May 29, 2008

It’s not particularly surprising that in his critique of Pat Buchanan’s new book and highly controversial interpretation of Churchill, John Lukacs would reduce the Second World War down to a morality play and claim that it’s irreconcilable to argue that the Third Reich was evil and that it might have been a mistake for Churchill to war against it. 

As Tom Piatak has noted, we”€™ve heard this all before, albeit in a debased form, when Wolfowitz and Co. chided critics of the Iraq war with some variation on the line, “€œIf you don”€™t back the invasion that means you”€™re part of Saddam’s fan club.”€  

It’s also not particularly surprising that Lukacs would forego a thorough investigation of Buchanan’s thesis and instead make rather not-so-subtle attempts at guilt by association, constantly linking Buchanan with the sometime Holocaust denier and fulltime Nazi nostalgic David Irving, as if to reassure his readers that it’s only those two crazies who have dissenting opinions about Churchill and the “€œGood War.”€ This kind of stuff is a dime a dozen, but we probably wouldn”€™t expect it from a world-renown historian and idol of many a paleoconservative. 

Around 30 years ago, Lukacs himself wrote an essay that made use of counterfactual reasoning”€”history of what wasn”€™t but might have been”€”on much the same topic as Buchanan’s book. In “€œWhat if Hitler had won the Second World War”€ (1978), Lukacs concluded that after 1945 the Third Reich probably would have transformed into a far less radical if still authoritarian regime that would have pursued détente with the U.S. and perhaps even European unification (a vision not too dissimilar to that in Robert Harris’s “€œWhat if?”€ mystery-thriller Fatherland.) 

That Lukacs once wrote such essay makes it all the more surprising that in his review for The American Conservative, “€œNecessary Evil,”€ he avoids seriously evaluating any of Buchanan’s historical arguments, preferring instead to rely on vague gesturing towards Buchanan’s propagating of “€œhalf truths”€ (which, as Aquinas reminds us, are “€œmore dangerous than a lie.”€)

I don”€™t think Lukacs actually reviewed The Unnecessary War without reading it, but then he certainly could have, for his critique of Buchanan amounts to a revival of some of the leitmotivs and greatest hits from his last 10 books or so, which themselves have been much like variations on a theme, each one suffering from the law of diminishing returns.

As a book review, Lukacs’s piece is thus highly disappointing, but then as kind oeuvre en miniature, it’s an invaluable portrait of an historian”€”and a window into his conceptions of Left and Right, World War II, and the Cold War. Lukacs doesn”€™t so much criticize Buchanan’s actual thesis or his counterfactual as return to many of his preoccupations of the past 50 years and lash out at old enemies who have little to do with the author.

Book Cover

Throughout the Cold War, Lukacs was notable for positioning himself as an “€œanti-anticommunist,”€ a highly idiosyncratic position”€””€œMathematically thinking, of course, an anti-anti-Communist is a pro-Communist, but we neither speak nor think mathematically”€”€”and one that I ultimately find highly dubious. It’s through this lens that Lukacs views The Unnecessary War and because of this position, feels it quite necessary to oppose the book, without, it seems, much consideration of its content. 

All of this begins to comes to the fore in this passage on the question of whether Hitler’s hegemony in the East might have been a lesser evil than Stalin’s: 

Let me now raise the question: What would have happened if Britain and France had allowed Hitler to conquer Poland? After that he would have gone further east and then conquered the Soviet Union, with the acquiescence of the West. All to the good, Buchanan writes, since Communism was evil, more dangerous than German National Socialism. But there is”€”and there ought to be”€”no comparison here. Germany was part and parcel of European culture, civilization, and tradition. Russia was not. Stalin had a predecessor, Ivan the Terrible. Hitler had none. German National Socialist brutality was unprecedented. Russian brutality was not.

It’s of course rather un-PC (perhaps refreshingly so?) to argue that mass murder in Russia is par for the course and nothing to get worried about. But then it is rather odd to dismiss the crimes of the Soviet Union as “€œRussians behaving Russian”€ since Lukacs supports intervention against Germany on the basis of absolute morality. (There’s also the minor detail that Stalin was not, well, Russian (!)).  

