For the first half of the twentieth century, Europe was the most turbulent region on earth, convulsed by war, economic crisis, and social and political conflict. For the second half of the century, it was among the most placid, a study in harmony and prosperity. What changed?
Two narratives commonly emerge in answer to this question. The first focuses on the struggle between democracy and its alternatives, pitting liberalism against fascism, national socialism, and Marxist-Leninism. The second focuses on the competition between capitalism and its alternatives, pitting liberals against socialists and communists. In both cases, liberalism triumphed. Democratic capitalism proved the best form – indeed, the “natural” form – of societal organization, and once Western Europe fully embraced it, all was well.
This account obviously contains some truth: The century did witness a struggle between democracy and its enemies and the market and its alternatives. But it is only a partial truth, because it overlooks a crucial point: Democracy and capitalism had been historically at odds. Indeed, this was one point on which classical liberals and traditional Marxists agreed. From J. S. Mill to Alexis de Tocqueville to Friedrich Hayek, liberals have lived in constant fear of the “egalitarian threats of mass society and democratic … politics, which, in their view, would lead, by necessity, to tyranny and ‘class legislation’ by the propertyless as well as uneducated majority.”