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Context

It is a common usage to call some right-wing movements in Western countries "reactionary". See Wikipedia:

In ideology, reactionism is a tradition in right-wing politics

Reactionary is defined by Wikipedia in this way:

In political science, a reactionary or a reactionist is a person who holds political views that favor a return to the status quo ante, the previous political state of society, which that person believes possessed positive characteristics absent from contemporary society.

Although it can be meant as an insult, sometimes it is not, and some right-wing figures even openly recognize themselves as "reactionary". This is the case of the French far-right political figure Éric Zemmour. He, as a self-described nostalgic reactionary, wants to go back to the old France (as of which French period, see the debates in comments). In general though, if I am not mistaken, European (reactionary) far-rights hold high the values of the pre-Enlightenment Europe, and want to come back to something near to this period, which sure enough they may fantasize.

Question

If some right-wing ideologies are reactionary, why are communism (Engels and Marx) and anarcho-communism (Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin) not seen, by the general public and the media globally, as reactionary too, in their case extreme-reactionary?

Indeed, they want to go back to the hunter-gatherers kind of society. Marx and Engels coined the notion of "primitive-communism", a state which our society should go back to. The French anarcho-communist Pierre Clastres was also clear about it (Wikipedia):

Some, like Pierre Clastres, consider that the organization of certain traditional non-Western societies (such as the Guayaki) in different parts of the world (the Americas, Africa, Asia, Polynesia), which have lasted for millennia, are at least partly similar to anarcho-communism.

Hypothesis

I would say this is because they stress on something modern: communism emphasizes the preliminary phase of the people dictatorship, and anarcho-communism emphasizes the masses revolutionary struggles. Yet, this is not their project per se, only the means towards their project.

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    Not seen as reactionary by whom? Some on the right certainly see communism as an old discredited ideology. There's also a lot of different types of communism - classical Marxism was heavily focused on historical progress and mechanisation as a precursor of post-scarcity utopian communism. I also imagine you'd find some aspects of anarcho-communism and communal living described as reactionary by Marxists, as some Marxists call anything they disagree with reactionary and counter-revolutionary. Do you want a history of what people call "reactionary"?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 10, 2023 at 10:19
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    Observing that traditional societies are organised along anarcho-communist lines is not the same as advocating anarcho-primitivism. It's just noticing a similarity in political organisation. Not at all the same as advocating for returning to a level of prior technological development. You are equivocating communism with anarcho primitivism, which are completely different ideologies. Your claim that "they [all communists] want to go back to the hunter-gatherers kind of society" is simply incorrect. Jul 11, 2023 at 1:28
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    I would point out @Starckman that you might get better answers if you specified that the people you believe do not see them as reactionary were historians or a relatively political-science oriented source. Jul 11, 2023 at 2:21
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    "European far-rights hold high the values of the middle-ages" what the hell? Do you have any kind of source for that? What does that sentence even mean, actually?
    – user46888
    Jul 11, 2023 at 21:47
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    "Indeed, they want to go back to the hunter-gatherers kind of society." -> vote to close due to obvious lack of prior research...
    – armand
    Jul 12, 2023 at 2:05

6 Answers 6

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The definition of "reactionary" in political context is "opposing political change or reform". People perceiving themselves as "reactionary" usually see the previosly-existing status quo as preferrable to the result of reform their opponents propose - note that what they perceive as "pre-existing status quo" may sometimes not be the only interpretation of the situation or even far removed in time from current moment (for example, monarchists in France. Good old times indeed). So while you may perceive European conservatives' intentions as a regression to the Middle Ages - they, in their own view, want the world to stop changing, and see any reform as dangerous, destabilising process with uncertain results threatening their established comfort.

On the other hand, communists and anarchists (within context of current European politics) are pro-change - they are unsatisfied with status quo (again, perception of what the status quo is may differ from person to person), and push for reform. Thus, in this context they are not a reactionary force.

P.S. What the reactonary politicians push for is not really "the good old times", but rather their own perception of "the good old times", which might be very... unconventional. For example, Éric Zemmour, who you mentioned in your question, is quoted calling himself "a Gaullist and a Bonapartist" - I personally have no idea where these two sets are supposed to intersect.

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    "I personally have no idea where these two sets are supposed to intersect." Not a specialist of Zemmour here, but would say that, from his point of view, France was then both great and united internally, and wanted to unite other countries to its project. "they, in their own view, want the world to stop changing" Really? Wikipedia says they want to return back "In political science, a reactionary or a reactionist is a person who holds political views that favor a return to the status quo ante", and that's also the discourse of Zemmour
    – Starckman
    Jul 10, 2023 at 11:24
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    @Starckman "before" is a poorly-defined term in this definition. Historically speaking, here's no need for the change to actually take place for reaction to form - good examples would be Russian Empire during the rule of Alexander III or the second Red Scare in early 1950s USA. So status quo just as well can be "right now" or "near future" - the point is that the perception that there's a stable system and "evil left" want to destroy it exists. Jul 10, 2023 at 11:44
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    Fyi : as a french citizen, gaullism doesn't mean anything anymore. Many politician uses De Gaulle's name to justify their ideas, even if they're completly out of what De Gaulle might have done, probably without understanding it themselves. In a sense, it reminds me of Metal Gear Solid and all that "The Boss Legacy" non-sense.
    – Mouke
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:39
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    Does anyone actually see themselves as "reactionary"? I've always understood it as a word made up and used as a quasi-insult by their political opponents.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 12, 2023 at 13:40
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    The intersection of Bonapartist & Gaulist, along with his own complaints of "Great Replacement" tell me that he yearns to return to an era where France was strong enough to invade others, be immune from invasion, and was totally white in skin color.
    – Tangurena
    Jul 12, 2023 at 17:12
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In the 90s of post-Soviet Russia, the liberal reformer strata did see the remaining communist sympathizers as reactionary.

The same was likely true of the views on "traditional" Maoists in the reforming China of 80s and 90s.

The mainstream political discourse is silent about this, but the countries of Eastern Block did have a significant number of people with sympathy to socialist times and disregard for the new, market and EU-oriented times; these were also seen as reactionaries by their new governments. This is apparent in East Germany where those sentiments led to creation of some political parties.

It's just that most Western countries did not have communist past so any Western communists are not reactionary by definition.

As a related example, Russian conservatives are also a questionable term since there's actually nothing left for them to conserve.

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  • "It's just that most Western countries did not have communist past so any Western communists are not reactionary by definition." But they want to come back to their hunter-gatherer past!
    – Starckman
    Jul 10, 2023 at 11:30
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    They did not have a clear chain of succession pointing to such past. Maybe hunter-gatherer regimes existed sometime, somewhere, but there were nothing which could be called "Western European political hunter gatherers".
    – alamar
    Jul 10, 2023 at 11:56
  • This is indirectly related to a core difference between communism and right-wing ideologies, right-wing ideologies make a strong emphasis on the group identity, while communism does not (it is deemed universal, humanist, international). Still, there is the goal to come back to a previous state
    – Starckman
    Jul 10, 2023 at 12:01
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    Only a small subset of communists really want to come back to previous state; most of them want to advance to the next state or at least go sideways.
    – alamar
    Jul 10, 2023 at 12:07
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    The mainstream political discourse is silent about this — no it isn't? At least in Germany Ostalgie and more politically in-depth versions of the same get significant attention in the mainstream media (moreso in the 1990s than today, but it was more prevalent then).
    – gerrit
    Jul 11, 2023 at 7:30
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No apart from maybe primitivsts and anarcho-primitivsts these groups do NOT want to go back to living as hunter gatherers.

And in general viewing "primitive" societies as an ideal to strive for is pretty novel. For the most part when people looked at it they saw a lack of everything and usually reacted with disgust. Like the term "primitive" usually has a very negative connotation and was regularly used to justify colonialism and exploitation by the more "civilized" societies.

