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Democracy and Human Purpose

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

The world of our time, by its very confusion and by its accumulation of fear and despair, proclaims bankrupt the assumption that man’s secular concerns can be successfully prosecuted in a secular vacuum insulated from theological and religious truth. Students of the main stream of politico-sociological writing from Bentham to Shaw and Wells are aware of its constant hypothesis that in the acceptance of toleration upon a secular basis, Western mankind had discovered a way of progress which must lead to a splendid goal. But the concealed debility of all merely humanist philosophy is now exposed, and we are confronted with a body of sociological criticism which reveals an awareness of human frustration. I refer specially to the work of such European writers as Maritain, Berdyaev, Wust, Ortega, and Huizinga. The English Church has produced a school of sociology notably represented by V. A. Demant and Maurice Reckitt, whose writings display a similar consciousness of a human impasse. And in America, Reinhold Niebuhr and Bernard Iddings Bell are making what is fundamentally the same assertion. Against this post-humanist criticism, the intellectual defences of current economic and political experiments are but meagre. The Communists rely upon their myth of a dialectic process, already obsolete before the proletariat had heard of it. The Fascists and the Nazis, for obvious rea-sons, pay little attention to their philosophical defences. It is of the genius of such nationalist totalitarianism that it should prefer action to thought: otherwise it could not endure for six months.

It is still sometimes said that the spread of positive science has been the chief agency in detaching men from the conception of transcendent purpose. But this overlooks the fact that very wide areas of human life had already been separated from any transcendent principle of control before modern science was born; and that science, as we understand it, came into a world where a secular predisposition was already dominant. The modern world has its foundation precisely in the refusal to relate the positive temporal enterprise with the timeless and transcendent. The fields of philosophy were invaded by a positivist presumption which was only too consonant with the growing theory of human government and the increasingly accepted purpose of economic effort.

From the decline of scholasticism to the rise of Hegelian-ism, there was a strengthening tendency to discover an identification of man with the ultimate spiritual reality of the universe. This end was finally reached by the Hegelian left, which presented the alternatives of a purely illusory human activity, or an Absolute entirely immersed and included in an evolutionary movement. The left-wing Hegelians adopted the latter solution, preparing the way both for Realpolitik and for Karl Marx, and at the same time forfeiting all power to proclaim a purpose at once transcendent and guaranteeing humanity. Indeed, the radical development of Hegelianism really implied that Auguste Comte, with his rejection of metaphysic and his concentration upon the positive process of the visible world-order, was the more apposite thinker. Ever since William James and Bergson, philosophy has been struggling to discover a Transcendent which shall maintain, without swallowing, our humanity; and it has not been successful. Therefore there is no adequate current philosophical sanction available for a human purpose which shall look beyond the positive, visible scene, or aim above the natural and phenomenal potentiality of man. What the positivists and secularists did not see was that when a human being is convinced that there is nothing beyond himself, he is by no means bound to rejoice in the discovery. He is quite as likely to put his head in a gas oven.

Meanwhile, throughout the modern centuries, we see the cumulative effect of the secular theory of government; and it is interesting to observe how Hegel’s own philosophical and political theories coalesced in his doctrine of the Absolute State, under which the world is now grievously suffering. The process began in the rejection of the conception of Christendom. The political thought of the great medieval Christian doctors, such as John of Salisbury and St. Thomas Aquinas, conceived that Christendom was a community realized from within men by their common relation with the invisible and eternal order. Government was a means of expressing in the external world the fact of this interior cohesion. The prince was a minister of Res Publico, Christiana, and under God the people was sovereign.

The governmental order of Europe was thus conceived as instrumental to man’s spiritual destiny, and found its justification in eternity. If the conception never reached full practice, it was at least sponsored by the greatest minds in Christendom, and it was regarded as stating the true principles of world-order. But Pierre du Bois and Marsiglio of Padua speedily appeared, the heralds of the secular sovereign State, reposing its authority upon force and thus compelling a purely national cohesion, not from any inner communion of men but from a combination of the natural factor of race with military power resting in the hands of sovereign authority. Thus the State, instead of being the minister of society, became the ground and master of society; and, moreover, the theoretic unity of Europe was displaced by an admitted plurality of secular powers each based upon its own particularism.

