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7 quotations: John Lukacs on capitalism, racism, bureaucracy, and faith

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John Lukacs, the renowned historian who fled communist tyranny in his native Hungary in 1946, passed away this morning at the age of 95. Lukacs was born Lukacs Janos Albert on January 31, 1924, to a Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother and raised in the Catholic faith. After settling in the United States, he taught at Chestnut Hill College for 48 years, chairing the college’s history department for 27 years. He wrote more than 30 books dealing with communism, fascism, modernity, and the West. He wrote a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as two “auto-histories”: Confessions of an Original Sinner and Last Rites.

Lukacs remained a conservative in the European mold and eschewed ideological purity by U.S. standards on numerous issues, including economics; however, his opposition to collectivism informed everything he wrote. His views saw the self-described “reactionary” published in outlets as diverse as National Review, Commonweal, The American Spectator, and The New Republic. He challenged the regnant academic orthodoxy of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the revisionist anti-Semitism of David Irving. He died in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

Here are seven quotations on everything from Tocqueville’s philosophy to words that seem eerily to presage the current U.S. college admissions scandal.

On Alexis de Tocqueville:

[W]hat separates Tocqueville from Burke and from his own contemporary conservatives may be summed up under three headings: religion, monarchy, liberty. Tocqueville did not believe that religion (and particularly the Roman Catholic religion) and democracy were incompatible, whereas for all of the great conservative thinkers (Burke being a partial exception) that incompability was their fundamental article of belief. Tocqueville, who regretted the end of the French Bourbon monarchy but who also saw that in the history of peoples continuity plays as much, if not greater, a role than does change, did not think that during the eighteenth century the divine right of kings mattered very much, whereas the conservatives believed that the democratic revolutions constituted a break with the entire order of the providential universe. Most important, the conservatives’ criticism of the principle of equality was often combined with their criticism of the principle of liberty; this was very different from the convictions of Tocqueville who, throughout his life, regarded liberty—and by no means in an abstract sense—as the most precious possession of persons and of peoples. …

Tocqueville [w]as more than an old-fashioned historian or a forerunner of sociology. His concern with the evolving relationship of Christianity and democracy, as revealed in his letters and later writings, shows that he was neither a “progressive” Catholic nor an aristocratic skeptic, but a great Christian thinker and a magnanimous spirit.

– “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Bibliographical Essay,” 1982.

How capitalism created the prosperity that preserved national unity:

The Republic was rich, and its currency solid enough, so that an American kind of capitalism had arrived with a vengeance; but all of its outward and often rude manifestations notwithstanding, this was not an ungenerous kind of capitalism, demanding little more than a single-minded acceptance of the American mode of progress. Consequently many Americans thought they had a vested interest in the maintenance of the social and financial and political system in the midst of which they were living. It was thus that many Americans, perhaps even a majority of American families, became temperamentally conservative – even though they were loath to identify themselves with that adjective, except perhaps when it came to their financial investments. This widespread conservatism (in this the history of the United States is a refutation of Marx, again and again) explains the failures of the Populists in the 1890s – and also the continued existence of municipal corruption in the democratic institutions of the Republic. … They were defeated not by the capitalist but by the condition that “the people“ were more conservative than they, the Populists, had expected; indeed, many of “the people” were becoming bourgeois.

A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century, 1984 and 2004

On the triumph of bureaucracy in the West:

