John Lukacs:
The historian as anti-populist
Traditionalist historian John Lukacs laments the direction of conservatism in America

By Jeet Heer
Boston Globe (March 6, 2005)
(revised and expanded)

POPULISM FIRST EMERGED in America in the late 19th century as a radical political movement pushing for labor reform, progressive taxation, the regulation of business, and economic justice for the little guy. But in recent decades, as observers like journalist Thomas Frank and historian Michael Kazin have pointed out, the populist notion of an embattled people fighting an entrenched elite has evolved into a staple of the conservative worldview. From Joseph McCarthy finding treason in ''the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths'' to Richard Nixon speaking up for ''the silent majority'' to George W. Bush complaining about those who ''think they're all of a sudden smarter than the average person because they happen to have an Ivy League degree,'' the right has consistently won elections by talking the language of Power to the People.

But criticism of the marriage between conservatism and populism comes not only from the left. In his bracing new book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (Yale), the traditionalist historian John Lukacs -- well-known for his elegant histories of the great men and great events of World War II -- offers a dark vision of modern democracy being destroyed by nationalist demagogues who gain power by bullying unpopular minorities and pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. Today's politicians of the right, Lukacs writes, have abandoned the conservative values of stability, order, and tradition and instead learned to bind nationalist majorities together by evoking hatred, directed not just against foreign foes but against fellow citizens who are seen as insufficiently patriotic.

These arguments are all the more striking because they come from a man of the right, albeit an idiosyncratic one. A staunch defender of Catholic social policy, Lukacs in his new book takes aim at ''laws approving abortions, mercy killing, cloning, sexual 'freedoms,' permissiveness, [and] pornography.'' But he has hardly been gentle when it comes to contemporary conservative heroes. Ronald Reagan? ''Superficial, lazy, puerile (despite his age), an expansive nationalist.'' George W. Bush? Blessed with a ''mind and character'' that are ''often astonishingly lazy.'' Even William F. Buckley -- hardly the image of a man of the people -- Lukacs once wrote, is insufficiently respectful of the past, displaying ''hardly any trace of interest in history and only selective references to tradition.''

In both his new book and in his larger career, Lukacs reminds us of a deep fissure that exists between traditional European conservatism and the contemporary American variety. Historically, the great conservative thinkers, from Burke to Burckhardt, have been wary of democracy, let alone populism. In conversation, Lukacs is pessimistic about current American politics, arguing that mass democracy is vulnerable to demagogic manipulation. ''The people do not speak, or they very seldom speak,'' he observes. ''But other people speak in the name of the people.'' In his new book, he expresses the fear that we are witnessing ''the degeneration of democracy'' into an ersatz populism.

The author of more than 25 works of history and countless articles, the Hungarian-born Lukacs has a particularly devoted fan club among conservatives like George Will and Richard Brookhiser, who admire his old-fashioned focus on the role of great men like Churchill and the enduring reality of national character. But while he has frequently contributed to National Review, the American Spectator, and other conservative publications (along with many liberal and nonpartisan ones), Lukacs eschews the label of ''conservative,'' preferring to describe himself as a ''reactionary,'' instinctively skeptical of the claims of progress whether made on the left or right. The reactionary ''is a patriot but not a nationalist,'' Lukacs explained in his 1990 autobiography, Confessions of an Original Sinner. ''He favors conservation rather than conservatism; he defends the ancient blessing of the land and is dubious about the results of technology; he believes in history, not in Evolution.''

Despite the fact that the Republican Party has made populism into a winning ticket, Lukacs reminds us of the intellectual contradiction inherent in today's American conservatism, which stirs up populist resentment toward the elite even as it extols ''traditional'' values.

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It was Lukacs's own early experiences in the cauldron of European history that taught him to be suspicious of the kind of mass politics he sees dominating the United States today. Born in Budapest in 1924 to a father who was a progressive-minded Catholic doctor and a bourgeois Jewish mother, Lukacs grew up in the shadow of Hungary's golden age. He attended Budapest University, where he studied history.

