Against Conservative Internationalism

Against Conservative Internationalism

The EU provides a convenient villain for those eager to blame the rise of neoliberalism on unelected bureaucrats acting at the behest of capital. But if historians are correct, this account is a fable that distracts from a grimmer reality.

Winston Churchill walking through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, 1942 (Library of Congress)

The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention
by Marco Duranti
Oxford University Press, 2017, 528 pp.

Christian Human Rights
by Samuel Moyn
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 264 pp.


As the intense debate over Brexit unfolded last summer, the postwar era was on everyone’s mind. “Britain Rattles Postwar Order,” proclaimed the New York Times after the British voted to leave the European Union. “A repudiation of the post-war economic and political order,” announced Forbes. For many progressives, the corrosion of postwar internationalism seemed especially alarming. Political scientist Sheri Berman spoke for many when she claimed in the Washington Post that unprecedented European cooperation had been a necessary foundation for the bold expansion of the welfare state after the Second World War; the demise of integration would therefore accelerate the breakdown of economic distribution, ensuring more austerity and inequality.

A rival group of progressives offered a very different story. Postwar welfare, they claimed, was an achievement of the nation-state; the EU and its army of unelected bureaucrats were not the source of this progressive success, but a conservative effort to strangle it. For political theorist Richard Tuck or sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, this alternative narrative meant that Brexit presented an opportunity to foster a new commitment to welfare. The British could resist the EU’s neoliberal assault (most apparent in the austerity recently imposed on Greece), rebuke its undemocratic structures, and rejuvenate popular politics in the process. Rather than being defended, the international organizations created in the postwar era had to be dismantled.

A new wave of scholarship has begun to substantiate this provocative historical narrative. Europe’s integration and its broader postwar reconstruction, some scholars now claim, were conservative projects, geared toward bolstering traditional social, cultural, and economic hierarchies. In this story, the architects of Europe’s rebirth were not progressive democrats, but an assembly of free-market zealots and reactionary Christians. The ideas they espoused and institutions they built sought not only to tame destructive national passions, but also to preserve economic inequalities, suppress socialism and communism, and establish Christian supremacy in the public sphere. Most surprisingly, these conservatives established what many celebrate as the era’s greatest progressive legacy: enshrinement of human rights as the core of the European order, which these scholars now claim was tied up with efforts to curtail social reforms and popular democracy.

Yet if these works confirm Tuck and Streeck’s historical premises, they do far less to bolster the lessons they draw for today. Nothing in this new portrait of the postwar years indicates that weakening the EU will revitalize progressive politics. Indeed, historians in this new school indirectly question the power of international institutions by showing that postwar crusaders for European integration were often unable to achieve their conservative goals. Despite furious efforts, they failed to weaken the welfare state and sometimes even augmented it. The EU could become a tool for conservatives’ onslaught only after their victories on the national stage. Today, the EU provides a convenient villain for those on the left eager to blame the rise of neoliberalism on a secretive cadre of unelected bureaucrats acting at the behest of capital. But if historians are correct, this account is a fable that distracts from a grimmer reality. By the time the EU began its ascent, progressives had already lost.


The most ambitious and powerful study in this new wave of scholarship is Marco Duranti’s The Conservative Human Rights Revolution. Duranti’s sweeping political and institutional history reconstructs a transnational movement of conservative politicians and thinkers, who established the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the aftermath of the Second World War. According to Duranti, this human rights campaign was the heart of European integration. More than prominent economic institutions like the European Common Market, the ECHR was the apex of postwar political visions. It was also integration’s boldest experiment. The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which established the ECHR, was the first judicial institution that transcended national sovereignty.

