Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in 20th-Century Europe

Europe’s struggle for popular sovereignty.

Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in 20th-Century Europe
Jan-Werner Müller
Yale University Press, 304pp, £25

Is the voice of the people the voice of God? Or is it the voice of fallible mortals, capable of evil as well as good? Conflict between these two positions, as Jan-Werner Müller shows in this fine study of the impact of mass democracy on European political cultures, has been a leitmotif of Europe's history since the First World War.

In 1914, France was the sole democracy among the great states of Europe. In Britain, only 60 per cent of adult males could vote in parliamentary elections. Though the imperial German Reichstag was elected by universal male suffrage, the system as a whole was not remotely democratic. Russia was still a patrimonial autocracy. The Austro-Hungarian empire was barely a state, and no democracy.

Then came the mass mobilisations, shared sacrifices and swollen states of the first total war in history. Everywhere, the relationships between people and rulers were transformed. In 1918, Britain acquired a more or less democratic form of suffrage. The three land empires of central and eastern Europe - belonging to Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary - disappeared. Germany acquired an ultra-democratic constitution, savaged by an irreconcilable nationalist right and a purportedly revolutionary left. Russia was subsumed in the increasingly brutish Soviet Union, which claimed to incarnate the destiny of the proletarian masses throughout the world. Across Europe, a rash of raw and insecure new nation states emerged, equipped with flags, armies, customs posts and, in most cases, allegedly democratic constitutions. In the Soviet Union, the old elite were murdered or exiled. Elsewhere they had to accommodate themselves to the disconcerting arrival of the masses on the political stage.

Müller makes it clear that they made a hash of it. An astonishing array of great names flits through his pages - Max Weber, Georges Sorel, G D H Cole, Harold Laski, Otto Bauer, Antonio Gramsci, Carl Schmitt - as well as a host of lesser figures. None of them found satisfactory answers to the great questions of the hour. In the age of mass democracy, who or what was the demos? And who would equip the masses to discharge their awesome new responsibilities?

In Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, Adolf Hit­ler's Germany and Benito Mussolini's Italy, the regimes' answers were only too clear. For Stalinists, the demos was the proletariat. The party state would bring the masses up to scratch; its authority came from its unique grasp of the laws of history. For the Nazis and Fascists, the demos was the Volk, the ethnos, the tribe. The role of tutor to the masses belonged to the charismatic, all-seeing Führer or Duce.

The democracies, however, had no clear answers. In well-established states such as Britain and France, the composition of the demos was not in doubt. It was the citizens of the state; and citizenship was territorial, not tribal. In the new states of east-central Europe, national boundaries often cut across ethnic lines. Despite paying lip-service to universal democratic values, majority-ethnic communities could hardly fail to think of themselves as the true demos, and the minorities as second-class citizens. The Polish demos meant Poles, not Jews; the Czechoslovak demos meant Czechs and Slovaks, not Germans. In old states as well as new ones, rival solutions to the perennial democratic dilemma - how to ensure that popular government is not overwhelmed by self-destructive populism - battled it out in an atmosphere of anguish and acrimony.

The end result was cruelly ironic. The totalitarian dictatorships invented a fictitious people and then identified themselves with it. No one in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union worried about the people's fitness to rule. For Nazis, the people were the Volk and the Volk was embodied in the Führer; for Stalinists, the people were the proletariat and the proletariat's vehicle was the party. In the democracies, politicians and intellectuals of all stripes confronted real people and worried endlessly about their political capacities. Almost everyone agreed that liberalism was obsolete. Equally, hardly anyone thought that the masses should be left to their own devices. As David Lloyd George put it, they were "molten", waiting to be stamped on. If the wrong people did the stamping, democracy might devour itself.

Who were the right people? According to Müller, the only workable answer came from the Swedish Social Democrats with their smug ideal of a communitarian "people's home", in which the prime minister went to work by tram. Müller's rich and subtle account of interwar Swedish social democracy is one of the best things in this book, but I have one quarrel with him - he says nothing about the British Conservative Party. Under Stanley Baldwin, Britain's Conservatives were the most successful political force in any large democracy between the wars. They also left an impression on British political culture that lasted until the 1970s and devised a governing philosophy of social inclusion and class co-operation that was uncannily akin to the Christian Democratic philosophies that shaped the politics of much of western Europe after 1945.

The hallmark of postwar Christian Democracy was reconciliation. The European project that reconciled battered France with prostrate Germany was its work. Of the four figures who spearheaded the project - Jean Monnet, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman - the last three were Christian Dem­ocrats. Their achievement was one dimension of something much greater: a historic reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and the ideals of the French Revolution that made possible the collaborative capitalism of postwar Germany and Italy. Even today, it is the ideological bedrock of the European Union.

Müller shows that the lion's share of the credit belongs to the "personalist", social Catholic teaching that provided the moral compass of postwar Christian Democracy. Though Müller does not say so, Baldwin and his colleagues were reconcilers, too. They abandoned the harsh, divisive Tory nationalism that the Conservatives had espoused before 1914, in favour of an evolutionary, Whiggish gradualism that went back to Edmund Burke. In doing so, they became the refuge of choice for Liberals displaced by their party's splits during and after the war. That, in turn, enabled them to dish the Labour Party at least as thoroughly as the postwar Christian Democrats dished the secular left.

In the end, Burkean gradualism and personalist social Catholicism both came to grief. Neither had the intellectual creativity or the poli­tical fortitude to withstand the neoliberal tide that swept across the globe in the past 30 years. Angela Merkel's Germany, Silvio Berlusconi's Italy and David Cameron's Britain are not islands of reconciliation in a hostile sea. Yet the records of Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats in Germany, Tony Blair's Third Way in Britain and Romano Prodi's Olive Tree coalition in Italy do not suggest that the left would do any better.

If Müller's story has a single moral, it is that the right has repeatedly beaten the left in the continuing battle to determine the content of European democracy. Across Europe, the great challenge for the left is to confront, explain and overcome that brute reality. The tragedy is that it has not yet begun to do so.

David Marquand's latest book is "The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe" (Princeton University Press, £16.95)

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?