1960s >> 1966 >> no-743-july-1966

Democracy and dictatorship today

  “I’m tired; have you ever tried to run a country?” (General Odria, dictator of Peru, on his resignation in 1956.)


George Bernard, Shaw once wrote that democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. This typical witticism is as inadequate as the, definitiop in the Concise Oxford Dictionary—”. . . government by the people, direct or representative.” Democracy should mean more than the counting of hands; it should also mean a complete lack of secrecy, giving everyone access to information and so allowing them to take a full part in the management of society.


This is incompatible with government, which by its very nature must be coercive and secretive. And it is impossible while the many are, to adapt somewhat Shaw’s word, “incompetent”.


But to discuss the matter sensibly we have no choice but to accept the generally accepted meaning of democracy, if only to distinguish it from the other method of running capitalism—dictatorship. We shall have to accept that democracy is confined to the periodical election of a government by popular vote and the things which go with it; the existence of opposition parties, an uncensored press, the legal right to a trial and so on.


Almost 50 years after President Wilson assured Congress that the world was to be made safe for democracy, a brief look at the political set-up shows that this is far from becoming reality. In the Americas, democracy to all intents and purposes stops at the Mexican border. In the Caribbean, Cuba and Haiti are governed by ruthless despotisms. In Europe there are Spain, Portugal, Russia and the Eastern bloc. Almost the entire African continent, and most of the Arab countries in the Middle East, are under some sort of dictatorship. In the Far East China, Vietnam (North and South), Korea (North and South) are only a few of the places where democracy does not exist.


What this gloomy survey reveals is that, despite the professed aims of Woodrow Wilson and many other statesmen, at present the majority of the world’s people live under dictatorships. The United Nations (for what it is worth) is pretty well dominated by totalitarian states; only a third of its members can be described as democracies.


Neither should we forget that many of the democracies are anything but free countries. In the United States, for example, the voting and legal rights which are supposed to be part of democracy are denied to a large part of the Negro population. Indeed, this denial is particularly complete and ruthless in the Southern States, where politicians often boast loudly of their determination to defend “freedom”.


Such double-think has not always been fashionable. Pre-war Fascists professed an open contempt for democracy, which they said was decadent, corrupt and inefficient. Hence their reliance upon the strong, wise, resolute leader who would beat down all opposition and drag the rest of us into disciplined prosperity.


To some extent, times have changed. Today, even dictatorships like to call themselves democracies. East Germany, with its wall across Berlin, is officially known as the German Democratic Republic. Russia, where no opposition parties are allowed to exist, and where until recently political extermination was common, claims to be a free democracy. It is usual now for all manner of quibbles to be used in the effort to prove that dictatorship is freedom. Last October the Prime Minister of Malawi, Dr. Banda, justified the proposal to alter Malawi’s Constitution to give him dictatorial powers in these words:


  It does not matter whether there is a dictator or not as long as the people choose the dictator.


It is in the new African states that the misuse of the word democracy has been particularly shameless. The nationalist movements there came to power after long struggles to oust the colonial nations and during these struggles they won a lot of sympathy, outside Africa as well as inside, by frequent promises that independence would bring political freedom.


The result has been very different. Algeria and Egypt are now governed by autocrats—both of them, incidentally, claiming to be Socialists. Nigeria is under military government and so, after years of the Nkrumah dictatorship, is Ghana. Kenya and Malawi are one-party states and Uganda, as its Prime Minister Dr. Milton Obote foretold in January, 1964, is travelling in the same direction.


Indeed, in some ways the new states are no better than the old colonial administrations—and in others they are even worse. The Belgian rubber men committed some fearful atrocities in the Congo and even as late as the last war were still hanging criminals in public. The present Congolese government have shown that they are no improvement on this, by executing the four ex-Ministers in the main square in Leopoldville last month—and declaring a public holiday so that everyone could go along to watch.


Public hangings have also been promised in Malawi, where the government last year introduced the Penal Code Amendment Bill, which reversed the decision taken by the British in 1875 that in future all executions must take place behind prison walls.


And to show that this criticism is not confined to African states let us also mention South Africa, which gained independence after a long and bitter struggle against British Imperialism and where the descendants of the Boer fighters are dourly resolved that freedom shall be something reserved for the minority of the population who have a white skin.


It can be argued with some force that at present democracy is not practicable in much of Africa. The powers who parcelled out the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries did little to disturb the agrarian economies of their colonics. As a result the feudal structure of tribalism was intact when the colonists went home—and has since proved a considerable problem to nationalist politicians trying to drag Africa into 20th century capitalism.


