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One Historian’s America

ISSUE:  Winter 1985
Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century. By John Lukacs. Doubleday. $19.95.

John Lukacs is something of an anomaly among contemporary American historians. He does not hold an appointment at a large research university; he has instead been content to spend his career teaching history at an obscure Catholic liberal-arts college in Philadelphia. Scan the annual-meeting programs of the American Historical Association in search of his name, and you will likely do so in vain, for Lukacs has stayed aloof from the guild of professional historians. A Hungarian immigrant, he has remained unswervingly European in his outlook, even after 40 years in the United States; hence, it is not surprising that he feels a particular intellectual affinity for the long line of distinguished European observers of America: Bryce, Huizinga, D.H. Lawrence, Santayana, and, of course, Tocqueville. Like them, he offers a perspective on American life that is stimulatingprecisely because of its Europeanness; his thought-processes are relatively unfettered by the slogans and agendas generated by homegrown ideological factions.

For many years now, he has been associated with a little-known group of thoughtful conservative intellectuals, many of them Catholic, who have attempted to counter the predominance of liberal-progressive thought in America by espousing an Americanized brand of Burkean conservatism. The present book, his 11th, has apparently been inspired by the decline of that dominance in recent years. In this respect, Outgrowing Democracy has much in common with a number of recent works, such as Allen J. Matusow’s The Unraveling of America or Louis Galambos’ America at Middle Age, which attempt to place liberalism’s failure in a larger historical context. “An increasing number of thoughtful Americans,” writes Lukacs, have entered a “postliberal and post-progressive” phase in their thinking. They are no longer confident that human beings can improve the human condition. The goodness (or at least, the moral neutrality) of man, the intelligibility of the physical world, the inevitable benefits of material and technological innovation—all these progressive nostrums have come to seem untenable. For a while, only a small band of Western intellectuals had suspected the hollowness of the progressive creed; but by now, radical disillusionment has become thoroughly democratized, filtering down to even the most humble elements of the populace.

Thus the decline in this century of American progressivism—taken in its broadest sense, as a set of popular assumptions about human nature, not merely as an intellectual or political movement—is the principal subject of the book. But Lukacs is not satisfied merely to document that decline. As a philosophical historian, who looks to the likes of Burckhardt and Tocqueville as his mentors, Lukacs has interpreted the course of recent American history as a subplot in the grand metahistorical saga of European civilization. We are nearing the end, he tells us, of the Modern Age, a five-century episode in Western intellectual history which derived its rationalist mind-set from Descartes and Newton, acquired its agenda in the 18th-century French Enlightenment, and found its triumphant realization in the liberal, meliorist, utilitarian, and positivist ideas that dominated the 19th century. Today, however, these progressive ideas are demonstrably exhausted—even though most of our institutions are founded upon progressive premises, and continue to operate in the fading light of their afterglow—for they are based on a fundamental misconception of man.

The United States, as the Modern Age’s purest political expression—a “new nation,” conceived in the 18th century and brought to adulthood in the 19th—rapidly became Modernity’s exemplar and principal agent. Hence Lukacs speaks of the “Americanization” of the world as a synonym for its modernization. America is therefore the nation most vulnerable to the Modern Age’s impending doom, precisely because, unlike European countries, America lacks the feudal and premodern cultural vestiges which might ease its transition into a nonmodern, nonliberal civilization. And, as his title implies, he believes that American politics has already changed so drastically since the generation of the Founders—indeed, since the end of the 19th century—that America no longer can be properly understood as a capitalist democracy. Rather it is inexorably declining into a peculiar form of state-socialist bureaucracy.

It is a stimulating approach to American history, even if not entirely original, and one’s interest in Outgrowing Democracy almost never flags, thanks to the unusual fertility of Lukacs’ historical imagination. This quality is inseparable from Lukacs’ “nonprofessional” propensities, for the book abounds in striking insights and intuitive leaps of a sort one rarely finds in the work of today’s professional historians. And Lukacs’ rejection of the professionalization of history-writing is linked to his book’s principal thesis. The historical “profession” is still grounded in the 19th-century dream that all intellectual pursuits, including history, can be organized and professionalized according to the same scholarly model as the natural sciences, so that the same steady, cumulative “progress” in our knowledge will inevitably result. This dream, Lukacs avers, no longer has any credible philosophical basis; but the institutions fashioned in the image of that dream persist, carried forward by sheer inertia.

This sort of duality, he claims, is common in American history, for “the public movements of ideas on the surface” of American life “do not correspond to movements immediately beneath.” In other words, it is often the case that what appears to be happening in American history can be thoroughly misleading. Consider, for example, the history of American political reform. The movement to extend popular democracy in the 19th century, Lukacs declares, only resulted in the thoroughgoing mechanization of politics in the hands of party organizations and bosses. And, in our century, the use of political primaries, referenda, open meetings, televised Congressional sessions, public-opinion polls, all meant to “open up” the system and make it more “responsive,” have only resulted in a politics dominated by the phony theatrics of publicity. Far from being threatened by a Tocquevillean “tyranny of the majority,” American politics has become increasingly dominated by a small elite of specialists—prestige journalists, admen, publicity agents, pollsters—who are skilled in the simulation of popular sentiment, and who create the “perceptions” upon which so much voting behavior is based. For, as James Fenimore Cooper observed, “so great is the deference paid to public opinion, in a country like this, that men actually yield their own sentiments to that which they believe to be the sentiment of the majority.”

