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Dictators and Democracies

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

The current series of economic and political convulsions which racks the world has given rise to dictatorships in three countries of the first rank and has raised the question of whether the end of parliamentary government in all countries is in sight. Upon the Spenglerian analogy of the evolution of Roman civilization it is sometimes insisted that we are now being hurried by irresistible forces towards another “Age of the Caesars.” Does the evidence support this conclusion?

In marshalling the evidence, it is necessary to ask certain fundamental questions. The first of these is: Are the dictatorships in Russia, Italy, and Germany so similar in nature that it is legitimate to lump them together under any such term as Caesarism? To answer this question we must ask still others. Is it possible to find any common cause for the rise of the three dictatorships? Is there a marked similarity in the techniques by which they came to power? Is there any significant likeness in the philosophy or the psychology of the movements which swept the dictators into power?

The first causal element behind the upheavals in Russia, Italy, and Germany which is common to all three is, of course, the war. There can be no reasonable doubt that the damage done by the war to the political, economic, and social orders of the three countries in question was one cause for the rise of the three dictatorships, even though the events took place at such varying lengths of time after the war started. It may be objected, of course, that the war itself was only a result of other more fundamental forces and that it can not be considered as a cause but only as a manifestation. The necessity to avoid becoming lost in the swamp of the eternal question, what caused the war, prevents any comprehensive consideration of this question. The writer is convinced, nevertheless, that the causes of the last war were not fundamentally different from the causes of most other wars and that it cannot be demonstrated that the modern capitalistic system inevitably leads to warfare in any greater degree than did any other economic system which ever existed. We have always had wars: the fundamental difference between the last war and previous wars lies not in its causes but in its consequences.

One consequence of the war was that in at least three major countries the economic, political, and social systems received shocks from which they did not recover. Marxists maintain that the impossibility of recovery was due to certain inherent characteristics of the capitalistic economic system which would have brought about the destruction of the system even if no world war had intervened. The very existence of a Marxian movement was, however, one of the reasons why the old system came to an end in three countries. Marxism is itself a product of the capitalistic system, so that in so far as Marxism is a cause it is rooted in “bourgeois” civilization. In Russia a Marxian movement overthrew the old system, while in Italy and in Germany the form of the movements which overthrew the parliamentary system wa.s largely determined by the fear of the middle classes that a proletarian dictatorship was imminent.

When one turns to the particular circumstances under which the three dictatorships seized power, certain differences at once present themselves. The Bolshevist dictatorship replaced Tsarism. The Fascist dictatorship replaced a constitutional monarchy. National Socialism replaced a republican regime. On the face of it, this would not seem to bear out the thesis of the evolutionary and inevitable process of development from one political form to another.

Nevertheless, in a more fundamental sense the old systems in Germany, Italy, and Russia possessed real similarities. Although in varying degrees, their systems of law and of economics were founded upon individualism, that is to say, upon the principle of economic liberalism, in the German meaning of the term. The individual and the private corporation owed no economic duty to the state. Each was “free” to follow with unswerving devotion his own interests. The legal system protected the interests of the individual and of the corporation against arbitrary acts of the state. Nowhere was this protection as complete as in the United States, yet, although a later importation there, it existed even in Russia.

Although the state was grudgingly conceded the right to enact specific legislation for the protection of the public interest, constitutional and legal difficulties and complexities often left the state powerless to perform this protective function. At times of economic and political crisis, whenever the parliamentary state showed itself helpless to take positive action because of the conflicting mass of opposing individual or corporate rights, popular rage reached explosive force.

The new totalitarian states have in common their insistence on the importance of group interest over the welfare of the individual, although they differ basically in their concept of the group whose interests must be paramount. In Soviet Russia it is the proletariat, in Italy it is the nation, in Germany it is the race. No legal or constitutional barrier for the protection of the individual or corporation against direct and immediate action by the state, is recognized. It might be objected that the system in Russia does not actually produce the maximum benefits for the proletariat, that Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany favor the middle class rather than the working classes, and that consequently these three movements do not truly represent the interests of class, nation, or race; but the important fact in each case is that individualism and economic liberalism have been repudiated.

