In the 1950s, liberal commentators like Mary McCarthy were decrying the growing government bureaucracy’s encroachment on public and private life. In 1988, that same cry was heard from leading conservative thinkers. Historian John Lukacs, an early refugee from Hungarian communism, was a well-known explorer of the destiny and progress of post-war America. A self-described “reactionary,” he said he “thinks the clock has to be put back sometimes.”
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. Listen to these words and see if they ring true in your own experience: “The vast growth of the social life, steadily encroaching on both private and public life, has produced the eerie phenomenon of mass society, which rules everybody anonymously, just as bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.”
This is Mary McCarthy’s analysis of modern America, written 30 years ago in The New Yorker. Mary McCarthy is a liberal writer and a liberal social critic, but that diagnosis might just as well have been written by some of our leading conservative thinkers. It seems left and right today rejoined in their common lament over the giant but invisible mechanism called bureaucracy. Join me for a conversation with the historian John Lukacs.
[voice over] John Lukacs calls himself an early refugee from communism. In 1946 he fled his home in Hungary and came to the United States. He is now a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and the author of over a dozen books. Books that range from biography to politics to his most recent work, a portrait of his native Budapest at the turn of the century. Two of his books in particular spoke to me as a journalist: The Passing of the Modern Age and Outgrowing Democracy. They analyze America’s vulnerability to changes in our national character since World War II. I visited with John Lukacs in his home near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to talk with him about what’s been happening to his adopted country.
[interviewing] What struck you most about America when you arrived in 1946?
JOHN LUKACS: America was like Europe used to be before the war. There was very little government, there was very little police. No intervention in your personal life. People let you alone, sometimes to the extent that they were awfully uninterested in what you were doing, but nonetheless this was in a way like a remnant of the old liberal 19th-century world.
BILL MOYERS: Did it take you long to become an American?
JOHN LUKACS: I’m an American citizen. But when I speak with other Americans, I find it difficult to say “we.”
BILL MOYERS: Why is that? America is full of people like you.
JOHN LUKACS: I know. This is part of my very old-fashioned and reactionary sentiments.
BILL MOYERS: Reactionary? You’re not a reactionary.
JOHN LUKACS: Oh, I’m a reactionary, rather than a conservative. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the difference?
JOHN LUKACS: Well, especially now in this country, the conservatives are just extreme progressives, they really are not interested in conserving old liberties. They are interested in making the world or actually making the universe safe for democracy, their brand of democracy. And they are interested in development, Star Wars, they are saying they’re against big government but they’re very much in favor of big government and extreme application of the American military presence all around the world. One of the more intelligent women among them, Mrs. Schlafly said, “God gave America the atom bomb.” What’s so conservative about this?
BILL MOYERS: You once said that patriots, especially true conservatives, should be suspicious of ideology.
JOHN LUKACS: To be a conservative, properly speaking, should be the very opposite of an ideologue. You know, a conservative is profoundly aware of the sinful nature, the sinful essence of human nature including that of his own country and his people, you know. A patriot wants — patriotism is essentially defensive. Nationalism is aggressive. And our conservatives are nationalists, not patriots.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
JOHN LUKACS: They believe that it is the destiny and the fate of the United States to impose its values and standards and to extend its interests over vast portions of the world.
BILL MOYERS: And what’s wrong with that?
JOHN LUKACS: Every nation has a particular destiny that is circumscribed by its history, by its geography, by its interests. This is not a cruel and realistic view. This involves a certain amount of humility, or at least a lack of presumption. As John Quincy Adams said, “We are friends of liberty all over the world, but we are not in search of monsters to destroy. ”
BILL MOYERS: What’s your definition of a reactionary, which you call yourself?
JOHN LUKACS: A reactionary is somebody who thinks the clock has to be put back sometimes.
BILL MOYERS: And a conservative?
JOHN LUKACS: Well, a conservative doesn’t think that an American conservative now is more enamored with progress and with technical progress than liberals and progressives were two generations ago.
BILL MOYERS: Progress?
JOHN LUKACS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of progress?
JOHN LUKACS: This is a very important question to raise because I think that the great task before all of us and our children, not only in the United States but throughout probably most of the world, we have to rethink the meaning of progress.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the meaning that you think most of us now embrace?
JOHN LUKACS: It’s a meaning that is outdated; man’s increasing mastery and government of things beyond a point where man himself becomes a thing. We have to conserve much of the world. We have to conserve much of the past. What this world needs is not growth as much as stability.
BILL MOYERS: I think if you looked at the definition you’d find that the meaning of progress is, oh, the traditional meaning is, moving toward a goal, constantly improving ourselves as we go there. And you’re saying we have to change that idea about progress?
JOHN LUKACS: But we’re not improving ourselves. Progress means constantly changing the thing, the world beyond us, without us, you know. Not really improving our minds. Not really improving ourselves. The progressive mind denies the existence of sin, of frailty, of the limitations of human nature. Because what is taught in our schools and universities all over the world is that men don’t have a control of their destiny, that we are programmed by genes or hormones or psychology or environment, you know. I mean we are more and more destitute of the sense of free will. This is part of the technological development and the mindset of an age at its very end. And this is not life-giving. This is really a very despairing view of human nature and of its capacities.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve written that at the end of an era people lose faith in their ability to reform institutions, to change things. Is that happening?
