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May 7th, 2012

Book Review: Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe by Jan-Werner Müller

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

May 7th, 2012

Book Review: Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe by Jan-Werner Müller

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Jan-Werner Müller presents a major account of political thought in twentieth century Europe. Müller argues that the Second World War was pivotal in shaping the democratic values so familiar in the European community. Although the author carefully considers the most familiar thinkers alongside those now forgotten, Bill Kissane feels that the book still tells only half the story.

Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe. Jan-Werner Müller. Yale University Press. 304 pages. August 2011.

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Contesting Democracy is one of a number of important works; notably Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, giving a fresh perspective on Europe’s history in the twentieth century. It does so as a history of political thought, and its vivid portrait is of a continent constantly questioning the meaning of democracy. It shares Mazower’s ‘dark continent’ theme, stressing the precariousness of the democratic order salvaged from the wreck of the Second World War. With Hobsbawm it stresses ideology, and Müler covers well many political thinkers, many familiar, some not. He quotes with approval A.D. Lindsay’s admonition that abstract thinking be joined with an interest in practical experimentation. In truth, this is not a survey of ‘in between thinkers’. It rescues some good minds from obscurity, but Lukács, Marcuse and Sartre, have always been on reading lists. Indeed democracy is not always their sole concern. An interest in community, or revolution, was equally or more important. Moreover, the post-1945 compromise was based on values unattractive to many intellectuals. Its solidity, not its intellectual distinction, stands out.

The decisive events of the last century; Empires collapsing, two World Wars, the Cold War, and relentless globalisation, meant that the drama of European democracy was played out on a global stage. Nonetheless, Müller finds unity in his subject. His intellectuals wrestled with common themes: how to govern mass society, whether modern states could be designed to enable popular self-government, and how bureaucratic and technological resources could be employed to mould popular culture. The masses had become the basis of legitimacy: the question was how to make the state theirs. That there were Christian, Communist, Fascist, liberal, Nationalist, and socialist answers gives Contesting Democracy its coherence. Significantly, it begins with Max Weber, whose vision of modern society encased in an iron cage haunts this book. Indeed if contesting democracy is the theme, democracy’s nemesis, technocracy, emerges under every possible reformulation. The two lasting legacies of the post-war settlement were the welfare state and the European Union.

The subject is a dramatic one. While few European states were meaningfully democratic in 1900, by 1922 most of the area west of the Soviet Union was under democratic rule. Such was the depth of the crisis that was to ensue, by 1939 only a minority of these states had remained democratic. Were it not for the vagaries of the war, the repository of European democracy would have been the settler colonies of the British Empire and the United States. The Cold War and its conclusion then saw democracy spread south and east, and further east again. The attempt to define the subject of democratic rule in terms of class or nation first prevailed, but after 1968 subjectivity found new political categories. When the continent was divided into two blocs, both competing for the mantle of popular self-government, every major thinker had to decide whose arguments they found persuasive. For Müller, the outcome to the Cold War demonstrated the wisdom of the post-1945 west-European settlement, based on the tenets of Christian democracy, a settlement tempered by the horrors of the 1940s. In seeing the post-war era as the apotheosis of European democracy in this way, Müller differs from Stein Rokkan, Greg Luebbert, and Dirk-Berg-Scholosser, for whom the inter-war period was decisive. Rather the Second World War was the fulcrum of experience through which Europe disciplined its obsession with democracy.

Christian democracy may have been uninspired, but its dullness has been sufficiently imposing to withstand the challenges of 1968 and neo-liberalism. While Müller’s earlier chapters focus on democracy’s potential for radical transformation, the last three stress the durability of the post-war settlement. He notes that neither the radicals of 1968, or the dissidents after communism, created new institutions. Indeed the ‘negative revolution’ which saw western Europe reconstructed after the war, prefigured what Jan Patŏcka, the Czech philosopher, called ‘the community of the shaken’; those who saw the full horrors of totalitarianism under communism. Into their political vocabulary came a moral imperative, an example of which was the ‘personalism’ of the French Catholic thinker, Jacques Maritain. If Europe has found an ethical solution to Max Weber’s vision of the iron cage, the post-war apotheosis of Christian democracy was its moment. This is the central message of this book. The consequence was a disciplining of democracy, and constitutional orders constructed on the logic of never again: these provided for human rights, strong constitutional courts, and the delegation of authority to supra-national bodies. For this reason the chapter on “Reconstruction Thought’ after 1945 forms the book’s spine. While intellectuals have been more excited by the promise of revolution Müller seeks not the outer orbit of democratic experience, but its solid core.

