Democratic Disenchantment

Book review of Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-century Europe by Jan-Werner Müller

Jeremy Jennings

When the Communists seized power in Budapest in March 1919, the young Marxist theoretician Georg Lukács was appointed deputy commissar for culture and education. He had Ibsen plays performed, public baths opened to workers’ children, and deserters publicly shot. The Communist Party, he believed, was the “objectification of the proletariat’s will”. With the fall of the Soviet Republic, Lukács’s rich bourgeois family bribed an army officer to take him to Vienna disguised as a chauffeur. The only problem was that Lukács could not drive.

After Vienna he settled in Berlin, whence he later fled the Nazis to Moscow. In the Soviet Union he kept his head down, but still found himself arrested and then exiled to Tashkent for a year. In 1946, his faith in Stalin and the party undiminished, Lukács attended a conference in Geneva where he announced to his fellow European intellectuals that “the real issue revolves around the question of whether democracy remains legal and political in form, or becomes the real life-form of the people”.

Happily returned to his homeland (now under Russian-backed Communist control) he was purged from his university post in the late 1940s and forced to engage in “self-criticism”, only to find himself appointed minister of education and the arts in the reformist government of Imre Nagy in 1956. The Soviet tanks arrived before Lukács had even set foot in his office. This time he was packed off to Romania, where his jailer had to be sent to a psychiatric clinic. As Jan-Werner Müller records, to the end (he died at 86) Lukács remained convinced that the worst form of socialism was better than the best form of capitalism.

The ill-fated (but long-lived) author of History and Class Consciousness is emblematic of a question that runs subterraneously through Müller’s excellent book: why was it that, in the 20th century, so many people were not prepared to settle for a form of constitutional democracy resting upon the rule of law? To answer this question (and many others) Müller turns away from what he terms high political philosophy, focusing rather upon “the political thought that mattered politically” and upon those thinkers whom Friedrich von Hayek called “second-hand dealers in ideas”. The European 20th century, Müller contends, was an age of democracy and in that age ideas and institutions required mass justification. As Müller points out, even the authoritarian regimes associated with Communism and Fascism “played on the register of democratic values”, believing that they offered both a substantive form of equality and genuine inclusion in the political community, be it that of a socialist people or a purified nation. In particular Müller is not happy with the idea that the second half of the 20th century was something of a golden age of democracy. The constitutionalist ethos of Europe’s post-war democracies, he argues, was positively hostile to (totalitarian) ideals of unlimited popular sovereignty. On this view, it was the fear of mass man that inspired the bureaucratic project of European integration.

According to Müller, this post-war form of “disciplined” Christian democracy came subsequently to confront two major challenges: that broadly associated with 1968 and what is referred to on the Continent as neoliberalism but in Britain and the US as free-market or classical liberalism. If the first sought to re-legitimise the claims of direct democracy, the second believed that limits had to be set on the activities of democratic government. 

This I found the least convincing part of Müller’s argument. It is difficult to see the Sixties student protests as anything more than what Raymond Aron described as a psychodrama in which, with copies of Marcuse and Mao in hand, self-indulgent youths played at revolution. Their subsequent evolution showed how superficial the rejection of the civilisation des frigidaires had been. By contrast, the revival of classical liberalism spearheaded by Hayek and Ludwig von Mises is not examined with the seriousness it deserves. Recognising that neoliberalism offered a “plausible” response to the crisis of governability witnessed in the 1970s, the attempt to frame a constitution of liberty is reduced to economic audits and the citizen as consumer claiming compensation if the trains do not run on time. If Michael Oakeshott receives due acknowledgment for his distinction between civil and enterprise 2 associations, as well as for his “unmatched” literary style, he makes only a brief appearance, more of the limelight being devoted to the once-fashionable situationalism of Guy Debord and the still-fashionable poststructuralism of Michel Foucault.

Nevertheless, Müller’s central thesis  that 20th-century political argument was crucially about contesting the meaning of democracy is sustained with great erudition and elegance. He makes brilliant use of some wonderful aphorisms, including Ernst Bloch’s observation that Bolshevism was “the categorical imperative with a revolver”. Above all, Müller provides an insightful and comprehensive overview of the development of political ideas in 20th-century Europe that takes in Fascism, Communism, social democracy, liberalism, and much else. Even the pluralism of the British Church historian J.N. Figgis receives a (welcome) mention.

If Müller has a conclusion, it is one that for the most part lies implicit within the story he tells. Communism might have been defeated, he argues, but the particular form of liberal democracy now existing falls short of the democratic ideals formulated in the course of the 20th century. Not only this, but the intellectual foundations of this political model have now been either eroded or forgotten. Most importantly, he suggests that a greater historical awareness of how we got where we are today might go some way towards “dispelling the comforting illusion that liberal democracy is necessarily the default position of Europe, or of the West more broadly”.

Ultimately, Müller contends, democracy amounts to living in a condition of institutionalised uncertainty. And herein lies its greatest challenge for those prepared to embrace it. For the 20th century was littered with numerous political projects intent upon establishing the reign of permanent certainty. All ended in murderous tyranny. Yet many people still long for such certainty and many persist in clinging on to this ideal to the bitter end. Georg Lukács was one such. So was his fellow Hungarian Communist, the Soviet Republic’s leader Béla Kun. As Müller recounts, when Kun was arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1937, his last words to his wife were: “Don’t worry. Some mistake. I’ll be home in half an hour.” He wasn’t.

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