Hobbes et al apparently even went so far to describe the "state of nature" (so his idea of primitive societies) as a war man against man and that only the absolute monarchy and the submission to a leviathan has provided them with peace and order.

There had been counter ideas of a "noble savage" and as civilization as corrupting element, but either way people were more or less guessing what live before history must have been like and their encounter with "humans living in the wild" was usually not characterized by a genuine inquiry of a different but equally valuable way of life, but usually as an opportunity to exploit and subjugate and to see oneself as superior to others.

Recently talks about that might become more relevant given that our economy has reached scales where it's destructive rather than constructive, exploitation, toxicity and waste and the climate change that is going to effect us negatively for a long time and can get worse the more we push it. So models of sustainable existence might take examples from what we previously insulted as primitive.

That being said at the time when these ideologies emerged primitive societies were far away (both physically and in terms of being pre-historic with no accurate idea of how things actually worked back then) and especially Marx et al were not a fan of that. On the contrary Marx even praised capitalism for being way more efficient than it's predecessors and saw it as a necessary stage of development. Oversimplified he looked at society as one interconnected system and basically argued that this system needs labor to reproduce it's state of existence. If you spend 24 hours a day of work and regeneration to produce food for the next day than you're running in circles, if you produce more than that you're free to spend part of the next day doing something else.

So the collective labor and the development of more capable means of production was seen as a necessity for the surplus economy and thus a necessity for human liberation. No longer a slave to nature but a master of ones own life.

So the criticism of the economic system is that the energy that is expended in pursuit of the advancement of that system is often disproportionate to the outcome. So lots of people make it run and run faster with their labor, but few people extract ever more benefits from it. So despite the technical ability to improve the conditions and to liberate people, they get further enslaved to pay for the privilege of the few.

So the idea is how could one reorganize society so that one doesn't loose all these benefits of collective production, but achieve a society of equals where freedom is universal and not a privilege.

You can idealize a hunter-gatherer society to something like that, but usually a society of scarcity develops different socio-economic characteristics than one without it. So not sure you can compare them.

On the other hand right wing reactionary movements usually aim for a particular period in the rather recent time. Like if you go beyond folklore and cosplay nonsense the middle ages weren't all that great, cities being permeated with the smell of feces, no sewage, no internet, not even newspapers or books in quantity and availability. An aristocracy that feasted while a peasantry that struggled from harvest to harvest, wars, rape, pillages. So the further you go back in time, usually the less appealing it's going to be, so you usually aim for that sweet spot of nostalgia of idk 20-50 years ago (or just a few years further back so something that your parents marveled about but which you've never seen in person and thus believe to be larger than life and of a perfection that you can't imagine). Something that people can relate to. Something that you might have admired as a kid before your adult self peeked behind the curtain and was less than impressed.

That might be nonetheless mythological and often enough conservatives and reactionaries aim to preserve or restore something that never was to begin with but which they just imagined as such, but they nonetheless have a concrete idea of something that they think was like that in the rather recent past.

So it might happen that ones communism or anarcho-communism are achieved somewhere people end up being conservative when they defend it against changes or reactionary when they try to get it back after having failed.

Though given that ideally communism and anarchism aren't really concrete systems but rather modes of operation, similar to how a democracy isn't prescribing what should be done or how it should be done, but merely that whatever is done should have it's legitimization by the people rather than by the whim of a monarch, it's probably different to defend that vs defending the privileged rule of a particular party or person.

Like it's easier to prevent "the wrong person" to be in power, than to prevent anybody from being in power. It's a constant struggle between empowering the individual slave to be an equal participant without having them enslave others with their power. That is quite a different beast over just exercising power and fending off adversaries.

