By James W. Adams
Reaction, rebellion, and revolution are much used words in today’s vocabulary. Those who savor these expressions the most imagine themselves to constitute a sort of “liberation front.” They cast themselves in the role of Twentieth Century “messiahs” whose mission is the deliverance of modern man from the demoralizing and dehumanizing enslavement to “materialism” which he endures under the tyrannical rule of the so-called “authoritarian establishment.”
Many countries of the world in recent times have undergone revolutions instigated by reactionaries. Reacting against the enslavement of dictatorships, they have rebelled and overthrown their oppressive masters in a quest for liberty. Instead, however, of achieving true freedom, they have simply exchanged one dictatorship for another. This is what happens invariably when a revolution is inspired by Communists. Reaction against political enslavement does not necessarily result in enlightened freedom. The revolutionary often becomes enslaved to the demands of reactionism, hence operates under compulsion and coercion rather than as a result of free, enlightened choice.
Sidney I. Harris states the matter tersely and impressively in Last Things First (Houghton Mifflin). He says:
“I know a man who grew up in a stuffy atmosphere of Victorian piety, and who rebelled at an early age. He is now 50 years old and still rebelling.
His old family home was cluttered; so his own home is starkly simple. His parents were fanatically devout; so he is fanatically irreligious. His relatives were dogmatically conservative; so he is dogmatically radical.
This man thinks himself a “free soul.” He thinks he has burst the bonds of his enslavement to the past. But he is wrong-for he is overreacting to the past, and is still chained to it by his hostility.
To do exactly the opposite is a form of bondage. The young man who rebels from
Babbittry to Bohemianism because it is exactly the opposite of what his father tried to cram down his throat is allowing his decisions to be made by somebody else.
To be free, in the fullest sense, does not mean to reject what our fathers believed; it means to discriminate, to -select, to take on the difficult task of separating our principles from our passions.
Each generation, in some measure, rebels against the last. It is normal and natural and healthy. But it is necessary to know that the aim of rebellion is peace within the soul, and not perpetual revolt.”
All of us have known people who were subjected in childhood to mothers who were fanatics about bodily cleanliness and who, as a result, when adults, made a point of being filthy in their personal habits. We have known men who were denied a college education by their parents, hence literally forced upon their children four years of college training when the children neither desired it nor were capable of assimilating and using it profitably. The illustrations of the principle are endless. A reactionary is not of necessity a free man; quite often he is enslaved by that which made him free. His error is that he makes an end of that which should serve only as an instrument.
Reactionism as such is neither good nor bad, praiseworthy nor reprehensible. Its character is determined (1) by the character of that to which it is a response — is that good or is it bad; is it praiseworthy or is it reprehensible? (2) Its character is determined also by its goals or aims — is it aimless and erratic or is it rationally channeled toward worthy ends? To react against error and evil with the view to replacing it with truth and righteousness is everywhere to be praised. To react violently and purposelessly so as to accept, without the sanction either of reason or truth, the exactly opposite point of view or course of action is neither rational nor praiseworthy. Our reaction to “liberality” in religion should not result in obstructionism and gross “legalism.” Our reaction to the institutionalized church of Roman Catholicism and Protestant Denominationalism should not result in a repudiation of all “organized manifestations of religion.” Oar reaction against church support of human institutions would not lead us to reject all institutions utilized for the accomplishment of religious goals simply on the grounds that they are “human” and “institutions.” Reaction against “materialism” should not lead us to repudiate ambition, a reasonable and decent standard of living, honest labor, bodily cleanliness, and an acceptance of a reasonable share of responsibility in the maintenance of an orderly society. Reaction against hate and division produced by religious controversy should not lead us to accept the spurious assumption that the “law of love” transcends all doctrinal considerations — that Bible love (agape) and a dogmatic faith and orthodox practice are mutually exclusive of one another. Those who thus react are not liberated from sin and error thereby; they remain enslaved to it and coerced by it. This is unquestionably what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Ye are called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13.)
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 21, pp. 5-6
March 30, 1972