Book Reviews

Democracy’s Death Knell?

Europe has been the ground zero of democracy’s triumph. But will it be short-lived?

By Edward Luce

Tagged DemocracyHistoryLiberalism

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day By Sheri Berman • Oxford University Press • 2019 • 560 pages • $34.95

The American sociologist Barrington Moore famously said: “No bourgeoisie. No democracy.” The Western middle classes’ travails are forcing us to re-learn the wisdom of that aphorism. It is not enough to observe that our crisis is rooted in the struggles of our middle class. That is certainly true. But it covers only some of what those of us who believe liberal democracy is in danger should be concerned about. As Sheri Berman conveys in her magisterial new book on the birth of modern European politics, history ought to give us a profound sense of modesty about whether we can ever take democracy for granted. “Snapshot analyses,” which search for causes located solely in the present, or the very recent past, only get us so far, she argues. We are likelier to repeat the mistakes of the past if we fail to relearn its lessons. “It has often taken tragedies like democratic collapse, violent dictatorships, and war to force elites and publics to recognize the value of liberal democracy and what it takes to actually make it work,” Berman writes.

Her story begins, as all good tales should, in late medieval Europe. Within the space of a few hundred years, Europe went from having approximately 500 separate political entities to the roughly two dozen it has today. From Oliver Cromwell to Napoleon Bonaparte, and from Giuseppe Mazzini to Otto von Bismarck, Europe haltingly, and painfully, gave birth to the modern liberal nation state. Today Europe is whole and free. Along the way it slaughtered more of its own people, and colonized more of the rest of the world, than ever witnessed in human history. It would be nice to think the world has digested the lessons of Europe’s catastrophically wrong turns. It would be great to think Europe had too. We should take neither for granted. As Hegel once observed, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Berman sees democracy as a fragile plant that takes generations to grow and can easily wither. Her book shows that most democratic springs turn to winter—not just in the Middle East today but all over the world, including in democracy’s European birthplace. As Berman points out, democracies put down roots only when society’s main factions peacefully accept loss of power. Mundane as that may sound, some of the world’s oldest democracies, including the United States’s, are in danger of forgetting those lessons today. Anyone concerned about today’s crisis should consult Berman’s stimulating book. Must history keep repeating itself for us to notice it?

Europe’s story offers us more cautionary tales than almost the rest of the world combined. Berman’s book offers a historically schematic, as opposed to a ploddingly chronological, account of Europe’s stages of political evolution. As a scholar of European politics with subspecialties in fascism, populism, and the left, Berman shows great facility with the depth and breadth of this vast topic. Her first inflection point is “English exceptionalism.” It is often supposed that England escaped the revolutions that tore Europe apart—starting with France in 1789. But in fact, theirs just happened sooner. England’s bloody seventeenth century was sawn in half by a terrible civil war, the execution of a king, a brief and brutal autocratic republic under Cromwell, a royal restoration, and then an even briefer civil war in 1688 in which a Dutch royal house was invited to supplant the unpopular Stuart absolutist James II.

England’s “Glorious Revolution,” swiftly followed by the Bill of Rights, put an end to royal tyranny a century before France, and at least a century and a half before most of the rest of the continent. This may come as a surprise to some Americans, who are taught that suppression of the 13 colonies was George III’s personal obsession. In reality, Britain had long since been governed by a landed oligarchy in which the sovereign played only a marginal role. As a result of its early revolution, Britain’s aristocratic elites experienced none of the struggles with absolutist crowns that beset their continental cousins before and after 1789. While France’s notables were calamitously trying to wrestle power from Louis XVI, only to find themselves sent by the lower orders to the guillotine, England’s landed elites were no longer glancing nervously over their shoulders at a grasping crown. Britain’s sovereign had long since been tamed into a constitutional monarchy, albeit without the benefit of a written constitution.

In his famous novel The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa says: “For things to stay the same, everything must change.” Indeed, at three key moments in its history, Britain’s aristocracy chose to share power with the country’s rising business classes while their peers were digging in their heels across the English Channel. During the first phase, in the build up to Europe’s 1848 revolutions, Britain’s House of Lords reluctantly agreed to widen the franchise, upon being asked by the House of Commons for a third time. The alternative was to be swamped by a cohort of instantly ennobled radicals who would have outvoted them—and possibly worse. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was followed by the abolition of the Corn Laws, which had long enshrined the protectionist interests of the vast landed estates. This was a key reason why Britain was bypassed by the revolutions that convulsed Europe in 1848. “While the French were storming the barricades, the English presented petitions,” writes Berman.

