Simply put, democracy is and has been degenerating into a brutish populism most often in the form of nationalism. The Modern Age has ended, and something very different and terrible is being born before our very eyes. This is the general theme of John Lukacs’ new book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, and in the course of fleshing out this argument he interprets and discusses the history of modern ideologies and the “misreadings” of that history by later generations. He attacks a number of shibboleths of political discourse, and likely has something to infuriate someone of every political persuasion. Sometimes exaggerated, sometimes profound, only occasionally falling into the convenient conceptual stereotype, his book is always interesting and engrossing..

It was fortunate that I delayed the ‘publication’ of my review of John Lukacs’ latest book, as I opened my American Conservative today to find a very smart, insightful and concise review by Dr. Paul Gottfried, who managed to say many of the things I had been thinking and expressing less effectively than I would have liked. Dr. Gottfried answered the many inaccurate or distorted images of the past American and contemporary European Right that Prof. Lukacs presented, and addressed Prof. Lukacs’ rather sanguine view of Bolshevism and his consequent undue contempt for anti-Communists of all kinds with the criticism that it required, so I will not cover this ground yet again, except where I might add a comment or two. Prof. Lukacs’ professional preoccupation with the study of Hitler has led him to the false impression that Hitler dominates the minds of modern populists and nationalists, which Dr. Gottfried notes is certainly not true here and scarcely true anywhere in Europe.

For the latter-day constitutionalist and the young civics student alike, Lukacs has the perfectly obvious but largely unacknowledged observation: mixed government as a reality has ended. Observing that Tocqueville once wrote admiringly of the American judiciary and lawyers, because of their restraining influences on democracy, Prof. Lukacs now notes that these no longer fulfill the same functions. “Democracy has become unlimited, untrammeled, universal.” This is certainly the plague of our age, and one that thoughtful observers ought to regard with great alarm. The ideal of mixed government was to provide balance between competing interests and to prevent concentrations of power in any one part of the body politic. With this now at an end the dangerous concentrations of power appear to have no remedy and contemporary political theorists, if we may call them that, are at a loss to speak in any language other than that of increased democracy and more rights.

Prof. Lukacs reminds us that the terms conservative and liberal have ceased to have any meaning in Western societies, and the terms Right and Left are only slightly more useful. Of the Right he notes that historically it has not been populist, but it now most certainly is, “which is perhaps a main argument of this book.” For most who would consider themselves Rightists today (whether they would actually fit Chilton Williamson’s excellent definition of the same is another question), the accusation of populism is not really an insult. What Prof. Lukacs’ book explains to his audience, in a sense, is that the charge of populism very much ought to be taken as an insult by Rightists. It is certainly a contradiction and a subversion of their own principles.

But if one part of the book is about the degeneration of democracy (of which Prof. Lukacs is clearly not much of an admirer in its unmediated form) into rude populism, the other is the collapse of those motivated by fear under the pressures of those motivated by hatred. It is also fair to say that the book is an homage to Tocqueville’s insight and genius, and an attempt in a new work to continue, in a brief but sweeping and often profound way, the sort of political and cultural analysis in which Tocqueville excelled.

The statement that the “diverse combinations of nationalism and socialism marked most of the history of the twentieth century” is undeniably true, with certain qualifications, and as true for America as it is for every other part of the world. In America, he notes, Republicans have been the predominantly nationalistic party (and, I might add, scarcely more so than today) and Democrats the predominantly socialistic party, but as American political observers are only too aware the convergence between the two positions and parties is common. Lukacs speculates that the Democrats may have been declining over the past fifty years as much as they have because of their dearth of nationalism in our age of rising nationalism.

Though the book does not address the problems of the export of populism and nationalism to the non-Western world in the wake of decolonisation and again today, Lukacs’ book would be perfectly accompanied by George McCarthy’s brilliant review of Hotel Rwanda in the April 2005 issue of Chronicles. Having viewed the film just last night, I can attest that Mr. McCarthy’s review was one of the most accurate and insightful I have ever read. Seeing the way in which mass media, in this case RTLN “Hutu Power Radio,” fed the populist insanity of the Rwandan genocide demonstrates in graphic fashion Prof. Lukacs’ concern for the pervasive effects of mass media on our politics and culture.

