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Chapter XVI: The Claims of Democracy

Democracy, although usually described as a “form of government,” is in fact a social system, of which government in the strict sense is only a part. It may properly be called an ideology, since it defines an order of values which pervades all of the major aspects of human life.

It is characteristic of democracy, in this broad sense, that its adherents are not merely loyal to it but believe that its claims to acceptance are superior to those of any rival ideology. It is considered a mark of enlightenment in the modern age to adopt an attitude of sceptical relativism toward one's fundamental allegiance—whether it be to God, or to country, or to any other cause. The effect is strangely paradoxical. He who claims for his cause that it is in some sense true or valid offers reasons for it. He, on the other hand, who claims nothing for his cause save that it is his, looks to no proof save his own sheer assertion. Hence sceptical relativism generates fanaticism. Such fanaticism is the most terrible of all fanaticisms: since it is incorrigible and remorseless. It is blind to evidence and deaf to argument. Against opposing doctrines it brings a closed mind, and a naked will. It submits to no arbitration but that of force. Its only credential is its power to survive, and the authenticity of its credentials is established by its success in surviving. It consecrates itself, therefore, to the cultivation of power and to the destruction of its rivals.

The adherent of democracy rejects sceptical relativism and claims truth. He refuses to concede that democracy is just one among conflicting ideologies, each of which is good for its own devotees. He claims it is the optimum form of social organization, endorsed by advancing enlightenment and acceptable even to present opponents in proportion as their ignorance, inexperience, or willful perversity is overcome; in proportion, that is, as it finds entrance into thoughtful and disinterested minds.

This bold claim of democracy is based on the alleged identity between democracy and morality. Democracy is the right organization of society, or the way in which society ought to be organized, or the good society; the terms ‘right,’ ‘ought,’ and ‘good’ being given a moral meaning, and ‘morality’ being taken to mean the organization of interests for the purpose of removing conflict and substituting coöperation. So construed, morality is applicable to all interests, to all persons taken as having interests, and to all relations among interests. It does not depend on the particular character of the interests, or on their time and place; it does not depend on the particular subject of the interests, or on race, nationality, or condition. There is no society of men whose orbits intersect or whose interests meet to which this standard is not applicable, whether in praise or in condemnation.

Democracy is the social application of this principle, and it shows the same universality. In its fundamental meaning a democracy is a society of persons who so manage their relations and their affairs as to escape the evils of isolation, frustration, and violence, and achieve the good of living innocently and fruitfully together. It is a harmony of wills by which to achieve the maximum fulfillment of the interests of all concerned. So defined the democratic society is the ideal society, and in proportion as this ideal is achieved a society merits the name of ‘democracy.’


Lest this definition of democracy seem to be arbitrary, or merely to represent the extravagance of its adherents, it must be tested by comparison with traditional verbal usage. Democracy has always been associated with the term ‘people,’ as in Lincoln's classic “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Judgments of democracy both unfavorable and favorable have reflected the meanings given to this term: the comparative ill-repute of democracy in ancient times was based on a derogatory idea of “the people,” and its comparatively high repute in modern times has been based on a eulogistic idea of “the people.”

The derogatory idea of “the people” sprang, presumably, from the division of society into classes or castes. Since the dawn of history, and in all parts of the world, human societies have as a rule possessed a pyramidal structure: an hereditary chieftain, a king exalted in dignity above the rest and ruling by personal command; an oligarchy or hereditary aristocracy, enjoying special privileges and forming the king's immediate entourage; and on the other hand, a residuum, larger in number and lower in privilege and dignity. The term ‘democracy’ (δημοχρατιχ) first came into vogue as the name for a society ruled by this last and most numerous class, the demos (δῆμοσ). The alternatives were distinguished in terms of number — the rule of the one, the few, or the many — and the many were assumed to be inferior in wealth, knowledge, talent, and prowess.

When democracy is achieved by revolution this conception will always possess a certain justification. The few who were on top will in some degree have been selected by merit, and those who are placed on top when the pyramid is overturned will retain some of the characteristics of the bottom. They will, as a group, have enjoyed less of what are called “advantages.” They will be less skilled in the art of managing affairs; and less disinterested, since they are more likely to be governed by envy and greed.

This conception of democracy as the inversion of a class pyramid — as turning society upside down, and putting on top those who belong at the bottom — has never ceased to reign in men's minds. The condemnation of the French Revolution and more recently of the proletarian revolution in Russia has been largely on this ground. But there has been a tendency to shift the emphasis from a lowest and most numerous class to a type of mentality supposed to be characteristic of it. Polybius in ancient times introduced the term ‘ochlocracy’ as the name for the rule of the mob or crowd.1 But the mental characteristics of the mob are no longer confined to any sharply distinguishable social class; with the spread of literacy and the rise of the general standard of living all parts of society have become vulnerable to mass appeal, and to the demagogue who debases men's minds in order to win their blind support.

When democracy is taken to mean the rule of the people, and the term ‘people’ is taken to mean the mass or the mass mentality its refutation is self-evident. If democracy means the rule of those who are unfit to rule, it is condemned by definition. Instead of being the best form of society it is clearly the worst.2 If the rule of the people is to be justified, they must be believed to be the best qualified to rule — not necessarily well-qualified, but at any rate the least disqualified.

Democracy makes three claims to satisfy this requirement. In the first place, it takes an optimistic rather than a pessimistic view of human nature. It judges men by the capacities displayed by them at their best. No doubt modern democracy was in its rosy dawn over optimistic. Deliverance from the harsh restraints of tyranny and bigotry seemed, in the eighteenth century, to promise an immediate and glorious triumph of that faculty of reason which distinguishes the human species from the brute. The disillusionment which followed called for a greater sobriety and patience — a long struggle rather than an easy victory. If men were not actually rational, they were at any rate potentially rational, and could become rational through education and opportunity.

