The Democratic Idea
The Thirties was a period of intense and turbulent political controversy. As the world edged its way towards war, controversy grew fiercer and more violent. At no time since the French Revolution had political theory been so widely used to explain world events. Economic rivalries and nationalist pretensions were increasingly overlooked as Communist, Fascist or Democratic became terms of praise or abuse, according to which side one was on. As each milestone — Abyssinia, Spain, Munich — was passed, the issues seemed to crystallise into the simple proposition — Democracy versus Dictatorship.
The previous decade had seen the rise of Fascism. Fascist theorists extolled the virtues of dictatorship and derided democracy, while clever propagandists poured out these ideas in a never-ending stream, over the new medium — radio. Democracy was blamed for the miseries of the depression, and for the bitterness that was felt, understandably enough, by the veterans of the last world war. Democracy, they claimed, was decadent and the cause of once great nations falling into decay. Fascism was to be the cleansing fire that would consume the dross, and herald a great new age. Dictatorship became synonymous with Fascism, and democracy with Anti-Fascism.
This brought in some strange recruits to the cause of freedom. Heading the motley crew were the Communist Party, previously noted for their slavish devotion to that highly autocratic state Russia. When at last the storm broke it was “Democracy” and not “King and Country” for which the workers were urged to fight.
This leads to the question, What is democracy? What are its origins? How long has it existed?
Political theorists have divided democracy into three types, and like most classifications these are useful as a basis for discussion. The divisions are Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy and Constitutional or Liberal Democracy. The first, Direct Democracy, is as the name implies, one in which the right to make political decisions is exercised by the entire body of citizens by the majority vote.
The second, Representative Democracy, sometimes referred to as the “Convention System of Government,” is the one in which citizens exercise their rights not in person but through representatives. These are chosen by the people and are directly responsible to them.
The third, Constitutional Democracy, is by far the most important, as this is the only one in operation on a large scale and is what most people think of as democracy. It is a form of government where there is universal suffrage, but where the powers of the majority are exercised through an existing constitutional framework — Parliamentary or Presidential. In this system restraints are designed to guarantee minority rights such as freedom of speech or of assembly, of religion or the press, but where the government once elected is not easily removed.
There has in the post-war world arisen a fourth and rather twisted version — the People’s Democracy. It has been claimed, quite reasonably, that the economic inequalities that are inseparable from Capitalism make a mockery of democracy in practice, whatever may be claimed in theory. Developing from this idea, the theory was advanced that only economic equality would bring real democracy. When at the end of the last war the victors split and a new line-up appeared, both sides had to claim democracy. Russia and China, both harsh and quite open dictatorships, used the above theory to claim that countries whose inhabitants have neither political freedom nor economic equality were democracies. The term Democratic Republic has become a bad joke. Such a perversion need not detain us overlong.
Direct Democracy is believed by modern anthropologists to have been common practice in primitive societies, and to go back to prehistoric times. When, however, these societies developed into larger and complex states this tended to be replaced by more authoritarian government. Western political tradition, with its background in the Classics, looked back to the Greek City States as the origin of Democracy. In the fifth century B.C. many Greek City States practised Direct Democracy, with all their citizens taking a direct part in the affairs of the city. The term citizens did not, however, include women or slaves. This must be seen rather as a survival from the past, than the beginnings of the modern world.
The Greeks did not develop any form of representative democracy, which alone could have ensured their survival as a large, centrally organised state. Direct democracy obviously was impossible, with limited communications. By the fourth century B.C. this City democracy had declined and with the coming of Macedonian and later Roman domination all trace of democracy disappeared. Plato and Aristotle defined democracy as one of the systems of government, but did not think very much of it.
Direct democracy was to appeal again in the early days of America, particularly with the New England Town Meetings. In these, all citizens owning property attended in person and voted.
Representative democracy has never been established on any large scale, but proposals based on the theory of direct representation have formed the basis of many movements for Constitutional reform. As a result of this, modifications to existing constitutions in line with these theories have often taken place. Most Parliamentary or Presidential countries have bits of the theory worked into their constitutions. Switzerland is a notable example. One of the most famous of these movements was the Progressivist Movement in America. Two of the electoral reforms this movement helped to establish were the Direct Primary
Election used in some States, which takes away the nomination of party candidates from conventions and gives it to the voters, in a special election held in advance of the main election. There is also the Direct election of Senators. Prior to this, Senators had been chosen by State legislatures. Referendums and plebiscites are other methods by which the electorate vote direct on a particular issue.
There are countries, particularly in Latin America, with semi-dictatorships, which have elaborate constitutions based on Direct Representation. If these were observed the states concerned would be Representative Democracies, but they are largely a dead letter.
So a history of Democracy is largely a history of the Constitutional variety and the first thing to note is that it is modern. Furthermore, it is dependent on a literate population. Throughout history, throughout the succeeding systems of Slavery, Feudalism and now Capitalism, the types of government have been many, ranging from despotism to oligarchy; but Monarchist or Republican, none have been democratic. Modern democracy exists within a framework of ancient institutions, but these institutions were never democratic until recently. So a history of Parliaments, of Regional or City Councils, is not a history of democracy.
In fact, in most countries complete adult suffrage belongs only to this century. Some states such as Switzerland still do not allow women to vote.
The fact that the existing machinery of government was used and adapted to democratic ends has led to confusion. Such events as the founding of Parliament or the Signing of Magna Carta have been regarded as steps on the road to democracy. Nothing would have surprised or shocked Simon de Montfort more than the idea that he was a founder of democracy.
Ideas about the “rule of law”, restrictions on the power of the monarch or the “rights and freedoms of the citizens” have been discussed for centuries. But none of the participants in debate equated freedom with the right to vote.
The English Civil War was not fought to establish democracy, but the war and the ideas it unleashed gave rise to a movement called the Levellers. One of the many demands that the Levellers made was a demand for manhood suffrage. This alone made them revolutionary, regardless of any other ideas they held. The whole idea was outrageous to the 17th century. General Ireton summed up the fears of the ruling classes when he claimed that political democracy would lead to economic democracy. This fear has not yet been realised.
Not until the 18th and 19th centuries did political theorists begin to advocate even limited democracy as a cure for the world’s ills. Not until then did popular movements like the Chartists begin to demand universal suffrage.
So when the Fascists attacked democracy they were, in fact, attacking something of quite recent origin. This was part of their appeal. Many of the people who gave support to Fascism believed that they were returning to some kind of strong paternalism, like the oligarchies of the early 19th century. These they saw through the usual eyes of nostalgia and endowed with qualities they had not possessed.
They did not realise that Fascist dictatorships with their mass political organisations, their plebiscites to feel the pulse of the public and their reliance on proletarian support, were in themselves modern.