Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005, 248 pages, $25.
Richard Percival Graves in his excellent biography of the late 19th – early 20th Century classical scholar and poet A. E. Housman recounts how Housman once told an audience that the only good quality of democracy was that it decreased the likelihood of a revolution because people would find it harder to turn on a government they themselves had chosen. The anti-democratic views of old-fashioned Tories like Housman are not popular in this day and age, nor are they widely understood. For many people today, to express opposition to the concept of democracy is to express opposition to freedom and preference for autocratic government, for despotism.
There are, however, good reasons to be skeptical of the benefits of democracy and the best political thinkers in the Western tradition have displayed just such skepticism. Modern egalitarian democracy proclaims all men to be equal. The theory behind this form of democracy is that every person ought to have an equal voice with every other person in government – or at least in choosing who makes up the government.
“Isn’t that what is good about democracy?” many will ask. “What could be wrong with that?”
Well, for one thing it displays a very infantile attitude which can be seen in the familiar expression “I’m just as good as any other man!”. More importantly, however, is that this form of government established as its ideal, the Common Man who is the embodiment of a statistical average. The cult of the Common Man or the Average Man must by necessity always be a leveling force in society rather than an elevating force. A leveling force operates by tearing down the top rather than raising up the bottom. It is destructive rather than constructive.
In this egalitarian democracy is a marked contrast with aristocracy which is an elevating force in society. It does, however, have much common ground with socialism, which is an economic leveling force. Some forms of socialism indeed, refer to their economic goals as “economic democracy”.
“That doesn’t make any sense” someone will say, “democracy goes together with capitalism not socialism. Democracy and capitalism are both about freedom!” This is indeed a widespread notion, especially among those with a progressive vision for the world which involves “democracy” and “capitalism” being spread to every corner of the globe by the American military. People who share this vision are often erroneously called “conservatives” today which creates tremendous confusion in our terminology.
The notion in question, however, is wrong. Democracy is not about freedom and indeed has always been a tremendous threat to liberty. Democracy is the rule of the majority which is an expression of right by might – the might of sheer numbers. This is a force which would completely obliterate liberty – and other more important social goods, like civilization – if it were to be completely unleashed. In Western countries democracy has co-existed with a great deal of political liberty. This liberty has not been due to the fact that the countries are democratic, however, but rather to the fact that democracy has been balanced and checked by other competing principles and forces in government.
Originally, those competing principles and forces were hereditary monarchies and aristocracies. In the Modern Age these were weakened and their role as check on the absolute rule of the majority has been taken over by the ideology of liberalism. Liberalism has for its ideal the absolute rights and liberties of the individual and of minorities rights and liberties which cannot be voted away by majorities. The ideal of liberalism and the ideal of democracy are in fundamental opposition to each other making the notion of a “liberal democrat” something of an oxymoron. A “liberal democracy”, however, in which the forces of liberalism and democracy compete and hold each other’s excesses in check is a constitution which shares some of the strengths of the traditional English parliamentary constitution.
Liberal democracy is therefore preferable to either pure democracy or pure liberalism. While it lacks many of the advantages which the traditional English parliamentary constitution had which can only come from strong aristocratic leadership, it is at its best a form of mixed government, the ideal of the parliamentary tradition, which has been identified with the best possible constitution in Western thought since the days of Aristotle. At its worst it is one step in the Western world’s path towards the democratic ideal. While some see movement towards that goal in positive terms, as being “progress”, others such as myself, do not.
John Lukacs is one of the skeptics. Hungarian by birth and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Lukacs saw his country of birth conquered, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. He fled to the United States where he began his career as a professor of history and as an author. Lukacs identifies himself as a reactionary, indicating a traditional or classical philosophical conservative worldview that is radically different from much that is called “conservative” or “right-wing” today, especially in his adopted country. In his autobiography Confessions of an Original Sinner he describes his self-realization of himself as reactionary upon hearing the Nazis sing the Horst Wessel Lied, the Nazi anthem, in the third verse of which the Nazis sing of their comrades fighting against both “Reds” (Communists) and “reactionaries” (traditional, aristocratic, Catholic conservatives).
Throughout Lukacs’ many books there are several themes to which he constantly returns. One of these is the idea that the Modern Age is coming or has come to an end. This does not mean that Lukacs is a post-modernist – at least not in the usual use of term. To a post-modernist, like Jean-François Lyotard, the end of modernity is indicated by the collapse of its “meta-narrative” (a big story explaining everything) and an ensuing skepticism towards all “meta-narrative”. This is an account of spectacular failure. To Lukacs, however, the end of the Modern Age is a success story. The Modern Age is ending or has ended, not because its ideals have failed, but because its vision has succeeded.
Why then is Lukacs to be counted among the skeptics of the progressive view of history?
Lukacs derives his understanding of the Modern Age from Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat of classical liberal views who visited the United States in the early 19th Century and wrote a book about the democracy he saw there. Tocqueville had been born after the French Revolution and had been influenced by Burke’s Reflections, accepting Burke’s negative assessment of the Revolution without fully embracing his admiration for the past. Tocqueville saw the Modern Age as an age of transition, from aristocratic leadership to the age of democracy. Lukacs agrees with Tocqueville’s understanding of the Modern Age and concludes that the transition is now virtually complete. This, however, opens the door to the special dangers of democracy. Tocqueville warned against the “tyranny of a majority” that would characterize an undiluted popular sovereignty.
