• What Produces Democracy? Revolutionary Crises, Popular Politics, and Democratic Gains in Twentieth-Century Europe

  • Por Geoff Eley | 07 Mar 17 | Posted under: Democracia , Historia
  • Contemporary assumptions about democracy are still darkly shadowed by the whole process of post-Communist transition since 1989. In that Eastern European context, the prospects for democracy were thought to rest not on popular participation, but on two types of restructuring: one affecting the economy, and one involving civil society. In the first case, democracy required following through on a market-centred process of economic reform; in the second case, it required transformations in civil society. Thus, ‘freeing the economy’ in the powerful neoliberal sense becomes the essential precondition for democratic political transition. Likewise, creating a strong ‘moral consensus’ based in a dense and resilient infrastructure of social institutions is thought to be equally crucial. According to this view, without either of these foundations, democracy fails. It can only be a weak and artificial implantation, intruded into societies lacking the civic competence and political culture necessary for it to flourish. In this view, democracy presupposes deep-historical, underlying processes of societal growth and cultural sedimentation, which produce the default behaviours necessary before democratic political arrangements can work – in other words, the habitus of competent citizenship, which (it is argued) Communist societies, frozen into postures of administered conformity, never had the chance to acquire.

    In this prevailing approach, the success of the fledgling Eastern European democracies becomes dependent not on the activism of popular electorates and their constitutional freedoms, but on processes essentially beyond this popular democratic control. Political culture (the effective exercise of democratic citizenship) is made primarily dependent on economics (a capitalist market order) and social history (the growth of civil society). This view also reflects a rarely explicated reading of the history of ‘the West’ (Britain, France, the USA), where the successful models of longer-run socio-economic development and democratic acculturation are thought actually to be found. But as social historians of those countries will attest, democracy resulted from far more complex histories of popular militancy, societal conflict, and bitterly conducted political struggles, and in current treatments of democracy it is precisely these complicated histories that are invariably ignored.

    Contemporary approaches to democratic transition are shockingly ahistorical. They show astonishing disregard for what Western European history might actually be able to tell us. The dominant paradigm of post- Communist transition, in which neoliberal celebrations of the ‘market’ have ruthlessly monopolised the language of ‘reform’, suppresses other arguments about democracy’s historical conditions of possibility. To adapt Ernest Renan’s famous adage, contemporary democratic advocacy registers the necessity of getting one’s history wrong, of selectively appropriating some experiences and forgetting others, of ensuring that the past will be misremembered and misread. In this text, I want to consider what other genealogies of democracy we might be able to provide. In what follows, I will try to historicise democracy’s conditions and dynamics of emergence. I will do this in three parts: first by looking at the revolutionary conjuncture following the First World War, then by considering some aspects of the period after 1945, and I will end by highlighting the question of gender, which is still mainly neglected in most general accounts.

    Defining Democracy

    In defining democracy, we need to begin with the constitutional question in the strict sense – that is, the legal and constitutionally formalised conditions of democracy in the state. Juridically speaking, full-scale democratisation entails popular sovereignty and democratic rule, based on free, universal, secret, adult, and equal suffrage, complemented by legal freedoms of speech, conscience, assembly, association, and the press, together with freedom from arrest without trial. We don’t get anywhere, unless we begin from these basic elements, and by this standard only the mildest degrees of democracy could be found anywhere on the globe before 1914. Full democracy was introduced only in four peripheral societies – New Zealand (1893), Australia (1903), Finland (1906), and Norway (1913) – plus certain states and provinces of western Canada and the USA.

    If we move beyond the more strictly juridical, though, we need ways of theorising the circumstances under which democratic gains can realistically occur. That is, we have to deal with the dynamics of democracy’s actual emergence and the haphazard contingency of democracy’s recorded gains, the complex histories of its actually existing forms. My argument here is that democracy eventuates not only from the achievement of specific institutional changes, juridical rights, and formal constitutional procedures, but also from social and political conflicts across a wider variety of fronts. In other words, constitutional definitions have to be complemented by historical approaches focusing on the expansion of democratic capacities in other than juridical ways.

