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Democratic Ends and Totalitarian Means

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

One may say about the history of political ethics what Matthew Arnold said about the history of literature: that it contains alternate periods of creation and concentration. A creative period may be described as a period of flux in standards, of the dissolution of the old and its replacement by the new under the impact of history. It does not necessarily follow, however, that in a period of concentration change and the creative energies are absent; they are present, but are directed toward the elaboration of standards already sketched out in a more or less shadowy manner. Our present age is in this sense a creative one. To be sure, as in all periods of rapid and drastic change, the creative work is carried on at the edge of the abyss, with the ever-present danger that man and what he is fashioning will be hurled down the precipice toward the primitive and even the bestial. But that is a risk from which men have never been wholly immune.

What remains is of enormous importance: that a period of this sort does give those of us who believe in a democratic dynamism the chance to rethink the implications and reshape the outlines of our democratic values under the conditions of today. It also puts us under the necessity of modernizing our armory of means in order to enable those end-values to survive and to become more effective.

Ends and means in politics are not constants that have had some mysterious traffic with the eternal and come away with their mortality rubbed off. No age has a pipeline to the infinite. After many a summer dies not only the swan but also much of the equipment both of ends and means with which any culture must fit itself out in dealing with the physical and the social world. This is not outright relativism in ethics, Despite what we have learned from anthropology and history—perhaps because of what we have learned—we can see that there is a framework of outer limits for systems of ethics —limits imposed by man’s nature and the nature of society, But within this frame the world of politics and ethics is a dynamic world, ever in the pangs of change, ever showing new faces to the man of thought and to the man of action alike.

It is, on the whole, healthful for us—even in times of crisis like the present—to keep our sense of the relative and the tentative in this area as in others. Ends are, in reality, never such in any literal sense—never the end. They are, in Tennyson’s image,

the untraveled land whose margin fades Forever and forever as we go.

But that does not make them any the less worth pursuing, although we should never delude ourselves about their complete definiteness. Few Americans have paralleled Justice Holmes in his wisdom: he once wrote that his last words, when he should die, would be, “Have faith, and pursue the unseen end.” If ends are rarely sacred and never precise, it is even truer that means must be kept from becoming ends in themselves and tyrannizing over our lives.

Here, as elsewhere, our task is neither to submit blindly to archaic categories that we call ends nor to make fetishes of encrusted habits that we call means. Our task is rather to face the campaign of history with high purpose and soldierly courage, and also with tough-mindedness and flexible resource, and wrest what victories we can for the sort of world we wish to fashion, knowing all along that the victories will be neither complete nor final, and that the world we desire with such desperate assurance will someday seem faintly archaic and a fit study only for the scholars. To survive, men in societies must always believe with a fierce tenacity. But to keep their human sanity in the midst of survival, they must submit their fighting faiths to the scrutiny of history and science.

But to go on with ends and means. We venture here into a difficult terrain, yet the venture is worth undertaking if for no other reason than that the destinies of our culture may depend on our undertaking it, individually and together. Moreover, we have recently had a fund of incomparably rich experience in the pageant of the rise and fall of nations, and perhaps there has been enough movement and stir in recent social thought to give meaning to that experience.

One difficulty with what our culture has done about this in the past is that it has carried on its thought and action in different compartments. Thurman Arnold was not far wrong when he drew the basic distinction in our time between the “right-thinking man” and the “organizing man”— the first patterned by the folklore of our culture, the second, by ingenuity of action in his march to his goals. Each has gone on his appointed way in bland disregard, if not in open contempt, for the other. That is probably one of the evidences of that dislocation of ethics from reality which indicate the need for ethical change in an age of great change. Yet it may also point to one of the roots of the prevalent disbelief which is the cause of so many modern laments on the part of the believers.

