Do We Embrace Conservatism as a ‘Reactionary’ Movement?

edmund burke
A painting of Edmund Burke, largely considered to be the philosophical father of modern conservatism.

April 1, 2022

The term “reactionary” is often invoked in the daily exchange of blows that seems to predominate American political theater. The term is scholarly sounding, being used mostly by those on the left who I suspect merely wish to construct more “intellectually sounding” critiques of the conservative, but nevertheless wind up sounding arrogant (and ignorant) in throwing around disordered fragments of academic lingo.

The term “reactionary” is therefore regarded as an insult, one in which some conservatives, perhaps not so confident in their own convictions, veer away from as best they can. For a reactionary, they believe, is akin to narrowmindedness and bigotry.

All this aside for a moment, what exactly is a reactionary?

In the context of politics, a reactionary could be described as one who reacts to a radical shift, either in politics, culture, or both, by opposing it.

It is this reaction, the radical says, that renders the conservative the defender of old institutional relics that bare no political, social, or cultural relevance in modern times. His stubbornness, the radical insists, renders him an institutional hindrance in the pursuit of progress.

I find this characterization of the reactionary oversimplified and intellectually dishonest. I especially take issue with conservatives who insist on disassociating with the label in an effort to be held in higher regard by their detractors.

But reacting to radical social experimentation by resisting it is characteristic of the conservative. One cannot call himself a conservative and then claim to disavow reactionary tendencies in the same breath.

Every newcomer to the conservative movement is brought in the same way: by being so stunned by a radical paradigmatic shift to the point of being compelled to articulate themselves in staunch opposition to it.

Consider the words of Roger Scruton in the introduction of his A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism:

“However, as I began to familiarize myself with the conservative literature I came to see that my situation is by no means a novel one, and had indeed been the exact position of Burke, who was stunned into articulating his beliefs, as I was, by a revolution in France. And Burke’s response was imbued with the philosophical high-mindedness of the people he criticized.”

Edmund Burke may have perhaps given what I will call the ‘inaugural reaction’ of what went on to become modern conservatism. 

Scruton continues to say that while being so taken aback by the turmoil in France, Burke penned his Reflections as a defense of the English tradition, in which custom and precedent prevail over abstract rationalism as the final court of appeal.

In order to further justify the reaction, of course, we must address the leftist presupposition that renders all reactions to ‘progress’ (a heavily abused word in and of itself) as outdated, bigoted, or absent of virtue. To presuppose this is to leave no room for nuance.

There are both wise and not-so-wise conservatives, all of whom issue their own reactions, which are, as a result, of varying quality and soundness. It is here where I will invoke a quote from Burke’s Reflections:

“A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct.”

In context, Burke is in the process of grappling with the intellectual virtue of prudence. It could be said that there is perhaps no single definition that summarizes prudence, but distinguishing between slow and incremental change versus a blind, “complexional timidity” is key to understanding the Burkean perspective.

As such, not all reactions are created equal, and it is my opinion that conservatives are more predisposed to issuing reactions of poor quality: in where they are predicated upon ignorance as opposed to informed opposition, should they not make the effort to understand and appreciate Burke’s remarks on this seemingly underappreciated virtue.

With Burke, a thinking conservative knows that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

Thus, if a conservative is to react to anything, let it not be in blind opposition to change, but rather a healthy skepticism, predicated upon a general wariness of those who seek to subvert the present civil social order in which we live in pursuit of an abstract idealism.

When adding some much-needed nuance to the idea of a conservative reaction, we can finally begin to discuss and appreciate its political utility in modern discourse.

Those in the conservative movement who try to dodge the label termed “reactionary” will undoubtedly reject its inherent role in conservative philosophy and thus, also reject it as an asset for the further advancement of the political, social, and cultural agenda of the conservative movement.

It is the lack of a cohesive reaction, predicated upon an informed opposition against the political left, that continues to handicap the conservative movement as it relates to waging cultural and intellectual warfare in American institutions.

It is one thing to engage in discourse and compromise with those who disagree with us, but still nevertheless align with the core philosophical ideals that comprise the American Founding, as well as Western Civilization. It is quite another to believe that we can compromise with those whose ideology exists to actively subvert America and Western Civilization under the cliché platitude termed the “middle ground.” There is little to no virtue in trying to compromise with those who, despite their efforts to appear genuine at first glance, have no intention of compromise as a long term strategy.

Respecting the natural state of conservatism as the negation of ideology, in where intellectual diversity and disagreement among conservatives are wholly welcomed, I nevertheless submit that a refusal to unify as one movement for the purpose of countering the civilizational subversion levied by the political left will ultimately render conservatives forever relegated, not to actively conserving the United States, but rather merely as those who document its inevitable decline and collapse as a historian passively composing the next textbook.


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