Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXI: democracy and the backward races - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXI: democracy and the backward races - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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democracy and the backward races
Three causes have in our time set a new problem for Democracy by raising the question of its applicability to backward peoples. We see attempts made to create among races which, whether we call them civilized or semi-civilized, have had no practical experience of any but autocratic control, some form of popular government. Democracy which has been a natural growth in the civilized countries that now enjoy it, will in these despotically ruled countries be an artificial creation, built upon ideas brought in from outside, unfamiliar to all but the educated few, unintelligible to the masses.
The first of these causes is the contact, closer than ever before, which now exists between the more Advanced and the more Backward families of mankind.
The second is the immense influence and authority exercised by the Advanced Races over the minds of the Backward, an influence chiefly due to the development among the former of the sciences of nature in their application both to war and to the economic needs of life.
The third is the passion for Equality, civil and political, economic and social, which, having grown strong among the Advanced peoples, has not only spread among the more educated part — everywhere a tiny part — of the Backward peoples, but has disposed the Advanced to favour its sudden extension to the Backward through the creation of institutions similar to those which had slowly developed themselves among the Advanced. This love of equality is not found in Europeans who live among coloured races, who, so far from treating the latter as equals, generally contemn and exploit them. But human equality has become a dogma, almost a faith, with a majority of those who, dwelling in Europe, have no direct knowledge of the races to whom their theoretic sympathy goes out.
The subject has recently acquired a new and possibly disquieting significance. That military as well as intellectual predominance which the nations of Europe have held in the world since the battle of Salamis1 may be threatened. The fierce rivalries of these nations, culminating in the war of 1914, and the internal strife by which each of them is now torn, have so reduced both the resources and the prestige of Europe as to disturb the balance between it and the Backward peoples of the Old World. Should the latter succeed in appropriating and learning to use the forces which scientific discovery places at the disposal of all peoples alike, Europe may one day have reason to rejoice that so many of her children have occupied the Western hemisphere. Thus it is now something more than speculative curiosity that leads us to consider what political developments may be in store for those Asiatics whom the Advanced races have been wont to regard with disdain. The problem has taken different forms in different countries. India has been governed by the British on lines necessarily despotic, though the despotism has long been more well meaning and disinterested than any one people had ever before exercised over others. Despotism would probably have continued but for the desire expressed by that extremely small section of the Indian population which has been instructed in British principles of government to see those principles applied in their own country, and to be permitted to share in its administration. This wish Britain has now set itself to meet. In the Southern States of the North American Union the extinction of negro slavery was followed by the over hasty grant of full political as well as private civil rights to the emancipated slaves. The suffrage has been gradually withdrawn from the large majority of the coloured people of the South, but a minority are still permitted to vote, and much controversy has arisen as to their moral claim and their fitness. In the Philippine Islands the United States Government, after conquering them from Spain in 1898–99, was faced with the difficulty of reconciling its rule with the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. In Egypt a demand is heard for the creation of self-governing institutions under the sultanate set up by European arms. In Central and South America the colonial subjects of Spain, when they threw off her yoke a century ago, formed republics in whose constitutions legal distinctions as respects political rights have not been generally made between the Europeans and Mestizos (the mixed race) on the one hand, and the aboriginal races on the other, although the latter, who in most of these States constituted the large majority, were entirely devoid of the knowledge and the experience required for the exercise of the suffrage. In these last-mentioned cases supreme control has practically remained with the educated class of European (or, to a less extent, of mixed) stock, so the institutions set up have continued to work, however imperfectly. But to-day we see other cases which raise the problem on a vaster scale and in a novel way. Not to speak of the farcical attempts to create parliamentary government in Turkey, or of the similar attempt in Persia, which has fared little better, two vast countries have proclaimed republican governments, intended to be something more than shams, among populations which foreign observers had assumed to be absolutely unfitted for any but an autocratic government. In China the Manchu dynasty was overthrown by a few students, educated at American or Japanese universities, who, profiting by the incapacity of the Central imperial government and its failure to quell local insurrections, set up a republic, there being no person fit to mount the vacant throne. A republic has continued to exist in name, not because the nation desired it, but because the old dynasty had lost its hold, and no man arose strong enough to obtain general obedience over an enormous territory.1 In Russia the contempt aroused among the educated classes by the folly and feebleness of the Tsardom and the turpitude of its Ministers led to its sudden collapse; and control passed, after some months of ineffectual struggles by the moderate reformers, into the hands of self-appointed revolutionary Committees, while the millions of ignorant peasants were left in a welter of anarchy, soon superseded by a ruthless tyranny.
