Skip to main content

Questions for Democrats

ISSUE:  Winter 1938
Dictators and Democracies. By Calvin B. Hoover. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50. Nationalism and Culture. By Rudolf Rocker. New York: Covici Friede. $3.50. The Good Society. By Walter Lippmann. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.00.

Calvin B. Hoover’s “Dictators and Democracies” ends with some questions as to immediate strategy. What do the democratic countries propose to do about the dictatorships? What can they do? What will happen to them if they do nothing?

Mr. Hoover makes admirably clear the dilemma confronting the democracies. The responsible statesmen of democratic countries can take no decisions without the support of a working majority of their constituents. When they advance a proposal, they must be prepared for public analysis, attack, and discussion of what it contains or implies. And if the proposal appears inconsistent with the body of law, customary and statutory, of the area in which it is to operate, support from constituents is extremely difficult to get.

None of these problems is a problem to the dictators. Consultation, even with members of the Party’s inner circle, is optional; to the limited extent to which it ever occurs, it occurs by grace and not by right. Public discussion is silenced; criticism is treasonable. The rule of law is rejected as misrule when it counters policy declared to be in the interest of the race, the nation, or the class which the dictator champions.

The problem of the democracies, especially as they become fewer, is therefore the problem of how to live in a world in which legal relationships have dissolved, in which anarchy is an instrument of the national policy of an increasing number of states.

If the democracies wait for the aggression of the dictatorships to defeat itself from within, are they not taking too great a risk? Suppose the dictatorships should succeed in consolidating even no more than their recent gains, would the democracies then be in a position to do otherwise than accede to further demands? If the democracies do not wait, if they refuse current demands, what risks do they take as to the actual outcome of super-modern warfare? And even in the case of victory, what would be the inner structure of the previously democratic states at the close of a prolonged vital conflict?

Mr. Hoover ends his book with these currently pressing questions; Rudolf Rocker, in “Nationalism and Culture,” and Walter Lippmann, in “The Good Society,” are concerned with a somewhat more general discussion of the highly centralized state. “Nationalism and Culture” stands in the tradition of Gierke and Maitland and (for all of Mr. Rocker’s belief that religion has persistently been the servant of Caesar) of Father Figgis. The old Teutonic sense of the community as the common expression of the persons of whom it is composed, with an authentic existence over and against the artificial superstructure of the state, runs persistently through the pages. Culture as the expression of man’s creative capacity in a multitude of forms transcending national boundaries, in art, architecture, and science; the decline of culture with the accession and unification of national power; the unreality of the nation as a unit of race or language or customs—all these are examined in an encyclopaedic range over the history and philosophy of the western world. The underlying thesis is that nationalism and culture are antithetical.

Mr. Lippmann’s discussion of the expanding state is confined to the period since the rise of liberalism. He deplores collectivism because of his conviction that the providential state requires omniscient as well as omnipotent rulers, whereas men are all too human, incapable of the titanic tasks which centralized control of the great society imposes. If the great society is to be both great and good, Mr. Lippmann thinks that “division of labor, common laws, the ideas of equal justice, restraint of prerogative and privilege, and peace as the policy of nations” must characterize it, and that the “universal intuition of human inviolability” must continue to move it on its ascent from the barbarism of men who have not got beyond the preface to morals.

Mr. Lippmann’s limpid pages seem far removed from a world which is staring Mr. Hoover’s questions in the face. His section on social legislation presents the ideas of Mr. Alfred M. Landon in the language of Mr. John W. Davis. His case against totalitarianism is based on the thesis that the absolute state is a form of organization which was outgrown at an earlier period in the history of the western world; return to it now is a relapse due to fear and disorganization, the aftermath of war. Yet with regard to the form of law, Mr. Lippmann’s proposal is for a return to the past. The good society is to be self-governing under common law, enforced through cases brought by the injured against the injuring party, rather than under statutory law, enforced by a bureaucracy through its inspectors. But was statutory law not developed to meet needs of the great society that common law had signally failed to answer?

The three books would serve as an excellent starting point for a discussion of what the citizen of a democratic state has to be and do. What should the citizen of a democratic great society expect from his government, and what centralized arrangements are essential to the smooth functioning of the great society? If modern means of production require that large areas of economic life be subject to administrative action by the government, how can the democratic process be extended to those areas? What device for concurrent criticism of administrative policy can be developed comparable to his excellency’s opposition in the legislature?

In a world where nationalism is imposing itself increasingly on culture, how can citizens of democratic societies bridge the divisive fissures that are widening in the western tradition? How can the spontaneity of the creative impulse maintain itself in an economic order where bigness makes rationalization part of the price of economic normalcy?

And finally, how can citizens committed to legal and constitutional processes cope with movements, within and without their national borders, which regard such processes as weakness, and whose disregard of those processes threatens to put before such citizens the choice between weakness and war?

The immediacy of the need for consideration of these questions is becoming dangerously clear. Without their consideration by a sufficient number of citizens, democratic states cannot have a positive policy. At present the democratic states do not have a positive policy. The dictatorships do. The result is that all positive moves in the international world are originating in the dictatorships: year after year the policy of the democracies consists in accommodating their interests to a series of faits accomplis. Democratic leadership is largely confined to leadership in retreat.

This process cannot be quickly or easily reversed. The longing of democracies for stronger government can be quickly satisfied by the abandonment of democracy. But if democracy is to be maintained, an interest in, and a capacity for, policy making must be developed through the citizens themselves. A democracy cannot continue without a certain quality of life in its citizenry, without a moral conviction of the function of the state and the part of the citizens in the fulfilment of that function.

Conviction as to the necessity to act must be widely shared, and training for public participation must be constantly maintained. The positive policy of a strong government is only the end-result of the democratic process. The achievement of a positive policy for this country requires a stimulus to the democratic process at its source among the myriad individuals and in the myriad localities that together form the United States.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading