March 25, 2005


The anti-populist: Traditionalist historian John Lukacs laments the direction of conservatism in America (Jeet Heer, March 6, 2005, Boston Globe)

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 Tocqueville, 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.

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.

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.

''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 remains a close friend of Lukacs's.) 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.

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. ''As a historian I think he is absolutely outstanding,'' says Emory University historian Patrick 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 Allitt believes that Lukacs's elitism limits the practical worth of his political worldview. ''He's never going to be a central figure in the American conservative tradition because he says things which practical politicians mustn't say,'' Allitt argues. ''Because he's an elitist he can be an interesting person to give daring and energetic ideas to conservatives, but they can't take him to the polls.''

Richard Brookhiser, an editor at National Review and a respected historian in his own right, makes a similar distinction between Lukacs's historical work and his more political writing in books like ''Populism and Democracy.'' 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.''

Thast's sadly false. He reserves particular opprobrium for the three conservative presidents he's lived under--Ike, Reagan, and W--while he all but worships Winston Churchill. Hard to see any other reason but that the last was an intellectual and an aristocrat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2005 5:31 PM
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