Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXIX: democracy and the communist state - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXIX: democracy and the communist state - 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 communist state
The age in which we live has seen a phenomenon without precedent in world history. The old relation of the richer and the poorer classes has been reversed. Heretofore, with a few transient exceptions in some small republics, the richer class have ruled, usually legally, always practically. Now, however, with the establishment of universal suffrage over nearly the whole civilized world, legal power has completely passed to the poorer strata of society, for, being everywhere the majority, they have the whole machinery of government at their disposal. Of the old problems, “Who shall share in power?” and “Under what constitutional forms shall power be exercised?” the former has been settled by giving equal voting power to all, and the latter has fallen into the background because it is now everywhere assumed that the best forms are those which secure to the multitude the most complete and direct control of legislation and administration. The new and live question which fills men's thoughts is, In what ways will the masses use the power they have obtained to improve their material condition? Already the range of governmental action intended to benefit them and to bring economic equality nearer by laying constantly increasing burdens on the rich has been extended. Many schemes are in the air for extending that action still more widely. Such schemes agree in proposing to assign many kinds of functions to public administrators which have hitherto been left to private enterprise, and for some at least of which the existing machinery of free governments seems unfitted. Even the present structure of government, the present organization of departments, the present methods of legislation may prove inadequate.
The most extreme form of these efforts to secure what is called Social Justice by a more equal distribution of worldly goods takes the form of what is sometimes called Communism or Collectivism, a vague term, as the term Socialism is also vague, for both are taken in different senses by different writers and party groups advocating all sorts of theories or schemes. Communism I understand as that type of scheme (whatever its details) which proposes to extinguish (or greatly restrict) private property, and to supersede the free action of individuals in commerce and productive industry by the action of the State. Some plans go much farther than others, and contemplate more drastic methods; some would change existing conditions gradually and by peaceful methods, others suddenly and completely by revolution. These distinctions need not here and now concern us. To state and discuss them would be an endless task; it is sufficient for my present purpose to enquire what effect the application to a democratic government of Communistic principles will have upon the working of such a government.
It seems to have been generally assumed that existing constitutions and methods might continue, for few proposals for any great changes in them were propounded or discussed until the Soviets were set up in Russia in 1917. Still it is worth while to enquire how far such democracies as we see in France, Australia, Britain, and the United States, created for functions much more restricted than those which Communism would assign to them, will prove qualified to discharge these new functions. To put it shortly, What will Democracy be in a Communist State? Need such a Communist State, once established, be a Republic? Might it not have at its head a monarch, or an oligarchy of highly trained officials, who could be trusted to administer its affairs, the permanence of the Communist arrangements being guaranteed by the will of the mass of the people, since they would of course approve and maintain a system which was conferring on them the long-expected benefits? Theoretically such an oligarchy, steadier than a democracy, but controlled by a watchful public opinion, is possible, and might do its work efficiently. Practically, however, we may safely assume that a government created by the masses and maintained to secure their interests and protect them against a return of Capitalism or any other kind of exploitation would, whatever it became when it got to work, be proposed and created under forms purporting to place it under popular control, i.e. to base it on universal suffrage, whether acting in a large area through a representative assembly or in a small area or areas by direct popular voting. Universal satisfaction will, it is presumed, make force needless for its support.