In the second place, the people are best fitted to rule because it is their good which is at stake and of this they themselves are the best judges. Experience has shown that in the long run the best guarantee that the interests of men shall be consulted and provided for by society is to put them in charge of it. When the ruler is separated from the ruled he is likely to become so preoccupied with his own interests as to forget the interests of the ruled (“the forgotten man”); or to put what he feels for them, in place of what they feel for themselves.

The final and conclusive qualification of the people to rule is their inclusiveness. There is no morally justifiable claim of one man or one group to rule over another, but there is a morally justifiable claim of the whole to rule over one of its parts. There is a finality in a human person which forbids his being rightfully overruled save with his own consent.

Hence democracy as the morally best form of organized society is a society organized and ruled by its own members, and all of its members, for their own good as they see it. If the rule of the people by themselves and for themselves is to be something more than a high-sounding phrase by which authorities soften the edge of their authoritarianism, by which a king commends himself as the “father” of his people, or a demagogue masquerades as the “friend” of the people, the wills of the members of society must be so organized as to enable them to make public policy and profit by it.


In the examination of the relation of the several social institutions to democracy it was well to begin with polity, because political democracy has led the way in democratic practice, and has largely determined the verbal expressions used in the theoretical discussions of democracy. Thus it is customary to speak of democracy as a “form of government,” although the vogue of such expressions as “democratic processes” and the “democratic way of life” implies that polity is only a fraction of what is being talked about. It is political democracy, furthermore, which brings out most clearly the important difference between a democracy of control and a democracy of benefits. The latter is now commonly referred to as ‘social democracy,’ and it will be convenient to employ this usage. But if it is to be employed it must be with reservations, for evidently polity is social, both in its own peculiar instrumentalities, and in its ulterior purpose.

A polity is democratic when, and insofar as, the ruling, that is, the control, of public policy is lodged in the entire people rather than in any individual or group. Different forms of democratic polity will then be distinguished by the different methods by which the people exercise this control: the most important difference of method being that between its direct, and its indirect, exercise. The direct method of control is employed when public policy is decided by the people assembled en masse, or by a referendum; the indirect method when the people delegate their control, or choose representatives who act in their behalf.

Those who wish to disparage democracy sometimes refer to the second type of polity as “republican,” and deny that it is democratic at all; invoking the authority of the Founding Fathers. It is quite true that James Madison and others who participated in the classic debates of the Federalist did so use the words ‘democracy’ and ‘republic.’3 But Jefferson, on the other hand, gives no sanction to this terminology:

We of the United States … are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats. We consider society as one of the natural wants with which man has been created; that he has been endowed with faculties and qualities to effect its satisfaction by concurrence of others having the same want; that when, by the exercise of these faculties, he has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him … Hence, with us, the people … being unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level, yet competent judges of human character, they chose, for their management, representatives, some by themselves immediately, others by electors chosen by themselves.4

Jefferson advocates indirect popular control, on the ground that the people at large are competent to judge of facts and of character, though not of policy. And it is this ultimate popular control, called into play when the deputy is chosen or removed, which then constitutes the defining principle of political democracy. Thus, according to Webster, a democracy is “a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people and exercised either directly (pure democracy) or indirectly (representative democracy).”5

In practice it is impossible to hold even to this distinction, except as a difference of degree. It is doubtful if any democracy has been pure in the sense of dispensing altogether with delegated authorities; and the delegated authority will always exercise some discretionary authority in the discharge of his duties of legislation, administration, or judicial decision, and in the interval between elections — otherwise there would be no reason for having him. On the other hand, every elector will, in casting his vote, be in some measure concerned with the candidate's opinions as well as his character, and will therefore be compelled to make up his own mind on matters of public policy. In short, the popular representative is neither the mouthpiece of his constituents, nor a superior person selected to do their thinking for them: he is both — a mixture of the two in varying proportions.

All of the characteristic devices of political democracy are designed with a view to effective popular control, whether direct or indirect: the elected legislature and executive; election of the judiciary, or its appointment by the elected legislature or executive; manhood suffrage and periodic elections; the secret ballot, enabling the citizen to register his opinion without fear; the multiple party system, providing for the organized expression of group opinions; freedom of criticism of the party in power by parties out of power, and by the general public; the campaigns which precede elections; liberty of press, radio, and assembly, by which the public may be informed of issues of policy and by which both sides may be presented; public education, in order to fit the people to exercise their function of citizenship.

The device of majority decisions as applied both to elections and to the acts of the assembly is of the greatest practical importance, but must not, as has been pointed out, be mistaken for the meaning of democracy. No fraction of the people, however large, is identical with the people. The core of democracy is government by consent — by the consent of all who live under government. The right of any given majority lies in the underlying agreement of all parties to accept a decision by majority vote. And at the same time the minority may not be deprived of the opportunity to convert itself into a majority.

This, however, is only half of the story. A democracy is known by its fruits and not merely by its control. It is essential that another question should be asked, namely, “For whose good does a democratic government govern?” It is assumed that if the people control society they will control it not merely for the sake of controlling it, or for the sake of perpetuating their control, but in order to obtain what they desire or enjoy what they like. The ruling and the interests of the ruled — the democracy of control and the democracy of benefits — are interdependent parts of one whole. Nevertheless it is possible to distinguish them. This becomes clear when it is recognized that democracy of control could, theoretically, be combined with privileged benefits, and privileged control with a democracy of benefit. A government by the people, could, however unlikely, be devoted to the interests of a king or of an elite. A government by a priest or king, or by a hereditary aristocracy, or by an oligarchy of the rich, or by a single party, might be dedicated to the interests of all the people. Democracy in the full sense rejects both of these alternatives. If, then, out of respect for usage, and despite the probability of misunderstanding, the term ‘political democracy’ is used to designate popular rule or control, and the term ‘social democracy’ to designate popular distribution of benefits, then the union of the two will constitute “integral democracy.” The same distinction provides for the difference, and at the same time the close relation between political rights and social rights, between the political and the social parts of freedom, and between political and social equality. One can also understand how in the history of democracy there is an opposite or alternating emphasis on these two aspects, ultimately inseparable though they be.


