The Lettered Reactionary

By Rodden, John; Rossi, John | The American Conservative, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Lettered Reactionary


Rodden, John, Rossi, John, The American Conservative


John Lukacs is a writer first, a teacher second, a follower never.

IN LITTLE MORE THAN six months during 1980-81, historian John Lukacs wrote two major essays addressing the future of the Solidarity movement in Poland. The articles proved as prophetic as they were controversial: he argued that the Soviet system was near collapse in Eastern Europe and that communism as an idea was intellectually bankrupt. But what made the pair of pieces particularly intriguing was that they appeared in the leading conservative and liberal journals of the time, National Review and The New Republic. For those who know John Lukacs, this came as no surprise.

Conservative in temperament, radical in intellect, Lukacs is that rare creature that runs against his fellow intellectuals, the "herd of independent minds" in Harold Rosenberg's sardonic phrase. He defiantly and gloriously represents an otherwise extinct species: the gadfly as man of letters.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, he ranks among the most prolific scholars writing about modern history. He deals with topics as diverse as World War II, atomic physics and the epistemology of historical knowledge, the rise of American democracy and the accompanying specter of demagogic populism, and - arguably his most important and original domain - the art of historiography and the nature of historical consciousness. He maintains a profound suspicion of the modern world and exhibits immediate allergic reactions to all fads and most conventional wisdom.

The range and diversity of Lukacs's scholarship partly accounts for his failure to be properly understood by his intellectual contemporaries or to acquire a school of followers. Nonetheless, his admirers have included some of the keenest minds of 20th-century America: the leftist intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes, political columnist George Will, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun, and the legendary scholar-diplomat George Kennan. Yet even these distinguished figures have shown patterns of thinking and positiontaking that lend themselves to definite classification. None has espoused an outlook so idiosyncratic or Weltanschauung so singular as to risk incomprehension, dismissal, or mockery. None has adopted stances so rebellious or pursued a path so unorthodox as Lukacs.

He was born into a bourgeois family in Hungary in 1924, son of a Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Raised in the Catholic faith, he nonetheless retained a deep affection for his mother after his parents divorced. She was an Anglophile who ensured that her son learned English and gained an appreciation for British culture. Because of his Jewish background, Lukacs served in a labor battalion in the Hungarian army during World War II. In the spring of 1945, he evaded arrest by the Nazis, but had no doubt about his likely fate at the hands of the Soviet liberators.

At the war's close, he resumed his studies, and in 1946 he left Hungary for the United States, armed with a Ph.D. in history. He has since taught for almost 50 years at two small Catholic colleges in the Philadelphia area, Chestnut Hill and La Salle. Asked why he remained at those schools, Lukacs stated, "I didn't much want to climb the academic stepladder. I wanted a career as a writer." He believed that teaching undergraduates made his writing more compelling: "I had to explain to undergraduates and describe complicated things simply but not superficially." Although he was invited to be a visiting professor at top-ranked research universities - Yale, Perm, and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts, among others - the "historical profession" and the academic mill exerted no attraction.

When Lukacs arrived in the United States, the Cold War was just beginning. Having witnessed the brutality and inhumanity of the Soviet occupation of his native land, he harbored no illusions about the "noble intentions" of the USSR, unlike many on the American Left.

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