Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Lettered Reactionary

John Lukacs is a writer first, a teacher second, a follower never.

In little more than six months during 1980-81, historian John Lukacs wrote two major essays addressing the future of the Solidarity movement in Poland. The articles proved as prophetic as they were controversial: he argued that the Soviet system was near collapse in Eastern Europe and that communism as an idea was intellectually bankrupt. But what made the pair of pieces particularly intriguing was that they appeared in the leading conservative and liberal journals of the time, National Review and The New Republic. For those who know John Lukacs, this came as no surprise.

Conservative in temperament, radical in intellect, Lukacs is that rare creature that runs against his fellow intellectuals, the “herd of independent minds” in Harold Rosenberg’s sardonic phrase. He defiantly and gloriously represents an otherwise extinct species: the gadfly as man of letters.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, he ranks among the most prolific scholars writing about modern history. He deals with topics as diverse as World War II, atomic physics and the epistemology of historical knowledge, the rise of American democracy and the accompanying specter of demagogic populism, and—arguably his most important and original domain—the art of historiography and the nature of historical consciousness. He maintains a profound suspicion of the modern world and exhibits immediate allergic reactions to all fads and most conventional wisdom.

The range and diversity of Lukacs’s scholarship partly accounts for his failure to be properly understood by his intellectual contemporaries or to acquire a school of followers. Nonetheless, his admirers have included some of the keenest minds of 20th-century America: the leftist intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes, political columnist George Will, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun, and the legendary scholar-diplomat George Kennan. Yet even these distinguished figures have shown patterns of thinking and position-taking that lend themselves to definite classification. None has espoused an outlook so idiosyncratic or Weltanschauung so singular as to risk incomprehension, dismissal, or mockery. None has adopted stances so rebellious or pursued a path so unorthodox as Lukacs.

He was born into a bourgeois family in Hungary in 1924, son of a Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Raised in the Catholic faith, he nonetheless retained a deep affection for his mother after his parents divorced. She was an Anglophile who ensured that her son learned English and gained an appreciation for British culture. Because of his Jewish background, Lukacs served in a labor battalion in the Hungarian army during World War II. In the spring of 1945, he evaded arrest by the Nazis, but had no doubt about his likely fate at the hands of the Soviet liberators.

At the war’s close, he resumed his studies, and in 1946 he left Hungary for the United States, armed with a Ph.D. in history. He has since taught for almost 50 years at two small Catholic colleges in the Philadelphia area, Chestnut Hill and La Salle. Asked why he remained at those schools, Lukacs stated, “I didn’t much want to climb the academic stepladder. I wanted a career as a writer.” He believed that teaching undergraduates made his writing more compelling: “I had to explain to undergraduates and describe complicated things simply but not superficially.” Although he was invited to be a visiting professor at top-ranked research universities—Yale, Penn, and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts, among others—the “historical profession” and the academic mill exerted no attraction.

When Lukacs arrived in the United States, the Cold War was just beginning. Having witnessed the brutality and inhumanity of the Soviet occupation of his native land, he harbored no illusions about the “noble intentions” of the USSR, unlike many on the American Left. So he was pegged a conservative, though in reality he was never more than a fellow traveler of the Right. True, he has always been a cultural conservative: as the title of his combative 1980 apologia Confessions of an Original Sinner suggests, he is a serious Catholic with a commitment to a traditional faith. And although he possesses a temperamental lack of affinity for association with political groups or intellectual circles, he is on cordial terms with paleoconservatives—particularly the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with whose press he has published several books.

But much as he scorned the success of communism in winning converts and sympathizers among soft-minded American leftists—he did not doubt, for example, that Alger Hiss was guilty of treason for political espionage—Lukacs never shared the Right’s obsession with anti-communism. He regarded Sen. Joseph McCarthy as an opportunistic thug who represented the crudest, most threatening expression of populist nationalism, a phenomenon that Lukacs considers as the most dangerous trend of the 20th century. He viewed the conservative preoccupation as self-defeating, arguing that communism was ultimately a doomed, outdated 19th-century concept and that the Soviet Union posed no ideological threat to the West. In 1957, in a characteristic barb, he wrote that “except for a few aged Marxists huddled in New York, there are few truly international Communists left.”

