- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005


By John Lukacs

Yale, $25, 248 pages


Edited by Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson

ISI, $30, 922 pages

John Lukacs is one of our most prolific historians and certainly one of the best and most innovative. His range is wide. He’s done books on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. He’s written about the Cold War, about the nature of historical consciousness and about Budapest in 1900.

His most recent book, “Democracy and Populism: Fear & Hatred,” doesn’t raise new issues. Its themes will be recognizable to anyone familiar with Mr. Lukacs’ work, but that’s fine: Admirers won’t mind at all and those new to his thought are likely to find someone whose works they’ll want to delveinto more deeply.

Mr. Lukacs is a historian whose beautifully-written and ruminative books and essays may be the first introduction many readers will have to thinking historically and to understanding what history, when it’s done well, is all about. For those who haven’t encountered Mr. Lukacs, there is now the recently-published “Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians and Historical Knowledge,” a 900-page compendium of much of his best work.

Mr. Lukacs describes his new book, “Democracy and Populism” as a “jeremiad,” and the book does have that quality. He’s deeply suspicious of liberal (and any other) notions of progress, for example, and wonders if any that’s worth talking about has happened at all. He argues that technological advance comes at great cost to the environment and what Mr. Lukacs calls “the old human decencies.” And he sees the history of the last several decades as a slide into barbarism.

This decline into barbarism Mr. Lukacs attributes to the destructive power of two pernicious trends, nationalism and populism, which began to plague history around 1870. He contrasts nationalist fervor (a new development) with patriotism, which he regards as “old-fashioned.” “Patriotism is defensive;” he writes, “nationalism is aggressive.” Also: “Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions,” while “nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a ‘people,’ … a political and ideological substitute for religion.”

The decline of patriotism into nationalism was bad enough for the world. Even more tragic, in Mr. Lukacs’ opinion, has been the collapse of democracy into populism. Why tragic? Because in an age of democratic populism, like ours, the trait that comes to dominate public opinion is hate.

No event has so underlined the evils of populism and nationalism more than the advent of National Socialism in Germany, Mr. Lukacs argues. He quotes Hitler to show how hatred springs from nationalism. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler wrote that he “was a nationalist and not a patriot.” And in many speeches he shouted the importance of cultivating hate: “There is only defiance and hate, hate and again hate,” he said, hatred for all that is not part of the nation, the people.

It is hate — the ability to hate relentlessly — that gives populism its enduring appeal, Mr. Lukacs writes. What else explains the fact that “Red flags and Communist symbols are not forbidden” almost anywhere, he asks, while Nazi ones are. He wonders if this reveals “anxiety and fear about the potential mass appeal of populist nationalism in the age of popular sovereignty.”

National Socialism was only the most extreme form populism has taken to date, but populist sentiment of various degrees has manifested itself elsewhere and everywhere it has appeared, warns Mr. Lukacs, and “it has been inseparable from the decline of authority.” Along with the the decline of authority and the loosening of the hold tradition once had on society comes an “increase in criminality among the young and puerilism” among adults, both of which Mr. Lukacs sees all around us. The 1960s for Mr. Lukacs were “loud” and “crude” and what followed was an acceleration the break-up of “families, marriages, the respect for women — the gradual liquidation of an entire civilization now past.”

Mr. Lukacs’ new book takes up other themes, too, in addition to these pessimistic ones. He maintains that notions of “right” and “left” politically no longer have much meaning. He wants historians and others to use such words as “fascism” and “totalitarianism” with greater precision. And he argues, with great persuasiveness, that historians have yet to comprehend the radical significance that public opinion — the ideas held by men and women, whether right or wrong — has on the course of history in a time of populist democracy.

As in all of Mr. Lukacs’ books, readers are treated to anecdotes that cogently sum up points he makes about our changing times. Society pages “began to disappear from American newspapers around 1960, at the same time when the American noun ‘socialite’ vanished, too … .” In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan’s staff in the White House was larger than Franklin Roosevelt’s at the height of World War II. A 1791 dictionary defined publicity as “the quality of being public.” By 1904, it had become “the business of making goods or persons publicly known.”

It is interesting that Mr. Lukacs, a conservative, doesn’t care much for George W. Bush, in part because he sees the Iraqi War as a hubristic Wilsonian effort on this “colorless” president’s part to make the world safe for democracy. And he argues that the Republican Party has been advocating an American brand of nationalism and populism in recent decades, a path Mr. Lukacs regards as dangerous, to say the least.

Does Mr. Lukacs offer any hope? Very little, though he does admit that “History is unpredictable” implying that no one can know what will happen. He is encouraged by what he sees as an impressive growth of “an appetite for history” (his words) by large numbers of people. Thisinterestmanifestsitself. he writes, in the great demand for biographies of quality. Mr. Lukacs also notes that the struggle for black emancipation in the South, though still far from successful, has nonetheless resulted in significant change with relatively little bloodshed: a sign, for him, that meaningful transformation can occur. Yet these are small consolations compared to the collapse in civility and tradition and the growth of barbarism that he records all around us.

Mr. Lukacs writes a particularly rich and textured history, similar to earlier historians he admires and often quotes to great effect: the 19th-century Swiss Jakob Burckhardt, for one, and Johan Huizinga, a 20th-century Dutchman. Like them, he regards history as the sum of all that’s happened in the past to everyone high and low, not just the story of politics and of famous men and women.

Mr. Lukacs’ urbanity, his broad reading and ability to recall what’s significant in that reading, are apparent in his new book, just as they are in “Remembered Past,” the new collection of his work. If you look at nothing else in that large book do not fail to read his essay on Jakob Burkhardt and the one on Simone Weil. Mr. Lukacs may be convinced that ours is a barbaric time, but his presence among us is happy evidence to the contrary.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide