AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
3.62. Democracy is a great good
I come now to appraise democracy. That is, to attempt the apparently rash enterprise of doing better than Mill did in the third chapter of his essay on Representative Government. I shall consider in order the material, the moral, and the political, values of democracy. First, then what is the material value of democracy?
It used to be said that democracy is inefficient compared with non-democracy. To call a constitution efficient or inefficient is much vaguer than calling a vacuum-cleaner efficient, because we know perfectly well what a vacuum-cleaner is supposed to be efficient at, whereas it is by no means clear or agreed what a constitution is supposed to be efficient at. The most obvious candidates are war and prosperity. It is no longer plausible to say that democracies are inefficient at war. The twentieth century has seen two wars greater than any previous war; and each of them has been won by a combination of mainly democratic States, and lost by a combination of nothing but undemocratic States. Autocracies are more apt to start wars, but democracies are more apt to win them.
Is democracy more efficient than non-democracy at producing prosperity, that is, a satisfactory average level of health, happiness, comfort, and security? It is not wise to answer this question by examining merely the correlations of democracy and prosperity in the past. The United States is now the most prosperous State in the world. It would certainly have been much less prosperous if it had had a very bad constitution; but that does not tell us how much of its prosperity is due to its democracy. Evidently much of it is due to factors that have nothing to do with democracy, notably its having possessed a vast virgin territory in the temperate zone, its having been able to avoid the handicap of frontiers and customs barriers throughout this great space, and its having been colonized by Protestants. I hesitate to follow Mill's opinion that we can see clearly in history that people are more prosperous when they are under democratic constitutions (op. cit., p. 210, Everyman). If there is such a correlation, I think democracy may be the effect and prosperity the cause. The Germans seem to be a people who can achieve prosperity without democracy.
Mill thought that a democratic constitution makes the citizens more selfdependent, and their selfdependence in turn makes them more prosperous. I think this is a mistake, due to confusing democracy with individualism, as Mill tended to do. Individualism involves selfdependence; but democracy may produce socialism as easily as individualism.
There are more likely paths than this from democracy to prosperity. One of them is indicated by the following argument in favour of democracy. Changes of governor will come to every State from time to time. In a non-democracy they involve the brutalities and miseries of revolution; but in a democracy they do not. Democracy is, from this point of view, a device for allowing revolutions to occur without misery. It is, in fact, the only truly 'revolutionary' constitution; and the claim of the Communist tyrants to represent 'the revolution' is, as usual, muddled logic and bad science. There is no such thing as the revolution. But there is a revolution every time one set of governors is replaced by another. And a revolution occurs much more frequently where there is a democracy than where there is a Communist tyranny. In this way I think I do see a distract connexion between democracy and prosperity. Democracy is much less liable to devastating forms of revolution.
It is not in the least true that democracy is less stable than other constitutions. The stability meant here is stability of law and order, namely that violence and theft are steadily repressed, and one always knows who is the governor. Or at least this is the only kind of stability that is desirable and can properly be put forward as an advantage in a constitution. But this kind of stability is much commoner in democracies than in non-democracies, precisely because in non-democracies every change of governors is a lawless revolution.
There is one other well known path by which democracy tends towards prosperity. In a non-democracy it is bound to occur from time to time that the rulers are ignorant of or apathetic about some grave and remediable misery that some of the people are suffering. The miseries of the English factories in the early decades of the nineteenth century continued as long as they did because the rulers were assured by their economists that these miseries were inevitable, while the sufferers had no vote by which to dismiss a set of rulers who believed them inevitable. The sufferer knows that the shoe pinches more often than the ruler or expert knows it. As Dr. Popper has well put it, 'democracy, the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power' (The Open Society, U.S. ed., p. 316).
On the other side there is a character of democracy which makes against prosperity, namely its tendency to improvidence. People often vote according to their wealth. Hence in democracies the poorer 70 per cent. of the electors tend to vote together. And when they do so they tend to vote improvidently and not to face unpleasant facts, partly because the poor are more improvident than the rich, and partly because the expenditures which they vote will not fall directly on themselves. An outstanding example of this was the United Kingdom in the 1920'S and 30's. Disgusted and disheartened by the horrors of the recent war, the British shut their eyes to the realities of power and practically refused to have an army. If they had been provident and realistic they could have prevented Hitler and the horrors of the Second World War. All democratic States tend to be wholly occupied in progress and the construction of a better world, whereas the real political problem, unfortunately, is very often how to prevent regress and the destruction of what we have now. In the two great wars all the democracies somehow managed to overlook the obvious fact that they were fighting to defend the prosperities of the nineteenth century, not to improve on them. In a democracy statesmen are confronted by the anxious topic of 'honesty with the electorate'. In other words, how can one tell one's electors the unpleasant truth and yet get elected?
When I try to judge these various considerations, I incline to think that democracy does on the whole tend to prosperity more than non-democracy does, but that this tendency is in general by no means great enough to form a very strong reason in favour of democracy.
At the present time, however, the situation is unusual. There is now only one alternative to democracy, namely rule by the Communist Party. And it is quite obvious that wherever the Communist Party rules it spreads a degree of misery, poverty, fear, and degradation, by contrast to which every democracy is very prosperous. In our present special situation, therefore, democracy does very definitely make for prosperity.
What are the moral advantages and disadvantages of democracy? That is, how does it improve or disimprove character?
Let me take separately the character of the governors and the character of the whole people. As to the character of the governors, a strong argument for democracy is contained in Acton's famous phrase that 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Government requires, or is, a use of force. When men possess force they are tempted to misuse it. No person or group or office is likely to resist for long the temptation to misuse absolute power, whether executive, military, judicial, or police. Acton wrote that 'the possession of unlimited power corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding'; and he quoted Leibniz's statement that 'those who have more power are liable to sin more; no theorem in geometry is more certain than this' (G. E. Fasnacht, Acton's Political Philosophy, p. 134). The possession by a man of power over others tends to make him morally worse, and tends to make suffering for those over whom he has power. We can hardly be saved from moral corruption without the moral judgements and penalties imposed on us by our fellows. The democratic constitution checks this dangerous tendency of the ruler's power, by making him responsible to the people, because he can always be dismissed by them.
That power corrupts, and that without the control of our fellows we tend to become immoral beasts, is a fundamental hard fact of human nature which it is immensely important to realize. The chief fault of the inventors of Callipolis and Utopia, and their lesser competitors, is that they insist on imagining a human nature which should be good although free from control by other men. Such imaginings are vain and dangerous.
This important argument was belittled by T. D. Weldon in his book, States and Morals, p. 252. But his belittlement rested upon a quibble, on giving to the word 'power' an arbitrary sense which Acton did not intend. 'Power', Weldon wrote (p. 203), 'is quite a different thing from strength or force. It is not even legalised force, though legality is an element in it. Power is more accurately the control of force authorised by consent.' In Weldon's language, then, power does not corrupt because power is by definition force kept straight by resting on the people's consent. But we may add, and he should have added, that force corrupts, and this is what people meant when they said that power corrupts. Here then is a way in which the democratic constitution strongly tends to improve the character of the rulers. It is not without its drawback, however. Since the ruler depends for his place on the choice of the people, he is tempted to flatter the people, to appeal to their passion rather than their judgement, or, worse still, to appeal to the sectional passion of some small part of the people on whom his election depends. Democracy is liable to bring the demagogue; and the art of oratory is liable to command the art of government. The rulers will be as bad as the people's passions demand and their consciences allow. When the majority of the voters are base, as they sometimes are, the rulers will be base.
The drawback is less than the advantage. Upon the whole, democracy distinctly tends to produce better rulers than does non-democracy. The best ruler is not the cleverest ruler, nor is he the most aggressive for his State or the most successful in war.
As to the character of the whole people, Mill's chapter in favour of democracy is mainly a claim that democracy greatly improves the character of a people, making them much more intelligent, large-minded, active, selfdependent, and practical, and much less envious.
Democracy tends, as non-democracy does not, to raise the political maturity and responsibility of every voter, to encourage his public spirit, and to make him contribute his deliberations to the common good. It becomes every man's opportunity and duty to take part in discussions concerning the public good, and to form his judgement thereon. By thus involving discussion, democracy moralizes politics, both internal and external, because in public discussion it is necessary to take the moral point of view to persuade others. Acton remarked that 'Machiavelli's teaching would hardly have stood the test of Parliamentary government, for public discussion demands at least the profession of good faith' (Fasnacht, Acton's Political Philosophy, p. 138).