The immediate circumstances which preceded the respective hours of triumph of the three dictatorships differ materially in detail. It is unnecessary to rehearse their already well-known histories. The one striking similarity in all three is the ease with which the old regimes collapsed. In each case, of course, the process of collapse was different. In Russia the Tsarist government succumbed to the Provisional Government with some bloodshed, it is true, but without a really serious attempt to resist. The Kerensky government had no roots and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks with ease. If either the Tsarist government or the Kerensky government had shown the degree of determination which was later shown by the Whites in the Civil War, neither of them could have been overthrown. At the time when they possessed the machinery of government, however, they lacked the determination and ruthlessness which would have enabled them to retain power. The dynamic character of the Bolshevik leaders was not demonstrated by their easy triumph in seizing the power which “lay in the streets” at the time of the October Revolution, but in holding it against all comers during the Civil War.

In Italy, and in Germany as well, the resistance of the old regime was even feebler, Indeed, in Germany no resistance could be said to have taken place at all, since there was no forcible seizure of power. Bruning and von Schleicher had smoothed the way for Hitler much more effectively than had Kerensky for Lenin. In Italy, by contrast, there was no one to play the now conventional role of Kerensky. It was unnecessary that there should be. We must conclude that the Kerensky figure need not invariably be present in the transformation of parliamentary government into a dictatorship.

It is difficult to find in the history of these three successful revolutions support for Malaparte’s theory of an ideal technique of revolution. This is illustrated by the varying role of the army in each case. The wartime Russian army was already in the process of disintegration even before the February Revolution. At the time of the October Revolution, it certainly did not participate as an organization on either side. It is true that the sailors of Kronstadt were a force of great importance in overthrowing the Kerensky government, but there is the greatest difference possible in the technique of revolution between utilizing a force of mutinous sailors and winning control of a professional army by gaining the support of its commanders, as did Mussolini. The quasi-constitutional technique of Hitler differed from that of either Lenin or Mussolini. Successful revolutions are not made against the army, but on the other hand they are not always made with the army. Hitler proved that a revolution can be made by politically out-maneuvering the hostile leaders of the army, just as Lenin had proved that a revolution can be successful when the army has already been destroyed.


One cannot, then, find a common technique in the methods by which the three dictatorships seized power. The similarity lies in something deeper than technique. It lies in the lack of dynamism in the governments which fell and in the possession of it by the dictatorships which came to power. In Russia, in Italy, and in Germany the regimes which fell had lost confidence in themselves. They were susceptible to national and international public opinion. The leaders worried about whether their acts would be supported by popular approval. While Lenin and Mussolini and Hitler prepared their overthrow before their eyes, the leaders of the governments which were to be destroyed remained true to the standards of late European civilization and culture and did not kill their rivals. Faced by economic or political breakdown, they could not cut through the legal and constitutional obstacles which bound them like cobwebs against decisive action. When the government did act, if any minority was injured and made itself vocal, the consciences of these leaders smote them, and they were willing to allow someone else to take over the reins of government.

On the other hand, the dictators and their henchmen who destroyed the governments of these men of tender conscience are never troubled by remorse. They simply exercise power and do not trouble themselves. If men oppose the dictator they can be killed, although much killing may not be necessary, since usually all that is required is the general recognition of the willingness to kill.

Under a dictatorship, economic policies which are decided upon can be carried out until the results can finally be checked upon. In Russia, collectivization of agriculture could be given a thorough trial while hundreds of thousands of peasants starved. No parliamentary government which ever existed could have carried such an experiment to completion under these circumstances. Hitler can give the German market to the German peasant while he disregards the complaints of the workers whose costs of living have risen. If mistakes are made, there is leisure in which to correct them, for neither a parliamentary nor a popular vote can unseat the government. Courts and laws must serve the dictatorship or they can be disregarded. Legality can be brushed aside when occasion makes it desirable for the dictatorship to do so.

This does not mean that the dictatorships which exist are purely personal. It must be recognized at the outset that they are basically different from the military dictatorships such as that of Rivera in Spain or of Pangalos in Greece or the ones which have been so common in South America. In Russia we have three concentric circles of dictatorship. First, there is the dictatorship of the proletariat; second, that of the Communist Party; and finally, at the center, the dictatorship of Stalin. In Italy and in Germany, the dictatorships of Mussolini and of Hitler are each founded upon a Party dictatorship. All three have creeds and spare no effort in indoctrinating the masses with their creeds. This is to say that the dictatorships are founded not only upon a highly disciplined Party with a mass membership, but also upon a still broader mass basis created by propaganda.