Reconstruction thought is notoriously practical, and requires a prior experience of crisis. The idea of a general European crisis can also be found in Hobsbawm and Mazower. Indeed the LSE has appropriated Ernest Nolte’s conception of ‘a European civil war’ as the title for a course on the twentieth century. Koselleck summarises three semantic models; history as permanent crisis, crisis unfolding as a singular accelerating process in which conflicts break out and burst the system apart, (after which a new epoch begins), and crisis as simply the final crisis of all history. If democracy was secured as the continent crossed an epochal threshold after 1945, the second model is at work in Müller’s interpretation of its apotheosis. Implicit in this conception of crisis is that of resolution, involving compromises between workers and employers, between Catholicism and the democratic state, and between the nation-state and the European project, all secured by Christian democracy. This was based on, as was Social Democracy in Scandinavia, an accommodation of social forces. The resolution was most dramatic in France, Germany and Italy. None was a stable democracy before 1939. All had experienced Fascist rule. They then became the backbone of the E.E.C. and thus emblematic of the apotheosis European democracy experienced after the war.

The problem is that not every European democracy required this apotheosis. In 1939 Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, were Europe’s stable democracies. Their systems had roots in the nineteenth century, although Finland and Ireland had experienced civil war after independence. Despite the common experience of economic depression, a critical factor proved to be the sheer longevity of their democratic experience: the amount of time they had to internalise democratic values and practices. The successful European sequence was one of ‘liberalisation before inclusiveness’. Liberalisation took place over decades or more: universal suffrage came last. Radical rightist movements, strongest in Finland, had generally been suppressed before 1939. When it came to post-war reconstruction democracy worked in these countries much as before. In this ‘Age of Extremes’ all but one of the durable democracies were small states: none had expansionist ambitions within Europe.  Unlike France, Germany, and Italy, their sources of democratic stability were largely sufficient to themselves.

The theme of new beginnings pervades the literature on democratization. Significant changes are seen in terms of ‘ruptures’, ‘critical junctures’ or ‘turning-points’. Apotheosis, when politics becomes elevated to the religious sphere after a crisis that confirms the need for ethical principles, is another. Yet by understanding European democracy through its intellectuals, (often at war with themselves), incremental change can be obscured. No doubt the war was decisive in geo-political terms, but the Christian Democratic formula applies to West Germany and Italy. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, were consociational democracies. The five Nordic countries were becoming social democracies. Britain and Ireland have intertwined histories. In terms of the acid test Mueller himself applies -whether democratic debate led to new institutional forms- Finland’s was the first durable semi-Presidential system, Ireland’s 1937 constitution blended liberal democracy with Catholic social teaching, the Netherlands established the power -sharing model, and Switzerland Europe’s first democratic federation. Most of east-central Europe developed hybrid systems, just as many post-communist countries are now doing. There is much attention here to  authors that achieved international fame, (with accompanying photos) but little on democratic thinking on the periphery. Scholars like Arend Lijphart are ignored. There is no discussion at all of the concept of neutrality.

Contesting Democracy is the work of a good European, a vantage-point with its limitations. Not every country required the apotheosis of Christian democracy, nor were Europe’s stable democracies shaped in equal measure by the horrors of the last century. Further afield, democratic values did not just radiate outward from larger European states, and many breakthroughs took place on the periphery, changing in turn the core. This was also the case within Europe. It raises the question of whether there can be a European history of this process, since the critical events are part of Europe’s imperial history. Most of the states which became democratic after 1918 were post-imperial. Those most influenced by Fascism (Germany, Italy, and Spain) were not content to be so. The two most important powers after 1945 – the United States and the Soviet Union – were ideologically opposed to Empire. France achieved democratic stability only as it left Algeria. The liberalisation of culture in the 1960s, (‘towards a Fatherless society’), happened when they ceased to be empire-states. It did not take long before they found another supra-national project to latch onto. The interconnection between Empire and democracy is central to the European experience. After all empires governed their colonies completely differently to their home countries, many for quite some time. The tension between ideas and practice was never so acute as in the colonial encounter.

When nation-states discriminate in this way, scholars accept that their contradictions are central to any classification of their polities, and to understanding their historical development. This should also be true for Europe’s empire -states. In short this book, for all its ambition, tells only half the story. It draws us to the heart of a dark continent, convulsed in crisis partially because it overreached itself at its outer limits. The resolution of this larger crisis involved an array of non-Europeans who contested democracy in their own way.

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Bill Kissane is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Government Department of the London School of Economics. He has also taught for Greenwich University, Helsinki University, the University of Notre Dame, and New York University. His research interests lie broadly within the areas of comparative and Irish politics. He is currently writing a book on  the relationship between constitutionalism and democracy in the Irish Republic, as well as undertaking a comparative study of regime formation after civil wars.

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