A limited and cautious democracy. Interview with Martin Conway

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Ferenc Laczo discuss with Martin Conway his latest book “Western Europe’s Democratic Age,1945-1968”. You can listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us perhaps begin at the very end of your book. You conclude Western Europe’s Democratic Age, 1945-1968 by stating that democracy and its history have been rather elusive subjects and that you treat democracy as a means of understanding a wider history. Why do you consider democracy such an elusive subject and what is this wider history that you are trying to grasp? 

Martin Conway: ‘Elusive’ risks sounding a little out of date. When I first became interested in democracy a little while ago, I was very conscious of the absence of work on democracy as a political form in twentieth-century Europe. But around that point, it seemed to me, almost everybody started getting interested in the subject. We have had a whole series of books over the past decade by people working on Germany, France and elsewhere to historicize democracy. 

I did, however, start from the assumption that the starting point in so much of the writing about democracy was that it was the end point of Europe’s modern development and that it was kind of ineluctably the place where European history would end up, and as a consequence of that assumption of inevitability, there was not any adequate historicization of it. I think particularly of Geoff Eley’s book Forging Democracy, which presents a narrative since the French Revolution of democracy getting larger and bigger and broader and so on. There is plenty that is excellent about that, but I was rather worried about the idea of it being a single span of democracy from the French Revolution to the present day. 

I wanted to historicize it, as I have done in some of my other writings on democracy, and discuss it almost as a series of jump cuts, if you think of the analogy of cinema, between different models of democracy that have existed at different stages in Europe’s modern development.

As to the larger question, I suppose, it goes back to what we all struggle with when teaching outline courses about twentieth-century Europe. If I wanted to give a completely unglamorous title to an outline course on twentieth-century Europe, it would be “The Struggle for Stable Forms to Manage Participatory Pluralism” – which clearly would not work alongside titles like “The Age of Extremes” or “The Age of Fascism.” But that slightly obtuse or obscure formula suggests that there are a series of roads or paths that lead in different ways towards stable forms of managing participatory plural political regimes in twentieth-century Europe. That seems to be the larger question that I am addressing. In constructing such a title, I am trying to avoid using the word democracy because it seems to me that democracy might be just one of those projects.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: The book tries to conceptualize how Western Europe became democratic after the war. You show that this was, of course, a gradual process with multiple actors and that democracy was a result of complex interactions between political institutions and members of society. What came about in Western Europe was a democracy, not of direct popular sovereignty, I think you argue, but of representation and intermediaries. Can you explain what you mean by these striking formulations? I am also interested in why you start the book by talking about Raymond Aron, the French sociologist, public intellectual and major Cold War figure. It seems as though his own thinking about democracy in some ways symbolizes the argument of the book in terms of what you think about the formation of democracy. Would you mind tying those two questions together?

Martin Conway: Those are good points that I need to reflect on. I suppose Aron is there because I find him rather interesting in a slightly odd way, but also because he seems to me to symbolize the extent to which democracy was not built by democrats. Many features of Aron’s political ideology are not particularly democratic, but if he ended up in democracy after the Second World War that was probably a reflection of the extent to which democracy was built by a cohort of rather disabused people – intellectuals, technocrats, and politicians – who had probably been through other houses, shall we say, on their way towards democracy. In terms of Aron’s own background, in the 1930s he was very interested in New Order ideas and so on, and of course, he was in London during the war. 

But if Aron arrived as a democrat – as a very anti-communist democrat – in the postwar years, it was a reflection of how he had been disappointed by other options. There is the sense that democracy has not been built by convinced democrats but by people who had come to a pragmatic acceptance of democracy as being better than its alternatives, and better than its own history. 

That is really quite important because most of these people had some sense of how democracy had not been successful either in the immediate past: think of the Weimar Republic or the Third Republic in France, or indeed over a longer span, going back to 1848 or 1789. These were in some respects glorious reference points, but they were not really very happy ones for people who wanted to advocate the success of democracy. 

