The phenomenon of reaction has been an integral aspect of Western culture and politics ever since the French Revolution. In fact, the last two centuries of Western life has had reaction as the essential antithesis to the dead Enlightenment project of universalism, materialism, and utilitarianism. While it is easy to scoff at “reaction” from the colonized consciousness of Whiggish progressivism, and while it is easy to demean and depreciate reactionary elements to its most vile form (like Alt-Right racialism), such attitudes do not capture the nuances of reaction or the reality that some aspects of far-left thought is definitionally reactionary.
Reaction simply means, in its most technical sense, a reaction to something. In this sense, reactionary thought is not monopolized property of the political right; though the authentic political right in its modern instantiation is undeniably reactionary. Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, for instance, recognize that there is a reactive spirit inside Marxism in their book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity. Indeed, Marxism is a reaction to liberal capitalism. While prevailing intellectual forces in Marxism also owe to the Enlightenment, Marxism is the antithesis to the original Enlightenment thesis in many regards and, as such, is definitionally reactionary.
We want to quickly observe and explore the main faces of reaction. As far as I see it, and also as someone who travels in the spring of reaction, there are four notable currents in the reactionary stream. We can identify them as: Romantic; Augustinian; Straussian; and Augustan. There may be a fifth in the so-called “Dark Enlightenment” writers who mostly populate the “intellectual dark web”, but we’re going to bypass them since the aforementioned groups have a greater intellectual clout to them.
The romantics are the oldest of the reactionary forces. They were born in the eighteenth century and continue on to this day, and part of their spirit lives on in postmodernism, nationalist populism, and literary humanism (which is a grand diversity!). But what were the romantics primarily reacting against? Anthropology.
The romantic imperative was one against the dead body materialism of Enlightenment science and anthropology. The romantics included a diverse range of figures and movements that broke up to the “left” and “right,” which makes the romantic movement difficult to track. The intellectual prostitutes of the Enlightenment have generally branded romantics as intrinsically rightwing, but this facile to anyone who has a fuller grasp of the romantic movement. No one would consider Jane Austen or John Keats sons and daughters of the political right in the same way as Joseph De Maistre or Johann Fichte.
But what unites the romantic cause is the concept of enchantment (an anthropology of enchantment). The romantics are men and women who are deeply integrated and essential to the project of re-enchantment; admittedly, this comes in multiple flavors. If there is a leftwing current of romanticism, and there is, we can say that leftish romanticism centers on erotic naturalism instead of empty materialism. Erotic naturalism, therefore, moves to combat the passionless and dead body and empty rainbow worldview of the Enlightenment through a celebration of sex, sexuality, and sensuality. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, this strand of romanticism is a sexually potent form of neopaganism.
Rightwing romantics are more traditionally reactive in the sense that they are guardians of the old cosmology and anthropology. They may innovate to survive, but on the whole, their outlook of the cosmos, of human life, and human relations, is quintessentially Platonic. Where the erotic naturalists were oftentimes political radicals (thus leading to easy conflation of them being allies of liberalism despite being enemies of the broader liberal project), the Platonic reactionaries were politically conservative and followed the substance of Fichte and Hegel in political theory.
Nevertheless, the romantics are united in their opposition to the hollow and dead matter cosmology and anthropology of modernity. The romantics recoil at the Baconian-Hobbesian-Benthamite worldview of being nothing more—“nothing but”—lumbering robots, bodies of mass in motion, and a random collection of atoms bouncing off each other.
A second strand of reaction generally goes by the name Augustinianism. It is named of St. Augustine of Hippo and takes its inspiration largely from the first half of The City of God. Most Augustinians are religious, and more specifically Catholic. Notable academics like Patrick Deneen, D.C. Schindler, and Adrien Vermeule best represent the contemporary face and spirit of neo-Augustinianism.