    Dialectics of Citizenship and State, 1914-23

    If we take the first great wave of Pan-European democratisation after the First World War, then the deficiencies of a legalistic approach rapidly become clear. Of course, struggles over parliamentary sovereignty and the electoral process stayed central to popular democracy. Where revolutionaries dismissed them, democracy suffered grievously as a result. But other aspects of democratisation far exceeded this limited frame. I will mention four aspects:

    a) The impact of extra-parliamentary social movements is the first of these additional aspects. These ranged from trade unions to women’s movements and various single-issue campaigns. Thus, some developed idea of civil society forms an essential dimension of democracy’s definition.

    b) The building of a welfare state forms a second aspect. This was ‘the making social of democracy’, as one might call it.

    c) Yet, a third dimension of extra-parliamentary dynamics involved the popular mobilisations of the radical right. These movements were explicitly anti-democratic in conscious orientations. But they practically expanded the bounds of participation within the public sphere in ways symbiotically related to the production of new democratic capacities that became vital for democracy’s future.

    d) Lastly, the direct-democratic  and  community-based  forms  of participatory politics also need to be brought in. These were most commonly associated with the soviets and workers’ councils, but were a vital dimension of the popular democratic upsurge in general after 1917.

    I am making a crucial point here about the relative significance of the Bolshevik Revolution, because in shaping the democratic gains of the post-1918 settlements the Bolsheviks’ insurrectionary example mattered less in itself than the variety of reformist initiatives it helped to provoke. Thus, even where the revolutionary left was weak, and socialist parties grew only modestly in postwar elections, big reforms still ensued. In France, these included a law on collective agreements, the eight-hour day, and electoral reform (March-July 1919); in Belgium, they comprised the eight-hour day, progressive taxation, social insurance, and electoral reform (1918-21); in the Netherlands, an equivalent package. Similar effects could be seen in Britain and Scandinavia. In Germany and Austria, and in the successor states of East-Central Europe, new republican sovereignties were built via processes of national-democratic revolution, plus varying degrees of social reform. Finally, in most of the successor states and some others (Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States, Finland), there were major land reforms.

    This was a huge increment of reform. In a big part of Europe, the left emerged far stronger than before. However, this took a very specific form – not a specifically socialist advance so much as a further strengthening of parliamentary democracy, the expansion of workers’ rights under law, further recognition of unions, growth of civil liberties, and substantial social legislation. The enhancement of the public sphere was a vital gain, especially where public freedoms had been restricted before 1914. This toughening of civil society through enhancement of the public sphere was a key support for democratisation. In the newly created sovereignties of East-Central Europe it was also an essential part of nation-building.

    In the post-1918 settlements, there was a vital difference between winners and losers. The First World War effected a general strengthening of the state across all the combatant countries. But by 1917-18, those states that turned out to be losers were catastrophically damaged – namely, the Russian, Austro- Hungarian, and German multi-national empires. To them may be added Italy, technically on the winning side yet experiencing its victory largely as defeat. In contrast, the victor societies – Britain, France, but also Belgium and by extension the Netherlands – experienced their democratising after 1918 without the vacuum of the East-Central European political collapse.

    In this sense, the war’s outcome vitally affected the extent and stability of the postwar settlements. At the centre of those settlements was the cashing in of the patriotic cheque – popular expectations that big reforms would be conceded in return for the sacrifices required by wartime. Where political authorities collapsed amidst military defeat (Germany, the Habsburg monarchy), the settlement was linked to more radical measures of political democracy and a stronger version of the welfare state. Where states remained intact, enhanced by the prestige of military victory (Britain and France), the settlement was more modest on each count, namely, a less complete extension of the franchise and a heavily compromised social deal.

    Popular Cultures of Democracy, 1945-68

    As we know, the post-1918 settlements proved anything but stable and lasting. Obviously, there were many explanations, but one key was in the distinction between constitution-making and culture-building. At one level, the political breakdowns of the 1920s and 1930s reflected the thinness of the emergent societal consensus and the fragility of its democratic values. To make sense of this fragility – and conversely to see how more stable democratic structures might be formed – we need some theory of the public sphere. As I have already argued, the toughening of civil society through the enhancement of the public sphere was a key part of the settlements in both 1918 and 1945: that is, all the ways in which a society’s self-organisation acquired legitimacy and legally protected public space – through collective organisation and action of all kinds, through the formation of political identities, through the expression of opinion, through the circulation of ideas, and so forth.

