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" [An] impressive survey of 20th-century European political thought.”—Tony Barber, Financial Times
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This book is the first major account of political thought in twentieth-century Europe, both West and East, to appear since the end of the Cold War. Skillfully blending intellectual, political, and cultural history, Jan-Werner Müller elucidates the ideas that shaped the period of ideological extremes before 1945 and the liberalization of West European politics after the Second World War. He also offers vivid portraits of famous as well as unjustly forgotten political thinkers and the movements and institutions they inspired.
Müller pays particular attention to ideas advanced to justify fascism and how they relate to the special kind of liberal democracy that was created in postwar Western Europe. He also explains the impact of the 1960s and neoliberalism, ending with a critical assessment of today's self-consciously post-ideological age.
The whole state of society is more or less molten and you can stamp upon that molten mass almost anything as long as you do it with firmness and determination.
David Lloyd George, 1917
Today, the state enjoys its beatification. We turn to it almost blindly in sure faith that its way spells salvation.
Harold Laski, 1917
Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one.
Max Weber, 1919
Nowadays, a sure sign of the power of democratic ideology is the fact that so many people pretend to accept it. A sure sign of the decadence of aristocratic ideology is that it has no hypocritical defenders at all.
Vilfredo Pareto, 1920
The only meaning I can see in the word 'people' is 'mixture'; if you substitute for the word 'people' the words 'number' and 'mixture', you will get some very odd terms ... 'the sovereign mixture', 'the will of the mixture', etc.
At Christmas 1918 Max Weber had recently returned from Berlin to Munich, only to find himself in the midst of a 'bloody carnival'. In the capital he had played a prominent role in deliberations about a new German constitution. This was somewhat surprising: for almost twenty years, the Heidelberg professor had suffered from various illnesses and was hardly seen in public. In the last two years of the First World War, however, he had written a series of polemical articles and tried desperately to act as a political educator of the German nation. He had also hoped to stand for the constitutional assembly and, eventually, parliament. But it was clear now that the liberal party with which he had associated himself would always nominate more professional politicians, and not someone widely considered an irascible academic. Weber could not have had high hopes either that the constitution drafters would follow any of his recommendations.
A few months earlier, Weber had been asked by a student society at Munich University whether he would deliver a lecture on 'Politics as a Vocation' for them, in a series where he had already given one talk on 'Academia as a Vocation' in 1917. Weber had been reluctant, but apparently, when he learnt that the students were considering Kurt Eisner as an alternative, he agreed. Eisner, a freelance journalist and life-long socialist, had declared a republic in Bavaria on 8 November 1918, even before the German Kaiser had abdicated in Berlin and thereby precipitated what Weber was to call the 'bloody carnival' of revolution. He had only contempt for a character like Eisner: in Weber's estimation the man was a littérateur dabbling in politics, a demagogue in love with his own rhetoric, but also the victim of his very short-term success which, in Weber's view, the head of the Bavarian council republic mistook for genuinely political success when it was merely literary: rather than Eisner actually projecting authority (or just power), romantic hopes for redemption through politics were projected on to a man who, after all, was just a hack.
Weber held that there were three bases of legitimating rule: there was tradition, where men and women obeyed on the basis of precedent; there were formal legal procedures, so that law was judged to be legitimate if it had passed through the correct channels and could be executed by bureaucrats sine ira et studio; and, finally, there was personal charisma, which had an affinity with revolutionary politics. The latter term had originated in the sphere of religion and initially designated the qualities of prophets: 'it is written ... but I say unto you'. According to Weber, it could be applied generally to leaders who seemed to have been graced with special gifts and who therefore inspired fervent devotion and deep trust among their followers. Eisner, Weber thought, was this last type, and a dangerous variety. And so rather than have the self-declared head of the new Bavarian Volksstaat seduce the students with his high-flying socialist dreams, he would offer some hard-won lessons in political realism.
On 28 January 1919 Weber began what would turn out to be the most famous single lecture in the history of political thought: 'Politik als Beruf ', with 'Beruf ' referring to both profession and a sense of personal calling. Weber did not exactly start off on a high note:
This lecture ... will necessarily disappoint you ... You will instinctively expect me to take a position on problems of the moment. But that will be the case only in a purely formal way ... when I shall raise certain questions concerning the significance of political activity in the whole conduct of life. In today's lecture, all questions that refer to which policy ... one should adopt must be eliminated. For such questions have nothing to do with our general question ...
