It is probably fair to say that John Lukacs, the Hungarian-American historian and historical philosopher, author of 13 books, remains after more than forty years an enigma to American historians in particular and to American political intellectuals in general. The historical profession, which persists in refusing to accept him fully into the sodality, has been joined in its dismissive attitude by political writers and architects of the left and right, on both of which he remains widely distrusted. Confessions of an Original Sinner—called “Confessions of a Reactionary” in working ms. before the publishers objected to so provocative a title—is Mr. Lukacs’ “autohistory,” or “history of some of my thoughts and beliefs.” “Because of the goodness of God,” he writes, “I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one.” Confessions is pervaded by a bittersweet quality of loneliness and of intellectual isolation, though never to the point of self-pity, John Lukacs being far too self-aware a man for that sort of indulgence. Unwrapping himself by degrees from the enigma with which enemies and detractors have surrounded him, he reveals himself to be a profoundly human (as well as a humanly profound) man: the “unoriginal Original Sinner” of this very moving book.
John Lukacs was born in 1924 in Hungary and lived there until 1946 when, after being smuggled across the Austrian border with help from the Americans, he arrived in the United States, whose government accorded him the status of Displaced Person. Seven years later he took the oath of citizenship in the Federal Building in Philadelphia, forty miles east of the town of Phoenixville where he has lived and worked now for nearly four decades.
Lukacs is the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, baptized into the church, and raised in the home of his mother and stepfather after his parents were divorced when he was eight years old. He had a careful and cosmopolitan upbringing by his solid bourgeois family, who saw to it that he learned English at an early age and sent him to school in England, from which he returned just before the outbreak of war. With his mother and a dozen relatives and friends, Lukacs spent the winter of 1944-45 in a cellar in Budapest: a deserter, carrying false military identity papers, liable to be shot or hanged at an instant’s notice by the National Socialists or by the field gendarmerie if his situation were discovered. He was waiting, like so many other Hungarians, for the Russians, who progressed however very slowly and waited to besiege the city until they had surrounded it entirely, which they did only just before Christmas. Subsequent events in Hungary helped to determine not only the shape of 20th-century history after 1945 but the understanding of that history by the young man who was to become his generation’s most original, penetrating, and farsighted interpreter of it.
Paradoxically, John Lukacs—who has gained a reputation among American conservatives as a man insufficiently impressed by what was known in the late 40’s, the 50’s, and the early 60’s as the Communist Menace—was never among those Hungarians who thought that, for better or for worse, Marxist-Leninist ideology represented The Future. At an early age, he became convinced that Marxism was a relic of ponderous 19th-century thought, completely irrelevant to the ideas and aspirations of the commonality of man owing to its reliance on a total misapprehension of human nature. This did not mean that the fact of Soviet military and political power in portions of Europe was not a foreseeable reality for some years to come. On the other hand, that reality needed not, in Lukacs’ opinion, to entail the accepted division of the European states between East and West, while, as matters stood, “The commitment to the defense of Western Europe meant that there would be no commitments regarding Eastern Europe, even though the latter condition was obscured by all kinds of rhetoric.” Several years before it became fashionable—indeed de rigueur—in the United States to be anticommunist, when the American press and the American Department of State still gave thanks for the continued presence of their affable old ally, Uncle Joe Stalin, in the Kremlin, John Lukacs was already a convinced anticommunist. Later—in the 50’s, during the McCarthy period, and later still in the 1980’s, with Reagan’s rhetorical flourishes against the Evil Empire—Lukacs came to think of himself as an anti-anticommunist, though not of the stereotypical variety. Unlike Whittaker Chambers, Lukacs did not doubt that his was the winning side; unlike Chambers too, he was appalled by what he regarded as the spectacle of Americans turning themselves into lunatics in their frantic attempts to ensure that the cause of World Freedom should prevail. “The American anti-communism of the Fifties was abstract, extreme, self-serving, and false,” he concludes today. “It was abstract, because the attribution of every kind of evil and immorality to Communists was not only unhistorical but utterly unreal.”