    Without benefit of a legally protected national or society-wide public sphere, social movements are more easily kept to their own defensive, self- referential, and largely discrete subcultural space. Without secure access to a wider public domain, subcultures stay chronically vulnerable and weak. They lack access to possible coalitions and therefore to the supports of a broad enough societal consensus. They lack either the national-popular credibility of a plausible counter-hegemonic claim – the necessary moral- political resources for governing – or the capacities for resisting anti- democratic repression, if it should come.

    Where a robust societal consensus can be built, on the other hand, with simultaneous legitimacy at the level of the state and breadth in popular culture, the resilience of popular democracy can be very strong. In contrast to the fragilities of the post-1918 settlements, I want to argue, precisely a consensus of that kind was secured after the Second World War, drawing on the democratic patriotisms of the war years, fusing the desires for a new beginning with the logics of economic reconstruction, and organising itself inside the anti-fascist integument of the postwar settlement.

    Here is my thesis. Between the late 1940s and the next breaking point of 1968, a democratically inflected societal consensus was produced, providing a kind of template for the popular political imagination. This consensus was organised around a liberal public sphere, which enjoyed strong legal protections. It was fashioned from the popular-democratic momentum of a wartime mobilisation, which became linked to the social contract of a post- war settlement. The reformist strengths of that settlement made it possible for popular consciousness to identify with the state, which thereby acquired a lasting reservoir of moral capital.

    In making this case, I want to use the example of post-1945 Britain. The institutional features of the British version of the Keynesian welfare state are well known. They included: social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’, the National Health Service, the Butler Education Act, progressive taxation, strong public-sector policies, corporative economic management, strong ideals of trade-union recognition, and an integrative discourse of social citizenship. But the persuasiveness and democratic breadth of this post-war settlement also had a vital cultural component.

    In this context, patriotism – British national feeling – had acquired powerful inflections to the left. Pride in being British implied the egalitarianism of the War, the achievement of the welfare state, and a complex of democratic traditions stressing decency, liberalism, and the importance of everyone pulling together, in a way that honoured the value and values of ordinary working people. In the legitimising narratives of popular memory surrounding this patriotism, both the founding rigours of the postwar Labour Government and the normalising complacencies of the succeeding Conservative administrations of the 1950s were important. But the lasting stability of this consensus, which endured into the 1970s, also depended on a larger cultural script binding together the experiences of the 1930s and 1940s. The postwar consensus also evoked images of the Depression, and by these means the patriotic comradeship of the War became reworked into a social democratic narrative of suffering and social redress.

    In this narrative, the poverty of the 1930s became a sign for what was different and desirable about the new postwar present. From the vantage point of the 1950s, the 1930s signified a massive failure of the system – the ‘wasted years’, the ‘devil’s decade’, the ‘low, dishonest decade’, in the familiar parlance of the day. The imagery of dismal hardships, mass unemployment, and hunger marches described an unacceptable past that simply could not be allowed to be happen again, a societal misery that needed collective action and public responsibility. Thus, the Second World War was a good war – not just because of its anti-fascist character, but because the egalitarianism and social solidarities needed for victory also made an irrefutable case for equitable social policies in the peacetime to come. The breadth of the post-1945 consensus rested rhetorically on this suturing together of the Depression and the War – of patriotism and social need, national interest and the common good. In popular memory, this rendition of the 1930s and 1940s became an especially effective and resonant narrative holding together a coherent sense of Britishness after the war.

    This is where the cultural dimension of democratisation becomes so important. We need to explore the fields of popular political identification wartime experience brought into being, the complex ways in which they became articulated with a postwar system of politics, the forms of legitimation they provided for the postwar state, and the supports they delivered for one kind of politics as against another.