The Augustinian strand of reaction is primarily concerned with culture. The Augustinians argue that the ailment of modernity is the fact that modernity is anti-cultural. Culture, from the Latin word cultus, means praise and care. But for any culture to form it must have a common love, a common center of praise and care for that spirit of culture to implant itself in the ground and develop upward toward the heavens. As the independent cultural critic John David Ebert summarized a decade and a half ago, an atomized “society” of being separated from each other in their cars and engaged in constant consumerism can never produce a culture. Culture depends on integration, network, and entangled web of face-to-face relationships.
Augustinianism, like romanticism, comes in a leftwing and rightwing form (for lack of better words). Deconstructionism of the postmodern variety is rooted in the Augustinian germ. In fact, men like Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek acknowledge their debt to the great bishop of Hippo. Part of Augustine’s legacy was he, in his deconstruction of Roman culture and mythology, stripped away the accreted propaganda of “Romanitas” to expose its hollowness. Contemporary Augustinians follow the same battleplan. They deconstruct the propagandized ideology of modern liberalism to try and show its bankruptcy. The postmodern deconstructionists do it in a more dissident and heterodox fashion. Traditionalist Augustinians, almost all of whom are Catholic (but with a few notable Protestant Augustinians like John Milbank and James K.A. Smith), aim to deconstruct liberalism but return us to the culture of Christianity and Christendom, something that the postmodernists do not share.
The central claim of the Augustinian reactionaries is that we live in an age of impoverished culture, if we can say we live in any culture at all. Without a common love to unite and guide us, there can be no common good, there can be no solidarity, and there can be no unity. What passes for common good, solidarity, and unity – mostly in the sphere of politics – is, in fact, a pale and equally hollow alternative; for these Augustinians the “common good” of politics is whichever political force holds a majority or plurality of power and is therefore able to impose its vision of the good on others. Thus, what appears to be the solidarity and common good of “democratic socialism” is really a farce if you penetrate deeper into it; it’s a smiling form of libido dominandi masked in compassion. Any reclamation of culture, for the Augustinians, comes from the heart. The Augustinian reactionaries also tend to be the most religious and religiously-conscious of the reactionary forces.
Perhaps the most well-known academic force of reaction is Straussianism. Straussianism takes its name from the famed German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss was a political philosopher, classicist, and man of letters who left a tremendous impact on the twentieth century. He revived the academic discipline of political philosophy and the concern with virtue ethics in political life. As such, the Straussians are primarily concerned with political virtue as the remedy to modern problems.
The Straussians are also the first purely political force of reaction; the romantics and Augustinians may be involved in political matters, but their primary diagnosis is more pertaining to the interiority of man than to man’s political nature. The Straussians, by contrast, consider man’s essential nature to be political and that man’s current malaise is a political one. (But if man is political it’s also a crisis of human nature too.)
Straussians believe the problem of modernity is the collapse of civic virtue and participation in the political project. Facile statistics like democracy, democratic turnout, voting rights, women’s suffrage, etc., are not good indicators of true political virtue and participation. Instead, Straussians believe that man’s political virtue comes with his communitarian being. Man is an intensely social, rather than a-social, atomized, or solitary creature. Moreover, man is also prone to love of his own and his country; Straussianism generally manifests itself in forms of civic and civil patriotism rather than libertarian individualism.
Furthermore, Straussianism sees anthropology as a subset of political being. The atomistic, hedonistic, and nihilistic current of modernity is not just an anthropological concern. It is also a political concern. In fact, we can say that it is primarily a political concern because all anthropology has political consequences. The permissive nihilism of liberalism is poisonous to the political project because it offers to its citizens no higher calling in political life other than to live a life free from harm. The abdication of duties and responsibilities – sacrifice – is the inevitable exhaustive end of the liberal political program emanating out of the false (political) anthropology of the modern philosophers. Mere life, bare life, the life of mere pleasure is no life at all.
Straussians, nevertheless, are also the most accommodating to the modern project. They see many great benefits of liberalism and of the tolerant democratic polis. However, since liberalism offers no higher calling to its citizens, the gains of liberal democracy will be lost. To remedy this problem, the Straussians call for renewed civic participation rooted in the classical political ideas of patriotism, virtue, duties, and sacrifice: all things that modernity wants to do away with.