These two results have assisted in the dehumanization of government. They have tended to depress the universal element in the spirit of man, so that he becomes the prey of a fantastic hypnosis, or of a theory of his own function which is an insult to himself, or to some definite Satanism which promises his own destruction, For the State, posed as the human absolute, is bound to discover itself and its own preservation as the supreme human end. At the same time, religious or cultural forces which may procure unity between men of various nations, must be pronounced of epiphenomenal provenance when one absolute State decides that its interests demand the overthrow of a rival State. Thus, in the political sphere, secularism is unable to implement a purpose which will release and support the idea of man as a cosmic spiritual being.

The general stultification becomes most visible and pronounced, however, in the economic enterprise. It is only now that we perceive the final fruits of that change in economic purpose which crept into the world at the beginning of the modern period. The relation of the economic task to the transcendent end was expressed by St. Antonino of Florence in the fifteenth century. “The object of gain,” he said, “is that by its means man may provide for himself and others according to their state. The object of providing for himself and others is that they may live virtuously. The object of virtuous life is the attainment of everlasting glory.” There was thus an ascending purpose which provided economic effort with a sacred end; and this conception was by no means inoperative in the Church’s guidance of economic practice.

Now the particular process of the transition to the capitalist economic need not for the moment concern us. The important consideration is that the pursuit of economic purpose out of relation with any transcendent interpretation of our human situation, has been perhaps the main factor in accomplishing the ruin of that humanism which was so important a factor in the change. The system which, vitally connected with the new form of loan for production, aimed at production as an end to be achieved, with consuming hu-manity as its instrument, was certain in the long run to re-duce man to the position of an attendant upon the system.

The observation of Jacques Maritain, that Money has be-come the living organism of which men and their industrial equipment are the feeders, is only too true.

But the human frustration is here most obvious, because the effects are most immediate and direct. Trapped by its

own inherent incapacity to perform two incompatible func-

tions, both necessary to its maintenance, the mechanical increase of production and the provision of a correspondingly increased purchasing power, the system of capitalist indus-

trialism has reached a stage when its particular problems are shaking the whole world-structure.

One of the most signal phenomena of the contemporary embarrassment has been the fall of democracy in several European countries, and the prevalence of a furious attack upon the democratic idea. The paralysis of purpose in the modern world has become sufficiently obvious; and certain nations, in desperate plight, have decided that its chief cause is freedom. It seems an arbitrary conclusion. Moreover, the notion that the basic assumptions of a secular world can furnish adequate purpose in politics and economics, provided that there is no distraction from a multitude of counsellors, is, to say the least, lacking in foundation. But democracy is now the enemy of man, according to our totalitarian apologists and prophets; and chiefly because democracy is held to be impossible as a vehicle of purpose. It is incapable of solidifying a nation in a common aim, and in its purposelessness and characteristic attitude of laissez faire, it allows free rein to every sharper, to every manipulator of the means of life, who chooses to elbow his fellows into poverty and insignificance. The distinctive object of a particular community is buried and forgotten beneath a million conflicting desires. Democracy means disintegration and disgrace. The human frustration which we have attributed to profounder causes, is explained by the henchmen of the new tyrant as due to the false religion of liberty. Against democracy, there is a hot hatred which speaks in such words as those of Benito Mussolini—”Fascism has walked over, and if necessary will turn and again walk over, the putrescent form of the goddess of liberty.”

If, as we may well believe, there is here a measure of confusion, let us seek to analyse it. We have before us a consciousness of impasse, which arises, according to our belief, from the secularity of our humanism. But we have also the curious phenomenon of an assault upon democracy, upon human liberty, upon the freedom of the person, in the name of purpose. Yet the purpose for the sake of which democracy is being sacrificed is nowhere seen to be of such a nature as will sustain man in self-respect. It finds it necessary to cloak itself in myth and fantasy. Can it be that, after all, the new “purpose” is but the final phase of the dehumanizing process which has produced the modern world? Can it be that a spurious democracy, unworthy of the name, is making an attempt to evade its own consequences in a new application of its first principles?


