Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXX: the future of democracy - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER LXXX: the future of democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
the future of democracy
A study of the various forms government has taken cannot but raise the question what ground there is for the assumption that democracy is its final form, an unwarranted assumption, for whatever else history teaches, it gives no ground for expecting finality in any human institution. All material things are in a perpetual flux. The most ancient heavens themselves, in which mankind has seen the changeless radiance of eternity, are subject to this law, moving towards some unknown destination, with new stars blazing forth from time to time only to vanish again into darkness; nor can we tell whether the substances which make up the Universe may not themselves be changing, so short has been the period during which we have observed them.
So, too, in human affairs the thing that hath been is not, and the thing that is can never return, because its having existed is a new fact added to the chain of causation; and therefore those Eastern cosmologies which tried to help men to conceive of infinity by imagining a succession of cycles endlessly repeating themselves, were obliged to make each cycle end with a destruction of all things in order that creation might start afresh, unaffected by what had gone before. That which the ancient poet said of the mind of man, that it changes with every returning sun,1 is true of nations also, whose thoughts and temper vary from year to year, and true also of the institutions men create, which are no sooner called into being than they disclose unexpected defects, and begin to decay in one part while still growing in another.
Within the century and a half of its existence in the modern world free government has passed through many phases, and seems now to stand like the traveller who on the verge of a great forest sees many paths diverging into its recesses and knows not whither one or other will lead him.
Whoever attempts to forecast the course systems of government will take must therefore begin from the two propositions that the only thing we know about the Future is that it will differ from the Past, and that the only data we have for conjecturing what the Future may possibly bring with it are drawn from observations of the Past, or, in other words, from that study of the tendencies of human nature which gives ground for expecting from men certain kinds of action in certain states of fact. We cannot refrain from conjecture. Yet to realize how vain conjectures are, let us imagine ourselves to be in the place of those who only three or four generations ago failed to forecast what the next following generation would see. Let us suppose Burke, Johnson, and Gibbon sitting together at a dinner of The Club in 1769, the year when Napoleon and Wellington were born, and the talk falling on the politics of the European Continent. Did they have any presage of the future? The causes whence the American Revolution and the French Revolution were to spring, and which would break the sleep of the peoples in Germany and Italy, might, one would think, have already been discerned by three such penetrating observers, but the only remarks most of us recall as made then and for some years afterwards to note symptoms of coming dangers were made by a French traveller, who said that the extinction of French power in Canada had weakened the tie between the American colonies and Great Britain, and by an English traveller who saw signs of rottenness in the French Monarchy. Men stood on the edge of stupendous changes, and had not a glimpse of even the outlines of those changes, not discerning the causes that were already in embryo beneath their feet, like seeds hidden under the snow of winter, which will shoot up under the April sunlight. How much more difficult has it now become to diagnose the symptoms of an age in which the interplay of economic forces, intellectual forces, moral and religious forces is more complex than ever heretofore, incomparably more complex than it had seemed to be before discovery had gone far in the spheres of chemistry, physics, and biology, before education had been diffused through all classes, before every part of the world had been drawn into relations with every other part so close that what affects one must affect the rest.
Nevertheless, since conjecture cannot be repressed, and the tendencies of human nature remain as a permanent factor, let us see whether men's behaviour in the past may not throw some glimmer of light upon the future. Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Americans find it so natural a thing that men should be interested in politics, that they assume men will always be so interested. But is it really true — so students of history will ask — that this interest can be counted on to last? For a thousand years, after the days of the last republicans of Rome, the most civilized peoples of Europe cared nothing for politics and left government in the hands of their kings or chiefs. Greek democracy had been destroyed by force more than a century earlier, and little regret was expressed at its extinction. The last blows struck for republican freedom in Rome were struck not by the people, but by a knot of oligarchs, most of whom had their personal reasons for slaying the great Dictator. No one thought of trying to revive free self-government in Italy or Greece or around the coasts of the Aegean, where hundreds of republics had bloomed and died. When the Italian cities shook off the yoke of local lords or bishops in the eleventh and twelfth centuries nearly all of these new republics passed before long under the sway of new despots, and few were the attempts made to recover freedom. The ancient doctrine that power issues from the people came to light when the study of the Roman Law was resumed, but nobody tried to apply it, not even under such teaching as came from Marsilius of Padua,1 when he used the tenet as a weapon in the great conflict between the Emperor and the Pope. Cities and nations seemed to reck little of their rights: a tyrant might now and then be overthrown, but there was no reviviscence of the love of liberty. Since the days of Augustus the lives of the mass of mankind had been filled by labour in field or mine or workshop; the pleasures and the interests they had in common were given to War, and still more to Religion, which like a stream, sometimes full and strong, sometimes half lost in the swamps of superstitition, bore down the relics of the old civilization. Without the stimulus which the ecclesiastica struggles of the sixteenth century gave to the sense of individual independence in the northern half of Europe, this stagnation of political life might have lasted longer than in fact it did. If it be said that the conditions of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages can never recur, now that the sense of civic right has spread widely, now when political equality is guaranteed by the passion for social and economic equality, the answer is that although those particular conditions will indeed not recur, we can well imagine other conditions which might have a like effect. The thing did happen: and whatever has happened may happen again. Peoples that had known and prized political freedom resigned it, did not much regret it, and forgot it.