Instead, democracy as built after 1945 was built against those models, particularly against the ideal of direct popular sovereignty because that was seen as where the problem stemmed from in many ways – that is where the passions would emerge and where politics and democracy tended to go off the road and become the game of various populists and so. I do not agree with all these terms here, but this was the worldview of a certain post-1945 elite who wanted to make democracy a safe and stable project. That meant essentially preventing direct popular sovereignty but creating better democracy in the form of representation and intermediaries. 

It would be far too glib to say this was about less democracy. In many ways, it was about creating a more modern and complex democracy. We all know those wonderful, complicated maps that appeared in political-science books by the 1960s, giving you the structure of how democracy worked with lots of connecting vessels between different sorts of areas of society. That complexity was seen as part of its solidity.

Ferenc Laczo: In a recent autobiographical essay, which was published just last year, titled “The Accidents of a European Historian,” you write of a gentle spirit of innovation that characterized the writing of modern European history in Oxford back in the days when you were a student in the 1980s. Would you perhaps say that your book is also animated by such a spirit of gentle innovation? Would you describe this book as somehow representative of that Oxford approach to history?

Martin Conway: I think there is a certain Oxford irony going on when I refer to a gentle spirit of innovation: a spirit so gentle that you could hardly see it happening at times in Oxford European history. I have, I suppose, over the last years felt at times slightly frustrated at the slow pace of change in the writing of European history, perhaps more than the history of other areas of the world, in Oxford. 

But what has been really great and what has been super about the twenty years since is the extent to which in Oxford and elsewhere we, as historians, if I can use that awful “we”, have colonized the second half of the twentieth century. I certainly see this book as an attempt to try to bring a historical approach to the postwar period. I finished at the end of the 1960s, but quite easily this could be extended to 1989 or so. It seems to me that if I have a sort of brand in terms of how I write history, it tends to be rather socio-political history, where I am trying to interweave social structures and political events and probably a dose of intellectual ideas as well. I think that there is some reason for saying that might be something of an Oxford approach.

Ferenc Laczo: Let me follow up on that with another question which touches on a complex and rather sensitive subject. You use the category of Western Europe throughout the book. I was wondering – how does the UK’s postwar history relate to that of Western Europe in your view?

Martin Conway: That is the great car crash of recent years, isn’t it? There is a very easy answer to that: it’s Brexit, stupid. But I have written an article in Contemporary European History quite recently, which is a kind of think piece, in which I have tried to argue that Brexit was a hundred years in the making – from the conferences at the end of the First World War, Versailles and so on, through to the present day, by emphasizing the semi-detached nature of Britain from Europe in that period and the brevity of moments of real engagement between Britain and Europe. The point I tried to make there is that this was on both sides. One of the things I find quite interesting regarding the longer-term origins of Brexit is the relative ease with which French or German decision makers in particular came around to the idea that they could have Europe without Britain. 

How does that develop? Obviously, there is a responsibility on all sides, but I think that part of the explanation is in my book in the sense that the West European model of democracy that I present is one that is at some distance from what one might call in a clichéd way the “Westminster model” of democracy – particularly two parties, a single parliamentary chamber where everything happens, a rather centralized political structure where it is Westminster that matters. Those features are really at some remove from the democracy I am describing everywhere else. Therefore, part of the origins of Brexit may lie in the fact – and I think this was very obvious during the referendum campaign – that Europeans and British political leaders were talking about different versions of democracy.

I am very aware that the construction of the norm of Western Europe is simply wrong when applied to other areas of Europe, and risks sounding as though it is some Western essentialist disposition. My only apology for using it is that I was really struck by the speed with which Western Europeans adopted the label of Western Europe after 1945, and not just for Cold War reasons. This is not only Western as opposed to Eastern, this is also about a rather positive celebration of “Westernness” which had never occurred to them before 1945. That might be an exaggeration, but the idea certainly comes very much to the fore. 

I like emphasizing the territoriality of this democracy that is associated with old cities, familiar landscapes, and a certain sort of human level of territorial organization. These are all myths. They are not true. Western Europe was the source of most of the nasty things that happened in the world in the twentieth century. But this particular and rather complacent celebration of “Westernness” after 1945 became a theme that I really wanted to bring to the fore. I probably have not exhausted it, by the way. Those who are looking for subjects for doctorates could do worse than think about the emotionally loaded use of the concept of “Westernness” in Europe in the post-1945 decades.

