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When to Build a Barricade

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

Time was when the ordinary, middle-class American contemplated no other end than to die quietly in his bed, attended by his physician and, presumably, by his parson or his priest as well.

Today that is no longer true. Not only do all of us now envisage the high possibility, amounting almost to probability, of ending our lives on the highway in an automobile wreck, but great numbers of Americans seem to be cherishing an increasing expectancy of dying on a street barricade, defending, or opposing, some political theory they had never heard of twenty years ago. Fascism is a creation of the last fifteen years; and while Communism is older, the average American who is now fifty-five probably was thirty-five years old before the word meant anything at all to him, for it was only in 1917 that this theory began to count in our national life. Still, an astonishing number of us are convinced that the world is destined to be divided between these two forces and that the time is near when the United States must choose between them. It is assumed, and the logic of events supports the assumption, that the choice will not be peaceful —that it must involve barricades and spectacular death upon them.

True it is that most of the talking seems to be done by men of my generation, now at an age when we are much more concerned with paunches and bald heads than with romance and high adventure. Even if hell should break loose, not many of us would do any dying on barricades, and to a perhaps too-cynical mind it seems that the loudest talkers would probably die under the bed rather than in it. Yet this gabble about barricades may not be altogether as the crackling of thorns under a pot; if it is improbable that the shiny-pated, bay-windowed members of golf clubs will participate in any armed rebellions, it is possible that their talk may accustom the minds of other men to accept easily the idea of revolution and counter-revolution in America. Among these may be a certain number of simple-minded but muscular and courageous youth, such as those who thrust Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini into power. These are entirely capable of manning the barricades and of dying there, if the opposition shoots straight.

It is for this reason that the current heresy—the theory that the world is being divided between Fascism and Communism—should not be dismissed with a shrug by thoughtful men. The chance of revolution in America may be, and I think, is, barely within the realm of possibility; but the chance of heavy rioting is much nearer. In fact, we have had some rioting, both Fascist and Communist, and it probably would be no difficult feat to instigate more and much more serious riots. This is why the gabble around directors’ tables, in faculty clubs, and in the cafes haunted by the “intelligentsia” is more of a nuisance than the numerical strength of the gabblers would indicate. For the normal young man is a bit of a fool. He is also the strength and hope of the nation, to be sure. He is frequently a better man, morally and physically, than an old man; but he has less sense—if he is normal. He is likely to accept the notion that this country is really confronted with a choice between Fascism and Communism and, having made his individual choice, try to put it through in the only way in which either Fascism or Communism can be established—by revolution.

Then, when the barricades are already built and manned, the discovery will come that this country still musters a third party of considerable strength, namely, the democrats. Both Reds and Whites are incessantly bawling about the failure of democracy, and a man must have either experience or a subtlety of mind not characteristic of youth to realize that as long as any man can stand up in this country and shout, with impunity, “Democracy has failed!” democracy hasn’t failed. One of the most important functions of democracy is to make it possible, and safe, for men to shout, “Democracy has failed!” While they can do so, the system is still working, and the best proof that our political philosophy retains some validity is the very fact that it is permissible for men to denounce it as a failure.

Democracy, however, is neither capitalism nor socialism, and democrats are neither Fascists nor Communists. (Surely, it is not necessary to point out to the intelligent reader that democracy is spelled with a lower-case “d,” and that under this orthography Mr. Alfred M. Landon, Mr. Herbert Hoover, and perhaps even Mr. Alfred E. Smith may be classified as democrats.) It is true that, from the standpoint of a good many of the moderns, especially of the younger generation, the statement that they are neither Fascist nor Communist completely excludes democrats from reality and reduces them to the status of figments of the imagination. The Hitlerites and the Leninites are agreed on one fundamental proposition, which is the universal validity of the theory of economic determinism. They are proclaiming with the voice of Stentor not only that politics is based on economics, but that there is no thinking, in philosophy, in the arts, in ethics, or in anything else that is not economic thinking. True, neither puts it in those words; the Russians call it social and the Germans racial, rather than economic, thinking. But these terms, if they have any validity at all, refer to the remote objectives of the existing polity, which is immediately concerned with the national economy, and this concern is all-embracing. In Moscow literature, drama, even music must be “proletarian,” and in Berlin they must be “Aryan”; but both these misapplied terms mean that they must tend to serve the economy under which the nation concerned is operating. If all phases of life are absorbed in this service, then obviously anything that is not must be outside human experience, which is to say, non-existent. Hence, under the totalitarian philosophy, it is as imperative to be either Fascist or Communist as it is to be either man or woman.