Can we, looking back over the nineteenth century, think of any causes or conditions that might once again bring about this indifference? We must not forget that the sense of civic right and passion for equality just referred to are nowhere felt by all the people, in many countries not even by a majority, in some only by a small minority. Is it possible that a nation, tired of politics and politicians, may be glad to be saved the trouble of voting? In France the peasantry and the educated bourgeoisie acquiesced in the despotism of Louis Napoleon, pleased to have the promise of a quiet life, as at Rome not only the multitude but the bulk of those who cultivated literature and philosophy had welcomed the rule of Augustus. In Prussia, after the military triumphs of 1866 and 1870 had made monarchy popular, the middle and professional classes allowed themselves to be militarized and monarchized in spirit, preferring commercial prosperity, efficient administration, and the growth of the nation's power to a continuance of the efforts their fathers had made against Bismarck's rule when taxes were levied without the consent of the Landtag and constitutional reforms were refused. So the forward movement passed into the hands of others who, desiring economic levelling rather than political liberty, sought the latter chiefly for the sake of the former, while the Freisinnige Partei, which represented the traditions of 1848–9, withered away, losing support in every class.
In Spain a republic, hastily set up in 1873, gained so little support that it was quickly followed by a restoration of the old monarchy; and when in 1890 universal suffrage was established the gift excited little interest and has made little practical difference to policies or to administration, though in a few of the Eastern seaports Socialist and Anarchist groups are occasionally enabled by it to return a few members of extreme opinions. Elsewhere constituencies are controlled and elections manipulated by local Bosses (commonly called Caciques1 ), whose rule, a source of profit to themselves, is acquiesced in by the bulk of the citizens. There could hardly be a more instructive refutation of the notion that a taste for the exercise of political rights is a natural characteristic of civilized man than this indifference to politics of an ancient nation which has produced wonderful explorers, conquerors, and statesmen, and made splendid contributions to literature, learning, and art.
In some countries we see to-day the richer class refusing to enter the legislatures, and voting only because they fear for their wealth, while in many the centre of gravity in political thought as well as in action has shifted from methods of government and legal reforms to economic issues. These last-named issues have, as already observed, come so to dominate the minds of large sections of certain peoples as to make them willing to sacrifice liberty itself, or at least the institutions which have hitherto safeguarded liberty, for the sake of that fundamental reconstruction of society which they desire. The revolution that is to effect this purpose is represented as a transient flood, needed to sweep away the barriers Capitalism has set up. But is the stream likely to return to its ancient channel? Will the forcible methods revolution uses be renounced?
Among the questions which men now ask about the Future none is more momentous than this: Will it be, as heretofore, a future of War, or — even if only in the middle distance — a future of Peace? If wars continue, the smaller free States may conceivably be vanquished and annexed or incorporated by their stronger neighbours. This was how the republics of ancient Greece and Italy perished; thus was freedom extinguished in Athens and Achaia; thus did the republic of Florence fall in the sixteenth century. In conquering Home herself it was the vast extension of her dominions that made monarchy inevitable.
One road only has in the Past led into democracy, viz. the wish to be rid of tangible evils, but the roads that have led or may lead out of democracy are many. Some few of them may be mentioned.
If wars continue, the direction of Foreign Policy, a function which was of supreme importance in the city republics of the ancient and mediaeval world, may again become so, especially among those small new States of Europe and Western Asia which have territorial or commercial disputes with their neighbours. Till the relations of European peoples with one another become more stable than they are to-day, the spirit of nationality, accentuated as we see it by rivalry and hatred, a spirit which breeds discontent in some countries and in others prompts aggression against rival States, may keep alert and acute the desire of these peoples to share in the conduct of their governments. But it is also possible that the lust of conquest or the need for defence may lead to a concentration of power in the Executive dangerous to the people, inducing them to sacrifice some of their liberty to preserve national independence or to secure military ascendancy. Such things have happened.
He who has acquired ascendancy by brilliant success against the enemy and has thereby fascinated the people might, in some countries, establish his power. Even our own time saw a mediocre adventurer, pushed forward by a faction possessing wealth and social influence, who proved able, since believed to have the army behind him, to threaten the liberties of France; and this although he had no victories standing to his credit.
Dangers may also arise from civil strife, when it reaches a point at which one party becomes willing to resign most of the people's rights for the sake of holding down the other faction. This often happened in the ancient and mediaeval republics, and might happen in any country distracted by racial or religious hatreds, or perhaps even by the sort of class war which was carried on in 1919 in Hungary. There are European countries to-day in which it is, if not probable, yet certainly not impossible.
Thirdly, the less educated part of a nation might become indifferent to politics, the most educated class throwing their minds into other things, such as poetry or art, to them more interesting than politics, and gradually leaving the conduct of State affairs to an intelligent bureaucracy capable of giving business men the sort of administration and legislation they desire, and keeping the multitude in good humour by providing comforts and amusements.1 The heads of such a bureaucracy would, if wise, do little to alter the constitution, content to exercise the reality of power under the old familiar forms. Such a change would scarcely happen so long as there were questions rousing class bitterness or involving the material well being of the masses; we must suppose a time in which controversies have ceased to be acute, and such a time seems distant. Free government is not likely to be suppressed in any country by a national army wielded by an ambitious chief. If any people loses its free self-government this will more probably happen with its own acquiescence. But oligarchy springs up everywhere as by a law of nature: and so many strange things have happened in our time that nothing can be pronounced impossible. Few are the free countries in which freedom seems safe for a century or two ahead.
Democracy has become, all over Europe and to some extent even in North America also, desired merely as a Means, not as an End, precious in itself because it was the embodiment of Liberty. It is now valued not for what it is, but for what it may be used to win for the masses. When the exercise of their civic rights has brought them that which they desire, and when they feel sure that what they have won will remain with them, may they not cease to care for the further use of those rights? The politicians, who in some countries have been more and more becoming a professional class, might continue to work the party machinery; but that will avail little if the nation turns its mind to other things. If the spiritual oxygen which has kept alive the attachment to Liberty and self-government in the minds of the people becomes exhausted, will not the flame burn low and perhaps flicker out? The older school of Liberals dwelt on the educative worth of self-government which Mazzini represented in its idealistic and Mill in its utilitarian aspects; but who would keep up the paraphernalia of public meetings and of elections and legislative debates merely for the sake of this by-product? Much will depend on what the issues of the near future are likely to be. If that which the masses really desire should turn out to be the extinction of private property or some sort of communistic system, and if in some countries such a system should ever be established, the whole character of government would be changed, and that which is now called Democracy would (as indicated in a previous chapter) become a different thing altogether, perhaps an industrial bureaucratic oligarchy. Even if some less far-reaching scheme of Economic Equality than that now presented to the wage-earners as the goal of their efforts be attained, or enter a period of experiment which would end in proving it to be unattainable, popular government cannot fail to be profoundly modified.
A wider, indeed an illimitable field of speculation is opened when we think of the possibilities of changes in the interests, tastes, and beliefs of the different families of mankind. In Human Nature there are, to borrow a term from mathematics, certain “Constants” — impulses always operative — ambition and indolence, jealousy and loyalty, selfishness and sympathy, love and hatred, gratitude and revenge. But the ideas, fancies, and habits of men change like their tastes in poetry and art, New forms of pleasure are invented: the old lose their relish: the moral as well as the intellectual values shift and vary. The balance between the idealistic and the realistic or material view of life is always oscillating. Humility, once revered in Christian and Buddhist countries, has been described in our time as a Dead Virtue. Even nations in which public life has been most active may relegate a political career to a place as low as soldiering has held in China and trading in Japan. The masses may let the reins slip from their hands into those of an oligarchy, so long as they do not fear for themselves either oppression, or social disparagement, or the loss of any material benefits they have been wont to enjoy. They may trust to the power of public opinion to deter a ruling group from any course which would displease the bulk of the nation, for the power of public opinion will survive political mutations so long as an intolerant majority does not impose its orthodoxy to fetter the play of thought. Such phases in the never-ceasing process of evolutionary change might well be transient, for oligarchies are naturally drawn to selfish ways, and selfishness usually passes into injustice, and injustice breeds discontent, and discontent ends in the overthrow of those who have abused their power, and so the World-spirit that plies at the roaring loom of Time discards one pattern and weaves another to be in turn discarded.