There is, however, much to be said on the other side. Mill expects selfdependence because he confuses democracy with individualism. Tocqueville contradicts Mill's view about envy when he writes (Democracy in America, I. xiii): 'Democratic institutions have a very strong tendency to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart; not so much because they afford to everyone the means of rising to the level of any of his fellow-citizens, as because those means perpetually disappoint the persons who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.' And he remarks that this is why the most notable men in a democratic nation are usually not placed at the head of affairs. This is still, 130 years later, a salient defect of the country about which Tocqueville was writing. One of the dominant themes in the propaganda for a candidate for the presidency of the U.S. is usually the assertion that he is no better than the average citizen, that his home and education were mediocre, that his present tastes and companions are very ordinary, that he is, in one of their favourite phrases, 'as common as an old shoe'. Democracy has a definite tendency to discourage recognition and reverence for all the better kinds of superiority, as Mill himself recognizes later (op. cit., pp. 319-20). As E. M. Forster wrote in his Two Cheers for Democracy, democracy encourages the cult of mediocrity, and fosters vulgarity by making mass approval the supreme arbiter.
Democracy has a tendency to encourage an improvident or selfish attitude to public affairs in the electorate. Politicians, in trying to get themselves elected by a group of electors, are permanently tempted to appeal to the interests peculiar to that group; and thus each group of electors is permanently tempted to consider its own interests as the aim of its political activity. Thus the general spread of public spirit, which is very necessary to the good working of a democracy, is opposed by a mechanism inherent in the nature of democracy. One can sometimes see, in the faces of a crowd listening to an election speech, a disgusting and terrifying illustration of this evil tendency.
Furthermore, the law that power corrupts acts on the people as well as on the rulers. Democracy by limiting the powers of the rulers saves them from corruption; but at the same time it has a tendency to corrupt the largest class among the people by giving it unlimited power. A democratic State is liable to become a corrupt tyranny of the largest class over the other classes, disguised by referring to the largest class as 'the people' or 'the workers', as if physicians were not people and did not work. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom has a strong tendency to be a tyrannical class party of this kind. Such a tyranny of the majority is often unconscious, because the majority believe they have a right to the goods of the minority, or believe that it is not they but the august State who is getting the benefit. It makes for unconscious selfishness in the majority, conscious hatred in the minority, and improvidence in the finances of the State. It makes, as Mill said, for 'government intended for ... the immediate benefit of the dominant class, to the lasting detriment of the whole' (op. cit., p. 254, Everyman).
What is the resultant of these forces? Does democracy on the whole improve or disimprove the character of the people? I do not know. Very probably it does the one in some situations and the other in others. Sometimes it seems to me that, as we grow more democratic, so we all grow more demanding for ourselves and more indignant or contemptuous of others. James Fitzjames Stephen, an enemy of democracy, wrote that 'the fact is that we all more or less condemn and blame each other, and this truth is so unpleasant that oceans of sophistry have been poured out for the purpose of evading or concealing it' (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, London, 1874, p. 86). On the whole, however, I hesitantly judge that democracy does improve the nation's character; and I hope that democratic selfishness and hate are only a short stage of transition from the abject respect of the peasant for his king to the equal respect of all men for all men. So much for the moral effects of democracy.
I come lastly to the political value of democracy. The greatest value of democracy is that it is a fundamental part of the great good of freedom. It gives to every individual, managed by the State as he is, the greatest possible share in being himself the managing State. It mitigates to the greatest possible degree the inevitable subjection of us all to the State. It is thus a good in itself, not merely a device for obtaining other goods.
It is also a powerful device for safeguarding other forms of freedom. To be free to dismiss one's rulers is a powerful means of securing that one's rulers do not without very good reason take away other freedoms. Only a people that can dismiss its governors can compel its governors either to withdraw a law, or to make a law to curb the activity of some other body that is interfering with the life of the people. It was thus a grave mistake in the 1930's when men said that political freedom did not matter, and only economic freedom was important. Whether by 'economic freedom' they meant more opportunity to consume, or laws to control business enterprises for the benefit of their employees, in either case the power to dismiss one's governors is by far the most likely tool to produce economic freedom. Political freedom is the key to economic freedom, as Dr. Popper has well pointed out (The Open Society, c. xvii).
