What do we mean by the term “reaction”? Dictionaries tell us that the word first entered the vocabulary of modern political thought in eighteenth-century France, where it was taken over from the scientific treatises of Isaac Newton. In his Principia of 1687 Newton had conjectured that every action in nature provokes an equal and opposite reaction. He did not think to apply this principle to politics, but his French disciples, notably Montesquieu, did. The Spirit of the Laws sets forth the “generating principles” of a body politic, which are nothing less than the laws of motion determining its political actions and reactions. This treatise established a mechanistic conception of politics in which movement and change are constant but not arbitrary, and where reaction is a predictable force.
A very different concept of reaction developed out of the French Revolution, which changed our understanding of what revolution is and what it means to oppose one. Classical and early modern thinkers, including Montesquieu, took revolution to be a simple upsetting and reordering of society on new principles. But the French Revolution was taken by its partisans and critics alike to have revealed a principle of historical unfolding, and not necessarily a progressive one. While it is true that some of the Revolution’s early supporters held to a progressive conception of history, it is probably more accurate to say that most held an eschatological view of the Revolution’s place in history, as did its critics. The Revolution represented a rip in the fabric of time, the fulfillment of a historical promise for some, an apocalypse for others. On this score there was perfect eschatological agreement between the revolutionaries, who set the calendars back to the Year 1, and their reactionary opponent Joseph de Maistre, who thought a restoration of the ancien régime too tame, and called instead for a new dispensation, “the contrary of the Revolution.”
By the early nineteenth century “reactionary” had become a term of abuse leveled by prorevolutionary forces against their opponents, whom they accused of standing on the wrong side of history. But however polemical its intent, the concept also described something quite real, since the reactionaries, no less than the revolutionary party, had placed themselves in the judgment seat of history and had abandoned the field of common political deliberation. This is why reactionary rhetoric so often seems an inversion of revolutionary rhetoric; it is also why both kinds of rhetoric have been employed on right and left over the past two centuries, depending on the winds of fortune. When thinkers on the right see themselves trapped on the wrong side of a historical abyss they speak of the death of God, secularization, the last man, the waves of modernity, or the forgetting of Being. When those on the left feel abandoned by Minerva’s owl there is talk of the disenchantment of the world, the dialectic of Enlightenment, the occult workings of power and language, or, more prosaically, the machinations of global capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and media conglomerates.
As we know from modern history, the rhetoric of revolution and reaction can have a disastrous effect on a nation’s political discourse. To take only the most prominent example, political life in nineteenth-century France was so divided by eschatological struggles over the legitimacy of the Revolution that neither side could brook compromise with its satanic opponent. Dreams of a genuine (not bourgeois) restoration, or of a final solution to the issue of clerical privileges, lasted until the Third Republic, at great cost to the nation. This rhetoric also stifled the development of liberal-democratic thought and habits of mind, as can be felt in French intellectual life even today.
There was, of course, a small stream of liberal thought that we associate with the names Constant, Staël, Guizot, and, most profoundly, Tocqueville. Although these figures had little influence on nineteenth-century French political life, they still have much to teach us about how to think and live in a post-revolutionary age. Their position was based on a dispassionate analysis of the causes and nature of the Revolution, to which they responded subtly. With the revolutionaries, they agreed that the Revolution was a fait accompli that had established once and for all the principle of “modern liberty” against “ancient liberty,” as Constant put it. But with the reactionaries, the liberals agreed that the Revolution would bring its own cruelties and disasters if revolutionary enthusiasm was not moderated and channeled into reasonable public deliberation. What marked this beleaguered liberal tradition was its lucidity in the face of the modern and antimodern political passions arising out of revolution, and its commitment to meliorist politics in a less than ideal age. It is this lucidity and commitment that have disappeared from American political discourse, rendering ours an age of reaction. American society never experienced a revolution of the French sort, and consequently never bred a similar tradition of thoroughgoing reaction. But if we think of reaction more generally as a mode of political discourse defining itself not by the aims it wishes to pursue but in relation to a real or imagined revolution in social affairs, then there is no doubt that we live in a reactionary age. Over the past four decades, America—and not just America—has experienced two smaller revolutions which have bred their own distinct forms of reaction, and which together have brought serious political reflection down to absolute zero. The two events to which I refer are the cultural revolution that we call “the Sixties” and the shift in political and economic attitudes that, for lack of a better word, can be termed “the Reagan revolution.” These revolutions are quite real, but to the extent that they have become symbols that excite or dull the political imagination they are also imaginary. The cultural revolution has become the predominant imaginative symbol on the American right, fueling a form of cultural reaction; the Reagan revolution has become the corresponding symbol on the left, generating a political-economic form of reaction.