Democracy, however, serves no particular economy; or rather, it can serve any economy indifferently. If I were as fond of misapplying terms as Moscow and Berlin seem to be, I might allege that democracy cannot be either Fascist or Communist because it is essentially Methodist; but that word has connotations which might perturb Mr. Joseph Patrick Kennedy, ornament of the Democratic party and faithful son of the Roman Church. I will merely say, therefore, that democracy, being a method and not a program, cannot be cabin’d, cribb’d, confined by any program. Nor can a thoroughgoing, consistent democrat ever be committed irrevocably to any program, not even that of the Democratic party. Only if, and only as long as, the program is consistent with the method can it be accepted by democrats.

At the same time, there is no earthly reason why a democrat should be compelled to choose between Fascism and Communism. There is nothing in the world to prevent him from choosing both, or at least choosing those elements in each which are consonant with the democratic method. I am a non-admirer of both Fascism and Communism. It seems to me that life would be almost intolerable for an intelligent man under either. Yet at the same time I can perceive in both merits that, applied by the democratic method, might ameliorate the condition of mankind appreciably; and I can perceive no reason why democrats should not cull them and apply them.


Of all the dictators now flourishing on earth the one that I find least to my own taste is Hitler. His rule is probably no more tyrannous than Mussolini’s and is palpably less murderous than Stalin’s; but he is more ridiculous than either, and, immoral though it may be, absurdity in a ruler alienates more people than blood-thirst. Burning books, cutting off women’s heads, casting Mendelssohn’s statue into the melting-furnace because he was a Jew, and rewriting “Stille Nacht” to eliminate all references to mildness and peace—such acts are downright silly, and a tyranny that is both ruthless and silly is twice as bad as one that is ruthless only.

Yet even in the Nazi regime there is at least one element that unquestionably would improve the social polity of the American people if it could be introduced here by a democratic method. This is the social discipline that the Germans are exhibiting.

There has been endless talk in the United States in recent years about the need of a more sensitive social conscience in this country. The need is great enough, heaven knows; but it is about time to do a little talking about another aspect of the same thing, to wit, the need of social discipline. Hitler has carried it to the length of erecting the state into a mythological monster, proprietor of the lives and fortunes of citizens, rather than their servant; but that is another exhibition of his talent for being absurd. Held within the bounds of reason the idea is admirable; and it is one with which Americans are not as familiar as they ought to be.

Consider, for example, the way in which we have had to back into any sort of control of a wild and ruinous agricultural overproduction in certain crops. When it became apparent that cotton, wheat, and corn were being produced in quantities far beyond the maximum that the market could absorb, the only way in which we could approach any sort of control was by paying the farmer either to let his land lie idle, or to plant it to another crop. There was in existence neither the legal mechanism nor, what is more important, the habit of mind that would have made it possible for organized society to say to the wheat, the cotton, or the corn grower, “This year you will grow a different crop, or else—.” Instead, we had to disburse sums that threw the budget hopelessly out of balance, swelled still more the already bloated national debt, gave the opponents of Mr. James A. Farley an excuse to wound his sensibilities by accusing him of buying the farmer vote, and filled all the Economic Royalists with an immovable conviction that Doomsday is just around the corner.

Consider, again, the terrific battle for power that has been going on in the ranks of organized labor. The social costs of this civil war are by no means all borne by labor. There is no reasonable doubt that the disturbances attending it contributed materially to the general slackening of business in the latter half of 1937. More than that, the revelation of labor’s lack of competence to assume responsibility as one party to a contract hardened the opposition of employers who never liked labor unions anyhow, and thereby made the future development of labor organization slower and more difficult. Labor racketeering and strikes arising from jurisdictional disputes are further examples of a lack of social discipline that threatens the well-being, not of labor only, but of every man who works for money, from Henry Ford to the lowest-paid W. P. A. pick-and-shovel gang.

I have deliberately and carefully confined this discussion to the need of social discipline among workers, because I cannot believe that any rational man needs to have pointed out the glaring need of social discipline among employers, who now hire private armies to bring their workers under subjection.

But if I am convinced that Hitler is the dictator under whom I, as an individual, should live most miserably, I am equally certain that Stalin is the dictator under whom I should die soonest. If the Nazi regime seems to make life worthless, the Soviet regime tends to make it quite impossible.

Yet there is merit in Communism. Russia, apparently, is at this moment rather less Communistic than New Jersey, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his economic policy—but not in his social policy—is distinctly less Jeffersonian than Alfred M. Landon. At the same time, Russia, like Mr. Roosevelt, pays lip-service to a doctrine that circumstances have made it impossible to apply in practice, and in this doctrine there is merit.