I do not attach much value, however, to the power of democracy as a tool for non-political freedom, because it can also be used against non-political freedoms, and often is. Democracies have in practice a strong tendency towards the unjustifiable restriction of various liberties, when we contrast them with aristocracies. This is because the largest class tends to be more censorious than the nobles, more given to moral indignation, more likely to regard as wicked or dangerous anything unfamiliar. There is always in a democracy the danger of the insane frenzy or terror or lust of the mob. Demos tends to be in social matters indiscriminately tyrannous, and Mill's essay On Liberty is largely about this danger. It is the cause of the curious fact that some democracies resemble dictatorships far more than they resemble aristocracies. Democracies and dictatorships equally involve the suppression of the nobles, and often the destruction of them; for in dictatorships only those succeed who adopt the popular vulgarities. This is beautifully realized and described in the eighth book of Plato's Republic; and in our own days it has been well illustrated by the dictatorship in Germany in the 1930's and that in Argentina in the 1940's.
The sure political good of democracy is therefore not the consequential freedoms that it may produce, but the essential freedom that it is. Political freedom is very good in itself. 'Ne me demandez pas d'analyser ce goût sublime, il faut l'éprouver' (Tocqueville, Ancien Régime, III. iii). You need not value it yourself if you do not wish to; but you ought to allow it to us who do value it.
It is another facet of the same thing that democracy is the political embodiment of the good kind of equality, which consists in the equal dignity and consideration of man. It removes the humiliation of the subject's permanent and absolute subordination to the rulers in a non-democracy. Democracy is political freedom and political equality, however much it may an practice interfere with various other freedoms and equalities; and that is its essential goodness.
There is one great political good with which democracy appears to have no connexion, and that is the maintenance of law and justice and rights. The rule of all may be conducted with or without law and justice. There must, indeed, be the minimum of constitutional law that enables us to say the State is a democracy; but beyond that the democratic State may respect law or contemn it, and may be slow or fast to destroy the legal and the customary rights of inconvenient persons, and may be patient or impatient of an independent judiciary that stands up for individual rights and the reign of law.
3.63 Plato's argument against democracy
I can bring out further what I take to be the essential goodness of democracy by considering Plato's famous argument against it in his Republic (488). He there compares the democratic State to a ship whose captain, though goodhearted, is stupid and imperceptive, and whose crew spend their time besieging the captain with requests to be allowed to navigate the ship, each urging his own suitability for the work. We are to suppose that neither the captain nor any of his crew knows anything about the stars or the winds, or admits that there is such a thing as an art of navigation dependent on knowledge of these; and there is no competent navigator on the ship at all. And we are to imagine what kind of voyage this ship will make. Now, says Plato, the captain in this image represents the people of a democratic city, in control of affairs in that city. They are goodhearted enough; but they are stupid and ignorant, and they have no conception of the art of government, or of the science of the good on which this art should be based. They are all the time being harangued and advised by demagogues, the crew of the image, telling them how to navigate the ship of State and asking to be put in charge; but none of these demagogues has learnt the true art of government or even admits that there is such a thing. True government, however, is a serious and difficult art based on obscure but certain knowledge of the essence of the good and the bad and the just and the unjust and so on.
Thus Plato by this image of the ship clearly means to say that government is a high art based on a high science, and the people as a whole can never be in possession of this science, and therefore the people as a whole ought not to be in charge of affairs; that is, democracy is bad. As he goes on, he adds many less important points to his judgements. Thus he finds that democracy corrupts the science and character of any potentially good statesman, because it compels him to truckle to the mob. He finds also that democracy tends to produce an improper disorderliness and amateurishness and variety among the citizens, and an improper equality among unequals. Slaves act as if they were free, and dogs decline to get out of the way of men.
The democrat need not be worried by Plato's arguments that democracy tends to disorderliness and to equality; for the democrat likes equality, and dislikes the order that Plato thinks important. But it is otherwise with Plato's main argument, that government is a science, and no science is the possession of the whole people, and therefore democracy is fundamentally mistaken. This is a very serious objection, and it appears that the defenders of democracy have not yet faced it, although it has been before them for more than two millenniums.
