Review Essay

The Strange Triumph of Liberal Democracy

Europe’s Ideological Contest

In This Review

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

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

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