When John Lukacs died in May 2019 at the age of 95, he left behind a massive body of work spanning more than 60 years. “That admirable historian” (as Russell Kirk called him) wrote two works about himself: Last Rites (2009) and the more substantive Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990) which he wrote between 1983 and 1989. Not quite an autobiography but a “history of some of my thoughts and beliefs,” it is one of the richest and most rewarding of his works.
I read Confessions when it first came out and was haunted by it. Here was this Old World man of the Right, an unabashed “reactionary,” downplaying the threat of Communism in 1990, mocking Ronald Reagan and much of American conservative establishment as “vulgar and shallow.” Lukacs’s book is very much the work of “a crumbling remnant” — of a curmudgeon that has seen the folly and deception of it all.
Lukacs objected to the aggressive spirit of triumphalism common among some conservatives in the West in the 1980s. He disliked the sunny right-wing version of the ‘cult of progress’ and saw the Soviet Union as a declining power; but he was never confused about where his loyalties lay. As late as 2014, Lukacs publicly upbraided his admirer Viktor Orbán for his relations with Russia, noting that Hungary’s past and future are with the West.
Over time, as the course of events unfolded, I came to appreciate more and more the larger issues he had raised beyond transient party politics and began to understand that the main purpose of his work was, as he wrote, “not a reminiscence of myself but a reminder for my readers. I wish to remind them of certain things that they, too, know.”
Today, almost 30 years since it was published, Lukacs’s great work of “auto-history” still speaks to us — perhaps less about things we know than about certain things we are constantly forgetting.
Early on, Lukacs explains the title of the book, noting that belief in original sin — in that basic flaw found in human nature — is not just part of his religious belief as a Christian but realism. Rather than something dark and negative, it is “a healthy and realistic and enlightened perception,” a grounded response to that pernicious and dangerous doctrine of eternal progress and human perfectibility that has spawned so many tyrants and mass murders, and which still beguiles so many.
Lukacs was, of course, born in Hungary and spent most of his young life there under the nationalist, anti-Semitic rule of the Regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, the “admiral on horseback.” If anyone needed a lesson in the myth of human progress and the flawed nature of man, one could do worse than to look at Hungarian history during those decades. In 1919, the authoritarian Horthy had overthrown the brief ‘Red Terror’ of Béla Kun, the second Communist republic in Europe after Russia. (Kun would eventually make it to Soviet Russia where he was involved in the deaths of tens of thousands of ‘counterrevolutionaries’ in the Crimea. He would later be liquidated by Stalin.)
Horthy, in turn, would be removed from power by the Nazis and replaced by the short-lived, murderous regime of the Arrow Cross. A deserter from a forced labor battalion, the young Lukacs hid in a cellar with family, anxiously awaiting the ‘liberation’ of the Red Army, as the city of Budapest became one of the last urban battlefields of the war.
It is this wartime experience in Central Europe that led to his convictions. It also led him to understand the raw power that exists in nationalism, much more than that of concepts like class and economics, that “what people think and believe is more essential than material organization of lives and society.”
A lesson that Lukacs understood decades ago is one that still befuddles the globalist clerisy in Brussels, Davos, and Foggy Bottom. Because the appeal to nationalism “is a normal and respectable sentiment,” it bears careful watching “when its propagation becomes unreasonable, extreme and immoral.” In it is real power that cannot be ignored and that can be turned towards good or ill.
The ‘reactionary’ Lukacs, briefly a teenage socialist and a lifelong Anglophile, was made not born. In a stirring passage, he describes the term:
A reactionary considers character but distrusts publicity; he is a patriot but not a nationalist; he favors conservation but not conservatism; he defends the ancient blessings of the land and is dubious about the results of technology; he believes in history, not in Evolution. To be a reactionary in the second half of the [20th] century has every possible professional and social disadvantage. Yet it has a few advantages that are divine gifts during this dreary decline of Western civilization.
Lukacs details the reactionary’s distrust of a whole range of modern “inanities” falling on both sides of the supposed left/right ideological divide — “the now increasingly outdated and even senseless categories of “conservative” and “liberal.” This reaction is “a commonsense way of thinking against the abstract projections of progressive non-thinking.”
An anti-Communist avant la lettre, he decried the Red Scare of the 1950s and the American imperial hubris of the following decades. Paraphrasing Bismarck, he found the whole of Indochina not worth the bones of one American Marine. But he also condemned the baleful influence of American Darwinism, the “outdated ideology” centered on an “unquestioned belief in Scientific Progress.” If the vapid 1950s were bad, he found the following liberal decade and its offspring worse, with the “disastrous, destructive and customarily imbecilic character of its temporarily fashionable ideas.”
Such destructive imbecility was even to be seen in contemporary Christianity. The problem was not that the Catholic Church was “unawakened, still backward. To the contrary, it was strenuously trying to be forward: conforming to every day, to popular Americanism, in every way.” All too often, the Church lusted after novelty in its fear of being too far away from the mainstream, too distant from the Spirit of the Age, no matter how destructive that was to authentic and distinctive faith.
Lukacs resisted (“resistance … is a reactionary word and not a progressive one”) by finding refuge in the consolations of a bourgeois life well lived: in family, in scholarship, teaching, reading, and writing. A key part of this was a sense of place and rootedness in bucolic Chester County, in an old country schoolhouse turned into a well-loved home (with a well-used and capacious library) and in teaching for almost half a century in the same small Catholic women’s college.
Not surprisingly, part of that sense of place involved local politics, serving as part of his township’s planning commission. Such devotion underscores Lukacs’s connection with what is called in Spanish a patria chica: a small and beloved corner of the world — or Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — the love of which connects us to a nation and to the world. One thinks also of Pope Benedict XVI’s “creative minorities” that will determine the future by resisting the idols of our age.
Lukacs’s study of European history and of America saw democracy wilting before what would become “a bureaucracy of a new and overwhelming nature.” While America had been freer than Europe, it was catching up in the type of nightmarish ‘progress’ which crushes all before it that is different. Like his close friend, the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, Lukacs fretted about a bureaucratic super-state becoming increasingly distant from ordinary citizens. The trend in America and Europe over the past 30 years seems to have confirmed their fears. Both believed that the main external challenge to the West was no longer the Soviet Union, but unrestricted migration from the Third World.
Lukacs challenges us in this and his other works to ask ourselves: what do we really believe and cherish? What has lasting power to move our hearts? Can we see through the passing tumult of political fashion and resist the ceaseless impulse for toxic novelty to comprehend what really matters?
For this cosmopolitan historian, the central event in the history of the universe was the coming of Christ. That is the best of beginnings. However, it is incumbent on us, through the strength of humble lives and moral convictions, to find our way, resisting both the coercive power of the bureaucratic state and the increasingly intolerant cult of false progress.
Reactionaries of the world resist! You have everything to lose — especially your freedom.