    A society’s forms of cohesion and stability, and the conditions enabling them to be renewed, rest crucially on the kinds of identification forged in popular culture with that society’s political institutions (with its state). After each of the world wars, the scale of societal mobilisation, the radicalism of the institutional changes, and the turbulence of popular hopes all fractured the stability of existing allegiances and ripped the fabric of social conformity wide open enough for big democratic changes to break through. But in the case of 1918, the forging of a new societal consensus around sufficiently strong popular identifications with the democratic state proved highly contested, as the interwar polarisations and the rise of fascism so tragically confirmed. In contrast, after 1945 the Western European consensus proved both broad and deep with remarkably dense and resilient popular identifications with the postwar social and political order.

    That Western European postwar consensus lasted for two decades, subsisting on the doubled memories of war and depression. Its boundaries were only reached generationally, as capitalist reconstruction, the long boom, and the consumer prosperity gradually changed the political landscape. Thus, by the 1960s, amidst the resulting cultural tensions, invoking the benefits of the postwar reforms seemed to a younger generation too much like complacency. The new clash of generations became all the more painful where parents were themselves left-wing and absolutised their own experience, wielding ‘the blackmail of past hardships’ to silence criticism of the present. As Alessandro Portelli says: ‘Older generations, those who went through Fascism, war, Depression, often think they have a monopoly on history and blackmail the younger generation with it.’1 Thus, for Gaetano Bordoni, a Communist barber in San Lorenzo in Rome recorded in the mid-1960s, his daughter’s political complaining and dismissiveness toward hard-won comforts dishonoured his own generation’s anti-fascist sacrifices. As he put it: ‘. . . when I was ten years old, I carried a machine gun in the hills, along with my father, shooting it out . . . I mean, now at age ten, you have a toy; I had a machine gun’. When his daughter left her steak uneaten on the dinner plate, Bordoni felt the meaning of his life demeaned, because material improvements were identified in his mind with the winning of democracy. By dismissing material comforts as corrupting and irrelevant to ‘freedom’, and by demanding new forms of radicalism instead, the new generation challenged the moral hegemony of anti-fascism and its centrality to the politics of the working-class left.

    For the older generations, the Second World War was the defining experience. In countries occupied by the Nazis (especially Italy and France), the anti-fascist legacies of the Resistance combined powerfully with the reformist languages of reconstruction to make the prosperity of the 1960s feel like a final realising of the promise of the Liberation. In Italy, where workers had barely escaped from the extreme bleakness of the 1950s, the improving standards acquired extra emotional power. What was the image of socialism then (in the 1950s), in the answer of one Italian when interviewed by an oral historian? It was ‘“Everybody eats”, “Food for all”. At the time, this was the most urgent problem, rather than alienation, say, or man-machine relationships [the big issues of 1968].’2 In Britain, which was spared Nazi rule, the post-1945 welfare state and wartime collectivism worked in analogous ways.

    Gender, Citizenship, and Democracy

    If we are using a dynamic approach to democracy to see how its boundaries were expanded or contracted, and if we are interested in questions of democratic access to see who exactly was given a voice, then the gendering of citizenship becomes vital. Here, the early 1900s saw the first concerted challenge to the masculinity of the franchise by both mass socialist and specifically feminist movements. The years 1914-23 then brought an unprecedented destabilising and renormalising of gender regimes through both the politicising of domestic life during the war and women’s wartime recruitment into the economy. The early twentieth century also registered increasingly expansive cultures of consumption and commercialised entertainment, epitomised by the department store and the cinema, where women were disproportionately present. Profound changes in the public sphere – coming not only from the northern and central European enfranchisement of women, but also from the regendering of the physical spaces of the city – decisively disrupted how women’s political identities were coming to be understood. In this respect, there were two countervailing logics.

    One was a logic of containment that addressed women’s citizenship via languages of motherhood. Before 1914, advocates of women’s emancipation stressed political enfranchisement and enlargement of constitutional rights. But under the impact of war, female citizenship was increasingly measured by women’s patriotic service as mothers. If the war economy depended on women’s massive recruitment into the workplace, their public recognition occurred mainly via the home. Citizenship claims during the constitution making of 1918-19 were made overwhelmingly on this basis. Given the power of the male breadwinner ideology running through the expanded post-1918 social policies, this maternalist discourse left no space for defending women’s rights as workers. Public policies of the interwar years (from the most generous Scandinavian versions, through the welfare state initiatives of Weimar Germany and Red Vienna, to the conservative models in Britain and Fascism in Italy) addressed women aggressively in maternalist terms, recognising them inside the family and the domestic sphere. These became the sole legitimate ground for admitting women to citizenship.