In the past bureaucracies responded to decisions made higher; they had not produced anything except their narrow applications of those decisions. This is happening in the second half of the twentieth century too. But there is this other phenomenon, whereby the bureaucracy is the virtual originator of certain ideas and of the consequent decisions. It is no longer a ukase of the Tsar that tells the bureaucracy what to do; it is the bureaucracy that presents the Chief Executive (whether of the United States or of a university) with a decision, often wrapped in reams of cloudy verbiage, that the latter may accept. Now the historical problem is this: the bureaucracy (and its language) are anonymous and impersonal. The first mention of the decision may be in the minutes of a National Security Council Task Force or of a Curriculum Steering Committee of the Faculty. But who pushed the decision? Sometimes we may find out – through confidential and personal information issuing from personal likes or dislikes, that is, usually not gatherable from these minutes and memoranda. For here the anonymity and the hypocrisies of the bureaucratic process, disguised by democratic trappings, go hand in hand. The proponents of an idea or of a decision – whether within a government or a faculty – know how to efface themselves. Their propositions are politic and impersonal. They are likely to ease them, rather than push them, through the dull maze of pseudoparliamentary procedures and of committee verbiage that leave their potential opponents insufficiently engaged or even interested, boredom and lassitude having contributed to their lack of awareness of what is really going on.

– A New Republic

Patriotism and racism are incompatible:

Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and a cosmopolitan. But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism, too, is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from the community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years, but a populist will always remain suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe.

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, 2005.

Nazism and fascism rejected capitalism:

Seventy years later we must understand, too, that Germany and National Socialism represented an intellectual and spiritual and ideological movement that for a while—throughout the 1930s and at least during the first part of the Second World War—was very powerful, surely in Europe. By and large this was a reaction against communism and, perhaps even more, against international capitalism, and against the liberal and democratic intellectual ideas and political practices of the 19th century. Such practices seemed antiquated and corrupt by the 1930s, at the latest. We must be careful with these words. A reaction, yes; but reactionary this inclination was not. The mistake of many conservatives across Europe (and especially and disastrously of German conservatives such as Franz von Papen and others) was their belief that the great change, including Hitler, was a natural swinging of the pendulum of history backward, away from the ideas and principles of 1789, of the French Revolution. They—like, alas, many “conservative” thinkers even now—did not see, or did not wish to see, that Hitler and National Socialism were populist and modern (and even democratic, in the narrow sense of that word, extolling popular sovereignty). Hitler’s contempt for the old and creaking aristocratic and monarchical states of the 18th century was deeper and stronger than his dismissal of 1789. (Thomas Carlyle, whom Hitler admired, would, had he lived into the 20th century, unquestionably have admired Hitler. Edmund Burke, who saw 1789 otherwise than Carlyle did, would have not.)

– “Seventy Years Later,” The American Scholar, 2009.

On the false “meritocracy” of U.S. higher education:

Like so many other things, the rule of the schools became inflated and extended, diminishing the earlier responsibilities of parents. In the United States the principle and practical function of the schools often became custodial (especially when both parents were working away from home), though this was seldom acknowledged. After 1960 at least one-fourth of the population of the United States spent more than one-fourth of their entire lifetime in schools, from ages two to twenty-two. As on so many other levels and ways of mass democracy, inflation had set in, diminishing drastically the content and the quality of learning: more and more young people, after twenty years in schools, could not read or write without difficulty. Schools are overcrowded, including colleges and universities. In this increasingly bureaucratized world little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools-rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees-depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word “meritocracy” was coined, meaning that the rising positions to be acquired in society depended on the category of the degree and on the category of the college or university where from one graduate. In reality the term “meritocracy” was misleading. As in so many of these spheres of life, the rules that govern the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic. It is bureaucracy, not meritocracy, that categorizes the employment of people by their academic degrees. The number and the variation of degrees awarded by higher institutions grew to a fantastic, and nonsensical, extent. Besides being custodial, the purpose of institutional education was now the granting of degrees to provide instant employment.

– At the End of an Age, 2002.

On the need for Christianity:

In this sense a Christian and a historical understanding of human nature may very well complement each other—especially now when our world is suffering from a decay of love, a condition which is obscured by the grim preoccupation with sex, and obfuscated by an increase of bureaucratic welfare and of legalistic tolerance, with the corresponding decline in human sensitivities. In this sense we are already living in a world where unassuming love, again, becomes curiously and existentially practical.

Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past. 1968.

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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