Democracy can be considered as a circle, sometimes benign, sometimes vicious. When democracy flourishes, this circle is a circuit through which democratic forces gather strength as they flow; but when democracy fails at one point of the circle, it is likely to fail throughout. Political democracy tends to promote social democracy, and social democracy tends to promote political democracy. But the lack of one tends to destroy or prevent the other, and when there is no democracy at all it is necessary to decide which shall be the first point of attack. These considerations have a pertinent application to the present, when it is proposed that democracy shall be extended to large portions of mankind who have hitherto been without it.

The absence of social democracy incapacitates a people for political democracy, and without political democracy the people are unlikely to achieve social democracy. Effective political democracy reflects social benefits already enjoyed. Without education, leisure, and economic power widely distributed, popular control can never be more than nominal. When the great majority of a people has little or no margin above the level of bare subsistence, it has neither the competence nor the inclination to assume political control, or to utilize its mechanisms when these are offered. In other words, as is now said of vast aggregates of mankind, bread comes before the ballot. They are disfranchised by their poverty.

As a consequence of this situation, political control falls into the hands of privileged monopolists of land and capital, who are disinclined to abandon their privileges. Polity then obeys the law that “to him who hath it shall be given” — and shall continue to be given. Their political exploitation of the people follows from their economic exploitation. This political exploitation need not assume the more gross and palpable forms. It may consist simply in a general disparity of all of those capacities and attainments which, in their sum, condition the influence which one man can privately exert upon his fellows. It may assume most gracious forms and be consecrated by tradition. It may be accompanied by small kindnesses and the observance of decent amenities on the part of those who exert influence, and by docility and loyalty on the part of those who receive it. But it still remains exploitation. The exploited may applaud and vote as they are told, since they know no better; and rally to slogans invented by their betters, who have the superior wit to invent them, and who occupy the key positions, and possess the instruments, by which slogans become effective. The mind of the people is made for them by those who create the ideas and the symbols which seize the popular imagination. By making the popular mind the privileged minority makes the government; and if they are human, they will be inclined to perpetuate the condition of which they are the privileged beneficiaries.

No one would give the name of ‘democracy’ to this state of affairs. How is a society to be extricated from this vicious circle? Only, it seems clear, by improving the social condition of the masses of the people, so that they may be enabled to profit by their numerical strength. Once in this prostrate condition the people cannot save themselves by political democracy: they need social salvation first in order to understand and achieve political salvation. They have to be helped to their feet before they can walk, or learn to walk by themselves.

The escape from this situation may take a variety of forms, the most radical of which is revolution proceeding from the more embittered and passionate of the exploited class, led by members of the intelligentsia, who from any one of a number of motives, high and low, may have come over to their side. Or the situation may be escaped, without violence, through a benevolent dictatorship at home, or through a benevolent imperial master or trustee operating from abroad. A paternalistic government is invoked to give the people what they have neither the knowledge nor the power to demand, in order that thereafter they may be qualified to prize and preserve it. Whichever form the intervention assumes it will take time to bear fruit. This is commonly called “preparing a people for self-government.” There are, in other words, situations in which political democracy can be brought into being only by non-democratic procedures.

The danger of such remedies is notorious. Violent revolution tends to a general and prolonged disorder — to cruelties and reprisals, hatreds and suspicions, which are disastrous to the entire society, and from which all parties, including the exploited themselves, turn for relief to dictatorship. Paternalism once practiced at home or abroad, tends to become permanent, the time when the people are considered “fit for self-government” being perpetually postponed. To accomplish the delivery and the weaning requires a magnanimity, political craftsmanship, and forbearance which, though by no means unknown, are rare.

No such dangerous remedies are required within societies which have already achieved a fair measure of social democracy. In such societies, there is already a sufficiently wide distribution of power and understanding to justify a scrupulous observance of democratic political forms.

These then serve as the institutions through which a more or less enlightened and self-confident popular will can extend its rule. But even in such societies there is no guarantee that these institutions will be effectively democratic unless they are perpetually devoted to the wide distribution of these conditions of life which enable a man to speak intelligently and effectively in behalf of his interests, and to play his part in the molding of public opinion. Democracy can be destroyed through a process of social gravitation by which large groups of the community, despite their constitutional rights, become inarticulate and impotent.

The interdependence of the political and social aspects of democracy, with the possible emphasis of one at the expense of the other, throws some light on the present unhappy state of the world. Two groups of nations are aligned against one another in the name of democracy, and each denies the other the right to the name. Thus in the Western democracies it is the common belief that the name of ‘people's democracy’ employed in communist countries, is mere camouflage. But there is a grain or two of truth in the view that the dispute is not between a genuine and a fraudulent democracy, but between two halves of democracy, each of which is mistaken by its partisans for the whole.

A recent cartoon by Low represents two figures labeled “Eastern View of Democracy” and “Western View of Democracy.” The first looking into a mirror sees the second instead of seeing a reflection of himself. The first carries a book labeled “Marx-Lenin Doctrine” and bearing the inscription, “Government in the Interest of the People”; the second carries a ballot box bearing the inscription “Government by the Will of the People.” The first, “The Eastern View,” is represented as blind in one eye, while the second, “The Western View,” is represented as seeing with both eyes, and wears an expression of surprise at the one-sided vision of the other. Now had the cartoonist not been a Westerner, he might have represented both figures as defective in one eye. There would then be two democracies, each of which sees better out of one eye than the other, but which differ in the eye which sees better. Neither would be wholly blind to the fact that democracy implies both “government in the interest of the people” and “government by the will of the people,” but communist countries would be credited with a clearer vision of the first implication, and the western democracies of the second.

