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The Future of the Democratic State

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

The Future of Industrial Man. A Conservative Approach. By Peter F. Drucker. The John Day Company. $2.50. The Techniques of Democracy. By Alfred M. Bingham. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $3.00.

In a famous passage, in one of his chapters on the development of Christianity, Edward Gibbon describes the infiltration of pagan ideas into the new faith. “The victors,” (that is, the Christians), he declares, “were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.” The phrase rings in one’s head in these days of total war. In the struggle against National Socialism and Fascism, it would be tragic, indeed, if we were to find ourselves, when the race is run and the victory is won, the victims of the very kind of thing we had set out to destroy. The danger is not utterly illusory; certainly we ought to be taking thought a: to the form of the new world which is shaping in the crucible of the war, and making our resolve that it shall not sacrifice the most precious values of the past in the process of molding the future. Both Peter Drucker’s “The Future of Industrial Man” and Alfred Bingham’s “The Techniques of Democracy” are concerned primarily with this problem. Both of them imply, and with much cogency, that while the United States will inevitably play a very considerable part in the building of a new international society, its efforts in this sphere will be largely conditioned by the success which it attains in the construction of its own domestic order. The thesis is one which deserves to be stressed, in these days of ambitious planning for the regeneration of the cosmos; and Mr. Drucker and Mr. Bingham have performed an invaluable service in bringing the problem into the forefront of discussion.

Both authors, moreover, adopt the same fundamental hypothesis. If we are to avoid the error of the totalitarian, and prevent the absorption of unlimited power by the all-devouring and all-controlling state, we must strengthen, both in the economic and the political sphere, those institutions, practices, and methods, which limit uncontrolled state authority. This is a matter of conscious effort; of directed human intelligence; of clear-eyed aspiration.

“The Future of Industrial Man” deals with this problem from a rather specialized point of view. It is Mr. Drucker’s contention that we have not yet created the necessary institu-tions for an industrial society; that these institutions ought to function somewhat independently of the activity of government; that they ought to be based upon a diffusion, rather than a concentration of power; that they ought to rest “on the basis of local and decentralized self-government.” All this certainly rules out the managerial despotism of the past; it equally and intelligibly excludes the trades-union as the dominant or controlling factor in industry. “A union must of necessity enforce equal conditions in all comparable plants in the same industry. Hence it cannot allow one plant to become a community of its own with a functional integration of the worker and his work.” Having thus damned with an impartial pen both the old and the new, Mr. Drucker seeks refuge in generalities. His modesty is refreshing—and unusual in one who is sketching a new order —but it leaves one a little frustrated just the same.

In fact, to be candid, (and reviewers occasionally are candid), I think Mr. Drucker needs a solider historical training. His book abounds in historical allusions; and he generalizes about the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, about the “Enlightenment” and “rationalism” and the “conservative counter-revolution” in a jaunty and all-inclusive fashion that makes the blood of a professional historian run cold. Perhaps the trouble is that the professional historian is a limited human being, like Mr. Drucker; but it may be, too, that the professional historian has a way of accepting the things that are as the basis of the things that are to come. Trade-unions have many limitations; they need, and doubtless will receive, just such trenchant criticism as is here directed against them; but that they will play a part in the development of a new order seems to this reviewer as inevitable as it does that they should not be allowed (even if they wished) to usurp the kind of absolute control that was once wielded by capital. In more or less ruling them out of court, Mr. Drucker, it seems to me, proclaims himself reactionary —though he would, of course, protest such a charge.

There seems to me to be a deeper sense of reality, therefore, in “The Techniques of Democracy.” The book is packed with practical wisdom; and it is difficult to review, primarily because it is so full of good things that one dislikes to select only one or two. Mr. Bingham, like Mr. Drucker, believes in encouraging decentralization; he regards such a process as of major importance both in government and industry and gives numerous concrete examples of how it works. He might, in these days, have added others, such, let us say, as the draft boards and the administration of rationing. When it comes to the question of the trade-union, what he asks is the application of the democratic process, not the casting aside of this developing institution; and while he may underestimate the difficulties in the way of what he seeks, he seems to this reviewer to be definitely on the right track. The striking feature of Mr. Bingham’s book, indeed, is balance. He sees that laissez-faire is dead; but he does not ask or believe in absolute control. He looks forward to the growth of professional spirit in business and industry as an offset to the tendency toward complete control; he is clear on the need for the preservation of the fundamental freedoms, and especially the freedom of the mind; yet even here he speaks as no doctrinaire, but in thoroughly realistic fashion. And he has much to say that is interesting as to our traditional safeguards against the despotism of the state, the two-party system, the federal frame of government, the notion of governmental power limited by constitutional forms. I am not sure that he estimates the value of these traditional safeguards as highly as I myself would do; they seem to me to represent one of the principal reasons for the reasoned conviction that we shall emerge from this war, as we went into it, a democratic people with a democratic faith.

With the major thesis of both these books one ought, I think, to agree. We do not want “gigantism” in America; we do not want the absolute state. And if we do not want it, there is no reason why we need to have it. If today we no longer believe in democracy with the romantic faith of a hundred years ago, we know in our hearts that, with all its defects, it is still that form of government, that type of human activity, which most stresses the dignity of the individual man, and his capacity for self-development; that, faced with the practical test of war, it can demonstrate its vitality and its power as no other form does; that the impulses which created it are far from exhausted; and that, as our troops march forward across the desert sands of Africa, or stand their ground in the swamps and marshes of Guadalcanal, they represent and embody forces in the history of our time which can and will triumph— which can and will find the way to rebuild the future, if not into the City of God of the ancient saint, at least, we may fairly hope, into a solider and a finer structure than that which was, or that which in Hitler’s Germany is beginning to topple to the ground.


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