A striking example of this dislocation may be found in the history of Machiavellianism. Despite the persistent eyebrow-raising and finger-pointing that every century has directed at Machiavelli since the Church first placed its ban on his writings, the men of action both in church and state have followed his precepts, and a remarkable list of discerning commentators have in their grudging way admitted his insights into the springs of human action and the shaping forces of history. One is at a loss to account for the paradox, unless we were to say that there is something of Machiavelli in each of us, and that we know it deeply, although we cannot square it with our received values. Hence the attraction and repulsion he exerts. By hating him openly we absolve ourselves for acting in the pattern that he laid out.

But the most destructive element in our heritage from the Machiavelli controversy has been the artificial differentiation we make between ends and means. There are supposed to be two points of view—one, that the ends justify the means; the other, that to use the wrong means corrupts and defeats the ends. Such ideas seem to me puzzling and baffling, as do, for example, the apologies of New Masses and The Daily Worker for the departures from traditional Marxian political ethic that the Stalinist realism has demanded. I have also sought, although without much resulting nourishment, to graze in the serene pastures of Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard and those others who think in the categories of the timeless, and who say that to resist force with force is to start by becoming the captive of what you are opposing. But, I still ask, if the end does not justify the means, then what does? To hold that the means is self-justified, or that there is some autonomous moral force in it, would be to fall prey to the most mechanistic of philosophies. Means are always justified—if they are justified at all—by their ends, as these ends are acquired from their cultures, rationalized by their metaphysics, explained by their motivation; and ends are always fulfilled by their means. In a real world, like ours, means are always a bit grimy and sweat-streaked, like the present war or the recent campaign. If, to use a phrase that may be Mr. Winston Churchill’s greatest contribution to political literature, if the “blood and toil and sweat and tears” that they carry along with them are to be justified at all, only their purposes can justify them.

It is, of course, crucial to acknowledge that ends do not justify any and all means; or, to state it more precisely, that given ends do not provide a clear and unlimited field for means. Nor for that matter can any given means serve effectively all ends. Means and ends are thus integral to each other—but only to a limited extent, since they are not integral in any one-to-one relation. There is no one path for democratic survival, any more than there is one path for achieving socialist values. Ends and means are integral in the sense that, given certain ends, certain means are excluded, although the area that is left is broad enough for the heart’s content, broad enough for flexibility, realism, effectiveness. They are integral also, and this is even more important, in the sense that given democratic ends, a certain quality and temper are necessarily implied in whatever means are used. Thus, ends are dependent on means for fulfillment, means are dependent on ends for implication. While neither gives a wholly clear field to the other, there is room in each to build significant structures of values and to develop rich resources of method.


But, you say, while this may be a deceptively simple way of reaching in the ivory tower solutions which prove dust in our mouths in the marketplace and statehouse, how about the irreconcilable conflict between democracy and dictatorship? In what way can your analysis be of the least help in telling us the extent to which we can use totalitarian means for democratic ends? Do not democratic ends, whatever they may be and whatever the differences we have about them, exclude immediately the whole range of totalitarian means?

Let me say first that this question that is uppermost in the minds of all of us today is undoubtedly the prime question of political ethics in our age. I call it the prime question because so many of us have been disillusioned in that liberalism which believed in the final triumph of the idea, unaided by force and organization. One of the roots of hopelessness today, more important even than our experience with the ruth-lessness of power-drunk men who knew what they wanted, is our experience with the men of good will who willed the ends of democratic survival but did not will the means. And that is why it has been good to hear the voices of some of our spokesmen recently assert that democracy is worth dying for.

But in the very heat of our protest against the irresponsi-bles and the ineffectuals, there is a still small voice within us whispering all sorts of disquieting questions. After all, it says, this is not a matter of stoicism, of the noble Roman who would rather die than have the dignity of his soul demeaned. After all, every culture in the act of disintegration has—as Spengler points out gallingly—given birth not only to the ineffectuality of cowardice and flight but also to the ineffec-tuality of stoicism. It is good to have men ready to die, at need, for their country and its values. It is even better to provide them with the means whereby they will be able to live for their country and extend its values. And does not this, the still small voice asks, does not this involve the use of totalitarian means in a world like ours, which is already half captured by the totalitarians?