While John Lukacs’ work was earning him disfavor, suspicion, and enmity on the right, it was also creating disdain on the left—the academic left in particular. From early manhood, Lukacs had dreamed of writing a new kind of history, one that would emphasize how people at any given period had thought about events, as well as what: a kind of history that would stress what he calls “the increasing intrusion of mind into the structure of material events.” Economic forces, he was beginning to perceive, far from being the determining facts of history, are not even really very important ones. “It took me a quarter of a century to formulate this: that the very opposite of not only what Karl Marx but also of what Adam Smith had said is true—that the essential matter, whether in the history of persons or in that of nations, is what they think and believe, while the material organization of society and of their lives is the superstructure of that.” This insight was not of course one calculated to appeal to American social scientists in the material heyday of their materialistic thought; even less welcome, perhaps, was John Lukacs’ conviction that “history is more than an academic discipline . . . it is a form of thought.” In what he regards as his most important book, Historical Consciousness, published first in the late 60’s, Lukacs developed this idea, arguing that a consciousness of history—entailing the ability to think in historical terms—is a product of the past few centuries and hence of the modern world, which is presently drawing to a close. “[I]magination,” he speculates in his latest book, “has its own history, part and parcel of the evolving historicity of our consciousness, which is probably the only kind of evolution there is, and perhaps—contra Darwin—the only kind of evolution worth thinking and talking about.”
Ultimately, no aspect of John Lukacs’ work has been as unpopular—in fact, loathsome—as its author’s recognition that, while communism has been a spent force in the world since at least 1945, the regnant ideology of modern times has been nationalism, which bodes well to survive the passing of the modern age itself. “The principle power among men,” Lukacs insists in Confessions, “is still nationalism . . . [which] survived Hitler, in every part of the world from Israel to Ulster.” In The Last European War (1976), Lukacs invited his readers to give due weight to the noun “Socialism” (as in “National Socialism”), rather than stressing, as is usually done, the Nazi modifier; also to consider how many supposedly progressive parties and governments around the world have employed the word in order to divert attention from their primarily nationallist aims. In their resentment, some of Lukacs’ critics have suggested that Lukacs himself is some kind of totalitarian apologist, despite his having been repeatedly at pains over the years to stress that he is a patriot, not a nationalist; a reactionary, not a conservative. The distinction, he claims, was borne in upon him as a boy before the war, when he began to notice the differences between a speech by Hitler and one by Churchill—in particular the difference between the fields of’ reference employed by the speakers. The reactionary, Lukacs perceived, was concerned with traditions and constellations of old values; the “conservative” with blood, tribal resentments, and aggressions. Having learned this invaluable lesson, the young Lukacs ceased to refer to himself as a “socialist,” accepting instead the identity of the author of this book: “I [am] a reactionary, a Westerner, and a bourgeois.”
Among the most interesting passages in Confessions of an Original Sinner are those describing John Lukacs’ impressions of the United States during his early years in this country. In New York he was struck by the oldness of the faces he saw around him, the faces of men and women prematurely aged. It was in their aspirations that they were old, he decided: a theory that seemed congruent with his developing idea that, intellectually speaking, Americans are at least a generation behind their European contemporaries. Only superficially was America a new country, and this was partly owing to the fact of its having forgotten one of the oldest of old things. “When I set foot in the United States, I was not newly born; I was not a New Man. I was a representative of the doctrine of Original Sin.” As such, he was also a representative of reaction: of the trust in land over technology, in history over evolution. For this reason, his adopted country has not always been very appreciative of—nor even terribly kind to—him. As such again, finally, has John Lukacs been, for nearly forty years, the voice of the prophet, crying in the American wilderness.
[Confessions of an Original Sinner, by John Lukacs (New York: Ticknor & Fields) 328 pp., $19.95]
Leave a Reply