Indeed, Lukacs trumpeted the argument that the USSR was dangerous because of its military power, not its ideological profile—an idea he advanced as early as 1961 in his History of the Cold War, the first time he demonstrated to a large audience the originality of his thinking on a controversial topic. The book profoundly impressed George Kennan, who called it “a really great work of philosophical-historical analysis … the deepest and most important effort of this sort that has been made anywhere to date.”

In Lukacs’s 1984 essay “The Problem of American Conservatism,” he expanded his critique of the anti-communist Right. “The liberals were senile while the conservatives were immature,” he wrote. Some conservatives, determined to regard Lukacs as someone on their side, were quick to respond that immaturity can be outgrown, but there is only one dire end for senility. Yet Lukacs went further. He had a low opinion of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican hero of the 1950s. He considered Eisenhower a shallow, superficial president who had lost a golden opportunity to end the Cold War after Stalin’s death in March 1953. Eisenhower’s rigid anti-communism, he argued, blinded him to an opportunity to pursue détente with Stalin’s triumvirate of successors, Malenkov, Molotov, and Khrushchev. Lukacs also looked dimly on the Republican Party of that decade, arguing that after World War II it had promoted and exploited that crude nationalism which he so deplored. He cited a plank from the 1956 Republican Party platform calling for the establishment of military bases around the world.

Lukacs was a fierce critic of the 1960s, though he deviated from the conventional view—shared by Left and Right—of the sixties as the era that reshaped modern American history. He argued instead that the decade should have been seen as continuous with its predecessor: “There is plenty of evidence that the puerility of the 1960s (for that is what it was) existed already in the 1950s: the increasing influence of the pictorial imagination, for instance—especially embodied in television—or in what happened to popular music.”

If nothing else, the originality—or sheer orneriness—of such pronouncements gave Lukacs a broader recognition and entry into the mainstream press. His articles began appearing not only in scholarly journals but in such prominent mass-circulation publications as the New York Times Magazine, Horizon, and Esquire. Yet because of his unorthodox opinions and his unwillingness to identify consistently as an adherent to a particular school of thought, Lukacs won no more than a handful of discerning, enthusiastic readers. His audience was limited because of his intellectual temerity and outsider status. This was especially true within the American literary academy and among academic historians, who tended to dismiss his theoretical writings as irrelevant to their craft and to denigrate his narrative histories as “popular” rather than scholarly. This disregard goes far toward explaining Lukacs’s deep disdain for both the American intelligentsia and the historical profession.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, both the radicalization of America in response to the Vietnam War and the violence and anti-intellectualism of the student protest movements further complicated Lukacs’s political stance. He now castigated the Left as infantile and boorish, just as the Right had been during the McCarthy era. The protest movement and counterculture prompted Lukacs to clarify his political views. Although he wrote extensively for William F. Buckley’s National Review and R. Emmett Tyrell’s American Spectator from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, he began at this time to reject, explicitly and vociferously, the label “conservative” and instead started to call himself a “reactionary.” In hindsight, it is as if Lukacs adopted the term as a shock tactic: one suspects that “traditionalist” did not strike him as sufficient to irritate the liberal-radical intelligentsia or arresting enough to challenge the secular, modernist pieties of the cultural elite. Confessing to being an “original sinner” in his morals and a “reactionary” in his politics and social views was more likely to hit a contemporary nerve.

This is not to say that he was not serious in describing himself as a “reactionary.” It does apply to him, and he meant it to be taken in earnest. The same is true for his self-identification as an “original sinner.” (Especially in the sexual sphere, Lukacs does not regard himself as a saint. He was a ladies’ man for several decades and is now in his third marriage.) But neither of these terms has lessened the unpredictability of Lukacs’s arguments or made him immediately understandable to his audiences. Unlike most reactionaries, he has never revolted against or detested the bourgeoisie. In fact, Lukacs has lived a decidedly middle-class life in an older suburb of Philadelphia, where he has served on his neighborhood-planning association for 30 years, waging a long battle against commercial overdevelopment.