Likewise, in 1867, while Italy was in the midst of its violent Risorgimento, and Bismarck’s Prussian-dominated Germany was preparing to attack France’s teetering Second Empire, Britain’s elites chose to bend with the wind rather than risk being broken. In a remarkable feat of political jiujitsu, Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party, defeated a Liberal government’s attempt to widen the electoral franchise. On taking power, the Conservatives then reversed course and passed a far more ambitious bill than the one they had defeated. The Second Reform Act instantly doubled the size of Britain’s electorate. “Our party is now a corpse,” Disraeli told a friend shortly before executing his U-turn. By embracing change and outbidding what their Liberal opponents had failed to pass, Conservatives took co-ownership of reform in the eyes of the newly enlarged electorate. Instead of being carted off in tumbrils, Disraeli’s Conservatives went on to become Europe’s most successful and longest lasting electoral machine—too long, to judge by their current performance. (Perhaps we should keep those tumbrils oiled.)

The third moment came in 1911 after a Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, had twice tried and failed to get the House of Lords to pass his radical “People’s Budget.” Again, faced with the prospect of being swamped with a rowdy intake of freshly minted aristocrats, the House of Lords chose to concede rather than risk being turned into a mockery of itself. In the Parliament Act, the upper chamber voted to end its right to have any say over “money bills,” or fiscal policy, ever again. Lloyd George had famously asked “whether 500 men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, should override the judgment of millions of people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of the country.” The Welsh radical finally got the answer he wanted. It took more than two centuries after the Glorious Revolution to end the power of Britain’s aristocracy. What was unique about Britain’s story was that its landed elites chose voluntary retirement. Readers curious to know what happened next should re-watch “Downton Abbey.”

If England was the exception, France was the rule. Berman cites renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm, who said, “[S]ince 1789 European and indeed world politics can be understood as a struggle for and against the principles of the French revolution.” France’s sanguinary revolution was partly the consequence of the heavy debts incurred by the Bourbon project of revenge against the old enemy across the channel. Having lost the Seven Years War to Britain in 1763—a global conflict that ought really to be renamed the First World War—the Bourbons then proceeded to bankrupt their country in support of the American Revolution. Washington has Lafayette Park to remember France’s timely support. Louis XVI, on the other hand, lost his head for the trouble. The Bourbons’ crippling debts forced them to impose a level of taxation on their nobility and other “estates,” uniting all classes against the Divine Right by which the monarchy still sought to govern. Thomas Jefferson might have reminded his royal friends that there can be no taxation without representation. Alas, the Bourbons were not in the habit of taking lessons. “If there was ever a good example of the blind force of international ambition, France’s absolutist regime taking the side of liberty-loving democratically-minded [American] colonists was it,” writes Berman. The streets of Paris were soon flowing with blood.

Over the next century or so, France moved from being a republic to a monarchy, then back to a republic and back again to a monarchy (“The second time as farce,” in Karl Marx’s oft-quoted words), before finally settling into a republic in 1871 after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. So frequently did France switch regimes that a joke went that France’s National Library kept the country’s constitutions in the periodicals section. Unlike in Britain, where a dominant aristocracy was secure enough to share power (to keep the mob at bay, it should be added—at least until Disraeli came along), no French class was strong enough to retain power for long, let alone to voluntarily share it with other estates.

Much the same, with storied variations, applies to the political struggles of the newly created nation states of Germany and Italy after the 1848 revolutions. The first was dominated by the Prussian Junker aristocracy, which was loath to share power with a rising bourgeoisie since it was in a constant tug of war with the powerful German emperor. Prussia, as the quip went, was an army with a country rather than a country with an army. Unified Germany was thus born lopsidedly Prussian. Italy was created largely by the Hapsburg elites of the Piedmont, whose contempt for the rest of their recently unified peninsula rivaled anything the British said of their colonial subjects. One Piedmontese governor of Naples said: “The Bedouin are the flower of civic virtue when compared to these people.” When Italy was unified, just 2.5 percent of Italians spoke Italian. “We have made Italy,” said Massimo D’Azeglio, a leading revolutionary. “Now we must make Italians.” Therein lies another Berman observation: Democracies that are born without a pre-existing nation state are pretty much destined to fail. “Without strong states and national identities, liberal democracy is difficult if not impossible to achieve,” Berman writes.

