Blogs > Cliopatria > Noel Malcolm: Review of John Lukacs's Democracy and Populism

Mar 15, 2005 10:07 pm

Noel Malcolm: Review of John Lukacs's Democracy and Populism

Noel Malcolm, in the Sunday Telegraph (3-13-05):

IN 1838 THE American novelist James Fenimore Cooper published a caustic little book about the vulgarisation of public life. The new tendency, he wrote, was for interested parties "to simulate the existence of a general feeling in favor of, or against, any particular man or measure; so great being the deference paid to publick opinion, that men actually yield their own sentiments to that which they believe to be the sentiment of the majority".

In other words, "public opinion" was something that could be manufactured, and the minority that created it could then hide behind the moral authority of the majority that accepted it. In the eyes of some commentators, this aperGu makes Cooper one of the most prophetic writers on the nature of modern democracy, someone to be ranked alongside, or even above, his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville.

The real reasons for Cooper's complaint were, in fact, more to do with ordinary self-interest than with extraordinary prophetic vision. A rich landowner, he had tried to ban the public from using one of his lakeside properties as a picnicking site, and had become the object of a hostile campaign in the local newspapers. Here was a person who understood something about the power of publicity, but little, alas, about the conduct of public relations.

Cooper's words are cited (though the reasons for them are not) by John Lukacs in his new book, Democracy and Populism. In Lukacs's eyes, Cooper had described one of the key phases in the corruption of democracy: the shift from democratic politics based on genuine debate among the responsible members of a political class or electorate, towards a kind of politics that panders to, and manipulates, popular sentiment.

Lukacs believes that this shift - the descent into "populism" - has already taken place. The signs of "the new barbarism" are, he says, all around us; the tone of his book is one of almost unrelieved gloom. But that is partly because he feels that his job, as a historian, is not to answer the question "where do we go from here?", but to describe how we got here in the first place.

This book is a compilation of ideas that have occurred to John Lukacs during a long, distinguished career as a writer on such topics as Hitler, Churchill, the Cold War and modern American political history. A collection of brief explorations of huge subjects, it is pithy and thought-provoking and wide-ranging; but it is also sententious, fragmentary and frustrating, hopping as it does from theme to theme and relying more on assertion than on evidence.

The basic argument (or assertion) goes roughly as follows. Once upon a time, politics was a contest between conservatives and liberals; democracy was gradually accepted by the former, and it worked when it was conducted on the principles of the latter. But in the late 19th century a new kind of politics emerged: nationalism. This was illiberal and aggressive, being motivated primarily by hate.

Liberal progressivism, meanwhile, generated socialism, which gave us the modern welfare state. But a fateful mutation then occurred: the nationalists latched on to socialism and learned how to exploit its mass-democratic credentials. The result was national-socialist politics, a category that includes Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and PerSn.

Communism, as an ideology, was largely insignificant; what mattered was the Russian nationalism of the leaders of the Soviet Union. And the "anti-Communism" of Cold War America was itself just a way of expressing American nationalism. Modern politics is founded on nationalism, with varying degrees of socialism (the welfare state) mixed in; nationalism is a phenomenon of the Right, but this is a Right which believes in change and progress and mobilising the people through populist campaigns. The Left (which was always based on fear, not hate) is increasingly impotent, and the populist Right can be challenged now only by the remnants of a different, more responsible Right that still adheres to liberal values.

Confused? You will be. This is an account of modern history in which some key terms, such as "liberalism", are hardly defined at all, and others are stretched to paradoxical extremes (as when Lukacs suggests that we are all national-socialists now). Facts, too, are neglected when they fail to fit the theory: Lukacs's claim that Communism ceased to be expansionist in the 1950s turns a blind eye to decades of geopolitical manoeuvrings in Africa and Asia, and his assertion that no 20th-century nationalist could be a liberal ignores the position of nationalist Poles under Brezhnev as well as nationalist Catalans under Franco....

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