Call it reactionary, not radical

In the wake of recent tragedies, the word “radical” has strayed from its original meaning.

by Jasper Johnson

In the wake of Orlando, or really any massacre for that matter, I often see the qualifier “radical” used synonymously with “extreme.” 

Ironically, the most frequent uses describe the “radicalism” of Islam or right-wingers.

 Semantically — in its most accurate meaning — political “radicalism” is a characteristic of the extreme political left, whereas “reactionary” is the more correct term for the extreme political right. 

For much of the 20th century, “radical” was appropriately used. Newspapers would describe things like “radical Marxists” or “reactionary nationalists.”But recently, the label has become more capacious, where all extreme politics or acts of terrorism — whether left or right — are considered “radical.”

Why did “radical” win out and “reactionary” die off, and what are the consequences? Barring in mind some cases — such as Naxals and Maoists in the Indian subcontinent or FARC — political violence and terrorism in the U.S. is hardly preponderant. 

This ranges from abortion-bombers to extreme militant movements. If anything, it would seem that “reactionary” would be the go-to term, considering the obscurity of left-wing terrorism. 

But language is ever-changing. I’m disappointed at the loss of descriptive language, but there may be another issue at play. Willful ignorance of the roots or nature of political extremism is undoubtedly harmful.

The radical-reactionary distinction is one that lends itself to more descriptive use of language, and it’s a shame that it’s all but gone from language when describing extreme politics. Considering recent conversations about how to address terrorism and political violence, it would do us good to make the distinction between “radical” and “reactionary.”