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The Strange Triumph of Liberal Democracy

Europe’s Ideological Contest

In This Review

Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe
By Jan-Werner Muller
Yale University Press, 2011
304 pp. $45.00
How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism
By Eric Hobsbawm
Yale University Press, 2011
480 pp. $35.00

Any intelligent observer of Europe in the 1930s would have been hard-pressed not to feel that its future belonged to either communism or fascism. Liberal democracy, besieged on the left by Stalin's Soviet Union and on the right by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, seemed to stand no chance of survival. Most central and eastern European countries had already succumbed to ­authoritarianism or different variations of fascism, and the Great Depression suggested that the activist solutions implemented by both extremes were better than the feeble nostrums liberalism could offer. Back then, the notion that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Europe would be democratic from the Tagus and the Ebro to the Danube and the Vistula would have seemed utterly ridiculous.

And in fact, liberal democracy's triumph was hardly inevitable. Two recent books, by authors with greatly differing worldviews and methodologies, try to explain why history worked out as it did. In Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller, a German-born, British-educated political scientist who teaches at Princeton, traces the central ideological narratives of European politics during the century, arguing essentially that the postwar order emerged and has proved durable because it offered novel and satisfactory answers to major problems. In How to Change the World, meanwhile, the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm grapples with why Marxism lost out and what it might still have to offer.


Müller's book is at once a political history of Europe since World War I, an inquiry into why Europe failed to achieve consolidated liberal democracies between the two wars yet was able to do so after 1945, and a collection of essays on some important European political thinkers. Although the volume's chapters show signs of their origin as separate articles, its overall message, complex and sometimes highly original, is clear. In a nutshell, post-1945 democratic development in Western Europe was not achieved easily, nor was it just the reestablishment of the previous political order. It grew out of the lessons learned from the brittleness of interwar democracy and the legacies of some of the nondemocratic interwar movements. It was helped, moreover, by the urgency and cohesion supplied by the broader Cold War environment.

As Müller tells it, the weakness of the post-1918 European democratic regimes derived primarily from the reordering caused by World War I. By suddenly bringing about the collapse of four empires (the Hapsburg, the German, the Russian, and the Ottoman), most of which were multiethnic, the conflict tore down a well-established conservative and hierarchical order and replaced it with a series of weak republican regimes. Many of these regimes were based on the principle of national self-determination, but at the same time, they were burdened with serious ethnic minority problems, irredentist movements, and contested borders.

Germany's Weimar Republic, created in 1919, was the prime example of such a troubled republic, and given his German background and the country's centrality in Europe, Müller naturally devotes significant space to it. Here was a defeated country that, having lost significant territories in the west and the east, adopted an extremely liberal democratic constitution, only to have its elites -- bureaucratic, military, ecclesiastical, and academic -- view the republican regime as illegitimate. Müller explores Weimar Germany through the prism of the thinking of the sociologist Max Weber, showing how now canonical and seemingly timeless works, such as the essay "Politics as a Vocation," were actually produced in response to the challenges of a unique political and historical context -- the legitimacy crisis facing the Weimar Republic after 1919, exacerbated by violent left-wing revolutionary attempts, such as those in Bavaria.

At the time, Germany, like several other countries, was rapidly embracing a democratic ethos, just as the Great War and its aftermath had centralized much of the economy, expanded voting rights, and fostered Wilsonian ideas of national self-determination. It should have been no surprise that the newly established democracies would have so much difficulty juggling these contradictory realities and principles. Müller explains how under such conditions, ideologies -- especially redemptive and totalistic ones, such as fascism and communism -- could for the first time transcend merely intellectual discourse and capture the imagination of the masses, who thought the formalistic democratic structures failed to respond to their needs and aspirations.

In contrast to his respectful treatment of Weber's measured attempt to combine order, legitimacy, and representation in his theory of a modern nation-state, Müller offers a not very complimentary, but fascinating, characterization of the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács. Müller credits Lukács with an insightful and sophisticated reading of Karl Marx, which made him the preeminent Marxist philosopher of the interwar period, but also exposes his political immaturity during Hungary's 1919 communist revolution, his opportunistic turnarounds during the Stalinist period, and his final turn as a role model for the New Left in the 1960s. Müller also describes him as one of "many scions of highly assimilated Jewish businessmen . . . [who] became part of a free-floating, self-radicalizing intelligentsia moving around Europe on generous allowances (from their usually despairing fathers)." This may not be entirely wrong, yet such a stereotyping of the social origins of revolutionary intellectuals echoes, in gentler terms, what many right-wing anti-Semites were shouting from the rooftops at the time: that it was rich Jewish intellectuals, cosmopolitan and deracinated, who were undermining Europe's social order.