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was an uprising of peasants and workers, under doctrinaire leadership, against extreme and long-standing exploitation by the landowners, industrial magnates, administrative bureaucracy, imperial dynasty, and clerical hierarchy of the old Russian regime. It was a violation of established human and property rights, and resulted in the creation of a harsh and repressive dictatorship. The new Constitution, proclaimed in 1936, did not represent the realities of the situation, but it did represent the professed goal. In its definition of rights it emphasized social rights, as being necessary to make political rights effective. Thus a Soviet apologist, having emphasized “such great rights as the right to work, to rest and leisure, to an education, and to material maintenance in old age and also in case of sickness or incapacitation,” proceeded as follows:

It is these social rights, above all, that insure the widest enjoyment of all political rights and liberties, for they provide freedom from worry about employment, freedom from fear of “rainy days,” they guarantee stable earnings, provide the necessary free time to take part in political activities, enable everyone to broaden his horizon and acquire general and special knowledge.6

These claims are advanced to prove that “Soviet democracy is a higher type of democracy,” and “a system of true popular government.” The argument can be reversed, to prove that a people denied political liberties have lost at least half of their democracy, and that without their political liberties the people will lose the best guarantee of their social rights. No doubt Western democracy at present exceeds Soviet democracy on both scores, but it cannot afford to dismiss the Soviet argument lightly. There are European and American adherents of democracy who are too easily satisfied with the creed of political democracy, and who need to be reminded that social democracy is both the proper fruit and indispensable condition of political democracy.

Furthermore, in its appeal for the support of mankind, Western democracy is too likely to forget that its gospel of political democracy does not always meet the existing situation. There are multitudes of mankind for whom the first step toward democracy must be the relief of their misery, ignorance, and exploitation. The saving gospel will be that of an integral democracy comprising both a popular control, and a popular distribution of benefits.


Democracy will employ all of the basic moral institutions — of conscience, law, and economy, as well as polity — and each of these in turn will be democratic. A society which is democratic in any one or two of these spheres and non-democratic in the rest, will find itself in a state of uneasy equilibrium. This follows from the interdependence of the institutions themselves, and from the fact that the same persons are embraced in all, and will carry their habits and attitudes from one to another.

A democratic conscience will be distinguished from any class conscience — from any code which rests on privilege and exclusiveness, such as the code of a military caste, the code of the courtier, the code of the sportsman, the code of the worker, even the code of the race or nation. The democratic conscience is the code of “man to man the warld o'er.” It does not contradict narrower codes provided these are subordinate. It may embrace a peculiar deference to the opinion of fellow-members of any limited circle, provided it does not supersede the deference to the opinion of one's fellow-men at large.

Law will be democratic in the double sense already brought to light in the examination of democratic polity. The people will make their own laws, and will themselves enjoy the benefits. Law made by the popular assembly will express the popular will most immediately and directly; law made by the judicial process, will provide for the rights of all individuals and minorities, and thus protect the people as a whole against the tyranny and haste of the momentary majority. In its democratic procedures law will give every litigant the opportunity to argue his own case on the grounds of fact or legal interpretation, and thus to participate in the making of the decision which finds him guilty or innocent, or by which he obtains or suffers damages. The people are also justified in insisting that the law's benefits shall accrue to all, without fear or favor, and that it shall promote their well-being and happiness. Since the ultimate premises of constitutional law are derived from a social philosophy, in a democracy they will coincide with the general principles of democracy. Every decision which is based on narrower premises will be open to challenge and reargument.

The principles of democracy have peculiar weight in their application to economy. Gross inequalities of wealth and bargaining power can arise within a society whose political constitution is democratic, and a growing awareness of this fact has shifted the emphasis of democratic gospel from polity to economy; a political democracy which is not at the same time an economic democracy is a hollow mockery. What boots it if a man may speak his mind and deposit his ballot if other private persons, through command of the resources which he needs, can make and mold his life from the cradle to the grave, and from father to child? He feels, rather, that he has exchanged one master for another — a magnate, instead of a Caesar, who bestrides the narrow world like a colossus.

As in polity the citizen plays the double role of ruler and ruled, and as in polity the ruling is for the benefit of the ruled, so in an economy each human integer plays the double role of the producer and consumer, and the producing is for the sake of the consuming. As in a political democracy the people govern for their own benefit, so in an economic democracy they produce for their own benefit. They will suffer no bondage save the bond of their own agreement. The divisions of labor and role which the economy requires will be raised to the level of voluntary coöperation and shareholding in a common enterprise.

If a society is to be democratic as a whole, the major social institutions — conscience, polity, law, and economy — must be democratic. But there is still room within a democracy for subordinate organizations which are non-democratic — provided they are not anti-democratic. It is clear that an army, for example, cannot serve its purpose without discipline, that is to say, without the prompt and invariable obedience of commands from above. But if autocratic control within a democracy is to be consistent with its democratic framework there are certain conditions which must be met.

In the first place, the authority must be a delegated authority, in fact as well as in name. The purpose for which the autocratic control is exercised must be accepted by those who are called upon to obey it. Thus an army is democratic, however autocratic the control exercised by the officers, when the necessity of such control and the purpose for which it is exercised are understood and accepted by the men in the ranks. The efforts to implant this condition of mind, however pathetic its failure, is characteristic of the so-called “popular” or “citizens’” armies of a democracy.

In the second place, the delegated control must not be interminable, irretrievable, or absolute. The man in the ranks must not lose his citizenship, and his political or legal rights; and he must have safeguards and means of redress by which these rights are protected. The same will hold of all similar organizations, or institutions, such as the church, the school, or the industrial corporation, when the internal mechanism of control is autocratic. The member must not deliver himself totally, but only partially for some limited and defined purpose, reserving his moral will for the ultimate decisions in which he participates as a citizen of a democracy.

In the third place, the social relations within the subordinate organization must be consistent with the personal dignity of its members. The members will be aware of their double finality, as ultimate sources of control, and as claimants whose interests it is the ultimate purpose of social organization to reconcile and promote. On these grounds he will respect himself and demand the respect of others. The personal relations within the organization must not violate this respect — whether they are relations between officer and private, priest and layman, director and shareholder, professor and student, or employer and worker.