Synthesizing research of countless conferences, meetings, and treaties that established the ECHR, Duranti places three key groups at the center of postwar integration. The first was European imperialists, especially Winston Churchill, who Duranti surprisingly identifies as the single most influential advocate for European integration after the Second World War. Growing up during the height of imperial expansion, Churchill firmly believed that Europe was the paragon of civilization. Europe’s superiority, he proclaimed, stemmed not just from race but from law, giving Europeans the right and duty to rule the “uncivilized” nations of Africa and Asia. By establishing a pan-European court, Churchill and his contemporaries hoped to rekindle Europe’s global authority and “make its light shine forth again upon the world.” They therefore labored extensively to make sure these new human rights would apply only to Europeans, stipulating in Article 56 of the convention that it was up to individual governments whether to extend some or all rights to their colonies. This made sure no African or Asian subjects could use the new court to challenge imperial oppression.

The second key group of advocates for the ECHR were free-market fundamentalists, especially the young British politician (and later home secretary) David Maxwell Fyfe. Maxwell Fyfe believed that any expansion of the state’s power, no matter how small, was akin to Nazism. Labour’s efforts to nationalize the steel industry, he thundered in one speech, was “a step on the road towards totalitarian government in England.” Such fears were far from exceptional. Drawing on British history, where courts have often ruled against welfare programs (claiming them as violation of the sanctity of private property), laissez-faire fanatics hoped that an international court would curtail socialism across the continent. If they could not win elections, they could at least limit their consequences.

Conservative Catholics, especially from France, were the final and most unnerving component of this coalition. Animated by deep religious convictions (and occasionally anti-Semitism), French journalists such as Louis Salleron had long sought to construct an anti-secular, anti-individualist, and anti-socialist order. The nation-state, they feared, had become the tool of secular (and often Jewish) imposition, seeking total authority over education and morality. A supranational structure could potentially mitigate state power and preserve Christian dominance in the public sphere. Catholic advocates for the ECHR would therefore seek to shape the definition of “rights,” including, for example, the right to public funding for Christian education.

Not surprisingly, the tree that grew from this conservative soil was not meant to bear particularly egalitarian fruits. While conservatives genuinely sought to defend the world from resurgent fascism and metastasizing communism, Duranti argues that they mostly viewed integration as a check on socialists and anti-colonial activists. Most disturbingly, the constant invocation of democratic rhetoric by Churchill and his contemporaries often provided cover for authoritarianism. Many hoped, for example, that the new court would include Franco’s autocratic Spain (whose membership in the ECHR was hotly debated), or help release imprisoned French leaders who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation. To be sure, Duranti often notes that these agendas were enormously preferable to the fascist order they replaced. But this low bar only highlights the troubling nature of postwar conservative goals.


If this genealogy is not disturbing enough, Samuel Moyn’s Christian Human Rights, an equally provocative contribution to understanding Europe’s postwar order, offers an even grimmer story. In Moyn’s narrative, the postwar popularity of human rights signals the triumph of conservatism. Unlike Duranti, who portrays a loose and diverse ideological coalition, Moyn zooms in on one group, reactionary Christians, whom he describes as the true architects of human rights and the postwar order as a whole. These anti-liberals were the ones in charge, shaping Europe and its transnational institutions in their illiberal image.

According to Moyn, the seeds of the postwar moment were planted not in 1945, but in 1917, in response to the Bolsheviks’ shocking takeover of St. Petersburg. As the first modern state founded on atheism, the Soviet Union sparked a wave of Christian anticommunist mobilization. From Paris to Rome to Vienna, Christians across Europe embraced anyone who seemed capable of defeating the communist assault on “traditional values” such as private property, autonomy for Christian education, and male superiority. Before and during the Second World War, this alliance drew mostly from Christian authoritarians (such as Austria’s dictatorship or France’s collaborationist Vichy regime) and fascists. Liberal democracy seemed too secular, too modern, and too individualist to confront such an existential enemy. After the war, Catholics (with the help of some conservative Protestant allies) repackaged their agenda, taking over the once-rejected language of human rights and democratic politics. They reconstituted themselves in Christian democratic parties, won elections across the continent, and enshrined their visions in postwar constitutions that denied equal rights to women and celebrated the sanctity of the family. In this narrative, the human rights regime that emerged in postwar Europe was meant first and foremost to establish Christian supremacy against communists, socialists, and liberals.

