Raving about a rave: John Lukacs Democracy and Populism

I recently picked up a remaindered copy of a strange and compelling book by John Lukacs the author of Five Days in London: May 1940 a gripping account of five of the first days of Winston Churchills Prime Ministership in which he faced down the defeatists and appeasers in his cabinet and set course to save the world. Titled Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, this book is altogether different.

Its a kind of a rave.

Not tying himself down to heavily footnoted factual claims, or even to the standard controversies of politics and history, he stakes out what for me was the striking and well defended proposition that populism is one of the most fundamental political facts of the modern political world.

Well, whats new? We all decry the populism of the media (all us elites that is). Were enduring an election campaign right now in which populism is rigidly enforced by all the institutions involved starting with the media (though of course theyre reacting to the media consuming habits of Us People Out Here) up through the politicians themselves. Can you imagine the caning either of the leaders in the debate would have got from the media pundits if theyd have answered a curly question honestly, or said that their opponent had a good point in any way other than as to set up the next point scoring opportunity?

I guess for me, at least until I read the book, I thought of populism as perhaps like the texture an artist might choose to give his colours with the colours being the important thing. Or the medium in which a message travelled with the message being the important thing. So youd have high brow means of propagating some political ideology (say liberalism, socialism or conservatism in their various hues) and youd have low brow read populist means. Of course thats a simplification and the medium inevitably flavours the message, but even given this youd think that how populist things are is a less important issue than the message its conveying.

I dont think that after reading Lukacs book.

Lukacs perspective is from his deep knowledge of modern European history (including America as a European civilisation). He sets the context and the tone for his book in the head quote in the preface, though even here the accepted form is abandoned (it being a hybrid between a quote and an assertion of his own).

Tocqueville one hundred and seventy years ago: A new science of politics is necessary for a few world. It has not been forthcoming.

Tocquevilles focus was on the fading of government by aristocracy and the rise of government by democracy. Like many of his contempories he was worried about where democracy might lead things, but reading the signs of the times he was no reactionary and determined to embrace what might be good about this new form and of course to try to avoid the bad.

I cannot believe, that God has for several centuries been pushing two or three hundred million men toward equality just to make them wind up under a Tiberian or Claudian despotism. Ver¬ily, that wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Why He is drawing us toward democracy, I do not know; but embarked on a vessel that I did not build, I am at least trying to use it to gain the nearest port.

In Lukacs telling, the world as it seemed to be evolving through the late eighteenth and first two thirds of the nineteenth century was the product of the rise of the liberal project and the tension between it and conservatism. Around 1870 this changed.

Lukacs explains that traditional historiography has socialism and class consciousness edging out liberalism. Certainly in England Labour parties came to occupy much of the electoral support that had been given the Liberal Party.

Lukacs points us to other shifts in consciousness that he argued happened around then. He explains this by drawing up a constellation of associations with the rise of populism. In short, populism gives birth to nationalism and populist nationalism displaces liberalism. He spends some time explaining the difference between a range of political categories before this change and their populist equivalents that rose in significance from the 1870s on.

Nationalism versus patriotism, the state versus the nation, anti-Semitism versus Judeophobia.

[W]hile true patriotism defensive, nationalism is aggressive, patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traiditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people;’ justifying everything, a political and ideological substitute for religion; both modern and populist. An aristocratic nationalism is an oxymoron, since at least after the late seventeenth century most European aristocracies were cosmopolitan as well as national. Democratic nationalism is a later phenomenon. For a while there was nothing very wrong with that. It won great revolutions and battles, it produced some fine examples of national cohesion. One hundred and fifty years ago a distinction be¬tween nationalism and patriotism would have been laboured, it would have not made much sense. Even now nationalism and patriotism often overlap within the minds and hearts of many people. Yet we must be aware of their differencesbecause of the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe.