In his account of fascism, Müller rightly underlines the enormous impact that the philosopher Georges Sorel's ideas had on Mussolini and the French radical right, especially his concept that mass political action depended on a "social myth." As the historian Zeev Sternhell has shown, nationalist myths gave content and motivation to the deracinated masses, who felt alienated from the formal institutional structures of modern democracies. This popular foundation distinguished fascist mythmaking from elitist traditionalist conservatism, something many liberals and Marxists failed to see. Far from being agents of the conservative, bourgeois order, fascism and Nazism were revolutionary and supremely modern movements. Much of their appeal lay in their claim to be more democratic than the democracies.

After World War II put an end to fascism, Müller argues, Western Europe set about the task of political reconstruction. Political leaders understood that they had to do more than simply revive the interwar order, which had failed so miserably. So instead they crafted what he calls "constrained democracy," a system that took the formal institutions of parliamentarianism, universal suffrage, and multiple political parties and added a number of constraints. Trade unions negotiated directly with the state, which recognized them as legitimate constitutive elements of the political system (and not just as partisan representatives of socialist parties), allowing employers, employees, and the government to haggle over salaries and wages. Unelected constitutional courts acted as an elitist brake on the majoritarian vox populi, protecting human rights from unbridled populism. Last but not least, these constrained democracies adopted a modified Keynesian approach to state intervention in the economy, which added an element of security to the political structure -- something that Europe had lacked ­before 1939.

In this context, Müller helps readers understand postwar Europe by highlighting the enormous contribution made by Christian Democrats. Italy's Alcide De Gasperi, Germany's Konrad Adenauer, and France's Robert Schuman transformed their parties from enemies of democracy into crucial pillars of it. Before 1939, many Christian parties had allied themselves with antidemocratic forces, and only the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust convinced them that such complicity with fascism ran contrary to their religious principles. Here, the writings of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain were crucial in reorienting Christian parties toward democratic liberalism. By joining with liberal and social democratic parties to embrace and even help lead the new order, Christian Democrats gave the system the sort of cross-class support of broad public majorities that the interwar republics had never had.


One of the most surprising twists in Europe's political evolution is the reversal of fortunes that has befallen Marxism, a school of thought that once seemed a formidable ideological contender. Hobsbawm's latest book, How to Change the World, chronicles its influence over the twentieth century and tries to make a case for its contemporary relevance. Hobsbawm is one of the giants of the historical profession and the author of an impressive list of magisterial studies. Even those who disagree with his Marxist outlook know that his sophisticated use of Marxist theory has greatly enriched the study of industrialization, the modern working class, various revolutionary movements, and the emergence of empire. No doubt his cosmopolitan background -- from Alexandria through Vienna and Berlin to London -- underpinned by his breadth of knowledge, generosity of spirit, and mastery of languages and topics, has helped him avoid the narrow and doctrinaire approach so common among lesser Marxist historians.

Yet as in the case of Goethe's Faust, there are, alas, two souls dwelling in his breast. There is Dr. Hobsbawm, the towering historian, using the tools of the Marxist tradition to explore history, and there is Comrade Eric, the revolutionary, who, despite distancing himself from debilitating party orthodoxies, is still captive to ideology. How to Change the World, which includes more than a dozen essays written between 1956 and 2009, some published here for the first time in English, brings out this duality. Although the volume's title is slightly misleading -- this is not a compendium for revolutionary praxis -- the book is one of the best accounts showing how Marx's thought did in fact change the world.

Hobsbawm traces Marx's influence on everything from politics to art in several countries from the late nineteenth century to the present. He shows how, despite Marxism's aversion to nationalism, Marxist analysis helped develop and sustain nationalist movements among some oppressed peoples. And his chapter on Antonio Gramsci will make this influential Italian Marxist thinker seem less esoteric and enigmatic to the English reading public.

Of greatest contemporary interest is the opening essay, "Marx Today," in which Hobsbawm brings his acute mind to bear on the post-Cold War era. He claims that the demise of Soviet-style Marxism has paradoxically made the study of Marx more relevant, liberating Marxism from the straitjacket imposed on it by its status as the official ideology of a repressive regime. Yet he also concedes that Marx's vision of the proletariat "expropriating the expropriators" is ­irrelevant today (although he contends that Marx's understanding of the dynamism of capitalist society is helpful in addressing capitalism's crises, such as the current global economic recession). Hobsbawm is determined not just to salvage Marx from the detritus of the Soviet catastrophe but also to help him regain his place in the pantheon of modern thinkers able to develop comprehensive and adaptive understandings of human affairs. Perhaps because he does not want to sound doctrinaire or old-fashioned, Hobsbawm refrains from calling this unique quality of Marx's thought "dialectical," but this is precisely its chief characteristic.