What sort of a Government, then, will a Communist State have, and in what respects will it differ in scope and nature from such democracies as the world has hitherto known? For the sake of clearness and simplicity let us regard it in its full development as a State in which private property has disappeared, every man working for the community only, while the community, allotting to him the particular work which he is to do, gives him in return a due provision of food, lodging, and clothing for the daily needs of himself and his family (if the Family is allowed to remain).1 To assume the extinction of private property is to go far. We need not argue whether the holding of property is a Natural Eight, as the Frenchmen of 1789 said, or Theft, as Proudhon said. Enough to note that not a few thinkers have advocated its extinction, and that in the only country in which these thinkers have gained control they propose to extinguish it, though at present they are only preparing for that step, and have not got so far as to persuade the peasants to relinquish their land. Some carry it less far, allowing the worker to retain for himself a certain amount of property wherewith to gratify his own tastes. Yet another school, that which is called Guild Socialism, proposes to assign all the greater industries not to the State, but to organized bodies of workers, each of which is to control the management and dispose of the products of its industry. For the purpose of our present enquiry, however, I must not attempt to examine either these differences or other schemes for turning the State to Communistic ends, or reconstructing it on a Communistic basis. Let us assume that in one full-blown form of reconstruction or another private property has disappeared. All are to work for the State, and the State is to provide for all. It thus becomes a sort of business corporation for the purposes of production and distribution, every citizen being a shareholder in this vast industrial company and receiving his dividend in the form either of money (if money remains) or of food and other necessaries or comforts of life.2
With the economic arguments advanced for and against the creation of such a State I have here nothing to do. Its advocates have the prima facie advantage of being able to denounce existing economic conditions to the top of their bent, for few defend those conditions, and the wish to better them receives much sympathy from all who feel that the good things of the world are and always have been unequally distributed, some getting more than they deserve (so far as any one can attempt to estimate deserts), others less, so that many readjustments are desirable, though, considering how much more the enjoyment of life is affected by such things as health, strength, and temper than it is by abundance of worldly goods, it will always be impossible to distribute happiness in any sort of equal measure. Assuming, however, that efforts must be made to reduce the inequalities due to Nature and Chance by creating the largest possible equality in material conditions, difficulties arise regarding the methods to be employed, and these lie as much in the spheres of ethics and psychology as in those of economic science. The critics of a Communistic system argue that it rests upon assumptions regarding the action of human motives and the possibility of raising the average moral level of human character which are discountenanced, or at least unverified, by experience. The Communist replies that under new conditions which will call out the best and reduce the worst impulses that level is sure to rise, and men will work as zealously for the Community as they have ever done for themselves.1 The critic rejoins that history records no such moral progress, steadily advancing during the last three thousand years, as to entitle us to expect that man will become more unselfish and altogether more virtuous.
When the critic further remarks that under Communism men will soon begin to regret the loss of free self-determination, and will rebel against the control of their acts and opinions by the power of the community exercised through officials presumably no better than themselves, the Communist answers that a new generation will quickly grow up which will not regret what it has never enjoyed, and will be so much more comfortable under the ordered paternalism into which it has been born than its ancestors were in their unchartered freedom, as to look back with pity and wonder on the Dark Ages of capitalist rule and selfish competition.
These questions belong to the study of Man as a social being, and the one test which can be profitably applied to all the schemes referred to is their conformity to the tendencies of Human Nature, for to political science, so far as it can be deemed a science, may be applied the maxim which Bacon applied to the physical sciences: Natura non nisi parendo vincitur. There is promise of good in any system which recognizes and turns to account the better tendencies in man and tries to repress the worse, and a prospect of failure for any system which ignores the latter. Some, we have reason to believe, are susceptible of improvement, but how far susceptible, no one can determine; and the maxim warns us that where any of them has the permanence and strength of that which we call a Law of Nature, it cannot be ignored. A Communist or an Anarchist who expects to reconstruct Society, each in his own way, must be an optimist, strung up to so high a tension as to believe that in the new world he seeks to create men will be renewed in the spirit of their minds and be themselves purer and nobler creatures. The fact that the conduct of such an one may lower instead of raising our hopes for human progress does not necessarily discredit his doctrines, nor do the violence and cruelty and perfidy which he or any other preacher of revolution may employ to reach his ends condemn those ends any more than the cruelties of the Inquisition condemn the religion in whose supposed interest they were perpetrated. Revolutionists intoxicated with their own aims recoil from no means needed to secure their ascendancy, because they have not learnt, in Cromwell's famous phrase, to believe it possible that they may be mistaken.
