Wednesday, February 12, 2014
A Few More Reasons to Appreciate John Lukacs
I have recently finished reading Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (2005), by one of my favorite writers, John Lukacs. I believe this is my fifth book by Lukacs, and I could do much worse than to devote myself to reading the remaining twenty-five or so. He has much to say about democracy and a host of isms: populism, nationalism, progressivism, capitalism, socialism, patriotism, Darwinism, communism, liberalism and conservatism. There is much here to offend ideologues across the political spectrum; but Lukacs is pushing ninety now, and long past caring. A few selections, as follows:
On the Enlightenment, 1789 and misreading of history:
…much of the entire (and so largely French) Enlightenment had become boring. Or at least irrelevant: because of its mechanical and rationalist philosophy of human nature. But here we come to the mistaken view that many conservatives adopted during the twentieth century and that they have even now. This is that the rise of nationalist anti-liberalism meant a great historical reaction against 1789….And this is the enduring mistake of many conservatives, who despise the “Left” more than they distance themselves from “extremists” on the “Right.”
Two hundred years after 1789 “Right” and “left” still retain some meaning, but less and less. And much of the same applies to their once offsprings, conservatives and liberals. For, if conservatives have a fatal inclination to accept populists and extreme nationalists for their allies on the “Right,” the liberals’ misreading of the latter is as bad, if not worse.
Such a misreading of history…is replete with the –alas, still enduring—myopia of liberals about history, indeed about human nature….people are moved by (and at times even worship) evidences of power, rather than by propositions of social contracts.
Hegel…understood that human history did not move like a pendulum, that actions and reactions of ideas—indeed, historical movements—did not quite follow the laws of physics. That recognition was correct; but his conclusions were not. According to his well-known dialectic, Thesis was succeeded by Antithesis, and then from the eventual struggle and confluence of the two a Synthesis was bound to come. But that scenario was too intellectual, idealistic as well as mechanical….What came after 1870 was the emergence and the powerful attraction of two new enormous movements, nationalism and socialism, that turned out to rule most of the history of the twentieth century—indeed, most of the world even now. They were not “syntheses”…
On Marx and Marxism:
That was but a consequence of Marx’s greatest failure, which was his profoundly mistaken concept of human nature (a concept not entirely different from that of capitalists, Progressives, liberals, economists, etc.): homo oeconomicus, Economic Man—when it became more and more evident that history was formed, and politics dependent upon, how and what large masses of people were thinking (and desiring, and fearing, and hating). That is: during the increasing intrusion of mind into matter.
We must not kick a man when he is down. Marx was an unattractive man but—at least intellectually—he was taking the side of the downtrodden and the poor, especially of the industrial workers (though not of peasants). Moreover, most of his critics miss the vital points, the inherent weakness of the Marxist body of dogma….we ought to look at Marx historically, not philosophically. Marx and Marxism failed well before 1989—not in 1956 and not in 1919 but in 1914. For it was then that internationalism and class consciousness melted away in the heat of nationalist emotions and beliefs….Marxists would never understand—let alone admit—this. They were (and many still are) thinking in categories of class consciousness instead of national consciousness. Marx…entirely failed to understand what nationalism…was. His heavy, clumsy prose droned and thundered against Capitalism and against the State. Hardly a word about the Nation; and of course, not even the slightest inkling…that State and Nation are not the same things.
This brings us to what is perhaps the fundamental Marxist (and also economic; and often liberal) misreading of human nature….what governs the world (and especially in the democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions.
On Liberalism’s embrace of Darwinism:
Liberalism, in its noblest and also in its most essential sense, had always meant (and faintly, here and there it still means) an exaltation, a defense of the fundamental value and category of human dignity. Darwinism suggests that there was, there is, and there remains no fundamental difference between human beings and all other living beings. In sum: either human beings are unique or they are not. Either thesis may be credible but not both; and this is not merely a religious question.
It is amazing how unquestioningly and enthusiastically American Protestants embraced Darwinism. This ought to tell us something about the shallowness of their religious beliefs, together with their belief in the progress of democracy.
