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Response to Review of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day

I would like to begin by thanking Professor Girvin for his generous and thoughtful review. I will focus my comments on two criticisms or suggestions Professor Girvin raises at the end of his review. Not because I disagree with them, but rather to explain my reasoning or thinking about them.

The first concerns my discussion of the consolidation of liberal democracy after 1945 in Western Europe. I stress, as Professor Girvin notes, that it was only after the Second World War that consolidated liberal democracy became the norm in Western Europe, despite the region having experienced many experiments with democracy since 1789. I attribute this postwar consolidation to changes that had occurred before the Second World War as well as changes that occurred after it. With regard to the latter I emphasize that international, regional, and domestic institutions and relationships were reconstructed after 1945 with the explicit goal of stabilizing democracy (and capitalism) in the region. New economic and security arrangements at the international level were led by the U.S., while regional integration was the result of both European and American efforts. On the domestic level, I refer to postwar West European political economies as “social democratic,” which Professor Girvin is somewhat uncomfortable with.

Postwar West European political economies were reconstructed with the experience of the interwar years, and particularly the Great Depression, in mind. During this period,

capitalism’s failures produced social chaos, conflict, and political extremism. When the Second World War ended, accordingly, political actors on both sides of the Atlantic understood that, if democracy were going to succeed in Europe, finding a way to ensure that the socioeconomic conflicts and economic crises that had been generated by capitalism and had fed extremism and undermined democracy in the past, needed to be confronted head-on.

In addition, the Second World War profoundly changed many people’s views of the appropriate roles of states and markets. All European governments assumed responsibility for managing the economy during the war, and shared wartime suffering fostered national unity and a broad sense that states could and should provide for citizens’ basic needs. And, finally, Europe’s desperate postwar situation, combined with the commanding position of the Soviet Union after the war and the heroic role played by many communist resistance movements during it, along with the sense that capitalism had failed during the 1930s, led many to fear that communism rather than democratic capitalism was the wave of the future. These experiences and conditions, combined with a broader sense that Europe could not allow itself to fall back into patterns that had led it to ruin in the past, reinforced the belief that a new socioeconomic order capable of ensuring prosperity and social stability and of blunting the siren song of extremism was necessary if the democratic wave of 1945 was not to meet the same fate as its predecessors. 

How should we characterize this postwar domestic order? The point of labels is to identify, clarify, and understand, and how we characterize the postwar order is therefore of more than semantic import. I refer to this order as social democratic because (this follows an argument also made in a previous book of mine, Primacy of Politics) advocating a shift towards a system where democratic states assumed responsibility for overseeing capitalism and protecting citizens from its negative effects had long been the distinguishing feature of the social democratic left—not of liberalism or Christian Democracy which, as Professor Girvin and other scholars note, was indeed the dominant political force in many European countries during the immediate postwar period.

Before 1945 Christian Democrats did recognize problems with capitalism but did not develop an ideological profile or a political platform around the idea that it was both possible and desirable for governments to tame capitalism in order to make it compatible with democracy as well as the health and well-being of society, as social democrats did. 

Indeed, during the pre-1945 period Christian Democrats were generally unsympathetic to democracy. Moreover, while many recognized problems with capitalism, the Christian Democratic understanding of capitalism’s negative consequences differed greatly from that of social democrats. In general, the Christian Democratic critique of capitalism focused on its tendency to undermine the foundations of a corporate, illiberal society as well as traditional norms and values, rather than stressing how it threatened democracy, individual freedom, or the health and well-being of a liberal society. So, while Professor Girvin is correct to note the crucial role played by Christian Democratic parties in successful postwar European democracies, the argument made in Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe is somewhat different—it is not about which parties were in power after 1945, but rather about how to think about the broader foundations upon which successful democracy in Western Europe was finally built. And the domestic pillar of that foundation in Western Europe is, I believe, best understood as social democratic.

Professor Girvin’s second suggestion concerns the relative neglect of smaller states in Democracy and Dictatorship. As a lifelong student of Scandinavia, I have to say it was indeed painful to leave smaller countries out, but this was partially a question of space. But, from an intellectual perspective, the relative lack of consideration of small states, particularly in Western Europe, does emphasize the conflictual, even violent, nature of modern political development. While countries like Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and so on did not have “easy” paths to liberal democracy, their political development was less violent and conflictual than that of Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and Eastern Europe—which were extensively covered in Democracy and Dictatorship. Instead, these countries’ modern political paths were somewhat more like the British one—gradual and relatively peaceful—although still far from conflict-free, and certainly not without some backsliding. 

As for Ireland and Finland, these are indeed fascinating cases, since they did experience violent conflicts, yet managed to stay democratic after receiving their independence. Any case is too complicated to be explained in a sentence or two, but I think the “geography” of both is distinctive. Ireland’s background in Britain is key (many of its post-independence politicians, despite opposition to British rule, had been deeply shaped by its political norms and institutions) and Finland, despite being ruled by Russia, always had deep ties to the other Nordic countries.