The Past and Present of Democracy

5 May 2022

** This post is Martin Conway’s response to our forum on his new book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968

You can read the previous reviews here: 

1. Embedded Democracy – Chris Bickerton

2. Comprendre les démocraties européennes après la Seconde Guerre mondiale – Alain Chatriot

3. The Pre-History of Post Democracy – Jan-Werner Müller

You can download the complete forum as a PDF here: FULL FORUM


All books are out of date by the time that they are published; and not only because they always take so much longer to write than one wished. The more profound problem with any book published in recent years on the history of democracy, however, is that it risks being crushed between the rapidly shifting tectonic plates of present and past. Thus, while I was writing Western Europe’s Democratic Age, I had an uneasy feeling that present-day controversies about the evolving nature of democracy (Brexit, Trump, Salvini, gilets jaunes, Johnson, Orban, Zemmour) were in danger of dominating what I had initially conceived of as a contribution to the historicization of the latter half of the twentieth century.


Above all, therefore, I am indebted to the three participants for their willingness to recognize my primarily historical purpose. In particular, I welcome the way that they engage with my focus on the embedded nature of post-war western European democracy. This political order was the expression of a new relationship between regime and society, or perhaps more exactly between the new democratic institutions and the balance of social forces within post-war Western Europe. Of course, the dynamics of that relationship varied somewhat between the different states; but, taken as a whole, the primary distinguishing feature of the twenty-five-year period after 1945 was the way that the major political forces—most notably Christian Democracy—and the principal social and economic organizations (such as trade unions, employers’ groups, farmers’ representatives, and small business organizations) acted to mediate conflicts between a newly-ambitious and competent state authority and the rapidly modernising fabric of West European societies. That success was far from accidental: post-war elites were anything but naïve, and they drew on their personal and collective experiences of the preceding thirty years to create a consciously modern form of democracy, which pursued the pragmatic goal of stability. This resulted in what Jan-Werner Müller rightly describes as a non-sovereign democracy, in which intermediate institutions and judicial structures would temper the dangers posed by unmediated popular will and the parliamentary absolutism of the Weimar Republic or French Third Republic. But this success was also the product of other elements of the post-war context, including the broad coalition of support for a moderate but resolute anti-communism, and the self-conscious restraint of political movements who for the most part were very conscious of the damage caused by the ideological and social conflicts of the preceding decades.


Of course, all of this could easily have gone wrong, and I am grateful to Alain Chatriot for highlighting the relatively limited space which I accord to the imperial dimension and what came to be termed, albeit retrospectively, decolonization. That is a good point. The crises of empire are present in my argument, but predominantly in terms of how they never quite derailed the post-war construction of democracy. That at times they came close to doing so is of course undeniable—above all, the crisis of the Dutch East Indies in the later 1940s, and the Algerian war in the 1950s and early 1960s, which ended the Fourth Republic but not the wider continuity of post-1944 French democratic governance. However, that is perhaps to disregard the broader impacts that empire (and its aftermaths) had on post-war democracy. Empire maintained a grip on the male populations of a number of European states after 1945 by obliging them to fight messy wars (often termed emergencies, or police operations) in distant places. “Post-war” was therefore anything but a reality for the conscript soldiers, and their families, in France, the Netherlands, or Britain. Moreover, the largely accepted centrality of empire to the project of nation-state reconstruction legitimized the deferral of the distribution of the rewards of economic growth from state to society. In sum, empire was a disciplining structure in certain European states, which prolonged the rhetoric and reality of sacrifice beyond the end of the war against Nazi Germany until the impotence of the projection of imperial power beyond Europe only became fully apparent at the end of the 1950s.


As all three commentators point out, my book also risks serving as a demonstration of the familiar adage that historians are better at beginnings than endings. My chapter on the 1960s argues that democratic stability was increasingly under strain by the early 1960s, and for reasons much broader than those often evoked by a historiography unduly focused on the events of 1968. Instead of an explosion, I seek to convey—in a manner one might even describe as Tocquevillian—a waning over a roughly ten-year period from the early 1960s to the tensions of the mid-1970s in the post-war relationship between the democratic state and an increasingly volatile and assertive society. The reasons for what Christopher Bickerton aptly terms this “disembedding” of democracy are various, or perhaps better described as a wider crise de régime. If that is so, the problem is that the crisis lacked a clear denouement. If there were places and moments in the 1970s when it seemed as though the combination of political radicalization, social conflict and state authoritarianism risked a return to the upheavals of the inter-war years, this never quite came about. Instead, Western Europe emerged into the era of Kohl, Mitterrand and the acceleration of European integration, before experiencing the divine surprise of 1989.