What was this 'general question'? In Weber's lecture it was: what is politics as a profession or a vocation? But, more broadly speaking, the question was how possible were responsible political action and stable liberal regimes in what Weber called a disenchanted world, a world in which religion, metaphysics and other sources of meaning especially collective meaning seemed all to have been placed in doubt. Weber was convinced that traditional legitimacy based on precedent and prescription was disappearing, and that Europeans had entered the democratic age for good. The charisma of monarchs not so much a personal quality as what Weber called 'the charisma of blood', passed down from one generation to the next, but also attaching to the institution itself had been dispelled by the disasters of a war during which monarchs had generally revealed themselves as incompetent. What had also disappeared was the belief that members of different nationalities and religions could live peacefully together in one political association like the Habsburg Empire, watched over by a revered Kaiser in whom his subjects felt some genuine trust. Weber was sure that democracy could be realized only within homogeneous nation-states. And there was no way back from democracy now. In Weber's mind, disenchantment and democracy went together; they were both peculiar to the path of development that the West had taken. Dealing with them responsibly posed the greatest political challenge to Europeans in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The Age of Security (for Some)
To understand how European political thought developed in the twentieth century, it helps to understand how it had developed in the nineteenth and which of its underlying assumptions no longer seemed credible in the period after the First World War. Weber had been shaped by the high tide of nineteenth-century liberalism, and what the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in retrospect called 'the golden Age of Security' (which, he added, had also been the golden age of insurance policies). Writing from the vantage point of exile in Brazil in 1942 (and about to take his own life), Zweig remembered that in those pre-war years 'everything radical, everything violent seemed impossible in an age of reason'. People of his generation, those who had been young before the First World War, had felt an incomparable optimism and trust in the world, a world which they thought was well on the way to ever more freedom as well as 'true cosmopolitanism'.
This age of reason and security had rested on three central ideas (or sometimes just moral intuitions) which had solidified in particular political and economic institutions. Security had meant, to begin with, the absence of war and other kinds of large-scale violence (at least when seen from Vienna or somewhere else safely removed from the Balkans, to say nothing of the world outside Europe). Fewer Europeans died in combat in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth; and the period 1871 to 1914 proved to be the longest stretch of intra-European peace up to that point in history (the most obvious exception, when the rest of the globe is taken into account, was Great Britain which was almost always at war somewhere).
Security in the sense of international peace was not thought to be just a lucky break for Europeans; it seemed to be connected to the increasing interdependence of European states and empires through the circulation of money, goods and people. The decades before the First World War saw what has sometimes been called a 'first wave of globalization'. The Manchester Guardian announced that 'space has been eliminated' and that 'frontiers no longer exist'. It was a golden age of internationalism in the sense of free trade, international co-operation in setting standards and pooling sovereignty for economic benefits: there was, for instance, the European Postal Union, the Scandinavian and Latin monetary unions; above all, there was the gold standard linking all major currencies. But there was also a sense and a reality of freedom of movement and consequently large waves of migration. As Zweig's contemporary Felix Somary, a banker born in fin-de-siècle Vienna, pointed out: 'all barriers, as well as the words "hostage" and "exile", seemed to us to belong to a distant age which had long been overcome'. Travel seemed easy; in fact, in the late nineteenth century, only Turkey and Russia had passport controls, and they regulated internal movement only (in the eyes of many observers, it was not an accident that, along with Montenegro, these were the only countries which, by 1900, still had no parliaments). The German industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau observed in 1912 that never before had the European peoples been so close to each other, visited each other so much and known each other so well.
Freedom of movement was just one aspect of a general liberal belief in increasing liberty for everyone, especially if that term primarily meant 'freedom from the state'. As the British historian A. J. P. Taylor was to put it, until August 1914 'a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman'. Citizens could live where they liked; they needed neither identity cards nor passports; and, not least, they could buy foreign currency (and goods) to their hearts' content. John Maynard Keynes added that the Englishman 'regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous and avoidable'. And he went on: 'The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries ... were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the daily course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.'