To meet this objection we may begin by pointing out that no art is as sure as the science on which it is based. The calculator practising mental arithmetic makes mistakes more often than the mathematician stating the theorems of the science. The life-history of a medical practice contains more errors than the textbook of pathology on which it was based. Plato himself saw this, in another connexion, when he wrote that practice attains truth less than theory does (Rp. 473 A). Hence, even if there were a sure science of politics, it would not follow that the practitioners of the art of government always acted rightly. The art and practice of government must always be more imperfect than the science on which they are based.
But the fundamental answer to Plato's argument must be to deny the premiss that government is a science. I say that government neither is nor ever can be a science in the sense intended by Plato. That is to say, no man is or ever will be in possession of certain knowledge as to what it is best for the State to do in all matters at all times.
I urge that our experience of politics is massively in favour of this view. When we cast our minds over the recent history of politics as far back as we have experienced it, we see that it has been full of surprises and bewilderments. Unexpected events and situations have kept on occurring, and our measures to deal with them have often had unexpected and unwanted results. It is true that almost everything that happened had been predicted by someone; but it is also true that this was mainly because almost everything possible had been predicted by someone, and amid the wild welter of predictions one was bound to come true and the rest were bound to be falsified; and the man who predicted one event truly predicted others wrongly. In 1953, for example, practically no one foresaw the big French strike in August. In 1956 practically no one foresaw the Suez affair; and probably no one at all expected it to come out as it did, or the results of his State's acts to be what they were. Surely anyone who will consent to look at actual politics, whether in his own experience or in history, will admit that they are a welter of largely unforeseeable and uncontrollable events, and that to talk of controlling them by a sure and magisterial science is wide of the mark. New factors may arise at any time in politics. No one can guarantee to foresee them or to know how to deal with them. All that can be guaranteed is that those whom the new factor hurts will complain if speech is free, and will press their representatives to find a remedy in a democracy.
One of the so called 'sciences' that have much to do with government is economics. The history of the intervention of this science in politics, so far, is a history of gropings and errors and a few successes. The economists are evidently not agreed among themselves as the mathematicians are. It is clear that many of them have given bad advice to governments in the past. Surely it is very probable that they will do so in the future also. Surely it is very probable that the same is true of every other set of persons who offer us a so called 'science' to apply to government.
Predicting political events, and predicting the consequences of a given act by a given State, will never become like predicting eclipses of the sun and moon. There are two differences to make that impossible, the complexity and the alterability of human affairs.
Eclipses depend on the motions of only three bodies, and those motions are known. Political events depend on billions of factors, and most of them are necessarily unknown to any predictor. Neither have we the data, nor could we do the calculation if we had. Men's feelings do not admit of computation even if you know them. That is the complexity which prevents prediction in politics.
The other eternal barrier is that men can predict with certainty only events that no man can influence. If some man by his actions can influence the outcome, then no man can with certainty predict that outcome. To put it more pregnantly and yet without serious loss of accuracy, whatever one man can alter no man can predict, and whatever one man can predict no man can alter. What we predict is always at best what will happen if nothing which we have failed to take account of intervenes. Where persons are capable of intervening to change the result this is a very big IF.
One thing that never affects eclipses is our predictions of eclipses. In discovering when the sun will be eclipsed we do not have to think 'The astronomer royal has predicted that the sun will be eclipsed on such and such a day. Now how will the sun react to that? Will it be annoyed and decide to disappoint the astronomer?' Such questions do not arise because the sun is not a thinking being. If it were a thinking being we could not predict its movements with such completeness as we do. But men are thinking beings, and such questions do arise when we try to predict their acts; and this by itself makes it for ever impossible to turn politics into physics. For this reason the Platonic science of politics, and the Marxian science of politics, and any other science of politics, are impossible will-o'-the-wisps that will never be realized. Faith in them does much harm, turning men away from the fruitful effort to make judicious little adjustments here and there, and giving unconscious tyrants confidence in their wild schemes. The remark that 'the masses are not the wisest statesman', though true in what it primarily asserts, is profoundly false in insinuating that there is or ever could be such a man as a perfectly wise autocrat to whom the government of ourselves might wisely be abandoned, and in persuading us to forget that the masses are the statesman least likely to bully or neglect the masses.
