On the Spread of Reaction
The growing talk of a “social division” in Western states during recent years was not mere rhetoric but the description of a diffuse phenomenon, more or less oriented along two axes. One axis runs between “top” and “bottom,” the other between “left” and “right.” Much simplified one could say: “top left” against “bottom right.” On one side stand those who welcome the progressive liberalization of Western societies. On the other side stand those who want to retard or reverse it.
One side sees happiness in a future to be created, the other in the present or in some era of the past. The progressive forces can be divided into leftists or left-liberals (emphasis on egalitarianism) and “pure liberals” or libertarians (emphasis on individualism). On the retarding side we find liberal-conservative (“bourgeois”) forces and right-wing populists, where the latter want to not only retard progress but also often return to “better” times of liberalism, which is why we lately called them “reactionaries of liberalism.” And then there is the small faction of “true reactionaries:” opponents of liberalism who want to undo the French Revolution, adherents of “throne and altar.” So much for a simplified overview of the political factions and their view of progress.
Belief in Progress: Foundation of Modernity
One of the fundamental traits of modernity is certainly the idea of progress, the idea that time is exclusively a directed line that points from some original state to a final state. This arrow of time implies a development: the permanent development in the direction of something “better” – technically, economically, but most of all socially and morally. Whereas we can reach some consensus on what constitutes technical or economical improvements, this is rather more difficult with social aspects. The idea that the social order requires a continuous “improvement” might seem self-evident due to its current dominance, but it is nothing of the kind.
The concept of a permanent social-moral optimization results from the idealism of enlightenment philosophy. Modern society is an ideal, i.e. primarily conceived and posited, nothing traditional, i.e. primarily experienced. Whereas pre-modern societies fundamentally build on traditions in the sense of congealed experience, modernity represents a total break with that. The program of a conceived humanity dominates, and in this tension between real and ideal state exists the need for permanent social revolution.
Liberalism as the political arch-concept of modernity implements this revolution through ever further and newer “liberalization.” That the progressive optimism of modernity has experienced painful disturbances, not least by fascism, will not concern us here. We wish to stress that even though the apogee of belief in progress is likely over, the idea of progress continues to be part of the genetics of modernity, that is liberalism. Theoretically liberalism can never come to rest, it must always remain “critical.” For there are always parts of the world yet untouched by universalism. There will always be social relations not yet constituted as “consent between free individuals” or certain individual aspects that still deny “autonomous choice.” And there will always be some “inequality” somewhere that obstructs egalitarianism.
Liberalism in this sense is no political state, but a political process which never ends – the hunt for the eternal “tomorrow,” the utopia as a motor of perfection which will never become reality. Here the leftists and left-liberals, the “progressive forces,” are pacemakers and winners, and the liberal-conservatives and right-wing populists, that is right-liberals, are laggards and permanent losers. We have already discussed this with reference to Alex Kurtagic [Warum Konservative immer verlieren, Verlag Antaios, 2013].
Now there is something contrary: the longing for a vanishing or even vanished epoch. Whether this positively conceived past is placed in an earlier state of liberalism or some preliberal time is irrelevant. For our considerations the reactionary thought itself is decisive. Simplifying, this reversal of the idea of progress is expressed in the short phrase “back in the old days everything was better.”
Reaction in Examples
We encounter the latest manifestation of reaction in right-wing populists. Among those, Donald Trump exemplifies the common Western phenomenon of right-wing populism quite late and with scant personnel. Trump’s political addressee is, very typically and conceived by his Rasputin Steve Bannon, the “common (white) man.” He is the one who still forms the backbone of the world’s largest economy, yet who in the latest pushes of liberalization was marked as obsolete and the “enemy” as such. Him Trump implicitly promised with the slogan “Make America Great Again” a return to the “golden post-war years” which may have ended sometime in the 1980s.