For Moyn, no one illuminates this anti-secular quest for rights more than French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the era’s most popular writer on this topic. “The Catholic,” Maritain warned, “is necessarily the champion of true human rights and the defender of human liberties; it is in the name of God Himself that he cries out against . . . [Marxism’s] blind brutish class struggle for existence.” It was in part under his influence that Pope Pius XII announced his support for “the unforgettable rights of man” in 1942, and for democracy in 1944. The pontiff and his many followers embraced these terms not for their humanist or liberal heritage, but because they seemed like the most promising ways to defeat communist secularism. After the war, this spirit deeply influenced transnational integration, including much of the work of the European Commission on Human Rights. It was no accident that one of the Commission’s few consequential decisions allowed the West German government to ban the tiny Communist Party in 1957, on the rationale that its principles constituted an “assault upon [Europe’s] basic order.”

Not surprisingly, Duranti’s and Moyn’s different choice of protagonists leads to diverging normative conclusions. Duranti, while clear-eyed about Churchill and others’ troubling blind spots and racism, also seeks to recognize their achievements. Unlike contemporary European elites, he claims, who obsessively try to constrain the masses through technocratic economic management, human rights conservatives sought to build genuine, pan-continental political solidarity, based on what Churchill called the “spiritual values” of “democratic European civilization,” especially pluralism and commitment to the rule of law. Moyn, by contrast, is not so generous, and the light he casts on postwar Christians is harsh. Europe in the early Cold War, he writes, was “fundamentally marked by Christian belief, and . . . was therefore fearful of threats, anxious about sin, and fatalistic about human possibilities.” But whatever their final judgment, both authors establish a similar and convincing historical record: postwar European integration, especially the creation of a human rights regime, was a profoundly conservative project.


Duranti’s and Moyn’s correctives to mythologies of the postwar era are powerful, but they have ambiguous implications for our own times. Despite the dreams of Lexiters and their allies, history does not suggest that re-nationalized Europe would usher in a new egalitarianism. While Duranti and Moyn mention this fact only in passing, their work demonstrates that integration was largely inconsequential to European welfare and economic distribution. If conservatives were later able to use transnational integration to promote neoliberalism, it was not due to hidden institutional mechanisms, but because they won the electoral and idealogical battle at home.

Despite his brilliant insights and impressive historical reconstruction, a fundamental question looms above Duranti’s book: ultimately, how consequential was this conservative human rights regime? Unlike the economic structures created by the common market, which Duranti sees as secondary, the European Convention on Human Rights and the court it created did not transform the continent’s legal order. During its early decades, the European Commission on Human Rights was well aware of its flimsy legitimacy, and largely upheld the decisions of national governments. Despite the high hopes of Maxwell Fyfe and others, the court did not curtail social democratic programs, nor did it establish a universal right to public funding for Christian education. Everybody recognized that “Europe” could not overturn the decisions of national parliaments, and the court regularly parroted the words of nation-states. It would take decades before its rulings intervened more aggressively in domestic disputes.

Even when the architects of the court acquired power, they pursued a restrained conservative agenda. Upon returning to 10 Downing Street in 1951, for example, Churchill and his conservative cabinet did not repeal the progressive platform set by their Labour predecessors. In fact, they did not even bother to join the emerging European community, assuming such a move would do little to advance their domestic causes. For all their vitriol against socialism’s “totalitarian” impulses, conservatives in the 1950s recognized some statist welfare programs were far too popular to be abolished by national legislation or international judicial decisions. On both the national and international levels, then, many conservative aspirations remained exactly that—aspirational. Always sensitive to electoral politics, conservatives and their lofty ideas never overcame popular national sentiments, and the court they helped create did little to curb growing state welfarism.