And would that not defeat your democratic ends from the very start? To fight Fascism you must wage total war, and is not total war itself Fascist? To build a defense for democracy you must somehow eliminate the Fifth Columns, but does not this mean suppression, and does not suppression mean the scrapping of civil liberties? To keep capitalism from falling apart you must enclose it in a steel web of governmental control, and set its mechanisms to work according to the blueprints of some economic plan: and are not government control and planning either Communist or Fascist, but certainly totalitarian? To reconstruct Europe even after a successful war, you will have to impose democratic governments upon totalitarian peoples, and are not the words “impose” and “democracy” incompatible? To run such a Europe and such a world you will need continentally integrated economies, world federations, international air forces—and are not Hitler and Clarence Streit cousins under the skin? To act for survival in our own country both during and after the war crisis, you must have leaders with a gift for dramatic decision and followers with a gift for unity of purpose: but is that not the Fuhrerprinzip? To turn out the planes we shall need during the war or the goods we shall need after the war, you must have an administrative elite who cannot be chosen by the people because the people are not qualified to judge them: but is not the idea of an elite a Fascist idea? To furnish the cement for an integrated social system we shall have to add to the eighteenth century bill of individual rights a twentieth century bill of social duties; and Lewis Mum-ford, in his “Faith for Living,” has already begun to translate into language for the layman this revolt of the counter-romanticism of the society against the eighteenth century romanticism of the individual: but is not this emphasis also a totalitarian one? Harold Lasswell has written an able book which he calls “Politics: Who Gets What, When, How?” Must not a climate of opinion in which the word “gets” thrives so mightily be replaced by one in which the word “gives” has some place in the definition of politics? But is not that too the romanticism of the state, and therefore totalitarianism?


I have put all this in the form of a sequence of questions in order to point up the dilemma of political ethics today as most of us conceive of it. The trouble is that we have lumped together the images of what the totalitarians believe, what they are, and what they do. Totalitarianism calls to our mind a group of men with singleness of purpose and ruthlessness of method. It calls to our mind also a value-system, nihilistic though it may be. It calls to our mind a related ideology or idea-system, even though some people contend that this ideology is wholly rationalization in the nature of afterthoughts. It calls to our mind a social structure and a set of going social institutions. And it calls to our mind a set of techniques of war, government, and administration.

When we say “totalitarian means,” we think of the whole constellation of what I have just mentioned.

We should not, of course, even say “totalitarian means” because of this danger of confusion. The term would not have been used in the title of this essay if it were not that the problem ordinarily presents itself to us in this form. The totalitarian have sought deliberately to encourage us to think of them within a broad frame of reference. They want us when we think of planning to think of them, when we think of leadership to think of them, when we think of decisiveness of action to think of them, when we think of the plenary use of power to think of them. Also, they have recently been encouraging us when we think of revolution to think of them; and the sad thing is that so many have been innocent enough to be taken in. The beginning of wisdom in this whole matter is to draw a distinction between a set of values, idea-systems, and social institutions which are thoroughly impregnated with the totalitarian spirit, and a set of economic and political and administrative techniques which may be and are neutral. There are, to be sure, a whole range of totalitarian means which are not neutral: the single-party system, the monopoly of conscience, the systematic use of terror. If these have not been contributed to politics by the totalitarian, they have at least been brought to a high pitch of perfection by them. But we will be foolish if we allow our horror and contempt for these to carry over and infect our attitude toward techniques which rightly belong in our own cultural heritage, techniques which totalitarianism has exploited first and now claims for its own monopoly.

To call these techniques ethically neutral is not necessarily to say that they are shorn of all ethical significance. The bomber plane, the timetable war, and the systematic use of propaganda and espionage do not lack moral connotation, although it is a negative connotation because they are death-giving rather than life-giving. Yet which of us does not believe the truth of Churchill’s dictum about the British air force, that “never in history have so few done so much for so many”? A labor leader named Walter Reuther is today making headlines in America because he has a plan by which we shall be able in six months to turn out five hundred of these death-dealing machines a day. We applaud, and rightly. We fervently hope it can be done, because the plane, for all its connotations of death, is ethically neutral. In the service of those who are seeking the triumph of totalitarian ideals, it takes on overtones of totalitarian ethics. In the service of democratic defense, it takes on democratic overtones. What is true of war techniques is even truer of planning and administrative techniques, of leadership and expertise, which—taken out of their totalitarian context— are neutral enough to serve our uses if we have uses to which we wish to put them.

