Before the first world war large numbers of Europeans had a fundamentally optimistic outlook on life. It seemed that they lived in a golden age of imperial prestige, rising prosperity and increasingly comfortable foreign travel. Then the 1914-18 war challenged every political idea and moral intuition on which Europe’s stability had rested. This impressive survey of 20th-century European political thought by the Princeton academic Jan-Werner Müller describes how the continent descended into the hell of extreme nationalism, Nazism and communism before emerging, chastened, into a brave new world of liberal democracy.
In some respects it is remarkable that the journey was not more arduous. Most countries experienced terrible suffering in the inter-war years and the second world war. In central and eastern Europe the nightmare continued until the end of communism in 1989. One strength of Contesting Democracy is that Müller pays attention to French, German, Czech and Polish thinkers who might not be household names in English-speaking countries but who made great contributions to restoring the respectability of democratic ideals in Europe.
Among the most important was Jacques Maritain. A rightwing Catholic in the 1920s, this French philosopher became a celebrated exponent of human rights who held that there was an intimate connection between Christianity and democracy. His ideas deeply influenced the centre-right Christian Democratic parties that dominated politics in West Germany, Italy and other countries after 1945.
Christian Democracy achieved the historic feat of reconciling the Catholic Church to the modern world. The Church had loathed everything the 1789 French Revolution stood for and, for more than a century, had been a counter-revolutionary force. Liberal politicians, especially in France and Italy, had reacted by embracing an intolerant form of anti-clericalism. Christian Democracy saw an opportunity to fuse Christian values with a democratic political order founded on economic liberalism, generous welfare and an efficient bureaucratic state.
As for European socialism, it shed its Marxist skin in the 1950s and 1960s. Co-operation between employers and trade unions for the sake of higher living standards seemed more desirable than the dictatorship of the proletariat – which, in any case, democratic socialists had never really believed in. Class conflict was played down by centre-left politicians. Harold Wilson, who served twice as UK prime minister between 1964 and 1976, said of himself: “Someone who started at elementary school in Yorkshire and became an Oxford don – where do you put him in this class spectrum? I think these phrases are becoming more and more meaningless.”
But if class antagonisms were waning, social unrest was always possible. Müller devotes considerable space to the événements of 1968 in western Europe and, wisely, does not dismiss them as mere student mischief. The darling philosopher of that year was Herbert Marcuse – “it is hard to think of other Marxists featured in Playboy magazine,” observes Müller wryly. But Marcuse’s best-known work, One-Dimensional Man, struck a real chord with its argument that advanced industrial civilisation crushed human freedom by wielding consumerism as a form of social control.
In the longer run, 1968 was to have important consequences by energising influential environmentalist and feminist movements. In 1968 male self-styled revolutionaries enjoyed having radical groupies around to cook, make coffee and provide sex as required. But the feminists eventually concluded that frying the steak of a revolutionary wasn’t much different from frying the steak of a reactionary.
Even so, Müller is surely right that the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which crushed the Prague Spring’s attempt to put a human face on communism, was more significant than the unrest in western Europe. Thereafter communism was morally and intellectually bankrupt, in spite of Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reinvent it.
What post-communist societies wanted after 1989 was something rather dull and normal: western European-style democracy, prosperity and membership of Nato and the European Union. In this sense the post-1945 political settlement in western Europe worked well: it proved attractive enough to defeat the external threat of communism and the internal challenge of 1968. How secure is this settlement? Müller is no triumphalist. But he suggests, reasonably enough, that the durability and flexibility of the postwar settlement ought to give Europeans some confidence about their past achievements and future possibilities.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, by Jan-Werner Müller, Yale University Press, RRP£25, 304 pages