A patriot is not necessarily a conservative; he may even be a liberalof sorts, though not an abstract one. In the twentieth century a nationalist could hardly be a liberal. The nineteenth century was full of liberal nationalists, some of them inspiring and noble figures. The accepted view is that liberal-ism faded and declined because of the appearance of social-ism, that the liberals who originally had reservations about exaggerated democracy became democrats and then socialists, accepting the progressive ideas of state intervention in the economy, education, welfare. This is true but not true enough. It is nationalism, not socialism, that killed the liberal appeal. The ground slipped out from under the liberals not because they were not sufficiently socialist but because they were (or at least seemed to be) insufficiently nationalist.

Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be anti-humanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one’s people is natural, but it is also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one’s country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one’s family. Nationalism is both self-centred and selfishbecause human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another.* Patriotism is always more than merely biologicalbecause charitable love is human and not merely “natural:” Nature has, and shows, no charity.

*A convinced nationalist is suspicious not only of people he sees as aliens; he may be even more suspicious of people of his own ilk and ready to denounce them as “traitors”that is, people who disagree with his nationalist beliefs.

One of the things that fascinates most of us I suspect and certainly me is how a certain kind of respectable background reserve or hostility towards Jews turned into the genocidal mania of the 1940s in Eastern Europe. Of course in circumstances less stressed by depression and war it is most unlikely that would have occurred. Even so I found Lukacss account compelling.

The history of Jews and of their oppressions is of course a very long one; but now (in the 1870s) there came a change. The application of the term anti-Semitism to earlier people and events is imprecise and wrong. For nearly two thousand years before that we may speak of Judeophobia but not of anti-Semitism. The origin and the justification of anti-Judaism was for a long time religious rather than racial. . . . However, anti-Semitism, all over Europe, latest after 1870, was no longer directed at the descendants of Christ-killers and Christ deniers but at assimilating aliens in a nations midst. It was fed by the appearance of successful Jews in many businesses and in certain professions, successful not only because of their guile in moneymaking but because of their ability to present themselves as true Germans or Austrians or Frenchmen etc (and often the more assimilated the worse).

Jews end up being the fall guy for the various manifestations of liberalism. Theyre the string pullers behind international finance, polluters of the national volk and other European equivalents. Theyre behind the bloodlessness of bourgeois society. And theyre also behind the bloody international socialism.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the alternative was the nationalism of World War One (remember how keen all the soldiers were to get off to WWI and take a bit of real adventure into their otherwise dull lives). And the next two decades – tellingly enough – national socialism.

After the war Hitler, who suddenly chose to become a politician in 1919, recognised that nationalism and socialism could and must be married, with the emphasis on the first. I was a nationalist, and not a patriot he wrote about his youth in Mein Kampf; that he was a populist socialist, not an international one, he would often say, later.

Thus Lukacs asserts in an arresting footnote on page 63, that Hitlers anti-Semitism was not racist so much as extreme nationalist. On one occasion he said that Jews were not a physical but a spiritual race.

Heres another passage on Austria

Liberalism, to most people, meant philo-Semitism. But it also seemed to more and more people, including some well-meaning ones, that liberalism, the cult of liberty and of equality, was destroying the order of the world. Thus many of the anti-Semites after 1870 were conservatives: but their conservatism was a new kind, with its populist sense. Consider the languageand the tone!of a Catholic and conservative publication, the Vaterland, when a principal Vienna liberal newspaper, the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, lost a court case in 1885: “The people have spoken: and the voice of the people is the voice of God!” (No conservative would have said anything like this before.) “The terrorists of the Jewish press are condemned, and their rule of horror is coming to an end!”

Thus, about one hundred and twenty years ago, in Austria the classic nineteenth-century contest between conservatives and liberals began to be superseded by a third force, which in Austria called itself Christian (meaning anti-liberal and anti-Jewish) Socialist (which meant nationalist and not international socialist). In Vienna the Christian Socialists swept into power in the 1890s on a wave of populist anti-liberalism and anti-Semitism (the latter became thereafter mitigated by their charismatic leader, the Vienna mayor Karl Lueger). What was significant in this then virulent anti-liberal and anti-Jewish rhetoric was that its propagators and adherents were no longer conservative or aristocratic or traditionalist. They were not reactionary but populist. “Volk” and “völkisch;’ “people” and “populist” were no longer words of the Left. Eventually this populist rhetoric contributed to the fatal crises of the Habsburg empire; and its influence soon spread to people next to Austria. It had a powerful impact on the mind of the young Hitler, whowe must not forgetwas not German-born but Austrian, and who incarnated many Austrian manners, inclinations, and habits throughout his life.