This merit is the Communist theory that the state is the servant of the citizen, the term citizen, in this connection, meaning every adult inhabitant of the country. For emphasis I repeat the assertion that Russia, in this respect, is not at this time Communist; perhaps eventually she will become so, although her present trend seems to be all in the opposite direction. But this doesn’t affect the theory, and the theory is that the state has no excuse for existence save as it serves the people—not Alexander Hamilton’s “rich and well-born,” but all the people.

To judge by the language of the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, the founders of the American republic seem to have adhered to the same theory: “We, the people . . . in order to . . . establish justice . . . promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Plain enough; the government was created by the Constitution, and the Constitution was created, ordained, and established by the people to serve certain purposes that they chose to have served. The Constitution had no other function than to serve the people; therefore the government established under it could have no other purpose.

But language is tricky. The word “people” has borne many different connotations at different times and to different men. There is plenty of evidence to show that “We, the | people” meant to the group of country gentlemen who framed the Constitution something very different from what it meant to Nikolai Lenin. For one thing, to the Founding Fathers it obviously did not include Negroes, nor did it include women, idiots, and imbeciles; in Maryland it included neither Catholics nor Jews; only recently had it begun to include non-church-members in Massachusetts; in most of the States it included nobody who was unable to give evidence of possessing property to a certain value; for all these classes were excluded from participation in government and therefore had no part in ordaining and establishing the Constitution. In the minds of the framers of the Constitution, the people of the United States included few persons except the landowners of the United States; and it would be no gross misinterpretation of their idea to make that opening phrase read, “We, the gentlemen . . . do ordain.”

To this day the idea of a selective definition of the word “people” has not been entirely eradicated from this country. If they had the power, the Ku Klux would certainly exclude Catholics, Jews, and Negroes from consideration as part of the people. Half the Chambers of Commerce in the country, if they had the power, would exclude Communists, and a great many would exclude trade-union organizers, or, as they are usually termed, “agitators.” There are those who would deny the right of suffrage to persons on relief and to all officeholders who live uj)on salaries paid by the government. I am myself opposed to extending that right to any more idiots and imbeciles than now exercise it. On the other hand, the Communists themselves deny that “the people” ought to mean any element of the population other than the proletariat.

But one need not accept the Communist restriction of the definition of the word “people” in order to accept the Communist idea that the government is, or ought to be, the servant of every inhabitant of the country, regardless of his social, economic, or racial status, and that it has no other excuse for being than to promote the general welfare. Most Americans, indeed, do accept this in theory; but many of them are very violently opposed to putting it into practice. Among the most violent, strange to say, are some who deem themselves radical. These are they who have been so enchanted by Communist practice that they are unable to observe how widely it has departed from Communist theory. They cannot see that in making the citizen the servant of the state, Communism is repudiating its own birthright.

But there is no apparent reason why a democrat should not cherish both the Fascist ideal of social discipline and the Communist ideal of the servant state. They are not in the least incompatible. Indeed, the Communists themselves have imposed an exceedingly severe social discipline for the ostensible purpose of assuring a state that will serve the citizen. One may cherish a certain skepticism as to whether or not that is the real objective; but it might be.

As for their compatibility with democracy, that is self-evident, since democracy is not in itself a program, but merely a method that may be applied to the furtherance of any program. It might be used indifferently to establish either Fascism or Communism. It is habitually used by the American people to establish autocracy at every great crisis in the affairs of the republic. Stalin himself possesses no more effective authority in Russia than was readily granted to— nay, thrust upon—Jackson in 1833, Lincoln in 1861, Wilson in 1917, and Roosevelt in 1933.


Democracy is the method of governing by the consent of the governed—their consent, not a reluctant acquiescence wrung from them by force. It is, obviously, not a method universally applicable. If a population will not consent to good government, then democracy necessarily must produce bad government. If a population will not consent even to tolerable government, then democracy must result in a regime that is ruinous. History affords little evidence to support the belief—ostensibly accepted in the early days of the republic, though not by its wisest men—that political competence is innate. It seems, rather, to be a national acquisition, usually attained only after long experimentation by the method of trial and error, involving incalculable loss and suffering.

But once a nation has attained a measurable degree of political competence, that is to say, once it has learned to consent freely to government which, while far from ideal, is yet within the boundaries of sanity, then the democratic method is plainly the one best designed to further the permanent maintenance of order. Its first tenet, accepted by all, is that whatever happens nobody is going to shoot. The proximate cause of all revolutions, including the bloodiest, is never a mass mania for slaying, which is incomprehensible, but a simple and easily understood desire to shoot first. The revolutionists cherish a firm belief, usually, but not necessarily, justified by experience, that the party in power will shoot rather than surrender its power; so the revolutionists, if they can, shoot first.