The final group of the reactionary river are what many call “Augustans.” The Augustans are named after Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. The Augustans are also political in their mentality; many are also the students of notable Straussian philosophers from various universities (Claremont, Chicago, Harvard, and Yale are just a few of the prominent universities staffed with resident Straussians in political theory and political philosophy). What distinguishes the Augustans from the Straussians is that the Augustans see the political crisis not as one of political virtue but of the exercise of political power and its uses.
The Augustans see history as essentially cyclical but not fatalistic. To them, we are living in a turbulent period of civil war and invasion. The state, the nation, the body politic, the people, are threatened by forces that conspire to wreak havoc, chaos, and destabilization in our life. The liberal state has proved itself ineffective to deal with these problems because, in the words of Carl Schmitt – a forerunner to the Augustan mentality – the liberal state, in its spirit of weakness, femininity, and compromise, is incapable of exercising power to save itself. Liberals believe everyone and everything is a rational robot who can be “reasoned with” like in a business meeting. The reality of human nature, however, is far more brutal and dark.
Because the Augustans see history as cyclical, their namesake ought to reveal how they understand the current epoch of history. We’re in a civil war period and an age of dissolution. The Roman Republic is collapsing and the only thing that can save it is a strong exercise of political power. Augustus Caesar saw himself as imposing order on chaos and saving the republic from the forces of corruption, decadence, and conspiratorial cabalism. After restoring order through becoming emperor, Augustus embarked on a moral reconstitution program; for classicists this came from the works of Titus Livy and the great poet Virgil. The paradox of the Augustans is to save democracy one might have to take undemocratic proscriptions. This is not because, as ill-informed critics would say (because media writers for The Guardian and New York Times or National Review Online tend to be among the most illiterate and ignorant people among us yet many look to Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, or Jonah Goldberg as the faces of deep thought and intellectuality), the Augustans are autocratic fascists, but because the Augustans are liberty-loving realists who know difficult choices are necessarily in political matters.
The Augustans are the most realistic – i.e. political realism – of the reactive forces, at least regarding politics. This is due to their Straussian background which trained many of them in the ways of Thucydides, Marsilius of Padua, and Machiavelli. Like the Straussians, who are their close relatives, the Augustans see weak and ineffectual action – generally exhibited by weak leftwing parties and politicos – as doing nothing to stop the impending collapse of society and the political and legal institutions we all benefit from. Decisive action is needed to stop the suicide just as Augustus did during the Roman Civil Wars. Rome carried on for another 500 years (in the West) because of this decisive exercising of power in such a crucial moment. History shows two roads for us: destruction or reconstitution. But the path to reconstitution is not the easy one to take. In order for liberty to flourish, we sometimes take the road less traveled—sometimes we need to get our hands dirty.
Against the Pathetic Media Representation of Reaction
If you take your cues from the organs of the Cave, the media, you would have no idea of the deep intellectual currents of reactionary thought or capable of understanding the depth of the reactionary impetus. The reactionary impetus sees beyond our shelled problems and tries to analyze, penetrate, into deeper crises facing us in the present. Those who just talk about taxes, the environment, economics, “love trumps hate,” and helping migrants, are about as blind as the blind people who lead them.
To understand the reactionary impetus is to spend serious time in the world of political philosophy, cultural critique, classics, and history. In other words, to abandon the kindergarten “intellectuality” of political science and the newspapers and to start diving into Plato, Cicero, Caesar, Augustine, Machiavelli, and Hegel; Xenophon, Livy, Montesquieu and Oswald Spengler. It’s bad enough most of the people who comment and represent “the other side” haven’t read the other side; it’s even worse that they haven’t read the people who the other side have taken their cues from and comment on those intellectuals as not being relevant because they lived so long ago.
For books pertaining to romanticism:
Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity
Darrin McMahon, Enemies of Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity
For books pertaining to Augustinianism:
Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
D.C. Schindler, Freedom from Reality
For books pertaining to Straussianism:
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History
Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue
For books pertaining to Augustan(ism):
Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom
James Burnham, The Suicide of the West
Michael Anton, After the Flight 93 Election