20 April 2013

"Crisis and Mobilization Since 1789" Conference, Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 22-24, 2013, Part II

The venue: the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam.
The keynote speaker at the “Crisis and Mobilization Since 1789” conference was University of Michigan historian Geoff Eley, and he set a great tone for the conference. In his talk, he outlined the central argument of his 2002 book Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe: 1850-2000, framing his discussion around the question, “What produces democracy?” His answer, writ short, was “conflict.” Between 1850 and 1968, he argued, it was the conflict between capitalism and socialism that produced the most dramatic democratic advances in Europe, especially in the period between 1945 and 1968.

Eley made it clear that revolutions are inextricably linked to the rise and advancement of democracies. As he put it in the introduction of Forging Democracy,

[D]emocracy is not ‘given’ or ‘granted.’ It requires conflict, namely, courageous challenges to authority, risk-taking and reckless exemplary acts, ethical witnessing, violent confrontations, and general crises in which the given sociopolitical order breaks down. In Europe, democracy did not result from natural evolution or economic prosperity. It certainly did not emerge as an inevitable byproduct of individualism or the market. It developed because masses of people organized collectively to demand it”

In his assessment of social democracy at high tide, that is, between 1945 and 1968, he argued that World War II had broad cultural ramifications that veritably remade Western European democracy. In Chapter 18 of his book, he explains this concept: “The destructive hiatus in governing orders created by Nazi rule, the discrediting of prewar elites, the confused end-of-the-war transitions, and the heady hopes of the Liberation created openings for radical transformation” Although the revolution was incomplete, post-war Europeans were better off than they'd been before the war.

Eley's argument is keenly aware of the limits of the post-war European social democratic vision—especially as it stood after 1968— despite the major democratic gains in parliamentary governance, social security, and economic planning achieved at that time. As Eley saw it, social democrats inadequately redefined themselves after 1968, when the age became increasingly marked by identity politics and late stage capitalism. By failing to define themselves, he argues, they hampered their own political efforts.

Ultimately, Eley was deeply pessimistic about the prospects for revolutionary change in contemporary Europe. As he put it during the discussion that followed the lecture, “It’s over.” But it may be worthwhile for Eley to remember the words of William Morris, whom he quoted in the preface of his book, “I … pondered how [people] fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other [people] have to fight for what they meant under another name.” If history is any guide, austerity politics may produce its own set of revolutionary responses.

Jason D. Martinek
Assistant Professor of History
New Jersey City University
Jersey City, New Jersey