Reading Notes:
Lukacs on Kennan


The more I learn about George Kennan, the more clearly he stands out as my favorite American. After an unexceptional start, he became just about the only man in this country’s foreign service capable of grasping the fact that, in Russia,

what had really happened during the purges of the 1930s was that “the ship of state had been cut loose from the bonds of Communist dogma”; that Stalin was a limitless autocrat, a peasant tsar, and not an international revolutionary.

That’s John Lukacs, writing in George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2007). A few pages later, a footnote ends: “…at a time when ideological anticommunism became not only an element of but a virtual substitution for American patriotism.” Indeed. The thought strikes an interesting chord: for many on the conservative side of American political life, Christianity has taken the place, exactly as Mr Lukacs limns it, of “ideological anticommunism.” I find patriotism tiresome to the extent that it doesn’t involve the defense of the nation from actual, manifest attack; but if there have to be patriots, I prefer them to take Clint Eastwood as their model, and to eschew position statements. Mr Eastwood inclines toward the right, if ever more loosely, but I don’t doubt for a minute that he would agree with Kennan that the enemy, during the Cold War, was Russia, not the Soviet Union. Have you ever asked yourself how it was that the Soviet Union came to a virtually bloodless end, in a puff of gay bravado? Kennan, Mr Lukacs tells us, addressed the Foreign Service School in 1938 thus:

We will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed Bolshevism.

As for Mr Lukacs, he is something of a conservative himself, in the old, old sense: his books about Churchill’s conduct of the Battle of Britain give the measure of that. It’s no real surprise, then, to read the following gratuity:

Their friendship was an example of the condition that the sessence of true friendship between men is almost always intellectual: a genuine appreciation of a friend’s mental and spiritual, rather than of his physical or material qualities.

Excuse me while I choke! The observation is fundamentally so true that one must wonder why Mr Lukacs makes it. Does he wish to defend his late friend from the implications, whatever they might be, of having “a kind of sensitivity so fine as to be somehow feminine — surely feminine rather than masculine”? (And what’s that about, the “feminine” nature of a “sensitive” mind?) Then there’s the Cartesian dualism inherent in Mr Lukacs’s analysis of friendship: men bond with their minds and overlook their bodies. Which I rather doubt. The tall and dominating, deep-voiced man will invite far less rigorous review of his opinions than the stammering pipsqueak. But it’s the tail of the observation that stings: the implication that relations between men and women are “physical and material.”

It would be naive to deny that that’s exactly what they are in many, perhaps most cases; but it would be obtuse to deny they’re that way largely because it is convenient for men so to limit them.

If I fuss, it’s because I admire John Lukacs. A man of compleat and correct education, fluent in a second language, he thinks, as one might have said, nobly. But it raises an eyebrow, does it not, to read that he is “past president-elect” (?) of the American Catholic Historical Association. That suggests the kind of nobility that the West has been trying to shrug off since 1789.

Comments are closed.