On Not Suffering Fools Gladly:
The Rev. Shailer Matthews, dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, a celebrated public theologian (and an imbecile)…
On Patriotism, Nationalism and Populism:
Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people,” justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion.
…the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seems to belong to his tribe.
On the Misreading of Communism:
In 1917, wrote William F. Buckley… “history changed gears” – whatever that means. It is nonsense. The Russian revolutions…were the consequences of a great European war, not the other way around….What matter was not ideological but national. What happened in Russia was Russian….Those were years of mud and ice, smeared and streaked with blood.
Yet Lenin (and Trotsky…) were despicable (and not merely deplorable) murderers and rulers, as was Stalin, if not on occasion, worse. Moreover, compared with Stalin they were fools, without an inkling of statesmanship, without much comprehension of human nature, without the slightest understanding of nationalism—all of these matters that Stalin felt, and learned, and then possessed.
Communism and Communists became more than scapegoats; they were, often thoughtlessly and automatically, attributed as the main sources of anything that was evil.
What was common in the beliefs of just about all of them…was their mistaken view of history—more precisely, of the evolving history of the world. Such a view, at least to some extent, has been shared by myriad other people too who were not necessarily Communist sympathizers: a view which, though badly tattered, remains widespread even now. It is a view inseparable from the general idea of progress, of evolution, of democracy, amounting to the progress of mankind…
There was (and is) Tocqueville’s great maxim: that while the prime sin of aristocratic age was that of pride, that of the democratic age is that of envy….And envy is but one, though widespread, democratic manifestation of the hidden existence of hatreds and of fears. One of the manifestations of the latter was American anti-Communism, the popular substitute for patriotism.
“A beacon on the summit of mountains to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light till time shall be lost to eternity, and the globe itself dissolves, nor leave a wreck behind.” There is something strangely unhistorical and profoundly pessimistic in this vision. And disturbing: for the fate of mankind indeed seems catastrophic if Americans do not free themselves from the thought that they are the last hope of earth.
A misreading of the world after 1945. The-well-justified-American concern should have been with Russian power, not with Communist ideology.
On the New Barbarism:
…Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed playing the role of president, or George W. Bush, who enjoyed playing soldier. Here was the duality of the American character: stunning transformations of personal and sexual and civilizational behavior, involving the dissolution of families, including millions of people who identify and see themselves as “conservatives.”
History is not governed by logic: but we must at least consider that this strange duality cannot exist much longer: that sooner or later the very political structure of democracy may undergo a deep-going and at least for a while irreversible transformation, including mutations that may have already begun.
A symbolic and symptomatic example of the confusion of state and nation and people is the cult of the American flag—a cult more sacrosanct than in many other countries.
A new barbarian feudalism is bound to come in the future: but not yet.
One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the later.
And the endless pursuit of justice that may lead, and indeed often leads, to the worst of human disasters.
Meanwhile, liberalism and social democracy have, almost inevitably, altered Protestantism, with its reminder of sin first diminishing, then evaporating. But…here and there a radical and nationalist populism…has merged with the reappearing remnants of a fundamentalist Protestantism…a kind of near-fanatical spirituality which, however-because of its shallowness and individual permissiveness-is ephemeral. Among the Eastern, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches of eastern Europe the nationalist and populist characters of the different national churches remain largely what they have been for almost one thousand years.
On Woodrow Wilson:
Since not only the importance of ideas but the very importance of events must be judged by their consequences, let us recognize that the then-great revolution maker, the effective destroyer of an old order, was Wilson, not Lenin. That Wilson’s character was unattractive, that his personality was pallid and cramped, that his mind was immature, that the very workings of that mind were strange, that even the otherwise trenchant observation of his postmaster general (“a man of high ideals but of no principles”) was inaccurate, since those very ideas were less than mediocre and customarily superficial—all this is but another example of the iron, even more than of the unpredictability, of history. “National self-determination” and “Make the world safe for democracy” transformed the history of the twentieth century more than anything else….American foreign policy—indeed, America’s view of the world—have remained Wilsonian ever since…