Because the causes of reaction are both real and imaginary it is a difficult phenomenon to grapple with. One must not only examine its genuine sources of dissatisfaction; one must also try to understand how reactionaries subjectively view the revolutions they reject. Here it is very important to let the reactionaries speak for themselves, rather than imputing motives to them or relying on one’s own interpretation of affairs. Two series of articles recently published in the conservative review The New Criterion and in the progressive weekly The Nation offer an excellent opportunity to do just that. The New Criterion series, called “Notes on a Cultural Revolution,” which began in September 1997, has been written entirely by the magazine’s managing editor, Roger Kimball. The Nation series, called “First Principles,” which has been running since April 1997, is a forward-looking collection by various authors who set out to define a program for a “progressive majority.” Taken together these articles permit us to consider the reactionary rhetoric of our time from two opposed vantage points and to see what they have in common.
Roger Kimball’s well-written essays return again and again to “the Sixties.” I put this term in quotation marks, not to mock it, but in recognition of the fact that although we know something happened then, we still don’t know what it was or even when it began. Was the Berkeley free speech movement the beginning of the end? Columbia ‘68? Woodstock? Or was it, as Larkin mused, the sexual revolution of 1963, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP? The conservative use of the term “the Sixties” is imprecise, but there is probably no precise way to mark a cultural revolution—no tennis court oath, no storming of the Bastille, no beheading, no Thermidor. Still, we all recognize a before and an after, and we are all still groping for the meaning of what happened in between.
Conservatives today do not speak much about the strictly political consequences of the Sixties, perhaps because these have proven ephemeral and few. Congress and the courts have become stronger, the presidency weaker, and every public person must now resign himself to living under the omnipresent klieg lights of the media. Otherwise the American political system today does not look markedly different from the system thirty years ago. But if the conservatives are to be believed, this institutional stability masks more fundamental and threatening transformations in American life. When speaking of the Sixties, as Roger Kimball does in his series, they focus on three transformations: in public authority, the family, and individual morality.
As the conservatives see things, the past thirty years have brought a delegitimization of public authority in virtually every aspect of social life, from policing to the civil service, the schools, the universities, some would even say the armed forces. In some respects these institutions have become more democratic and have been constrained by law; mainly they have been rendered less capable of exercising their important functions in a democracy. When drug pushers and vagrants are permitted to set the tone in public parks, it is not the police who lose. It is poor urban families who lose their backyards. When children are coddled and undisciplined in the schools, they are the first to suffer, their families next. When universities cater to the whimsical tastes of their students and the aggressive demands of political interests, they cease to be retreats for serious cultivation of the self. When pornography is readily available on cable TV or the World Wide Web, the sleaze merchants profit and we are all demeaned. This litany could be extended, but the point is clear: by delegitimizing the exercise of public authority in the name of freedom, the Sixties sanctioned the pollution of public life and the weakening of democratic institutions.
Conservatives see the general decline in social authority and responsibility most clearly in the American family, which they consider a fragile institution. Birthrates are down, illegitimacy is up, and divorce is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. The sexual revolution made promiscuity a fashionable ideal (however rarely practiced), thus encouraging young people to postpone marriage and sanctioning its dissolution in the name of self-fulfillment. Parents today are less willing and able to discipline their children, partly because feminism cast a shadow of suspicion on any hierarchy within the family. Children are encouraged in public to have self-esteem but receive no guidance from their parents in private on what behavior is estimable. Given their freedom by the Sixties, they now seem sadder and lonelier without the cocoon of love and authority that stable traditional families used to provide.
And finally there is private morality, about which conservatives feel alone in addressing without shame or euphemism. It is not that anyone thinks that incivility, promiscuity, drug use, and irresponsibility are good things. But we have become embarrassed to criticize them unless we can couch our objections in the legalistic terms of rights, the therapeutic language of self-realization, or the economic jargon of efficiency. The moral condition of the urban poor, romanticized in pop music and advertising, shames us but we dare not say a word. Our new explicitness about sex in television and film, and growing indifference to what we euphemistically call “sexual preference,” scares the wits out of responsible parents, who see sexual confusion and fear in their children’s eyes. But ever since the Sixties they risk ridicule for raising objections that earlier would have seemed perfectly obvious to everyone.