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Freedom Today and Tomorrow

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Democracy Today and Tomorrow. By Eduard Benes. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00. The March of Fascism. By Stephen Raushenbush. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.00. Of Human Freedom. By Jacques Barzun. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.50.

The three books discussed here deal with one of the most important concerns of our generation: the impact of totalitarianism upon democracy. Their authors are men of different backgrounds and experiences, yet they all agree that words are not enough, that in order to struggle effectively against the evil of despotism our generation must improve and make more adequate its intellectual and material equipment.

During the World War Eduard Benes stood at the head of the Czecho-Slovak movement for independence. After having served his country for twenty years as Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, and President, he resigned as the result of the Munich partition of the republic and left for England. Last spring he came to the United States to deliver a series of lectures on democracy at the University of Chicago. Most of these lectures form the contents of “Democracy Today and Tomorrow.”

For two decades Dr. Benes was actively engaged in international diplomacy in Geneva and elsewhere, and in his own country it was one of his tasks to negotiate a compromise between the Nazified Sudeten Germans and the Czechs. He has had innumerable opportunities to see the workings of modern ideologies at close range, and it is in the light of these personal experiences that his book assumes its greatest importance. As one reads and re-reads the individual chapters of this lucid and challenging work one cannot help feeling that its realistically optimistic author would prefer fighting to writing. Its simplicity and verbal economy suggest that what we need is deeds and not words. To Dr. Benes democracy is “something so high, so valuable, and so dignified that it is worth believing and living,” and his belief in its ultimate victory has not been impaired by the adverse outcome of the struggle in so many parts of Europe. Tracing the development of the democratic element since the Middle Ages, the author focuses his searchlight chiefly on the development of modern Europe in its relation to democracy as a political institution, with particular emphasis on international affairs. The period immediately following the World War appears to him as “an advance of democratic, equalitarian, humanistic, and pacifistic spirit as well as the spirit of national and social justice.” He then proceeds to analyze to its very sources the recent decline of European democracies. Here are some of the causes of the present European malaise: the inherent difficulties in the application of the democratic methods in countries insufficiently prepared for and poorly trained in the ways of genuine democracy, the deplorable social situation of a large part of Europe which lends itself easily to the exploitation by both Fascism and Communism in their war on democracy, and the deficiencies of the individual democracies in their home and foreign policies. The excesses of the party systems, the slowness of democratic procedures, the incapacity of bureaucracy, and the mediocrity of leadership served as additional aggravating factors. The League of Nations failed because of this decline of European democracies, whose task it was to build up in Geneva “the practical organ of the new political and social structure of democratic society in the twentieth century.”

Dr. Benes restates in the last chapter his unbending faith in the future of democracy. “There is no political system but democracy which is capable of solving justly and rightly the eternal struggle of the citizen for just relations between the individuals and the collectivity.” The “new democracy” which will emerge from the present chaos and war will be characterized by the extension of the functions of the state, a better integration of various public institutions, a more adequate solution of social problems called forth by the emergence of the fourth class, that is, organized labor and peasants, and finally by the substitution of a synthesis between nationalism and internationalism for “racial bestiality.” “Man can fight for this balanced relation only in a political democracy,” provided that “higher types of individuals become interested in politics.” The appendix includes the texts of the following documents: protests of Dr. Benes to the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union against the occupation of Czecho-Slovakia by Germany in March, 1939; two appeals to the League of Nations; a letter of thanks to President Roosevelt; and “An Appeal to the American People,” broadcast on the University of Chicago Round Table Program.

The principal value of Stephen Raushenbush’s timely book, “The March of Fascism,” lies in its spirited exposition of the unsolved social and economic problems which tend to encourage totalitarian tendencies. Having observed at close quarters the Fascist methods at work in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Czecho-Slovakia, the writer observes the scene in the United States, and is struck by a number of parallels reminiscent of the initial stages of the Fascist ascendency in Europe. Many Americans who should know better underestimate the vast natural resources of public irrationality (just as many Germans did when Germany was still a democracy), and they have almost endless patience with political corruption and inefficiency; there is little sense of security in the middle-class groups, professional and business men; there is too much unemployment in the ranks of young men and women who “could not get jobs because they had no experience, and could get no experience because they had no jobs”; labor and the farming class do not understand each other, and labor itself is a divided and therefore a weakened movement; there is a growth of sectional antagonism, of racial intolerance, and of societies attempting to appropriate the patriotic sanctions; what is perhaps most ominous is Mr. Raushenbush’s belief that a growing lack of confidence in the liberal economic system, the absence of any particular obligation on the various states to enforce civil liberties, and the weakness of the libel laws (as well as a number of loopholes like the sedition laws in several states) make possible a legal assumption of power by Fascism.

To many American readers some of these points may sound too much like the report of an alarmist. So they seemed to many Europeans until Fascism actually did take over the management of their public and private lives. As the writer fittingly puts it, “Fascism came there by default.” There is still time for a way out. The democratic system must be turned into a functioning one through the application of “a positive and dynamic program” which would include such measures as “a constructive social policy aiming at full employment for everybody, the development of democratic controls as an alternative for authoritarian ones, giving back to local democracies the powers they once had of participating in the significant decisions of their lives,” and a number of other means, of which the strengthening of various cooperative agencies is not the least important.

Discreetly screened behind an avalanche of witty criticisms on the incongruity of many of our ingrained habits, “Of Human Freedom” by Jacques Barzun is a vindication of the virtues of its subject, written with a great deal of erudition. In general the book moves upon an elevated plane, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of banality. M. Barzun’s unusually refreshing display of shrewd observations make the book a sort of intelligent guide through contemporary chaos of thought, or a kind of reference library for the sophisticated reader, provided that he can raise himself beyond the precincts of a narrow expert knowledge. For this reason, this is a book that must be read rather than reviewed. Since it is the problem of democracy that interests us most here, let me quote at least one passage by way of example: “Democracy is a culture—that is, the deliberate cultivation of an intellectual passion in people with intellect and feelings. Many men, many minds, is the basis of democracy. It will take a lot of killing before it disappears from the face of the earth.” For the rest the reader must be referred to the original work, with the warning that he would do well, as a preliminary, to refresh his acquaintance with such varied men as Abdul-Hamid and Huey Long, Archipenko and Debussy, and with such documents as the Communist Manifesto, the Magna Charta, and “Alice in Wonderland.”


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