It is our argument that democracy is the true political implementation of the Christian dogma of man. But it is1 equally our contention that beneath the sway of a secularist philosophy and within the operation of the capitalist economic, democracy becomes a means of cultural confusion and human oppression so vast as to make certain that secular reactions will attempt to defend the secular position by some political reversion.

The beginnings of democracy in the modern world were accompanied by much genuine dogma. The seventeenth century in England saw the incursion of democratic religious fervour into the political field. The close of the eighteenth century saw the French Revolution provoked by the proclamation of philosophical principles. But neither in England nor in France was the subsequent order a true result of the hot-gospeling, either of Puritans or of Encyclopaedists. Neither in England nor in France was man, as man, released from the chains which Rousseau deplored. What happened was the establishment of the commercial middle class and the bourgeoisie. But as the capitalist economic strengthened and presented ever more clearly its characteristic features, it became possible to extend the political franchise to all classes, because the political franchise had ceased to possess significance. We achieved a political democracy in a civilization wherein politics had become the handmaid of an economic enterprise. But there was no economic franchise! We created the illusion of personal freedom in a society in which, with grim insistence, economic forces determined the scope of man’s life. Men voted ardently—on the questions which plutocracy permitted them to discuss. And the caustic descriptions of this compromise, which have become current coin in Europe today, are mostly true. But they are not descriptions of democracy.

The capitalist economic, and no particular political faith, had become the characterizing feature of the modern human cohesion. It was Karl Marx who first, in radical fashion, exposed the innate self-contradiction of that economic and made plain its anti-humanism. He believed that the reas-sertion of humanity would arise automatically from the ultimate development of the system, and that it would assume the form of a classless, equalitarian society. But he certainly had no thought that such a society could ever be democratic; for his conception of man and the purpose of the economic process held no place for those values which democracy preserves.

Marxian Communism is essentially undemocratic, not because it is deprived of an electoral method upon the parliamentary model of western “democracies,” but precisely for the reason that these “democracies” themselves are not democratic. Recent developments in Russia are actually tending to produce such “political” democracy. But men will not become free, because large areas of actual government will not be submitted to criticism, and it is within those areas that their manhood will be controlled and moulded. Communism thus carries out, in a more doctrinaire manner, the assumptions of capitalism. In its actual control of men, it regards them as means to an end in which human personality is devalued.

Capitalism, it is true, is atheistic only in practice, and not necessarily in theory. The Communists have preferred to account for their practice by a definite doctrine. Whereas capitalism never opposed the profession of religion, but merely treated men as though they were things, Communism, inheriting from the Hegelian left, finds the meaning of a man exhausted in the operation of the dialectical process which reaches its supreme outcome in the economic collective. Thus it is bound to oppose religion, for religion is seen as treachery to the economic collective: it declares that a man has further interests and resources and that his being is addressed to other ends. And from his communion with those ends a man might derive power to criticize the assumptions of the secular commune.

Yet so attractive have men found the economic promises of Communism, that the submission of their personality to be an ephemeral instrument of an impersonal process, the abrogation of sovereign choice, the acceptance of an order which explicitly forbids them to think upon certain issues, has seemed a satisfactory exchange for an order which already did these things to them without mentioning it, and starved them into the bargain.

It may be that the economic success of Russian Communism will become more remarkable as the years pass. It may be that the spectacle will constitute an ever increasing danger to the stability of Western Europe. But it will be the solution of human problems by the denial of the essential characteristic of man: that he stands at the juncture of the natural and supernatural orders and has for his intrinsic task the problem of employing the natural means for supernatural ends. To find a modus vivendi which denies the supernatural end has been the long quest of humanism. It has resulted in the descent of man himself from the realm of ends, to be included and confined within the realm of means. But this solution can never implement democracy, because it denies personality. Denying personality it denies society, and presents instead a human mass, determined by externals, and unable to discover any ultimate purpose capable of clothing the positive action of the community with significance.

Communism presented itself in due philosophic form as the Hegelian synthesis and the final solution of the long historical problem. The futility of this claim was immediately demonstrated by the fact that it merely provoked another antithesis in the rise of other and inimical totalitarian forms. The truth seems to be that Communism, Fascism, and Nazi-ism must be regarded together as alternative modes of the final phases of that humanism of which capitalist industrialism was the main expression. But the developments which have taken place in Italy and Germany are not, in their essence, difficult to understand.