Ferenc Laczo: Another thing that struck me in connection with the geographical area that you cover in the book is that you do refer to Czechoslovakia every now and then as a kind of potential part of Western Europe, if you wish, but the Eastern Bloc states otherwise do not really play a significant role. You have partly just explained that the idea of Western Europe was adopted at the time also for reasons other than the Cold War, but would you say that the idea of the alternative, that there are the people’s democracies in the East, had some kind of impact on Western European conceptions of democracy? Wasn’t it shaped also in some sense in opposition to that, or were the two models in some sense perhaps similar to one another? How do you relate to that complex of questions?

Martin Conway: Let me try and unpack that complex of questions. I apologize for putting Czechoslovakia in, but not the other Eastern states, if that is how we describe them. I did that only since I wanted to explore through the case of Czechoslovakia the degree to which what I described in Western Europe could have come about in other areas of Central Eastern Europe, had there been no Soviet rule. I was absolutely not implying that there was a democratic potential in Western Europe that did not exist in Central and Eastern Europe. There were many democratic potentials of different sorts in different areas of Europe. Indeed, it is absolutely not the purpose of the book to glorify the Western European democracy that comes into existence, which seems to me to be quite limited and quite cautious. 

People’s democracy – the term that was used in Central Eastern Europe by socialist leaders, but also by Communist party leaders in Western Europe – was a very real phenomenon. They had a sense that they owned democracy. The use of the term democracy by people in France and Germany and so on in the Cold War years, was in some sense an act of robbery. It took this language of democracy away from the 1917 heritage and tried to relocate it into an alternative, quietly counter-revolutionary heritage of democracy. I am very struck by the degree to which people in France, and so on, start talking about Atlantic democracy in the 1950s as if they somehow want to go back to the eighteenth century, to the foundation of the United States and so on, as a kind of alternative world of democracy, because they are always trying to distance themselves from the sort of democracy that they associate with people’s democracy. 

To use the most obvious phrase, there was a certain dialectic going on here between people’s democracy and liberal democracy. Although it was not that prolonged because, by the time you get to the Budapest events of 1956, I would argue that the democratic pretensions of the Marxist-Soviet model were reaching exhaustion. Therefore, in a sense, the West ended up as the owners of democracy due to the own goals committed by the East.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: That is fascinating, because so many explanations for populism today seem to focus on party dysfunction, on the idea that the parties are not representing the people anymore. Perhaps it is because of that rather limiting understanding of democracy. Of course, your book deals with the role of parties in postwar democracy. As you discuss there, one of the sea changes is that both Christian and socialist political parties came to accept democracy after 1945, but that socialists had greater difficulties offering a new definition of their purpose, which was in accordance with the kind of democracy that emerged and that they participated in. Could you elaborate why you think that was? Why did center-right political forces, most notably Christian democratic parties, become the default option during this time, and why did socialist parties seem to struggle so much?

Martin Conway: I think that is a very good question, and it goes to the heart, I think, of ongoing research agendas. But your question, Danny, in many ways has a sort of prior question within it, which concerns the acceptance of parties. Quite a lot about democratic parliamentary representative politics in most European states before 1940 was about the avoidance of parties. Parties were at best a necessary evil, at worst a corrupt faction that were trying to deliver favors for their own electorate, or indeed for themselves. 

What then happens after 1945 is that quite quickly people start to think that the furniture of modern political parties, as I would express it, was somehow part of the essential structure of democracy and the best way to create what one might call “transmission belts” between the people and political power. Therefore, parties were not to be celebrated exactly, but they were certainly to be given institutionalized roles. When you look at the Italian Constitution adopted in 1948, it very much stresses the essential role of parties to build a stable form of politics. Perhaps we have gone a little beyond that sort of idealism now in our approach to parties. We can, with the new populism, also see the failures of parties to really act as structures of representation for interests. But at the time people really did think that they were good.

Your point about socialist and Catholic or Christian democrat parties is an important one, because there is a remarkable duality to European politics after 1945 between those two traditions partly because the division between clerical and anti-clerical still mattered. That was the fault line that was often written into people’s upbringing, especially in more middle-class backgrounds. Therefore, people knew which side of that divide they were on almost by virtue of their birth, and certainly by virtue of their education.

