Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

John Lukacs vs. Populism

The great historian of the Right foresaw our Trump Moment coming a decade ago
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In 2005, the great Hungary-born conservative (he prefers the term “reactionary”) historian John Lukacs published an unfortunately not-very-good book called Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred. It wasn’t very good simply because it reads like his notebook, not like an actual book. It’s not well organized, I mean. But there are gems scattered throughout, and they glitter with particular brightness in this political moment. Keep in mind that Lukacs, who was born in Hungary, suffered forced labor under the Nazis, and fled Soviet-imposed communism — is a traditional conservative, and has the traditional conservative’s fear of populism. Excerpts from the book:

It is because of its nationalism that the Republican Party has become populist, at least during the past forty or so years. We have seen that by the 1930s American progressives and populists diverged: most of the remaining progressives became internationalists, while most of the populists were nationalists. Indeed, it may be argued (and the United States is but one example of this widespread phenomenon) that, more than often, populism is nationalist socialism. And while populists remain opposed to international capitalism, they have become less and less inimical to nationalist capitalists or to nationalist billionaires. [!!!! — RD]


Meanwhile, we ought to consider the tendency of journalists and of political commentators throughout the Western world: their extreme sensitivity to every manifestation suggesting the appearance of so-called right-wing political phenomena anywhere. That sensitivity is not comparable to anxieties about a resurgence of the extreme Left. It is not attributable to “political correctness” (a stupid phrase) either. It reflects, instead, anxiety and fear about the potential mass appeal of populist nationalism in the age of popular sovereignty.


[I]n the age of democracy what is superficial often matters, because of the very nature of society, of the structure of events, of the widespread extent and propagation of such slogans at the expense of private thinking and of self-knowledge.


In our times … toward the end of the Modern Age, the difference — indeed, the increased discrepancy — between fame and honor has become so large that in the characters of presidents and in those of most public figures in all kinds of occupation, the passion for fame has just about obliterated the now remote and ancient sense of honor.


One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter. … [W]hile hatred amounts to a moral weakness, it can be, alas, often, and at least in the short run, a source of strength. Whence the advantage of the Right over the Left — especially in the age of democratic populism.


It is insufficient and shortsighted to attribute such inclinations [fear and hatred] only to extremists. This is especially so during the devolution of liberal democracy into populism, popular nationalism being an inevitable ingredient of the latter, the wet cement that binds otherwise classless societies together. This, for instance, has now become the principal creed, as well as the principal asset, of “conservatives” and of the Republican Party in the United States, confident as they are in reapoing large and political electoral benefits from the “unpatriotic” and “liberal” characteristics of their potential opponents.


It is hate that unites people, whereas love is always individual, rather than collective. To this we may add what immediately negates whatever moral essence the purposes of class struggles or of racism or of modern nationalism may have: and this is that love is never the love of oneself, it is the love of another. That is the saving grace of mankind.


Fear and hatred are human characteristics, and we shall never be able to eliminate them entirely. We must recognize not only their existence but their latent — and often more than latent — presence among those who wish to wield power. Whether some of them will be actually able to achieve power depends on many matters, most of them unpredictable, and seldom visible among the ever more complicated and manipulated appearances of politics and powers in this age of mass democracy. It depends whether and how the devolution of democracy into populism proceeds in the twenty-first century.

One more. This is good:

The “Left” has been losing its appeal, almost everywhere. It may be that in the future the true divisions will be not between Right and Left but between two kinds of Right: between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love liberty, and others who love liberty more than they fear liberals; between nationalists and patriots; between those who believe that America’s destiny is to rule the world and others who do not believe that; between those who trust technology and machines and others who trust tradition and old human decencies; between those who support “development” and others who wish to protect the conservation of land — in sum, between those who do not question Progress and others who do.

If you want to read the whole thing, buy the book.

When the book was released 11 years ago, Jeet Heer profiled Lukacs, “the anti-populist,” in the Boston Globe. Excerpt:

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.”