If we look at the particular science on which Plato proposed to base government, namely his Dialectic or science of Essences, we find that it was not a genuine science, but a confusion of two genuine activities one of which is a science. There can be a real science of the meanings of words. It includes lexicography and semantics and philosophical analysis. Plato's science of Essences was in part the practice of this, for its key question was What is x?; and the question What is x? is the request for a definition; and definition rightly understood is about a word. Such a science is, indeed, very important for practical politics. Politics is largely talk, and those talk much better who thoroughly understand the nature of the words they are using. But such a science cannot provide, either alone or in combination with anything else, a basis for absolutely certain and expert government.
The other genuine activity, which Plato in his Dialectic of Essences was misapprehending and confusing with the science of words, is not a science but the choice of values. The Essences which he actually studied were nearly all values, as Justice, Goodness, Beauty; and his activity consisted largely, though unconsciously, in making and recommending his choices as to what things are beautiful and what things are good. In this aspect also his Dialectic was a genuine and important part of politics, for politics is in fact largely choosing. What do you value in the social sphere? Do you prefer the peasant culture of the Cévennes or the industrial culture of St. Étienne, and which do you wish France predominantly to be? Is national prestige all important to you, so that you will sacrifice to it your fellows' lives and your country's honesty, or is it not? These are pre-eminently political questions, and they are pre-eminently questions of choice; questions of what you will do, not questions of what the facts are.
But it is just because they are questions of choice, that they are not questions for experts, and no scientist has a right to decide them for us over our heads, however greater his knowledge is than ours. And this is the most important part of the answer to Plato's argument against democracy. Government is a choice, a choice of the social life we are to lead; and nobody else has the right to make that choice for us. Everyone of us, howsoever stupid and uninformed, has a right to his share in this grave choice that vitally concerns him. The public discussion, which is essential to good politics, is largely the formation and approximation of our choices.
This is implied in Plato's own analogy of the ship, though he did not realize it. In fact we do not let the expert navigator choose our destination for us. We tell him where to take us. The fact that he knows the art of navigation, while we do not, gives him no right to take us to Valparaiso when we wish to go to Buenos Aires. He is the servant in voyaging, not the master; and so must the expert be in politics.
The same is true of the physician, on whose analogy Plato relied for political arguments in his later work The Statesman. It is for your physician to tell you that if you live vigorously you will probably die within a year, while if you stay in bed you will probably live for ten years more. But it is not for him to decide which of the possibilities you are to realize; that is your choice. This fact is concealed from some of us by the unconscious assumption that it is of paramount importance to live is long is possible, no matter what sort of life it is. But this should neither be an unconscious assumption nor be decided for us by our physicians. It should be consciously decided by ourselves. It is in fact a common defect of physicians to try to dictate our ends to us. They usually insist on regarding the prolongation of life as more important than the avoidance of pain. The recent discovery of a connexion between cancer and tobacco has revealed a tendency in some of them to try to force our choice in this dilemma, by demanding legislation.
That is my rebuttal of Plato's argument against democracy. I think it constitutes the only possible rebuttal of it. You cannot defend democracy if you agree with Plato that government is or could be a science. In showing that government is not a science but a choice, we show why democracy is an essential feature of the best political society.
3.64. The maintenance of democracy
We sometimes hear it said that liberals and democrats have no faith to set against the Communist faith. Is this a proper complaint, and does it indicate any action?
We must make a distinction. In one sense it is true that the democrat has no faith to set against the Communist faith, but a matter for congratulation not complaint. For in one sense of the word 'faith', and the most common sense of it, faith is unreasonable devotion, belief or action contrary to the probabilities. In this sense the reasonable man never has a faith, either in democracy or in anything else; and the Communist has faith in the doctrines of Marx or Lenin precisely in that no evidence or argument could make him abandon them. To desiderate a democratic faith, in this sense, would be to long to enjoy the delights of fanaticism and cease being a reasonable person, to desire to be dispensed from the duty of weighing evidence and holding oneself always prepared to change one's view in case of new considerations altering the balance of probability. Communism is indeed a faith, a religion, in a very large part of the sense of those words. It shares the counter-rational character of what is usually called 'religion', though not its theism; and the threat of Communism against reason today is a little like the threat of primitive Christianity against the reasonableness of the Greeks and Romans. But it is not necessary for modern reason to succumb to faith as much as ancient reason did. The gloomy view that only another fanaticism can beat a fanaticism is false. It is not reason and love that need fear a Communist victory, for they are the most efficient instruments in the world when energetically applied. It is laziness and selfishness that need to fear it; for the Communists are neither selfish nor lazy.