Because his parent’s divorced when he was young, Lukacs searched for familial stability from his maternal grandparents, who became for him living symbols of Hungary’s golden age, the bourgeois epoch of the early 20th century that was swept away by war and mass politics. “They had lived more than half of their lives under the Dual Monarch of the Habsburg,” Lukacs recalled in his autobiography. “During the second half of their lives (by 1914 both of them were forty-two) they had lived through the First World War, a revolution, short-lived communist regime (wherefrom they fled to Vienna), a counter-revolution, the Second World War, Hitler, the German occupation of Hungary, the deportation and extermination of Jews, the destruction of Budapest, the Russian conquest, the Soviet dictatorship and the Revolution of 1956…They were well-to-do, modest, Jewish and thoroughly bourgeois.” Despite the tumult around them they retained “their older standards, their character, [and] their self discipline.”

As against the old-fashioned virtues incarnated by his grandparents, Lukacs noticed that some sinister new ideas were gaining mass appeal both before and during the Second World War. In Hungary, Lukacs recalls, admiration for the Nazi regime ran strong among the working class. “Many of the very people who would profit from the Communization of Hungary – streetcar conductors, janitors, steelworkers, hired hands – still hoped for a German victory,” he remembers. “So much for the Marxist theory of class consciousness.” This experience was the kernel of a controversial insight that Lukacs has repeatedly insisted on, most recently in his new book: that Hitler was populist who had genuine mass appeal. (Writing in Slate, Adam Shatz acutely observed that this account of Hitler’s populism overlooks Der Führer’s hatred of the organized working class and its leaders).

Conscripted into the Hungarian army when it was allied with Germany, Lukacs became a deserter, spending the last days of the war in hiding as Budapest was being bombed by the allies. Although he welcomed the defeat of the Germans, he had no illusions of what liberation by the Russians meant. Soon after the war ended, Lukacs made contact with Rear Admiral William F. Dietrich, a member of the American mission in Hungary, to whom he supplied ad hoc intelligence reports about the tightening grip of Russian power in Hungary.

After emigrating to the United States in 1946, Lukacs eventually found a steady job teaching at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed until his retirement in 1994. In his new homeland, Lukacs found himself at odds with both liberals and conservatives. Some liberals, to his chagrin, were full of illusions about the benevolence of Soviet communism, while anti-Red crusaders like Joseph McCarthy were more preoccupied with ferreting out spies in the government than with containing Soviet power in Central Europe.

Once again, Lukacs’s deeply held anti-populism, shaped his politics: he couldn’t abide the way in which McCarthyism stirred up irrational popular passions, to the determent of a sound foreign policy

''Already [in the '50s] the trouble with most conservatives was that it was a negative conservatism,'' says Lukacs, who penned several anti-McCarthy articles for Commonweal magazine when the Senator was riding high. ''They were anti-liberal. And that's not enough.''

From the early '50s onward, Lukacs repeatedly argued in books and articles that the Soviet Union was a brittle and fearful empire that was having trouble holding itself together, and that the United States should focus on pushing for fresh negotiations over the status of Central Europe rather than pursuing blustery ideological combat and pointless wars in Asia. (On this last point he found a kindred spirit in another traditionalist and early anticommunist -- diplomat George F. Kennan, who became critical of Cold War excesses and who until his death in early 2005 remained a close friend of Lukacs's.)

Lukacs’s writings on the Cold War hold up very well, and are filled with prescient observations that have stood the test of time. Unlike ideology-obsessed anti-communists such as James Burnham and Sidney Hook, Lukacs was always aware that the forces of nationalism ran stronger and deeper that party-line doctrines. Lukacs had a strong feel for the internal fissures that would eventually undo Soviet Communism. In a 1975 article for Commonweal magazine, Lukacs wrote about the criminal underworld in the USSR and made a startlingly acute prophecy about the post-Soviet future.