All these eases, otherwise widely dissimilar, have one common feature. Each is an attempt to plant institutions, more or less democratic, in a soil not prepared for them either by education in political principles or by the habits of constitutional government. The races or nations summoned to work those institutions did not understand them in theory, and had never tried them in practice. Everywhere else the self-governing institutions that have grown up among the peoples now using them are suited to their ideas and habits, while in these backward countries they were thrust upon men, the vast majority of whom, ceasing to care for the old things, neither knew nor cared anything about the new.1
Here is the real difficulty. It is said, with truth, that knowledge and experience as well as intelligence are needed to fit a people for free self-government. But a still graver defect than the want of experience is the want of the desire for self-government in the mass of the nation. When a people allow an old-established government like that of the Tsars or the Manchus to be overthrown, it is because they resent its oppressions or despise its incompetence. But this does not mean that they wish to govern themselves. As a rule, that which the mass of any people desires is not to govern itself but to be well governed. So when free institutions are forced on a people who have not spontaneously called for them, they come as something not only unfamiliar but artificial. They do not naturally and promptly engage popular interest and sympathy but are regarded with an indifference which lets them fall into the hands of those who seek to use the machinery of government for their own purposes. It is as if one should set a child to drive a motor car. Wherever self-government has worked well, it is because men have fought for it and valued it as a thing they had won for themselves, feeling it to be the true remedy for misgovernment.
Some of the experiments that are now being tried might have been better left untried. But as they are being tried, let us consider what are the conditions and what the methods that will give them the best chance of success. Something depends on local facts, something on racial quality. It is easier to set up self-governing institutions in a country no larger than Switzerland or Bulgaria than in a huge country like Russia or China, where the people of one region know nothing about the leading men of another, and few know more than the names even of the most prominent national figures. Social structure is an important factor. Where men are divided by language, or by religion, or by caste distinctions grounded on race or on occupation, there are grounds for mutual distrust and animosity which make it hard for them to act together or for each section to recognize equal rights in the other. Homogeneity, though it may not avert class wars, helps each class of the community to understand the mind of the others, and can create a general opinion in a nation. A population of a bold and self-reliant character is more fitted to work free institutions than is one long accustomed to passive and unreasoning obedience. Men cool of temper, slow and solid in their way of thinking, are better than those who are hasty, impressionable, passionate; for the habit of resorting to violence is one of the prime difficulties in the orderly working of political institutions, as any one will admit who recalls the sanguine expectations entertained half a century ago, and compares them with the facts of to-day in nearly every free country. Swift wits and a lively imagination are not necessarily an advantage in this sphere. Education, that is to say the education given by schools and books, signifies less than we like to think. Native shrewdness and the willingness to make a compromise instead of yielding to impulses and pushing claims of right to extremes are more profitable.
The glib talk, common in our time, which suggests that education will solve the problems of China and Russia, of Mexico and Persia misleads us by its overestimate of the value of reading and writing for the purposes of politics. Illiterate peoples have before now worked free institutions, or at any rate institutions which, being conformable to their wishes, were not oppressive, successfully enough to secure tolerable order and contentment, to enforce the rule of customary law and maintain both the solidarity of the community against external attack and a fair measure of domestic contentment. The small self-governing groups of Norway and of Iceland in the tenth century had a kind of free government which perfectly suited them, with a strong or rich prominent man and a popular assembly for the central authority of each. In the islands of the South Pacific Ocean, at the other end of the world, the chiefs were leaders in war and administered a rude justice, but their rule was controlled by public opinion almost as effectively as if there had been an assembly. The people were satisfied. All went well, because wants were few, the conditions of life simple, the areas so small that every one was virtually responsible to his neighbours, even the chief to his tribesmen. The Basutos of South Africa are almost as much below the Tahitians as the Tahitians were below the Norsemen of Iceland, yet the Basutos have public assemblies which exercise some control over the chiefs and express the will of the nation.
So much for general considerations. Let us, however, turn back to history, our only guide, and see what light on the prospects of self-government in Backward races can be derived from a study of the process by which popular governments have been developed in the past among the European peoples whose forefathers stood once where those races stand now.