The freedom for things and people to move across borders and the self-determination of societies were not seen by European liberals as incompatible. As has often been pointed out, up until the First World War there existed a by and large unbroken belief in progress, especially scientific progress; what has been less noticed was an equally firm and fundamental belief among liberals that individual and collective self-determination could go together harmoniously.
But 'collective self-determination' had a very limited meaning: the state, if it played any major role at all, was to be at the service of society; and society in turn could best express what it needed and wanted in parliaments run by gentlemen with a sense of the common good: the Age of Security was also the Age of Parliamentarism. To be sure, only those parts of society could express themselves which actually had the vote and, in most European countries, suffrage remained heavily restricted. Liberals assumed that over time more and more people would qualify for it through education and property; those without either could not be trusted with choosing governments, as they were likely to destroy the very foundations on which the Age of Security rested. Full democratization thus always remained a theoretical possibility for liberals, though one likely to be far off in the future.
But not everybody wanted to wait until liberals deemed the people to be rich or well read enough to participate in politics. Across Europe the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw a series of struggles over the franchise and the nature of political representation. Women demanded the vote, first with peaceful demonstrations, then with attacks on property, then with attacks on themselves, that is to say hunger strikes. The vote was to be uncoupled from income; an officially unequal power distribution like Prussia's three-tier system which made political power depend on the capacity to pay taxes seemed increasingly scandalous. Ethnic groups wanted their say in the large multinational empires. And ruling elites with hereditary political privileges came under attack as in the epic battles over the role of the House of Lords in Britain, which resulted in the aristocrats' disempowerment in 1911.
Both liberal and conservative elites thought they could master what increasingly looked like a comprehensive crisis in representation in terms both of who was represented and of what kinds of political claims could be made and reconciled within the political system as it was. Italy proved a paradigmatic example: the liberals there gambled that they could slowly extend the franchise and yet contain social conflict through the strategy of trasformismo: drawing ever more groups into the system by making them share some power while, more importantly, rewarding them with spoils (and inducing them to moderate their claims). So they gave the vote to peasants by removing literacy requirements, betting that the peasants would stay politically quiescent or at least controllable. As Giovanni Giolitti, a liberal and past-master of trasformismo (and in fact originator of the word), explained in 1901: 'No one should deceive himself into thinking that the lower classes can be prevented from acquiring their share of economic and political influence. The friends of existing institutions have one duty above all: it is persuading these lower classes, with facts, that they have more to hope from existing institutions than from any dreams of the future.' This kind of transformation by co-optation had little to do with anything like responsible cabinet government through a cohesive Liberal Party in the way it became consolidated in Britain, for example in fact, there was no Italian liberal party, just a collection of soi-disant liberal notables, until the early 1920s.
In practice, extending the franchise and empowering parliaments did not proceed in a neat parallel. And neither did the professionalization of parliaments. While legislatures in general were becoming more effective in controlling executives, they were not necessarily populated by ever more specialized politicians. Indeed countries on the European periphery were nominally governed by liberal legislatures, but de facto controlled by notables and gentlemen-administrators who built ad hoc coalitions to get themselves elected and, as in Italy, used their local power to keep newly enfranchised groups under control. Nonetheless, while discontent with the kind of democracy on offer in even the most advanced European countries simmered, there remained a sense that claims for participation would be addressed in an orderly and peaceful way; they did not fundamentally seem to threaten the Age of Security.
In addition to hopes for continuing peace and progress, there was a third intuition underlying the age: what one might call a belief in the eventual Europeanization of the world, in the sense of European dominance of the world and global acceptance of Europe's civilization as a model. Europeans, or so it was assumed, ruled other parts of the world for their own good, not for the benefit of the 'old continent'. As the French writer Paul Valéry put it: 'Wherever that [European] Mind prevails, there we witness ... the maximum of labor, capital, and production, the maximum of ambition and power, the maximum transformation of external Nature, and the maximum of relations and exchanges.' This unashamed superiority complex of what Valéry called Homo europaeus could persist not least because others were always ready to acknowledge Europe's pre-eminence. As William James lamented, 'it seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking while the European listens, we have not yet acquired.'
Excerpted from CONTESTING DEMOCRACY by JAN-WERNER MÜLLER Copyright © 2011 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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