That physiological factor which we call Heredity must not be overlooked. In the most civilized peoples there is an evident tendency for those family stocks which are wealthy or of exceptional intellectual quality to die out, so that the perpetuation of the human species is left to be maintained by sections of the population in which self-restraint and the mental faculties are less fully developed. This phenomenon becomes more significant when we remember that sooner or later, though of course in a still distant future, the races of mankind will in some regions be inevitably so commingled as to efface many of the distinctions which now separate them. About the effect of such a fusion upon human character and the institutions which are the outgrowth of character plus experience, we cannot guess. Since some among the Backward races are both more numerous and more prolific than the Whites, the prospect thus opened may seem discouraging. Yet not all of these races are intellectually inferior to the European races, and may even have a freshness and vitality capable of renewing the energies of more advanced races whom luxury has enervated. In regions where fusion has come to pass, the “composite man” of the remote future may prove to be as well fitted for self-government as the more advanced races are to-day. But fusion, with the assimilation of language, ideas, and habits, though it may extinguish race-enmities, need not make for peace either in nations or between nations.
Whatever happens, such an institution as Popular Government will evidently take its colour from and will flourish or decline according to the moral and intellectual progress of mankind as a whole. Democracy is based on the expectation of certain virtues in the people, and on its tendency to foster and further develop those virtues. It assumes not merely intelligence, but an intelligence elevated by honour, purified by sympathy, stimulated by a sense of duty to the community. It relies on the people to discern these qualities and choose its leaders by them. Given the kind of communal spirit which Rousseau expected, given the kind of fraternally religious spirit which Mazzini and the enthusiasts of his time expected, self-government, having the moral forces behind it, would be a comparatively simple matter, living on by its unquestioned merits. With intelligence, sympathy, and the sense of duty everything would go smoothly; and a system which trained the citizen in these virtues would endure, because each successive generation would grow up in the practice of them. Thus the question of the permanence of democracy resolves itself into the question of whether mankind is growing in wisdom and virtue, and with that comes the question of what Religion will be in the future, since it has been for the finer and more sensitive spirits the motive power behind Morality. Governments that have ruled by Force and Fear have been able to live without moral sanctions, or to make their subjects believe that those sanctions consecrated them, but no free government has ever yet so lived and thriven, for it is by a reverence for the Powers Unseen and Eternal which impose those sanctions, that the powers of evil have been, however imperfectly, kept at bay and the fabric of society held together. The future of democracy is therefore a part of two larger branches of enquiry, the future of religion and the prospects of human progress.
The question, whether men will rise towards the higher standard which the prophets of democracy deemed possible, has been exercising every thoughtful mind since August 1914, and it will be answered less hopefully now than it would have been at any time in the hundred years preceding. That many millions of men should perish in a strife which brought disasters to the victors only less than those it brought to the vanquished is an event without parallel in the annals of the race. There has probably been since the fifth century no moment in history which has struck mankind with such terror and dismay as have the world-wide disasters which began in 1914, and have not yet passed away. The explanations of the facts are no more cheering than the facts themselves. Human passions have been little softened and refined by the veneer of civilization that covers them: human intelligence has not increased, and shows no sign of increasing, in proportion to the growing magnitude and complexity of human affairs. Knowledge has been accumulated, the methods and instruments of research have been improved, a wonderful mastery over the forces of Nature has been obtained, the world has become a more comfortable place to live in and offers a far greater variety of pleasures; but the mental powers of the individual man have remained stationary, no stronger, no wider in their range, than they were thousands of years ago, and the supremely great who are fit to grapple with the vast problems which the growth of population and the advances of science have created come no more frequently, and may fail to appear just when they are most needed.