One of the most valuable points in the book is the attention to non-material historical causes, and its general challenge to the bias towards privileging material causes in historical scholarship. He focuses particularly on “the accumulation of opinions”: “But it is the accumulation of opinions that governs the history of states and of nations and of democracies as well as dictatorships in the age of popular sovereignty. It is the main ingredient of nationalisms, the cause of wars, and of the majority support of fanatical speakers like Hitler, or of the less enthusiastic but majoritarian support of less than mediocre presidents.” Naturally, those who accumulate, disseminate and shape those opinions are the real power-brokers.

For Lukacs, nationalism is aggressive and self-centered, and by this last term he means it very specifically as the love of oneself or those like oneself. His explanation of the problem with this generalised, abstracted form of a natural affinity for one’s people will not be satisfying to many who regard themselves as non-nationalist patriots (who in turn place love of their own people ahead of and against abstract national identity): “The love for one’s people is natural, but it also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one’s country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one’s family.” Lukacs’ interpretation is intellectually tempting, but somehow fails finally to convince. How is the love of family more akin to the love of country than to that of one’s people? Surely, at some level, filial love is the most basic and instinctive–thus the least ‘deeply human’, to work from Lukacs’ definition–of all forms of love.

Herein lies what is one of the central disagreements I have, not just with Prof. Lukacs’ interpretation here, but with the entire ‘attitude’, if you will, of two Rightists of European origin, Lukacs and the late von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who have found volkisch and ethnic things terribly disturbing. Boden, yes, Blut, no; Kultur, maybe (but presumably not in some volkisch sense!). There is a constant desire to find some way to align attachment to country with a cosmopolitan outlook–one might be tempted to say that breadth, not depth, is the cultural ideal of these men. This is, in a way, an admirable desire to return to the way that Europe was before 1914 or, really, before 1870, but just as one need not loathe another landscape to love one’s own as one’s own so one need not loathe or exclude other nationalities to love one’s own people–it is a deficient and weak love of one’s own people that causes men to lash out against foreigners in hatred and violence in the sense decried by Lukacs. It is political populism that makes love of one’s people conformist and monolithic, not the love of one’s people that makes populism into the drive for brutal and crude homogeneity. What is more, it is fluid social boundaries, which disrupt ethnic communities, that exacerbate and encourage hostility to foreigners. I fear that Prof. Lukacs, usually so careful about causality, has gotten the order here precisely backwards, and has mistaken the effect of populism for the essential character of a love for one’s own people.

As he says later, “Patriotism is always more than merely biological–because charitable love is human and not merely “natural.”” This last line is most telling–the presumption, no doubt shaped by extensive study of twentieth-century European ideology, that love of one’s people is “merely biological” or the prejudice that an affinity for the “merely biological” is less than virtuous. (Is love for one’s parents less admirable, less virtuous or less human simply because it is based more in biological similarity than, say, love for one’s wife or friends?) First, ethnic and national identities are obviously not “merely” or even entirely “biological,” though they are rooted in the reality and perception of biological similarity.

The biological bond is vital because it is the means by which the generations are linked so that the culture of a people can be transmitted and reproduced, and because the specific content of one’s culture will often be shaped by the experience of one’s biological ancestors. Their history and the customs we receive from them cannot be separated, nor can the fact that we would probably not have received them if we were not their descendants. (That there are descendants who remain in ignorance of their ancestors’ ways is lamentable, but does not disprove the vital importance of the biological link–it only shows that biology is necessary, but not sufficient for cultural reproduction.) However, as natural as these affinities are to a certain extent, a sense of veneration for and duty towards the habits and customs of one’s ancestors–the method by which the “merely biological” and the cultural unite to convey the full heritage of one’s people–is something that is taught through cultural means: language, symbols and practices.

“Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and a cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism.” This is undoubtedly shaped by his experience and interpretations of central European history. It is not obvious that the love for one’s own people should be so easily collapsed into the term ‘populism’, of which I believe it is usually a perverse distortion. In other words, patriotism and love of one’s people are not necessarily premised on entirely different things–populism and patriotism are. The frequent confusion of love for one’s own people with populism and/or nationalism in the middle of his book have created a number of problems that need not have existed.