But a young constituency with cross-connections to the Alt Right also accompanied Trump’s campaign on the Internet. Creative fireworks arose combining memes, the so-called “Kek cult” around “Pepe” the frog, music clips with 80s synthwave and vaporwave aesthetics. Few could entirely resist its draw in the wake of Trump euphoria: here the “strong man” eagerly anticipated by the USA and the Western “right,” there an “accompaniment” creatively and playfully tying into the last phase of that “golden era.” Even though those memes certainly had their share of irony there was always a nostalgic moment. The 1980s were a decade when even popular culture still clearly represented the white majority population, when the (American) world at least in retrospect still seemed “intact.” And that was also the time when Trump personally was in his “best years” as a man, richly documented in pictures – also a factor – which could now be combined in a collage with the music of that time or other pop phenomena. Blanking out the intoxicating dynamism of this accompaniment which outshone everything, one must soberly attest a sizable amount of yearning for a “better past.”
A completely different kind of reaction appears in 19th century historicism. Usually applied to art and architecture, we want to interpret the term as a general phenomenon of the era. This first liberal century is marked by gigantic revolutions: political, economical, philosophical, and to some degree artistic. In the 19th century we encounter the overpowering force of modernity, and simultaneously reactionary tendencies arise everywhere. Politically the 19th century brings the final erosion of an epoch lasting over a thousand years: the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the establishment of constitutional, that is liberalized, successor monarchies. While the externally imposed Napoleonic liberalization is rejected by military force, the self-imposed liberalization is completed internally during the century, with the symbolic year of 1848 as a milestone. Neither the Vormärz nor Biedermeier, Metternich, and all the other representatives of the old order could change that.
In the arts as represented by architecture reaction appears in the Gründerzeitstil. Once again almost all styles of occident and antiquity were dug up and recombined in a quasi “style-less” fashion. The epoch was no longer capable of coining an independent style going beyond that. So the reactionary art ended abruptly with the final collapse in 1918 – modernity now conquered this field as well. In Nietzsche’s “Untimely Meditations,” and not just there, we can sense much of that rigid spirit which later was considered characteristic of Wilhelminism and which also seized the once-revolutionary student corps, recounted in Heinrich Mann’s novel “Der Untertan” as a persiflage. The early Wandervogel and the German Youth Movement, so fundamental for some members of the Conservative Revolution, above all Ernst Jünger, cannot be comprehended without the reactionary rigidity of the late 19th century.
Another reactionary current appears at least during the last decade: the reference to Christianity within the political right as an allegedly fundamental and non-negotiable mark of European identity. That might be understandable for religious-conservative or religious-reactionary movements, so far as they still existed or exist. It is new for right-wing populists such as the FPÖ which comes from a national-liberal (and even national-socialist) tradition that never had any pronounced affinity to churches and – if anything – tended towards the Protestant “National Church of Germans” rather than the sometimes hated Roman Catholic Church. Likewise the term “occident” (Abendland) for Europe is once again used in an intensity unknown since 1968. Ignoring other uses we wish to interpret “occident” as the post-antiquity Christian Europe emerging from the Völkerwanderung era that manifested in 800 at the latest, with the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor, and vanished in 1918 (ignoring the evocation of the term in the immediate post-war years).
Now it might be understandable, given the increase of Muslims in Europe, that the old conflict of Christianity versus Islam should be restored as a motivating factor. This is clearly evident in the name of the civic movement PEGIDA – translated as “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident.” This alone however does not explain why other right-wing factions with a more complex view on Islam lately also return to Christianity – concretely: parts of the New Right. Up to the 1990s the New Right was relatively indifferent or opposed to Christianity. The members of the Nouvelle Droite and also key figures of the German New Right like Armin Mohler are even outspoken critics of Christianity. And not just emotionally but by elaborate theoretical argument, such as criticism of the universalism, egalitarianism, and individualism of Christianity. Consequently Mohler states: “if a Christian is serious about his Christianity he must be a leftist.” [Das Gespräch. Über Linke, Rechte und Langweiler, Edition Antaios, Dresden 2001, p.45] Likewise, within the Conservative Revolution as the spiritual precursor of the New Right or Nouvelle Droite, Christianity let alone Catholicism has never occupied a central position. On the contrary, in the spirit of Nietzsche as the “forefather of the Conservative Revolution” (Armin Mohler) Christianity was rejected by numerous adherents, and with quite similar criticisms as those of the Nouvelle Droite.