This suggests another way of taking the complaint that we democrats have no faith to set against the Communist faith. Perhaps it means that we are lazy and selfish, and unwilling to fight for the preservation of democracy. In this sense it is a very different matter, and clearly to some extent justified. Certainly it would be wrong to be selfish and lazy in the defence of democracy, and certainly we are all of us sometimes less energetic and selfless in this cause than we ought to be. Let us therefore review what is required of us as upholders of the democracy in which we reasonably believe.
Part of this is the question what is required of us abroad. Evidently a democratic State should, other things being equal, be active in promoting and preserving and encouraging democracies elsewhere. In our present situation it is very bad to be in serious opposition to another democratic State and desirable to swallow a great many wrongs and griefs and humiliations rather than divide the democratic world. About the only thing that could justify grave opposition to another democratic State at the present time would be very good evidence that such opposition was necessary and sufficient to preserve democracy on the whole, because the policy of the other democracy was very dangerous to all the democracies. It is certainly essential for the democracies to be prepared for war for an indefinite time in the future. The dreary and impoverishing business of keeping the democracies militarily formidable must be kept up for farther ahead than we can foresee. Vague talk of 'law not war', or of 'outlawing the bomb', weakens resistance to the Communist tyranny and tends to destroy democracy.
The maintenance of democracy at home has both a personal and an institutional side. The question of the institutional means of maintaining democracy is one I shall not touch. It includes the questions: Is proportional representation likely to help or hinder the maintenance of a democracy? And what about the compulsory vote, as in Australia? And would it be useful to have an initiation ceremony, to be gone through by each citizen on coming of voting age? There is an enormous deal to be studied here, and it is a proper study for persons calling themselves political scientists, because it is a question of fact not choice, of whether this particular institution in this sort of circumstances does in fact help or hinder the maintenance of democracy. All that I leave aside, and conclude with some remarks on our personal duties as defenders of democracy.
First and foremost among our personal duties is that we shall be reasonably and not unreasonably convinced that democracy is a better constitution than non-democracy. That is, we must know and weigh the arguments for and against democracy, and remain prepared to abandon our advocacy should considerations ever point on the whole the other way. We must never let our reasonable adoption of democracy degenerate into faith and fanaticism. We must never succumb to the delights of absolute certainty and the refusal to reconsider.
Next, we must hand on and teach the tradition of these matters. We must explain them to our children, and to whomever else it is our duty to explain them. There is a tendency today to neglect to hand on traditions and at the same time complain that nobody is handing them on. We even find parents who expect their children to know right from wrong by some innate intuition, and blame the poor creatures for not knowing what they have never been taught. The modern emphasis on thinking things out for oneself, excellent though it is, has tended to have this bad result, that things that must just be taught have not been taught. Moral and political instruction have tended to go the same way as rote-learning, into oblivion. This omission we ought to make good. And that involves two things that come hard to many people. One is the utterance of platitudes. Many parents today find it difficult to utter platitudes to their children; we are in undue dread of being Poloniuses. The other thing that comes hard to many people is the art of teaching, the skill to give the lesson when the learner is ripe for it and so that he can use it. All parents at least ought to acquire this skill, in order to give their children the principles of politics and morality. They ought not to leave it to the schools, for the schools can never do it. It requires individual attention and the right moment, and the right moment is liable to come in the bath or on a walk, when the schoolteacher is not there.
Thirdly, we may perfectly well have to die for democracy, either as soldiers in war or as conspirators in revolution. The opposition between faith and reason is not that only the former ever tells a man to die for his cause. The difference between democracy and non-democracy today makes, it appears to me, so great a difference to human happiness and dignity that we ought sometimes to risk death for it. We should all be soldiers of democracy. That is, we should already have accepted the principle that we may have to die for it. And in death are here included all those sufferings which, while they are commonly reckoned less dreadful than death, feel more dreadful to many hearts namely outlawry, the disapproval of one's neighbours, the agonized incomprehension of one's wife, and torture. It seems clear that, if it were well known in a country that large numbers of the citizens would abandon their comfort and go underground to conspire for the restoration of democratic practice if they thought it had in fact been abrogated, this would be a great influence at all times against any such abrogation. I think, therefore, that it is probably the duty of all of us democrats living under a democratic constitution to make this decision and to let others know on suitable occasions that we have made it.