"There are many reasons to believe that this underworld subculture within the Soviet Union is enormous, and nearer to the surface of power than we are accustomed to think, and that in the event of a great breakdown this underworld, rather than some kind of political opposition, may flood the surface of that vast country," Lukacs wrote while Leonid Brezhnev was still in power and the very idea of a Russian mafia seemed unimaginable. Since the end of the Cold War, Lukacs has consistently advocated a more modest American role in the world, arguing that it is foolish to get entangled in the affairs of the Middle East and other hot spots.

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Among Lukacs's many books two general types stand out: impressionistic reflections on modern history and philosophy with titles like The Passing of the Modern Age and Historical Consciousness, and narrative histories focusing on World War II, including The Duel (about the standoff between Hitler and Churchill in 1940) and, most recently, Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.

In general, his straightforward histories have received the most attention. “I think he deserves to rank among the finest historians in the country,” says Emory University Professor Eugene Genovese, himself one of America’s leading historians. “All the more impressively that he writes so well when you consider that English is probably his fourth language or something. He really is a fine stylist. People talk about writing popular history. Lukacs has a real knack for writing history at the highest professional level in a style that anyone can pick up and read and learn from. It’s a great gift''

Genovese’s Emory colleague Patrick Allitt agrees. ''As a historian I think he is absolutely outstanding,'' says Professor Allitt, author of the 1993 study Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985, in which he compared Lukacs with more mainstream conservative Catholics like William F. Buckley, John Courtney Murray, and Michael Novak. ''I put him in the very first rank of historians of the 20th century. I think he's utterly brilliant, both in his incredible powers of research and assimilation and his wonderful style [and] psychological insight.''

Yet Lukacs’s historical works have to be placed in the context of his wide-ranging philosophical reflections. Lukacs has always been as much a sage as a historian. In the tradition of Edward Gibbon and Alexis de Tocqueville, Lukacs's observations about the past have been informed by a deeply held philosophy that allows him to make penetrating observations about the contemporary world.

In books such as At the End of an Age, Lukacs grapples with something much larger than the World Wars, the collapse of a superpower and the end of the Cold War. Lukacs believes that the modern age, which began five centuries ago with the waning of medieval civilization, is drawing to a close.

At its pinnacle in the late 19th century, the modern age was the era of bourgeois European domination of the globe, of tight and intimate nuclear families, of large industries and sound money, and.of urbane city life. Drawing on a perhaps overly familiar litany of conservative complaints, Lukacs laments that all the amenities and achievements of the modern age are falling into disarray. Our cities are jungles, family life is in peril, the great empires have long since retreated, the dollar is no longer good as gold and so forth. Lukacs’s anti-populism has to be seen in the context of his more general forebodings about the drift of modern life.

Yet it would be a mistake to lump Lukacs in with other gloomy merchants of doom (the Robert Borks and Bill Bennetts of the world). Unlike these professional Jeremiahs, Lukacs is honest enough to realize that the golden age he laments was deeply flawed and that the future holds promise as well as problems. Much more intellectually honest than Bork or Bennett, Lukacs doesn’t ignore the fact that many of the trends he decries are intimately linked with capitalist expansion and the imperatives of economic growth.

More important, behind all of Lukacs's surface descriptions of a world going to pot, there is a much deeper philosophic account of modernity and its discontents. In retrospect, the modern age was built on a shaky philosophical foundation: The characteristic modern idea was the division (often attributed to Descartes) of all knowledge into objective and subjective.

As Lukacs persuasively argues, this belief that our perceptions are either subjective or objective is no longer plausible. In a wide variety of fields, ranging from history to theoretical physics, it is now clear that the subjective and the objective are fused because our observation changes what we perceive. Simply put, our knowledge of the world is inescapably participatory.