The existence of the Party organizations in the totalitarian states, with their reliance upon mass propaganda, not only differentiates the “mass” dictatorship from the personal and military dictatorship, but differentiates it from the Caesarian state as well. No Roman emperor had either the resources of the Party organizations or those of mass propaganda upon which to rely. Consequently, the completeness with which the economic, political, and social structure can be controlled by Stalin, Hitler, or Mussolini could hardly have been paralleled by the power of any Caesar.

Perhaps the most striking resemblance between the regime of the Roman Caesars and the modern totalitarian state lies in the complete disappearance of respect for personal dignity. The individual is completely stripped of protection against acts of force by agents of the state. He who attempts to assert the rights and obligations of personality can expect only to be crushed by remorseless force which does not concede the right of an individual to have a conscience.

The most striking difference lies in the insistence of the modern dictator that he is serving the group interest. Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini do not assert their right to rule for their own pleasure but proclaim that they rule only as the servants of the proletariat, of Das Volk, of the Italian people. Perhaps the difference is not real, however, for the first Caesar courted popular favor. The successors of the dictators of today may abandon the theory of servant of the people and recognize no limitation upon their will or their caprice.

Psychologically, there is perhaps a greater resemblance between Bolshevism and National Socialism than there is between National Socialism and Fascism. The degree of fanaticism and ruthlessness which they share may have its roots in a fundamentally non-Western culture. Economically and socially, however, Fascism and National Socialism are closer together. Fascism and National Socialism have as a common germ the horror of the non-proletarian classes at the prospect of their own liquidation through the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The three totalitarian states have certain basic characteristics in common. They are alike in their contempt for democracy, liberalism, pacifism, and parliamentary methods, in their admiration of force, and in their reliance upon direct action. These similarities do not, however, warrant the conclusion that if parliamentary institutions were to be destroyed, it would be a matter of indifference as to which type of dictatorship succeeded them. It would make a tremendous difference to individuals who are living in the countries which still retain parliamentarianism, which type of dictatorship came to power. A Communist dictatorship in France, England, or the United States would mean the liquidation of the non-proletarian classes. Let no man think that the term liquidation is only a phrase. The man of the middle class, the member of a profession, the farmer, would all have to cease to exist as such. Sometimes this would mean death by violence, oftener only waiting to die; in other cases, merely the transformation into an individual with the psychology of the urban proletariat; but in most cases, stark agony. A dictatorship after the order of Hitler or Mussolini, on the other hand, would mean to the laborer the necessity for acquiescing in authoritative control of industry, rigid discipline, and the liquidation of all means of defending the interests of labor as a class. In a totalitarian state of the Russian type, the worker would still have to obey, but his rulers would be mostly of proletarian origin and he would at least be spared some of the outward manifestations of respect for authority.

To the extent that there exists the possibility for the spread of totalitarian states to still other countries, it is not simply a question of dictatorship but a question of what kind of dictatorship. The writer is convinced that if still other dictatorships come into existence they will differ somewhat in character according to the country in which they take root. Thus National Socialism, which came into existence after Bolshevism and Fascism were already in existence, copied neither exactly but developed a form conditioned by Prussian culture and institutions. If countries which now have parliamentary regimes abandon the parliamentary principle, they are likely to develop dictatorships modeled in some degree after one or the other of the three types, but having new elements not now existing in any of the three. The course of events during the next decade may be favorable to the development of one of the types of non-parliamentary regimes and not to others. Or direct conflict may develop between countries having different forms with the result that one type destroys and supplants the others.


What are the conditions under which it is possible for any type of totalitarian state to supplant a parliamentary regime? “Mass” dictatorships emerge when either economic depression or political or social chaos exists and the parliamentary regime does not or cannot restore tolerable conditions. Such a situation may arise as the aftermath of a major war, as the result of a severe economic crisis, or even as the result of popular disgust with the failure of government to maintain order during a critical period.

Of course, neither an economic depression nor participation in a major war always results in the overthrow of parliamentary government. The defeat of Germany resulted at first in the establishment of a regime which in every way was more liberal, democratic, and parliamentary than the regime which preceded it. The republic might have endured indefinitely if it had not also suffered the additional shock of the economic depression, following after a long period upon the shock of military defeat. England has retained its traditional institutions up to the present in spite of a deep and prolonged depression.

