Differences, Patterns . . . Barbarity

by Milo Clark

June 17, 2002


John Lukacs' many books appear to be enjoying a reviving audience. Prices for his used or out-of-print books have jumped (Amazon.com, Bamm.com, ABE.com. Powells.com). In writings for Swans, I have often referred to Lukacs.

His view that most contemporary history is both unhistorical and ahistorical offers a key insight to the delusions underlying actions by power mongers and politicians today. Our individual and collective remembered pasts have and are being much manipulated. To discover any of that means to open up to other possibilities which are more likely to be probabilities.

Unhistorical and ahistorical refer to the general avoidance of a core human characteristic: barbarity. Barbarity, when it occurs, is something they do and we don't. Terror is barbarity. Lukacs is a sincere Christian, Catholic, in fact. Perhaps he is influenced by the doctrine of original sin. Perhaps his work with historical processes leads him to similar conclusions. Perhaps he is accurate in his estimation of the historical bearing of barbarity. That barbarity lurks in all of us awaiting the right moments to be triggered. Triggered barbarity presently abounds about the globe.

Lukacs has worked deeply into the minute details of behavior in processes which underlie key events and critical times. He has probed deeply into the early days of WW II in Europe.

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939, met with declarations of war from Great Britain and France and little else. A nine month "Phoney War" followed during which Germany prepared. Britain mumbled in Chamberlain's apathy. France quacked and shivered while its leaders fumbled and crumbled. Churchill assumed power in May 1940. Lukacs published his Five Days in London, May 1940 nearly 60 years later. It serves as a summation of a brilliant career although not his last work.

For context, Lukacs long has probed questions of historical consciousness. His book, a most vital work, of that title was published in 1968. The coloring of his succeeding works, his palette, if you will, and his technique matured within his understanding of historical consciousness as remembered past. Those who shape the remembered past also shape the sentiments and opinions which flow from it. Lukacs, then, attempts to rattle the cages of the monkeys salivating in Pavlovian reaction to spoon-fed images and canned thoughts. By providing carefully researched and balanced analysis, Lukacs offers perspective uncommon to much of the work of his peers. Lukacs stimulates newthink.

Careful to discriminate between public sentiment and popular opinion, Lukacs always obeys Gregory Bateson's admonitions to look for differences which make a difference and patterns which connect. It is probably more significant to realize that Bateson and Lukacs were contemporaries, working in parallel, in quite different fields and coming to similar conclusions, urging careful, aware processes.

News, for example, is not about something old, a report of another event following a past track. To be news, something must be new, changed, different, significant. To stop the production of dust from Afghan rubble using high explosives may be news in the conventional sense. To stop manipulating Afghans and others could be news of a difference making a difference; announcement of a pattern worthy of thinking about.

To see "news" as directed efforts to manipulate popular sentiment and to influence popular opinion offers perspective on media.

In the chapter "Thinking about Causes" in Historical Consciousness, Lukacs ponders popular sentiment. (Never, he points out, to be confused with public opinion).

"Of course, not all manifestations of popular sentiment are significant: to be significant they must suggest change as they relate to movement. The historical description of tendencies is inseparable from the description of the their movement. The very life of tendencies -- their often curious emergence, their often no less curious demise, their reappearance, their emerging into the light of consciousness, ducking down, trailing for long years underneath, rising up again -- illustrates that the study of history must be the description of movement, not the examination of static defined portions of the past." [p.135]

"The difference between the mere momentum of progress and real change is the difference of significance, the latter suggesting either the emergence of a new tendency or change in the direction of a tendency or an important increase or decrease in its crystallization. [differences, patterns] This is where so many projections of modern experts, with all the vast information at their disposal, go wrong, as they almost always predict the continuation of what seems to be going on. . . . News is history: but it is history only if it is new: it is interesting only when it suggests change, and significant change: for a difference that does not make a difference is not a difference, not in history and not even in statistics. . . ." [p. 136]

"The desire for change is a fundamental human characteristic (curiosity rather than carnal desire may be a source of passion)." [p. 136]

I have been asked about Lukacs' views on barbarity as a kind of constant in human behavior. Barbarity obeys some of the characteristics Lukacs notes in discussing tendencies above. He ends his study, Five Days in London, May 1940, with comment on Hitler's National Socialism as a difference, the insightful amalgamation of nationalism with state socialism which, conditioned beliefs aside, captured the popular sentiments of most Germans in the 1930s.

"In 1989 I wrote a book about the duel between Churchill and Hitler in 1940. Now ten years later [1999], we can see that in 1989 [collapse of Soviet Union] not only was an entire century closing (the short twentieth century from 1914 to 1989) but an entire age was closing as well, an age that had begun about five hundred years ago and that was, among other things, characterized by the struggle and increasing coexistence of Aristocracy with Democracy, with the latter gradually rising and the former gradually weakening. Now we are living in an age where the remnants of that earlier age are gone and when global democracy -- unquestioned democracy, with its unforeseeable circumstances and conditions and perils -- is beginning. This is neither the place nor the time to speculate. But what we must understand is that the history of the fifty years from 1940 to 1990 was inseparable from what happened in 1940, just as the Cold War too was but the result of the Second World War. At best civilization may survive, at least in some small part due to Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped give us -- especially those of us who are no longer young but who were young then -- fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of new kinds of barbarity not incarnated with the armed might of Germans or Russians, before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren. Fifty years! Perhaps that was enough." [pps 218, 219]

Is W ruthlessly pandering for votes, launching terror to counter terror or being Churchillian? Will being barbarous to others spare us barbarity?

In a seminal work, The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr, military historian and novelist, carefully points out that terror rebounds on those who terrorize. It is very dangerous for an empire to train and equip colonists or others other than imperial forces. They will almost surely turn training and equipment on those who supply it.

· · · · · ·


Five Days in London, May 1940, John Lukacs, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999.

Historical Consciousness, the Remembered Past, John Lukacs, Harper and Row, New York, 1968.

The Lessons of Terror, A History of Warfare Against Civilians; Why It Has Failed and Why It Will Fail Again, Caleb Carr, Random House, New York, 2002.


Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine.

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