Is Democracy Foundering?

In these days when the intense rivalries between the capitalists of the world appear to represent a struggle between democratic and autocratic forms of government, in which one or the other is at stake, the question, “What is Democracy?” requires examination from more than one angle.

Definitions of democracy and uses of the word are varied. Many have to be approached with qualifications. The Abraham Lincoln peroration, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” when posed as a definition, leaves out of account the fact that democracy was the basic method of administering social affairs long before the instruments of class government came into existence. Similarly, the conception that democracy is only possible under Socialism, where the cross-currents of class interest are absent, expresses the fact that democratic practice will then have reached a more perfect form, but does not assist an understanding of the historic nature of democracy if anything short of it is rejected as not being democracy.

As a workable proposition, democracy can be defined broadly and simply as majority decisions; that is to say, the acceptance of the basic principle that the affairs of social administration or of government are carried out in conformity with the decisions or the will of the majority. This definition is broad and covers democratic practice as it was in early classless society, as it is in the more advanced capitalist countries to-day, and as it will be in the classless society of the future. Primitive Communism shows democracy in its most simple form. Practically everybody took part in tribal discussions, framed codes, rules and obligations of social conduct. There was no independent executive body, nothing which was the parallel of a separate law-making institution; there were few elected functionaries, whose conduct, in any case, was easily observed by the whole tribe. Democracy, as it was practised under Primitive Communism, is held up by some historians as an example of simplicity and perfection. It is a long stretch from the practice of those early days to the practice of the more advanced capitalist countries to-day. Social and political life to-day is far too complex to permit the intimate and direct control over the machinery of government such as was exercised by communistic tribes in their social and administrative affairs. But this does not affect the fact that government in advanced capitalist countries rests upon the basic principle of majority decisions. English social and political institutions probably illustrate this better than those of other countries.

In England, assuming a politically educated electorate, the machinery of government can be used to carry out the wishes of the majority. Adults possess the vote. The vote returns members of their choice to Parliament. Parliament is a law-making institution; no law can be passed without its consent, no government could continue without its support; it controls finance, approves appointments to the various administrative departments, the army, the judiciary, the civil service— and even the church; in all except very minor domestic matters, it prescribes the power of the titular head of the state, the king. The composition of the House of Commons, and, ultimately, the existence of the government rests upon the votes of a majority of the people. The government, therefore, depends upon the will of the people, which on major issues it could not defy for any length of time. The will of the people might be a negative, anaemic tiling, apathetic or unenlightened, and in that proportion any government might treat democratic practice with indifference. This, however, is evidence of the immaturity of the electorate, not of democratic institutions. An enlightened electorate would have the effect of making Parliament ever willing to placate the wishes and interests of those who can take away their power.

Democracy as it is practised to-day is adapted to the needs of modern conditions. It is the basis of parliamentary government in the advanced capitalist countries. It has reached, broadly speaking, perhaps the highest point possible in a society where class conflict is dominant. Certainly it has reached the stage where the workers, who are a majority of the population, can through their elected delegates gain complete control of the state machine. In this country democracy has reached this point through centuries of development and struggle, and has passed through many phases. Parliamentary government in many of the less advanced capitalist countries represents, broadly, stages through which in this country it has passed and through which they are passing. In many cases all the appearances of democratic government exist without the reality. In Germany, for example, before the War, millions possessed the vote and returned their representatives to parliament, including a large group of Social-Democrats. Yet the Parliament had not full control of finance, the army, legislation, or the administrative positions. Ministers of the Government could be appointed without reference to the wishes of Parliament. The English Parliament, through a series of conflicts over centuries, had struggled for each of these rights and had gained them. The German Parliament won them after the Great War. In England the struggle for the reality of power has resulted in the complete victory of democratic Parliamentary government over autocracy. It has reached a point where Parliament is no longer the mere tool of autocrats and cliques, but the highly developed instrument through which the majority can impose its will if it wishes. Fundamentally, it can be stated that each stage in struggle for the expansion of the democratic basis of Parliamentary government has been won by different sections of the people through their ability to exert sufficient pressure upon the governing class of the day. With succeeding sections of the capitalist class, the pressure was exerted through their possession of wealth and of their ability to pay taxes. Money governments must have. With the working class the pressure was exerted through its ability to discipline and organise itself ort the industrial field. This is the more possible where capitalism is the more highly developed and the workers are brought more into contact with each other through the massive nature of the capitalist productive forces.

Democracy is not the outcome of an idea. It is the inevitable outcome of the class struggle. Its degree of maturity or immaturity in different parts of the world is a measure of the political stage which the class struggle has reached in different countries. Where economic development lags behind the more advanced capitalist countries, there, too, within general limits and with certain exceptions, does political development and the maturity of democratic government lag behind. So there, in many cases, the conditions are less favourable for the workers to obtain immediate democratic rights. The latter is an important factor to take into account when workers struggling for democratic privileges have to decide on the form that the struggle should take in any particular set of circumstances.

To sum up: Democracy is not foundering, it is in a process of growth and expansion. Here and there it is subject to temporary throw-backs. In those countries where democratic government has been merely a question of an artificial experiment it has been suspended with little effort from any to retain it. This has not been due to failure of democratic government as such, but to the fact that it had no real roots, no real support in social and democratic development on which it could be sustained. In other countries, Parliamentary government has been suspended with the support of the workers. Events will drive home their lessons. The present set-backs to the growth of democratic government will later result in a reaction in favour of it and an added determination to strive for it. Socialists understand the historic nature of democratic government and its relationship to the goal to which human society is moving: There can be no Socialism without Democracy. Socialist support for Democracy, therefore, arises out of an understanding of the nature of capitalist society. The more that understanding is spread the less danger there is to Democracy.

H. W.

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