More from Lukacs

I hadn't encountered John Lukacs before reading the excerpt from his latest book, of many, in the April Harper's. A bit of Googling turns up a related essay from December in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "The Triumph and Collapse of Liberalism."

That essay contains, in a slightly different context, a version of the same paragraph quoted in the previous post. It also includes Lukacs' description of himself as "a historian who has never been a liberal," along with a bit of evidence that this is accurate. But like the Harper's excerpt, it offers a vigorous defense of the word liberal and the ideals it embodies:

… the political label of "liberal" has become soiled, outdated, torn at its edges.

That is a pity …

When it came to the formation of the democracies of the West, the concepts of liberalism and democracy, while not inseparable, were surely complementary, with the emphasis on the former. Among the founders of the American republic were serious men who were more dubious about democracy than about liberty. They certainly did not believe in – indeed, they feared – populism; populism that, unlike a century ago, has now become (and not only in the United States) the political instrument of "conservatives," of so-called men of the "Right."

Yes, democracy is the rule of the majority; but there liberalism must enter. Majority rule must be tempered by the rights of minorities and of individual men and women; but when that temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing else than populism. More precisely: Then it is nationalist populism. It may be that the degeneration of liberal democracy to populism will be the fundamental problem of the future.

In Harper's, Lukacs expounds on what he means by "nationalist populism," offering a helpful distinction between nationalism and patriotism:

The terms "nationalist" and "nationalism" appeared only in the late 19th century because "patriot" and "patriotism" already existed, and, at least for a while, it seemed that these were sufficient. When, a century earlier, Samuel Johnson uttered his famous dictum that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," he meant nationalism, but that word did not yet exist. These two inclinations, patriotism and nationalism, divergent as they are, still often overlap in people's minds. (When, for example, Americans criticize a "superpatriot," what they really mean is an extreme nationalist.)

Patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a "people," and is often a political and ideological substitute for religion. …

Let me provide one more example to illustrate the distinction: Swift Boat Veterans for Nationalism Against Patriotism. A nationalist will always attack a patriot, for the same reason that a hypocrite will always attack a saint.

Lukacs may not consider himself a "liberal," but he fears its opposite enough to defend the word and the idea. He concludes his Chronicle essay by saying that "the acceptance of the word 'liberal' as a connotation of something damnable, unhealthy, and odious is to be deplored." It is to be deplored because the erosion of the word is related to the erosion of the thing itself.

One way to defend the word, and therefore the ideal, is to point out again that the opposite of liberal is not conservative — and certainly not "values voter." The opposite of liberal is illiberal.

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  • Matt McIrvin

    He seems perceptive here; I know Lukacs mostly for some incredibly ignorant anti-modern-physics screeds he wrote several years ago for the New York Times (in which he argued that particle physicists’ use of silly words such as “quark” was evidence that they were just making stuff up), so it’s a bit surprising.

  • chris

    Actually his historical work is pretty good in general. The definition of patriotism vs. nationalism is in his book The Duel (about Churchill and Hitler in 1940). I would say from his historical work that he fits the classical definition of conservative in the tradition of Burke and Disraeli (and Churchill).

  • Tim

    No specific comment, I just wanted to give you a shout out because you’re one of my favorite internets people out there. It gets harder and harder every day to not go all Marx on religious people- “opiate” and all that- and just write off this country as utterly doomed. I mean, I’m not so sure it’s not utterly doomed, but it’s very nice to see someone so committed to his faith who “gets it” and understands “getting it” as a primary tenant of faith.
    So uh… does a shout-out require a specific action or is announcing the desire to give a shout-out constitute the shout-out itself?
    Anyway, shout-out.

  • b

    Lukacs’ attempt to draw a distinction between nationalism and patriotism is appreciated, but not quite right (or at least your interpretation of it is a bit off — having not read the original, I’m in no place to criticize Lukacs directly). Anyway, I agree that patriotism is about a specific place (a state — a political entity) while nationalism is about the myth of a people (a nation — a psychological construct), but patriotism can be just as aggressive as nationalism, and both can operate similarly to religion (since religion often works in conjunction with either or both of these two -isms, I don’t think it’s fair to say either is a substitute for religion).
    This gets confusing for a number of reasons, but the primary one is that we use “nation” and “state” interchangeably when in fact they have different meanings. Once you get the difference between those two, nationalism and patriotism are just the love of/defense of/irrational support for the two entities.
    The best I’ve ever read on this was Walker Connor, particularly his book Ethnonationalism (sorry, no link, but if you have access to J-STOR you can find a few articles there, maybe other academic databases as well). A very interesting question that arises from this way of thinking about nationalism is if Americans are capable of it, since we don’t really have a myth of common ancestry, certainly not one that compares to those of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

  • Jeff G.

    ahem ahem.. it’s now noon on Friday.. where’s the Left Behind post!

  • jk

    A quick word about the word “quark.” The physicists who named it were actually referencing Joyce, who coined the word in Finnagan’s Wake. I like to think that the scientists were acknowledging that sub-atomic physics is about as easily grasped as Joyce on a stream-of-conciousness rampage. Speaking of literary rampages, where be my friday LB fix?

  • xray

    yes, LB please!

  • xray

    yes, LB please!

  • Matt McIrvin

    “quark” was from Murray Gell-Mann, a very well-read guy who says he started out wanting a word that sounded something like that, and then found it in “Finnegan’s Wake” in the phrase “three quarks for Muster Mark”, which was nice because his model happened to propose three flavors (now six) and three quarks in a nucleon.
    The op-ed that caused the most fuss was a rant against the Superconducting Supercollider. While the SSC was expensive and controversial and various people opposed it for lots of different reasons, Lukacs’ article was the only objection I’d seen on the grounds that all of modern physics is stupid and should be abandoned.
    I wasn’t quite doing Lukacs’ rant justice above, though I do think it was dumb; he used the strange terminology as evidence that the physicists were in thrall to “the medieval superstition of nominalism”, which he described as the idea that just giving things names somehow led to understanding. He also seemed to be pretty scornful of anything that he perceived as overly mathematical; if physics experiments only revealed facts that you could describe with a lot of mathematics, then there was no point bothering with them.
    (I later looked up nominalism, not being a philosophy specialist, and discovered that nominalism was actually closer to what Lukacs was advocating, the idea that various abstract concepts are not real things in any sense but are just names we make up. In my experience, theoretical physicists tend more toward a kind of Platonism, though attitudes vary; nominalism would be closer to hardline Machian attitudes, the idea that theories should only deal with directly observable entities, and theoretical physics gave that up a while ago, though the attitude has its uses.)

  • cjmr

    This has been an interesting comments thread for me, as I spent two years back in the late 80s trying to convince my then fiance that his theoretical physics required at least as much faith as my Christianity…
    (full disclosure–said fiance did not become cjmr’s husband who posts here occasionally)