To see what kind of organization that huge Co-operative Company, the Communist State, will require, let us consider what functions its Government, once set a-going, will have to discharge. It will develop and manage all the natural sources of wealth, the land, the minerals, the water power. It will establish and direct all industries, works, electric power stations, factories, iron and chemical works, and so forth. It will administer all the means of communication by land, water, and air, including those with foreign countries. It will provide State physicians and hospitals, and will found and manage all educational institutions, from the elementary school up to the university, appointing and remunerating the teachers and directing the curricula. It will plan, execute, and maintain all public works, including dwellings for the citizens; will provide public amusements and means of enjoyment, including theatres, concerts, picture galleries and libraries; will undertake the dissemination of news, conducting and supervising newspapers and magazines, and printing books. Presumably — and the practice of the Russian Communists suggests this course, which indeed had the approval of Rousseau and of Bebel — it will exercise a censorship, at least to the extent of forbidding the publication of any literature impugning the system of government or tending to create discontent, and may therefore have to forbid religions likely to distract men from their allegiance to the State; while as the obligation to work is universal, priests will not be excused from discharging it. The State authorities will of course feed and clothe the citizen, possibly allowing him, or at least her, so much choice in the kind of garments to be worn as is compatible with the principle of equal treatment for all. They must also maintain public order by providing a police, for though theft will have disappeared with property (except as an offence against the State),1 offences against the person may continue, requiring the retention of penal laws and courts and prisons.
Whether an army and navy will be needed depends upon whether neighbouring or competing nations also have been converted to Communism. Such a conversion seems to be expected by Communistic thinkers generally, and is indeed almost essential to the success of the idea. If, however, there remain States which stand out, maintaining their old selfish and probably aggressive policies, this happy future cannot be expected, and defence will still have to be provided, with the incidental danger of creating military chiefs and an armed force dangerous to the system of government. Should Communism spread over the whole earth, not only will foreign policy be simplified, hut internal economic arrangements also will gain. No country can within itself have the means of providing for all its needs. Few European countries can do so even as regards food. The abolition of customs duties on imports, peace being assured and private property gone, would make life easier for every country by cheapening many articles.
Against the many new functions devolving on this gigantic bureaucracy which will have taken over all that was formerly done by individual action, there must be set some functions hitherto exercised by governments which it may drop. Little legislation will be called for. Property having gone, there will be no contracts, and consequently no courts to try civil suits and no lawyers to argue them, a loss to which many persons will reconcile themselves.1 No more family quarrels over wills, no calls by rate collectors to vex the householder! The house he inhabits will not be his own, but he will live rent and rate free, owing to the State nothing but his labour, which will, in the view of most Communists, be a light burden, cheerfully borne in an altruistic spirit.
In order to prepare the Communist State for these many tasks, its chiefs and guides must determine the principles on which work is to be allotted to each citizen, and what form his remuneration is to take. Equality and Justice are to rule. But how are Equality and Justice to be secured as between different classes of producers, hand-workers and brainworkers, the skilled and the unskilled, the strong and the weak, the industrious and the indolent? If the work assigned is more agreeable, shall it be remunerated on a lower scale? If it requires more skill, is the scale to be higher? or if the value of the work is to count, how is value to be estimated? A code of laws will be needed to settle these matters. Great will be the power of the officials who not only allot work but direct and superintend it, and select for the higher posts persons who have proved their superior fitness. Regulations must be enacted prescribing the modes of choosing officials, their terms of office, the method of superintending them, and the discipline to be applied to the workers of all grades, since not even the sanguine optimist can rely on the absence of “slackers.” But the most important matter of all will be to find means for securing the choice of the persons best fitted to manage the chief departments of the Company's work for the nation, and especially of the Board of Directors who provide for the proper correlation of these departments and select the departmental heads. Everything will depend upon the skill and judgment of this supreme Board of Control. Technical scientific knowledge would seem to be essential for its members as well as for heads of departments. Those who manage such vast branches of work as agriculture and mining, transportation and education, will be the real masters and mainstays of the nation, and it is for their capacity that they must be selected. Who is to judge capacity? If the Directing Board are to do so, they, as well as the managing heads, must possess not only the requisite mastery of applied science and administrative skill, but an unusual measure of discernment and honesty.
