Friday, February 14, 2014

Britannica article on democracy

Thoughts about the Encyclopedia Britannica article on democracy

My Encyclopedia Britannica, 1967 Edition, I am using as an end table beside our chesterfield.

Months ago, though, I dug out the volume with its article on democracy and went through it. Only later did the significance of the article, and its place in history, sink in. At first blush the article just seemed dated, written as it was during the Cold War. 

But then it struck me how our definition of democracy has changed in the decades since it was written. We think of democracy as one thing, but the author of this article distinguishes two breeds of democracy, constitutional and totalitarian, the latter meaning democracy under communist regimes.

Such was the influence of Marxism that the author of this Britannica article had to take its claim to democracy seriously. Its conclusion notes that democracy in the 20th Century had spread but it was still doubtful which of the two types, constitutional or totalitarian, would win.

"Democracy was in the ascendant everywhere, but only the future could tell whether the prevailing form of democracy would prove to be constitutional or totalitarian." (EB, Democracy, Vol. 7, p. 223)

Two major features qualify the totalitarian breed of democracy as a democracy: one, it includes a complete bill of rights and, two, its bicameral legislature elected by universal suffrage. However, the leading role of the communist party was unchallengeable, and it permitted no political action without its approval. Hence, totalitarian.

"In any normal sense of the word, democracy, a form of government which provides no opportunity for the legitimate expression of popular preferences and which confines the right of significant political action to a small minority of the population is the reverse of democratic. The communists insist, however, that the constitution of 1936 is the most democratic in the world, and that liberal constitutions by comparison are nothing more than facades masking the realities of a basically undemocratic society. This conclusion follows logically from the premises of the Marxist conception of democracy." (EB, Democracy, Vol. 7, p. 222)

The total might of the party did not interfere with democracy because, according to Marxist theory, everything human is derived from the material and economic. The communist party only made sure that the economic fountainhead was pure. As long as everything is informed by economics, how can the people not approve of the result?

The author of this article accepts the possibility of "totalitarian democracy" because, according to the definition of democracy, both liberty and equality of citizens are essential features, but if you cannot have both, equality is more important.

He cites the following quote from Aristotle in evidence,

"A democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state ... The most pure democracy is that which is so called principally from that equality which prevails in it; for this is what the law in that state directs; that the poor shall be in no greater subjection than the rich; nor that the supreme power shall be lodged in either of these, but that both shall share it. For if liberty and equality, as some persons suppose, are chiefly to be found in a democracy, it must be so by every department of government being alike open to all; but as the people are the majority, and what they vote is law, it follows that such a state must be a democracy." (Aristotle, Politics, IV, ch. 4, 1290b, 1291b))

Is a constitutional democracy open to the freedom and equality of all? Are its citizens allowed to vote in laws? Has that happened in living memory? Be that as it may, here is what this Britannica author says in defense of constitutional democracies against their rival school, totalitarian democracy.

"If democracy is primarily a question of political rights, the democratic claims of the U.S.S.R. are nonsense. Even if democracy is primarily a question of economic equality, those claims are still dubious since many other countries, including Britain and the United States, have gone a good deal further than communist Russia in equalizing incomes. In the special terminology of Marxism, however, the necessary and sufficient condition of democracy lies simply in the elimination of private ownership of the instruments of production. There is no private capital in the U.S.S.R. From this it follows that in the very special Marxist sense of the word, the USSR is far more democratic than any liberal state." (EB, Democracy, Vol. 7, p. 222)

This is the passage that made me do a double take. A week long double take. I finished reading and set the article aside for about a month. It kept bugging me, what it said about equality in constitutional democracies. Finally, I just had to go over it all again and set it down.

What the author says about economic equality progressing more in constitutional democracy shows that it was the competitive pressure of communism to beat them out at their own game, equality, that pushed the capitalists. As soon as Europe's communist regimes began to totter, that pressure went away and the present extreme wealth loosed its bounds. Now capitalism has become out and out plutocracy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations - thanks for writing and sharing. :-)