This is the introduction to our forum on Martin Conway’s new book Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968.
You can download the complete forum as a PDF here: FULL FORUM
In a recent interview, Martin Conway described the twentieth-century history of Europe as “The Struggle for Stable Forms to Manage Participatory Pluralism.” His new book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968, is a study of an era when those stable forms appeared to have been found–on one side, at least, of the Iron Curtain. Tocquevillian in its scope, Conway’s work is a thematic exploration of the genesis and nature of Western Europe’s post-war political order. The lens through which Conway approaches his subject is “democracy,” understood not as a fixed concept, but as a contested and evolving set of ideals, which came in this period to be embodied by a particular combination of institutions and practices.
As Chris Bickerton’s review emphasizes, what Conway depicts here is “a form of mediated democracy, where state and society were bound together in a multiplicity of ways, but where popular sovereignty was constrained.” While elites sought to limit direct popular participation in politics, corporatist institutions and well-organized political parties combined to enable the interests of competing social groups to be expressed within the state.
For Bickerton, the great strength of this account is its lack of nostalgia—while Conway shows that stabilization and social integration were achieved, he also makes clear this was no golden age of social equality. Indeed, one of the more revisionist contentions of Conway’s book is that far from being the principal beneficiary of the post-war order, the working class was the relative loser in the period’s socio-economic settlement. Bickerton equally praises Conway’s exploration of post-war democracy’s evolving relationship with individualism: while the material security generated by welfare states at first encouraged a turn towards the private sphere, this ultimately fuelled a drive for personal autonomy that brought parts of society into conflict with the state’s regulatory power.
Alain Chatriot, in his review, focuses heavily on Conway’s historical approach. Highlighting Conway’s unique synthesis of the history of ideas with the history of social and political practices, Chatriot praises the book for offering “a rigorous interrogation of the content of institutions and policies” rather than any single definition of democracy. For him, Conway’s methodology is what successfully distinguishes his book from other popular histories of the era—most notably those of Tony Judt and Mark Mazower. Nonetheless, he takes Conway to task for various omissions: what, he asks, of empire? Western Europe’s “democratic age” was after all also the age of decolonization, a process that was not without domestic ramifications. And what of the work of Pierre Rosanvallon, whose explorations of the different forms of political legitimacy could perhaps have nuanced Conway’s discussion of how post-war democracy contrasts with politics today?
Jan-Werner Müller’s review equally notes the specificity of Conway’s approach, and the importance of his focus on “democracy” as a socio-political phenomenon. However, Müller offers a gentle critique of Conway, centered on the question of sovereignty. For Müller, while Conway shows how popular sovereignty was constrained in practice, he underplays the extent to which post-war democratic institutions were shaped by a conscious rejection of the very concept. This has implications for the present: in his book, Conway endorses Colin Crouch’s “post-democracy” thesis, according to which “assertions of collective political will were somehow more common or easier” in the post-war period than they are today; Müller, by contrast, insists that “the basic template of European democracy” is largely unchanged—it was “anti-populist then, and remains anti-populist now.” What has changed, he argues, are rather the institutions through which pluralism is organized. For Müller, the key feature of post-war democracy was the presence of vibrant “intermediary powers” (parties, trade unions, newspapers, interest groups) all characterized by a significant degree of internal democracy. And it is in the present weakness of such intermediary powers—and in the efforts of some politicians to bypass them entirely—that he sees the threat to democracy today.
In a measured reply, Conway integrates these reviewers’ points into his analysis. Responding to Chatriot, he reflects on how empires impacted Europe’s democracies, notably through embroiling them in military conflicts that made the “post-war” period anything but for many. Embracing Müller’s description of western European regimes as “non-sovereign democracies,” he emphasizes the agency of political movements—above all Christian democracy—in making choices that enabled this kind of democratic stabilization. Picking up Bickerton’s discussion of state and society’s eventual “disembedding”, he unpacks the gradual (and ultimately unresolved) “crise de régime” that he sees as having unfolded through the 1960s and 1970s, and which resulted in a “more personalized and less party-based” style of democratic life. This in turn brings him to the question of how his analysis relates to democracy today: re-considering his use of the term “post-democracy,” he regrets its normative overtones, stressing that we should see gains as well as losses in what is now “a less ordered but more plural democratic process.”
Conway is at pains to emphasize the primarily historical purpose of his book. But as the discussion in this forum makes clear, it is nonetheless a study rich in contemporary resonances. Above all, his analysis serves as a powerful rejoinder to the oft-heard laments—whether liberal, social democratic, or souverainiste—for the post-war era as a lost golden age. Instead of a fixed model to be emulated, western Europe’s post-war regimes are presented as contingent constellations of institutions and circumstances. Western Europe’s Democratic Age thus encourages us to see democracy as something always in motion, whose meaning lies as much in the future as in the past.
David Klemperer is a PhD candidate in history at Queen Mary University of London, and an editor at Tocqueville21. His research explores the political and intellectual history of the French socialist movement in the mid-twentieth century.
Photo Credit: Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 [cover], Princeton (2020), Fair Use.