They were capitalist countries, and after the War they were in economic distress. The world-trade which is an integral feature of the capitalist economic is in fact not world-trade at all, but a system of world-invasion, the object of which is to distribute for purchasing power not created within the area of production, that surplus of commodities which the actual producing workers are not allowed to buy. And it happened that Italy and Germany foimd themselves out of condition for this arduous scuffle which is the directing force of our civilization.

On the other hand, they found themselves, because of their economic plight, assailed by an ideological invasion from Communism. This their capitalist culture was just able to resist, but only at the price of some revision of its own form. The so-called democracy (always less real in Germany than in most places) must be surrendered and the surrender must act, at least ostensibly, not only the proletariat, but the employers, the rentier class, and the financiers, in order that the main structural status quo of the economic society might be preserved. Capitalism accepted a dose of strong medicine, for its health’s sake. Yet, undeniably, were the capitalist ideology to be removed and the dictator of the totalitarian State to remain, there would be a possibility of really new achievements—except for one obstinate fact. Fascism and Nazi-ism, as surely as Communism, are built upon the deliberate attempt to drive below the level of human consciousness that universal element in man which makes him a person. And it is only out of personality that genuine society may be achieved.

They are therefore an equally dangerous assault upon the concept of Man. They conceive a man as deriving his total significance from a given and particular governmental order. In Germany this conception is fortified by a fantastic doctrine of blood, and man’s divine sonship is perverted into a biological sonship: he is significant only as the vehicle of the racial blood stream. But in both forms of totalitarianism the particular social cohesion is presented as an absolute, determining for its subjects the very nature of truth and goodness. The relation of the State itself to truth or goodness may not be examined: such examination is beyond the function of men. But this is the execution of the critical faculty and the death of intelligence.

If we may again take the test of religion, in which each man confronts in his own person the Eternal and Absolute, we shall perceive that the Fascist or Nazi professions of friendship are less honourable than the open Communist opposition. Their patronage is more dangerous than any persecution. Recent events show that there is now, in Germany, a skilful antagonism and attrition carried on by the State against the Church, with the object of assuring that Germans shall be Germans first and only, and that the fellowship of Christians shall appear as an epiphenomenon of German blood-relation. In Italy, Mussolini has declared that the Fascist State respects the Catholic religion of the Italian people, but goes on to announce, in the Italian Encyclopaedia, that this State has its own morality. The pretence that the Catholic Church and the Absolute State, deriving its morality from itself, can exist harmoniously side by side, represents a sub-Christian compromise; but it does not affect the truth that the Italian State regards the existence of Italians as fully explained by their function within the State, and sees their participation in armed conflict at the State’s bidding as the fullest exposition of what their manhood implies. For this also Mussolini has announced.

It is an essential factor of our thesis that the idea of democracy must be distinguished from the bastard system to which the capitalist order has given the democratic title, but which has produced the dissipation of personal responsibility, the degradation of cultural standards, and the crushing out of the sense of an end altogether. For the very notion of democracy envisages personality as capable of self-direction toward an end worthy of such self-direction: that is to say, an end in which profound ethical and spiritual realities are involved. But since democratic philosophy is bound to hold that personality is intrinsically social, it sees personality as endowed, by its own nature, with the responsibility for the corporate action of the community.

It is obvious that in the ethos of capitalist industrialism, the whole drive of the prevailing forces will discourage the development of that personality. What, under that order, is glibly and ungrammatically called “the democracy,” is simply the agglomeration of the “Mass Man,” so adequately described by Jose Ortega. And it is upon the Mass Man of industrialism that totalitarianism is built. The situation can be elucidated by the use of scholastic terminology. In scholastic philosophy, mere “individuality” is the lowest of categories. The “individual” has no private substantial reality. Its substance is that of the whole species to which it belongs, and its individuality is determined by mass and position. (This at least is the interpretation of the Neo-Scholastics.) But it was always denied by scholasticism that a human person was an individual in that sense, and within the confines of scholastic terminology it was necessary to say that each man was a species in himself. This meant that each man was of unique and perdurable substance and significance in the total sum of reality. This, however, did not indicate an ultimate individualism. Just as in mankind individuality had been sublimated into specific reality, so also species was sublimated into something greater—societas.

