The Worst Book I’ve Read in Years

Democracy and Populism.jpg

The book was recommended by someone I respect. I had enjoyed greatly one of his earlier books. So I was looking forward to John Lukacs’s new book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred.

The book is rambling, unfocused, incoherent, and deeply offensive to standards of evidence and argumentation. It’s full of glaring historical errors. I hated almost every minute of the experience of reading it. I also know why some others have reviewed it so favorably. There’s something to please just about everybody, from Catholic conservatives, who will like his attacks on the involvement of the laity in the church and his railing against gay marriage (it seems that since the 1980s, “more and more people insisted that the legal [and sacramental] institution of marriage be extended to them”; besides gay people, whom does he mean by “more and more people”? ), to luddite radicals, who will keen to his rants against mechanization and “fields…plowed by monstrous machines and made artificially fertile through sometimes poisonous chemicals,” to libertarians, who will like his fulminations against the decision to go to war with Iraq and his attacks on modern conservatives for claiming to be for smaller government while supporting Pentagon spending with nary a peep of skepticism, to Michael Moore fans, who will like his comparison of George W. Bush to Hitler. The book even contains some sentences that make sense and a few claims that are true, such as that Mussolini and Hitler were not reactionaries, but revolutionary radicals who were trying to sweep away all that had preceded them and to make the world anew.

The problem is that none of that adds up to anything coherent. Ok, one might say, but give the guy a break. It’s a set of meditations on the world. So it’s a bit rambling. Fine, but even rambling meditations should use terms consistently and contain sentences that make sense individually, even if they don’t form parts of a long chain of argumentation. Instead, despite his repeated insistence that they be distinguished, terms such as nationalism, patriotism, populism, and democracy are used inconsistently and sprinkled across the pages like the multi-colored candy bits on a child’s birthday cake. Moreover, terms that ought to mean something are used in ways that do violence to the English language and to mind itself. Consider the following, from pp. 195-6, which follows some complaints about the difficulties of historical documentation in an age when documents are proliferating, many forms of communication are unrecorded, etc., etc.:

However, the problems go beyond and beneath the difficulties of professional historians. Beyond and beneath the problem of the eventual reconstruction of what people wanted we must recognize the constantly increasing influence of mind into matter in the very lives of people. This influence is, probably inevitably, inseparable from inflation, which, in turn, seems to be a fundamentally democratic phenomenon. Consider, if only for a moment, the virtual vanishing of the inflation-deflation “business cycles.” What we, in reality, experience is a constant increase of inflation* (true, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but still)–and, therefore, the dematerialization of money and of possessions, especially in societies where creditability has become more important than actual possessions (which may be legally “owned” but are, in reality, rented). This–often false–spiritualization of matter, this present and ever-increasing intrusion of mind into matter has led to a world where more and more images and abstractions influence more and more people–abstractions and images that are presentations of prearranged “realities” rather than representations of them.

All of this renders what we may call the structure of events more and more complex.

*The inflation of words (and, perhaps, of pictures and images, too) led to the inflation of money and of possessions–and not the other way around.

I cannot imagine a more confused and meaningless assemblage of words.

Yale University Press should be ashamed for publishing such an absurd excuse for a book.

By the way, the book by John Lukacs that I so enjoyed is Budapest 1900, which is an excellent guidebook to that wonderful city.

3 Responses to “The Worst Book I’ve Read in Years”

  1. The quote is the first “argument” I’ve ever seen that modern life is becoming too spiritual instead of the usual “too materialistic.” I’m actually half inspired to read the book now, if only for entertainment purposes.