    But there was a second logic too. The counter-argument to the discourse of freedom and emancipation was the discourse of endangerment and disorder. As women became more publicly visible, with the limited but meaningful independence of employment, they became objects of social fear. By the 1920s, the new entertainment media or radio, gramophone and film, the new physical spaces of picture palaces and dance halls, the mass circulation newspapers and magazines, the machineries of fashion and style, the new markets for clothing and cosmetics, the appeals of advertising and the relative freeing of the body for display – all these developments gave younger women new forms of public expression:

    They took for granted the rights and freedoms won for them by [earlier] generations. They were the first modern generation of women who did not expect to spend their entire adult lives either in motherhood and exclusion from the public world or in rebellion against that exclusion. They were women who could be defined neither in terms of the family, as were their mothers, nor in terms of work, as were their fathers and brothers. They were women of the Machine Age, for whom the machine meant employment, consumer goods, modernity, individuality, pleasure.3

    However, these new facts passed the recognised advocates of women’s rights by. Feminists were dismayed: ‘Can [young women] really follow a difficult scientific demonstration or a complex piece of music, can they really feel the intensities of admiration or love when a good part of their thoughts is concerned with the question: “Is it time to powder my nose again?”’4 Male socialists complained about the frivolity and tawdriness of young women’s pleasures. Female consumers betrayed their class. They were a fifth-column for bourgeois materialist values. To George Orwell, the new ‘cheap luxuries’ like ‘fish and chips, silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate …, the movies, radio, strong tea, and the football pools,’ were a boon to ‘our rulers’, and probably ‘averted revolution’.5 Interwar socialists spoke contemptuously of ‘the young prettily dressed girls’ and their ‘destructive’ pleasures.6 They produced small political sympathy for the new generations of young working women – for the shop girls, hairdressers, typists, assembly-line workers, and cleaners, who poured from the shops and offices at the end of the working day.

    Thus the counter-logic to the recognition of women via maternalism was a misogynist logic of disregard. In both cases, the main ground of contention around gender relations shifted away from questions of political rights toward ideas of moral order. Thus, women entered political discourse between the wars in ways not easily assimilable to the accepted thinking about democracy. On the one hand, a general area of ‘body politics’, or perhaps biological politics, crystallised around the moral and reproductive domains of social policy innovation, including maternal and child welfare, reproductive technologies and regulation (contraception, abortion, sterilisation), eugenicist social engineering, public health and social hygiene, policies for the control of youth, and the general regulation of morality and sexuality. On the other hand, the emergent culture of mass consumption placed new identities on display. These were the twin domains – politics of the body, politics of consumption – which the interwar right brought ambitiously and successfully together, sometimes conservatively (as in Baldwin’s Britain), but sometimes with activist aggression (as in Fascist Italy and the Third Reich).

    After 1945, this pattern was repeated. As in the 1920s, when the first wave of women’s votes did disappointingly little to dislodge the given political structures, women’s recognition as voting citizens after 1945 failed to unlock an established gender regime. Once again, the dialectic of difference and equality supervened: even as women exercised their new political rights, the postwar social legislation tracked them out of the public domain. The main logics of postwar social reform fixed women firmly in the familial sphere of the home. ‘During marriage most women will not be gainfully employed’, Beveridge had flatly declared, and European welfare legislation constitutively privileged the male ‘breadwinner’ in his delivery of the ‘family wage’.7 Whereas the Algiers Assembly (21 April 1944) ensured that French women won the vote, in the wider field of public policy their place had barely changed. French Socialists and Communists mouthed the old nostrums about productive employment as the precondition of emancipation, while their unions perpetuated the gendered repertoire of female exclusion, family wage, and unequal pay. At one level, women were recognised as citizen participants in the democratic nation. But at the more basic level, women’s politics were almost wholly subsumed by the family form, whether through the breadwinner rhetoric and the family wage, the restrictive trade union practices for married women, or the prevailing welfare state paradigm.