On the Psychology of Reaction
According to Armin Mohler, reaction is a “misunderstood conservatism” that “attempts to conserve something that exists and hold on to it under all circumstances” [Die konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918-1932, 1999, p.114f]. Reactionary thought is rigid and does not acknowledge the “continuous flow of singular forms.” In other words, the reactionary does not think organically. He refuses to understand that every concrete singular phenomenon comprises beginning and end, birth and death within itself. Although at any given point in time, we never quite know whether something is emerging or fading – there are times when it is more than obvious. But the reactionary braces himself against that, he wants to arrest what cannot be arrested. He dogmatically holds on to “obsolete singular forms” [Mohler: Die konservative Revolution, p.115] or even wants to restore them (inverted progressive thinking).
Like Mohler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck proposes a revolutionary conservatism and explains the problematic nature of the reactionary with his idolization of a certain singular form. The reactionary does not understand the dynamism of external appearance. He wishes that a particular “form of expression […] should never end” [Das dritte Reich, 1934, p.233f]. This absolute thinking in the singular matches a linear conception of time. For who thinks in a rigidly linear fashion must see the end as a total dissolution. At the end of the line nothing else will come. All the more he must hold on to the present or the past. In cyclical thinking, however, every end can be the return to a new beginning. End and beginning are reconciled. The identity of a people can express itself differently in every new cycle, assume a different singular form according to circumstances.
Reactionary thought is also inorganic insofar as it refuses to understand that cultural forms of expression have circumstances and preconditions; that an epoch is embedded in times before and after and present and cannot be isolated at will. We see this in the example of Catholicism. How far should we go back to consider it virile? Before the Second Vatican Council? Before the collapse of the European monarchies? Before the French Revolution? Before Enlightenment philosophy? Before Protestantism? One will find that the high time of Catholicism is found primarily in the Middle Ages. But that means embedding in a specific epoch – an epoch of ethnogenesis where for example Germanics became Germans, pagans became Christians, where the Holy Roman Empire ruled interwoven with an order of feudal estates, and where explication of the Bible was the exclusive prerogative of the clergy, a time without mass media, global networks, or any technology comparable to ours. And even if one does not want to climb back so far and contents oneself with less: after 1918 Catholicism definitely lost its anchorage in the state which it had always possessed. Was not Catholicism under such circumstances obliged to undergo a reduction to its biblical-Christian core? Yet all these deliberations are piecemeal, for the conditions of an era cannot be grasped exhaustively. And still the preceding aspects illustrate how artificial and inorganic any reactionary approach must be.
And there is something else the reactionary does not understand: that not just the apex but also the nadir of an epoch has preconditions, causally chained and interwoven. Things have come to an end because they had to come to an end! For example, in 1788 everything was not well. The French Revolution was not an expression of bad short-term policy of the Ancien Régime. The old system had come to its end. It could no longer justify or maintain itself. A restoration would therefore imply choosing a historical path that has failed and led to exactly those consequences which the reactionary rejects. This is how Moeller van den Bruck describes it:
The conservative recognizes the context of a disaster which is much too conditioned and interconnected to undo it. The reactionary however hopes to counter this disaster with a policy which essentially recapitulates the same policy which […] has failed before the revolution. [Das dritte Reich, p.222]
But does reactionary thought indeed rely on insights and ponder circumstances? Or is it ultimately not rather an emotional state of mind, a psychological affair? Does not the need to crawl back into a supposedly ideal world arise from a spite against change, a fear of erosion and chaos? There is good reason for seeking the roots of reactionary thought in character dispositions. Moeller van den Bruck too views reactionary thought as a “badly disguised fear of the future” to be alleviated by “flattering self-delusion” [Das dritte Reich, p.219]. Reaction covers up, it does not want to investigate causes. It shuns the sober view on contemporary conditions. The reactionary attitude cannot do more than “fleetingly and unstably pass over problems […] which were not solved” [Moeller van den Bruck: Das dritte Reich, p.231]. This possibly explains why women are usually more receptive to such attitudes. However, as long as men are aware of their role as creators and destroyers this can be seen as a stabilizing factor.