The process has been a slow one, except in those few spots where small communities, protected from conquest or absorption by the inaccessibility of their dwelling-place, were able to retain a primitive equality and independence.1 Elsewhere there has been, usually with much fighting, a gradual wresting of freedom from the hands of local magnates, feudal lords, or bishops, or city oligarchies. It was the desire to escape from tangible grievances that prompted the struggle. Abstract doctrine and the love of independence for its own sake came later, when personal injuries and insults, or oppressive imposts, or the attempt to compel religious observances, had already roused the spirit of resistance. If the ruler, whether a monarch or an oligarchic group, had the prudence to abate the grievances, trouble would generally subside till some fresh abuses arose. Men who had been accustomed to be tolerably governed were willing to go on being governed in the same way, until new exactions enforced or new hardships suffered provoked them to claim for themselves a power whose abuse by others they were beginning to resent. The outburst which overthrew a tyranny did not necessarily create the love of self-government, which is by no means a natural growth in all soils, but was rather a child of circumstance, appearing spontaneously in small and isolated communities, and in others growing up because economic changes sapped the power of a ruling class. There must be also a sense that it is only self-government which can permanently cure the ills complained of. Revolts were usually led by persons prominent by their social position or their restless spirit, who, feeling insult or oppression more keenly, had something to gain by upsetting the powers that be, while the average man, too much occupied with making his daily livelihood to care about what did not directly concern him, desired to get back to his accustomed round of life as soon as the grievances were reduced. That which all insurgents had in common was to establish the primary right of the subject to security of life and property and be relieved from harsh exactions.
The first stage towards freedom was marked by the concession of these rights. The next was to provide means for their defence against any return of oppression. This meant self-government; and the effort to win it, unsuccessful in some countries, succeeded best in populations where the habit of joint action already existed; because groups linked to gether, either by economic interests or religious feeling or tribal relationship, were better fitted for political freedom than others where the individual man, leading his own life in his own way, had little sense of obligation to his fellows. Self-government rests on the habit of co-operation, which implies the finding of capable and trustworthy leaders. Political leadership naturally grew out of social leadership, but the social importance of rank or wealth or any other kind of power (such as ecclesiastical office) was qualified or supplemented by the personal talent and energy of men without these advantages who sprang from the humbler class, and thus the ascendancy of rank was broken, another step towards freedom, and a means of bringing different strata of the people into closer touch with one another. Thus there came into being both a Frame, at first rudimentary, of constitutional government together with a set of persons fit to work it, and as the Frame developed, the extension of a share in government to the masses became only a question of time.
Let us see what help a consideration of these facts can afford to those who seek to create some kind of free self-government in peoples hitherto without it. Nature must be the guide, for it is by following or imitating the natural processes whereby the peoples now free obtained their freedom that the peoples hitherto unfree can hope to advance most steadily.
History, the record of these processes, suggests that one of the first things to be done is to secure for every man the primary right of protection against arbitrary power. His life, his personal safety, his property must be secured, the imposts laid on him must not be excessive nor arbitrary. When co-operation in the work of protecting and managing the affairs of the community is being organized, every actually existing kind of local self-government, however small its range, ought to be turned to account. Every social or economic grouping, every bond which gathers men into a community helps to form the habit of joint action and that sense of a duty to others which is the primal bond of civic life. If any existing local or social unit is fit to be turned into an organ of local self-government it ought to be so used. If there is none such, then such an organ must be created and entrusted with some control of those matters in which a neighbourhood has a common interest.
Small areas are better than large areas, because in the former men can know one another, learn to trust one another, reach a sound judgment on the affairs that directly concern them, fix responsibility and enforce it Even family jealousies and religious enmities may subside when the questions touch the pecuniary interests of the neighbourhood. The older rural Cantons of Switzerland show what self-government in a small community can do for forming political aptitude, and the same lesson is taught by the tithings and hundreds of early England and by the Towns of early Massachusetts and Connecticut. The examples of these three countries suggest the value of primary meetings of the people in these small areas. The Folk Mot of Old England, the Town meeting of New England, the Thing of the Norsemen were the beginning of freedom.
