John Lukacs and the New Age of Historical Thinking

We are happy to feature a guest book review from Seth Bartee.  In addition to being a faithful reader of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” Seth is a Ph.D student in Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary ASPECT program. (In case you are wondering, ASPECT stands for “Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought).  Seth is working on a study of post-war conservative intellectuals and the communities they formed.  Today he offers a review of John Lukacs’s recent work, The Future of History (Yale, 2011).  –JF

John Lukacs is one of the most remarkable figures of post-Second World War conservatism that many have never heard of.  He immigrated to the United States from Hungary after the Second World War and became associated with the founding post-war conservatives such as Russell Kirk.  Lukacs has remained geographically and intellectually close to conservatism’s most formidable intellectual organization, The Intercollegiate Studies Institute located in Wilmington, Delaware (formerly the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists). He taught at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which solidified his relationship to the conservatives at ISI. Nevertheless, Lukacs remains unique because he created a truly distinctive kind of conservatism, which he terms “reactionary.”

At 87-years-old, Lukacs has recently published his 35th book, The Future of History.  It is a small book—seven chapters and an apologia–and serves as a rejoinder and an addition to another small book published in 2009 titled Last Rites, in which Lukacs attempted to cash out reactionary conservatism.

In an earlier book, Confessions of an Original Sinner, Lukacs defined a reactionary as someone who understands the more sublime, and often unpopular, elements of the age despite resistance. While this sounds somewhat gnostic, Lukacs assures us that an aspect part of a reactionary is understanding human limitations. “Near the end of an age there occurs a heavy accumulation of accepted ideas and institutionalized ways of thinking, against which thinking men and women must react,” he wrote.(Confessions, xiv). At the end of the modern age, Lukacs thinks that a bonafide conservatism should preserve this reactionary element of society. Therefore, he aligns himself with bourgeoisie thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt and lesser-known literary types, Gyula Krudy and Agnes Repplier who were reactionaries in their own right. Similar to well-known historian Hayden White, Lukacs’ hero is the historically-minded literary figure.  This explains his fascination with Winston Churchill and George Kennan as genuine reactionaries too. What is worth conserving, Lukacs demonstrates over and again, is the perspective of the outsider.

Two key themes resonate throughout The Future of History. First, post-humanism is now the most formidable opponent of conservatism, both intellectually and politically. Second, our fascination with history has seeped into our very blood. This is the birth of what Lukacs terms historical man. Historical man, consciously or not, finds the past always illuminating the present. Lukacs demonstrates why historians must recognize the very humanistic elements of historical man, and the historicity of the process of thinking and writing.

In the first two chapters, Lukacs delves into the idea of historical consciousness, which is an ongoing theme he has kept throughout his career. Historical consciousness is exactly as it sounds; it is historical thinking or thinking historically. He dates the rise of historical consciousness sometime after the Renaissance. The concept is important because it serves as a compass for humans to understand their place in the world. Historical consciousness is also heavily laden, according to Lukacs, with the merits of the thinking about class from a European bourgeois perspective (again the understanding of place and limitations).  It is somewhat Dickensian too. (We might think about Dickens’ protagonist David Copperfield in the novel David Copperfield to better grasp Lukacs on European bourgeoisie perspective of class). From the first two chapters we can conclude that the work of the historian is more difficult than ever because historians can no longer be sure what exactly history is because history seeps into everything.

In the following three chapters (3-5), Lukacs explores how history and literature intertwine in the historical age. Here too his idea of historical consciousness is always present. Human —despite claims of the possibility of objectivity—are always and forever creating and participating. Therefore, literature has become a branch of history because thinking historically is automatic. Lukacs, however, does not fall into relativism despite the obvious blurred lines. He is merely claiming the process of history is beautifully, imperfectly human. For those familiar with the works of classical pragmatic philosophers William James and John Dewey (especially Dewey’s late career opus Art as Experience) Lukacs idea of the human experience as intrinsically aesthetic is Pragmatic in many respects.

In chapter five, Lukacs explores the historical novel. A new kind of genre has arrived that is neither history nor literature. Accordingly, he cites a short list of “historical fiction” that mix, and often confuse, fact and fiction. It seems, although sometimes confusing, that the new genre he describes is a kind of thick descriptive effort aimed at illuminating the inner lives of people from the past, maybe even illuminations of memory as well. We can deduce that Lukacs believes presentism and anachronism is a serious problem that historians still have not dealt with successfully. However, his solution is not more crackdowns on plagiarism but the recognition that the derivation of fact and fiction have changed dramatically at the end of the modern age. It is still too early to know what this shift means

There is more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Lukacs believes that the historian is the new philosopher; and that is a prominent theme in chapters six and seven. In past books, Lukacs has made the point that historians do philosophy on a daily basis. Whenever a historian seeks to understand antiquity, the history of ethics, science, the nation state, and so on, they are doing and making philosophic claims of the most intricate kind. This is evidenced in the work of contemporary intellectual historians such as George Cotkin, Casey Nelson Blake, James Kloppenberg, Wilfred McClay and the founders of the U.S. Intellectual History blog (Drs. Tim Lacy, Andrew Hartman, David Sehat, Raymond Haberski, and Paul Murphy among others) who work on ideas which are, at their core, philosophically motivated. At the 2010 U.S. Intellectual History Conference in New York, David Steigerwald, serving as one of the speakers in a plenary titled “Intellectual History for What?,” said that intellectual historians are always “trespassing” into areas where they do not necessarily belong. In the so-called Age of Information, who is better to ask existential questions than historians? This  is precisely Lukacs’ assertion.

In the sixth chapter, Lukacs chides American liberal historians for forcing a singular tradition on America but not for the reasons one might think. His argument is an epistemological one. Lukacs’ participant theory of knowledge is a belief that people have agency over ideas first. Historians often downplay what people do with ideas, he thinks. Meaning, it did not matter if America had a sophisticated liberal tradition because historians like Russell Kirk made conservatism American. And, that Marxists make Marxism, not the other way around. In the “Future of the Profession,” he says, “Our problems are different now. We may face new structures of events or ideas: perhaps not so much what people think and believe but why? and how? and when? –that last of these three questions having become as important as the other two,” he writes (157).

Having outlived the first generation of modern American conservatives, Lukacs gives us a glance into how they might have changed after postmodernism became the new reality. In the final chapter titled, “Tradition, Inheritance, Imagination,” he situates modern conservatism as a product of the waning European Age, which ended around 1950 or so. In other words, certain men and women realized that some thing was worth conserving from the past, the European past specifically. That thing he finds worth conserving is a certain kind type of consciousness and humanism that emanated from the European Age. We might call it the historical literary imagination, and, or, many other things too. Assuredly, this is more than a cry for a past relic. It is now a divide, he opines. “Let me repeat Wendell Berry’s chilling but truly provocative thought: that the future may be divided between men who think of themselves as machines, and men who think of themselves as creatures” (169).

Correspondingly, Lukacs offers a concluding message just for historians. History is no longer just the recorded past. It is the remembered past also. Although counterfactual history may have taken a beating in the recent past, Lukacs says all historians are in the business of speculation. In fact, speculation is the driving force behind history. It is speculation, too, that is the best weapon against post-humanism, which is rooted in social-scientific bureaucratic historiography. A properly grounded methodology is the product of imagination/speculation. The speculative imagination too, is worth preserving.  “Professional historians, perhaps even more than others, must recognize that the condition, indeed the very nature, of history knowledge is not “scientific” knowledge, not mechanically casual, and not determined” (p.172).

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