Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXVIII: present tendencies in democracies - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXVIII: present tendencies in democracies - 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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present tendencies in democracies
Every one who tries to follow the march of events in these chaotic days of ours asks himself the question: In what direction are things moving? Is Democracy spreading more widely? Is it improving or degenerating? Is it gaining or losing the confidence of the peoples?
To describe the conditions of the moment would be as if one should try to paint a landscape over which lights and shadows were coining and going every moment under clouds driven before a gale. What can be done, however, is to indicate the tendencies visible when the storm of war burst in 1914, since which time the minds of men have been everywhere so far from normal — shall we say shell-shocked? — that it is impossible to predict what they will be five or ten years hence. Some of these tendencies have, however, continued operative, assuming a more formidable significance.
I. Democracy is spreading. Seven new States have sprung up in Europe since 1918: Czecho-Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia (Lettland), Esthania, Finland.
Three new States have arisen in Western Asia: the republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the latter specially interesting as the first attempt at republican government in a Mussulman country. The fate of Russia hangs and may continue for some time to hang in the balance. Hungary has not yet settled her form of government; nor has Poland nor has China.1
The ten new States aforesaid have given or are giving themselves democratic constitutions, as did Portugal in 1909, when she dethroned the Braganza dynasty. Thus the number of democracies in the world has been doubled within fifteen years.
II. In the form which it has almost everywhere taken, that of government by a representative assembly, democracy shows signs of decay; for the reputation and moral authority of elected legislatures, although these, being indispensable, must remain, have been declining in almost every country. In some they are deemed to have shown themselves unequal to their tasks, in others to have yielded to temptations, in others to be too subservient to party, while in all they have lost some part of the respect and social deference formerly accorded to them. Whither, then, has gone so much of the power as may have departed from them? In some countries it would seem to be passing to the Cabinet — England is often cited as an example — in others to the directly elected Head of the State, as for instance to the Governors in the several States of the American Union. In France, though there has been no definite change, calls are heard for a strong President, and in Argentina the President already overtops the Chambers. What is common to all these cases is the disposition to trust one man or a few led by one rather than an elected assembly.
III. Over against such cases stand those wherein power is taken for the citizen body to overrule the legislature by the Referendum or supersede it by the Initiative. This Swiss method, which grew up naturally in the States of the American Union also, can hardly be made a regular organ of government in large countries where the process of voting is costly, and in some at least of such countries — indeed wherever party or class organizations are powerful — it is likely to work less well than it has in the lands of its birth, but its conformability to the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty recommends it. The development of Local Government and transference to it of as many administrative functions as possible, though constantly preached by reformers, does not in fact advance. Very little has been done in this direction by France or Australia, or in Spanish America, while in England the small parish units have failed to enlist popular interest.
IV. That extension in many directions of the sphere of government which began in the United States some forty years ago, and has been carried furthest in New Zealand and Australia, has by increasing the tasks laid upon administration affected the character of democratic government itself, for it compels the creation of a great staff of officials, and so a sort of bureaucracy grows up, handling many kinds of business. This swells the volume of patronage lying in the gift of Ministers, and adds to the temptations which the exercise of patronage presents. Such developments make effective popular control more difficult, because so many branches of work lie beyond the knowledge and judgment of the citizens, or their representatives, that the discretionary powers of government inevitably grow, and responsibility is less easily secured. Moreover, the larger the number of State undertakings and State employees, the larger is the influence which the latter can exert through their votes. They become a powerful class, with personal pecuniary interests opposed to those of the community as a whole, and Ministers have in many countries found it hard to resist their demands.
The tendencies here described may probably advance, for they are not revolutionary but the natural result of slowly developing economic and social conditions, and if the development of these continues, political institutions will change, if not in form, yet in substance. The larger the mass of citizens becomes, the more do they tend to look to the Executive, and especially to its head. They follow a man or a small group rather than legislators whom it is hard to make responsible, and this of itself tends to make legislative offices desired chiefly by those who seek in them an avenue to executive power. That the plan of entrusting law-making, or the ultimate decision of a contested issue, to the direct action of the community is attractive, is shown not only by its spread in America, but also by its adoption in some recent constitutions, as for instance in that of Germany. Bureaucracy is denounced, but it grows.