Political institutions ought to be framed with careful regard to social conditions, for much depends on the relations of the more educated class with the masses, and the influence they can exert on the choice of representatives.1 The people must have due means for choosing as leaders, be they officials or representatives, those they can trust; but if these posts go by free popular choice to the “natural leaders” in any community, small or large, so much the better, for they have more of a character to lose than has the average man. Leaders who have their own aims to serve may misrepresent mass sentiment, or may call for self-government only because they desire to make their own profit out of it. The more ignorant and inexperienced is the multitude, so much the more will power fall to a few, and the main aim must be to see that the latter are prevented from abusing it for personal or class purposes, and turning an attempted democracy into a selfish oligarchy.
The question of the suffrage by which persons are to be chosen for public functions, local or national, must depend on the conditions of each country. Those who hold the right of suffrage to be a Natural Right, inherent in every human being, may feel bound to grant universal suffrage everywhere, but they can hardly expect that with the gift the power to use it wisely will descend by some supernatural grace upon the hill tribes of India, the Yakuts of Siberia, and the Zapotecs of Mexico. Nature does not teach the methods of constitutional government to an Egyptian fellah, any more than it teaches a Tuareg of the Sahara to swim when he first sees the Nile. Common sense does indeed suggest to him that he should vote for some one he knows and respects personally, but if the electoral area be large there will probably be none such among the candidates. As a wide suffrage gives advantages to the rich man and the demagogue, while a limited suffrage means the rule of a class, some have suggested the plan of allowing a local organ of self-government, whose members have been elected on a comparatively wide suffrage in a small area, to send its delegate to an assembly for a larger area, which will thus consist of persons of presumably superior competence.
Any frame of government must secure the responsibility of legislators and officials to the people, but responsibility presupposes publicity, and how is publicity as respects the conduct of officials and legislators to be secured in countries like China or Russia? Difficulties arise where there are differences of religion, especially if ecclesiastics have power at their command, but it so happens that this sort of power does not count for much in serious affairs among Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, though fanaticism is sometimes a source of danger. Political parties when they arise will doubtless make it their business to note and denounce every error of their opponents, but how can the multitude judge the truth of partisan charges as it could in times when the functions of government were few and the areas of self-government comparatively small? The populations of the countries we are considering are enormous, while to break them up into manageable political areas would run counter to those forces which have tended to unify and improve administration and to facilitate the intercourse of members of the same nation for commerce, for education, and for other kinds of intellectual and moral development. Liberty and self-government grew up in comparatively small and homogeneous populations. India, China, and Siberia are vast countries inhabited by diverse races in very different stages of civilization.
Among the dangers against which the institutions to be created among peoples devoid of constitutional experience must provide, three specially need to be guarded against.
One is the aggression of ambitious neighbour States. Could a Chinese republic, which has so far been able to assert only a precarious and intermittent authority in the Southern and Western provinces, defend itself against Japan, or a Russian republic defend itself against an intriguing neighbour? International guarantees would seem needed, but these have sometimes proved to be broken reeds. The new League of Nations may perhaps prove more effective.
Another is the maintenance of internal order. The old monarchies, though they had regular armies and the prestige of long-established authority, often failed to do this, and the difficulty will be greater in a people which, told to govern itself, has not yet learned that the constitutional scheme adopted must be supported. A government which has not stood long enough to inspire fear or acquire respect needs a strong army at its back, yet an army is a temptation to the Executive that commands it. Internal troubles subside when constitutional methods have become rooted in the minds of the people, but the process of subsidence may take centuries.
A third peril is the exploitation of the poorer classes by the stronger. If a restricted suffrage confines political power to the wealthier and more educated part of the people, because the ignorant are confessedly unfit to exercise it, the ruling section is likely to legislate and administer for their own benefit and oppress those beneath them. Were India governed by assemblies in the hands of the landowning and monied sections the ryots would be worse off than under the oversight of British officials, and similarly the native peons of Mexico would fare ill if left at the mercy of the landowners.
A fourth evil would be the corrupt abuse of their functions by officials and legislators, an evil frequent in many countries, but specially formidable where it has long permeated the ruling class.1 In China that class was intellectually able, thanks largely to the peculiar institution of a mandarinate recruited from the ranks of those who had, under the old system, won their spurs at the examinations in verse-composition, but peculation and “the squeeze” had pervaded it under the successive dynasties which have reigned for uncounted ages. Not dissimilar are the phenomena of Russia and the risks that await her. Under the autocracy of the Tsars talent sometimes rose, but seldom had the masses the means of learning to recognize and honour either talent or virtue. When the Tsardom collapsed few men whom the nation could follow were ready to take its place, and the official class in which low standards of honour and public spirit had prevailed, shared the discredit into which the autocracy had fallen.
