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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.