Perry anderson’s New Old World combines an original set of arguments about the evolution of the European Union with deeply informed analyses of the political cultures of some of its major states and its aspirant entrant, Turkey. As Anderson himself remarks, one could be forgiven for thinking that European high-cultural life was actually more integrated decades before the Rome Treaty; paradoxically, the more the continent unites politically, the more provincial individual European countries seem to become. Anderson has set an example of how to de-provincialize ourselves and, in particular, how to show sensitivity to national cultures while being sharply critical of political forces within nation-states—particularly the Centre-Left. Empathy and polemics can work together.

In this brief comment I want to take issue with one of the major arguments that Anderson advances in his chapters on eu ‘Theories’ and ‘Outcomes’. He is undoubtedly right to stay away from much that passes as a justification for the Union, which is often nothing short of obfuscation: the postmodern pieties that the eu somehow exists to promote, or at least preserve, ‘diversity’, for example; or that the Union, just on account of its novel institutional architecture, is entirely sui generis and therefore not subject to issues of power and domination. Anderson makes short shrift of the claim—advanced by scholars such as Andrew Moravcsik, Giandomenico Majone and, more recently, Peter Lindseth—that the fathers of the Union consciously delegated power to unelected bodies for plausible normative reasons. He also questions the standard rationale for delegation, namely that only efficiency or, more broadly speaking, optimal regulation is at stake, and not conflicts over resources or, put differently, redistribution.

I have no wish to vindicate this type of justification, let alone to claim that the eu is indeed the best of all possible Europes. Rather, I want to advance the historical argument that insulation from popular pressures and, more broadly, a deep distrust of popular sovereignty, underlay not just the beginnings of European integration, but the political reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 in general.footnote1 What Lindseth has called the ‘post-war constitutional settlement’ was all about distancing European polities from ideals of parliamentary sovereignty and delegating power to unelected bodies, such as constitutional courts, or to the administrative state as such.footnote2 The trente glorieuses were not the golden age of Social Democracy, nor of popular democracy tout court; nor were they a time when a supranational democracy à la Monnet was ever a realistic proposition. Rather than contrasting those glory days with our (supposed) sordid post-democratic condition, we ought to understand that European elites in the late 1940s and 1950s consciously opted for a highly restrictive understanding of democracy—and that the eu, from the start, operated on this basis.

What explained this choice? There were many factors: the Cold War, the experience of Nazism, the influence of theories about totalitarianism (not just the classic academic ones), and, not least, the domination of Christian Democracy in Western Europe at the time, making the late 1940s and 1950s the ‘Christian Democratic moment’. Needless to say, Christian Democrats were also, by and large, the initial architects of European integration, and none of them were particularly enamoured with the notion of a national collective directly expressing a general will. Of course, such a historical argument does not prove that normative worries about today’s eu are unfounded; my aim is rather to put these worries in perspective. My further point, in the last section of this essay, is that the dilemmas the eu faces today are not so much a result of the shortcomings of the post-war European model of democracy itself, as of its at least partial extension to the supranational level.

The emergence after 1945 of what is often described as a thoroughly pragmatic—‘consensus’—form of politics was not just a matter of subjective de-radicalization in a supposedly post-ideological age. It also rested on a number of institutional innovations and attendant normative justifications of what politics should or should not be about. In particular, Western European political elites fashioned a new and highly constrained form of democracy, imprinted with a deep distrust of popular sovereignty—in fact, distrust even of traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Its novelty, however, was often obscured by the fact that the innovative institutions were publicly justified in highly traditional moral and political language. Conventional cultural pessimism about ‘the masses’ remained a basso continuo of post-war political thinking, while religiously inspired natural-law traditions underwent a major renaissance after the War, as did Christianity more broadly. It proved highly seductive, then, to present the post-war era not as the beginning of something new, but as a moral and intellectual return to something safely known. Yet in fact no democracy, as a known set of institutions, ‘returned’; nor was ‘liberalism’ in a nineteenth-century sense—as a matter of ideas, or in terms of any recognizable class base—revived after 1945.

What emerged instead might best be described as a new balance of, broadly speaking, democratic and liberal principles, and constitutionalism in particular; although such a formulation—alluding as it does to the notion of a ‘mixed regime’—still underestimates the novelty of the post-war order, as both liberalism and democracy were redefined in the light of the totalitarian experience of mid-twentieth-century Europe.footnote3 The thinkers and institutional innovators engaged in this project were well aware that a ‘simple reassertion of liberal modernism had become radically insufficient’;footnote4 and while de facto they fashioned institutions and advanced values that could be seen as functional equivalents of liberal ideas, the inherited political languages of liberalism were for the most part rejected—often explicitly so. Thus, where totalitarian theorists had sought mastery over history through new collective agents and unconstrained modes of political action, the post-war anti-totalitarians attempted to stabilize the political world by finding new institutional expressions of inherited liberal principles, such as checks and balances, or reviving older moral and religious precepts, without re-deploying actual liberal languages.footnote5 This constellation of values and institutions—essentially a new intellectual synthesis—cannot be summed up as any kind of established ‘ism’. It was never formulated by a single thinker, though it had a fair number of theorists, some of whom are hardly remembered today.

Possibly one of the most important institutional innovations in twentieth-century Europe as a whole was the creation of constitutional courts. These were not simply a copy of the American Supreme Court. Rather, this particular conception of centralized judicial review dated from thirty years earlier: Hans Kelsen had included it in the Austrian constitution that he crafted following the First World War. After 1945, even in countries which had traditionally been highly suspicious of judicial review—above all France, with its aversion to gouvernement des juges—the idea of testing for constitutionality was eventually accepted. Constitutional courts were also instrumental in the rise of so-called militant democracy—a concept that had first been defined by the German-exile political scientist Karl Loewenstein in 1937, at a time when one European country after another had been taken over by authoritarian movements using democratic means to disable democracy. Loewenstein had argued that democracies were incapable of defending themselves against fascist movements if they continued to subscribe to ‘democratic fundamentalism’ and an ‘exaggerated formalism of the rule of law’. Democracies had to find political and legislative answers to anti-democratic forces, such as banning parties and militias, and restricting the rights to assembly and free speech. As Loewenstein put it, ‘fire should be fought with fire’; and that fire, in his view, could only be lit by a new, ‘disciplined’ democracy.