Modern Democracies

by James Bryce (Viscount Bryce). New York: The Macmillan Company. 1921. Two vols., 8vo, 508 and 609 pp. $10.50.
To students of political science no living man stands less in need of an introduction than James Bryee. His name on the title-page of any book is a sufficient warranty, for there is no scholar in any part of the English-speaking world who has earned a better claim to write with authority upon questions of comparative government. This is not altogether surprising, for it is fifty years since Bryce made his way into the front rank of political historians with his notable study of mediæval imperialism. Since then he has written much; but in all these years he has never put his name to anything that was not good substance and good literature as well. Now, at the age of eighty-three, he is happily able to crown this cycle of service by giving the world his mature reflections upon the merits and faults of twentieth-century democracy.
The term ‘democracy’ is being rather badly jostled in these hectic years. By common consent, it is something that the world ought to be made safe for; but there is no consensus as to what it really means. It is assumed to be a thing triumphant, yet more than half the inhabitants of the globe are still living under dispensations to which the term, even when liberally interpreted, cannot be fairly applied. In popular discussion we hear ‘democracy’ used to designate a variety of things—a form of government, a state of mind, a plan of industrial organization, or a certain type of exuberant manners. So Lord Bryce does well to begin with a definition. Democracy, as he understands the word, is the term applied to any form of government in which the people exercise ultimate political control by means of their votes. From his point of view Australia is a democracy, and Russia is not.
Lord Bryce’s work falls into three parts. First, there are fifteen chapters dealing with certain considerations which, in the author’s judgment, are applicable to every form of popular government. No new doctrines are expounded here, nor, indeed, are we entitled to look for novelties in a field that has been so diligently ploughed by political philosophers for more than twenty centuries. But the author deems it proper to restate those fundamentals which have weathered the test of time and circumstance, the more so, since they are so complacently forgotten in certain circles nowadays. Then follows an analysis of democratic institutions in six typical countries. Two of them, France and Switzerland, are European states; two are American commonwealths, the United States and Canada; and two are colonial democracies of the Southern Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand. These surveys of existing governments constitute the centre and core of the book. England, the mother-democracy of them all, has been intentionally omitted, for the reason that ‘no citizen of Britain, and certainly no citizen who has himself taken a part in politics . . . can expect to be credited with impartiality, however earnestly he may strive to be impartial.’ Finally, in the latter half of the second volume, the author sets forth with impressive clearness his observations upon the present and the future of democracy.
As to the great and timely value of Lord Bryce’s volumes there can be no question. They are the work of a master-hand, which has not lost its cunning. The shrewd observations, the quick and effective strokes of description, the deftness in picking out the things that really count, — these qualities are as much in evidence here as they were in the American Commonwealth thirtyodd years ago. There is the same optimism, the same facility in terse expression. Lord Bryce’s chief problem in the writing of these volumes, however, has been that of adequately covering so broad a subject within the limits of space allowed. It has proved a serious handicap. He has had to compress relentlessly, and to turn aside from many seductive byways into which the reader would fain have followed him. This, at times, gives the reader an impression of superficiality, especially in the chapters that deal with the government of the United States. It is risking very little, however, to venture the prediction that Lord Bryce’s book will quickly gain and hold recognition as the most sensible and lucid exposition of modern democracy which the shelves of our libraries contain.