Christian democrat parties managed to colonize a whole territory of center-right politics in Western Europe that was in some sense vacant after the experiments of authoritarian regimes in the inter-war years. There are, if you wish to look for them, considerable continuities between the languages, say, of the Dollfuss regime in the Austria of the 1930s and the ÖVP (i.e., the Austrian People’s Party) after 1945, but I do not bring up those continuities somehow to discredit the democratic credentials of the Christian democrats there or anywhere else. What you see is the journey that Catholic politics has clearly been on as well towards their acceptance of democracy. 

That acceptance is a bit like what I was saying about Raymond Aron, that even if democracy is not the perfect regime, it is perhaps the best way, for example, to defend Catholic interests in a modern society and the best way to advocate Catholic interests in a modern society, because once you had female suffrage and you had good, well-organized modern political parties, there was a sense here that success breeds success and we should just keep going with this Christian democrat model. It outstripped the socialists. Therefore, the difficulties of socialists were, in some sense, simply in catching up with new brands of democracy and new consumer voter-oriented versions of democracy articulated by Christian democrats.

It was also about the difficult heritages for socialists with certain aspects of the democratic idea. 

Socialists had always seen a certain accidentalist connection between their own activities and democracy or parliamentary regimes. The path towards an integration of their aspirations within the parliamentary democratic model would only be a slow one. That to me just simply reflects well on socialists – it is not some failure, as one might want to argue in a student essay on socialists. It is much more about the way in which socialists take their time to recognize the extent to which parliamentary democracy provided the most adequate and viable practical means of establishing a new form of socialist organization within Western societies. This was encouraged, of course, by the specter of what they perceived to be communist authoritarianism in the East, but also by the need to compete with Christian democrat parties, especially to capture new electors who were always perceived to be not working-class, but to be women and middle-class. 

That acted as a great incentive, a magnet perhaps, for socialists to keep on innovating until they could get themselves in a position where they appealed sufficiently to those groups.

Ferenc Laczo: One thing you argue in the book is that, after 1945, democracy ceased to be a world to be imagined and turned into a project to be built and that there were policies intended to bring about democratic society. That also meant that democracy was now a method of governance that, in a sense, lacked a wider purpose and generated little debate. However, you show very nicely that by the 1960s there was indeed a multifaceted debate about democracy, about democracy within democracy, if you wish, and this was very much about different ways of envisioning the democracy of the future. What really changed by the 1960s to bring about this much more substantial engagement?

Martin Conway: It is tempting but probably rather too glib to say that democracy generates its own dissatisfactions, but there is a clear element of that. The democracy that had done pretty well and pretty effectively in terms of what it delivered to voters and so on in the first 15 years or so after the Second World War began to dissatisfy voters simply because of its own success. It moved much more towards the kind of technocratic, rather closed structure of governance to the extent to which political parties, as we have already mentioned, became rather semi-detached from elements of their social constituencies. I hate to use the word inevitable, but there is a sense that political regimes over a period of maturing acquired those rigidities that were not immediately visible after the Second World War.

But then, to make my answer slightly more complicated, I would also emphasize the entirely new: theideological and intellectual innovations that started influencing how people talked about new forms of democracy during the 1960s. Perhaps they were not always as new as people claimed; after all, if you went back to the Paris Commune, 1870-1970, there were evident similarities. Also, if you went back to areas of the pre-modern world you found in city states and local forms of democracy, certainly in Northern Italy, a kind of celebration of the localism of democracy. But people also looked outside Europe to the decolonizing world, and thought they found models there in places such as Ghana, Algeria, Vietnam or Cuba, a sense that there was a kind of new wind of democracy, different from stale old Europe with its parliaments, and that Europeans would do well to benefit from these new ideas. They felt that this was how you created a democracy of participation.

Of course, there were also social factors going on here, which was the aspiration, or the hunger, for a greater level of participation. That, in turn, reflected social changes taking place in Europe, of which there were many, but one that quite obviously comes to mind is the quasi-democratization of higher education, which was creating larger cohorts of young people who had been exposed to ideas and intellectual debates through the university years, even if they were studying redundant university syllabuses. That created the aspiration to be a democratic person in a new way in society – and all of that without mentioning the year between 1967 and 1969, which is so often invoked as being somehow the catch-all explanation for what was happening.