Lukacs has long had a tendency to dissolve Soviet violence into a kind of natural, predictable expression of “€œRussian national character.”€ And for an historian who prides himself in grasping that “€œideas have consequences”€ and who stresses that “€œmaterial conditions, almost always, matter less than mental conditions and inclinations”€ (Democracy and Populism, p. viii), he’s taken pains to deemphasize the importance of Marxism-Leninism. For Lukacs, the philosophy of communism has very little appeal outside the intelligentsia and thus regimes based on it won”€™t last. The Gulags and purges were a product of Russia, not Marx, anyway.       

A rather contestable reading on many fronts. Sure, Russian history is pretty brutal, but the social engineering attempted under the Soviet regime”€”from forced famine to the institutionalized terror of the purges to almost unbelievable attempts at forcibly breeding half-man/half-ape New Soviet Citizens“€”were of a different character than any monstrosity of the Czars. And these were perversions that occurred in every communist experiment no matter the nationality. As for staying power, the miserable German Democratic Republic lasted only a couple of years less than the strong-as-iron German Empire. As for being a threat to the world, was it so wrong for Western nations to take the Comintern at its word?           

Lukacs was certainly well aware of all this, and yet still opposed anticommunism because he viewed it as part and parcel of the real catastrophic ideology of the 20th century, nationalism. 

This trope surfaces in his review of Buchanan:

Nationalism, not Communism, was the main political force in the 20th century, and so it is even now. When the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, perhaps as many as 10,000 Germans killed themselves, and not all of these had been Nazis. When the Soviet Union and Communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, I do not know of a single Communist, whether in Russia or elsewhere, who committed suicide.

I”€™m not sure what if anything can be made of Lukacs’s comment about suicide since the Third Reich and Soviet Union collapsed is such vastly different historical contexts. What’s clear are the exact terms in which Churchill is to be admired and in which his warring against Germany is to be viewed as inherently justified: Churchill fought the evil “€œforce”€ of nationalism. 

The quotation above comes directly out of a famous passage from The Duel in which Lukacs compares Churchill and Hitler: 

Churchill was the opponent of Hitler, the incarnation of the reaction to Hitler, the incarnation of the resistance of an old world, of old freedoms, of old standards against a man incarnating a force that was frighteningly efficient, brutal and new. Few things are as wrong as the tendency to see Hitler as a reactionary. He was the very antithesis of that. The true reactionary was Churchill. (pp. 14-15)

Hitler as modernist, mass democrat”€”Hitler as leftist even”€”is certainly a provocative, engaging interpretation and one that upturns most of what’s taken for granted and was taught to us in high school. But whatever we want to make of it, it’s also clear that in justifying the Second World War on the basis of Churchill’s “€œincarnation”€ of some mythic struggle against the force of nationalism, Lukacs is no longer writing history but has moved on to sentimental literature or moral allegory.

It’s also an allegory I doubt Churchill would have much understood. Churchill opposed Hitler not because the bulldog was an “€œantinationalist”€”€”an almost laughable claim”€”but due to national rivalries stretching before the First World War when Germany emerged as the new kid on the European block. Churchill never expressed aversion to nationalism”€”was he not himself a full-blooded British nationalist!?!”€”and in his Great Contemporaries spoke highly of Mussolini and wrote of the Führer, “€œWhatever else may be thought about these exploits, they are among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world.”€ (see Buchanan, p 336). As for incarnating the Old World against “€œmodernism,”€ let’s not forget that Churchill supported Eugenics, helped develop area bombing of civilians and the use of poison gas, and possessed a worldview that Buchanan argues was, in many ways, “€œpost-Christian”€ (see Buchanan, pp. 399-404). 