V. Another influence insensibly modifying popular government must not pass unnoticed, viz. the shifting of population from the country to the city, and especially to the great city, which grows the faster the larger it grows. Australia and Argentina are dominated by their capitals. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia contained in 1920 10,145,000 persons, nearly one-tenth of the whole population of the United States, and there are now six other cities with populations exceeding one million. It is not merely the problem of maintaining order in such populations, and that of feeding them in case a railway strike cuts off supplies from the country, that raise disquiet, it is also the influence upon character and the habits of life in centres of excitement and amusement; and when we consider all that this means, democracy may be given some credit for having averted disorders which the aggregation of such vast masses of human beings might have been expected to involve, creating perils never experienced in earlier ages. Can such immunity be expected to continue?
So far of changes in or affecting the working of the constitutional machinery of democratic government. Two other new facts are the appearance of forces which, coming from without, threaten, one of them the disintegration of democracy, the other its destruction.
I have already observed that the immensely increased scale of industrial undertakings, coupled with the desire of those employed therein to secure higher wages and better conditions of life as well as of labour, have led the workers in the more important of these industries to organize themselves in Unions, sometimes including an immense number of persons. Such Unions are in certain countries further associated for joint action in a general League, such as are the Confédération Général du Travail in France, the Labour Leagues in Australia, the American Federation of Labour in the United States, and the group formed in Great Britain by three enormous Unions (miners, railwaymen, and transport workers) called the Triple Alliance. These bodies, democracies within the national democracy, as in the Middle Ages the hierarchy was within the Civil State an Ecclesiastical State armed with tremendous spiritual authority, possess a double power, that of their votes as citizens and that of bringing industry and commerce to a standstill by ceasing to work. Such an exercise of the right of each individual to give or withhold his labour creates a difficult situation, for if the Government happens to be the employer there is no independent authority to arbitrate between it and the strikers, and if the employers are private persons the cessation from work may affect so seriously the welfare of the nation that the matter becomes a political one with which the Administration must deal. But how? It is a passive insurrection, harder to meet than is a rising in the army, and an insurrection directed against all the rest of the community which cannot meet it by physical force. This is a disintegration of democracy, for matters of the first importance to the whole community are discussed and decided by each of these bodies, or by their League, among themselves, while the rest of the population, which has no share in the decision, is faced by a threat operating in effect as a command.
The other new factor is the emergence of a doctrine primarily economic but in its consequences political, and embodying itself in the project of eliminating those sections of the community which either possess wealth or are earning it otherwise than by manual labour, so as to create and thenceforth maintain a uniformity of material conditions, perhaps along with the prohibition of private property.1 This idea is the child, a child whose birth was to be expected, of the passion for Equality and of the feeling of injustice which resents the absorption by others than the hand-worker of a disproportionate part of what his labour produces. In order to secure both Equality and the whole of this product, it becomes necessary to get rid of those who are deemed to have unjustly captured it; and this can be done only by giving to the community all the means of production and distribution, and securing to all an equal share in the products. Since the possessors of wealth cannot be expected to dispossess themselves, force is necessary, i.e. a Revolution to be carried through by the hand-workers or so-called “proletariate.” 2 The absolute power they must seize for this purpose is the “Dictatorship of the Proletariate,” which, inasmuch as revolution cannot be carried to success except by a few commanding spirits, means a supreme control, exerted not by a multitude of hand-workers but by an educated oligarchy of their leaders, necessarily small and invested with a wide discretion; for the larger the enterprise the more essential is a concentration of executive power. What form this dictatorship will take when, ceasing to be militant, it has been permanently established is a further question, on which some light is thrown by the creation in Russia of what is called the Republic of the Soviets, elective councils of workers and peasants from which all but proletarians are excluded.1 Democracy and the peaceful settlement of all issues by constitutional methods disappear, superseded by Revolution and Oligarchy. Writers of this school denounce the existing democracies, and especially their legislatures, as “bourgeois,” and propose to destroy them.
