Was Chesterton ‘reactionary’ – or even, a ‘Reactionary’? He has at times been stigmatised in this way – by critics such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Ingrams.
Trevor Bailey, a criminal law barrister who has written previously for The Defendant, reflects on how the term might be applied to Chesterton.
G.K. Chesterton wrote about reaction – or, Reaction – in verse, but its philosophy informs his worldview, the journalism born of it, and indeed his Christian faith.
This small essay was conceived on Bastille Day in 2023, some three days after the death of Milan Kundera (the Czech communist who dared criticise communism), and some few weeks after Australian government plans to
censor “misinformation and disinformation” were unveiled to growing public alarm.
My own reaction to this confluence of events put me in mind of Chesterton’s poem. Despite the pejorative association of the term, like him – because of him – I too am pleased to bear the title ‘reactionary’.
Some definitions. Volume XIII of the OED exhaustively examines the adjective and substantive. Relevant here is: “One who favours or inclines to reaction. Also, in Marxist use, an opponent of communism.”
In his A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982), Roger Scruton develops this theme:
The idea of ‘forces of reaction’ which seek to arrest or reverse the achievements of revolution or reform was introduced into political thought by the philosophical radicals of the nineteenth century… A reactionary is anyone who opposes changes that the left desires, or who seeks to re-establish a political order that has been overthrown in the name of left-wing ideals.
The implication is usually that such a one merely ‘reacts’ to change, and does not initiate change, so that he has no claim to be heard, being without serious recommendations.” (Emphases added)
The Oxford Dictionary illustrates its definition by an excerpt from ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung’ (1967): “The reactionaries in all countries are fools… Their persecution of the revolutionary people only serves to accelerate the people’s revolutions.”
Poignantly, the Cultural Revolution was one year old when this quotation went to print. By the time it ended with Mao’s death in 1976, it had claimed an untold
number of lives, but estimates range between hundreds of thousands to millions. So much for “serious recommendations”.
That communism murdered about 100 million people last century is no longer seriously contested. But what of left-wing revolutions other than communism? Is it all a question of degree?
Progressive’ is and long has been synonymous with ‘left-wing ideals’. Traditionally set in opposition to conservatism, the political contest of ideas is one between future plan and present reality, between human perfectibility and Fallen Man, between the untested enthusiasm and the tested tradition.
Chesterton was not against change as such, for to be so opposed would be to take a set against the world and everything in it. Change is the only constant in
nature, and ever since Heraclitus have we accepted that one can ‘never step into the same river twice’. Rather, like other reactionaries, he was against
unduly hasty, unconscionable, and unnecessary change.
Rejecting the descriptor ‘conservative’ as well as ‘progressive’, he famously struck the balance by describing human affairs through the course of time as ‘wobbly’! Here is G.K.C. as he touches upon disagreement in the otherwise warm friendship he enjoyed with the Fabian, George Bernard Shaw:
After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake.
“If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.Heretics, 1905
Shaw was asking for ‘a new kind of man’ true enough, and in the same way as H.G. Wells: eugenics.
Engineering ‘a new kind of man’
Chesterton (who had befriended Wells, too) was staunchly opposed to human engineering – despicable science that found its expression in Nazi experimentation and vivisection. ‘Reactionary’ became synonymous with
fascism from the early 20th century, but seen from the latter angle, National Socialism was not reactionary at all, certainly not in the manner Chesterton wore the description. It was utopian in its demented aims of a Master Race, just as was communism in idealising the working man.
And so the end of my short exploration will be to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time, to borrow from T.S. Eliot. Bastille Day was
the beginning of the French Revolution. And how did that go?
Modernity, that “rough beast”, was born and “slouch[ed] towards Bethlehem” as it began its assault upon Western civilisation and faith. Premier Zhou Enlai in
1972 was asked what were the consequences of the French experience of 1789, to which he replied, “Too early to say.”
Kundera was expelled from his homeland and stripped of his citizenship for writing about the Kafkaesque nightmare that totalitarian Czechoslovakia proved to be for its people. (Franz Kafka, a fellow Czech and one of his inspirations, had died in 1924, but not before he prophesied things to come.) And Australia, the placid little nation once led by a man named “Kevin” who
looked like a dentist, as Barry Humphries once pointed out.
The present Federal Government is enacting a raft of deep-reaching sector reforms – energy, finance, race, immigration, sexuality, “gender”, education, and
censorship – some say with great haste and little real consultation.
My reaction is peaceful: little more than the ballot box and the few words you’ve read here. My hope is to live according to Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus when he advocated “hasten slowly” two millennia ago.
That’s a sweet Chestertonian paradox if ever there was one. It is also the true cause of a reactionary.