I will return to one area that Dr. Gottfried covered, because it was the least convincing and least satisfying element of the book for me and requires further comment. Lukacs makes a dismissive remark about Robert Taft in a footnote, which really seems neither worthwhile or apropos, but which symbolises, in a way, one of the messages of the book: the Communist threat has always been exaggerated, and the real threat everywhere is nationalism. “In December 1941, three days before Pearl Harbor, Senator Robert A. Taft proclaimed that while “Fascism” appealed to only a few, Communism was a much greater danger because it appealed to many. (This when Hitler’s armies stood a dozen miles from Moscow.)” The irrelevant mention of Pearl Harbor is a not-so-subtle dig at the non-interventionist Taft’s foreign policy views, as if his lesser concern about the threat of fascism was somehow proven even more wrong by the attack at Pearl Harbor (which would be to see Imperial Japan as fascist, which is really stretching things quite a bit.) Where Hitler’s armies were was, as Taft might have said, beside the point: the political idea (one of those non-material causes) motivating Hitler’s armies could only be carried forward by conquest, and was defined in some measure by domination, while communism had the potential to be adopted in various climes and nations without the support of foreign armies with the same equally devastating and disastrous results. Historically, Taft was right: fascism has appealed only to a few nations in very specific circumstances and died in 1945 never to return, while communism, or at least the trappings of communism, was adopted as the banner of revolution and/or independence in over a dozen countries with effects far more lasting and extensive in Asia than any form of fascism ever had anywhere. Officially, communism still lives and its heirs continue to degrade and oppress hundreds of millions of people. Even if some anti-Communists have been nationalist populists of the worst kind, this does not diminish in any way the gravity of what communism represented. And fascism does have limited appeal. Nationalism in any given country may have perennial, significant power, but at the same time its very nationalism serves to limit the potential effects of any one nationalist movement.

Nonetheless, as much as Prof. Lukacs is a careful scholar very much concerned with the integrity and proper use of language, he will sometimes fall into what I regarded as lazy stereotypes and categorisations of individuals in their political alignments. Thus Huey “Share Our Wealth” Long and Fr. Coughlin are listed in the same sentence with Col. Lindbergh as men of the Right in the time of Roosevelt. Perhaps this is because he has elsewhere identified Long as a Populist rather than a Progressive, which puts him in the nationalist, and unfortunately somehow inevitably Rightist, category of this interpretation of twentieth century American history? Regardless of how it happened, it is blatantly wrong. In my view, these two men shared little more than a common antipathy to certain policies of the Roosevelt administration: they were both opposition men, but they were attacking from entirely different sides and were concerned with very different things. One might as well make Wallace and Thurmond fellow travelers.

The conclusions are hard to ignore: there is no undoing of the Democratic Age, much as we might hope for it, and faith in constitutions and parliaments is also increasingly useless. The internal contradictions of populist “conservatism” are simply inaugurating another stage of nationalist frenzy, of which the needless, gratuitous and aggressive attack on Iraq might serve as a convenient symbol. (Prof. Lukacs clearly abhors the Iraq war and the reason for it that he sees–it was a war for popularity, he says–but the war itself and its direct relation to his theme are not subjects that he covers.) The cult of celebrity and its corrosive effects on our society, also discussed today by Clyde Wilson in a slightly different context, has taken hold of the public through the mass media. This cult has, as I would put it, induced a spirit of servility and adoration that might only be comparable in the past to enthusiasms for favourite charioteers in the Circus. That people used to fawning over famous nonentities should then elect one president and virtually worship him is also not very surprising.

There are a some final statements that I’d like to add in response to one of the more bizarre and inexplicable comments towards the end of the book that touch on Orthodoxy. Their importance should not be exaggerated–it is only a few sentences on one page–but they simply make no sense. Regardless of his few complimentary asides about Vladimir Putin, Prof. Lukacs demonstrates a strange lack of understanding of the state of modern Orthodox nations and their history. He would hardly be the first to misunderstand the Christian East, and hardly the first historian or serious writer to ascribe something like “Constantinism” to the character of Orthodoxy, but I believe his observations here are quite mistaken and in need of correction. Add to this the rather bizarre remarks about the ‘good’ that came from the Russian Revolution (it prevented Tsarist Russia from dominating a post-WWI Allied victory), which I tried to take in the spirit of an historian’s counterfactual imaginings rather than as any serious statement that the creation of the USSR was preferable to a Tsarist-dominated eastern Europe, and one can certainly see some flawed elements in the work. Of course, I may be biased on this question: I am both Russian Orthodox and a student of Byzantine history. But I am also an admirer of Prof. Lukacs’ work and his reputation as an historian, which these odd remarks do not advance.