Ferenc Laczo: You do end your narrative in the late 1960s and early 1970s. May I ask you why you decided to do that? Do you see this as some kind of cutoff point?

Martin Conway: The pragmatic answer is, of course, that that was quite enough, thank you. To write about the 1970s, which I personally always find quite difficult, would have felt like another challenge, another book, another whole series of chapters, which would simply have made the existing book too long. So, there is a certain pragmatic neatness to cutting off at that point. 

But I do think that the idea of a democratic age, which has a slightly approximate terminus in the early 1970s, is a viable model. After all, one is obliged to bring in things like the Spanish and Portuguese revolutions, and the events in Greece, if you go beyond the mid-1970s. Then you have the specter of what may be happening in Eastern Europe ahead of 1989. Suddenly what you see there is that the world I describe in the book is no longer a viable way of approaching the history of democracy in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t know that I intend to write it, but I think there is a separate history to write about where democracy went next. 

Put glibly, I would say that what happened after the end of the 1960s was that democracy lost its center of gravity and became much more a contest between different versions of democracy – one could elaborate on that in terms of neoliberalism and so on. I do think that there is a different terrain of democracy from the late 1970s onwards and that reflects my general view that democracy needs to be understood more in terms of its discontinuities than in terms of some broad arc of democracy.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Perhaps one area to look at in terms of these other connections is the relationship between decolonization, the end of empire and democracy. You suggest in the book that the end of empire did not exert a truly significant impact on democracies in Western Europe and similarly you state that the most consequential transformation of the period caused by immigration remained largely invisible at the time. From today’s point of view, these claims sound rather astonishing. I want to ask you what might account for these curious absences and silences, and more generally, how did postwar democracy perform when it came to marginalized groups in Western Europe? Of course, this is a pressing question today. What might such perspectives on the margins reveal about Western Europe in the decades after 1945?

Martin Conway: Those are good points and they are big and serious ones. 

Decolonization is a missing subject in the book. But I defend its absence, because I think in many ways it was perceived as being one of those managerial challenges that faced state authorities through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Regimes occasionally got told off, if they somehow failed to do it, if it led to disasters like Dien Bien Phu or the Belgians’ humiliation in Congo. But they got told off for being insufficiently competent. They did not get told off for being imperial. They did not get told off either for granting independence, in that patronizing language of the time, to formally colonized populations.

I find it an interesting sphere and probably the subject of another book that remains to be written about how West European democracy constructed itself in the eyes of the colonial other. But I do not deplore the absence of decolonization from this narrative, because what is really striking about this is the limited impact decolonization had on West European democracy at this time.

Other things that were happening in the colonial world were having a very big impact on it. Particularly, the emergence of more multicultural societies in Europe. The starting point here has to be a very simple recognition that democracy in postwar Western Europe, perhaps unsurprisingly, was based on inequalities. The idea that somehow democracy and equality go together is one of those pious myths we like to tell each other. It seems to me that democratic regimes across Europe in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries have been in many ways more unequal than other regimes. One could get into a long argument about that, but let’s just emphasize the inequality that exists within democratic regimes, particularly over gendered suffrage and the slowness to enfranchise women, for example, in a place like France, which is connected with its image of democracy and not in conflict with its image of democracy. 

Let’s go forward then into the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and accept that an element that was very central to this image of democracy in postwar Western Europe was its whiteness. The idea is that, if Europe had been racially diverse, then various traumatic and horrible events, such as the Holocaust, had removed certain elements of that diversity, and that indeed perhaps with events in the Near East too, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and so on, Europe had become more self-contained, more ‘white’ and that perhaps that was not a bad thing and it made Europe more stable. People certainly should not assume that I agree with 1 per cent of what I just said; I am articulating the assumptions of the age. 