Democracies, to the extent that they are firmly established, have conventionalized the business of revolution and reduced its bloodier and more distasteful features to symbolism. Through the waste of innumerable wars, we have come to realize at last that the only good Indian is not a dead Indian; that a dead Indian, on the contrary, is the only one who can never be any good to anybody. So if you have the drop on him, and can easily keep him covered, why drill him? If you do so, you simply lose a cartridge and gain the necessity of burying a corpse, neither of which improves the situation. In 1932 the country, being displeased by the Administration in power, might have effected its purpose by Franco’s method in Spain, to wit, butchering the Republicans. But it would have been slow, extremely expensive, and highly dangerous, as Franco discovered. Our democratic method was neater, cheaper, and quicker. We symbolized bullets with ballots; and after the election the Republicans, scrupulously abiding by the rules, considered themselves dead, and that was that.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that the whole thing hinges on everyone’s abiding by the rules, and that people will not abide by the rules except in matters of relatively small importance, things that can be reduced to the triviality of a game. The success of our democratic experiment in the United States has been explained on the theory that we are not really at odds on anything of importance; and as proof the explainers frequently cite the difficulty of demonstrating to a foreigner the essential differences of the Democratic and Republican parties. This explanation is profoundly true, but not in the way that many people understand it to be true. There is one fundamental on which we are all agreed. It is the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Beyond that, though, the assertion of basic agreement among all Americans has little to support it. If Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mr. Carter Glass are agreed on all matters of importance, then Kelly is a Chinaman; yet they are both members of the same party. They are, however, in agreement on the doctrine that Americans can be governed justly only by their own consent; and they are doubtless in agreement that, this being granted, nothing is left for which it is worthwhile to draw a gun.

Moreover, the argument that if people are agreed on fundamentals, they can then get along together, is an argument that ignores one of the most embarrassing facts in human history—the fact that the greatest and fiercest wars that have ravaged mankind have been fought between people who were agreed on fundamentals. It is unnecessary to point out that Crusader and Saracen both believed in God; consider only the wars that have arrayed Christian against Christian, Moslem against Moslem, and in 1861 American against American. Consider that one of the innumerable revolutions in Mexico was a fight of the York Rite Masons against the Scottish Rite Masons. Consider the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

In spite of such agreement on fundamentals as exists among Americans, they could have found a multitude of excuses for a multitude of civil wars had it not been for the general belief that whatever happens, nobody will shoot.

This is a highly civilized attitude. I know that to speak of Americans in the mass as highly civilized will shock many people, including not merely the intelligentsia, but also the intelligent. Our crudity, our bumptiousness, our arrogance, and our ignorance are all too evident. We have produced no great art and but little gracious living. We have carried the methods of mass production not only into the making of automobiles, but also into the making of citizens, turning out millions of dreary Babbitts with interchangeable mentalities. I know there are areas of the country in which even religion is brought down to the level of voodooism and other areas where it is brought to the level of vaudeville. I know that pretty far up the American social scale Edison is regarded as the prince of scientists and Eddie Guest as the prince of poets. All this is indubitable, and it is all evidence of a pretty shoddy civilization.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that in our political development we have run far ahead of our artistic, social, ethical, and general intellectual development. One of the most highly civilized men on earth today is the American defeated candidate; for he has grasped one of the most difficult of all concepts, the truth that ideas are not successfully propagated by force. It does not necessarily follow that he has the rare intelligence to realize that it is possible for him to be wrong; but he does realize that it is possible for him to be out-numbered. When he is out-numbered, his proposals for government have not the consent of the governed and in that sense are wrong; for in a democracy any government lacking that consent is wrong by definition.

As long as this condition obtains, justifiable revolution in this country is a logical impossibility. The people cannot rise against their oppressors when they are their own oppressors. There might conceivably be a coup d’Hat in which a well-organized minority group would seize the government and bring the rest of us under subjection. But that is not revolution; it is counter-revolution. It is, furthermore, a retrogression in political development, a return to an earlier and a less highly civilized form of political organization. The German “principle of leadership,” the Italian “corporative state,” the Russian “dictatorship of the proletariat,” whatever they may be—if, indeed, they are anything but the rodomontade of politicians — certainly are not new principles of government. One and all, they are based on the oldest of all governmental principles, the principle of tyranny.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that they are completely nonsensical as, and where, they are applied. Belief in panaceas is a characteristically American heresy. We cannot rid ourselves of the notion that the democracy which experience has shown to be excellent for us would necessarily be good for Cubans and Filipinos and Russians and Germans. But there is no proof of this and a good deal of evidence against it. Democracy is possible only in the presence of a strong and almost universally held belief in the consent of the governed as an indispensable condition of just government; and it is useless to expect it to work even tolerably except in the presence of an informed public opinion, In most of the world these conditions are not present. Tyranny in some form may be the only possible government for Germans and Russians because, although both nations may be further advanced than we are in many of the phases of civilization, in the one matter of political method we are far more highly developed than they are.


