What’s Lukacs’ big thing? Understanding.
The historian’s task is to understand and then to explain how we can understand: the situation, the decision, the event. What did Churchill accomplish? What did Tocqueville mean? What was the problem with Arthur Schlesinger? What are the political divides of our time–what do they amount to and what do they mean?
His thing with Arthur Schlesinger is that he never bothered to understand his times–and Lukacs demonstrates this. His admiration for Churchill is that he did understand, both the need to be allied with Stalin and then what would happen after the war.
And when you understand? Then you see clearly. The whole thing dawns on you and it makes sense, and then you are better prepared to go forward.
* * *
His most recent book is a collection of essays and reviews he’s made in the past few years, and some of the ideas he’s been handling over the years become–at least for me–clearer now. It may be that I didn’t understand, and it may be he’s gotten a hold of them better (he’s one for precision, but precision sometimes comes after worrying at the thing over a long time, even years, like a poem). One of the things I get clear from this book is this: conservatives and liberals divided the political landscape in the 19th century. Not so much in America, but in Europe. Then that passes and what becomes the issue in the 20th century is nationalism and socialism. Nationalism is a bad copy of patriotism gone militaristic and with a cult of the people (the folk). Socialism is international rather than nationalistic and we see it in the various shades of the left. The point he makes is that many so-called conservatives are nationalists. Republicans are nationalists, not necessarily conservatives. You can see that a warped sort of patriotism explains a good bit, and you see why he’s never been altogether keen on chaps like Reagan and Bush.
* * *
He’s really down on the word ‘culture’ and prefers the word ‘civilization’. He was also talking about that in A Thread of Years, his last book I read. Civilization and urbanity, the life of cities and the point of cities interest him more than the idea of culture. I wonder what it means.
* * *
He’s a fine old chap–I hope he cranks out a few more things. Puts things nicely, makes interesting observations, gets to the point of things, understands and can explain exactly very often. There are things he says I still can’t figure out, but I like what I can figure out an awful lot.