These two developments of the class spirit, one of which expresses itself in the proclamation of a Class War, have startled the wealthier and middle sections of the most advanced, and especially of the English-speaking nations. They did not understand why class sentiment should become so suddenly bitter, nor why, where constitutional means for redressing grievances exist, that sentiment should take a form which threatens the welfare of the whole people. Yet a little reflection suffices to show that the phenomena are not unprecedented. The resentment of the wage-earners at the appropriation by employers of what seems an inordinately large part of the product of labour, and the vehemence of this resentment against the present generation of the wealthier class, which has shown far more sympathy with the aspirations of the worker than the two preceding generations had done, is an instance to verify the old saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.” Injustice always brings punishment in its train, but the spirit of revenge often grows with time, and is stronger in the descendants of those who have suffered than it was in the sufferers themselves; while the penalties fall not on those who did the wrong, but on their more innocent successors who are trying to atone for the past. The wretchedness of the toiling masses in some industrial countries from 1780 till far down in the nineteenth century left a legacy of bitterness which became actively conscious in their grandchildren, even as the oppressions borne by the peasantry and workers of France before 1780 gave birth to the passions that found vent in the ferocities of 1792.
Men are shocked to-day at the selfishness that threatens to paralyze all the industries of a country, and bring famine into the homes of the poor by a strike on railroads or in coal mines. But is not this only an extreme instance of the selfishness which springs up in every class accustomed to think first and think always of its own special interests? The feudal nobles of the Middle Ages oppressed the peasantry all over Europe. The manufacturing employers in some industrial countries recked little of the sufferings of their work-people down to our own time. The European conquerors and settlers among uncivilized races have from the time of the Spanish Conquistadores in America ruthlessly exploited the labour of those races and robbed them of their lands, so that even to-day it is hard to secure protection for African natives from the intruding whites. In all these cases there were among the oppressors many men kindly and reasonable in the other relations of life, but constant association with their own class and the sense of personal interest benumbed their natural human sympathy and made them forget that property and power have their duties as well as their rights. Public opinion restrains the selfishness of an individual, but the public opinion of a class possessed by the sense of a common interest confirms the individual in his selfishness and blinds him to his own injustice. Those who preach the Class War are in this respect, except indeed as regards the ferocity of the means they employ, in some countries, no worse than the leaders of other selfish classes have been before, as they are also certainly no better. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Class War, which is to extinguish classes once for all, and the weapon of the General Strike, sound a new note of menace to the progress of mankind. They are not the result of Democracy. It has, indeed, failed to prevent them, but it has not induced them, for they have arisen not in any sense from its principles, but out of historical and economic causes, which would have been invoked more powerfully to produce discontent and insurrection under an autocratic or oligarchic Government, unless such a Government had possessed a military force strong enough to hold down a vast population. They are in reality an attack on Democracy, the heaviest blow ever directed against it, for they destroy the sense that a people is one moral and spiritual whole, bound together by spiritual ties, and their instrument is Revolution. The sort of revolution contemplated will not be a matter of this year or the next; it opens up a long vista of struggle by armed force, which would subject democratic governments to a strain heavier than they have ever yet had to bear. Strange and unexpected evolution! Democracy overthrows the despotism of the one man or the few who ruled by force, in order to transfer power to the People who are to rule by reason and the sense of their common interest in one another's welfare: and after two or three generations there arises from the bosom of the democracy an effort to overthrow it in turn by violence because it has failed to confer the expected benefits. The wheel has gone its full round; and the physical Force which was needed to establish democracy is now employed to destroy it.
The accounts that have reached England of the structure of the Soviet Government do not altogether agree, and that structure itself does not seem to be uniform over all Russia. The main lines, however, upon which it is constituted would appear to be as follows. The basis of the organization is a primary assembly or Soviet of all the workers in a particular factory and of the cultivators in a particular village, representatives going from these primary meetings to higher Soviets. The scheme is described in a statement purporting to come from Mr. Zinoviev, and prepared on behalf of the Third International, and embodied in a document issued in January 1920. I quote from it as printed in the book of Mr. R. W. Postgate, entitled The Bolshevik Theory (Appendix IV.): “The city workers' Soviet consists of one delegate from each factory and more in proportion to the number of workers therein, together with delegates from each local union.
“For the peasants each village has its local Soviet which sends delegates to the Township Soviet, which in turn elects to the County Soviet, and this to the Provincial Soviet.
“Every six months the city and provincial Soviets send delegates to the All Russia Congress of Soviets, which is the supreme governing body of the country, and decides upon the policies which are to govern the country for the next six months. This Congress elects a Central Executive Committee of two hundred which is to carry out these policies, and also elects a Cabinet (the Council of Peoples' Commissars) who are the heads of Government Departments. These Commissars can be recalled at any time by the Central Executive Committee, as the members of all Soviets can also be very easily recalled by their constituents at any time.