This much, however, may be said regarding the question which directly concerns us here. It is not on democracy that the blame for these disasters ought to fall, nor have they darkened its prospect for the future, except in so far as they have disclosed faults in human nature, obstacles to human brotherhood, whose magnitude had not been realized. The seismic centre whence the successive earthquake shocks proceeded did not lie in any democratic country. The catastrophe was so tremendous, because due to the concurrent action of three explosive forces never before conjoined at the same moment—overweening military ambition, the passion of nationality and an outbreak of vengeful fanaticism from small but fiery sections of the industrial population. Such a conjunction of volcanic activities may not recur for ages.
Shaken out of that confident faith in progress which the achievements of scientific discovery had been fostering, mankind must resume its efforts towards improvement in a chastened mood, consoled by the reflection that it has taken only a few thousands of years to emerge from savagery, and less than half that time to rise above the shameless sensualities of the ancient world and the ruthless ferocity of the Dark Ages.
As respects progress in the science and art of free government, experience has established certain principles that were unknown to those who lived under despotisms, and has warned us of certain dangers unforeseen by those who first set up free governments; but when it comes to the application of these principles, and the means of escaping these dangers, the faults that belonged to human nature under previous forms of government have reappeared. Some gains there have been, but they have lain more in the way of destroying what was evil than in the creating of what is good: and the belief that the larger the number of those who share in governing the more will there be of wisdom, of self-control, of a fraternal and peace-loving spirit has been rudely shattered. Yet the rule of Many is safer than the rule of One,—as Cavour said that however faulty a legislative chamber may be an ante-chamber is worse—and the rule of the multitude is gentler than the rule of a class. However grave the indictment that may be brought against democracy, its friends can answer, “What better alternative do you offer?”
Encouragement may be found in the reflection that such moral progress as history records has been made chiefly in the way of raising the sentiments and standards of the average man. Whereas in the realms of abstract thought and in those of science and of art it is to the great intellects that the world looks, popular government lives and prospers more by the self-restraint and good sense and good will of the bulk of the nation than by the creative power of great intellects; and whoever looks back three or six or nine centuries cannot doubt that in the civilized communities as a whole men's habits and moral standards have risen. Outbursts of crime and sin recur from time to time, but they come less frequently and are visited with a sterner condemnation. That the knightly virtues of courage and honour have suffered no decline is evident. The spirit of the citizen soldiers who in 1914 came willingly to give their lives for a cause in which the fortunes of mankind as well as of their own countries seemed to be at stake shone forth with a light brighter than in any former war. In this some consolation for many sorrows may be found.
No government demands so much from the citizen as Democracy, and none gives so much back. Any free people that has responded to the call of duty and come out of a terrible ordeal unshaken in courage, undimmed in vision, with its vital force still fresh and strong, need not fear to face the future.
The statesmen and philosophers of antiquity did not dream of a government in which all men of every grade should bear a part: democracy was for them a superstructure erected upon a substructure of slavery. Modern reformers, bolder and more sanguine, called the multitude to power with the hope and in the faith that the gift of freedom and responsibility would kindle the spirit self-government requires. For them, as for Christian theologians, Hope was one of the Cardinal Virtues.
Less has been achieved than they expected, but nothing has happened to destroy the belief that among the citizens of free countries the sense of duty and the love of peace will grow steadily stronger. The experiment has not failed, for the world is after all a better place than it was under other kinds of government, and the faith that it may be made better still survives. Without Faith nothing is accomplished, and Hope is the mainspring of Faith. Throughout the course of history every winter of despondency has been followed by a joyous springtime of hope.
Hope, often disappointed but always renewed, is the anchor by which the ship that carries democracy and its fortunes will have to ride out this latest storm as it has ridden out many storms before. There is an Eastern story of a king with an uncertain temper who desired his astrologer to discover from the stars when his death would come. The astrologer, having cast the horoscope, replied that he could not find the date, but had ascertained only this that the king's death would follow immediately on his own. So may it be said that Democracy will never perish till after Hope has expired.
Toιos γàρ νóos ∊ςτιν ∊πιχθoνιων aνθρωπων oιoν ∊π 'ημaρ áγηςι πατηρ ανδρων τ∊ θ∊ων τ∊ (Odyss. xviii. 136).
In his extraordinary book the Defensor Pacis, published in 1327.
A term from the name of a chief among American aborigines.
The passion for pleasure and amusement, as contrasted with the taste for intellectual enjoyments, is often said to be growing with the growth of civilization. There certainly have been ages in which the “things of the mind” were more and others in which they were less cared for by the more leisured class, but men's judgment of the time they live in is apt to be affected by personal bias, especially in those who miss what they valued in their youth.