Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe

October 6, 2011

Part of Jan-Werner Müller's interest in ideas concerns the question of where they come from. For instance, in referring to Francis Fukuyama's concept of the "end of history", he notes that "not for nothing had Fukuyama been a student of the American political philosopher Alan Bloom, who had in turn been influenced by the French Hegelian...Alexandre Kojève (who...had identified one of the basic contradictions of the Third Reich)". As the reference to Nazi Germany indicates, Müller concentrates mainly on what he calls "the ideas that mattered politically".

Europe, in the first half of the century that Müller surveys, underwent a series of dramatic and often catastrophic upheavals. The Great War swept away Europe's autocratic monarchies and empires, leaving a fragile social and economic basis for the carefully designed democratic republics that attempted to succeed them. In practice, by the time war came again in 1939, large areas of Europe had lapsed into authoritarian or even totalitarian rule and the "standard" doctrines and practices of liberal democracy were fundamentally challenged by Soviet Communism and various forms of Fascism. These are penetratingly analysed by Müller (they were of course "ideas that mattered politically") but he also discusses ideas that are of interest for their longevity rather than any practical impact, notably the tradition associated with syndicalism, guild socialism and other forms of rule by workers' councils.

Müller's view that the fate of democratic regimes depends on multiple contextual factors rather than ideas alone is confirmed by his penetrating account of the two halves of Europe after 1945. In the West, growing economic prosperity and freedom from external pressure favoured a welfare-oriented consensus heavily influenced by the dominant Christian Democrat parties. Incidentally, Müller's brief references to the European Community - viewing it as essentially a bureaucratic restraint on the possible excesses of democratically elected governments - give only part of the story.

Eastern Europe, in contrast, was ruled by Soviet-style one-party dictatorships that claimed that "people's democracies" were democracy's only true form. For obvious reasons, as Müller shows, the ideas put forward by dissident minorities were more varied and interesting in the West than in the East: even the intellectual contributions of Hungarians in the 1950s and Czechs in the 1960s were not matches for the West's profusion, in and after 1968, of environmentalism, feminism, Situationism and - from a different direction - the neoliberalism that became dominant in the 1980s.

Müller inevitably works through the century - from the liberalism of Max Weber to that of Friedrich Hayek - at a fair pace. He nonetheless presents the ideas of the main protagonists clearly and convincingly, placing them in their historical context, and above all indicating the lineage of influence between different generations of ideas. He draws particular attention to the way many thinkers invoked prestigious predecessors in support of their own ideas. After the death of the French anarchist Georges Sorel, for example, both Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy wanted to erect a monument to his memory. When Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society after 1945, some members wanted to call it the "Acton-Tocqueville Society" or even the "Pericles Society".

Disappointingly, however, Müller has little to say about the tribulations of the new democratic regimes installed in the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc after 1989, or the question of whether their fates will resemble those of the new constitutions further west after 1918. Again, there are a few questionable statements, for instance the assertion that Michael Oakeshott, at the University of Cambridge in 1938, was "the first don to lecture on Marx". Surely Maurice Dobb, for one, had done so by then, and what about Bertrand Russell's London School of Economics lectures of 1895?

Overall, Müller's profound and stimulating book has much to offer, both for specialists and for others. But unhelpfully - and even scandalously, given that this is a book about ideas and therefore also about the published works in which they were presented - the publishers have chosen not to provide a bibliography, thus causing readers inconvenience and waste of time.

Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe

By Jan-Werner Müller. Yale University Press, 304pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300113211. Published 16 August 2011

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