Parliamentary governments can easily defeat attempts at establishing dictatorships as long as economic prosperity continues and as long as the central government is even reasonably firm in maintaining order. It is only under conditions which have developed deep-seated despair or disgust that dictatorships can triumph—provided always that dictatorships are not imposed by circumstances originating outside the boundaries of the country in question.

It is probable, therefore, that if there should be an economic revival along traditional lines, there would not be great danger of a dictatorship brought about by internal forces in countries such as England and the United States. There has been a very real relation between laissez-faire capitalism and parliamentary and liberal institutions. As long as business could manage itself, there existed no basis for popular clamor that the state take decisive action in economic matters. If economic revival should take place, accompanied by the maintenance or restoration of laissez-faire, there would be no strong prospect for the end of parliamentarianism in England or America.

At the same time, it does not follow that, if laissez-faire capitalism should disappear, the end of parliamentary government would inevitably follow. The fact is, we do not yet know whether a democratic and parliamentary government could carry on the functions of completely directing an economy, for the experiment has not yet been tried. The German republic does not afford an example: it was not overthrown because it could not perform the functions of managing the economy, but because it made no serious effort to do so. At a time when men had completely despaired of the old economic order, the republican government of Germany could offer nothing better than the advice to wait.

It is obvious, however, that if authoritative direction of the economy were to be substituted for laissez-faire, the executive arm of the government would have to have large powers intrusted to it. It is just as obvious that the legislative arm of government could not constantly intervene in the direction of the economy without creating chaotic conditions. It would be essential that there should be control of the legislative and executive branches of the government by one party and not by a coalition of parties. Disputes over general policy might take place within the party, but after a decision had been reached, party discipline would have to compel support of the party policy. Such a degree of discipline and cohesion could be obtained only upon the basis of a highly efficient party organization and popular enthusiasm. It may be objected that only in a totalitarian state could such conditions obtain, but we cannot assume that this is so. There is no reason why those who believe in the maintenance of parliamentary, democratic, and liberal institutions should not prove as effective in organization and propaganda as the advocates of a Communist or Fascist dictatorship.

If democracy could organize itself in some such way as that described above, it could direct the economic mechanism if that were found essential to the survival of parliamentary government. If such a government proved successful in carrying on the economic functions of a country, there would be no serious internal threat of its overthrow. Even if there were times of temporary economic crisis, the survival of parliamentarianism would depend only on the nerves of its leaders. In a world in which the example of existing dictatorships naturally encourages would-be Hitlers to try their luck, national leaders of democracies do not dare to be pacifists. The ease with which dictators seized power in Russia, Germany, and Italy does not prove by any means that parliamentary governments will always collapse before the mouth-ings of any swashbuckler. Dictators came to power, partly because the leaders of the governments which were overthrown had lost all confidence in their ability to rescue their countries from the morass, and partly because they did not have the will to fight.

It is true that “mass” dictatorships are psychologically militant and that there is inherent in them the urge to exercise force. But leaders of parliamentary government before now have been willing and able to conduct both civil and foreign wars. It does not follow, therefore, that heads of parliamentary states need always be persons who are frightened at the threat of bloodshed. If it were true that the heads of the states which still are without dictators could always be coerced into resigning by the threat of civil war, then of course no democratic government could resist effectively. It must be repeated, however, that history demonstrates that the heads of democracies are not invariably chicken-livered.

The conclusion must be, therefore, that the ability of democratic and parliamentary institutions to survive depends primarily upon whether or not economic depressions can be overcome within the limits of these institutions. For we must face the fact that if we retain our existing economic system entirely without change, depressions such as the present one are certain to re-occur. It is probable, however, that the basic elements of our political institutions as well as the essential elements of our culture might be retained even if economic institutions had to be altered. But intelligence of the highest order would be required to work out the mechanism of control of such a politico-economic system.

If tolerable economic conditions can be maintained, mass support for dictatorships will not reach a dangerous weight, and resolute leaders can always defend their governments against an occasional putsch. On the other hand, if democratic and parliamentary governments cannot deal with the present economic depression, or a subsequent one, such governments are certainly doomed.

It must never be forgotten that under dictatorships people will endure economic conditions so bad that if similar conditions existed under parliamentary governments, they would be overthrown in a moment. It is not necessary to demonstrate that a dictatorship could solve the economic problems of the modern world any better than can parliamentary governments. All that is necessary to doom parliamentary governments is for economic conditions to become intolerable. Under such circumstances, sufficient mass support can be counted upon to provide the force for the triumph of a dictator. Thereafter an entirely new standard of “in-tolerableness” comes into existence. A modern “mass” dictatorship which enjoys the support of a party organization, propaganda, and the monopoly of force, can maintain itself in power under circumstances so terrible that men conditioned by our modern culture cannot envisage them.