This trenches on the question of revolution. When, if ever, is there a moral duty or right to attempt the illegal overthrow of the governors? Certainly there could sometimes be such a moral duty. There could be a monstrously harmful governor who could not be legally removed but could by illegal means be replaced with someone much less harmful; and if this happened revolution would evidently be a moral duty. Can we then write any principle bearing on the matter? Dr. Popper has written that 'the use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and should have only one aim, that is, to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible' (The Open Society, U.S. ed., p. 340). This implies both that violence may be right under a tyranny and that violence is never right under a democracy. I have found by writing to him that Dr Popper allows one case where violence may be right even under a democracy, namely where the country is about to cease to be a democracy and some illegal action might prevent this. The disappearance of the Czechoslovak democracy in the 1940's suggests this. By legal means the Communist Party gained control and ended democracy. It seems that this could not have been prevented by any legal means, but could have been prevented by some illegal action. So perhaps it is not a right liberalism always to abstain from violence in a democracy. The use of violence is justified even under a democracy if it is necessary and sufficient to prevent the democracy from turning into a non-democracy. But we must add, as before, that the aim of this violence must be only to uphold and preserve the democracy.
I seem to see a second situation in which violence may be right under a democracy, though I have not obtained Dr. Popper's agreement to this one. It was made clear by Mill that in a democracy a majority can tyrannize over a minority. It seems to me that if this minority is geographically separable from the majority, and if it is permanently thwarted by the majority, it may in some cases have the right to secede; and that, if the majority refuses to allow this right peaceably, the minority may have the right to secede by force if it can. I dare say that Abraham Lincoln was justified in refusing secession to the Old South. But he did not produce a good reason; he merely asserted that 'the union of these States is perpetual'.
There ends my digression on revolution; and I return for a last minute to our personal duties concerning the maintenance of democracy. I have only two more to urge. The first is that we ought to remember, and be on guard against, those defects to which, as we have seen, democracy is liable, such as public improvidence, majority tyranny, and private selfishness and envy and disrespect. A wise man will bear the defects and dangers of democracy in mind, and consider how they are to be avoided.
Only an unwise man, however, will say that in view of these defects democracy ought to be abolished. The idea that, since democracy is defective, it ought to be abolished, is an example of the commonest error in political philosophy, which I call 'utopianism'. By 'utopianism' I mean the idea that there is a perfect constitution, and politics could be perfect. The last of our democratic duties which I shall mention is to avoid utopianism. Politics are and always will be a creaking, groaning, lumbering, tottering wagon of wretched makeshifts and sad compromises and anxious guesses; and political maturity consists in knowing this in your bones.
Koestler tells of a Communist discussion in which, after the coming Communist Utopia had been dwelt on with enthusiasm by several speakers, André Malraux put the question: 'And what about the child who gets run over by a tramcar?' There was a painful silence. At last someone said: 'In the planned society there will be no accidents'; and this was gratefully accepted. Utopianism is so prevalent and so unrealistic that it can convince a roomful of people that one day there will be no more sudden deaths of children.
There is plenty of Utopianism in democratic countries too. It was well illustrated by an advertisement once written by the eminent publicist Dorothy Thompson and placed in the New York Times. She wrote in the person of the people, who addressed the politicians and complained of them for not having achieved perfect happiness and peace. 'We said [it ran] ... Soon there will be victory over the forces of evil.... All these families in all the nations ... have identical needs, hopes, and yearnings.'
Alas, yes! Each of those families yearns to have lots of beefsteak, though there is not enough beefsteak in the world to go round. And each of those families yearns for its own nation to be top dog, though only one nation can be.
Utopianism often leads to excessive moralizing and indignation in politics. He who believes that society could be perfect easily becomes indignant at politicians who effect compromises. Hence the New Statesman type of politics, consisting in moralistic abuse of everything that is done. Let our politics consist in specific proposals for the future, not in abuse of the past. Let us spread the convictions that evil is always with us, that politics is always a choice of evils, and that democracy, for the reasons I have recited, is the best of the very imperfect constitutions which alone are possible.