I havent given you the full run down, but I found it hugely compelling. I found Lukacs disdain for the hopes that WWI dashed the hope that something like WWI would be made impossible by workers of the world realising they had more in common than they had to fight over very powerful.

Nationalist bloodlust just blew those things away leaving socialists like Australias John Curtin profoundly depressed and bewildered. And of course as Lukacs explains it, nationalism and populism appeal to something much more basic than some rarefied common interests which, like Ricardos principle of comparative advantage people seem hard wired not to ‘get’.

Populism and nationalism appeal to the deep desire we all have to belong – to a family, a group, a tribe, a nation, a people.

Reading the stuff on Jews and thinking of the way in which the Republicans in the US have turned liberals into a figure of hatred made my skin crawl. Not that they dont have a point. They do. If they had no point, I guess the words wouldnt have had much impact. But their point has long ago been made, and their own errors and incompetence might be a worthy object for their contemplation. Explicit truth telling about ones own crimes and misdemeanours may not be appropriate on the hustings, but its perfectly possible to imply a certain humility in the words one chooses.

It also struck me how much more of a populist democracy America is than any other place I know and certainly Australia. Its head of government is popularly elected and I think that makes a big difference to the tone of things. In Australia liberal means something different anyway, but for all the rights aping of American Republican rhetoric, Australian politicians have had trouble whipping up that visceral hatred of the other side (though it was done to some extent with boat people).

But of course like most if not all political movements (perhaps liberalism and Burkean conservatism are exceptions, but we don’t see much of the latter in contemporary politics) the ideological forces unleashed by populism are not naturally self correcting. They just take one victory (or defeat) and keep on pressing. Failures of ones own side are always explained as the failures of not going far enough.

I doubt it would have improved the book, in which Lukacs background knowledge and general preparedness to lay about him without further research defines the genre, but I kept thinking of the idea in Hayek of the natural order and the extended order. Populism is a mode of political discussion that happily trenchantly locates itself in a system of values that is natural and inarticulate. It appeals to basic emotions like the desire to belong, rather than to anything more considered and more mediated by wider culture.

Hayek argued that economic thinking which is rooted in the natural rather than the extended order is a menace to higher economic aspirations that the extended order makes possible, so the atavism of populism is an attack on what might be possible in a political culture.

I dont mean by that that to suggest that our political discourse should rarefied, and robbed of emotion. But the proud removal of all complexity and to be frank principle from politics seems roughly where we are now. Its a scary business and, as Lukacs laments, its not clear how bad it could get or to what dark places it might lead us.

So go read the book. Its an easy read and you can read it on line until Amazon decides to ration your page views. The first two parts of a four part book are by far the best. As it gets closer to our time in parts three and four it becomes progressively more loosely argued (appropriately perhaps at least at the end which becomes speculative).

It continued to retain some of its interest for me, but my interest (and patience) were increasingly taxed by its lapse into harrumphing. Lukacs bemoans homosexual marriage (I’ve never quite figured out why that is supposed to be some threat to heterosexual marriage and/or the family) and indulges himself with various other conservative fulminations and peregrinations which at least for me served only to make me wonder whether I should have been so interested in and impressed by the rest of the book.

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Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
14 years ago

You must be feeling like the tree that fell in the forest, alone and unremarked. Ah well, pearls before swine and all that, Nicholas!

I finally got around to reading the post and then delving a bit more deeply into Mr Lukacs. A most interesting man. Like you, I find what little I’ve read of his thought stimulating and often highly original. And, so far at least, surprisingly congenial.

Thanks for the intro.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
14 years ago

You’ve probably already read it, but Owen Harries wrote an excellent review for the Washington Post. Superfluous when you’ve already got the book in your hands, of course, but Harries does a nice, and concise enough, job to warrant a quick read.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
14 years ago

One of the rare moments I wish I had broadband out here!