But, you say, this is the blackest sort of opportunism, arrant Machiavellianism brought up to date. You rip things out of one context and put them in another, and then you smile as blandly as the Cheshire cat after her feat of transference. But I know that government and society are not matters of mechanism, not collections of replaceable and standardized parts, but organic growths. I know that as organic growths there can be in them no reckless displacement of parts, and that even transplanting and grafting are dangerous things.

The fact is that Fascism has only a bastard claim to most of these techniques of decisiveness and survival. Most of them are the developments of modern industry and science and administration which we have been betrayed into neglecting, or which we have used, but organized badly. Nevertheless, they are part of the heritage of Western science and Western development. The military technicians tell us that even to war there is nothing essentially new that the Fascists have contributed, except the precision of their organization and the ruthlessness of their purpose. The fruits of science are the products of the free spirit of inquiry under the democracies. The administrative arts come from Taylorism in industry, from business management, from the European civil services, from the ad hoc contrivances of the New Deal administrative revolution. The techniques of planning are an amalgam of corporate practices under capitalism, the engineering mentality, and some of the social vistas of Marxism: it is significant that the important suggestions toward a planned war economy in America now have come from engineers like Morris Llewellyn Cooke and labor leaders like Philip Murray. And the psychological insights that the totalitarians have displayed on their road to power—insights into the nature and the social role of myths and symbols—have long been known to the democracies. The greatest name here is that of Sigmund Freud, who died, as he lived, hating the Nazi uses to which his insights had been put.

It is not, then, opportunism to make use of these products of our enterprise and our own civilization. They are the heritage of the Western tradition, a birthright to which we have thus far not laid adequate claim. It is not we who are the eclectics, who rip things out of their context. It is the Fascists. If we have the wit to understand the uses of the products of our own culture, and the boldness to apply them as means toward our own democratic ends, we can do so with the assurance that we are but completing the organic process of our own development.

How then has it happened that we still tend to think of these techniques as totalitarian? To answer that question adequately one would have to rewrite, in a way in which it has not yet been written, the history of the modern centuries in the Western world. And I suspect the clues to such a rewriting would be somewhat as follows: that out of the growth of science and technology came the development of industrial potentials broad enough as a base to allow for several alternative systems of class relations, of social institutions, of legal and political systems, of ideologies, to be built on it; that the organic growth from the past was a system of individualist capitalism and a system of liberal democracy, each contributing its energy to the rest of the social structure, those energies sometimes fusing, sometimes in conflict; that another organic growth was the sovereign nation-state, built on the two polar principles of plenary power for the state and unlimited natural rights for the individual; that as these various systems developed, the divergent elements in them, which had lived more or less tolerably at peace with each other, began showing ever more clearly their contradictions. Democracy, which had flourished in a period of expanding capitalism, found itself hemmed in during the period of a contracting capitalism, while capitalism found itself more and more afraid of the threats of control implicit in majority rule. The sovereign nation-state, in the face of this jealousy of its powers, became a government of limited rather than of plenary powers, and became less and less able to deal with its problems; while its own jealousy for its sovereignty prevented it either from forming the economic combinations that would enable it to live in peace with other nations, or from building the federal structures that could have kept down aggression at its very start. Within this framework the totalitarian states came into their own. Reckless outlaws, united to the organic roots of the past, they had at once a clearer vision of what was required for success and a more uninhibited will to use what was required. The field was open for them, and they exploited their opportunity to the full.

