John Lukacs Looks to the Past in “The Future of History”

Richard Simon in his site where the title is “Looking Forward to the Past”….

  The Future of History,  by John Lukacs

A maverick but respected historian, John Lukacs had a lot to say about his own profession, and in the sunset of his life he gathered together his thoughts on the subject in this small but far from easy book. His theme is the role of history and the historian at the end of a historical era, the Modern Age.

Lukacs believed that modern Western civilization was something qualitatively different from its presumed forebears, the Classical Age of Greece and Rome and the so-called Middle Ages. In his conception, it lasted from roughly the late Renaissance to the end of the ‘short’ twentieth century, which his colleague Eric Hobsbawm defined as having ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukacs foresaw a period of cultural retrogression commencing in the twenty-first century – but not necessarily a reversion to ‘barbarism’ as popularly defined, because he thought technology would sustain the lineaments of civilization even as human culture declined and fell. So far, events appear to be proving him right.

This is a book of concentrated wisdom, gnomic and highly quotable. It is often eye-opening, as when, for example, Lukacs writes that “Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is more historical than its near-contemporaryWar and Peace… Flaubert’s portrait of 1848 is, historically speaking, more complex and more meaningful than Tolstoy’s of 1812, because Flaubert describes how people thought and felt at that time; his novel abounds with descriptions of changing sensitivities, of mutations of opinions and transformations of attitudes.”

As the above suggests, The Future of History is much concerned with the relationship of history to literature. Lukacs insists that historians should be readers first, writers second and historians, in a professional sense, only third. He quotes with approval Jacob Burckhardt’s advice to students of history, bisogna saper leggere – ‘you must learn how to read’. This championship of non-professional historical scholarship and authorship runs right through the book, from his praise for de Toqueville to his contempt for the liberal historians who failed to discern or describe the rise of American conservatism in the late twentieth century. Since I am a writer of historical articles and books but no historian, it gives me great pleasure to read that ‘in the twenty-first century the best, the greatest writers of history may not be certified professionals but erudite and imaginative “amateurs”.’

This is in keeping with Lukacs’s view that history is a literary genre and a creative endeavour rather than a strictly empirical pursuit. Yet he is insistent that a historian’s task is above all to search for truth, and he champions diligent research, using original sources as much as possible. He is refreshingly sceptical that such a thing as ‘scientific’ history can exist and contemptuous of what he calls ‘historical fads’ such as social, psychological or feminist history, which he regards as inevitably prejudiced and bound, therefore, to produce false results.

The Future of History is a book best taken in small doses, one or two pages at a time. Read it with a pencil in hand, and mark the bits you find quotable or interesting, because you are sure to want to return to them later: even, perhaps especially, if you disagree with them.

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Michael Roberts: “Ceylon Tea and Its Surrounds: Richard Simon’s Tour de Force,” 18 July 2018,


Lukacs was born in Budapest to a Roman Catholic father and Jewish mother. His parents divorced before the Second World War. During the Second World War he was forced to serve in a Hungarian labour battalion for Jews. During the German occupation of Hungary in 1944-45 he evaded deportation to the death camps, and survived the siege of Budapest. In 1946, as it became clear that Hungary was going to be a repressive Communist regime, he fled to the United States. In the early 1950s however, Lukacs wrote several articles in Commonweal criticizing the approach taken by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he described as a vulgar demagogue.[1]

Lukacs sees populism as the greatest threat to civilization. By his own description, he considers himself to be a reactionary. He claims that populism is the essence of both National Socialism and Communism. He denies that there is such a thing as generic fascism, noting for example that the differences between the political regimes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are greater than their similarities.[2]

A major theme in Lukacs’s writing is his agreement with the assertion by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville that aristocratic elites have been replaced by democratic elites, which obtain power via an appeal to the masses. In his 2002 book, At the End of an Age, Lukacs argued that the modern/bourgeois age, which began around the time of the Renaissance, is coming to an end.[3] The rise of populism and the decline of elitism is the theme of his experimental work, A Thread of Years (1998), a series of vignettes set in each year of the 20th century from 1900 to 1998, tracing the abandonment of gentlemanly conduct and the rise of vulgarity in American culture. Lukacs defends traditional Western civilization against what he sees as the leveling and debasing effects of mass culture.

By his own admission a dedicated Anglophile, Lukacs’s favorite historical figure is Winston Churchill, whom he considers to be the greatest statesman of the 20th century, and the savior of not only Great Britain, but also of Western civilization. A recurring theme in his writing is the duel between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler for mastery of the world. The struggle between them, whom Lukacs sees as the archetypical reactionary and the archetypical revolutionary, is the major theme of The Last European War (1976), The Duel (1991), Five Days in London (1999) and 2008’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, a book about Churchill’s first major speech as Prime Minister. Lukacs argues that Great Britain (and by extension the British Empire) could not defeat Germany by itself, winning required the entry of the United States and the Soviet Union, but he contends that Churchill, by ensuring that Germany failed to win the war in 1940, laid the groundwork for an Allied victory.

Lukacs holds strong isolationist beliefs, and unusually for an anti-Communist émigré, “airs surprisingly critical views of the Cold War from a unique conservative perspective.”[4] Lukacs claims that the Soviet Union was a feeble power on the verge of collapse, and contended that the Cold War was an unnecessary waste of American treasure and life. Likewise, Lukacs has also condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In his 1997 book, George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944-1946, a collection of letters between Lukacs and his close friend George F. Kennan exchanged in 1994-1995, Lukacs and Kennan criticized the New Left claim that the Cold War was caused by the United States. Lukacs argued however that although it was Joseph Stalin who was largely responsible for the beginning of the Cold War, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower missed a chance for ending the Cold War in 1953 after Stalin’s death, and as a consequence the Cold War went on for many more decades.


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