Does the United States, then, enjoy good government? Oh, no. We have very bad government, but at that it is the best in the world. The proof is obvious. That government is best which kills fewest of the governed. What with Chicago police, fast-shooting G-men, and prosecuting attorneys who want to be Governor, our democratic government slaughters an appalling number of its taxpayers every year; but even so, our annual governmental production of corpses is trifling compared with what the government I believe to be the next best, the British, produced last year on the northwest frontier of India, where it had 35,000 troops engaged in an unadvertised war, not to mention its activities in the rest of the globe. Even our starvation rate compares favorably with that of the Welsh coal districts and the slums of Glasgow.

Yet this same democratic method, when it was tried briefly in Italy, culminated in Fascism, and when it was tried a little longer in Germany, it ended in Nazi-ism. The answer is that in neither country were the necessary conditions present. Neither the Germans nor the Italians had any deep-rooted belief in the consent of the governed as a requisite of just government, nor any long experience of uncensored information in the development of public opinion. To adopt the language of an earlier day, they were little acquainted with either political liberty or free speech. They were not prepared for the democratic method and it did not work.

But there are all too many Americans who are not prepared for it, either. In the highest civilization, there is always a proportion of relatively uncivilized people. There were tone-deaf Germans when Beethoven lived, and colorblind Italians in the days of Raphael. Athens ostracized Aristides, and this country is full of apoplectic clubmen who regard the undistributed surplus tax as the damnation of democracy, and reformers in a hurry who regard the rejection of the Child Labor Amendment in the same light. These are they who talk of barricades and the irrepressible conflict.

The time to erect a barricade, though, is the time when someone, conservative or liberal, Tory or Red, comes along with the proposal that the consent of the governed is no longer the essential basis of just government. Of course, no one is going to make the proposal in those words. That would be too crude, too blatant. It is advanced, rather, by indirection, usually not shrewd at all, but curiously ingenuous. The most popular gambit, at the moment, is the perfectly sound assertion that the people cannot be expected to make intelligent decisions if they act on false information; after that comes the poisonous part—the suggestion that something ought to be done to stamp out inflammatory propaganda.

What this really means is the suppression of free speech. It is probably true that most of the people who propose it do not know that. They quite honestly regard it as the suppression of free lying, which, of course, it may be; but lying is a form of speech, and it is impossible to suppress one form alone. The people, indeed, gain their information about all governmental matters very largely by the process that Wilson said he used to get at the truth about Mexico—by balancing lies.

There is no principle of law better established than that a consent obtained by fraud is no consent; and the supplying of false, or the withholding of true, information material to the case constitutes fraud. The consent of the people, obtained by such fraud, is a negation of the entire democratic method; which is to say, it renders void and of no effect the highest development of American civilization, its political organization. Human ingenuity has never yet devised an effective process to prevent lying. Sunrise is no more certain than that the American people—and any other people, for that matter—are going to have lies told them whenever politics is discussed. Hence the only possible guard against the granting of a fraudulent consent is to make certain that they are also told the truth; for the experience of a century and a half demonstrates that, while they cannot always tell which is truth and which lies, they do so sufficiently frequently to keep the government going—wabbling, to be sure, but never quite crashing into complete ruin.

When it is proposed to suppress propaganda—that is the moment to erect a barricade. Propaganda is a word of evil repute. It is a word that is bitter on the tongues of many honest men. Nevertheless, the right to spread propaganda must be defended to the death by all men who love liberty, for it is a two-sided word, and what is your propaganda is my free speech. It may be a sad fact, to many it seems to be an almost intolerable fact, but it is a fact that we cannot guarantee the freedom of Alfred M. Landon without guaranteeing that of Earl Browder, too; and in a country which puts the Communist candidate in jail for trying to make a political speech, it is always possible that the Republican, or any other candidate, might some day be jailed for the same offense. The moment any candidate, however idiotic, is suppressed, that moment we make it theoretically possible to gain an apparent consent of the governed by fraud, and the foundation of our system is no longer safe; but as long as we defend resolutely the right of every silly ass to spread nonsense, we make doubly secure our own right to speak words of wisdom, beauty, and truth.


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