History and Reaction
Our understanding of reactionary movements as a whole, both past and present, must take into consideration the historical context.
It must be remembered that reaction isn't limited to any historical movement; over time it constantly undergoes transformations in name, appearance, and manifestation.
Reaction, at its core, isn't an ideology or set of values, but rather instead a historical phenomenon. As the world undergoes major changes in its evolution, groups accustomed to the previous status quo find themselves at odds with the new order. This conflict gives rise to paranoid mobs, opportunistic hero-figures, and an attempt to re-establish what the reactionaries had lost.
It is because of this, the reactionary is a product of their time. In the broad sense of the term, “reaction” is inherently contextual. The reaction is innately tied to the action. Without understanding the historical background, one will struggle to get a clear picture of how the reaction is unfolding.
The goal of this essay is to get a picture of the modern reactionary, to understand exactly how reaction has evolved since nearly a century ago.
Rebuilding the Right
The dawn of the 20th century brought with it the Second Industrial Revolution, the fall of monarchy, and a nascent global market: in other words, liberal capitalism had matured and was proving to be a fatal threat to the monarchies of old. As the economic bar continuously rose, nationalism was proving to be more and more unsustainable.
Former imperial powerhouses had slowly, but surely witnessed their authority be chipped away by the new industrial order. A deadly combination of modernist philosophy and international trade was enough to put giants such as Spain, Prussia, and Japan on the defensive.
Historically, rulers depended on religious and hereditary claims to their throne; this was effective because information and written communication was left in the hands of the few at first. Because information was so horribly fragmented, very few were even remotely literate enough to take advantage of written language and sufficiently question this authority. For most of Europe, this came with the invention of the printing press and the rise of Protestant Christianity. The former would allow for written material to be reproduced and spread at incredible rates, whereas the latter would encourage the literacy needed to understand said written material.
The liberal rejection of economic autarky was no help either: the shift in production that accompanied the Industrial Revolution gave way to a new economy. An economy in which nations with different social structures, governments, and natural resources would collaborate to expand and accelerate production. The barometer for authority was changing, and the kings of old were being quickly pushed aside to make way for the barons of new.
Both of these were absolutely necessary occurrences in order to justify the change of production, and even each other to an extent. Thanks to the economic effects of the printing press, information was no longer contained, but rather instead privatized: this allowed people to reject static dogma in favor of adherence to flexible methodologies that were able to adapt and be shaped with changes in information. In turn, the pursuit of understanding and skepticism pushed people to transcend national borders in order to further the sphere of discussion and research.
Of course, this dealt a devastating blow to orthodox nationalism, people were able to look beyond their own surroundings and challenge the idea of their king and nation being the absolute truth. Revolutions sprung up all across Europe, and it became increasingly clear the capitalist mode of production was here to stay. And as the world closed in on the 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear nationalists had to adapt if they wanted to maintain their relevance.
The narrative of the First World War recounts this: the Germans didn’t just lose, they lost in a slow, brutal, and humiliating fashion. The authority of the Kaiser was completely ridiculed on the public stage, and German nationalists, most prominently those in the military, faced a dilemma: this loss was powerful fodder for their political opponents, opponents who began building coalitions around the rejection of communitarianism. The nationalists knew they had to ally themselves with the growing fascist movement and embrace its innovations: namely Social Darwinism and palingenesis.
Social Darwinism, which fuses rigid hierarchy with modernist rhetoric. The idea of “might makes right” creates a self-evident justification for the ruling parties by exploiting one of modernism’s worst flaws: methodology isn’t safe from dogmatism either. Mass printed propaganda and excessive scientism comes together to create a cultish cognitive dissonance that has adherents simultaneously rejecting reason while parading themselves as the champions of it. The skepticism that stood at the core of the Enlightenment was not safe from subversion either, instead being utilized by demagogues to create a sense of paranoia against a grand conspiracy in which nobody can be trusted.
This eventually ties into palingenesis or the concept of national rebirth, by taking the defensive war of the fascists and turning it on its head. In palingenesis, the nation is under simultaneously under attack and realizing its true potential, meaning they are both perpetual victims and the revolutionary vanguard.
It’s simultaneously progressive and reactionary, protecting and celebrating what makes up the nation all while also inciting people to kickstart the process to create said nation. Irridentism, or the idea of reclaiming lost land plays into this too: it brings a fascist spin to foreign policy; starting wars and invading countries is no longer “globalism” but rather instead framed as the retaking of what rightfully belongs to the people.