The weakness of conservative internationalism, at least when it comes to economic distribution, is best highlighted by Moyn’s protagonists, the Christian democrats who ruled almost all of Western Europe. Moyn beautifully charts their retrograde positions on gender, education, and religion, but he does not mention that conservative Christian democrats such as West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer established the most extensive welfare programs in European history. In their long years in power, Adenauer and his compatriots in Austria, Belgium, and elsewhere, created universal retirement subsidies, strengthened unions’ positions in industrial relations, and erected impressive public housing projects. Such measures, of course, never fulfilled the radical aspirations of socialists, who hoped to smash bourgeois hegemony. Nor were they grounded in a commitment to social justice. Instead, they aimed to prevent the radicalization of workers by integrating them into a bourgeois and Christian-led community. But from the vantage point of today’s depressing political options, it is possible to recognize these policies’ far-reaching and unprecedented nature. Conservative as they were, Christian democrats were remarkably willing to enact progressive measures in the domestic sphere.

This initial gap between integration’s soaring ideals and limited consequences illuminates how profoundly European integration had to transform during the twentieth century’s last decades to enable organizations like the EU to accrue power and emerge as neoliberal. Conservatives were creative at devising new transnational structures, but their success always depended on winning domestic political struggles. It is not an accident that European institutions assumed their current form as vehicles of economic austerity only after the defeat of social democratic agendas on the national level. Amid the industrial transformations of the 1970s and 1980s, the popularity of redistribution declined sharply. Riding this sentiment, conservatives built new and formidable domestic political coalitions that allowed them to implement what Churchill, Maxwell Fyfe, and others could only dream of. It was based on this domestic power, which has only increased since the 2008 recession, that their agenda became operational on a truly pan-European level. It is not just a faceless cabal of bureaucrats and financiers who run the EU; they were put in their positions by nationally elected governments.


This historical context is often missing from the blistering attacks launched by left-leaning Euroskeptics, who posit national solidarity as the bulwark against austerity. Even if one overlooks the xenophobia emboldened by a “return” to the nation, it still gets the order of things wrong. The left was first defeated on the national level, and it was this defeat that allowed pan-European institutions to expand their power. The contemporary EU does not impose austerity because of some neoliberal DNA. It does so because its key constituting countries—above all Germany—are ruled by fiscal hawks dedicated to privatization and balanced budgets.

This reality suggests caution about the prospects for economic redistribution in a post–EU world. International organs, at least the ones composed of democratically organized polities, rarely transcend limits set by domestic constituencies. The grim reality is that as long as cash-rich German voters remain hostile to funding Greek bailouts, it’s not the EU that will prevent a more egalitarian transfer of wealth among nations. Similarly, as long as majorities in Britain are willing to vote for the agents of austerity, it is hard to see why the return of national sovereignty would open the doors for a socialist renaissance. It is easy and often justified to condemn technocratic and neoliberal elites for the EU’s deficiencies. It is less clear how to address the popular pressures that fuel their actions.

Locking our gaze on the postwar moment diverts attention from the more recent marriage of nationalism and austerity. Today, it is right-wing populists, rather than socialists, who are the most forceful proponents of national solidarity and the most visible skeptics of internationalism. While postwar conservatives like Churchill sang the praise of transnational human rights, their contemporary successors promote their economic and social agenda by stoking nationalism. No one represents this trend better than Churchill’s own heir, the Conservative British prime minister Theresa May. When she spoke to the recent Tory party conference, for example, the most thunderous applause erupted when she promised to defeat “human rights lawyers” and their alleged assault on national sovereignty. In light of this reversal, it is unclear whether breaking the shackles of the EU’s managerial elite would do anything to energize progressive politics. If Brexit is any indication, removing one neoliberal force might only unleash another, one backed by national electoral success and far more political power.

It may then be that our most urgent task is not to understand the lessons of postwar Europe, but to realize how dramatically the continent’s political and ideological constellation has changed. How to explain neoliberalism’s marriage with the nation? Put differently, why are those least willing to invest in their fellow citizens also the most concerned with protecting their nation’s borders? Dramatic shifts in Europe’s ethnic composition, the rise of terrorist attacks in European cities, the fading memories of wartime mobilization, a changing global economic and trade regime, and the evaporation of fears of a communist takeover could all have places in a full explanation. But whatever the cause, the left has thus far been unable to develop a coherent response to the right’s cocktail of austerity and ethno-nationalism—and as long as we seek inspiration in the postwar years, we will continue to stumble.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 2014).

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