Tribalism and democracy do not mix. The tribesman’s concepts are limited to his dependence on his tribe; he can no more understand what is implied by voting for representation in a national government than could the peasant in Mediaeval Europe. When the African nationalists claimed to stand for democracy they were often speaking in terms which the tribesmen, on whom they depended for support, had no reason to understand—and perhaps this shows how potent the word democracy has become.


Modern democracy is a by-product of the development of capitalism. It is part of the development of a free working class—free in the sense that they can sell their labour power to any employer and are not tied by social groupings such as feudal manors and tribes. As capitalism’s production techniques become ever more complex, and as its commerce becomes ever more international, so it requires an ever wider schooling for its workers. This inevitably stimulates a demand for democracy which, apart from its other uses, can be a safety valve to ease the pressures of discontent.


Although democracy has certain drawbacks for capitalism —political parties which aim to run the system must, for example, always form their policies with one eye on public opinion—it also has some solid advantages. To begin with, it is the most efficient method of running capitalism.


There was once a popular theory that dictatorships, because they were under the control of one man who did not have to bother about consulting anybody else before he took any necessary decisions, were models of efficiency. We have all heard the stories about Mussolini personally ensuring that the Italian trains ran on time; but we have also learnt how the war mercilessly exposed the ineptitudes of Italian capitalism under the Fascists. We have all heard the stories about Hitler simply deciding to abolish unemployment in Germany and, because he was a dictator, of unemployment promptly decreasing. This is not so effective a story when we remember that Hitler came to power, like Roosevelt, just at the time when the slump of the Thirties was in any case receding.


In dictatorships as well as in democracies, an opposition of some kind is bound to exist. In a democracy this is useful; an opposition brings the government face to face with the realities of capitalism. In a dictatorship inconvenient facts are often suppressed; the ruler tries to eliminate opposition and to surround himself with sycophants—he frequently lives in a dream-world of his own, governing the country by his hunches.


President Duvalier of Haiti, for example, believes that he has magical powers. By the time he was deposed, Nkrumah had lost his once famous charm and was a fear-haunted megalomaniac with a taste for employing wanted ex-Nazis on his personal staff. Hitler’s last days in the bunker in Berlin were spent directing non-existent armies, under the delusion that victory was in his grasp.


A dictatorship is a power pyramid, with each layer being able to enforce its wishes on those below. If an official can be bribed into giving certain orders, the people he gives them to cannot question them—that can come only from above, where bribery is probably also operating. Thus dictatorships are frequently hotbeds of corruption, with the men at the top amassing huge fortunes—Goering’s famous art collection, Batista’s £15 million, the Trujillo family’s £280 million.


The leaders of capitalism find it difficult enough to run the system without burdening themselves by ignoring facts, regardless to their own conceits and immersing themselves in corruption. These things undoubtedly exist in democracies, but not so widely nor with the effect which they have in dictatorships. A democracy can reveal scandals like the affairs of Sydney Stanley and Profumo; a dictatorship tends to cover them up. It is not without significance for capitalism that the most efficient and competitive of its countries are democracies.


For the working class, democracy has its uses—and its dangers. There is first of all the great delusion that democracy inevitably means social equality. A rich man has the same vote as a poor one, but it does not follow that both have equal standing in capitalist society. In fact, as long as the majority of people use their votes to support capitalism there will always be rich and poor, which means that there will be privilege and repression.


The danger of this situation is that a working class who support capitalism have little understanding of the cause of their problems. They will vote for all manner of reforms and remedies, none of which have any effect, and they are easy prey to the demagogue who blames their problems on to democracy. Then millions of people are liable to fall for the strong man theory and use their votes to abolish the right to vote, as they did in Germany in the Thirties and as they may do anywhere, at any time.


Another danger is in the fact that democracy can be used to persuade the working class to act against their own interests. In the last war, for example, the fact that this country was a democracy and Germany a dictatorship gave the British ruling class the chance to sell the war as a struggle for freedom against oppression. This propaganda was very effective, especially as the organisations which were putting it out were careful to gloss over the fact that also in the fight against Germany was one of the world’s biggest and worst dictatorships. The results of the war showed up plainly what was apparent at the time to only a few— that those who went to fight in the belief that they were defending freedom were cruelly misled.


For all this, democracy is essential to the working class. They can achieve their emancipation only through political action—and to take this they need democracy. This action can be taken only when the workers have consciously accepted the need for it—and to come to this they need the free discussion and the spread of ideas which democracy allows. The tool the workers will use in their action will be a political party—which can exist in freedom only in a democratic system.


Democracy today is a frail thing, surviving only narrowly. Its future depends on the very people who need it and who can use it to build the new society. The choice is theirs; to surrender democracy is a step backwards, almost to surrender all hope.