Europe, Democracy and the Left – an interview with Geoff Eley

Published on SALVAGE, by George Souvlis, Aug 15, 2016.

There is no doubt that in 2008 the capitalist system in Europe and in United States suffered a severe shock from which (it) has not yet recovered. Suggestive indications of this “permanent crisis” are the draconian austerity packages that the economic elites implemented as a response to these developments triggering the dissolution of European Union, the collapse of democratic institutions, the impoverishment of the working people and emergence of far-right movements and parties throughout the European continent.

Few are more appropriate to explain such developments in their historicity alongside the rise of Nazism and Fascism in the interwar period, and the historiographical complexities around these issues, than the British historian Geoff Eley. His work on the history of Germany and the authoritarian regimes of the interwar period; the role of class, gender and race in current debates within the field of historiography; and the inextricable trajectories of European democracy and the European left give him an insightful understanding of today’s political momentum and its meaning for the left. In particular, Eley’s contributions in the field of history have transformed the way we deal with the origins and the nature of autocratic politics, the history of the non-Stalinist left and the liaisons between history and politics … //

… GS: In your first study, Reshaping The German Right (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1980), you discuss the political context in which the German extreme right developed. Scrutinizing the political trajectory of several pressure groups ( [german] Navy League *, Pan-German League) you argue that the German right was subjected to a right-wing radicalization under the pressure of the political demands from below by various groups of civil society like the ones you examine. This process produced the necessary historical conditions for the emergence of Nazism. In other words, using a Gramscian terminology, the inability or the unwillingness of the dominant bourgeois political establishment to articulate adequate hegemonic responses to such pressures from below created the political space for the rise of the German radical right. A direct theoretical implication of this reasoning is that German Nazism during the interwar period emerged not from a society that had a weak civil society or from a society in which the aristocracy was the dominant social class but rather from a social formation in which civic and associational development outstripped the development of hegemonic political parties. Do you agree with this interpretation?

  • GE: I like the way you’ve summarized what I was trying to do with that first book. The main thrust was certainly to argue against that whole complex of assumptions about what made Germany different or peculiar that we call the Sonderweg [ed: special path] – i.e. failed bourgeois revolution, weak liberalism, primacy of pre-industrial traditions, feudalization of the bourgeoisie, etc etc. I found Laclau’s formulations about populism extraordinary helpful – inspiring, in fact – in trying to think my ideas through; his book containing the essays on populism and fascism was published by Verso just as I was struggling to formulate my arguments about radical nationalism and its relationship to the given dominant forms of the Right in the ten years before 1914. The one cautionary note I’d add to how you’ve described my argument concerns that phrase “the necessary historical conditions for the emergence of Nazism.” I’d put it rather differently. I was extremely concerned not to reach forward from 1913-14 too straightforwardly or directly to the Nazis (to fascism), because the intervening impact and consequences of both the First World War and the revolutionary conjuncture of 1917-23, along with the 1920s and the later crisis conjuncture of 1929-33, were absolutely decisive in that regard. So my own formulation in the final sentence at the very end of the book, about which some reviewers complained, but which was very deliberately cautious and distanced on my part was that the pre-1914 radicalization had produced “a vital condition of future possibility for the emergence of a German fascism.”

GS: What do you think about the rediscussion of the Sonderweg? Does it still have some uses?: … //

… From the interwar period to current crisis: … //

… GS: In the book that you edited, German Colonialism in a Global Age (Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2014), there is a comprehensive discussion of the German colonial empire and its significance. Considering the current Germany’s intentions to be the EU’s major political as well as economic power, and to dominate European governance, could it be described as a neocolonial power?

  • GE: Such a description is very polemically charged for all sorts of historical reasons, to be sure. But in light of all of the disclosures and revelations about the terms through which Schäuble and others have been conducting and understanding the recent negotiations, it’s impossible not to see those resonances. The EU has definitely been passing into a different period of its history. “Europe” has never been a democratic project, in terms of the constitutional and procedural mechanisms and modalities of its existence and the compete absence of any form of democratic accountability. But it has certainly been a cultural project of unification and common aspiration (a regime of signification, if you like), and since the 1980s there has increasingly developed a common cultural architecture and even some really existing bases of common belonging. For a time, moreover, between say the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, it was even possible to convince oneself that “social Europe” had some real conditions of possibility. But now all of that is gone. With exception of the explicitly socialist Left, which remains quite weak, there’s no discernible support anywhere in the current European configuration for a project of effective democratization or social progressivism of any kind. “Europe” is reduced only to a “regime of regulation” – one that’s patently structured around German hegemony.

The Bourgeois revolution and the challenges of the revisionist historiography: … //

… Left: Party, movement & power: … //

… The Europe during the global economic crisis: … //

… GS: How you would evaluate the political presence both of Syriza and Podemos until now in this crucial conjuncture for the future of Europe? Could be this kind of politics a viable long-term alternative for the ongoing continent’s crisis?

  • GE: My short answer is that Syriza and Podemos, along with the remarkable Jeremy Corbyn story and some other developments we might mention (e.g. the shifting around in Portugal), are each signs that important fissures are appearing in the given political landscape. But this still barely translates across “European” political discourse as such, DiEm25 notwithstanding. The sad conclusion to be drawn from the recent non-negotiations is that the basis from which to imagine a viable left politics in and for Europe seems still distressingly shallow and thin.

(full long interview text).

(1 The interview (was) conducted in August 2015. Two of the questions formulated by George Giannakopoulos and the last question answered by Geoff Eley (occured) in March 2016.
The Interview was originally published by Sygxrona themata – in Greek).

Related Links:

Books on

on en.wikipedia:

Other Links:

How Solve The Productivity Paradox, on Social Europe, by Kemal Derviş and Zia Qureshi, Sept 16, 2016:

What is Mutual Aid? on Dissident Voice, by subMedia, September 16, 2016: in a world ruled by ceaseless capitalist competition, where people are pitted to work against each other, anarchists offer a different vision: Mutual Aid;
(Mutual Aid on Google Web-search; and for Inspiration on Google Images-search);

Labor, the Left, and the After-Bern, on Democratic Left, by Bob Master talking with Joseph M. Schwartz, Sept 14, 2016;

Unions and the White Working Class Vote, on Talking Union, by Harold Meyerson, Sept 10, 2016;

CANADA: Trudeau’s fading relationship with Canadian labour, on, by TEUILA FUATAI, Sept 2, 2016;

Women: The Longest Revolution, on Democratic Socialists of America DSA, by Christine R. Riddiough, Aug 26, 2016;

Housing in Red Vienna, on The Activist, by Leo Thuman, Aug 24, 2016;

#7 Okinawa’s Nuclear Bombs – in US Military bases in Okinawa, on Elohim Leaks, Jan 3, 2016;

… and this:

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