In the fourth place, the subordinate organization must not so accustom men to submissiveness and subserviency as to unfit them for the exercise of their democratic roles in conscience, polity, law, and economy. They must not lose their capacity to think and choose for themselves. If the church, school, or any other private organization teaches its members blind obedience, or the uncritical acceptance of another's judgment, it unfits them for taking part in any democratic organization, large or small.

It will have killed the spirit of freedom and equality which is democracy's very life.


There are two watchwords or maxims of democracy, which, while they do not define it, nevertheless through their multiple meanings serve best to convey its all-pervading quality. The first of these is freedom.

Freedom is not doing “what one likes” or “pleases” merely, but doing what one chooses; and in a fuller sense it is doing what one chooses oneself within a system where other people also do what they choose. Freedom thus has both personal and social implications.

It is a mistake to suppose that doing what one chooses is a merely negative thing: it is more than the mere absence of obstacles and hindrances.

The false idea that freedom is a negative thing arises from the fact that people take their interests for granted, and focus attention on what interferes with them. There is a tendency to think of freedom as the removal of whatever it is that one finds frustrating. A conspicuous example of this tendency at the present time is the business man's idea that freedom consists in the non-interference of government; but to the growing youth freedom consists in escape from the interference of the parent or the schoolmaster, to the worker escape from the interference of the boss or employer, to the prisoner escape from jail. All of these freedoms neglect the fact that without a freedom for, a freedom from has no meaning. Positive freedom requires the possession of means and the presence of favorable conditions. There is no freedom unless there is an interest which demands fulfillment and unless that fulfillment is possible.

When it is said that freedom is doing what one chooses, there is a great deal of meaning packed into a little word ‘one.’ It is not a matter of doing what is chosen, but of what some person chooses. Personal choice implies reflection, that is, a capacity to select from several acts which are represented in advance by ideas. It implies calculation, that is, judgments of the results of possible acts; and it implies a weighing not only of alternative means but alternative ends. It then appears, furthermore, that the degree of freedom depends on the range of alternatives — the number and variety of the possibilities open to choice; and this, in turn, not only upon their existing but upon their being known.

But it is from its social implications that democratic freedom emerges. Man lives in a social environment — there is always more than one freedom involved. Other persons may not only present obstacles to freedom, but may have their own rival claims to freedom. Democracy proclaims the principle of the maximum freedom of each which is consistent with a similar freedom for all.

This is the point at which freedom is a product of organization — of the moral and legal institutions, which define areas of freedom, and guarantee them in the name of rights. It is not correct to say that organized society either destroys or creates freedom. Those who hold that it destroys freedom imagine men to be free in a “state of nature,” being ignorant or neglectful of the fact that in the absence of custom, polity, law, and economy men would deprive one another of freedom. Those who hold that civil society creates freedom are ignorant or neglectful of the fact that in the absence of social organization men would still have interests, and would in some measure do what they chose. What civil society does is to impose public restraints on freedom, with a view to diminishing the private restraints on freedom. At the same time, through coöperation, it broadens the possibilities of choice, and provides men with the instruments by which their choices may be effective.

Because democratic freedom is a freedom for all, it is a shared freedom. The democratic will to freedom, though it animates each person, is not an exclusive or egoistic claim; it is an assertion of “our” freedom and not merely “mine.” A democracy is a free society, or society of free men. The attitude of man to man, in all human relations, is flavored with respect for others’ freedom. To live appropriately to a democratic society requires that one shall prefer this form of association to the company of the servile and obsequious. It is this interplay of freedoms — this living among the free — that creates the zest and exhilaration of democratic social relations.


The second great democratic slogan is equality. Like freedom, it has been widely misrepresented. Democracy is supposed by some of its critics to affirm equality at the expense of difference. But to affirm human equality without reservation is so evidently absurd that no one has seriously affirmed it.

Inequality of natural endowment is undeniable and ineradicable; and whenever the conditions of life are equalized, men will profit unequally by these conditions, as the children who inherit equal shares of the same estate will presently have achieved unequal fortunes, or as the runners in a race, having an equal start will arrive unequally at the finish. Such inequality of attainment is not only unavoidable, but desirable. To equalize attainment it would be necessary to devise a system of graduated handicaps. The result would be to reduce all human attainment to the level of the least qualified, and to deprive society of the contributions of superior ability and energy.

Where men start in the race of life is determined for them. If men are to start equal they must be given an equal start — this does not take care of itself. The circle which has been observed in the relation of political to social democracy has its application to equality. Inequalities of opportunity tend to perpetuate themselves, and it is the function of democratic institutions to intervene and to create equality of opportunity, for example, by public education, provisions for social security, or apportionment of the burden of taxation. Only when their condition is equalized can they preserve and perfect their own equality.

At the same time, democracy condemns inequality of opportunity, holding that the more flagrant inequalities among men have been due neither to talent nor merit, but to differences of station arising from the social structure itself. Kings and nobles are not inherently superior to plebeians, but enjoy a superior position, through the accident of birth; the rich may not be inherently superior to the poor, but may owe their superiority to inherited wealth and family background. Democracy attacks such adventitious and privileged inequalities. It calls attention to superior talent and merit in the humbler ranks, and to inferior talent and merit in more exalted ranks. It proclaims the general fact that when advantages and disadvantages of social position are removed, men will be redistributed in the scale of eminence. There may not be any more equality than there was before, but it will be of a different kind; and the change will be known as an equalizing change, because those who advocate it are usually those whom it will raise up, and who say in effect, to their erstwhile superiors, “We are as good or better than you.”

What, then, becomes of the declaration that men are “born” or “created” equal? To understand its meaning it is necessary to understand that at the time when John Locke uttered this declaration (to be adopted afterwards by Thomas Jefferson) the authority of some men, such as kings, over other men, known as “subjects,” was defended on grounds of birth and “divine right.” The democratic contention is that the only justifiable superior authority is that which men originally equal in authority delegate provisionally to some of their own number. The same principle applied to economy means that the only justifiable inequalities of wealth are those which arise among men originally of equal wealth — entitled to equal shares of nature's bounty — but some of whom make better use than others of their opportunity.