We have, up to now, discussed the matter as though the destruction of parliamentarianism and the coming of the totalitarian state depended only upon forces operating from within each country. This is manifestly untrue. Aside from the contagion of ideas, it is probable that in Europe the spread of the institution of the totalitarian state will depend primarily upon forces from without rather than upon forces within. All totalitarian states have in common the explosive elements of the cult of force allied with the urge to expansion. This urge to expansion may take either the form of the dissemination of the doctrines of the faith to the unenlightened with the edge of the sword, or the form of territorial expansion, or a combination of both. Moreover, this urge to expansion affects not only the destinies of countries which retain the parliamentary form of government but the destinies of other totalitarian states as well. Consequently, the future of both the parliamentary and the totalitarian states will be vitally affected by the course and outcome of the next war.

The possible permutations and combinations of the next war in Europe are so many that no one can prophesy with any certainty its effect upon the development of political and economic institutions. The forces and factors which are involved are too unpredictable. But without making any effort at crystal gazing, one may suggest several “sample” chains of development to illustrate the possible influence of the Cav sarian movement in some countries upon events in others. Will France allow Germany to absorb Austria without war Probably. Will France support Poland when Hitler decides that the time is ripe to take the Polish Corridor? Probably not. If France fails to intervene in either case, the result will be German hegemony in Europe. Germany would thereafter annex some portions of the Slav states adjoining her and would organize the remainder as protectorates. All would come under the regis of the German totalitarian state. There can be little doubt that Hitler could wage the wars necessary to attain these ends with little chance of defeat, always supposing that France did not move during the early stages of the process. The military glory and renown which German armies would win in a series of sharp but brief and decisive campaigns would immensely increase the prestige of the National Socialist regime.

It is quite possible that, if the French abandoned the Poles and the other Slavic states, Hitler would be content to allow the status quo in Western Europe to remain undisturbed. If Italy, France, and England acquiesced in German dominance of Slavic Europe and the Balkans and accepted the fact of overwhelming German military superiority, they might be allowed to exist without serious molestation and might, perhaps, retain any type of political institution which they liked. In this case the possibility of the creation of new totalitarian states in France and England would depend primarily on internal forces.

It would then be uncertain whether the Russian and German dictatorships could arrive at a modus vivendi which would permit them to exist side by side, or whether there would be a struggle to the death between them. Doubtless, non-European factors, such as the possibility of co-operation by a Japanese totalitarian state in the dismemberment of Russia, would determine whether the Communist and the National Socialist states would find it desirable to come to an agreement.

If the next European war comes within two or three years and if France supports her allies, it is conceivable that events would develop quite differently. Germany might, indeed, triumph in the struggle anyhow, and the results would then be as described above. But in a prolonged struggle which necessitated arming the working classes of Germany and requiring them to engage in protracted warfare, it is probable that the National Socialists would be overthrown by the Communists and that the Russian type of the totalitarian state rather than the Prussian would dominate Europe. In either event it is quite likely that the eventual result would be the erection of a few great Caesarian states which would dominate the principal land and sea areas. It is possible that, after each of such states had gained control of its “natural” area, warfare might be reduced to an occasional rather than a continuous basis, since the energies of the ruling group in each state might find satisfactory expression in maintaining order within its own area.

In summary, certain general principles follow from the argument outlined above. The urge to expansion exists in all the totalitarian states. This urge leads to armed conflict with other countries, regardless of whether they are totalitarian or parliamentary in their political institutions. The issue of such conflicts will profoundly affect the particular type of totalitarian state which is likely to come into existence. Consequently, upon the issue of the next European war will probably depend the decision as to whether subsequent totalitarian states will be of the National Socialist or Communist types. Finally, it is possible that after the formative period has come to an end, a few great Caesarian states might exist, each within a natural economic area and with a certain degree of tolerance for each other.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that external and internal forces which are operative now and are likely to be operative in the future render the survival of the liberal, democratic, and parliamentary state doubtful. The writer believes that the chance for its survival in the United States is better than in any other country. But that is another story.


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