That, in brief, is the story. It is not a story of creativeness on the part of the Fascists, unless we call creative the streamlined gangsterism that operates within the interstices of an ineffective social structure. It is not one of superhuman efficiency on their part, although they have been at pains to create that myth. Actually the sheer economic and administrative wastage under the Nazis, resulting from their elaborate superstructures of bureaucracy on bureaucracy and from their use of coercion as an incentive, is ghastly. There is no question of revolutionary inevitability about their system: in any meaningful sense of the word “revolution,” a system which continually narrows rather than broadens the base of power is fantastic. What they have done has been to take advantage of a situation which, because of our inability to make the necessary adjustments, had become unstable enough to be called a revolutionary situation. In it their dynamism has until recently been rampant and unopposed. The problem for us is whether it shall continue so.

And I submit that the answer to that problem lies in no small measure in the extent to which we can recapture for our own democratic uses the ethically neutral techniques which are organic outgrowths of our own past, which we have up to now heedlessly neglected, and which are not only compatible with the democratic spirit but necessary to its extension.


It is possible to indicate here only in the briefest fashion the problems of ethics and politics raised in five typical areas: First, how a democracy can wage total war against Fascism, as England is doing so successfully today, and still remain, in every ethical element that counts, a democracy. Second, how a democracy can deal with the problem of Fifth Columns realistically and even relentlessly, and yet without any vigilantism either on the part of the people or their officials. I cannot say that we have as yet solved this problem, but I think it fair to say that the missing elements in the solution are not ethical but political. Third, how a democracy can explore the range of strategies of economic control, on the principle that the organization of the flow of goods and income is the prime matter of state concern, more crucial even than police, military, and taxes; and on the principle also that the strategies adopted must not aim at drastic change for its own sake. Fourth, how a democracy can build up an administrative bureaucracy to whose technical expertness full scope is given, but whose members are not above the law, which is the expression of the social conscience. And fifth, how a democracy can join its economy with others on a continental scale without taking on the ethical patterns of imperialism; or how it can join its political structure with others on a plane of world-federalism without crushing the chances of free social experiment in the insulated chambers of the nation-states.

This, in outline, is the task of the social invention of our future. That task will have to be done in a collectivist fashion, in the best sense of collectivism: pooling our social intelligence and our social courage and our social will. It will involve the shattering of many myths as to who constitute the elite of our society. The national defense effort has already shown, both in England and America, that the common man as worker has as much to contribute in technical competence and political imagination as have the elite of business and the army, if not more. This is not an attempt to cry down the notion of elite groups. They are crucial, and especially so in a democracy, where they can be continually revitalized by a genuine attempt to keep the career open to talent. I am only seeking to say that here, as elsewhere, we shall have a good deal of dislocating to do to our thinking. But one thing must be clear: we cannot afford to let the totalitarians take the credit of alone giving scope to talent. In a society where there is a free flow of talent because the career is genuinely, and not just mythically, open to it, even huge administrative obstacles and difficult problems of means and ends can be overcome. In a society which has become the stationary state, every administrative molehill will become a mountain.

The same applies to leadership. We have made the mistake of surrendering the concept of leadership to the totalitarians, as though it were unworthy of the democratic spirit. When we think of leaders we think of tyrants; when we think of followers we think of sheep. This is a ghastly error, and we have paid for it. Yet it is an error that is not irretrievable. We have in recent years turned up in England a leader who in imagination can be compared with Disraeli and in boldness with Cromwell. And in America we have turned up a leader who will be discussed by historians on the plane on which we discuss Jefferson and Lincoln. This is no inconsiderable achievement. It is notable that these have been the very men most under attack on the ground that they have sought to use totalitarian methods in a democracy. It is, I think, a measure of their stature that they have seized in the quick way of leadership the ideas that have been set forth here, But it is also a measure of their stature, and of the safety with which democracies can use the methods of decisiveness and plenary power, that they have at no point placed themselves outside of the state, as have the Fascist leaders. We need to extend further the gift and the art of leadership in a democracy, as well as the art and the gift of followers. For only in a democracy can leaders have humility, and only in a democracy can followers have dignity.

And only in a democracy can the natural processes of growth absorb new economic and political means in the service of ends which are as old as human decency and as ever-renewed as man’s essential fellowship with man.


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