In his 2005 book entitled Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred Lukacs returned once more to this Tocquevillian theme:
We can see – more: we ought to see – that the entire so-called Modern Age, 1500-2000, especially and particularly in the West, was marked by this dual development: aristocracy retreating, democracy advancing: and that this was once something new, and that this is now at an end. (pp. 7-8, bold indicating italics in original)
Democracy has, of course, meant different things to different people at different times. In the Modern Age and in this book it means the idea of popular sovereignty, i.e. that “the people” are sovereign. The modern advancement of this kind of democracy means, Lukacs declares, the end of mixed government. Mixed government, the classical ideal of Aristotle and Polybius, embodied in the British parliamentary tradition and to which the classical republicans who wrote the original American Constitution aspired, diluted and limited the sovereignty of the people. Now that popular sovereignty has triumphed whatever vestiges of the ancient regime survive do so only at the mercy of the people:
Constitutional monarchies…exist only on popular sufferance: democracy and majority rule may put an end to them in an instant. (p. 11)
This is the situation in my country and in Great Britain, with whom we share a constitutional monarch. Thankfully there appears to be no significant movement to abolish the monarchy although every so often a newspaper will publish an article by some ignorant person suggesting it. Having the monarchy dependent upon public support for its survival is not a good thing for an important reason many people fail to consider. Dependence upon popular support (or popular inertia) for survival prevents a monarchy from properly fulfilling one of the most important roles of a constitutional monarchy – i.e. the role of holding the power of the democratic government in check. This is not the only role of a hereditary monarchy. Lukacs writes:
A hereditary monarchy lends a certain sense of stability to a democratic people, the sense of a family…That is not so under the rule of an elective monarchy such as the American one…Even more important: at moments of great national crises a hereditary monarchy—whatever his other weaknesses or shortcomings—may save an entire country from destruction. In 1943 it was the king of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) who had Mussolini arrested and deposed; in 1945 it was the emperor (Hirohito) who declared Japan’s surrender, the impact of which was even more decisive than either of the two atomic bombs cast on Japan, or Stalin’s declaration of war a week before. (pp 11-12)
This, of course, is only a small digression in Lukacs’ book which I am stressing because of its relevance to my own country and to my own Tory royalist views. Lukacs discusses surviving monarchies to make the point that the ongoing existence of constitutional, hereditary monarchies does not affect his assessment of the outcome of the Modern Age – “the unchallenged principle of popular sovereignty worldwide”. This, Lukacs contrasts with the aristocratic leadership which characterized the Western world, both in monarchies and republics, prior to the Modern Age.
If aristocracy and monarchy no longer hold popular sovereignty in check what about liberalism? It has been seduced by the idea of Progress and has consequently decayed. As the Modern Age ends, not only has popular sovereignty become dominant, but liberalism has accomplished its major goals rendering itself irrelevant and unappealing. Lukacs puts it this way:
If “liberalism” means the extension of all kinds of liberties to all kinds of individuals, mostly as a consequence of the abolition of restrictions on all kinds of people, these have now been institutionalized and accomplished in formerly unexpected and even astonishing varieties of ways. (p. 217-218)
If liberalism has accomplished its major goals and is veering off into nuttier and nuttier territory losing whatever appeal it may have once had, it too can no longer serve as a check on popular sovereignty. Thus we arrive at Lukacs’ major question: “how traditional democracy can exist much longer, when traditional liberalism has decayed.” (p. 6)
What happens to democracy in the absence of aristocracy and liberalism?
[W]hen this temperance [liberalism] is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism. (p. 5)
Lukacs distinguishes between patriotism which he admires and nationalism which he deplores, while acknowledging that in certain periods it is very difficult to distinguish between the two:
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. (p. 36)
Lukacs identifies nationalism as one of two movements that after 1870 became the two powerful forces that would dominate the Western world throughout the 20th Century. The other movement is socialism. Of the two “nationalism proved to be the more powerful and enduring” (p. 31). The achievement of socialism’s goals were made inevitable by the advancement of democracy. In a sense, therefore, socialism’s victory was won before socialism even began as a movement, weakening it’s populist appeal. Nationalism, however, became a very powerful force after 1870, supplanting both patriotism and conservatism. It had a very strong populist appeal and inevitably a populist demand for a “national socialism” to fight international capitalism and international socialism (Communism) arose.
This topic draws Lukacs naturally and inevitably to the movements which figured so prominently in the historical events which dominated his early years and which are the subject matter of many of his historical books. Here Lukacs challenges many of the notions that have accumulated on both the left and the right about World War II, the Cold War, and the participants in both. Lenin and Trotsky, he tells us, were as bad as Stalin if not worse, and were fools to boot, contradicting a popular view in leftist intellectual circles. Stalin, however, was motivated by Russian nationalism rather than by ideological Marxism. He was, like Hitler, a “national socialist”. This, of course, contradicts a popular view on the right.
