Book Review

Roundtable on Democracy in Exile: Review by Anne Kornhauser

The Book

Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual

The Author(s)

Daniel Bessner

Editor's Note

This is entry three in the Democracy in Exile series. Previous entries are here and here.

A new generation of historians argues that scholars ought to take seriously ideas about democracy generated by the American hegemon during the Cold War. The alternative, dismissing these ideas as mere epiphenomena in a fundamental clash of power and interests, is to miss an important aspect of Cold War political culture. “Democracy” stands at the center of Daniel Bessner’s many-layered and fascinating book on the German émigré social scientist Hans Speier and his role in helping to constitute the American “military-intellectual complex.” Complicating our understanding of Cold War liberal democracy in America, long denigrated as either an anodyne blend of pluralism and consensus or an ideological cover for global hegemony, is salutary. Bessner shows the importance of European influence and the multiple ways that liberal “defense intellectuals” such as Speier sought to insert themselves in foreign policy decision-making, changing both political institutions and the intellectual underpinnings of the national security state in the process. Although Bessner focuses more on institutional transformation, in particular the rise of the defense-oriented think tank as a way to influence policymaking outside the strictures of government, his book also reveals much about the role of democratic thought in the Cold War—who influenced it and how it came to be “proceduralist.”

As with other émigrés from Hitler’s Germany, Speier’s Weimar experience shaped his views of democracy. Democracy had failed to save the Weimar Republic from its most formidable enemy. Convinced democrats responded in two ways. They sought to strengthen democracy to provide greater ballast or, like Speier, to circumscribe democracy to limit its weaknesses. Yet, Bessner tells us, Speier cared deeply about preserving liberal democratic regimes against their totalitarian enemies (7). If Speier’s view of democracy was “jaundiced,” it was also genuine (2). With this formulation, Bessner reminds us that it is perfectly possible to be a democrat on the one hand and dubious of  democracy’s potential, on the other. Still, at a certain point doubts about democracy turn into disgust and frustration and thence a failure to defend it. This was the position in which Speier found himself, and one wishes to know more about how Speier arrived here and whether other liberal Cold Warriors became ensnared in this trap.

As a leftwing social democrat in Germany, Speier, Bessner argues, promoted a substantive social and economic democracy, but became chary of democracy’s ability to ward off external threats after the Nazi takeover. Speier’s growing rejection of democracy while still in Germany shows, crucially, that Weimar was not a static template for political thought that immigrants transported across the Atlantic; but it also raises questions about the extent of Speier’s democratic faith from the outset: “Whereas before 1933, democracy had meant for Speier economic, cultural, and political equality, afterward it referred only to an undertheorized notion of procedural equality…largely shorn of substantive content” (17). Bessner concludes that in this fallen state Speier “exiled” his commitment to democracy, “plac[ing] traditional notions of democracy in a…suspended state in which democratic norms were neither rejected nor accepted” (14). In the very process of guarding democracy against ever greater totalitarian threats—first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets—Speier dispensed with the very thing he was trying to preserve. This important insight builds on the work of other scholars, such as Udi Greenberg, who have analyzed the influence of such dubious European concepts as “militant democracy” and “decisionism” on Cold War political ideology.[1] However, in making this claim about democracy’s exile, Bessner adopts a particular conception of democracy that bears further scrutiny.

It is difficult from Bessner’s book to determine just what Speier thought about liberal democracy, not least because Speier largely eschewed systematic writing on the subject. Throughout his life, Speier seemed little concerned with democratic norms and institutions. In Weimar, Speier was less interested in the reasons for the republic’s collapse than the rise of Nazism. These issues are related, but they are not the same. Those more compelled by the republic’s implosion tended to stress the role of political institutions and the importance of the rule of law. Those, such as Speier, who were more enthralled by the public’s acceptance of the Nazis turned to social psychology and mass society theory. Bessner asserts that only at a certain point did Speier become irreversibly skeptical of the democratic enterprise when, in 1949, the Soviet Union acquired a nuclear bomb, which threatened democracy’s very existence. Yet for most of his life Speier held that democratic political institutions ought to be insulated from public opinion and participation (150).

During the Cold War, Speier entirely abandoned democratic norms in favor of preserving an ostensibly democratic regime from a now permanent crisis. This entailed swaying the public through propaganda and making the right strategic choices. Democracy preservation, especially under conditions of crisis, need not, and, as Bessner shows, often does not have anything to do with democracy. Preservation of an existing state is a politics of necessity. In viewing democracy as caught in an existential struggle, Speier remained on the terrain of the totalitarians; he embraced the simulacrum of democracy, not its substance. One wonders: does this sort of thinking deserve the moniker “democratic?”

Speier’s elitism led him to a “democratic realist” perspective that emphasized “voting [and] excluded notions of economic and social democracy popular among socialists” (84).  With voting secured (which was not in fact the case in the South until decades later), democratic equality had been achieved and public opinion could be ignored (82-4). This, apparently, constituted Speier’s democratic realism. But how did Speier’s realism fit in with the ideas of other realists, such as Hans Morgenthau?  Did voting constitute the entirety of Speier’s “proceduralist” view of democracy? How did Speier reconcile his fear of public participation with his endorsement of voting? Was voting a safe form of popular participation, or did Speier believe that when it came to foreign policy and national security, elected officials held little sway over unelected bureaucrats? Speier favored a public role through “referendums and elected representatives” in his Weimar days (2). Was this a through line in his thought and, if so, what does this tell us about his Cold War proceduralism? Finally, proceduralist democracy need not be insubstantial. Many proceduralists believe that democratic procedures produce substantive democratic results and see such procedures, properly designed, as the core of democracy, a core that goes well beyond voting. This was not Speier’s view. Perhaps this stance should lead us to rethink Speier’s proceduralism. Conversely, we may wonder about Bessner’s use of the term to encapsulate Speier’s democratic worldview—and by extension—an important strand of Cold War political thought.

[1] Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014)

About the Reviewer

Anne M. Kornhauser teaches at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center and is the author of Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970.

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We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.