Now this mode of thought indicates the political and economic cohesion of men as capable of being so treated by the creative initiative of persons as to constitute a cosmic innovation in the order of time. Christian theology would say that this can be done only by the co-operation of man with God, and that the Kingdom of Heaven, in the last resort, is the gift of grace. But, at all events, it is not disputed that man is a creature addressed to that consummation; and indeed, though the Kingdom of Heaven be a purely esehata-logical conception, in Christian moral theology it becomes regulative of behaviour here and now. The argument is that no human politic or economic which fails to take account of the uniqueness and transcendent value of the person, can claim to be society in the true sense; and that of all schemes of government it is democracy alone, rightly understood, which does allow for personality with social responsibility, and for society compounded of such personality. And our modern totalitarian State, in default of these characteristics, must be held inimical to the dignity of man. It is the issue of that false humanism which, bringing mankind to confusion worse confounded, in now offering him salvation by slavery, and apparently promises to solve all his problems in an orgy of death more abundant. For the scope of its purpose cannot surpass that plane upon which man appears as a thing in a world of things, a gadget in a mechanism moving to inscrutable and impersonal ends.

If, however, amidst the tremendous contradictions of our time, the idea of democracy is to raise its head, certain necessary conditions must be clearly established. In the first place it must be made plain that democracy cannot be implemented upon purely secular and positivist assumptions. For it implies a certain mysticism and a certain dogmatic, relating man to the infinite. It is very difficult to see how the absolute denial of democracy can be sustained without an implicit rejection of the Christian dogma of man. Whether we are asked to accept as ultimate for the social order the decisions of politicians, soldiers, technocrats, or poets, or of some solitary dictator cloaked with clouds of fantasy, we are asked that the vast majority of men shall submit to direction and control from a source extrinsic to their personalities. And that, as Michael de la Bedoyere has said, is an attempt “to solve the problem of human life by denying that men are human.” But the assertion of the essential autonomy of the person implies “the primacy of the spiritual” in human nature. It means that the only final end to which a man may rightly address his powers is transcendent, and that in politics and economics he is dealing only with a realm of means. If, therefore, democracy cannot be denied without the rejection of the Christian dogma of man, it is also true that democracy can never be accomplished without that dogma. For in the Christian view the existence of man is sanctioned by the Incarnation of the Eternal Logos, and by the assertion that there is a humanity now upon the throne of the universe, the cosmic defence against the final demolition of our manhood in this world. It is the absolute dogma of man. It is the only humanism which really dares to be ultimate.


But, bearing this in mind, it is still necessary to consider the introduction of democracy into the world of means, and two practical problems have to be faced, one in the economic field and the other in the political. The falsity of the system that has been called modern democracy lies, as we have seen, in its failure to translate into economic freedom and power the political suffrage which, for lack of such effectiveness, has become increasingly meaningless. Thus we have observed the curious spectacle of populations politically enfranchised in equality, but regimented in economic strata; and we have seen that the requirements of the economic order have assumed a dictatorship over the whole social and cultural sphere. And in spite of the right to vote at elections, the proletariat of our time has been dispossessed of status and confined to such slender contractual relations as it can make with the economic authority.

Totalitarianism professes to give back to common men an assured status and a measure of economic security; but in order to do this it deprives them of even the semblance of political power. In return for some promised economic redress, they are to become political nonentities. Not even the recent alleged loosening of the Russian governmental system reajly repairs that fundamental political loss, while in Italy and Germany the ban upon real political life remains absolute. This is yet another indication of the fundamental consonance of the totalitarian forms with the basic assumptions of capitalism. For these systems live and move and have their being in the world of classical political economy, the world of scarcity, the world in which human life is in itself a problem. And that world is dead or dying.

In the realm of means the first essential requirement for democracy is that in view of the potential productivity of the world in our time, human needs shall be satisfied to the full measure of the available material and services, without the sacrifice of freedom. For in a world of plenty, the i

exchange of manhood for the means of life is an irrelevant bargain. Political freedom means nothing while economic freedom is withheld. Economic satisfaction is demoralizing while political responsibility is denied. And those countries —for example, the United States of America, Britain, and France—which have maintained political freedom for what it is worth in the modern world, will do well to secure the necessary revision of the capitalist system, before they find themselves slipping into some totalitarian solution. They will do well to insure that, without any sacrifice of the theoretical personal liberty which belongs to their peoples, the formal political right is implemented by an economic which places men above things, and actually distributes the potential real wealth of the community.