Why We Must be Revolutionary
Moeller van den Bruck writes: “The reactionary creates nothing” [Das dritte Reich, p.238]. And therein lies his great misfortune. The crisis demands creative action to relieve our dire necessity. The crisis as a turning point, the end as a beginning. Just there we need creators and – yes, too – destroyers, so that the end does not become decrepitude. The transition is adaptation to altered circumstances, providing us with a new vitality.
And the greater the crisis, the greater the need to catch up on adaptation. We must not be too timid in cutting back on obsolete forms. Were not those institutions destroyed by liberalism often already rotted from the inside? Is not much of liberalism’s bursting strength simply weakness of the old? Have not the Jacobins and the 1968 revolt broken down ramshackle doors? Is this not further proof that a revolutionary right will have to cut quite deep indeed? Has the occidental epoch not shown us repeatedly and emphatically, 1789–1918–today (?), that we must redeem it?
One should not frantically cling to some particular whose time has passed, like the reactionary would. Rather it should fall, and we should help it fall. A quick cut is better than a slow rot if the destruction is definitive anyway. [Armin Mohler: Die konservative Revolution, p.116]
To be sure, Mohler does not address in the last sentence liberalism which has proved more stable than is desirable, but rather the reaction among his own followers, the political right. But what distinguishes us from the liberal revolutionaries, the progressives, is the will to maintain our substance. And this European substance is quite basally defined: that what has always been true in 5,000 years of Europe, regardless of where the European identity has articulated itself in its specific forms, the prehistorical cultures, antiquity or occident. This European minimum, our absolute core provides the lower limit of a new cycle, a new form, a new European culture. That includes for example the European breed, its mentality, and certain persistent traditions.
Let us abandon the occident as the only conceivable Europe. There have been European peoples, languages, religions, customs, and styles before. It is our task to create European peoples, languages, religions, customs, and styles for a new era. And if considering the current devastation there is no other possibility: one European people, one European language, one European religion, one European custom, and one European style. If we do nothing or are too halfhearted in making the cut, liberalism will know how to use the situation for its permanent revolution. Let’s not pretend otherwise, it has long realized the revolutionary situation and sufficiently demonstrated its adaptability. And we might no longer exist before it has reached its own end. We must catch up on what has been neglected: oppose the Enlightenment with a counter-enlightenment and the liberal revolution with a conservative revolution.
If we think too small, if we think reactionary, we will fail. Then will happen what Karlheinz Weißmann has repeatedly warned against: then the European pendulum (as another metaphor for the cycle) has swung for the last time, despite all common pendulum laws. For us “the word ‘conserve’ in the active sense has no use” [Armin Mohler: Die konservative Revolution, p.115]. There is too much passivity, too much consumption in it. Life does not simply happen. It must be directed, it must justify itself, maintain itself, wrested away from adversity. For this purpose we must cut away “life-endangering tumors.” We do not want a reform because we know “that birth must be paid for with obliteration” [Armin Mohler: Die konservative Revolution, p.116]. We must think and act in a revolutionary fashion.
If we merely hold on to obsolete styles, customs, and habits, if we take it too easy, we fail to appreciate the situation. One can a hundred times join the modern fray in a traditional costume, or pretend to be a Deus Vult knight while living in a socialist apartment block. One can a thousand times post a landscape photo to a social network, labeled “Homeland” with a heart emoji. One can again and again dream of the retreat into an agrarian romanticism with forest and meadows. Yet what is this? A new Biedermeier, a neo-historicism, a kind of body-snatching, a cargo cult, a strange role-playing game, apolitical, inauthentic, kitsch, a farce itself and a sacrilege against the past. Reactionary.
All those who sense the problematic nature of the present but lack the vitality to look into the maelstrom of reality so as to creatively overcome it – they reveal themselves as reactionaries! They have a degree of insight but no consequences. They are at best reproductive, not creative. They are tired, they are evidence of decrepitude, children of a declining epoch. Those lost souls should be avoided. The fight has gone out of them. With the sweetness of simple answers they try to abduct into the realm of the lost those who retain a searching strength. We who still are rich in spirit and vigor and intransigence should get used to the thought that we must force our way into a new future. That which must come to tackle the present circumstances will have to be conquered spiritually and culturally – a conquest of ourselves. We get nothing for free, least of all a culture that no longer exists.