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Anarchists, Radicals and Reactionaries, Oh My!

“Anarchist” has the advantage of being disreputable enough that no respectable person would call himself one. No Trotsky fan mugged by reality is going to label himself an anarchist, and no bomb-dropping patriot would even think of it. In some respects the term isn’t quite an accurate description of what I think, since I do acknolwedge the need for institutions of public order. But the modern state is, if anything, an institution of public disorder and a thing whose essence is coercion and the abrogation of property rights, and which is almost totally lawless to boot. The present administration gives about as much evidence of that last point as anyone might ask for. “Anarchist” has its own negative connotations and dubious history, of course, but it’s far and away better than to be a Beltway “conservative” and not nearly as presumptious as calling myself a libertarian. So I think I’ll stick with it. ~Dan McCarthy

Perhaps I should reorganise my blogroll with an Anarchist section.  In any case, I share Dan’s frustration with the problems of choosing political labels these days.  For my liberal friends, it is usually satisfactory for me to say that I am a conservative; they don’t know from paleo or neo, and trying to explain the difference would just make their heads hurt (I know it can give me a headache some days).  Usually, I will stick with conservative as my generic label if politics should come up in conversation, as loaded as the term has become with all of the baggage of misrule and warmongering, though reactionary is undoubtedly preferable for the same reasons that Dan gave for anarchist.  No one who would want to work at a think tank would ever call himself a reactionary, which is one good reason to call yourself by that name.  

In writing I will almost always identify myself as a paleoconservative or simply a “paleo,” which has two happy consequences: it makes it absolutely clear that I can in no way be confused with the catastrophe of a government we currently have and it is also sure to drive dedicated neocons slightly crazy.  It does also happen to reflect most closely what I believe, and seems to represent those things that are best in the Anglo-American, European and Christian traditions that are worth protecting and which are in need of saving. 

Still, reactionary has a strong appeal, and I am glad to use it from time to time.  Certainly, others consider it a fitting name.  But it is terrifically clarifying–virtually nobody wants to be a reactionary (just as, once upon a time in this country, nobody wanted to be called a conservative–perhaps someone should write Reaction Revisited or The Reactionary Mind to get things started?).  A neo-imperialist will not call himself reactionary, because he believes he represents a liberal, progressive imperialism–you know, the “good” kind–and for neoconservatives there is simply no term more reprehensible that they can use to demean someone (except perhaps for fascist).  They like to refer to “liberal reactionaries,” by which they mean liberals who want to protect their institutional advantages; this is not reaction, but just institutionalised liberalism, the same as it has always been since 1789.   

It is better still to not simply call yourself a reactionary, but in fact to embrace reaction with gusto–approvingly quoting Maistre or Donoso de Cortes is a fun start, and Metternich is a good role model to recommend to others.  If that isn’t black enough for you, there is always Bonald for a dose of counter-revolution and Walter Scott for the Scotch version of the same.  For a lighter, more poetic touch, you can’t beat Novalis’ romantic Catholic reactionary medievalism.  Of course, as these things go, most fairly moderate conservatives of the ’50s would be counted as reactionaries today, so the term can tend to be a bit fluid, but if this tells us anything it is that while reactionaries may be inflexible self-styled conservatives have a bad habit of tending to eventually drift along with every bad innovation that comes along.  Rather than standing athwart History yelling, “Stop!” conservatives often wind up catching a ride on the tail-end of History whispering, “Would you mind if I made a few suggestions, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble?” 

The reactionary may reject most or all innovations, sometimes including good ones, but in the process he refuses to entertain a number of positively terrible ideas that the conservative may be willing to play along with or try to “shape” in a “conservative direction.”  There are times when the only right answer to the Red is the Black, and increasingly I am of the view that we are now in such a time that calls for raising Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s “black banners.”  That is a colour that, as it happens, was also the colour of the flags of anarchists.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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