JOHN LUKACS: That’s happening. And that’s happening, unfortunately, in this country at many levels because a lot of people have the experience, but the bureaucratic organization of everyday life — not only of government, but of the private institutions — is such that it takes immense effort, too much trouble to be able to reform it. Now, this is true of many other countries. But this is something relatively new for the United States. The United States even when I came to this country was a simpler country, to some extent a cruder country.
BILL MOYERS: Cruder?
JOHN LUKACS: A more direct country. It was easier to do some things. Very simple operations. This country was behind Europe, not only because of those freedoms I mentioned earlier, but there was less bureaucracy in this country. There is now in this country as much bureaucracy as there is in Europe, Western Europe. A very odd example. Forty years ago, about 1948, I met a Philadelphia lawyer. You know “Philadelphia lawyer” used to be a term that’s almost extinct now, as a particular kind of lawyer, kind of on top of the American legal profession. And he told me that when he pays his income taxes he takes the very minimal deductions or no deductions at all because he knows what he owes this country, his country and his government.
This impressed me very much. There is no one in Europe who would have done this, ever in the history of Europe. But I also had a sad feeling that this is not going to last.
And I’m sure there is no such lawyer in America now. And you see, we have reached the stage of bureaucracy where, for example, a letter from your grandmother is not only as much of a historical document as a speech by a President, but it is more authentic, because she wrote it herself. And we have speeches of Presidents, records of Presidents, records of Cabinet deliberations, you know. I mean memoranda, state papers, that have been, that were written, dictated and sometimes not even signed by a President. And the bureaucratic habit, the bureaucratic practice, the bureaucratic encumberments of everyday life do leave a sediment, a mark, on people’s minds.
BILL MOYERS: In what way?
JOHN LUKACS: They do not become corrupt. But they become tired and skeptical. In our very township we are fighting some mass developments now. We have less cooperation from people whose very interests are involved. To come to the township meeting, to sign petitions, to do this and that, it still exists. It exists more than in Europe. It’s wonderful, you know, how public opinion can influence and change things. But the people who are responsive to this are not young people.
BILL MOYERS: What do you make of that? That bureaucracies do not summon citizenship the way democracy calls for citizenship. So we don’t take ourselves as seriously historically as we once did.
JOHN LUKACS: Precisely. There’s a kind of tiredness, a kind of apathy about the system, you know. And the system might be the office manager where you work. It’s irrelevant whether this is General Electric, the Pentagon, or the business where you work. And this is very odd that this happens, this apathy, which is not terribly overwhelming, because the wonderful thing about this country is that it’s still, not in every way, but in many fields of life, it’s unpredictable. And people occasionally do take their destiny in their hands. And this is wonderful because destiny is not fate. Fate is preordained, destiny is not. But it is more rare than it was in the past; and it’s very odd that this should happen at a time when, in a way the United States won the Cold War.
BILL MOYERS: Won the Cold War?
JOHN LUKACS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: You think we did?
JOHN LUKACS: If you consider the Cold War, the contest between Communism and what people call capitalism, these ideas incarnated by two great powers; Soviet Union and the United States. There’s no question that what the United States represents in the world, or seems to represent in the world, is far more widespread than what the Russians represent. And finally this has come about, and in this sense the United States won the Cold War. But as some great moralist wrote in the past, it takes greater character to carry off good fortune than bad. What are we going to do with it?
BILL MOYERS: And you think we are not certain about that?
JOHN LUKACS: We’re not certain about it and the wonderful thing about a certain kind of American provinciality is that many Americans don’t think about this as a great triumph, and that’s good. That’s good, you know. I mean, it’s much better than when Richard Nixon said this awful thing; that we are Number One. That’s a very vulgar statement.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JOHN LUKACS: Because when somebody has to say that he’s Number One, it means that he’s not sure of himself.
BILL MOYERS: So you are saying we have won the Cold War in the sense that nobody is choosing communism today and a lot of people are trying to pursue capitalism?
JOHN LUKACS: Yes, and even if it’s not old fashioned capitalism, it is the perception of a social and economic order or disorder that the United States represents. And this is very important because ideas don’t exist in the abstract; they have to be incarnated by human beings, and in this respect it’s not capitalism that won the Cold War, but the United States won the cold War.
BILL MOYERS: The United States, the basic idea of which is —
JOHN LUKACS: Yes. Because it represents something. You know, just like the Second World War involved Nazism or what people call Fascism, but essentially it was Germany. Germany incarnated a very strong, in many ways, evil historical force and that historical force had to be defeated. And the United States incarnates in different ways a lot of things including this view of the world about capitalism, freedom, free economy, this and that that very often does not quite correspond to what is really going on in this country, but in the short run, no matter. It is the United States which is imitated all over the world, including Tehran, you know, and not Russia. But such things do not last forever. If at a future time, people will realize that there are many things in America that are much less free than they had thought; there are many things in American that don’t function or work as well as they had thought, there will occur an erosion of prestige irrespective of what the material and military power of the United States is at that given point. And when that happens that’s a dangerous thing because it’s much more difficult to recover prestige than it is to recover power. This is as true in the life of individuals as it is in the life of nations.