  2. Palmer doth protest too much, methinks. “Yale University Press should be ashamed for publishing such an absurd excuse for a book.” This is a rather extreme charge. And what are we given for evidence? A botched paragraph on economics written by a historian. Is Lukacs the first non-economist to get economics wrong? I think it’s rather unfair to cherry pick one (admittedly) confused paragraph and represent it as if it speaks for the entire book. I also suspect that while the book may contain errors, they are more analytical than factual. Were the Levelers populist, as Lukacs asserts? No. But this is an error of judgment, not one that merits banishment from the Hall of Great Historians. Also, the book is set up as an essay, a meditation or, as the book jacket states, a reflection. Palmer, however, seems to attack it as if it was a scholarly treatise. He acts as though he was expecting to see Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier but was instead served a middle school production of My Fair Lady. I respect Dr. Palmer’s judgment in most things, but I think he should take a long sip of water before asserting that a book should have never been published.

  3. Tom G. Palmer

    I take it that Dan liked the book. I thought it was an embarrassment. I may give more evidence elsewhere in the form of a review, but let me add just a little more. First, the paragraphs in question were not merely botched economics, but botched thinking. What does it mean to refer to “inflation” of words, pictures, images, and possessions? And how would that cause inflation of money? None of it made even a lick of sense.

    Yes, he seriously botches a number of historical points (relevant, it seems to me, in a book by a historian), including the claim that the Levellers were “populists”: “the Levellers and most radical Puritans were populists before, during, and after the English Civil War.” (p. 56) The closest to a real definition of populism I could find in the book (I’ll set aside crytpic remarks such as “Populism is volkish, patriotism is not.” p. 72) is on p. 5: “[I]n its predominant sense democracy is the rule of the majority. (And how is this majority composed, formed, and what does it consist of?) Here liberalism enters. (It did not, and does not always.) Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women. And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism.”

    Now he also distinguishes populism from nationalism, or at least he tries to. But we’ll set that aside: populism is majority rule that is unfettered by claims of rights. To insist that the Levellers were populists (at all times, too: “before, during, and after the English Civil War”) is to show no awareness at all of what the Levellers believed in or fought for. It’s not an error of judgement, but an unwitting admission of complete ignorance. (A quick glance at the writings of Overton, Lilburne, or Walwyn would show that after even a few minutes of reading.) Similarly, to claim that the “Mugwumps” (a group that included E. L. Godkin and other radical classical liberals who supported Democrat Grover Cleveland for president in 1884) “believed in social and political planning” is to show a remarkable ignorance of American history. (He evidently confused them with the Progressives.)

    Let’s try another fairly representative paragraph to determine if any sense can be made of it:

    “Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be anti-humanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one’s people is natural, but it is also categorical it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one’s country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one’s family. Nationalism is both self-centered and selfish–because human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another. Patriotism is always more than merely biological–because charitable love is human and not merely ‘natural.’ Nature has, and shows, no charity.”

    What is the good man laboring to say? It’s hard to know, because he uses terms such as patriotism, nationalism, populism, and the like in such sloppy, loose, and undisciplined ways and then mixes them together with faux profonde language about love and nature and biology.

    Or take this passage that I chose by opening to a random page (just as a test):

    “That Wilson’s character was unattractive, that his personality was pallid and cramped, that his mind was immature, that the very workings of that mind were strange, that even the otherwise trenchant observation of his postmaster general (‘a man of high ideals but of no principles’) was inaccurate, since those very ideas were less than mediocre and customarily superficial–all this is but another example of the irony, even more than of the unpredictability, of history.”

    Let’s side to the side his contempt for Wilson (a terrible president, to be sure). How do those features provide an example of “the irony” of history, or even of the “unpredictability” of history? (And what does it mean to say that “history” is “unpredictable”? History is about what happened in the past; it’s the future that’s unpredictable. Yet more evidence that the book is largely a stringing together of phrases without any thought behind the stringing.)

    An editor should have rejected the book, at least as written. There were enough sentences that did make sense to make a nice little essay, had the intervening senseless or erroneous passages been trimmed away. Editors have the function of making choices and all choices have costs; otherwise, every book written would be published. An editor at Yale should have made the choice not to publish this book; surely among all the books they rejected there was one that was less awful than this one.