Magazine article Renewal

The Forward March of Democracy Halted?

Magazine article Renewal

The Forward March of Democracy Halted?

Article excerpt

Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe

Jan-Werner Muller


There may be some readers of this journal who think like this: that 1945-73 was a 'golden age of social democracy' in Western Europe, which experienced a flowering of democratic politics in the wake of the fascist catastrophe; that some time during the 1970s the 'forward march of labour' was 'halted', in this country, at least, and there has been a 'crisis of social democracy' bound up with the ascendancy of Thatcherism pretty much ever since. Indeed, the very title of this journal--Renewal--is a nod to something like this narrative. People who think things like this may also be the kind who think that ideas have always played a greater role in the life of the left than they have on the right, and that this is particularly true when we compare the extremes of the political spectrum, communism and fascism; and, further, that with the striking exceptions of these particular political religions, twentieth-century politics in Europe has been a largely secular affair. And while I very much doubt that Jan-Werner Muller had such a hypothetical reader of Renewal in mind as he was working on his excellent new history of political ideas in twentieth-century Europe, he might as well have been writing for precisely such a person, as he repeatedly seeks to challenge views like these--not because Contesting Democracy is any kind of contribution to a distinctively right-wing historiography, but because with a look back at the twentieth century from our own vantage point early in the twenty-first, this kind of bog-standard social democratic or secularist story seems to miss out quite so much of what is clearly very important, and fails to make sense of so much of what actually happened.

The thinker who above all anchors Muller's explorations of twentieth-century political ideas is the German sociologist Max Weber, who died in 1920 and who worried about the future of free individuality in a necessarily bureaucratised society; of responsible political action in a disenchanted world lacking shared collective meanings; and of stable liberal regimes in a rapidly democratising continent. The older liberalism was discredited--it had been shown to be hopelessly naive in the run-up to the crisis of 1914 (which did for the British Liberal Party), and its cherished principle of national self-determination after the War seemed to demand an 'unmixing of peoples', which 'often translated into invitations to physical or, at least, psychological violence: threats, bullying, forced deportation and even killing' (p. 22). Another thinker to whom Muller returns repeatedly in his book is the arch-anti-liberal Georges Sorel (1847-1922), who wrote of the crucial place occupied by myth in political life, and who found admirers on both left and right: the syndicalists, for example, with their myth of the general strike, or the fascists, with their myth of the nation.

While Muller traces out Gyorgy Lukacs's long revolutionary career from 1918 to 1956, he is not terribly interested in the arguments that the Marxists might have conducted among themselves: Rosa Luxemburg appears only fleetingly (p. 56), the Trotskyists scarcely feature at all. Rather than approaching Bolshevism through any kind of analysis of international political economy, Muller's account of the Russian Revolution is framed by Weber's opinion that socialism meant universal bureaucratisation and Lenin's creation of a remarkable new political instrument for the pursuit of his goals, the vanguard party. (Lenin himself remarked (p. 35) that 'it is impossible to differentiate a political question from an organisational one'). Stalinism is then treated largely as a collection of successful techniques of organisation and domination separated from any particular intellectual content--a matter of 'what works', to use a more familiar recent political idiom. …

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