But it is wrong to suppose, as some do, that a reformation in the philosophy of finance would merely raise the material level of life for everybody, leaving untouched the relation of economic classes. The present embarrassment of the capitalist mechanism is due to the impossibility of distributing, by a wage system, a quantity of goods necessary to keep the mechanism going, while at the same time pursuing the capitalist end, a sum of money, by the application of inventive science to the task of production. If the production is to go on increasing, it must be distributed in some measure, apart from the wage system. That is the only means of securing the economic independence of men in an industrial society. But economic independence so achieved would carry tremendous consequences.

It must be remembered that the managerial framework of industry to which we are accustomed is one which the capitalist order has necessitated. It has been empowered to deal with men as if they were less than men, because it could be assumed that the menace of poverty and scarcity would always make them amenable. But with the establishment of independence in the economic field, with the guaranteed assurance of an adequate life-level, men will not long remain disposed to work under the terms offered them by a grim compulsion. They will seek a mode of industrial enterprise which shall give scope to the truths of their manhood. That is to say, so long as they are guided by democratic principles they will seek to drive out from their work the ugly regimentation, the bombastic mastery, the distorted human relations which have taken possession of industry under capitalism, and they will work as men cooperating in human purpose which is commonly shared, under the guidance of that natural human leadership which all true human co-operation discovers.

Moreover, once the right readjustment of consumption to production is made under present conditions, and still more as the needs of men, instead of the protection of finance, govern the development and application of power-technique, the economic association will cease to be the dominant form of human cohesion. Still less will there be any excuse for cohesion in fantasies. Economic Communism, Fascism, and Nazi-ism are addressed to obsolescent conditions. As there is less need for human toil, the dominant forms of association will be more truly cultural and more essentially human. Greater scope will arise for the activity of the spiritual and the creative in man. And this consideration may well introduce us to the requirements of democracy in the political order.

It may be objected to the above argument that economic deliverance is not necessarily dependent upon a democratic polity, and that an authoritarian State, either dictatorial or hierarchical, could undertake the adequate distribution of production. It may be said that a leisured freedom from economic necessity might be possible without political liberty, and certainly without the democratic control of industry. We have already said that such economic ease divorced from responsibility must be demoralizing. And indeed, the totalitarian State, as soon as it becomes realistic in the face of modern economic possibilities, will tend to produce a rapid human degeneration. It will not even find it so easy to look to militarism to preserve men’s nerve and strength, because the rectification of the capitalist financial method will remove the chief factor in the international irritation.

For the preservation of human dignity in the midst of the increasing material wealth of the world, political freedom must become ever more important. But for the preservation of spiritual initiative something more than participation in a collective State will be required. The truth in this province of thought is to be found in such writers as Figgis, Mclver, Unwin, and William Temple, who hold that society is logically prior to the State: that the State is no more than one form of human cohesion, and that we ought to do constant battle for the freedom of other cohesions from inclusion within the State administration. For in a free society, it is always possible that moral leadership may fall to one of the free groups, which may thus inspire society as a whole to a worthy direction of the mechanism of the State. If the Church, for example, seeks again to lead the world, this is the only method remaining, and it is the right method.

These conditions seem fundamentally necessary if such purpose is to be preserved in the world as will accord with the great tradition of Christian humanism. If man is to remain a creature consciously ordered to a divine destiny, he must seek to recover a social mode of which personality is the foundation. To the criticism that this must mean everlasting conflict of purpose, and perpetual argument without effective action, the reply is simple. The criticism is valid in a secular world which has departed from basic dogma. It will not apply in a society wherein belief has been re-established, for in such a cohesion of men there will be agreement as to the end to which human existence is addressed. As for the means, it is proper that they should be discovered by rational tests, Certainly democracy will always be quick to speak. But tyranny is marked by a horrible silence which witnesses the death of thought in the common man.


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