This part of the book becomes most interesting when Lukacs discusses the relationships between the various forms of thinking in the Axis countries. He dismisses the notion of “fascism” as a general category, arguing that historically fascism is an Italian phenomenon, an older movement than national socialism, which was eventually replaced by the latter, and it is the latter not fascism which has survived 1945. The idea of categorical, generic, fascism he traces back to Stalin, who banned the use of the expression “national socialism” in Soviet Russia, insisting that Hitler and the Third Reich be referred to as “fascists”. He also dismisses the notion of categorical “totalitarianism” as pure nonsense, writing off Hannah Arendt as a “muddled and dishonest” writer.
Hitler, Lukacs argues, was not a reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or man of the Right in any way, shape or form. One would think that this does not need to be argued, as Hitler constantly referred to himself as a revolutionary and a socialist and defined himself in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, the Church and even the bourgeoisie. Sadly, however, it does have to be pointed out, and Lukacs does a better job than any one else I have ever read on the subject. Indeed, there is very little comparison because much conservative thought on the subject amounts to little more than “liberals believe in big government, Hitler believed in big government, therefore Hitler was a liberal”, an assessment which is confused on every detail, inane, and stupid.
Lukacs does not make the silly claim that Hitler was a liberal. Rather he demonstrates that Hitler was a populist who used his nationalism to unite the German people in support of him. Hitler was by his own words a nationalist rather than a patriot. While many draw a strict dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy Hitler was not opposed to popular sovereignty. Rather he looked to popular sovereignty and depended upon it for his support knowing that he could keep the people behind him by appealing to their nationalist sentiment, uniting them in the face of external enemies and, more disastrously, aliens and traitors from within.
Lukacs’ successful demonstration that Hitler was not a true man of the Right may not be as pleasing to many conservatives as they may think. All countries are national socialist now, he argues, although not in the extreme form that manifested itself in the Third Reich. Moreover, what often is called “conservatism” in the United States today, is actually nationalist populism. The United States did not have a conservative movement until the last half of the twentieth century, he points out, at which point the debate between conservatism and liberalism which had dominated the historical 19th Century was long over, replaced by the new Right and Left of nationalism and socialism. With the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the end of the Modern Age with nationalism triumphant in an era of universal acceptance of the notion of popular sovereignty, Lukacs foresees the conflict of the future as one between two Rights.
With much of Lukacs’ commentary I agree. I do have a few reservations. Lukacs is very opposed to anti-Communism (as well as to Communism itself) for obvious reasons – it was Hitler’s anti-Communism that led Germany’s conservatives to make the mistake of giving Hitler their support in the early days of his rise to power. They would all too soon realize that mistake. Lukacs may have allowed this to have too much influence on his views of the relative merits and demerits of Communism and nationalism. Stalin’s regime closely resembled Hitler’s in its brutality. So did Mao’s, Pol Pot’s, and those of virtually every other Communist you can name. Is this because all of these governments were nationalist or because they were all Communist? When you take into consideration Lukacs assessment that all Western countries are national socialist now an answer strongly suggests itself which Lukacs equally strongly appears to resist.
Then you have the character of Sir Winston Churchill whom Lukacs admires above all others. Of the various personalities of World War II, Lukacs likes to contrast Churchill with Hitler, making Churchill the typical “reactionary” and Hitler the typical “revolutionary”. I do not disagree with this but it is fairly obvious that Churchill was a very strong anti-Communist. He was also unquestionably a nationalist as well as a patriot.
While Samuel Johnson did indeed say “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” I doubt very much that the distinction Lukacs draws between nationalism and patriotism is what he had in mind. The scoundrel patriots that Dr. Johnson had in mind were the American colonists who called themselves “patriots” in their war to separate themselves from Parliament and the Crown and their Whig supporters in Parliament. Were these people motivated by nationalism? Perhaps, but it seems rather anachronistic to me to say yes. There was certainly a tremendous amount of populism in their rhetoric but it focused more on political organization than on ethnicity.
Lukacs does an excellent job of showing the dangers of populism. A demagogue tells the people that an enemy – whether it be an external enemy, their own elites, or traitors amongst them – poses a threat, drawing upon their nationalist sentiments, and demanding that they exercise their sovereignty as a people, by putting him in power and supporting him while he deals with the problem. This is a very real danger. Lukacs fails, however, to address the question of whether there are circumstances in which a limited degree of populism or even nationalism would be an appropriate. What if, for example, elites really were betraying the interests of their own people as the late Christopher Lasch suggested, and demonstrated, that they were doing in his last book, The Revolt of the Elites? In my country and in the United Kingdom, both of which do have a Tory tradition there have been traditional conservatives – reactionaries – who have felt a direct appeal to the people to oppose policies that are against their interests to be appropriate on certain occasions. Enoch Powell did this in the UK. John Diefenbaker did this here in Canada.
Is the answer perhaps that these Tories appealed to the people from within a constitutional framework whereas a true populist would call upon the people to assert their sovereignty without regards to the constitution?
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