The 1980s saw Lukacs drift further away from the mainstream Right. His antagonism toward American conservatives intensified as their political fortunes prospered in the late 1970s, reaching a peak with the election of their standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, as president in 1980. Lukacs had voted for Reagan largely out of disgust with what he called the “pusillanimities of Jimmy Carter.” But Reagan soon became his bête noire, someone who represented everything wrong with American conservatism. He called him “superficial, lazy, puerile … an expansive nationalist,” the product of shrewd public relations. Here was a Hollywood B-list actor turned commander in chief, a nightmarish fulfillment of the Peter Principle of ever-ascending, maximized incompetence. For Lukacs, Reagan represented the triumph of American demagogic populism: the specter he had warned against for decades turned into reality in the deceptively benign, quintessentially American form of the General Electric host and genial “aw-schucks” California cowboy.

What exercised Lukacs above all was Reagan’s simplistic view of the world—as if it were a Hollywood studio set from an earlier era, with the subtleties of international geopolitics reduced to good guys wearing white hats battling bad guys in black hats. When Reagan was credited in the 1990s by conservatives—and much of the mainstream press—with bringing about the fall of communism, Lukacs would have none of it. In 1988, on the eve of the collapse of Berlin Wall, he stated, “I, an early anti-Communist, have more sympathy, respect and goodwill for Mikhail Gorbachev than for Ronald Reagan.” Instead, he attributed the defeat of communism to the courage of the peoples of Eastern Europe, particularly the Poles and Hungarians, along with the dramatic role of Lukacs’s sole contemporary hero, Pope John Paul II.

At the same time, a note of pessimism about the future of the West in general and the United States in particular crept into Lukacs’s writings. The passive reaction to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had initially led him to wonder if Western civilization was decaying. In later years—in the wake of the West’s tepid response to Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring in 1968 and Poland’s Solidarity movement in the early 1980s—Lukacs concluded that the West had lost confidence in its own culture, a phenomenon that worsened as the decades passed. By the mid-1990s, his doomsaying cultural pronouncements resembled those of another communist refugee on America’s shores, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Not unlike Solzhenitsyn, Lukacs argued both in Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (1984) and The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (1993) that the West had lost its dynamism, been corrupted by materialism, and that the United States had fallen hostage to an elective monarchy debased by public relations and political polling.

Still undimmed in his mid 80s, Lukacs maintains his impressive literary output. Since the 1990s, he has published significant works on Philadelphia, on Budapest in 1900, on Winston Churchill’s rivalry with Hitler, and on the career of George Kennan—along with two volumes of autobiography and an unorthodox amalgam of history and fiction, A Thread of Years. The latter book is perhaps the most original work of Lukacs’s enormous oeuvre. His amazing vitality has been indispensable to his independence and feeling of invulnerability. Strong-willed and forceful, Lukacs is ideally suited to the life of the freelance writer, the independent intellectual, the voice in the wilderness.

He is convivial and quite sociable—a loyal friend, as intellectuals who differed with him, such as Dwight Macdonald, have discovered to their joy. But he can be a difficult man to deal with: getting his own way is important to him, even at the cost of intellectual influence or financial gain. Lukacs’s assertiveness predisposes him to conflict and strife. He can fall prey to a tendency to “bite the hand that feeds him” and perceive fatal slights and divergences of outlook that may in reality not exist at all.

His background as a survivor of Hitlerism and Stalinism informs these attitudes: he is a survivor above all. He has experienced the world in terms of struggle and endurance; he has continuously tested his mettle against the political environment—and prevailed. Because this mode of expression has led to such favorable results in terms of his productivity and ability to thrive independently, he has developed a steely self-determination. Once his ego fuses with an idea, he can readily bring that vision to life, presenting it convincingly and with dramatic power.

Lukacs’s confidence in his gifts extends to the conviction that he can and will emerge victorious in the end. Even if his literary and intellectual achievements are undervalued by the present generation of scholars, posterity will vindicate him. That orientation fits perfectly with his reactionary outlook: his love of the past as a historian and his trust in the future as a Catholic believer. 

John Rodden is the author of The Politics of Literary Reputation, among other books. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Both were students of John Lukacs.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: letters@amconmag.com