To give more concrete reality to these general observations, let us look more closely at the particular countries concerned, and see what foundations exist in each of them on which self-government could be built.
Europe has been wont to think of the Chinese as semi-civilized. It might be truer to say that they are highly civilized in some respects and barely civilized in others. They are orderly and intelligent. They have admirable artistic gifts. Many possess great literary talent, many observe a moral standard as high as that of the ancient Stoics. On the other hand, they set a low value on human life; their punishments are extremely cruel; corruption is general among officials, the most primitive superstitions govern the conduct of the immense majority. Diviners determine the exact spot in which a house ought to be built so as to enjoy the best influences proceeding from the unseen world, for a child born in a dwelling favourably located will be likely to become a mandarin, while another situation will give him a chance of winning fame as a poet. Walls or wooden screens are placed opposite a door or gate so as to prevent malign spirits from entering the house, because these beings can fly only in a straight line, making neither curve nor zigzag. Such a juxtaposition of highly cultivated minds with beliefs that elsewhere linger only in savage races is among the strangest of the phenomena that startle a traveller in China. But in some ways China furnishes no unpromising field for an experiment in popular government. Its people have five sterling qualities — Industry, independence of character, a respect for settled order, a sense of what moral duty means, a deference to intellectual eminence. They have the power of working together; they can restrain their feelings and impulses; they are highly intelligent and amenable to reason. Weak as they have seemed to be in international affairs, they have plenty of national pride and a sort of patriotism, though it does not flow into military channels. What one may call the raw material for popular government is not wanting, but unfortunately there have existed few institutions that can be turned to account for the purpose. The smallest unit is the village, ruled by the heads of the chief families, usually with one Headman, to whom any orders of government are addressed. So late as 1913 there was no larger rural area possessing any self-government, and the cities were ruled by officials appointed by the Governor of the province, who is himself appointed by Peking. More recently Provincial Assemblies consisting of popularly elected delegates from the districts have been created in some Provinces. These bodies advise the provincial Governor, who has hitherto been appointed by the central government, and been responsible to it only.1 Thus a beginning, promising so far as it goes, has been made. It is for those who know China intimately to judge how far the system can be applied to cities and minor rural areas. One can imagine councils in cities, and a district council for a large subdivision of a province, which might be composed of delegates from the villages. The constitution-makers have assumed a Central Parliament for the whole country. But whoever considers the immense size of China, and the differences in language and custom between the provinces, and the strength of provincial feeling, may think that what is wanted is a sort of federal system, most of the functions of government being assigned to provincial assemblies and officials, with those only reserved to the Central Parliament which must be uniform in their action for the whole country, and provide for its common interests as respects commerce and national defence. It is an evidence of the practical sense and law-abiding quality1 of the Chinese that though there has been a sort of intermittent civil war, more or less acute in different regions, ever since the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, and though robber bands have sometimes ravaged the Western provinces, there was comparatively little disorder over the country as a whole. Internal trade continued, the steamers plied on the rivers, trains ran much as usual, the customs and salt-tax were collected under European supervision and the proceeds remitted to the capital.
A monarchy would probably suit China better than a republic, because the traditional habit of obeying the sacred autocrat has been hallowed by long tradition, and the veneration paid to him, which was paid to his Office, not to the dynasty, might have been passed over to a new hereditary constitutional sovereign. The only reason why there is a republic is because the tiny group of revolutionaries who, taking advantage of local risings, upset the Manchu throne, had learnt in American and Japanese Universities to deem the name Republic to be the badge of freedom, the latest word in political progress. At present obedience is enforceable only by the sword, because there is no power on which the mantle of reverence that clothed the old Empire has descended.
The prospects for popular government in Persia and in Mexico are dark.
Persia, with a long and brilliant record of literary achievement, and with the power of still producing remarkable religious leaders, is now, if not a decadent, yet a disordered and even disorganized nation, where there seems to be no firm soil on which to erect any constitutional government. The representative assembly created at the revolution of 1906 failed to work, and soon fell into contempt, while the Executive was hopelessly weak, tossed on the waves of turbulence and intrigue. Left to itself, the country would probably fall to pieces, or pass under the power of some leader of one of the warlike-tribes, fit to replace the enfeebled Kajar dynasty. Had Russia been the only foreign power concerned, she might well have virtually annexed the country before 1914. At present it furnishes a striking instance of the impossibility of establishing democratic institutions where there is no Executive strong enough to guide, or carry out the will of a popular Assembly. Were it possible to find any foreign power willing to set up and direct such an Executive in a disinterested spirit1 such an expedient would offer the best prospect of rescuing an ancient and famous people.
