Swans Commentary » swans.com May 9, 2005  



John Lukacs's Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred


by Milo Clark


Book Review




Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred, John Lukacs, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10773-0 -- (Harper's April 2005 edition has an extended excerpt, pp. 13-18.)



(Swans - May 9, 2005)  In his latest book, Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred, historian John Lukacs holds that democracy is degenerating or has degenerated into populism conjoining with nationalism.

Right and left in political spectra are less relevant, although not irrelevant. Populism, once left, and nationalism, still right, are being or have been co-opted and pre-empted into right-right. Populist nationalism in the once United States of America is now labeled, framed, branded and usurped by the Republican Party.

Moving to the subtitle, Fear and Hatred, Lukacs calls hatred a right phenomenon and fear a left characteristic. Hatred can be and often is a stronger motivator. When tied to religion, hatred is easily manipulated far beyond reason. Liberal (now "progressive?") reliance on reason is more tenuous than ever.

Likewise, patriotism and nationalism must be separated. There is no similarity. The identity of patriotism lies with the state. Nationalism is grounded in nation. There is no necessary coincidence.

Reprising themes from previous works, Lukacs reminds readers that news is not entertainment, propaganda is not knowledge, sentiment is not opinion. Nor is ideology history or publicity popularity. Elections have devolved into popularity contests decaying into publicity duels among fabricated images. What was once criminal is now common. And, yes, belief is chosen. Without prompting by Karl Gustav Jung, we are reminded that symbols have great power.

Hope? Optimism? ". . . I know the signs of a new barbarism are all around us, but I not only will not but cannot -- honestly -- predict that this will inevitably overwhelm us. . . . Hitler and Stalin are gone and George W. Bush will soon be gone, too; but then so are their German National Socialism and Communism and so will be his 'conservatism.'"

Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred reads like an invigorating chat with a wise uncle. His bets may appear hedged, but his intent is clear.



In my Swans commentaries, I often cite historian John Lukacs. Recently, I reviewed the works of another prolific historian, Walter Laqueur. I reported myself puzzled that Laqueur is strongly supportive of an aggressive American hegemony.

Lukacs, in contrast, offers tools with which to fashion judgments more than to dictate conclusions. His insights and iconoclastic swipes at conventional wisdom often stop me, challenge me and then lead me toward ever-broadening perspectives.

His latest book, Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred, collects and builds upon a rich lifetime. It reads like conversations with a wise and wonderful friend, albeit one with a sharp tongue. No weasel-wording for Lukacs.

He continues to focus on the once United States of America, Europe and the English speaking world (with excursions towards the Urals).

His keen differentiations and fine distinctions are refreshing in this time of talking heads and pale punditry. He wants us to know that what and how people think, how people are motivated to believe and how they choose to believe can be and usually is more significant than their material conditions. Hence his subtitle, Fear and Hatred.

I have been strongly impressed by Lukacs's books: Historical Consciousness, The Passing of the Modern Age, Outgrowing Democracy, A History of the United States in the 20th Century. His carefully and keenly crafted set on Hitler, Churchill and the detailed dissection of events leading up to and into World War II are without parallel. He harvests the crops of his previous works in Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred.

In a 1984 book, Lukacs implied that the end of the twentieth century would see a return to barbarity. He says now that "Fear and hatred are prevalent among us, manifest and evident in the increasing savagery -- savagery is the proper word, not 'violence' -- in and around our everyday lives. Fear and hatred are human characteristics, and we shall never be able to eliminate them entirely. We must recognize not only their existence but their latent -- and often more than latent -- presence among those who wish to wield power." (p. 216)

Today, we are awash if not overwhelmed, drowning, in rhetoric of democracy cloaked into other actualities. Lukacs suggests we reverse the Wilsonian conundrum ". . . to make the world safe for democracy." Make it rather, Lukacs says, "How to make democracy safe for the world." (p. 5)

If we say that democracy is the rule of a majority (as distinct from the majority), then we confront defining and understanding majority. A majority of those whose votes are counted is different than the majority. Lukacs suggests that democracy is rule by politicians elected by a majority or plurality of those whose votes were counted. If this majority rules without temperance for minority and individual rights or ". . . when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or less) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalism populism." And thus is Democracy and Populism well launched. (p. 5)

Is not nationalist populism now an apt description for conditions in the once United States of America?

Moving on, Lukacs ties in liberalism, its fruition and decline into a specious progressivism. Here enters fear and hatred.

History, we are told, is a chronicle within which minorities have ruled. Autocracy, monarchy . . . dictatorships have passed by and onward only to take new forms. We are at cusps. The modern age lies fragmented around us. Wither democracy?