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    @Starckman As stated in the answer, there is no "return to". These people didn't know how a hunter-gatherer society looked like and they didn't want to go back to one. That's simply a mischaracterization. And "communism" is first of all that collective ownership of the means of production by a society of equals. The dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie without universal suffrage that "democracy" claim is a little stale, was seen a means to an end not a goal in itself. Also separation of power largely became relevant due to a lack of that: president
    – haxor789
    Jul 10, 2023 at 12:55
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    "This is similar to the society of the hunter-gatherers, according to an anarcho-communist, anthropologist specialist". First of all the people you cite largely lived prior to anthropologists deserving that title. And I guess that's more of a refute of the omnipresent "it's against human nature to not divide into slaves and masters", which it apparently isn't. But that doesn't mean that one wants to go back to that situation, not to mention that the similarity is superficial as the economic conditions have vastly different social implication. Non-stationary societies, size, distribution etc.
    – haxor789
    Jul 10, 2023 at 13:20
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    This is the right answer because it actually speaks to the original meaning of the terms. Communism is (in most places) not "reactionary" because there is not an actual prior state of communism to revert to; while there are some egalitarian traditional cultures, their politics don't (or didn't) bear any relationship to "workers owning the means of production", because they don't (or didn't) have the concept of an organized labour force, or of "production" qua a society-wide measurable objective, in the first place. Jul 11, 2023 at 1:11
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    @Starckman "Communism is first a dictatorship, and then a return to a free-class society (similar to that of the hunter-gatherers)"... Your "similar" is doing so much heavy lifting there, it's already been pancaked and is on a beeline to the center of the earth. No, there is no part of classical Marxism (let alone Leninism, Stalinism, or any phase of Chinese Communism) where the classless society is in any sense back to hunting and gathering. That's a capitalist fetish that there's no way to have an industrial society along any other lines than its own.
    – lly
    Jul 12, 2023 at 21:36
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    @Starckman Eh? You mean aside from the lack of hunting; the lack of gathering; the lack of family/clan being the sole criteria of personal morality and allegiance; the introductions of (at minimum) education, organization, and communication structures entirely alien to primitive humanity and their effects on individuals and society; and the fundamental point that Marx is vague precisely because the crux of his 'insight' is a historical dialectic that economic and social realities shape human morality and intellect to the point that he (living within capitalism) knew he couldn't (cont.)
    – lly
    Jul 14, 2023 at 4:52
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This is a language question rather than a political one.

Simply put, words do not necessarily correlate with their etymology or even with definitions people give them. Although, the word reactionary seems to evoke the idea of "return to the past" and some poor definitions may define it as such, that is not what it actually means in common language.

In common language, reactionary refers to a specific right-wing idea of returning to an idealized, more conservative past in the face of some concluded social or political reforms.

Why it came to mean that is an interesting question to consider, but it is more likely just coincidence. Perhaps it was first coined for people like this so has generally been applied to similar people. According to Wikipedia, the term was popularized after the French Revolution to refer to those who wanted to revert the reforms.

Another possible explanation is that reactionary refers to a return to a "close" past in some sense rather than something from prehistory. This can explain why it may refer to people who want a return of communism in Eastern Block countries. However, I do not think this is a correct explanation.

More likely, the word simply shifted meaning in those countries. As for in normal English, I do not expect people to call communist sympathizers in previously communist countries reactionaries, because the term has a right-wing connotation.

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    The words didn't change or shift. OP is simply misunderstanding their meaning.
    – lly
    Jul 12, 2023 at 21:37
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A rubric I've often used to explain this is to note that the political spectrum is a lot like the is/ought problem in philosophy. Specifically:

  • Conservative think that the way the social world is (or at least was in recent memory) is good, and resist efforts to move away from it
  • Progressives think that the way the social world ought to be (ideally or pragmatically) is good, and push away from what is/was to achieve that goal
    • (note that I'm avoiding the term 'liberal' here, because it's confusing in this context)

This is subject to degrees, from moderates (who are not committed to the status quo or to societal ideals) through conventional conservatives and progressives (who have varied interests and agendas) to extremists in both directions.

Reactionaries are conservative extremists, defined by the fact that they pick a specific point in human history and define it as the ultimate Good. Sometimes this point is remote, sometimes it's mythologized, sometimes it's entirely imaginary, but from the reactionary perspective it is a concrete point in past human history that society must return to. Even the name indicates that: they are reacting against a present-day movement away from that historical moment of achieved Good.