In Mexico, of which I have spoken in a previous chapter,2 an economic and social regeneration is called for as the necessary preparation for any kind of stable free government. Porfirio Diaz, a statesman as well as a soldier, maintained order and did much for economic development, but for educational and moral progress and for the welfare of the aborigines, nearly all of whom are either agricultural serfs or semi-civilized tribes, little was attempted, while the very small educated class, the so-called “Cientificos,” were too few, too much occupied with their own interests, and too little in touch with the masses, to exert a reforming or enlightening influence. The examples of Argentina and Uruguay show that had a rule like his lasted for another half century the country might have become rich enough to make settled government possible, because a large class, interested in the development of industry and commerce, would have arisen. As things are now, a democratic constitution would probably prove just as unworkable in practice as any of the constitutions that have been enacted during the century of independence. When elections were held under Diaz, ballot-boxes were placed in the public squares, but so few voters appeared to drop ballots into them that the local Colonel usually sent a squad of soldiers towards evening with orders to cast into the boxes the voting-papers which had been served out to them. This indifference was due not merely to the sense that the President was a dictator, but to the total want of interest in the whole matter on the part of the population, who desired nothing except tranquillity and amusements. For such a country the choice is at present — of the future one need not despair — a choice between oligarchy and a succession of short anarchies, each ending in a tyranny.
Of India I will not speak, because an experiment of the utmost interest is now being tried there under an Act of the British Parliament passed in 1920, the results of which may before long throw much light on the problem it is meant to solve. Under the guiding hand of the British Government, to which some departments of administration have been prudently reserved, good hopes for at least a partial solution may be formed. In Egypt there is a prospect that a somewhat similar effort will be made to create self-governing institutions, with the advantage that the population is fairly homogeneous and has learnt, since the deposition of the Khedive Ismail, to realize the value of an honest administration and impartial Courts of Justice. As to Russia, the events of the last few years have given evidence, if indeed evidence was needed, that a vast multitude of ignorant peasants is ill fitted to work the complicated machinery of a democratic government; but as the recollections of the system by which the Village Community managed its land have not yet vanished, there may be a chance of creating a scheme of local self-government in small rural areas and reconstructing the Zemstvos in larger areas to form a basis on which representative institutions may be erected, so soon as a strong Central Executive which the people can trust has replaced the present irresponsible tyranny.
The vital fact to be noted in all these cases is that in none of them has the demand for free institutions come from the masses of the people, though it is by them that those institutions would have to be worked, or even from any considerable section of those masses. The principles of democracy may be brought from the United States or Europe and scattered like seed, but it is only in soil already fertilized by European influences that they will take root; and even the few who understand them lack the skill to apply them. The group of Marxian Communists who seized control of the revolutionary movement in Russia, and the republican theorists who compose what is still called the Parliament of China have in neither country had more than a trifling following of convinced supporters.1 The success which the former attained was due not to the good will of the peasants but to their war weariness and their desire to appropriate the land. The latter, once the Manchu dynasty was gone, lost control of events. That passed to those who could get money to pay the troops.