Recognizing the participatory nature of knowledge means giving up some of the more grandiose modern ambitions, notably the dream that humanity can achieve a God-like rule over nature. As Lukacs notes, this may seem like a limitation, but it is also liberating, since it frees us from the hubristic ideal of perfect objectivity.

The mark of a powerful thinker is that he belongs to no party and so can offend anyone. Lukacs certainly lives up to this ideal. Liberals and leftists are made uncomfortable by his nostalgia for the traditional family and his hostility toward abortion. Many on the political right, for their part, are stung by Lukacs's remarks on the cult of economic growth, which threatens to destroy both the environment and humane traditions of living.

I myself am rather baffled by his assertion that the 20th century "was largely one of intellectual (and cultural) stagnation." With an airy wave of his hands, Lukacs quickly dismisses the legacies of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Since these artists and thinkers lived near the summit of human achievement, it seems short-sighted to consign them to the dustbin of history.

Lukacs’s philosophical books are not scholarly. Typically, he does not try to prove arguments, but rather holds forth with a series of inter-related observations. He takes Catholic theology for granted as a starting point, and buttresses his theories with references doctrinal teachings on everything from creation to the anti-Christ. If you don’t share the Christian frame-work that Lukacs operates under, you’ll be put off by at least part of his work, or at least find it based more on assertion than proof.

More importantly, Lukacs doesn’t adequately square a central contradiction in his own thinking between his post-modern historicism and his Catholicism. While it is true that historical consciousness grew out of the cultural matrix of Western Christianity, it is also the case that historical thinking, with its emphasis on particularity, undermines all universal forms of thought, including the theology of the Church universal. The competing claims of history and religion tug at Lukacs, as can be seen in his wavering statements on human nature. As a good Catholic, he believes that human nature is unchanging: we are all marked by original sin and subject to temptation. Yet as a historian, Lukacs is all too aware that human heart is not unchanging but is contingent upon time and place.

These contradictions shouldn’t mar our appreciation of Lukacs’s oeuvre. As Lukacs has repeatedly proven throughout his career, he often has the intuitions of a genius. His philosophical books are very much part of his overall achievement.

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Richard Brookhiser, an editor at National Review and a respected popular historian, makes a distinction between Lukacs's historical work and his more political writing in books like Democracy and Populism. While exceptionally insightful on World War II, Brookhiser says, Lukacs's critique of nationalism and democracy is based on a blinkered view of American culture and an unwillingness to recognize what makes America different from Europe.

Brookhiser explains his point by way of a history lesson. ''Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that there were two ways in which Jefferson was superior to Hamilton. One was his love for the West and the other was his trust in the people. I think to the 'trust in the people,' John would probably say that is populism, and evil nationalism is probably lurking behind the door. But...a disposition to trust the people up to a certain point in certain ways is an American thing and perhaps it is America's contribution to the world.''

Lukacs bristles at the suggestion that he sees America through a distorting European lens. ''I'm not speaking as a Hungarian,'' he says. ''I've lived in this country now for almost 60 years. My books don't deal with Hungary, but with British and American history.''

In conversation, he's willing to grant praise to a certain form of populism, citing the mass movements that have brought democracy to Central and Eastern Europe. ''The people are often right,'' he notes. ''Just think of my country. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a real popular uprising. Although it was defeated it had very salutary consequences in the long run. It was the Stalingrad of international communism. The repression in Hungary afterward was much less. They did not quite restore 100 percent terror. That is why in 1989 the change of the regime came along without bloodshed.''

But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ''conservative'' has come to mean simply ''antiliberal.''

''Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,'' he says. ''It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.''

''In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,'' he continues. ''That's why they won the election -- on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people's political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a 'cultural issue' or a 'moral issue.' These are half-truths.''

Although Lukacs has won his share of esteem in a career that spans more than five decades, he now finds himself oddly isolated as someone who criticizes the Republican party from a traditionalist vantage point.

''What is there traditional in George Bush?'' he asks with exasperation. ''Nothing. Nothing.''