Similar questions arise with regard to the assignment of particular persons to particular kinds of work for which they seem to be, or represent themselves to be, specially qualified, intellectually or physically, for not every one who seeks the vocation of a cricketer or a metaphysician can expect his aspirations to be gratified; and such questions must arise also over promotions in the various branches of technical and administrative work. Efficiency can be secured only by promotion based upon merit. Excellence in the middle and lower grades of work can be judged only by those who in the higher grades know and can estimate the performances of their subordinates. As every one will be a worker, every citizen's career in life will depend upon the opinion formed of him by his superiors. In the civil services of Britain and Germany promotions have been generally made honestly, but in those countries the departments have been for many years kept apart from partisan, if not always from social influences. In a community where there is no property and all fare alike, no one will be able to obtain favour by giving good dinners, but can any barrier be erected capable of excluding feminine arts or the claims of relationship? How are officials to be prevented from putting their sons-in-law into “soft jobs,” probably by way of secret log-rolling with friends in other offices? The most solemnly respectable of Directors, the most capable head of a department, will want watching in the exercise of powers which determine the fortunes and may arouse the suspicions of those beneath them. One cannot help using the word “beneath.” It seems a relic of the old time when there were distinctions of rank. But although social rank will have vanished, there will still be, for there cannot but be, distinctions of official authority. There must always be some one to direct the work, others to perform it; and there must be, always and everywhere, some disciplinary enforcement of compliance, for if, in order to maintain equality, those elected to command are constantly changed, will not experience be lost and authority disappear? Nations which allow the soldiers to elect their officers find before long that the officers must be allowed to enforce stern discipline if the army is not to break down in face of the enemy. In a peaceful bureaucracy instant obedience is less supremely needed at a given moment, but obedience there must be, and unless human nature is quite transformed, it is unattainable without compulsion. Will not the Communist State have to choose between Efficiency and Equality?1
What, then, will be the relation of this kind of State to Democracy? In these new conditions, what will remain to those representative assemblies through which the people have declared their will? Although some extremist writers have denounced legislatures and democracy and the State itself as all “capitalistic,” the People can hardly mean, in becoming a body of workers officered by bureaucrats, to relinquish the sovereignty they exercise by universal suffrage.
Much of the work hitherto performed by representative assemblies will doubtless have disappeared, and the basis of representation may be no longer territorial, but perhaps vocational. On many subjects there will be little legislation, no taxation, since every one's contribution will be rendered in his labour, hardly any debates on foreign affairs (if Communism spreads over the world), nor any on military or naval affairs. Some administrative subjects will remain, on which the citizens may express their wishes to the reigning bureaucracy, such as the kind of drinks, alcoholic or not, to be supplied to the citizens, and the subjects to be taught in State schools. The questions now in controversy between the friends of the ancient classics and those of modern languages or physical science will probably have been ended by the extinction of the former subjects before Communism arrives, but conflicts between the advocates of cinemas, of the drama, and of concerts respectively, as pleasures to be provided for the people, may be more protracted; and if there is a surplus after providing for food, clothing, and housing, shall literature claim a share, the State, as being the only publisher, determining which poets shall be preferred? The main business will, however, be the supervision of the administrative departments, the examination of their accounts, reports on their work in production, a judgment of the wisdom of their policy in the appropriation of labour to competing demands for its application, and the way in which the powers of allotting work and bestowing promotions have been exercised. This last-mentioned topic will, if responsibility is to be enforced on the bureaucracy, be the most fertile field for criticism, for every member of the assembly as well as every one of his constituents will have a personal interest, all alike being servants of the country. Even if members of the legislature are exempted from any other work during their term of legislative service, it will be hard for them to criticize freely those who have been and may again be their official superiors. Will the same spirit of deference to authority come to pervade the soldiers of the Industrial Army as that which sapped the spirit of liberty in military Prussia?
