John Lukacs: The Self-Confessed Reactionar4y Who Deplores Both Reagan and W

Jeet Heer, in the Toronto Star (3-12-05):

While most of U.S. President George W. Bush's domestic critics are on the left of the political spectrum, there are also traditional conservatives who object to his policies, as historian John Lukacs reminded a Toronto audience this week.

Speaking as part of the Grano Lecture Series, Lukacs launched a bracing critique of American foreign policy, complaining that it was motivated by a "cheap and dangerous" nationalism.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have wanted to go to war for the sake of national security, Lukacs contended, but he suspects Bush went to war to be popular.

Arguing against the idea that the United States has a mission to spread democracy throughout the world, Lukacs alluded to the words of an earlier conservative president, John Quincy Adams, who said "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

Lukacs, who advocates a more modest vision of America's role in the world, added, "I doubt anyone in the current administration has ever heard of John Quincy Adams."

Lukacs, 81, offered the audience a brisk survey of American foreign policy over the last two centuries, arguing that the educated elite that once governed foreign policy has been replaced by populist leaders who use crude displays of military power to gain popular favour.

Many in the audience, including members of Toronto's business elite and conservative intellectuals, were taken aback by the severity of Lukacs' polemic against Bush's foreign policy.

Throughout his talk, Lukacs returned to the themes of his new book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, which offers a dark vision of modern democracy being destroyed by nationalist demagogues who gain power by bullying unpopular minorities and pursuing a belligerent foreign policy.

"The Republicans have become the populist party," Lukacs noted. "There is nothing conservative about American conservatism."

The increasing prevalence of right-wing nationalism in the U.S. is part of "the sad descent of democracy into populism." Despite its electoral success, populism doesn't necessarily reflect the true will of people, Lukacs contended, because in an age in which media can be manipulated, "hard minorities" can sway ``soft majorities."...

These arguments are all the more striking because they come from a man of the right, albeit an idiosyncratic one. A staunch defender of Catholic social policy, Lukacs in his new book takes aim at "laws approving abortions, mercy killing, cloning, sexual `freedoms,' permissiveness, (and) pornography.'' But he has hardly been gentle when it comes to contemporary conservative heroes.

Ronald Reagan?

"Superficial, lazy, puerile (despite his age), an expansive nationalist.''

George W. Bush?

Blessed with a "mind and character'' that are "often astonishingly lazy.''

In both his new book and his Toronto lecture, Lukacs pointed out the deep fissure between traditional European conservatism and the contemporary American variety. Historically, the great conservative thinkers, from Edmund Burke to Jakob Burckhardt, have been wary of democracy, let alone populism. And in conversation, Lukacs is pessimistic about current American politics, arguing that mass democracy is vulnerable to demagogic manipulation.

He eschews the label of "conservative,'' preferring to describe himself as a "reactionary,'' instinctively skeptical of the claims of progress whether from the left or right. The reactionary'' is a patriot but not a nationalist,'' Lukacs explained in his 1990 autobiography, Confessions of an Original Sinner....

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Richard Gustav Doczy - 6/25/2007

I am somewhat concerned about Mr. Lukacs's widespread renown. One time, in the early 70s, at a conference on foreign affairs, he offered a vigorous defense of not going to war with Hitler on the grounds that American had no authority to embark upon spreading its own system of government, that the US was being a bully. This was my understanding of his views of the time. This was way before Iraq. Even Vietnam was just over. Also, when I told him that I had grave misgivings about another Hungarian I knew very well, whom he also know, because of that Hungarian's very strong sympathies with Hitler, he advise me to be more generous, merciful, forgiving. That rubbed me the wrong way and ever since I have been following some of the more subtle points of his writing and haven't been able to shake the sense that he had greater sympathies for the Third Reich than he now lets on. Nothing decisive but not negligible, either.

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