When you piece all this together, you do begin to see that the theories of fascism fit reaction like a glove. The vacuum it filled arose out of industrialization, it relied on coalitions with the displaced aristocracies of old, and it's theories were adaptations to philosophical and industrial modernism.
The Fate of the Radical Right
There are notable breaks from the purely theoretical fascism once it is put into practice. I think one of the best ways to demonstrate this break is to look at its historical relationship with Christianity, for reasons that will soon be clear.
When we look at the turn of the century, when fascism was still nascent and not tainted by tactical compromises, we see one of the first targets of this movement is Christianity and its “slave morality”.
Starting with Ragnar Redbeard, who provides us one of the earliest defenses of social Darwinism:
The world awaits the coming of mighty men of valor, great destroyers; destroyers of all that is vile, angels of death. We are sick unto nausea of the “good Lord Jesus,” terror-stricken under the executive of priest, mob and proconsul. We are tired to death of “Equality.” Gods are at a discount, devils are in demand. He who would rule the coming age must be hard, cruel, and deliberately intrepid, for softness assails not successfully the idols of the multitude. Those idols must be smashed into fragments, burnt into ashes, and that cannot be done by the gospel of love.
From there, we move into the Traditionalist school and various theoreticians who explicitly chose pagan/syncretic inspirations as a foundation for the esoteric. Most notorious of these is Julius Evola:
Christianity is at the root of the evil that has corrupted the West. This is the truth, and it does not admit uncertainty.
And at the culmination of all of this, we have the Italian Futurists, an artistic movement that openly and brazenly rejects reactionary nostalgia in favor of hypermodernity.
It is from Italy that we are flinging this to the world, our manifesto of burning and overwhelming violence, with which we today establish 'Futurism',for we intend to free this nation from its fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, tour guides, and antiquarians.
Anyways, the reason I bring up Christianity specifically is because of Italy. Italy, while being a hotbed for this new movement, also happened to be home of the Catholic Church. It was unavoidable: if one wished for political success within that nation, especially among the right, the Catholic Church had to be appeased.
Redbeard, despite being the only non-Italian mentioned in this section, is able to predict the strategy the Italian fascists would employ to seize power:
Neither morals, laws, nor creeds are First Principles, but they may (probably) have their uses; just as guillotines, and gardeners’ hoes have THEIR uses. They may be convenient engines for the deletion of Lower Organisms, for extirpating individuals of infantile intellect. Indeed the secret object of all superstitions possibly is, to provide an ultra-rational sanction for fraudulent standards of Right and Wrong.
Before taking upon the responsibility of maintaining power, Mussolini himself publicly expressed his disdain for the Catholic Church:
As a young man, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) had been a socialist atheist who referred to Catholic priests as “black germs” (Mussolini, 2004). When planning to get married, Mussolini chose a civil ceremony rather than being wed in a church. But his attitude about Catholicism changed dramatically when, in 1922, he was elected head of the Italian government.
But regardless of the intensity of the ideological differences, the gap had to be bridged somehow; the Catholic Church simply held too much power:
Even as early as 1920 he had observed that the pope represented “400 million men scattered the world over... a colossal force (Mussolini, 2004). Hence,he could not afford to anger the pope and the cardinals. Therefore, as the years advanced, he created ever stronger ties with the Vatican by requiring the display of a crucifix in every school classroom (1924, 1927), by his remarriage in a church ceremony (1925), and by his arranging the Lateran Treaty of 1929. The treaty recognized the Vatican as a sovereign state, accorded the pope the privileges of a head of state, and awarded the Roman Catholic Church a large sum of money as reparation for the treatment the church had suffered in 1870 when the Vatican’s control over the papal states was forcibly terminated.
Even the brazenly radical Marinetti quickly found himself having to capitulate to the Church to get anywhere:
Only Futurist artists, who for twenty years have addressed the complex matter of simultaneity, are able to express clearly, with suitable interpenetrations of time and space, the simultaneous dogmas of the Catholic faith, such as the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception and Christ’s Calvary.
If the preceding quotes haven't made it clear enough yet: the radical right was doomed from the start. They justified the appeal to reaction as part of political manipulation, but the power gap was simply too wide; the fascists found themselves having to constantly compromise and appease until their once-proud movement became an ideological Frankenstein.
It's this sort of desperate negotiation that showcases the internal contradictions: scientific yet anti-intellectual, elitist yet populist, strength-worshiping yet born out of weakness, nihilistic yet moralistic, the further and further it devolved, the more absurd it became.
