This Is Not A Revanchist Post (I have nothing to reclaim)

Here’s a great political word seeing an uptick in usage: revanchist. Conducting a little research on this was rewarding, as revanchist (and also revanchism) is a word that’s still shifting in meaning, moving from a very strict and limited use to a more flexible, if not exactly general, use.

A very short history lesson: revanche is a French word for revenge, and the idea of revanchism as a political position (and labelled as such) appears to have first arisen in France in the 1870s and became prominent in the 1880s. To explain very briefly, France lost territory (the Alsace-Lorraine) in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). A position then developed among some French politicians of focusing attention and resources on the recovery of that territory, to the exclusion of most other aspects of foreign policy. The fixation on the recovery of the Alsace-Lorraine came to dominate, or at least heavily influence, related activities: political and military alliances, overseas colonization efforts, and so on. This became known as revanchism. Some historians believe that this focus led in part to the alliances that cascaded into World War I, as well as the punitive reparations imposed on Germany after that war.

Although first applied in France, the concept (and the word) quickly spread, but only in political writings applied to similar situations. It first made the leap into German, Russian, and English almost immediately (during the 1880s), although many of the early references explicitly discuss the French situation.

(Note that when I write revanchist in this post, it can be understood that the same history applies to revanchism as well.)

Revanchism has been used to describe political positions in all kinds of places when lost territory has been an issue. Not just in France, but in Russia; in post-World War I (and post-World War II) Germany; in Ireland’s claims on Ulster; in Chinese claims on Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea; in Israel’s claims on Palestinian territory (and Arab claims on all of Israel). References in the OED even use it retroactively, applying revanchist motives to territorial issues in British colonial India in the 19th century, as well as the eastern Roman Empire’s 6th century campaigns against the Goths and Vandals.

But revanchism has also come to apply not just to physical territory but also to ideas, and this is where the word seems to be gravitating in modern political usage. Rather than being concerned with the recovery of land, those accused of being revanchists in this modern sense are instead accused of seeking the recovery of an abstract, of an idea (or ideal) that may or may not actually have ever existed. In American politics, it seems to have developed two slightly distinct uses. The first covers those who seem to be striving for the return of ‘Leave It To Beaver’ America, an all-white, all-christian, all-middle class suburban nation which, in fact, never existed. This is the mild sort of revanchism which Mitt Romney was accused of having in the previous presidential campaign.

The stronger sort suggests that a politician is revanchist when he (or she) takes a position that seems to have no clearer motive than simply exacting revenge for previous political losses, or for changes in the culture at large which have caused it to deviate from that politician’s perceived “correct” vision. It is “revanche” (and revenge) in the sense that previous losses (in some cases merely perceived losses) are the motive for current policies. To describe this in simpler terms, one could say that revanchism in American politics is the politics of spite: policies are crafted and pursued not for a clear economic or military or political motive, but simply out of revenge. OED concisely refers to this as being “belligerently vengeful.”

This is exactly why the word has been gaining circulation for the past couple of years. Commentators with large vocabularies have tentatively taken to using it to describe certain kinds of political acts. The Republican Congress, for example, isn’t simply obstructionist. Now it could also be colorfully¬†revanchist. Ken Cuccinelli, Republican candidate for governor of Virgina, isn’t simply a reactionary and an extremist; he’s also a revanchist for political, economic, and social ideas that have been in decline for generations (some say he’d like to roll back the New Deal, and he hasn’t done much to contradict that view). There’s a certain irony to this rising use of revanchist as a sort of polite insult aimed at conservatives, since the sources I glanced at suggest that for some years the most common users of revanchist seem to have been been conservatives (John McCain, for example, has been fond of using it to describe Russia).

Conservatives aren’t the only ones in the revanchist cross hairs. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to President Carter and no darling of the right, has frequently been accused of being a revanchist (presumably because he laid the groundwork for relations favoring China over Taiwan in 1978, but the context is usually not clear; most of his accusers seem to be simply parroting the term as a shorthand insult).

Revanchism can also exist in realms entirely outside of land and politics. OED provides a reference from 1968 which discusses “cultural revanchists, as well as this related citation from 2007: “Gender Stalinists killed masculinity in revanche for the death of femininity under the rule of traditionalists.” (This idea cuts in both directions in sociology, as this article’s title shows.)

Revanchist (and also revanchism) is an unusual word in that use of the root form (revanche) almost doesn’t exist in modern English. While it’s in the dictionary as a synonym for revenge (used since at least the early 1600s), it has never gained traction in common use. There’s also no evidence that the older English revanche had any influence on the modern revanchist, which was directly adopted from the French, except that they ultimately share the same root. You’ll find revanche used in some academic publications and the occasional literary work (Nabokov did it), but it reeks of pretentiousness when used in conversation and popular writing.

What do I think of the word revanchist? I’ve liked it from the moment I laid eyes on it. Revanchist is one of those rare words which, to me at least, carries a meaning that matches what the sound of the word itself suggests. And that meaning is nearly as ugly as the word sounds. It’s not a word that you’ll have much use for in conversation, but if you want to cast someone in a negative light and their ideas (in the strict sense) involve reclaiming land or (in the abstract sense) returning to a fictionalized state, it’s a great word to have in your arsenal.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for nearly 15 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education. He has taught writing at the university level for a number of years.
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