“Constantinism” is an invention of the Reformation and Enlightenment. It has nothing to do with the Orthodox world (and whatever might be comparable in Byzantine history, it was not invented by Constantine I). When it has existed, it has been an attempt by Westerners to imitate a Byzantine church-state arrangement they never understood. “Constantinism” is at best the conscious institution of a pseudo-Byzantine arrangement between church and state in England and the German principalities (which, in the great ironies of history, was eventually transferred to Greece when the Bavarian monarchy took control of that country in the 1830s) that bears no real relation to the imperial relationship to the Orthodox Church in Byzantium. At worst it is simply the scurrilous liberal libel against Byzantium for its erstwhile “Caesaropapism” and the Church’s supposed identification with the empire to some compromise of Her integrity. This is a scandalous falsehood, and anyone remotely familiar with the late Byzantine period in particular ought to know how ludicrous it is. It is even less convincing for the less enduring Balkan dynasties, and only slightly more credible in the Russian case. There have been moments in history when modern nationalism has corrupted and divided Orthodox peoples, but these have been, on the whole, relatively few.

“Among the Eastern, Greek and Russian, Orthodox churches of eastern Europe the nationalist and populist characters of the different national churches remain largely what they have been for almost one thousand years.” This statement is unacceptable and untrue. There was no nationalism properly so called in the middle ages, as Prof. Lukacs surely must know, as there were no self-conscious nations organised on that basis, but on the basis of dynastic rulers. There was scarcely any nationalism in the Orthodox lands in the sense that he means it until the late 18th century with the introduction of Enlightenment ideas. Bishop Germanos raising the Cross together with the Greek revolutionaries was historically the exception, not the rule.

Nor is it more acceptable to say this: “That was, and remains, the consequence of what we may call Constantinism (since it began with Constantine the Great): the willingness of churches, and of their peoples, to accept and even to venerate and worship (and on occasion sanctify) the authority of monarchs, dictators, imperial rulers, when these invite their churches to assist them at their maintenance of law and order.” Of course, it was not in the East among the Byzantines that the churches stepped in to help maintain law and order, but in many areas of the medieval west in the absence of any secular authority to do the job. In the late seventh and then again in the early tenth centuries certain elements of canon law were incorporated into secular law. Earlier, the two were clearly distinct, but one would have thought that the greater Christianisation of the law would not have been objectionable. Surely the only real, Christian objections to a “Constantinist” arrangement is that it somehow compromises or sullies the Church by making some disreputable deal with the powerful. When disreputable manipulations of the Church did occur, then some element within the Church would react against it and gradually triumph. What he describes does not apply to St. Constantine’s reign, nor to that of any other Byzantine ruler, even the most obnoxious and interventionist ones: no Christian prelate or Church Father from the entire Byzantine period ever told other Christians to “worship” the authority of their rulers–they worshiped God. In an age of mass populism, I should also have thought that veneration of authority was not something of which one ought to be ashamed.

I have some doubts that Prof. Lukacs inquired that deeply into the circumstances of the Orthodox churches in eastern Europe over the past 1000 years. Had he done so, he would have been aware of the vast complexity and diversity of conditions that prevailed in the Orthodox world at various times. He would not be satisfied if someone made gross over-generalisations about European history or the very technical political distinctions that he made in this book, and neither should he be satisfied to make such gross oversimplifications about an entire area of the European and Christian world. His judgement about Orthodox churches vis-a-vis “Constantinism” might hold true for post-Petrine Russia–but once again the relative subjugation of the Church followed Westernising reforms–but even here it is misleading, because then what we are speaking of is not “Constantinism” but “Petrism” or, more accurately, Westernisation.