But with those horrible assumptions in mind, what you get is a distinct slowness on the part of European political leaders but also European societies to recognize their own increasing racial diversity in the 196os and 1970s. Partly because these people were thought to be “guest workers” and it was meant to be just a transition phrase of economic recovery after the war and so on. There were all those rationalizations. Also, because they were stuck in that mindset of Western Europe being a white society, these migrant groups therefore did not fit. This, of course, could excuse in various forms all sorts of structures of discrimination, but it also reflected a deeply held belief that somehow democracy was something that was done by white people. 

It was only gradually in the 1970s, particularly on the Left, perhaps more especially on the New Left but also on the Catholic Left, that much more positive visions were developed of the benefits that would come to democracy through making it multicultural through – these are terrible languages but please accept them for a second – welcoming in populations from other areas of the globe to enrich the democracy of Europe. That was a delayed process. 

Indeed, we might well argue with our mind on contemporary events that it is still an incomplete process. In terms of my book, I think that it is very striking, and I could have made this point more polemically in the book, just how white the understandings of democracy were after 1945.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Maybe just to follow up there as well. Given what you said about democracy and immigration, it most certainly seems as though the story that you have just told is a way of understanding some of the populist-nativist sentiment today as in some sense a continuation of an older form of this democracy. It is not really a break or deviance; it is perhaps just the persistence of a postwar way of thinking.

Ferenc Laczo: Would you say that this book on democracy in the early postwar decades can contribute to our understanding of where democracies in Western Europe are today? To my mind, one of the dangers of writing about the early postwar period is that we get a little bit nostalgic and end up talking about what we have lost, that certain things have declined or disappeared, and they would be worth trying to recover. Do you have that sense? What lines of continuity and rupture do you see between the early postwar period and where we have arrived now some half a century later?

Martin Conway: I have a strong sense that some of the most obvious models for the more chaotic democracy that we are living through at the moment are the nineteenth century ones. I want to be the first person to say 1848 is coming again. I do not know whether it will ever become true, but there are elements when you see Macron and Merkel where you think they should be careful not suddenly to fall victim to a certain 1848-style populist uprising. 

We live in the twenty-first century history of the present world where the twentieth century is now finished. We just have to recognize that the democracy that we are probably more experiencing, rather than feeling as though we are practicing it at the moment, is one which is unmanageable and unpredictable in its dynamics. 

What I do not want us to do – and I think after 6 January and the attack on Congress it is very easy to fall into that trap – is to assume that democracy is besieged by its enemies. Congress was besieged by its enemies on 6 January, but, more generally, if you go back over the last years of populist politics in Western Europe in particular, then what you see is the development of new discourses of democracy that we do not like. 

It is all too easy an assumption that these people are not democrats, that what has been happening with, say, the Rassemblement National in France or with the Freedom Party in Austria, or Die Republikaner in Germany, is actually somehow anti-democratic. It is bad in all sorts of ways, in terms of its denial of rights to minorities and all the rest of it. And I cede to no one in my rejection of that sort of politics. 

But surely it is also, and primarily, about new discourses of democracy developing. I am afraid in Britain we had a very good example of that with the 2016 referendum. In some respects we will be living with that for a long time to come. The idea that what we are seeing is the end of democracy needs to be replaced by an assumption that we are seeing different versions of democracy.

Ferenc’s point about the danger of seeing the postwar era rather nostalgically is very apparent to me. Let me tell you a story. In Balliol, my college in Oxford, we have a tradition of one Fellow giving a lecture each term to the other Fellows and it fell to me just by the absence of anybody else to give that lecture last week. I called it “The Land of Lost Content” and talked about postwar democracy. Of course, what I slightly anticipated is that everybody agreed with the title. That is because Balliol identifies with a progressive, social democratic model of technocratic, civil servant Fabian government and it finds in that immediate postwar period the celebratory moment. When I started being a little critical – as you can imagine from the book – about some elements of that democratic model, I did indeed encounter quite a lot of opposition on the part of my colleagues. 

Not because they had lived through it, because they are not biologically old enough to have been participants in that world, but because they have grown up with the idea that the world of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – that they associate with things like the National Health Service in Britain and indeed with decolonization as a gift granted to all these colonized populations – is a land of lost content of which we should be proud. Therefore, as one Fellow said to me slightly aggressively, my “ironic approach to that period is not entirely welcome.”

The transcript has been slightly modified.

In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas and Oliver Garner.

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