“These Soviets are not only Legislative bodies but also Executive organs. In the intervals between the meetings of the All Russia Congresses of Soviets the Central Executive Committee is the supreme power. It meets at least every two months, and in the meantime the Council of Peoples' Commissars directs the country. … The workers are organized in industrial Unions; each factory is a local Union, and the Shop Committee elected by the workers is its Executive Committee. The All Russia Central Executive Committee of the federated Unions is elected by the Annual Trade Union Convention; a Scale Committee elected by it fixes the wages of all categories of workers. … The Unions are a branch of the Government, and this Government is the most highly centralized government that exists. It is also the most democratic government in history, for all the organs of Government are in constant touch with the worker masses, and constantly sensitive to their will. Moreover, the Local Soviets all over Russia have complete autonomy to manage their own local affairs, provided they carry out the national policies laid down by the Soviet Congress. Also the Soviet Government represents only the workers and cannot help but act in the workers' interests.”
It will be noted that whereas the City Soviets send their delegates directly to the All Russia Congress — there are few populous cities in Russia — the Peasants' or Village Soviets send their delegates to the Township Soviet, and it to the County Soviet, and it to the Provincial Soviet, which alone sends its delegates direct to the Congress. (The soldiers are also allowed to have delegates from their Soviets which seem to be military units resembling the old time regiments.) Moreover, the representation of the peasants is so arranged as to be much smaller in proportion to numbers than that of the city workers, the system having been framed upon the lines of manufacturing and not of agricultural industry, and the Provincial Congress containing delegates from the Town as well as the Village Soviets, so that the workers have a double representation. So far as appears, representation is not even in Workers' Soviets proportioned to the size of each Soviet, or in other words, it is not provided that constituencies should be approximately equal in numbers. It ought to be added that a well-informed authority, who obtained first-hand information from Communist leaders in Russia, states that the whole of this “constitutional machinery” is practically controlled by the separate organization of that comparatively small body, the Communist party (Dr. Haden Guest in the London Times, Sept. 1920).
This scheme of Government by a series of local bodies, primary assemblies both administrative and elective, sending delegates to bodies for larger areas, and these again to bodies for still larger areas up to the Supreme Congress for the whole country which appoints and supervises the small Supreme Administrative Council, is ingenious and interesting as a novel form of constitution. It is not necessarily connected with “Bolshevism” or any form of Communism, and deserves to be studied, apart from any doctrines, on its own merits. Nor need it necessarily be based on work in factories, for, so far as regards the agricultural population, it is apparently as much local as vocational. Professing to be, and being indeed on paper eminently democratic, it seems eminently likely to be worked as an oligarchy, for it gives every opportunity for intriguers to secure majorities in each of the bodies and control the whole power of what is really — though the name is repudiated — the old “State” in a slightly altered dress. If, however, we imagine such a constitution honestly worked, in an intelligent and educated people, by men desiring only the common weal, it would have two merits, the one that of helping the best talent of the nation to rise to the top, the other that of enabling the opinion of the whole nation to be promptly ascertained without the cost and delay of a General Referendum, for the same issue could be simultaneously propounded to all the local Soviets, and their answers forthwith transmitted to headquarters. It is a pity that the experiment of working this constitution did not have a fair trial, but it is admitted on all hands that the elections of delegates were practically farcical, being so managed by those in actual control as to secure the delegates they approved, and thereby make the composition of the Congress and Central Executive Committee just what they desired. This was of course to be expected, for revolutionaries rarely permit themselves to be stopped by scruples. If they do, they perish like the Girondins in 1793. Those to whom their aim is supremely sacred have in ecclesiastical as well as civil strife usually justified the means, whatever they may be, that promise to attain it.
The present constitution of China is provisional.
Some of the advocates of this doctrine have been driven by necessity to recognize and use “brain-workers,” but these seem to be regarded as exceptional cases, and it does not yet appear how they are to be dealt with.
This vague term, drawn from the proletarii in the early Roman Constitution ascribed to Servius Tullius, is most conveniently rendered by the term “hand-workers,” as they are the class usually in the minds of the writers who employ it.
See note at end of this chapter.