But what of the place of democracy in that contested process of transition? As Bickerton suggests, the renewed energy of European integration in the 1980s might be seen as a demonstration of the enhanced freedom of manoeuvre enjoyed by governments that were no longer constrained by their negotiation with nationally-rooted social-interest groups. This new-found presidentialism stretched the distance between rulers and societies, just as the shift towards a more personalized and less party-based structure of party politics replaced—most strikingly in Italy—the party frontiers of the post-1945 era with the much less predictable political culture of the 1990s and beyond.


To characterize this change, I reach in the book for Colin Crouch’s concept of post-democracy. I should perhaps have resisted the temptation. As I comment in my Conclusion—and have had ample opportunity to reflect on subsequently—the concept of post-democracy is elusive in its meaning, and misleading in its resonances. Most obviously, it is western European in its conception, and is inseparable from a social-democratic lament for the post-war democratic moment that the remainder of my book seeks to eschew. Jan-Werner Müller rightly points to this contradiction, while also suggesting that there is a more fundamental problem of perspective here. Rather than lamenting what has been lost in recent democracy—especially in terms of meaningful negotiations between state and society—historians would do better to recognize the way in which formerly marginalized groups such as immigrants and sexual minorities, have now become participants in what is a less ordered but more plural democratic process.


There is much that I find attractive in Müller’s recharacterization of the recent history of democracy. In other recent work, I have been concerned to sketch the lineages of a new history of the European present which needs to be separated from an over-long and superannuated history of the twentieth century. That history of the present has many different aspects—including a radically transformed European geography—but it remains for the most part democratic. Indeed, it might be described as simultaneously both less and more democratic. Democratic rights and processes have been dented, specifically by the state authoritarianism of certain regimes in central Europe, and more generally by the anti-popular regime of economic orthodoxy imposed on the states within the Euro zone. If, as Müller suggests, populism is the greatest threat to the pluralism of European democratic politics, then this is not the work of unscrupulous adventurers but a phenomenon rooted in the structural tensions under which democratic regimes have operated in the first decades of the twenty-first century. But the other side of the coin is the way in which those socio-economic, cultural and environmental conflicts have also generated new patterns of democratic politics. Democracy has moved to the streets, be they digital or real. The gilets jaunes, marches for and against migration, for Black Lives Matter and for the defence of Europe’s cultural or religious identity, lack quite obviously a common thread. But they demonstrate that the history of democratic practices in Europe is neither ending nor unchanging.


The tangibly unfinished nature of these transitions serves as a sufficient deterrent, if one was needed, from writing a second volume, which would bring the history of European democracy to the present day. As Tocqueville recognized, a distance of roughly fifty years between the historian and the events she or he studies is a healthy one. But the contemporary evolution of democracy also brings us closer to earlier democratic moments. The rather too familiar comparisons with the Weimar years are perhaps less relevant for our times than the politics of the nineteenth century. There is more than a whiff of 1848 about recent politics, while General Boulanger, Karl Lueger and Georg von Schönerer do not lack for imitators in the crowded field of present-day apprentice tribunes of the people. Anti-semitism may have declined (but not disappeared); however, the slogans and spurious solutions voiced in the electoral politics of the late nineteenth century have once again come to the fore, against a similar background of population migrations, social inequality, and economic fragility. Such historical comparisons do, of course, have their limits; but they might indicate that not everything in the history of democracy moves forward in a linear fashion.



Martin Conway is Professor of Contemporary European History at Balliol College in the University of Oxford. He has published widely on the history of twentieth-century Europe, including two books on Belgium. He is currently writing on the history of male politics in twentieth-century Europe.


Photo Credit: Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 [cover], Princeton (2020), Fair Use.

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