Friday, February 8, 2008

John Lukacs' Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred

John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 248 pages.

Democracy and Populism is a set of essays by an eminent, very talented historian. As would be expected, given the breadth of Lukacs's historical knowledge and his ability to imaginatively apply it, there are many fascinating essays in the book. The fear and hatred part of the title refers to his argument that fear primarily drives the left while hatred primarily drives the right. The most interesting claim in the book is that nationalism has been the driving force behind the rise of much of the last century's extremism. Lukacs argues that national socialism is the proper name for most kinds of totalitarianism (a word that he does not like) and that the reason that many writers have called Nazism "fascism" was due to Stalin's decision to forbid his journalists from using the more accurate term "national socialism". Western journalists voluntarily adopted Stalin's position on terminology.

The reason for Stalin's forbidding use of the term "national socialism", according to Lukacs, was that he realized that his own brand of "socialism in one country" was in fact also "national socialism". Thus, argues Lukacs, populism and nationalism have been the driving force behind all of the last century's totalitarian movements. He also emphasizes that populism and what we call "conservativism" are linked. In reality, nationalism or national socialism are not conservative, but for example the immigrant question today is most closely linked to conservatism. Being opposed to immigration is a position associated with Progressivism, not with traditional American liberalism of the late eighteenth century. Lukacs points out that a fundamental error that conservatives of the early to mid twentieth century, like Robert A. Taft, made was that they were too willing to align themselves with nationalists, who were in fact Volkish national socialists and had little in common with traditional liberalism. The fatal error of the European and American classical liberals of the twentieth century in Lukacs's view was that they feared communism so much that they were willing to make deals with the nationalist right, which was really no different from the communists. At the same time, though, liberalism failed, in Lukacs' view, because it was insufficiently nationalist (the two points seem to contradict).

Although the notion that the Nazis were a socialist movement is nothing new to most people I know well, Lukacs raises some new points, for example that the name Nazi was shortened from Nazi-Sozi.

One bone I have to pick with the book is that on page 57 Lukacs describes the mugwumps as early Progressives who believed in social and political planning. This is true to a degree, but the mugwumps differed significantly from the Progressives, who appeared in the 1890s, and their commitment to "social and political planning" was a small part of a largely laissez faire, free trade and hard money platform. It is true that some of the mugwumps advocated early kinds of progressive reforms in areas like improving the New York slums, but for the most part they were far more committed to laissez faire economics than almost any movement of the twentieth century besides the Libertarian Party that emerged in the 1970s.

Lukacs's theme is that liberalism's (in the classical sense) nemesis has been nationalism. In one interesting passage on p. 36 he writes:

"After 1870, nationalism, almost always, turned anti-liberal, especially where liberalism was no longer nationalist. The contempt for money-minded bourgeoisie that moved artists and writers a generation before was now changing into a contempt for liberals. The great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, for instance, hated not only Gladstone, in whom he saw the prototype of a hypocrite and a liberal, but all liberals. Confronted with someone whom he suspected to be a liberal, 'it is the logic of my blood expressing itself.' Eventually this led Hamsun to become an unrepentant admirer of Hitler."

One of the themes of the book that I found fascinating is the pivotal role that anti-Semitism played in the development of nationalism. In other words, European hatred for Jews created the nationalist mindset, which went on to dominate the governments of most of the repressive governments and even democracies around the world (p.41):

"Mussolini, Hitler, Peron, Stalin: all of them nationalist socialists, with the emphasis on the first word. In 1870s and even decades later it seemed impossible that nationalism and socialism would ever be allied. Yet--considering the ubiquity of the welfare state--we are at least in one sense all national socialists now...The diverse comibinations of nationalism and socialism marked most of the history of the twentieth century."

Populism, the earliest variant of national socialism that appeared from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century, especially in Austria and Germany (but also in the United States) included anti-Semitism targeted against assimilated Jews. (Recall E.L. Godkin's remarks about Archibald Primrose Rosebery, 5th Earl of Rosebery . Godkin was no populist, socialist or nationalist, though.) Think of Hitler's frequent use of the word "Volk" as related not only to populism (and the late nineteenth century US Populist Party was called the People's Party) but also socialists' emphasis on "the People" (p. 63). Lukacs argues that late nineteenth century populism had three elements: anti-Semitism, nationalism and philo-Germanism even when adopted in other countries. In contrast, "Liberalism to most people meant philo-Semitism" (p. 64).

Lukacs suggests that we are nowhere near the end of the triumph of populism. He mentions the issue of inflation several times, but does not mention that inflation was one of the key populist positions of the late nineteenth century. Bryan's cross of gold speech marked the end of the Peoples' Party in America because the Democrats had integrated populist ideas into their own ideology.

Although Lukacs doesn't mention Patrick Buchanan, I kept thinking of him as I read the book. Anti-communist and nationalist, and at least mildly anti-Semitic, Buchanan fits the national socialist or populist model closely.

The book covers many different areas. Although it is probably not Lukacs's most important book, it makes for an interesting evening, more interesting than watching Bill Maher, to say the least.

1 comment:

amharold said...

Your blog was helpful to me in understanding his book.