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In a letter to his friend John Lukacs, George Kennan praised the Hungarian-born historian’s most recent work, Budapest 1900 (1988). “It is not just a book on Budapest and Hungary,” he observed. “It is also a book on Central Europe. (For much of what you wrote I found interesting parallels in my own memories of Prague and Vienna.)” Those memories were as vivid as they were integral to the formation of Kennan’s distinctive socio-political outlook.
In 1935, while serving as a diplomat in the Soviet Union, Kennan retreated to Vienna to recuperate from a bout with ulcers. While in the Austrian capital, he had an opportunity to take the measure of Kurt von Schuschnigg’s government. Unlike the majority of his countrymen, for whom democracy was the only legitimate form of rule, Kennan concluded that there was much to be said for the Chancellor’s conservative authoritarianism. He was dismayed that Western critics found it difficult to distinguish between traditional conservatives and fascists.
In 1938, Kennan’s superiors posted him to Prague; he reported for duty on September 29, the day the Munich Conference opened. Although he deplored Hitler’s threatening demands concerning the Sudetenland, he never viewed Czechoslovakia as a paradigm of political virtue. He wrote at the time that he was “unable to share that enthusiasm for democracy in Czechoslovakia that seemed almost an obsession to so many Anglo-Saxon liberals.”
This should occasion no surprise. Diplomatic experience had convinced Kennan that democracy was inimical to a mature and responsible foreign policy, in part because democracies had to contend with a public opinion that was woefully uninformed and erratic. Moreover, he could not be persuaded that democratic governments were duty bound to promote democracy around the world. That crusading zeal was made more reckless when coupled with an insistence upon universal “human rights,” understood by Kennan as ideal projections of Western liberal principles, not as just claims existing in the absence of a granting authority, an enforcing agency, and a set of corresponding duties.
The mantra “democracy and human rights” created in democratic leaders an interventionist mentality, one that was highly selective. “Any regime,” Kennan told George Urban, the Hungarian-born interviewer, “that chooses to call itself Marxist can be sure that its brutalities and oppression will be forgiven, whereas any regime that does not is stamped as being of the Right, in which case the slightest invasion of the rights or liberties of the individual on its territory at once becomes the object of intense indignation.”
Kennan’s criticism was not limited to democracy’s deleterious effect upon the conduct of foreign policy. He sympathized with the tradition of antidemocratic thought that looked back to Plato and that, in his case, was most clearly represented by Alexis de Tocqueville. For the French aristocrat, democracy meant equality which, because it had to be coerced (those above the line would not willingly lower themselves to it), was the natural enemy of liberty.
If anything, Kennan’s view of egalitarianism was more jaundiced than Tocqueville’s. For the champions of the redistributive state, he argued, “no one should live better than anyone else.” That was one reason why Kennan identified himself as a “conservative.” He never, however, felt any kinship with American conservatives, few of whom were inclined to question democracy as an ideology. In a letter to one observer of his career, he wrote that he was “intellectually a conservative European.” That conservatism derived primarily from years of experience in Soviet Russia and Central Europe, but Kennan also drew inspiration from Tocqueville and Edmund Burke. He agreed, for example, with the latter’s rejection of the notion that tyranny was the only alternative to democracy. An authoritarianism that was neither ideological nor tyrannical was, he believed, preferable to both democracy and totalitarianism.
By the time of his death in 2005, however, Kennan recognized that his brand of conservatism was a thing of the past in Europe, while remaining a thankless persuasion in his own country; there would be no detour on the road to mass democracy—and to ruin. This saddened but did not surprise him because, as an almost obsessive student of Rome’s decline and fall, he shared Spengler’s pessimism concerning the fate of the West.
–Lee Congdon is the author of George Kennan: A Writing Life, The Young Lukacs, and Seeing Red: Hungarian Intellectuals in Exile and the Challenge of Communism.