A Reactionary Sneaks Up on the Truth : CONFESSIONS OF AN ORIGINAL SINNER by John Lukacs (Ticknor & Fields: $18.95; 331 pp.; 1-55584-143-0)

Do you recall the 1960s, when only radicals were entitled to full Liberal credentials? By now, the pendulum has swung the other way. To earn his stripes as a solid Conservative, the prolific historian John Lukacs is well-advised to claim the status of a Reactionary.

All such labels are troublesome, of course. The "reactionary" Lukacs calls former Sen. Joseph McCarthy "a radical vulgarian" and dislikes (the insufficiently conservative?) Ronald Reagan "not because he was a Hollywood actor but because he never stopped being one." Now and again, Lukacs will sound like a concerned populist. For example, he remarks that in a democracy, "more and more people speak," while in our bureaucratic society, "fewer and fewer people listen."

Yet Lukacs' deepest convictions are firmly rooted, should labels be used, in conservative soil. The Hungarian-born former president of the American Catholic Historical Assn. appears almost allergic to any trace of Marx, Darwin, Freud, ecumenism, church reform and "liberation theology" in contemporary culture. As an impassioned disciple of St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, he even rejects such time-honored ideas of enlightened rationalism as the "Cartesian and Newtonian views of man and of the universe."

What does it take to be a reactionary? Reactionaries, Lukacs says, believe in original sin and the "immutable essence of human nature." His "Confessions of an Original Sinner" tell the story of how he came to hold this view and many related opinions expressed in his 12 earlier books. Published by commercial rather than academic presses, these books address a wide range of topics and include "A History of the Cold War," "Historical Consciousness" and "Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth-Century."

Lukacs grew up in Budapest a generation after Georg Lukacs (no relation), whose Marxist philosophy and politics he dismisses in a spiteful, ad hominem paragraph. At age 21, he experienced Hungary's passing from the German into the Russian orbit as a very mixed blessing. Having seen that Hitler's National Socialism was more popular in Central Europe then Stalin's Communism, Lukacs concludes that the forceful rhetoric of nationalist dictatorships represents a greater ideological threat to Western-style democracy than the "hopelessly dull and outdated" writings of Karl Marx.

Soviet military power is a different matter altogether. For Lukacs, it has always stood for the ominous geopolitical aspirations of the East against the West. He notes, for example, that the looting, burning, raping Red Army that came to occupy Budapest in 1945 included many "narrow-eyed Mongols." His early opposition to the Vietnam War seems to have stemmed from similar geopolitical considerations. As an "anti-anti-Communist," Lukacs thought that "all of Indochina, South and North, Vietnam, Minh, Cong, were not worth the bones of a single United States Marine."

Statements like this make you realize that Lukacs, who has lived in Pennsylvania for more than 40 years, wants to redraw the Cold War boundaries between the superpowers for Euro-centric reasons. He engagingly says, "Europe is my mother, America is my wife." But he shows no awareness of having entered something like an interracial marriage.

As a self-styled reactionary, Lukacs proposes to pit a now old-fashioned "common-sense way of thinking against the abstract projections of progressive nonthinking." For example, he maintains (contrary not only to Marx but to Adam Smith as well) that "Economic Man is a myth" because "vanity is so much more powerful, and so much more wide-spread than greed." He even insists that "what happens is inseparable from what people think happens and that therefore the worth or the price of anything, even of the crudest piece of matter, is what people think it is."

Along similar lines, Lukacs points out that sexuality "is in abstraction when considered independent of the historical and social situation of the lovers." He argues that, in general, we should pay much less attention to motives than to purposes: What matters is "not where a person's thoughts come from but where they are going." According to the doctrine of original sin, our motives will always be mixed: "Man is born imperfect and stays imperfect." But purposeful hope and "faith in a loving and forgiving God" make it possible for a reactionary to "believe in progress--of a certain kind."

The kind of progress Lukacs has in mind is emphatically not the lock-step march of brain-washed masses toward some earthly paradise. Instead, he clearly favors the progressive approximation of truth by increasingly enlightened individual seekers. Oddly enough, Lukacs ascribes to Kierkegaard G. E. Lessing's memorable sentence about just this kind of progress: "If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand the persistent striving for truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say: Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say: 'Father, give! The pure truth is for Thee alone!' "

In some context or another, the 19th-Century Danish proponent of faith beyond knowledge may well have cited the enlightened German writer's words of 1778. But Lukacs' habitual failure to document his quotations makes it hard to find out whether this is indeed the case. Perhaps his distaste for bibliographical accuracy and other customs of the tribe of professional historians has kept Lukacs from overcoming his life-long academic isolation. With resentful memories of a few visiting professorships at prestigious graduate schools, he takes great pride in having remained on the faculty of a small Catholic women's college since 1947.

Despite the apparent crumbling of the Soviet empire, the reactionary Lukacs is very displeased with most turns taken by the contemporary world under radical, liberal, and conservative governments alike. But the harsh tone of his testy "Confessions" will wax lyrical whenever he speaks of the Budapest of his parents and grandparents or the Pennsylvania of the parents and grandparents of his American friends and neighbors. Indeed, Lukacs' "Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture" is a loving, informative, and beautifully illustrated book.

Issued by the same publisher earlier this year, it provides more satisfactory reading than the lively but self-righteous and self-indulgent confessions under present view.

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