What place will there be for political parties in the new Commonwealth, which will be not a State in the old sense, but a Co-operative Company for agricultural and manufacturing production and distribution, and on what issues will elections turn? If they be those of most consequence to every citizen, viz, the conditions of his own work and remuneration, are they to be settled by the people at elections or by their representatives in the legislature, or if the latter are to have the power of displacing officials whose exercise of their authority has displeased sections of the voters, who are, as workers, subject to that authority, how will discipline and the continuity of administrative policy be preserved?
Of the prizes offered in former days to ambition, only Power will remain, for wealth will be unattainable, while eminence in art and letters will depend upon the favour of official patrons who have been chosen for their scientific knowledge and executive capacity. Without their favour neither poet nor painter will be able to reach the people, for the press will of course be in the hands of the ruling officials, who will provide for the people the proper views as well as the proper news. Of Power there will apparently be one kind only, that attached to a high place in the official hierarchy, to be won, if the system is to work, not by rhetorical gifts or lavish promises to the masses, but by the talent of the administrator. Eloquence and the demagogic arts that have flourished under popular governments will be as much out of place in the bureaucracy as in a meeting of railway directors. The qualities by which a man will rise will be those which bring men to the top of the Treasury or Admiralty or Post Office in the permanent civil service of countries like France, Germany, or England; but the men may probably be still more remarkable, for the civil service, being the only career, will draw to itself, like a magnet, all the talent of the country. The legislative assembly will doubtless still offer an arena to debaters, but if it interferes with administration and pitchforks men into high posts because they are fluent in speech, the principles on which the system is based will be violated and efficiency must suffer.
These observations suggest that schemes of a Communistic nature contemplate a condition of political and economic life, the latter overshadowing the former, to which the familiar institutions of Democracy seem ill adapted. Democracy as it exists to-day and Communism as it is preached, agreeing with Democracy (as against some other forms of Socialistic doctrine) in regarding the nation as one homogeneous whole, differ in this, that Communism regards it as primarily an Economic whole existing for the purposes of production and distribution, while the apostles of Democracy regarded it as primarily a Moral and Intellectual whole, created for the sake of what the ancient philosophers called the Good Life. It was to be expected that the political institutions established with a view to the latter theory and aim should be ill suited to the former purposes.
How the present forms and mechanism of Democracy should be remodelled to do the work which Communist principles prescribe is a question to be answered by those who have formed for themselves a clear notion of what the Socialist or Communist State will be, a subject on which the different schools called Socialistic differ widely. I have here, for the sake of simplicity, taken for examination that particular form in which private property is not permitted, because it is well to see to what results a logical development of Equalitarian and Communistic principles will lead. Although some of the questions I have suggested as fit to be considered will not arise in States which allow property to survive, still in all communities where Government, or any authority created by the State, assumes the exclusive control of industry, problems of this kind cannot but emerge; and the nearer any form approaches to the extreme form here dealt with, the more need will there be for such a reshaping of existing institutions as will adapt them to the requirements of a State built on economic relations and making their adjustment on the principle of equality its primary aim.
Some few Communistic theorists from the days of Plato have suggested its disappearance.
I take this as the extreme form, and though the present rulers of Russia have shrunk from carrying it out, it seems to be the form they approve. But whether this be so or not, the principles and methods involved in any form which a complete governmental control of industry may take, need to be considered as respects their compatibility with existing democratic institutions.
If men do not so work in Australia for the Government, the explanation given is that this happens because a capitalistic Government does not command their loyalty.
A man might of course steal articles belonging to the State, but as he could not, under the conditions which will then prevail, make much use of what he stole, there would be little temptation.
Whether actions for tort “sounding in damages” will remain when civil damages have been abolished with the extinction of private property is a question which, however interesting, can stand over.
An interesting examination of the difficulties that may arise in the management of industries by the State may be found in a book published anonymously in England some years ago entitled Vox Clamantis.