It was not until 1945—following the two bloodiest world wars in global history—that France, Germany, and Italy finally turned into what Berman calls “consolidated democracies.” It took another 30 years for Spain to follow suit, following the death of Generalissimo Franco. Why did their journeys to liberal democracy take such catastrophic wrong turns? In each case, national elites failed to share power with the rising orders below them. In Germany, most tragically, a military-aristocratic class, believing it had been stabbed in the back by socialists, rootless cosmopolitans, and Jews during the Great War, preferred Adolf Hitler to the specter of a Bolshevized proletariat. Likewise, Italy’s conservative business and landed classes preferred Benito Mussolini’s Fascists to the gathering communist masses. In each case, the elites believed they could tame the brutal strongmen they had unleashed. Each time, the handlers were eventually devoured. Meanwhile in France, local fascists chanted “Better Hitler than Blum,” of the Jewish Leon Blum’s Third Front government. Little surprise French democracy folded so quickly in 1940. “France was not as allergic to fascism as some scholars have claimed,” Berman points out.

She argues that 1945 was different, though, on two counts. First, what remained of the ancien régime had been consumed in the flames of the deadliest war in history. This was particularly true of Germany. Starting afresh in the rubble of World War II, the fledgling democracies were also free of the jackboots that filled the centrist void during the interwar years. They could start again with a clean slate. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, famously described the decades between the two world wars as a limbo land when the old order was dying and the new could not yet be born: “In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear,” he wrote.

Those were extinguished by the Allied victory. The second new factor was the presence of the United States. In 1947, Harry S. Truman proclaimed his doctrine that America would “support free peoples” around the world “who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” This applied particularly to Europe. In an act of great farsightedness, the United States insisted that Europeans decide among themselves how to spend the billions it had made available in Marshall Plan aid. In so doing, America incentivized habits of cooperation that would lead to the formation of the European community.

These democracies were thus born with what Berman calls “system legitimacy”—people accepted the rules of the game. When a party lost power, it left office safe in the knowledge that it could return again under the same rules. Politics transformed from its interwar battles between an enfeebled center and its extra-parliamentary challengers to a stable game of musical chairs. The new post-war culture of liberal democracy was bolstered by the swelling size of the middle classes. Europe’s democracies were also earning “performance legitimacy.” The 30 years that followed World War II marked the fastest growth in the continent’s history. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 took place exactly two centuries after that brief flash of French democracy that eventually died in Robespierre’s Terror. Finally, it seemed, with the end of the Cold War, the force of liberal democracy could no longer be denied. We had reached the end of history.

Yet here we are. It has been roughly half a millennium since Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and began its restless journey into the modern age. In most of Europe, liberal democracy has existed for less than a fifth of that time. In some parts of the continent, notably in eastern and central Europe, liberal democracy was established only in 1989 when the Iron Curtain was lifted. Many of those countries were under Hapsburg, Nazi, and then Soviet rule far longer than the non-European world had been colonized. Little wonder that countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are among the least stable—or most “illiberal”—of the West’s democracies. But the most troubling symptoms of decay are to be found in the oldest democracies of all—Britain and the United States. It is no coincidence that these are the two that have shown the sharpest rise in inequality among Western democracies. Little surprise also that their politics show the most worrying tendencies of falling sway to monied oligarchy.

Berman’s richly textured work of political history reminds us of timeless verities. Elites must share power to protect themselves. Capitalism has to be inclusive to survive. The privileged classes should pay heed to the needs of those less fortunate. To invert Barrington Moore, “Bad Bourgeoisie. Endangered democracy.” Because we are human, we are prone to forget such truths. We do so at our peril. “When there is a mismatch between citizens’ demands and expectations and the willingness or ability of political institutions to respond to them, the outcome is disorder and instability,” Berman concludes. The past shows that most democracies fail. History also tells us that it is within our means to ensure that they do not.

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Edward Luce is the Financial Times’s U.S. national editor and author of The Retreat of Western Liberalism.

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