be reactionary and conservative at the same time in the current (hyper-liberal) context, it is quite possible to be liberal and conservative at the same time.

  2. Many conservatives have never given a lot of thought to exactly what they want to conserve. The cretins at National Review eventually internalize each new liberal outrage as the new status quo, and wind up defending it as part of “conservatism” (for example, you won’t see any pushback from them about women in combat – once the liberals won that fight, NRO happily defended it as a conservative idea). Some have accused Auster of wanting to conserve “America as of 1960” — and indeed, it is difficult to get him to accept that a lot of things that happened before 1960 were liberal and thus should be unacceptable to conservatives.

    The same question could be asked of “reactionaries”. What are you reacting against? Today’s liberal insanity? The Great Society? The New Deal? Abolition? The American Revolution? The Coup of 1688 misnamed the Glorious Revolution?

    Frankly I can’t see any point in trying to conserve the depraved society we have now. If you don’t want to roll back liberalism and tear it out root and branch, you might as well drink the Kool Aid and become a liberal (you’ll be happier that way).

    • Yes, this is a really interesting topic, and I concur with Bohemund in answering “yes” to your list. Unfortunately, it is also a dangerous topic, given the point of the site. If you have to repudiate William and Mary to get to be a reactionary, we’re even fewer than we thought. And, really, why stop there? Is someone who fails to repudiate the Dissolution of the Monasteries really reactionary? Maybe it all started to go wrong when the Medieval universities did not fully receive the Condemnations of 1277?

      Today, we can see that Frank Meyer’s Fusionism was a shoddy scam. But, the problem that Fusionism was supposed to solve has not gone away. We enemies of the modern system don’t seem to have enough that we agree on to make for a coherent intellectual or political project. “Smash the State!” while laudable, ain’t enough. Similarly, “Kill the Commies!” while laudable, turned out not to be enough.

    • What conservatives want to conserve is a question that is never settled. Do they have a ‘golden age’ in mind that once existed but is now lost beyond recovery?

      Evelyn Waugh used to criticise the Conservative Party because it had never turned the clock back by a single minute.

  3. The same question could be asked of “reactionaries”. What are you reacting against? Today’s liberal insanity? The Great Society? The New Deal? Abolition? The American Revolution? The Coup of 1688 misnamed the Glorious Revolution?


  4. Are reactionaries those that reject the premises behind the 18C Revolutions?
    Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?

    Should reactionaries reject the metaphysical Equality of Mankind?

    Or what is required is to revisit the meaning of “Liberty”.

    I quote traditionalist political philosopher Patrick Deneen on the break that Hobbes and Locke wrought on the ancient notion of Liberty:

    profound disagreement over the definition of liberty, one which – deriving from our Natural Rights tradition – defines liberty to be based most fundamentally in the rights of individuals, and the other – deriving from our Puritan Founding – understands human liberty as fundamentally communal, and insists rather upon the learned capacity of humans to moderate and even sacrifice their own interests for the good of the whole.

    There is no better explication of this orientation than that of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, whose speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” has become a justly famous expression of Puritan social and political views. Aboard the Arbella, Winthrop explicates to his fellow pilgrims the kind of society they should aspire to build upon their arrival in the New World.

    Winthrop begins by acknowledging that humans are always placed in positions of inequality. But, rather than lamenting (or celebrating) our respective conditions as individuals, he argues, we need to understand our differences as gifts of God, in particular as manifestations of our insufficiency and partiality, of our mutual reliance, of the fact that we might recognize that we have need of each other. God creates humans differently, he writes, “so that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy, etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.”

    Our differences are actually signs of our deeper equality, and standing calls to consider the ways that our different gifts are to be employed for the benefit of the community. Neither are the wealthy to feel self-satisfied for their fortune, nor are the poor to harbor resentment and envy; rather, all distinctions are ultimately to be understood as distinct parts of a larger whole, a part of the created order and for God’s glory alone. Every person, however situated, is called to contribute their share to the common weal. While justice is a necessary aspiration, it is insufficient – our primary duty is to emulate the love of Christ, that gratuitous form of charity that is freely given for the benefit of others. Winthrop writes that the people must be governed “under a due form of government” in which “the care of the public must oversway all private respects by which not only conscience but mere civil policy doth bind us; for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” The entire orientation of Puritan society was to be toward the good of community, a lived experience that was ultimately to reflect and emulate the love of God for the people. Thus, where Locke treats equal rights as a means to differentiation, Winthrop makes difference a means to equality; whereas Natural Rights begins with the idea of the naturally autonomous individual who consents to political order, Puritanism hearkens back to an Aristotelian conception in which one can only truly become an individual by and through the context of human community

    • Are reactionaries those that reject the premises behind the 18C Revolutions?
      Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?

      That… and… “No taxation without representation!” But in that queer, polysyllabic, and technical slogan, there is a great lesson in the American revolution.

      Should reactionaries reject the metaphysical Equality of Mankind?

      I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-food pole. All men (and women) have equal, and infinite, dignity before God, in whose image he created them. You may (or may not) extrapolate from that fact that (perhaps) people ought to be treated equally under the positive law. But beyond that it is transparently true that all people are not actually equal. And that the greater freedom there is, the less equal everyone will be. The decision about how much freedom to allow, militating as it does against equality and, in extremus, even against the self-interests of some, is itself a prudential decision best carried out by a wise parental leader, and emphatically not “the people” themselves.

      That said, I cannot find much in Deneen to disagree with as far as it goes. I am a longtime reader of his. But I believe it is an error to consider freedom as a good, which no doubt it is, without first considering security (of persons and property) and justice (swift and fair). If we have those two things, freedom will flow naturally and abundantly. Without them, freedom is slavery.

  5. The question is Why do men live in society?

    Hobbes and Locke gave essentially negative answer
    (1) To prevent the aggression of other men.
    (2) To increase power over nature.

    (1) leads to Libertarianism as its logical climax.
    (2) Leads to the ideology of endless growth.

    Reaction is only meaningful if it seeks to recover the ancient understanding of ‘City’. Aristotle held that ‘City is prior to Family and Individual’. That is true reaction and rest is one or other variants of liberalism.

    • The question is Why do men live in society?

      Because they’re born there… I’m not being flippant. Obviously both reasons are true. Neither leads inevitably to either of the ends you ascribe, certainly not if you refuse to turn either principle into a radical ideology. Reaction is defined as opposition to revolution, which is seen always and everywhere as an anarchic force.

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  7. No. Conservatives are nationalists. Nationalists were part of the progressive coalition until the 60s. The libs kicked them out and they joined the republican party making their outlook both nationalist and pro big business.

  8. I don’t disagree. I think you can put it in plainer, though, for our society. A reactionary rejects democracy, or in other words: a reactionary rejects the idea that men should have equal political power.

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