“Equality before the law” refers to the fact that law is couched in terms of universals and is therefore equally applicable to all instances of the universal. It means that all who fall under the law are equally entitled to its benefits, or liable to its restrictions, regardless of their differences. It does not mean, for example, that there may not be one law for the rich and one for the poor: but that if there be such laws, all the rich shall be equal before one law and all the poor before the other; and that both rich and poor shall be equal before other laws.

However they vary otherwise — in talent, aptitude, physical characteristics, or energy — all men are men. There is an option as to whether attention shall be focused on the specific differences or on the generic sameness. Democracy emphasizes the common humanity of men, and their common potentialities, to whatever degree these may be realized. It does not invent the biological fact that men belong to one family, or the historic fact of their common inheritance and destiny, but it stresses these facts, lest they be ignored in the narrower perspectives of daily life and amidst the rivalries by which men are divided. Democracy excites the sentiments and devises the symbols appropriate to these wider relationships.7

Democratic equality, like democratic freedom, culminates in the feeling of participation. The vast size and complexity of a modern society make it impossible that a man should live in the physical presence of more than a small fraction of his fellow members. It becomes the more imperative that he should by imagination and understanding extend this fellowship beyond these narow limits. That which distinguishes democracy is not happines merely, but shared happiness, or happiness of the kind that is enhanced by living among the happy. In proportion as a man is democratically minded he will find it intolerable that his happiness should be enjoyed at the expense of others. Accustomed to interchanging his lot with that of other men, whether through the objectivity of thought or through sympathy, he will count the unhappiness of others as his own, and in his pursuit of his own happiness he will join his efforts to those of other men who are pursuing theirs.

This does not imply uniformity or gregariousness. It does not mean that human interests in a democratic society will be reduced to collective activities, such as social reform, choral singing, processions, games, or even dinner parties — God forbid! One may be as aloof or as fastidious as one pleases. One may prefer the company of the select rather than the company of the crowd. One may spend one's most rewarding hours in solitary contemplation. All that democracy requires is that one's enjoyment of solitude or converse with kindred spirits should be attended with a sense of innocence and of like privileges enjoyed by others. Indeed it may be argued that the consummate flower of public organization is its multiplication and protection of privacies.

These, then, are the meanings embraced within the idea of equality, when this is used as a token of democracy: the creation of a situation in which all men shall be given the same chance to prove themselves by their talents and effort; the belittling of the inequalities which are due merely to the position of the individual in the social structure; the awarding to all men equally of the opportunity to demonstrate their capacities; the emphasis on the common nature and the common lot of mankind; the sense of participation and companionship in a joint effort to provide for the several and different interests of all men.


Democracy is a cultural product which lends itself to all the methods of inquiry which characterize the cultural sciences. It can be explained by attention to the conditions which give rise to it, and to its various forms, and it can be judged by standards, internal and external. It is characteristic of all ideals that their adherents fall short of their full realization — even Satan after having fallen from angelic heights presumably failed to conform perfectly to his Satanic code. If this generalization does not apply to God it is because a divine being is perfect by definition. It is evident that democracy is a counsel of perfection, and that the gap between the reach and the grasp is in proportion to the height of the reach.

Since democracy embraces all of the major social institutions — conscience, polity, law, and economy — its critique will embrace the critiques to which those institutions severally submit themselves. An ideal democracy will be efficient in its ethical, political, legal, and economic instruments, and in these several fields of social organization it will be true to their common moral purpose. It will require a democratic statesmanship in which this purpose is combined with enlightenment.

The lack of qualified leadership and direction is the besetting sin of democracy, of which it has been in some measure guilty throughout its history, and with which it has been with some justice charged by its opponents. This sin is as tempting and as deadly in the modern world as in earlier days. Democracy substitutes the people at large for the privileged person or class: the danger is that it shall then cease to be guided by those more eminent qualities of which the privileged were, if not the embodiment, then at least the symbols. Democracy incurs, as always, the risk that in rejecting the superior person and class, it shall reject superiority altogether.

In principle democracy implies that superiority shall be distributed among the members of society instead of being reserved for a self-appointed and self-perpetuating segment. For the overlord and the ruling class it substitutes the citizen. The farseeingness, all-interestedness, and steady vision of the good, which Plato ascribed to the philosophers, are supposed to exist in varying degrees in every man — at least in the form of a potentiality and an obligation. But the danger is that privileged authorities shall be superseded not by a body of more or less high-minded citizens, but by the mass, and by those who are skilled in the art of manipulating the mass.

This danger, as has been pointed out, is aggravated by the size and complexity of modern societies; and by the technologies of mass communication and mass production. The citizen as a thinking individual, who is competent to judge matters of public policy on their merits, and by discussion and persuasion to participate in the formation of an enlightened public opinion, tends to be replaced by the mass audience, the mass mind, and the mass consumer, or by the lobbyist and pressure group, who by speaking for the mass, or for some selfish interest, intimidate the public official.8 The first concern of the friends of democracy, should be to save the thinking citizen from being thus degraded, submerged, and obliterated.

To the lack of enlightened fidelity to the democratic creed among the personal members of the nominal democracy are to be ascribed the notorious failures which have excited the scorn of its opponents. It is a wholesome and seasonable exercise of the mind for modern democracies to measure their deeds by their professions. Such a candid self-examination will reveal a widespread failure to redeem their pledges of liberality. Modern democracies abound in inequalities of opportunity, and in deprivations of freedom — of those very freedoms of thought and communication in which they pride themselves.

