Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Militant Democracy" and the Crisis Politics of the State--Then and Now

[By Anne Kornhauser]

One lesson I learned from writing a book on the intellectual history of the modern American state is that it is possible to appreciate the magnitude as well as the meaning of structural change by studying systematic thought--legal and otherwise. As I discussed in my previous post, the stance of partial detachment that most intellectuals assume makes them--theoretically, though not necessarily--well placed to divine the broad canvass on which transient events occur. This is all the more evident if thinkers from a variety of disciplines are all struggling with the same problem, even as they differ in methodological approaches and personal proclivities. In the 1930s and 1940s, the large structural change many intellectuals struggled with was the profound transformation of states across the world. If World War I was about solidifying the nation state as the only legible political unit, World War II forced a reckoning over the nature and extent of that state and its ideal form of governance.

As I was writing my book, I sensed we might be witnessing another such moment. The debate over the state--its meaning, its possibilities, and its limitations--has returned, with a vengeance. Now, as in the past, looking transdisciplinarily and transnationally brings into sharper relief conceptual problems that have arisen as a result of this debate. Here I will discuss one concept, militant democracy, as an illustration of how the eclecticism of interdisciplinary knowledge can aid in our understanding of the political and what that, in turn, might tell us about the resonance of militant democracy in our own time.

The concept of militant democracy was explicitly discussed by Karl Loewenstein, the German émigré political scientist and legal academic, and implicitly by other German émigré intellectuals in the United States, among others, beginning in the 1930s. Broadly, militant democracy was--and remains--the idea that existential threats to democracy must be extinguished by repressive, if legal, means in order to preserve or establish democracy. For example, Loewenstein sought to apply the concept to the short-lived and astonishingly inept experiment of denazification in occupied Germany. It has also been invoked historically to outlaw political parties.

The unending "war on terror" with its attendant fears about enemies within and without and the questions it has raised about nation-building has revived the concept of militant democracy not only among historians but also among legal academics, literary scholars, and political theorists. One would miss the significance of this concept, therefore, if one focused on a single academic discipline. What it means to think about the political and who does that thinking may not be as obvious as we might think. Looking across the disciplines helps us to appreciate the complexity of the category of political thought itself and to better understand which political problems are echoing most broadly, and why.

Most of the historical work that addresses militant democracy concerns World War II and the Cold War when emergency conditions justified new approaches to achieving order and security even in the name of promoting freedom, rights, and the rule of law. Until recently, most normative scholars  have accepted the concept of militant democracy. Meanwhile, historical scholarship has generally found militant democracy to have been a reasonable response to clear threats to a democratic regime, and given the limited range of alternatives under the extreme conditions produced by World War II, if not the Cold War. Notably, however, one historian has recently explored what he describes as militant democracy in practice revealing its clearly repressive effects during both World War II and the Cold War. In a provocative study of the influence of German émigrés on Cold War politics and policy in the United States, Udi Greenberg argues that Loewenstein in particular helped make militant democracy a reality at home and abroad by participating in a transnational organization founded in 1942 that suppressed throughout the Americas innumerable citizens deemed subversives or infiltrators.

In general, scholars are depicting militant democracy in increasingly authoritarian terms. Leading the way among normative thinkers are the political theorists Carlo Invernizzi Accetti and Ian Zuckerman. In "What's Wrong With Militant Democracy?" (forthcoming in Political Studies) they contend that militant democracy is intrinsically "arbitrary" in its determination of who is a threat to democracy. Who constitutes the democratic community cannot be determined democratically, they conclude. Scholars seem to emphasize the repressiveness of militant democracy more in the context of internal threats to democracy than of nation-building. One can detect this pattern in the mid-twentieth century as well. Loewenstein notwithstanding, many German émigrés became less sanguine about ideas such as militant democracy and constitutional dictatorship when the threat to democracy was on their home turf--in the United States. To be fair, one good reason for this is that they saw the threat as much less acute than that faced by Germany after the war.

I am sympathetic to the reading of militant democracy as authoritarian, especially in already established democracies where, historically, the existential threat has been more often exaggerated than real. On the other hand, as in the German occupation, it does seem apparent that the options are few once one has decided to take up a project of coerced democratization. This may be one reason why the predominant question among many powerful countries in the world today is whether to engage in such projects in the first place, rather than how to do so.