Progressive extremists, by contrast, are generally referred to as revolutionaries, defined by the fact that they pick some never-before-achieved (thus future) point as the pinnacle of human Good. They generally want to strip away historical forms of human society which they see as mere impediments to societal growth. This is true even of anarcho-primitivists: they do not idealize or want to return to a primitive world (with its disease, hunger, exposure, etc), but instead idealize the loose social organization of primitive peoples and want to integrate that into an advanced technological world.

Reactionaries and revolutionaries share two common traits:

  • They idealize a moment in human history as ultimately Good (though the moments they idealize are far, far separated)
  • They can be aggressive, even violent, in their pursuit of that idealized Good

But that's the end of it.

And yes, it can be confusing if we do not keep perspective in mind. For instance, it's easy as an outsider to understand that (say) the Aryan rulership of the German Nazi Party was completely fabricated: Aryan rulership as described never actually existed at any concrete point in human history, and thus the Nazis could look like revolutionaries pursuing a novel future ideal. But from within Nazism, Aryan rulership was taken as an unquestionable and factual truth — a concrete point is remote human history — and Nazism pursued it as a return, not as a progression. That's what makes them reactionary.

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Given your clarification of the people you say see Communism/AnarchoCommunism as non-reactionary being "the public": They do. Not all obviously, but especially in the west. Reactionary opinions and stances on policy and social issues is generally associated with the right, and for good reason.
Oxford Languages Defines Reactionary: opposing political or social progress or reform

Reactionism is only reactionary from the view of progress: If the reaction opposes the progress it is "Reactionary", and not just a reaction.

Historically, the left (including the economic philosophy of Kropotkin, Marx, Engels, etc.) is generally on the progress side.
(Hence "Progressive" being negatively associated with the left and communism.)
Wikipedia: In the United States, communism is widely used as a pejorative term as part of a Red Scare, much like socialism, and mainly in reference to authoritarian socialism and Communist states.

Thus your hypothesis is at least noticing the reason: The left does indeed stress the forward march of progress, and so when a NEW policy is put in place, it is generally REACTED to, whereas the abolition of OLD policies could be thought of as generally being related to progress.

This is obviously not always true - some old policies are still progressive, and are being removed even now, and by people on the right at that - and my answer is not necessarily based on pure fact, but also on anecdotes, to feel free to correct me as you see fit.

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    – sfxedit
    Jul 11, 2023 at 8:16
  • Curiously, Progressives/Progressists was a German political party in the times of Marx, which represented Bourgeosie, as opposed to the governing aristocracy. Obviously they were opposed by Marx, and when Lassalle established the Labor party, he was seeking an alliance with the aristocracy against the Progressists - hoping to bring Socialism/Communism via parliamentary means. (This was obviously opposed by Marx, for whom the state was inherently evil, and the only way to progerss was violent revolution.) Jul 12, 2023 at 8:07
  • @RogerVadim Good point. However Marx did not think that the only way to progress was through a violent revolution. The revolution that Marxism calls for is only necessarily violent insofar as the destruction of private property and assets of the Bourgeoise. Jul 13, 2023 at 1:40
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    Marx called for the complete destruction of the existing social and economic order - this is a lot more than just private property, more like our way of life in modern language. And as a method he proposed the dictatorship of the proletariat - a period where all the other classes would be deprived of their rights, while their way of life is destroyed - this includes peasants, small business, intellectual, the lumpenproletariat (i.e., the poor), etc. Though Marx himself admitted that in practice it would mean the dictatorship by a small group of communists. Jul 13, 2023 at 5:58
  • That's still not necessarily violence towards the bourgeoise. If you destroy the exploitative ability of a class of people, you are not harming them. It can only be seen as harm is we were to attack physically the body of the upper class, like in the Soviet establishment. Harm against property and way of life of the oppressor should not be a crime in the service of the oppressed. Jul 13, 2023 at 7:55

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