The Reactionary Loyalties of John Lukacs

By Congdon, Lee | Modern Age, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Reactionary Loyalties of John Lukacs


Congdon, Lee, Modern Age


IN THE DUEL, A RIVETING account of Churchill's confrontation with Hitler in the spring and summer of 1940, John Lukacs wrote that "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." (1)

In only a few sentences, Lukacs here revealed much about himself, especially to those who esteem his work but find him difficult to pin down politically and philosophically. Although conservatives have claimed him as one of their own, no one has been more scathing in his criticism of such political figures as Hoover, Taft, Eisenhower, and Reagan or more contemptuous in his dismissal of such celebrity polemicists as William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan. Furthermore, he has made it almost brutally clear that he has no regard for the Republican Party and he rejects anti-communism in the strongest terms possible.

Is Lukacs, then, an unusually sophisticated and independent liberal? He has, after all, written often and glowingly of Franklin D. Roosevelt and lent his qualified but enthusiastic support to the so-called "Greens." Yet he is far from being an egalitarian and has never shared the Left's commitment to, and belief in, "Progress." Nor, as a faithful Catholic, has he ever rallied to the "cause" dearest to Leftist hearts--abortion on demand. And he has always identified himself as a man of the Right, even while insisting that the terms "Right" and "Left," "liberal" and "conservative" have lost whatever meaning and relevance they once possessed.

Lukacs does not, however, view the term "reactionary" in a similar light. He is, he has said repeatedly and with every intention of provoking outrage, a reactionary. To understand why he presents himself as a target of abuse, devotees must look closely not only at his work, but also at his life. "Know your own history," he has written, "and the history of your times, which are not the same things, but they are inseparable." (2) The historian makes his greatest contribution when writing of those events which he himself has witnessed or in which he has played a role, however minor. Because of this belief, Lukacs has devoted his working life to the history of his own times; his retellings of the recent and remembered past are profoundly informed by his personal experiences.

John Lukacs was born Janos Lukacs in Budapest on January 31, 1924. His father was a doctor about whom he has had relatively little to say, even in his splendid Confessions of an Original Sinner. No doubt that is because his parents divorced when he was eight and he lived thereafter with a stepfather and the mother whose memory he cherishes. It was, however, his maternal grandparents who were most responsible for the person he was to become. "They were," he has written, "the most admirable people I have ever known ... they were well-to-do, modest, Jewish and thoroughly bourgeois." (3) Because of their "reactionary virtues," he developed a lasting respect "not so much for the aristocratic eras and the Middle Ages as for the relatively recent bourgeois period of European and Hungarian history." (4)

At some stage in his mother's life, Lukacs does not say which, she converted to Catholicism, and raised him in the Church of Rome. This family history is important for a number of reasons, not least because in post-Treaty of Trianon (1920) Hungary assimilated Jews and half-Jews no longer enjoyed the acceptance that had been theirs prior to the outbreak of the Great War.

Early in his career, Lukacs made a conscious decision not to specialize in Eastern European history, but in 1988, in reaction to academic and popular fascination with fin de siecle Vienna, he did publish a superb historical portrait of Budapest during the same era.

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