BILL MOYERS: But do you think our prestige at the moment is at a peak?
JOHN LUKACS: No, but still very, very considerable. But many things have to be done to correct and reform the functioning of American institutions, the quality of American culture, the actual results of the immense amount of money and trust we pour into education.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that you don’t believe Americans are being well served at the moment by their educational or informational bureaucracies. What do you mean in specific?
JOHN LUKACS: The trust in education is perhaps the basic American superstition. It goes back to the Puritans. But it can be exaggerated and misused by a bureaucracy, by an educational bureaucracy and by an informational bureaucracy that in the late 20th century has begun to run along a track that very is contrary to all American tradition. Because all American tradition, to a great extent, depends and had depended on an overestimation, perhaps, of the intelligence of the people. Which sometimes may be wrong, but it’s not as wrong as to proceed from an underestimation of the intelligence of the people. And our educational and our informational and perhaps our entertainment bureaucracies have come to proceed from a fairly cynical underestimation of the intelligence of the common people. For example, the American people today are taught less history than before in their schools. The standards of history teaching have vastly deteriorated. The actual ignorance of some people, young people about recent history is appalling. At the same time, the American people are much more history-minded than they were 100 years ago. A publisher today will not publish, save in exceptional circumstances, a new novel, but he will publish a new history.
There is an appetite for history in this country and for a sense of the past. To me it means very much, because I think that history consists of words, because we think in words. Sixty years ago in this country, the word modern was a very good word. In England a modern girl, or a modern woman, was a fast woman. In America a modern girl was an all-American girl. At the same time, in the 1920s, old-fashioned in America was a more pejorative word than in England, you know. Old-fashioned meant fuddy-duddy, Victorian. Today if you ask somebody, where would you like to live, in a modern house or an old-fashioned house; where would you like to go for dinner, to a modern restaurant or an old-fashioned restaurant; whom would you want your little sister to marry, somebody from a modern family or from an old-fashioned family. I would say ninety-eight of one-hundred people would choose the old-fashioned. And this is a mutation of consciousness. This means something. This is more than just mere nostalgia.
BILL MOYERS: What is it?
JOHN LUKACS: People are beginning to recognize that the past is solid, that the American consciousness is beginning to include a historical element and not merely the so-called progressive clement, which very often was an escape from history.
BILL MOYERS: If you are right, it is a profound change in the American psychology, because for 200 years we have been the country of the future. It is the future that beckons, the green light out on the horizon drawing us toward that ever-increasing frontier. And now you’re saying that the past is the future, or is a part of the landscape of the future.
JOHN LUKACS: It is part and parcel of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge really means not only know thyself; know thy past.
BILL MOYERS: Well, this must please the historian very much.
JOHN LUKACS: Well it pleases me. But on the surface a lot of things seem to happen that contradict this completely. You know, people think that we live in a revolutionary age, people think that our young people are totally uninterested in tradition. People think that history is useless, or people think, you know, our universities are saddled with faddish history courses or history courses that emphasize the very present. This will not last. I think this is one of the promising things, this appetite for the past, but it is only an appetite, and an appetite has to be fed.
BILL MOYERS: Docs this mean the future has no appeal to you, no purpose to you?
JOHN LUKACS: Oh, none at all. It probably has something to do with the other human condition that if you’re too much afraid of death, you won’t enjoy life. About the future, what can I say? I’m not a prophet. I’m a historian. There are two things that occur to me. One of them is what a great moralist once said, that things are never as bad, or as good as they seem. You know. The second thing is that past knowledge, the knowledge of the past, while a very important thing, can be very badly misused. And a very odd intellectual habit, a very bad one in the 20th century, is to constantly look at the past of people and draw illegitimate conclusions from it. The ascription of motives of people.
See, there’s a difference between motives and purposes. Motives are the push of the past. Something in the past has happened with our hormones, with our genes, with our education, or a complex that pushes us. And we know really very little about this, and it’s very wrong to psychologize about it. But purposes are something different. Purposes are this mysterious pull of the future that really makes human life function. Human life, in many, many ways, is the desire for more life. When this desire fades or dies, we die.
BILL MOYERS: It’s intriguing to me to hear a self-described, reactionary, right-wing, Old Worlder express implicitly a greater faith in democracy than a lot of people who call themselves democrats, because what you’re saying is the common man and woman is far more capable of thought, analysis, self-willed direction than he or she is given credit for today.
JOHN LUKACS: Well, I’m very glad you say that because I have come to believe this, partly. not exclusively, but partly because of my 40 years in this country, and not because of the institutions of this country, but because what I experienced in the character of so many Americans from different walks of life. I’m a believer of Edmund Burke. who really was a conservative, who said “the people must never be regarded as incurable.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This has been a conversation with John Lukacs at his home near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 6, 2015.