Let me now try to state the substance of views given to me by experienced observers in the countries above referred to, together with those of students of history whose opinions on the problem I have sought, men who, while they feel that change must come, and are not hopeful of its results, counsel wariness and patience in every effort to apply democratic principles among peoples hitherto ruled by arbitrary governments. I will summarize their views in a statement of the case for doubt and caution:
“Eighteenth-century philosophers who drew from the reports of travellers the material for their speculations upon the natural capacities of man did not greatly overestimate the possibilities of free government among unsophisticated men in small communities, where wants were few and conditions nearly equal. What is needed for the success of such government is the co-existence of a sense of personal independence with a spirit of intelligent co-operation in common affairs, the latter implying a willingness to obey the generally accepted authority, be it that of the chieftain or of the public gathering. Public opinion is strong in such a community, and gives a security for the rights of its members. There is not much for government to do except settle disputes (including blood fines), summon men to follow the leader in war, and manage the common land, pasture or forest. This is possible for administrative purposes where life is simple and social groups are small, possible also in a semi-nomad tribal system in which each community has little to do with any other except by way of tribal wars. Most of Arabia and Mesopotamia are in this condition, and civilized Powers might do well to leave the Sheiks alone, and let them raid one another, since that is the life they enjoy. When the question is of a population as large as was that of ancient Egypt or Assyria, still more as that of modern China (or even a province of China) or Russia, everything is different. To break up vast populations into manageable political areas would be to run counter to those forces which have been tending to unify peoples industrially and facilitate intercourse not only for commercial purposes but for those also of education and various forms of intellectual development. Civilization has created countless needs and tasks of legislation and administration. Large revenues are needed, much science, many officials. Moreover, money is to be made out of government work as well as spent upon it. Many prizes bring many temptations. Few of the people have any means of knowing personally the officials or representatives who conduct their business. To watch them so as to gauge their ability and honesty, and to evaluate the technical side of their work needs a capacity and experience beyond that of the average citizen. In India the difficulty may be reduced, for there the guiding power of the British Government, as in the Philippines that of the American Government, can retain (at least for a time) those branches of administration which require most technical skill or afford the largest opportunities for malversation, and it can see that the work is properly done. But how can the ability to watch and judge be expected from an untutored multitude in Russia or Egypt? They must be guided by leaders belonging to the small educated class who have interests of their own to serve: how are they to judge which of these leaders they should trust, that being the judgment democracy expects from those to whom it commits the power of ruling by their votes, though the only judgment they are qualified to form is whether their own grievances are being redressed and their own desires satisfied? In old days, as the body of the people slowly gained control of government in a country like England, they grew up to its tasks. Of them it could then be said, ‘As thy day is, so shall thy strength be.’ Political institutions were the machinery they made for themselves; and in making it they learnt how to work it. It became more and more complex; but increasing experience taught them how to handle it. How different is the plight of inexperienced masses suddenly called upon to work the vast and elaborate organization of a great modern State, and that, too, without the help of the officials who used to administer it, because these may, as in Russia, be distrusted and rejected! It is like delivering up an ocean steamer to be navigated by cabin boys through the fogs and icebergs of the Atlantic. In such circumstances may not the attempt to create democracy end in the creation of an oligarchy unredeemed by the traditions and sense of social responsibility which imposed some check on the oppressions often practised by European aristocracies in former centuries?
“What then is the use of giving democratic institutions to those who neither desire the gift nor know how to use it? Better let the people have what they understand, a national monarchy or even an oligarchy under the name of a monarchy. In China, Persia, Mexico, and Russia, apparently even in Egypt, there exists a genuine national sentiment. Respect it and let no foreign government dominate the country. There are practical grievances, among them monstrous corruption in China, flagrant disorder as well as corruption in Persia and Mexico. Provide means whereby the people can state and press for the removal of their grievances. If the educated class desire opportunities for their careers, let these be afforded. This much can well be attempted without the complicated machinery of a representative democracy, machinery which is sure to be perverted, because the people have no means of restraining those who will seek to turn it to their own ends. You cannot build upon shifting sand, nor effect by a single sudden stroke what in other countries it has taken centuries of struggle and training to accomplish. Neither individual men nor nations change their natures at one swoop. In the moral sphere there are doubtless such things as Conversions, when some one, repenting of and confessing his sins, renounces them under the influence of a strong religious impulse. Emotion can accomplish that So, too, emotion may string up a sluggish people to a forceful if only momentary activity. But it can enable neither a man nor a people to assimilate knowledge, to form new habits of thinking, to work the complicated machinery of institutions. Precious for the battlefield and for religious propaganda, it is unprofitable for the labours of administration or legislation. By all means begin the work of fitting the multitudes for self-government, but do it by slow degrees, following as far as possible the process by which Nature worked during the centuries in which the free peoples of to-day made their gradual advance.”