    For women, therefore, the twentieth-century processes of democratisation contained a powerful contradiction. During both World Wars, women were wrenched out of domesticity, brought into employment and other public roles, called upon for a commitment to the collective good. This process was moved implicitly by promises of citizenship, an invitation to equality in the nation at the war’s end. Yet beyond the novelty of juridical citizenship, in 1918 and 1945, women were renormalised into forms of domesticity, in a gender regime of public and private, spelling the opposite of emancipated personhood. Even the positive values of the welfare state brought their disabling effects. The maternalist framing fixed women in the home, especially in the strongest pro-natalist variants, with their valuing of the working-class child. In this way and many others, the social democratic achievement of the welfare state constructed a domesticated and dependent place for women. Women were advantaged, but not emancipated, by the languages of social citizenship in the welfare state.

    When the main organ of Labour Party support in 1945, the Daily Mirror, urged British women to ‘Vote for Him’, meaning their soldier husbands, it not only sold the promise of women’s citizenship blatantly short, but also bespoke a default ground of gendered social and political assumptions. During the Cold War the mobilising of patriotic sentiments against Communism also found the rhetoric of family and home attractive, suturing an idealised domesticity to the threatened security of the nation and its way of life. If women were positioned mainly as mothers in this discursive economy, men were not only constructed as fathers, but more powerfully as the bearers of public responsibility, in rigid systems of gender demarcation. The domestic regime of the fulltime housewife-mother, supplied with social services, free milk, and orange juice, and educated into technical competence, dividing responsibilities with the husband-breadwinner delivering the wage, carried the day.


    In this text, I have tried to suggest how the twentieth-century trajectories of democracy in Europe might best be understood. I began by expressing scepticism about the post-Communist triumphalism of the market, which reduces the democratic agenda to the neoliberal utopia of an endlessly accumulating capitalism and the slow accretions of a blandly hypostasised civil society. I continued by insisting on the importance of a stringent juridical definition of democracy if the democratic contents of the various political systems of twentieth-century Europe are to be properly judged. After presenting my formal criteria for democracy under the law, I then made a series of arguments for expanding the democracy’s definition.

    First, the most dramatic breakthroughs in expanding the definition of democracy occurred through a series of Pan-European constitution-making conjunctures – (a) in the 1860s, (b) in the period after the Russian Revolution and the First World War, and (c) in the anti-fascist settlement following the Second World War. These conjunctures were connected to wartime societal mobilisations on the grandest scale, and involved revolutionary or extremely radical popular-democratic hopes. Here, the conjuncture of 1989-92, defined by Eastern European Revolutions and European integration, might be added to the list.

    Second, democratic capacities are produced from much wider contexts of social conflict and social mobilisation, through which the forging of a social contract vitally shapes the strengths or fragilities of a democratic settlement.

    Third, the concept of the public sphere offers an excellent means of theorising democratisation in this wider state-society field. In fact, the stability of democratic settlements requires both a strengthening of the public sphere and a thickening of civil society in this sense.

    Fourth, popular culture and collective memory provide a further vital dimension for the resilience of democratic political settlements. Democratic gains prove most lasting where strong popular identifications with the state can be achieved.

    Fifth, the gendered dimensions of democratisation consistently provide the hidden hardwiring for political cultures of citizenship, and in egalitarian terms they provide the democratic settlement’s weakest part. And, I end the discussion here because the gendered aspects highlight the constraints on democracy’s gains. These not only halted at the threshold of the household, leaving patriarchal regimes of privacy broadly intact; they also brought women into public citizenship in skewed and partial ways. Yet gains for women nonetheless occurred only in the course of such broader revolutionary conjunctures. Women achieved access to a democratic voice when revolutionary crises opened a way. Focusing on women also points to the unfinishedness of democratic change, and it was the next period of radicalism, in the generalised pan-European crisis of 1968, that reopened the possibilities. The arrival of a new women’s movement, the questioning of the family, the new politics of sexuality, the politicising of personal life, and related features of the emergent politics of the later twentieth century were all given decisive impetus by the larger critiques which 1968 set into motion, from the discourse of alienation and the restructuring of labour markets to the renewed interest in community-based politics, direct action, and small-scale participatory forms.

