John Lukacs’s Valediction
This is the best introduction to the historical craft of John Lukacs. History and the Human Condition does not replace the much longer Remembered Past, a wide-ranging selection of Lukacs’s works also published by ISI Books. But this work, a coda to the author’s career, contains just the right mixture of reflection and nostalgia (true nostalgia, Lukacs says, “is a desire less for a time than for a place”), addressing new and old historical problems, that it should serve well to draw a new generation of readers under his spell.
Lukacs has already influenced and inspired (and sometimes, infuriated) three generations of accomplished historians despite never having taught at prestigious universities where he could sequester graduate students and make disciples of them. Russell Kirk applauded his Historical Consciousness, especially its “moral imagination” and nuanced arguments against all philosophies of history. Forrest McDonald, meeting Lukacs for the first time—I happened to introduce them—discussed with him how their thinking about history had reached similar conclusions and praised Historical Consciousness as an elegant statement of those conclusions. Stephen Tonsor, Clyde Wilson, Richard Gamble, and many others have expressed their debt to his art. The distinguished Robert H. Ferrell, slightly older than Lukacs and not very often in agreement with him, wrote an essay, “Appreciating Lukacs,” that must have mystified the Hofstadters and Schlesingers of the mainstream historical profession.
One of the essays in this volume is on Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “The Vital Center Did Not Hold.” While wishing no ill to a man who appears to have had a “pleasant career,” Lukacs nevertheless sums up Schlesinger’s life’s work—and thus probably three-quarters of the work of his generation—by noting “the rapid decline of the appeal of liberalism, and the attraction and the force of a populist nationalism—the cult of the people and of the military power of the nation, the meaning of which Schlesinger cannot comprehend or perhaps even discern.”
Such insights were what first drew me to Lukacs’s writings, when I was a young historian at the end of the ’60s thoroughly disabused of the Great Liberal Idea of Progress and trying to make sense of the cultural mess that decade was making of my chosen profession.
I first read Lukacs’s The Passing of the Modern Age, thrilling to it almost as much as to Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. At Kirk’s suggestion, I then spent several weeks studying Historical Consciousness, which changed my life as a teacher. Its central insight—at least to a young scholar seeking a way to frame U.S. history that would counter the great myths of the land of opportunity, the primacy of the individual over real community, liberal internationalism, and the emerging nexus of the race-class-gender “social” history—was that a sound understanding of human nature precludes the need for a philosophy of history. Schlesinger once quoted Pascal as saying that “man is neither angel nor brute,” which Lukacs calls a “safe, liberal, gray, centrist view of human nature. To the contrary: man is both angel and brute.”
Such distinctions, and Lukacs is a lover of distinctions, demand that we study history according to truths that are beyond the ability of man to manipulate and that are rooted in his nature. One consequence of this Christian view of man—in Lukacs’s case, this Catholic view—is that we must study real people, not categories of people. His critics, and many of his friends, have labeled John Lukacs a proponent of the “Great Man” theory of history. There is some truth to this, especially in the books for which he is best known—those about Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt controlling the destiny of the world in World War II—but it is only a half-truth and can cause readers to misunderstand what he means by studying real people.
In the selections “A Tocqueville Tide,” “The Germans’ Two Wars: Heisenberg and Bohr,” and “The World Around Me: My Adopted Country” presented here, Lukacs may not exactly say with Emerson that “all history is biography,” but he comes rather close. It is important to Lukacs to understand the details of Tocqueville’s life, to understand that the “history of science not only is inseparable from the history of scientists; it is the history of scientists.” How can we comprehend the history of mankind if we cannot comprehend what moves its men and women? The Terrible Simplifiers are those for whom categories and statistics and “forces” are the stuff of our common story.
This volume also introduces a great theme of Lukacs’s work: the 20th century gave us not the struggle of democracy and communism, not the impending victory of liberal capitalism, but two great choices: nationalism and socialism, and the greatest of these was nationalism.
One of his criticisms of American “conservatives”—he usually uses quotation marks—is that they often conflate patriotism with populist nationalism: “It may be enough to say that patriotism is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; that patriotism means the love of a country, while nationalism is the cult of a people (and of the power of their state).”
This distinction helps explain why Lukacs understands Hitler to have been more dangerous than Stalin, why he is critical of the conservative hero Reagan, and why he became so close a friend, even a soul mate, to George Kennan. What Lukacs calls “the militarization of popular imagination” has led inexorably to the imperial presidency and massive growth of the state, even as liberal and socialist ideas are dying.
The sense of place Lukacs so lovingly feels for his household—and Schuylkill Township and Chester County and Pennsylvania—he finds replaced by the false patriotism, and therefore false conservatism, of servile nationalists. There is a caveat to this observation, however: the Hungarian-born Lukacs does love his adopted country, and “many things that I saw were not what many others saw… democratic surfaces are big and thick. Sometimes I was wrong.”
Here, a note of personal interest to me. Lukacs praises the great American historian of modern Europe Carlton J.H. Hayes for his understanding of the cultural unity of “Atlantic civilization.” Hayes was also the founder of the study of nationalism, and he made many of the distinctions between patriotism and nationalism that Lukacs now insists upon. Hayes, who was discarded by liberals for his common sense about the materialism of the modern age and for his prudence about Spain in World War II and the early Cold War, deserves the recognition that Lukacs wants him to have.
Hayes and Kennan share another of Lukacs’s passions. In my favorite selection in this book, “History as Literature,” Lukacs asks, “Is history literature or science?” He answers boldly, “Well—it is literature rather than science. And so it should be. For us.” In a footnote, he quotes approvingly from a letter written to him by Kennan: “I view every work of narrative history as a work of the creative imagination, like the novel, but serving a somewhat different purpose and responsive to different, more confining rules.”
Lukacs insists, “the choice of every word is not only an aesthetic or a technical but a moral choice.” The consciousness of a historian involves more than “facts,” which are themselves limited, and should be informed by right reading, especially of literature. “Our knowledge of history,” Lukacs says, “is of course less than the entire past, but it is also more than the recorded past.” The best historians do not become slaves of “categorical idealism” but cultivate what Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot called the moral imagination. Historians, once they learn this truth, may even be the leaders in bringing light to what otherwise could become a new Dark Age.
John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions. This has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation. I trust, however, that readers of this admirable introduction to one of the true creative geniuses of his profession will recognize not only Lukacs’s passion for truth but a certain humility born of his profound understanding of human nature—and the sweetness as well as the fearlessness of a gentleman.
John Willson is professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College.