I am interested in the origin of this word, strictly in the political usage of the word (Reactionary = conservative, right-wing). The definition is simple enough:

Reactionary: Characterized by reaction, especially opposition to progress or liberalism; extremely conservative.

This seems to be a designation of someone who is opposed to political revolution. Is this word more of an insult than a descriptive term?

"Oh they are just a reactionary... no original ideas, just reacting to the idea of progress."

What I am really interested in why the right-wing of politics are called 'Reactionaries'. Surely both sides of politics are reacting to social/political/religious structure/movements? To me, the word conservative is a better fit.

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    It's unclear whether you're looking for a definition or an origin.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 1:10
  • @HotLicks - thanks, edit made for clarity.
    – TheLastGIS
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 1:18
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    It's a term from the French Revolution, IIRC. It's the opposite pole from revolutionary.I'm sure this question will yield to a web search.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 1:31
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    This use of reaction to refer to opposition to political and social (not to speak of philosophical) views is a reaction to the Enlightenment. Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 2:37
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    Check the dates and sources for the citations in the OED. Words don't fall far from their speakers. And it should be noted that it's a euphemism; it's used instead of a clear description of motives, and without specifying exactly what's being reacted to. Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 2:41

1 Answer 1


The term of French origin appears to have been first used in the current sense by mid-19th century in Marxist use:


1831, on model of French réactionnaire (19c.), from réaction (see reaction). In Marxist use, "tending toward reversing existing tendencies," opposed to revolutionary and used opprobriously in reference to opponents of communism, by 1858. As a noun, "person considered reactionary," especially in politics, one who seeks to check or undo political action, by 1855.


  • This seems to be a good explaination of its origin and where the 'reaction' part of 'reactionary' comes from. Thank you.
    – TheLastGIS
    Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 3:00

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