    Since that time, certainly in theory and to a great extent in politics, feminists have turned the relationship of the personal and the political completely inside out, making it possible entirely to remake the connections between everydayness and public life. Feminists have extended the reach of ‘the political’ across the family and the workplace, sexuality and personal relations, health and education, and the ever-burgeoning demands and pleasures of consumption. Increasingly during the late twentieth century, democratic precepts have compelled application to these domains too, bridging from the previously recalcitrant settings of everyday life to those of political agency and action.

    Democracy’s expanding relevance in these directions makes it ever harder to subsume its meanings into a narrowly institutional understanding of how and where politics takes place. That kind of narrowness certainly dominated most traditional forms of political history, but since the 1960s and 1970s politics has been spilling uncontainably beyond those older limits. This breaching of the boundaries of politics remains the true cutting edge of radicalism since 1968, whether in the politics of knowledge or in political life itself. It casts the contemporary contraction of the democratic imagination around the dogma of the market in an appropriately reactionary light.

    As I began by arguing, since the fall of Communism prevailing definitions of democracy cleave consistently to ideas of the free market and individual rights, confining political action to circumscribed spheres of social administration, the proceduralism of parliaments, and the rule of law. Expecting anything more from politics, contemporary advocates insist, exceeds the realistic and permissible limits of the political domain. In a parallel historiographical development, leading specialists on the Russian and French Revolutions have sought to concentrate the meanings of those great events in similar fashion, postulating a necessary logic of violence, radicalism, and terror once politics abandoned its self-limiting charge. Not accidentally, those revisionist critics began developing these stringently ‘political’ readings of revolutionary history during the 1970s and 1980s, just as the autonomies of politics in their own times were seriously breaking down.8

    In treating the two postwar settlements of 1917-23 and 1945-49 as comparable revolutionary conjunctures, I tell a more complicated story. In these operative settings of democratic innovation – democracy’s actuality – the decisive gains came precisely from excess. Democratising entailed popular mobilisations of exceptional intensity and scale. These became possible only amidst severe socio-economic conflicts, breakdowns of government, and crises of the whole society. Democratising was also violent, meaning not just the forms of direct action, polarisation, and coercive technique, but also a certain necessary logic of confrontation. The old and given political mechanisms – parliamentary process, proceduralism, consensus-building, rules of civility – had all broken down. Any ensuing gains for democracy, potential or realised, always presumed such crises, whether in 1989 or 1968 or in any of the more restricted national examples, such as Hungary and Poland in 1956, Portugal in 1975, Spain in the mid-1970s, or Poland in 1980-81. In crises such as these, the great democracy-enhancing moments of the second half of the century, parliaments and committee rooms were always accompanied, usually challenged, and occasionally superseded by the streets. At all events, for any successful democratic innovation, the parliamentary committee rooms and the streets have to be organised and inspired into moving together.


    1. Alessandro Portelli, ‘Luigi’s Socks and Rita’s Makeup: Youth Culture, the Politics of Private Life, and the Culture of the Working Classes’, in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997, p. 241.

    2. Portelli, p. 240.

    3. Jill Julius Matthews, ‘They Had Such a Lot of Fun: The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Between the Wars’, History Workshop Journal, 30 (Autumn 1990), p. 47.

    4. Helena Swanwick, in the Manchester Guardian, 24 August 1932, quoted by Brian Harrison, Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists Between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 320.

    5. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, London: Gollancz, 1937, quoted by Beatrix Campbell, Wigan Pier Revisited: Poverty and Politics in the Eighties, London: Virago, 1984, pp. 217, 227.

    6. Marie Juchasz, in a speech to the SPD’s Kiel Congress in 1927, quoted by Heinrich August Winkler, Der Schein der Normalität. Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik 1924 bis 1930, Berlin: Dietz, 1985, pp. 353-55.

    7. See Lynne Segal, ‘“The Most Important Thing of All” – Rethinking the Family: An Overview’, in Segal (ed.), What Is To Be Done About the Family?, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, p. 19.

    8. At one dinner party associated with the San Francisco meeting of the American Historical Association in December 1994, François Furet railed against contemporary feminism as ‘the new Committee of Public Safety’.

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