Democracy is an unfulfilled aspiration. Those who are underprivileged in a democracy such as the United States, are sustained by the sense that in the long run the society in which they live is theirs to make. The following paragraph was written by a sensitive and loyal American Negro, despite the disillusionment that followed the Second World War:

I will take this that I have here. I will take the democratic theory. The bit of road of freedom that stretches through America is worth fighting to preserve. The very fact that I, a Negro in America, can fight against the evils in America is worth fighting for. This open fighting against the wrongs one hates is the mark and the hope of democratic freedom. I do not underestimate the struggle. I know the learning that must take place, the evils that must be broken, the depths that must be climbed. But I am free to help in doing these things. I count. I am free (though only a little as yet) to pound blows at the huge body of my American world until like a chastened mother, she gives me nurture with the rest.9

This utterance, even though it springs from a discouragement that borders on despair, and bespeaks an attitude of stubborn faith rather than a sense of triumph, profoundly expresses the motive of democracy and truly describes its saving grace.


In war, cold or hot, there are ordinarily two sides. In the world wars of the present epoch the antagonists have been groups of nations united by bonds of interest and ideology. The opposing ideologies that now divide the world are highly complex. Democracy, as understood in Western Europe and America and spread abroad from this source, being compounded of many ideas, is supported by its adherents on many grounds. The same is true of communism. As each side acquires supporters, so also it creates opponents, for different reasons. As the different elements of each ideology come to be combined under common labels and symbols, and felt as a common cause, each is further unified by its opposition to the other until there is little left but the primitive difference between friends and enemies. It is important for the future of the world that men should turn from this sheer combativeness to ideal issues so that they may know precisely what it is that they are for and what against.

The situation is confused not only by the emotion of hostility but by the fact that communism has assumed a different aspect since 1944, when it was possible for Americans and Englishmen to accept a military partnership with Soviet Russia, and, albeit with some misgivings, to look forward to coöperation in time of peace under the aegis of the United Nations. The enemy then was fascism or nazism, against which Western democracy and Eastern communism appeared to be united. Scarcely a half dozen years later, communism had replaced nazism in the role of enemy, and was commonly supposed to be essentially the same thing.

The following statement made in 1947 by an English critic of Sorel, the French syndicalist, is instructive:

The most interesting point raised by Sorel's career is that of the resemblances and differences between Bolshevism and Fascism. If Sorel stands on the common ground where Marx and Nietzsche meet, this is also the common ground from which Bolshevism and Fascism diverge. Marx and Nietzsche, Bolshevism and Fascism, both deny bourgeois democracy with its bourgeois interpretations of liberty and equality; both reject the bourgeois doctrine of persuasion and compromise; both proclaim absolutes which command the obedience of the individual at the cost of all else.10

In other words, while fascism or nazism and bolshevism or communism both reject the libertarian individualism of the Western democracies, they still diverge. The methods employed by both were anti-democratic, but these methods were final in one case, and merely transitional in the other. Judged by its ultimate goal the one was a gospel of power and exploitation, the other a gospel of social reconstruction. So long as communism was so conceived Western democracy could hope that after communism had passed through its phase of revolutionary violence and fear, the communist and democratic factions of mankind could dwell in peace and collaborate in the long-range enterprise of improving the condition of mankind throughout the world.

Judging communism by the recent policy of the Soviet Union, as this appears to the now disillusioned West, there can be no doubt of its opposition all along the line to what the West calls “democracy.” The democratic conscience approves the traditional virtues and maxims of the Hebraic, Graeco-Roman, Christian tradition: justice, veracity, humanity, love; the communist conscience sanctions injustice, mendacity, and inhumanity, and substitutes loyalty, orthodoxy, and obedience. The democratic polity is a popular government, resting on universal suffrage, the secret ballot, and a rivalry of parties; while the communist polity is an authoritarian monolithic state in which power descends from a single party dictator or inner circle and which permits no organized and outspoken dissent. Democracy adheres to the principle of the self-determination of all nations, large and small; while the communist state does not hesitate to impose its rule on the other nations by infiltration and conspiracy, if not by overt aggression. The democratic legal system emphasizes the rights of the individuals and minorities, and supports them by strict procedural guarantees; the communist legal system tends to paternalism, exalting social rights above civil rights, and subordinating the judiciary to political controls. The democratic economy is more or less capitalistic and individualistic relying on private enterprise and the motivation of private profit; while the communist economy is relatively socialistic and collectivistic, relying on the state control of capital, labor, enterprise, and distribution of goods.

In democracy, science and the fine arts are allowed to be governed by their own inherent standards of truth and taste; in communism, they are used as instruments of propaganda. In democracy, education aims to develop the individual's faculties so that he may think and act for himself; in communism, education indoctrinates the individual from an early age so that he may conform to authorized dogmas. In democracy, religion is accepted as an independent institution, to be either allied with the state, or encouraged by a policy of benevolent neutrality; in communism, religion is suspect, and is either forbidden altogether or reluctantly conceded provided it gives no offense and provided its gospel agrees with the communist gospel.

It is to this area of opposition that the terms ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘tolerance’ are most clearly applicable. Communism stands for the strict regulation of every branch of human culture from a common center and in accordance with a common creed. Democracy tolerates differences, not in the negative sense of permitting them, but in the positive sense of promoting them to the end of the enrichment of society and the mutual stimulation of its diverse interests.

This is the ideological opposition as seen from the standpoint of democracy; in which democracy gives itself the best of every doubt and communism the worst. If democracy were to be judged by its most ignoble practices and communism by its noblest professions the picture would be somewhat differently colored.

When communism, stripped of its unethical, authoritarian, and totalitarian features, is identified with socialism, and democracy with capitalism, there is no longer a sharp antithesis. Socialism, broadly conceived, stresses the idea that economy is a public, and not a merely private concern. From this idea it proceeds — or leaps — to the conclusion that this massive transaction should be directed and controlled from one center. In a pure socialism the public agency would be the sole owner of the means of production and the sole employer of labor. It is assumed that this power would be used to avoid the injustices arising from the inequalities of private bargaining power.

As the logic of this idea is simple and plausible, so its dangers and difficulties are evident and familiar. A supreme economic control would reach into every department of human life and it would still be a human control. It would be justified only on the assumption — the large assumption — that without the check of effective bargaining power it would be wisely and disinterestedly used.