Hope? Optimism? ". . . there exists . . . a secular and historical condition of mankind. This is the forever condition that evil does not proceed indefinitely in this world. Or, in other words, honesty may not be always the 'best' policy; but dishonesty ends up always as the worst, the least practical policy and behavior. . . . I know the signs of a new barbarism are all around us, but I not only will not but cannot -- honestly -- predict that this will inevitably overwhelm us. . . . Hitler and Stalin are gone and George W. Bush will soon be gone, too; but then so are their German National Socialism and Communism and so will be his 'conservatism.'" (pp. 242, 243, 244)

Let us be clear, Lukacs admonishes, that the fruits of liberalism were mixed forms of government whether they be constitutional monarchies or "checks and balances" within executive, legislative or judicial branches. With legislature withered, executive triumphant and judiciary under savage attack, the once United States assumes the visage of hereditary monarchy. (pp. 14, 15)

We are also advised to maintain distinctions between democracy and liberty. In liberty, we are free to squelch democracy. Lukacs quotes post-WWII German parliamentarian Heinz Krekeler's cogent observation that ". . . a sovereign people may then again dispose of democracy and introduce a dictatorship." (p. 15)

In terms of inadequacy of right and left as political designators, Lukacs recalls Tocqueville's injunction now over 170 years back, "A new science of politics is necessary for a new world." He adds, "It has not been forthcoming." (p.17)

Parenthetically, Wilhelm Reich's clarification of right and left in his Mass Psychology of Fascism (1932) has not caught on. To Reich, political spectra are not linear, rather circular and dynamic with a tiny separation between extremes, for him "Black Fascism" and "Red Fascism." This distinction fits well with Lukacs's conclusion that we are devolving into right v. right more than left v. right.

We have recurrent cases in which, as Lukacs notes, conservatives (the right), ". . . despise the 'left' more than they distance themselves from 'extremists' on the right." Neither remnant left nor right, in Lukacs's view, enhance themselves by lack of clarity regarding extremists in their camps.

In any case, what once may have been left or, indeed, right are no longer what they were or are now. We have nearly myriad mutations of fiscal conservative and social liberal mixed with once vocal states' rights advocates now firmly in support of situational federal usurpations (viz. 2000 and 2004 elections as well as the Schiavo frenzy, not to mention burgeoning budget, ballooning federal employment and current account deficits along with a shrinking dollar).

Lukacs devotes much energy to clarify the actualities around fuzzy words and fuzzier logics related to fascism and totalitarianism as well as populism and nationalism.

Hitler, in Lukacs's view was ". . . an idealist not a materialist, . . . and a believer in the power of ideas over matter." He ". . . knew how to appeal to the masses." He ". . . knew that people are moved (and at time even worship) evidences of power rather than by propositions of social contracts." (p. 24)

Relatively recently, liberal was a proud badge while conservative was shunned. It is only post-WWII (after 1945) in the once United States of America that conservative as a political label came out of the closet. Now, conservative is the label of choice of what may be a voting majority, certainly among those who voted in 2004.

Parenthetically, to add confusion, today a closet progressive (née libérale) may, not without hypocrisy, well identify herself with an 18th century conservative.

Progress? Progressive? Another topic all together. The once Progressive-Farmer-Labor populists of America's now red mid- and upper-Midwest were the outrageous radicals of the 1920s. The ideas and ideals of progress and progressive, viz. to develop, to expand, to conquer nature in the service of mankind may, in present contexts, be compromised by actualities. The old New England-based Republicans from which George H. W. Bush emerged long called themselves progressive.

While Lukacs does not point to ironies of once liberals now calling themselves progressive, they abound. "More and more people . . . have now become uneasy with mechanization, automobilization, impermanence: consciously or not, with the once modern (and now quite antiquated) idea of 'Progress.' Thus there are reasons to believe that the great divisions of the future will be between those who have begun to oppose or at least rethink the still extant concept of 'Progress' and those who have not." (pp. 231, 232)

Today's US Republicans (known in part as NeoConservatives) have wrapped themselves not only in the flag but also in once-progressive cloaks. Pro-development, pro-property rights, pro-business, etc.. . . The ideas and ideals of progress are much compromised, thoroughly muddied, fading into ideological limbo.

As Lukacs clarified, "What came after 1870 was the emergence of new enormous movements, nationalism and socialism, that turned out to rule most of the history of the twentieth century -- indeed most of the world even now . . . and of these two, nationalism proved to be the most powerful and enduring." (p. 31)

Socialism, like a shooting star of history, flashed brilliantly as ". . . a stage of evolution, of social change, of 'progress'." (p.32)

The revolution given the name Socialist, Russia's convolutions of 1917-1924, was a one-off event which quietly faded and died by 1989-1991. Perhaps, as Lukacs notes, the most revolutionary fact of socialism (a.k.a. Soviet Communism) may simply have been its quiet fading into historical curiosity. Socialism is now nearly irrelevant while nationalism is strong and vigorous. (p.34)

It may be said that liberalism, in relative terms, achieved its major objective, pejoratively framed by its antagonists as "The Welfare State."

With progress marginalized, liberalism a fait accompli, where can old leftists find a home? What will energize a new political rallying point to oppose national populists or populist nationalists?

When my country is now both right and wrong, wither patriotism? Lukacs insists that nationalist and patriot are not synonyms.

". . . patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a 'people,' justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. Patriotism is old fashioned; . . . nationalism is modern and populist." (p. 36)

Patriotism is American Legion. Nationalism is beer bar. Nationalism is preeminently anti-liberal. Anti-liberals hate liberals while liberals fear them. A recent novel about southern American rural communities asserted that the folks there now hated liberals more than communists.

Lukacs emphasizes that anti-communism was the most powerful determinant of American politics as well as foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. Anti-communism was and is politically and indelibly linked with America's right, with America's conservatives, with Republicans. Liberals were not identified as anti-communist. No matter the facts.

Lukacs is frank about anti-liberal keystones. A common and very strong element is anti-Semitism, once Judeophobia, a key distinction. Anti-Semitism is also relatively modern (post-1870). Judeophobia, pogroms and all, was religious hatred. Anti-Semitism adds specious racial trappings perhaps masking envy for Jews who assimilated, achieved material success and political influence. In the late 1800s and early- to mid-1900s, many prominent liberals, socialists, and communists were also Jews. Ironies abound.

Unassimilated Jews had long been considered alien, holding themselves aloof and dressing funny. Assimilated Jews, as in early twentieth century Germany, Austria-Hungary and Eastern Europe, were thought to have usurped places previously denied them. Jews often identified themselves as liberal yet were seen as grosser capitalists, that is, exploiters of working classes. (pp. 62, ff)

Lukacs does not speculate that one trapping lost in Judeophobia (while perhaps now otherwise relevant) is not "racial" in nature. Judeophobia is religious hatred focused on those people being Jewish, which is not a racial characteristic.

Jews are not necessarily Semitic in race. There are black Jews, Caucasian Jews, Asian Jews...Jews can be and are of all races. Hating Jews is not confined to hating Semites. To be consistent, anti-Semitism -- hating Semites -- must necessarily include all Semites.

The Semitic peoples of mid- and near-Eastern origins are also known as Arabs. Is this fact ironic? Many of the behavioral characteristics as well as physical appearances negatively associated with Jews are shared by Arabs who are Muslims and the successor enemy to Soviet Communism and Socialism. A century of passionate anti-communism cannot be wasted. A new enemy is found.

Obliquely, Lukacs suggests that within the monotheisms or Semitic religions -- Judaism, Islam, and Christianity -- there may be more hatred than outside them.

Lukacs most emphatically declares that beliefs are chosen. May we then speculate that those who more successfully are reframing political choices are welding, wedding anti-communism with anti-Semitism broadened beyond Judeophobia to create enemy as Arab, enemy as Muslim?

Note Lukacs's subtitle, Fear and Hatred, and his classification that hatred is right while fear is left. "One of the fundamental differences between extremes of right and left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter." (p. 203)

With a right-right evolution of political labeling, anti-communist hatred has morphed to anti-Islamic hatred clandestinely cloaked within anti-Semitism. The blurring associated with Soviet Communism's voluntary demise now clears and sharpens into another white-hot focus for hatred. "But while hatred amounts to a moral weakness, alas, often, and at least in the short run, it is a source of strength. Whence the advantage of right over left -- especially in an age of democratic populism." (p.209)

Meanwhile, liberals fail to morph as progressives (once a label for New England Republicans). They stand around quite unheeded and unheard preaching to each other while trying to shuck the liberal label for progressive. Ironic, for sure.

Meanwhile, worldwide, religious fundamentalism attracts strongly. Within its new enemies, Islam is tainted by the fundamentalist label while other fundamental religious sects are ignored or sought as political allies. Lukacs noted earlier that both left and right tend to overlook the extremes of their persuasions.

Here in the once United States of America, religious fundamentalists tend to be strongly allied with, and strongly supportive of, the present Republican Party. They also tend to be nationalist-oriented. In rural Hawaii, where I live, evangelical sects are proliferating like wildfire. Elsewhere, such as India, Hindu fundamentalists are taking very direct action with Hinduvta pogroms, attacks on intellectuals, destroying mosques, attacking Christian missionaries, rewriting history to their myths, etc. Will we in the once United States of America see these manifestations of hatred? Where are the liberal or progressive fundamentalists?

". . . men and women do not have ideas, they choose them. . . . Moreover, they have nothing to do with the so-called 'subconscious,' nothing to do with 'A' or 'B' types, or with 'authoritarian' and 'non-authoritarian' personalities. Dualities in human nature are evident in a myriad of human attributes, beyond and beneath the duality of spirit and matter. So, too, neither fear nor hatred exists in its 'pure' form. There is, almost always, a mixture of both." (p. 210)

Finally, Lukacs notes that what was once criminal is now common. "Terrorism" defined as non-state, in contrast to state-sponsored, shares a status with the now common criminality, that is, transnational, global.

Lukacs's Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred is a rich mine.


· · · · · ·
Democracy and Populism, Fear and Hatred, John Lukacs, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10773-0

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Published May 9, 2005