(There’s also the curious problem of this “€œforce”€ of nationalism, against which Churchill supposedly did battle. Lukacs seems to forget that nationalism is always national. Hitler didn”€™t embody “€œnationalism”€ but the prospect of Germany domineering Europe. By their very nature, various nationalisms can never be unified, and they usually end up fighting each other (a good thing, one would think, from Lukacs’s perspective.) Monolithic Nationalism has never be a threat. Communism, on the other hand, is a different story…) 

My point here is not simply to bash Churchill, he’s rightly regarded as a hero. It is instead to bring to the fore the way that Churchill functions within Lukacs’s imagination. And never far away from Lukacs’s infatuation with the great “€œantinationalist”€ is his pose of “€œanti-anticommunism.”€ 

For Lukacs, anticommunism was never merely anticommunism. For as the actual communist menace is a mirage, “€œanticommunism”€ is agitprop and fear mongering that props up wicked nationalism, again Lukacs’s central enemy. In his major essay, “€œThe Poverty of Anticommunism,”€ Lukacs lists “€œanticommunism”€”€”which he links directly with “€œnationalist socialism”€ and the “€œradical right”€”€”as a force of history capable of overwhelming communism and liberalism. It emanated from Germany but is now particularly rampant in the United States. 

The camp of “€œanticommunism”€ is actually quite large and includes some rather strange bedfellows. Hitler is of course there, but then so are the Kennedys, Sen. Robert Taft, William F. Buckley, the members of American First Committee, Ronald Reagan, and Buchanan himself. If these figures every met at a cocktail party, they”€™d probably get into heated arguments; however, in the imagination of John Lukacs, they”€™re all on the same team. Put simply, if at one point in your life you questioned the need to war against Germany (or, excuse, “€œthe force of nationalism”€) and also considered communism a threat, and perhaps wanted to roll it back, then you”€™re a right-wing nutjob.

Thus Robert Taft, the classical liberal non-interventionist who in the interwar period thought that Bolshevism was a greater threat than fascism, is depicted as inseparable from the “€œextreme nationalists”€ (Democracy and Populism, p, 67). The AFC, the largest antiwar movement in American history which warned against the danger of instituting totalitarianism at home in order to defeat it abroad, is depicted in grotesque fashion in The Duel as a gaggle of Germanophilic imperialists (pp. 13-14).       

Lukacs even thinks the forces of “€œanticommunism/nationalism”€ won, that Hitler won in the sense that the Third Reich is but an “€œextreme variant”€ of the contemporary state. “€œWe are, at least in one sense, all national socialists now”€ (Democracy and Populism, p. 41).

Lukacs’s logic is as simple as it is flawed:

Hitler = Nationalism. Churchill warred against Hitler; ergo Churchill = Antinationalism.

Hitler = Anticommunism; ergo an Anticommunist “‰ˆ Hitler

Such a sentiment (not exactly logical) seems to lead Lukacs to make rather breathtakingly wrong claims, such as that Robert Taft is “€œthe idol of almost all present American conservatives”€ (!) (well, he is among a few), or that Hitler has great acclaim on the right in Europe and South America (!!).

Lukacs clearly doesn”€™t get out much. And as an historian, he has a rather annoying tendency of allowing grand, sweeping interpretations of history”€”as provocative, interesting, and “€œreactionary“€ as they might be at times”€”to get in the way of understanding the past “€œwie es eigentlich gewesen,”€ how it really happened.  

It’s become rather predictable that whenever “€œnationalism”€ is mentioned in a discussion among paleos, someone will invariable quote Lukacs’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism, which he first set down in Historical Consciousness (1968) and has managed to repeat in just about every book since. Put simply: Nationalism is a modernist force based on a myth and “€œinseparable from the desire for power.”€ Patriotism, on the other hand, is “€œdevotion to a particular place and a particular way of life”€ and is thus defensive in character. In one of his recent books he even calls nationalism “€œself-centered and selfish”€ and links patriotism with “€œcharitable love.”€ (Democracy and Populism, p. 73). 

This is all well and good; however, I find this distinction to be so uncontroversial and banal that I doubt one could find a single person on the planet who”€™d actually want to contest it”€”who wants to come out against “€œlove”€ or give a shout out for delusional and self-centered “€œdesire for power”€? The statement is also rather unhelpful if we want to ask the question whether, in fact, in a world of mass communication and migration across the continent, the nation and nation-state actually are good categories for our conceptions of identity and “€œus-ness.”€ At any rate, before we cite Lukacs again to express our patriotism, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we want to adopt all the rest of the Lukacsian accoutrements as well.  


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