Furthermore, a public economic agency, like any private economic agency, would be compelled to satisfy the general requirements of economy and induce men to give for what they get. A socialism which forced men to labor or surrender their possessions would be a form of slavery or plunder. A socialism which merrel gave men what a central authority thought they needed would be a form of paternalistic benevolence. A socialism which merely combined these two functions of taking for nothing, and giving for nothing — a combination of plunder and charity — would not be an economy at all.

The opposite doctrine, known as “capitalism” or “industrial capitalism” or “individualistic capitalism” or “free enterprise” or, in its extreme form, as “laissez-faire capitalism,” also has its simple logic and plausibility, and also its evident and familiar difficulties and dangers. It stands for the irrefutable idea that the only way to determine what people need is to find by experiment what they are willing to work and pay for. But such a merely prudential economy proceeds from a given distribution of economic power; whereas economy is ultimately concerned with the just distribution of this power. It requires that the social situation shall be so controlled, that the prudential motives will work for the fullest possible satisfaction of the needs of all.

Neither a pure socialism nor a pure capitalism will suffice; each must borrow from the other, and serve as a check on the other. The characteristic charge of capitalism against socialism is that it does not function of itself, but depends on non-economic procedures of expropriation, forced labor, and charity. The characteristic charge of socialism against capitalism is that it enriches the strong and impoverishes the weak. The economy most consistent with democracy is a “regulated capitalism” within which the instrument of economy is geared to its ulterior moral purpose.


Democracy, like the several moral institutions of which it is composed, is in principle universal. It accepts no frontier but leaps across to mankind on the other side. Wherever there are men with human interests and human faculties, democracy defines their ideal relationship, regardless of differences of race or nation. Extension of democracy to embrace all human societies raises the questions: “Should the over-all organization be democratic?” “Should it be composed of democracies?”

The first of these questions has been answered by the history of the United Nations. The Preamble of its Charter is a formulation of democratic principles, and the Charter as a whole is a democratic constitution. After two devastating world wars, and in view of the growing interdependence of all human societies resulting from advancing technology, men were faced with two alternatives — a world-wide imperialism, or a world-wide democracy. In agreeing to create the United Nations men agreed to choose the latter, and to reject the former. They arrived at this choice by discussion and general consent, and the organization by which the choice was to be implemented provided that the substitution of coöperation for conflict should be achieved by discussion and consent. That the United Nations has largely failed to realize its purpose does not disprove the purpose: its success and its failure alike testify to its democratic intent.

The second question leaves more room for debate. It has been repeatedly stated or assumed that there can be peace and coöperation between nations which practice war and exploitation at home; that governments can proceed democratically in their treatment of one another and autocratically in their treatment of their own people. Such a view is contrary to history as well as to logic: the grave difficulties of the postwar settlement emphatically disprove it. When the representatives of different nations meet to iron out their differences they bring with them the ideologies which underlie their domestic policies, and to which they are habituated. When these ideologies are profoundly opposed agreement can at best be provisional and precarious.

But there is a more fundamental reason why a democratic international organization must be democratic in its parts. It rests on the agreement of nations. But nations in their composite capacity cannot agree — only persons can agree. For agreement is a form of choosing, and only persons are capable of choice. If official delegates arrive at personal agreements among themselves, the nations do not agree; and the delegates cannot agree for their nations unless the personal members of their nations agree among themselves and with the delegates. Such internal agreement can occur only in the degree to which the nations live under democratic institutions.

Hence it is false to suppose that a world organization founded on the principles of democracy can be indifferent to the democratic or antidemocratic ideology of its national members. It is a mistake to suppose that democracy is only a local peculiarity, which can, in the long run, live democratically with anti-democracy. There can be no democracy on any scale, national or international, unless it reaches down to the democratic man.

The project of a democratic world society composed of national societies underscores the fact that man makes his own institutions by his recognition of their purpose and his choice of instruments. In this case, as in the case of all international institutions, man cannot rest on history and tradition. This being the case, there is a technology of democracy which draws from every branch of human knowledge, to an extent which is proportional to the vastness of the undertaking. The architects of this global structure will profit by all the sciences, natural and cultural. And they will profit by previous human experience in this very field — by the human wisdom acquired in every effort, successful or unsuccessful, to solve the problem of living freely and equally together.

  • 1.

    The term “οχλοσ” implied turbulence and unruliness, as contrasted with the less invidious term “δῆμοσ,” frequently used to mean the multitude or the total population of a country. A similar shading of meaning appears in the English word populace’ as distinguished from ‘people.’

  • 2.

    Similarly Plato had no difficulty in proving that aristocracy is the best form of society since he took it to mean the rule of those most fit to rule. One is tempted, were it not for its cacophony, to introduce the word for the antithesis of aristocracy, ‘the rule of the worst.’ Unfortunately the word is ‘kakistocracy’!

  • 3.

    Cf. Federalist, IX, X, XIV, XXXIX.

  • 4.

    Letter to P. S. Dupont de Nemours, 1816; Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. L. Ford (ed.), 1899, X, pp. 22–3.

  • 5.

    New International Dictionary, 2d Edition, Unabridged, 1938.

  • 6.

    USSR Information Bulletin, Washington, D. C., Nov. 6, 1946, pp. 11–15, including quotations from documentary sources.

  • 7.

    The “check-up” which it is now customary to obtain at a large modern hospital, illustrates this underlying human sameness. It is not unusual to witness, in the anteroom of an X-ray clinic, a bishop, a business executive, a judge, a shop girl, a mechanic, etc., sitting patiently awaiting their turns, all clad in the same drab and shapeless robes, and holding in their laps the discarded clothes and insignia which distinguish them in the public view.

  • 8.

    The Author has described this danger to democracy, and suggested means of meeting it, in The Citizen Decides, 1951. The expression “chain-thinking” has been used by H. Shapley, “A Design for Fighting,” The American Scholar, 1944–5, p. 27.

  • 9.

    J. S. Redding, “A Negro Looks at This War,” American Mercury, Nov. 1942, pp. 591–2.

  • 10.

    “The Adventure of Syndicalism,” The London Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 1, 1947.

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