Stripped down to its core, we see the “political religion” on full display: a desperate, emotional mess of cognitive dissonance and aesthetic fetishization.
History Repeats Itself
It's been nearly a century since Mussolini first took power, and it'd be a gross understatement to say that things have changed since then. With the Cold War and WWII scored away, international hegemony seemed to be centralizing under the West, especially in the 90s and 00s. As then-president Bush put it:
“A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we've known”.
This sentiment echoed throughout Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man, where he attempted to use Hegelian teleology to proclaim his era as the ultimate evolution in human history. While his claim was quickly contested in academic circles, the notion quickly found itself at home in public discourse. Things seemed to also look just as bright on the economic side; the Information Age brought with it massive technological leaps on par with the Industrial Revolution a century before it.
But as with said Industrial Era, such optimism proved itself to be incredibly naive. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the intensification of economic imperialism has been the source of building tension, and the ground for a re-emergent reaction could be considered rather fertile, especially in countries who have been subject to Cold War hegemony: Russia, Philippines, Turkey, Iran, and Brazil.
What we are seeing now is another “reaction” if you will, this time to the new events that peppered the 20th century. Despite some common (and familiar) themes of anti-intellectualism and protectionism, it's still rather primitive ideologically; still having to rely on justification through vague populist appeals.
I think a good way to describe the present condition is to use a historical parallel: for the sake of simplicity I'll cite the Völkisch movement, but there's plenty of examples to go through if you so wish. As I've made clear throughout the essay, with the Industrial Revolution came upheaval, but it must be noted the upheaval wasn't instantaneous: Nazism (as per the German example we're using) did not come out of thin air. What preceded it throughout the 19th century was a vague, broadly populist, amorphous collection of reactionary sentiment.
A study of the latter type is certainly necessary, given that one of the consistent features of the völkisch movement was its diversity. As Roger Griffin has argued, a “striking feature of the sub-culture... was just how prolific and variegated it was... [T]he only denominator common to all was the myth of national rebirth.” In short, the völkisch movement contained a colorful, varied, and often bewildering range of religious beliefs.
The article cited here specifically deals with the issue of religion, however it is important to note that this level of variety can be seen in other aspects of the movement, which is why its often referred to as a subculture. And by the time it hit its boiling point, it found an ideology that was suited to its theme of national rebirth like a glove: fascism.
All of this is important because we can see that the sentiment predated the ideology; fascism was a manifestation, a vessel of the broader reaction. And while fascism was undeniably linked to reaction in the 20th century, we mustn't completely co-inflate the two. Just as we witnessed the fascists assert their novelty by breaking with the monarchists, we must be prepared to take an analysis of reaction that goes beyond fascism. As we discussed previously, fascism is uniquely born out of it's time, and as that time becomes history, so does its relevance as a tool of reaction.
Looking at the post-war works of the aformentioned Julius Evola, this “post-fascism” becomes immediately apparent:
What is called the Right in today’s Italy includes various monarchists, and especially those tendencies with a ‘‘nationalist’’ orientation that are committed to maintaining ideological ties with the preceding regime, that is, Fascism. What has so far been lacking in these tendencies is the necessary differentiation that could allow them to appear as representatives of an authentic Right. This belief is the result of thoughts we shall develop that are devoted to distinguishing the ideological contents of Fascism. Making these distinctions should have represented for this movement an essential theoretical and practical task, which instead has been overlooked.
And as history continued even past Evola's time, it became increasingly clear reaction was moving away from fascism. What we got instead were groups such as the French New Right, who distanced themselves from fascism, utilizing politics more characteristic of the era. The New Right, just like the New Left, shaped their strategy around the battlefield of late modernity; their visions of “archeofuturism” and “cultural identity” carried on through the following decades into what would become the alt-right.
- Redbeard, Ragnar. Might is Right, Or, the Survival of the Fittest. 5th ed. London: W.J. Robbins, 1910.
- Evola, Julius, and John B. Morgan. 2013. Fascism viewed from the Right.
- Thomas, R. Murray. Religion in Schools: Controversies Around the World. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2006.
- Marinetti, F. T. 1983. Manifesto of futurism. [New Haven]: Yale Library Associates.
- Koehne, Samuel. “Were the National Socialists a “Völkisch” Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas.” Central European History 47, no. 4 (2014): 760-90. www.jstor.org/stable/43965085.