American democracy, then, rarely works in the way its participants are constrained to say that it does. This has been particularly true of American foreign policy, which has never been allowed straightforwardly to pursue the national interest. Since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, a certain airy idealism and disingenuous imperialism have dominated American diplomatic thought; and this strange brew of //querry? naivete and arrogance was perfectly embodied in the person of Wilson, who thought of himself as “the president of the World.” The great progressive vision of a United Nations exemplified this benevolent presumptuousness, for the internationalist ideal of the U.N. (and of the League of Nations) was a specifically American form of internationalism, which blithely assumed the universal exportability of American institutions and ways. Moreover, the inspiration for the U.N. was yet another “outdated” Modern-Age notion—in this case, the liberal ideal of a Parliament of Man. Small wonder that the U.N. has proved so woefully inadequate to the realities of 20th-century geopolitics.

To sketch out thus some of Lukacs’ arguments cannot begin to suggest the rich texture of fresh observations that makes the book so continuously engaging. There are intelligent thoughts about subjects as diverse as the intellectual origins of inflation, the decline of American cities, the strange career of American Catholicism, the ruination of American education, and the rise (and decline) of the Women’s Movement. But there is a less attractive side to Lukacs’ liveliness, for often the book has a sprawling, unkempt, self-interrupted quality, which makes Outgrowing Democracy as a whole somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The book meanders from point to point, often repeating itself, like an opinionated professor who can never resist declaiming upon his pet peeves in the course of a rambling lecture. The effect is occasionally charming, but more often disconcerting, even infuriating, since the style of composition begins to resemble free association, which indiscriminately mingles the weighty and the frivolous. And when Lukacs makes a patently silly assertion, like his claim that during the past 50 years, “the only inventions that have made the everyday lives of people easier are air conditioning, television, and Scotch tape, of which perhaps only the last one has been an unmixed blessing,” one is disagreeably reminded of the precious antimodernism and crankishness that have disfigured such potentially interesting conservatives as Irving Babbitt, Albert Jay Nock, and Russell Kirk.

Moreover, a closer look at Lukacs’ guiding ideas raises some troublesome questions. How, for example, is Lukacs so sure that we are approaching the end of the Modern Age? (Assuming there is such a thing.) Lukacs claims to be writing history, not prophecy; but what else is one to call such an assertion? And, despite the repeated assurances of similar prophets who have predicted the demise of the Modern Age for well over a century now, nothing of the sort seems yet to have happened. As for the death of “progressivist” assumptions in American life, such a pronouncement seems equally premature. Lukacs may be correct in seeing some such development within the intellectual demimonde—although one should take such indications with a grain of salt, remembering that there is a powerful antiprogressive tradition in American intellectual history, exemplified by the likes of Thoreau and Henry Adams. But I see little evidence that faith in progress has died in the minds of Americans—or, for that matter, in the rhetoric of either political party. Surely Lukacs is equating public frustration over the difficulty of progress with a disbelief in the possibility of progress—but these are two entirely different matters. His portentous predictions are based on the rather slender evidence of journalistic impressions too scattered and ephemeral to bear much historical weight. Minerva’s owl must wait until dusk before it can take flight.

Compounding the problem is Lukaes’ own ambivalence toward the Modern Age. Even as he welcomes the eclipse of the optimistic American progressive “creed,” he is unstinting in his praise of the late-19th-century urban bourgeoisie, the people who best embody the refined manners and sturdy morals he most esteems. But these are also the very people whose example attests to the rich possibilities for individual enterprise and social advancement under liberal capitalism. Indeed, it is no accident that the high point of the American bourgeoisie—a term Lukacs uses in a distinctly European sense—coincided exactly with the high-water mark of the progressive creed. These people did not build such fine and comfortable lives for themselves and their families by following a philosophy of cultural pessimism.

This inconsistency would not arise if Lukacs’ “Modern Age” were not so vague a concept, a catch-all for every form of banal rationalism and progressive faith that he disapproves. But it is not so easy to escape an historical epoch, even in the freedom of one’s imagination, and it happens that some of Lukacs’ favored notions are just as modern as those he deplores. For example, the balance-of-power conception of international relations derives from the model of Newtonian mechanics, and is no less “modern” than the assumptions behind Wilsonian diplomacy. And even Burkean conservatism, with its emphasis on the organicity of human societies, exemplifies a significant strain of 19th-century thought—the tendency to regard human civilizations as quasi-biological entities, following analogous laws of growth and decline. If Lukacs really proposes to throw out the Modern Age, he may find himself without an Archimedean place to stand.

Nor can the idea of progress be so easily confined to the modern era. Indeed, the historian Robert Nisbet has argued persuasively that the idea of progress has been one of the guiding premises of Western civilization since antiquity. Like Lukacs, Nisbet believes that the idea has lost its preeminence in our time, but he is less sanguine about that prospect: “If the idea of progress does die in the West,” he worries, “so will a great deal else that we have long cherished in this civilization.” In other words, the idea of progress may be a central constituent of Western civilization as we know it. In light of such a sobering possibility, Lukacs’ insouciant complaint that the “progressive creed” is “superficial” or “outdated” begins to seem a bit beside the point. The question is, or ought to be, what can be put in its place?

On this point Lukacs is strangely mute. Usually conservatives are the first to speak approvingly of “heritage” or of the “Western tradition”: and so it is startling to find an avowedly conservative thinker speaking of “outdated” ideas, and encouraging us to discard one of our civilization’s most fundamental premises without saying what could plausibly serve in its stead. Yet it is in keeping with what is ultimately disappointing about this book, in spite of its many shining virtues: it lacks the intellectual and moral seriousness to occupy successfully the lofty ground it has staked out for itself. What Hermann Keyserling said of American radicals is often equally true of American conservatives; they “do not seem to feel responsible: neither do they seem to take their criticism very seriously.” It is a shame, for Lukacs’ fertile mind is well worth taking seriously. But he is not the first conservative to stumble over the untidy fact that, in America, the tradition to be conserved is mainly a liberal one.


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