Still, as masterful as his analyses are, Hobsbawm remains unwilling to address certain problematic facts. Take ethnicity. Given his Jewish background, Hobsbawm is rightly sensitive to the role of Jewish intellectuals in various Marxist movements, focusing in particular on those in Germany and Austria-Hungary. He tersely castigates most non-Jewish intellectuals in Germany after unification, in 1871, for being "profoundly committed to the Wilhelmine Empire." This allegiance left the German social democratic movement bereft of intellectual leadership and thus thrust such Jews as Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and Rosa Luxemburg into leadership positions. Similarly, the emergence of various nationalist movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late nineteenth century drove many Jewish intellectuals to socialism or Zionism, the only places where they could feel at home.

Hobsbawm describes all this with acuity but does not really grapple with the problem it poses for his broader framework. According to Marxist theory, class background should determine where people end up politically. But it was the Jewish background of these activists, not their identity as bourgeois intellectuals, that brought them to the shores of Marxism. This suggests that all history is not class history (as Marx would have had it), that national, ethnic, and religious affiliations matter, too. But if Hobsbawm admitted that, he would have to reject a major facet of theoretical Marxism, something he is unwilling to do.

A more serious omission concerns the Soviet elephant in the room. Hobsbawm's 2002 autobiography dealt with his changing attitudes toward the Soviet Union over the years, and in many cases, he acknowledged the inner tensions of his relationship to the Soviet experience and the havoc that experience created among Western Communists. But he shied away from grappling with the fundamental question: Did Russia's 1917 Leninist coup lead inexorably to Soviet tyranny, and was the attempt to force a socialist vision on a preindustrial society doomed from the very beginning? Readers will not find a definitive answer to this question in any of Hobsbawm's past work, nor in this volume, either.

This elephant casts other shadows. Hobsbawm discusses Marxist intellectuals in the 1930s without mentioning their reactions to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In his autobiography, Hobsbawm came to terms with the fact that he himself justified the pact at the time, with the usual language then prevalent among Communists. But he does not mention the pact here, and ignoring such an episode in a historical account of Marxism in the 1930s is simply inexcusable.

On a certain level, one can commiserate with Hobsbawm, a prominent member of the mainly (although of course not exclusively) Jewish interwar intelligentsia that believed in the redemptive vision of Marxism. The Soviet Union became a beacon of hope for this group after the slaughters of World War I and the collapse of European democracies and economies in the 1920s and 1930s. The tendency to close one's eyes at first to blemishes in the Soviet system was understandable. But this pose became an intellectual and moral prison when what initially could have been viewed as childhood illnesses of the revolution transmogrified into the hideous crimes of Stalinism. Some had the courage to liberate themselves; others clung to their hopes even as darkness descended at noon.

Hobsbawm tried to maintain both his integrity as a historian and his beliefs. He should be thanked for the historical gifts he has bestowed on his readers. But at the end of the day, he never adequately addresses the fact that Marxism failed utterly as a revolutionary movement, not once but three times -- in the West, where no proletarian revolution occurred; in the East, where what was supposed to be an emancipatory redemption ended up as a hellish nightmare; and in the developing world, where communist regimes brought misery wherever they gained power.


The recent global financial crisis has once again shaken people's faith in the ability of capitalism to provide a sustainable flow of broad-based economic benefits to the public at large. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the post-World War II order Müller describes. Recent demonstrations in Europe and the United States, meanwhile, attest to the failures of democratic governments to respond adequately to the crisis or satisfy public demands for action. Müller is aware that the hard-won postwar equilibrium should not be taken for granted, and he holds up the crisis of 1968 as an indication of its brittleness.

Today's economic crisis is also a reminder of the contemporary relevance of the issues that Marx and his disciples, including Hobsbawm, have agonized over. Dialectically (if one is still allowed to use the term), Hobsbawm's suggestions for how elements of Marxist thinking can inform solutions to the crisis might still rescue the approach from total ­relegation to the dustbin of history. As the crisis has made clear, market fun­damentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order. One way of looking at Marx, after all, has always been to see him in the context of the Enlightenment project and the German tradition of Bildung, as a thinker who, when faced with the horrors of early industrial capitalism, tried to bring about a world of universal justice, solidarity, fairness, and humanity. In his own way, Hobsbawm continues to speak to that dream.

The two books are helpful in unsettling the ideological complacency of contemporary neoliberalism, which helped pave the way for the crisis even as it never imagined such a thing could happen. As both Müller and Hobsbawm show, the triumph of liberal democracy was made up of many ingredients, and neglecting any one of them is an invitation to trouble.

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