The case for doubt or caution which I have here stated is, however, not the whole case. Other considerations have to be regarded. Though lions stand in the path which leads the Backward peoples towards democracy, the movement has begun, and dread of the lions will hardly arrest it. The advocates of change point to facts which in our time qualify the application of arguments drawn from the past. They point to Japan. They cite the Philippine Isles where American administration has started a sort of legislative body which has been giving good results. Grounds for hope may be found in the earlier examples set long ago by the peoples that are now free and civilized which overcame difficulties as great as those which we see in China or Egypt. True it is that example has not the value of experience; it is their own direct experience that counts for nations as for individual men; yet it is also true that whereas the teaching of experience often comes too late for the individual to profit by it, each generation of a people can in the long span of national life go on learning from the successes or errors of its own ancestors. Errors and misfortunes there are sure to be, but so long as a nation is not enslaved or absorbed by a stronger neighbour, failures are rarely irretrievable; and one of the values of self-government lies in the fact that misfortunes bring knowledge and knowledge helps to wisdom, whereas under even a benevolent autocracy, the education of a people proceeds slowly if it proceeds at all. This is why the ancients held Tyranny to be the worst kind of government. No gains compensate for the sufferings it inflicts. The only thing it creates is the will to destroy it and start afresh. To-day the nations we are considering are faced by accomplished facts. The ancient despotisms have fallen and as the social structure of which they were a part has decayed, it will be better to replace them, not by tyrannies resting on military force, but by governments possessing some kind of constitutional character out of which truly popular institutions may in the long course of time be developed.
It would be folly to set up full-blown democracy, but it may be possible to provide
Among modern conditions and under the stimulus of ideas proceeding from the more advanced peoples, intellectual development proceeds faster than ever before. The influences playing on the mind and habits even of a backward race are now unceasing and pervasive. There is more moving to and fro, more curiosity, more thinking and reading. Changes which it would have needed a century to effect may now come in three or four decades. Superstitions and all else that is rooted in religion hold out longest; but the habits of deference and obedience to earthly powers can crumble fast, and as they crumble self-reliance grows. Thus the capacity for self-government may be in our time more quickly acquired than experience in the past would give ground for expecting.
Moreover — and this is the practically decisive fact — there is a logic of events. In India or Egypt or the Philippines, for instance, when a government has, directly or implicitly, raised expectations and awakened impatience, misgivings as to the fitness to receive a gift may have to yield to the demand for it. There are countries in which, seeing that the break up of an old system of government and an old set of beliefs threatens the approach of chaos, an effort must be made to find some institutions, however crude, which will hold society together. There are moments when it is safer to go forward than to stand still, wiser to confer institutions even if they are liable to be misused than to foment discontent by withholding them.
With a few brief interruptions, the latest nearly four centuries ago.
Yuan Shi Kai's attempt to make himself Emperor seems to have failed because as a new man he was unable to command the sort of religious awe which had consecrated the throne till its weakness forfeited respect.
The four new monarchies of South-Eastern Europe formed between 1829 and 1878 (for Montenegro was already independent) out of the ruins of the Turkish Empire in Europe are also instances in which constitutional self-government was bestowed upon peoples just delivered from a barbarous despotism. But in all of them the mass of the people, unprepared as each was to work a constitution, had at least actively desired freedom and had made efforts to gain it from rulers who were incapable and corrupt, as well as alien in race, faith, and speech.
The Valley of Andorra in the Pyrenees, where a little rural republic called officially the “Vallées et Suzeraintés,” has existed since the days of Charlemagne, is a familiar example. Like San Marino and some of the oldest Swiss Cantons, it is a survival of the many small self-governing communities that once existed in Southern and Western Europe, itself a league of five tiny communes. Visiting it in 1873 I found the head of the State, a stalwart old peasant, in a red flannel shirt, thrashing out his corn.
The “Intelligentsia” in Russia, the “Cientificos” in Mexico were too few to exert this influence. Even apart from their other deficiencies, there were not enough of them to form a public opinion, enabling them to hold their ground without an armed force.
This malady is said to have already broken out in a virulent form in some of the new States recently established in Europe.
I learn from Sir John Jordan, late British Minister at Peking, and probably the highest living European authority on Chinese politics and character, that when he visited the Provisional Council in the province of Shan Si in 1918 he was favourably impressed by its working and by the useful relations between it and the Governor.
It might be more correct to say “custom-abiding,” for there is very little law, in the European sense of the word, in China, though well-established authority is usually obeyed, and well-settled usage almost always followed. Collections of Ordinances exist, but seem to be seldom used.
As for instance under a mandate from the League of Nations.
See Vol. I. Chap. XVII.
I do not mean to disparage the intellectual quality of the Parliament of China, which seemed, when I saw it at work in 1913, to contain many alert and earnest young men, but it had no power at its command and no hold on the people.