Europe's Bursting Bubble of Democracy


IN the United States, ‘democracy’ has been a sacred word, its meaning high and holy: it was an ideal, typical of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Like many unquestioned words, it was not only vaguely sublime, but sublimely vague. In Europe it never reached its apotheosis; it was, in fact, always under suspicion, and often boldly used as a term of disrespect. In England it had a sort of social stigma: it suggested the politics of the grocer, and not seldom of the grocer whose honesty depended entirely on that being his best policy. To well-bred English ears the great word had a nasty, sneaky sort of sound. It meant the rule of the mass; and people in good society thought of the mass as smelly, unclean, threatening, stupid, and generally low. But gradually liberal politicians began to use it, and in 1910 a certain majority of the electors of England supported the Liberal leader — Mr. Asquith as he was then; to-day he is better known in England as the husband of Lady Oxford, a lady not with a past, as he has, but with an autobiography. Now his plea was that the will of the people must prevail; so bold a contention did not disdain to be ‘democratic.’

While Lord Oxford was still Prime Minister the war began, and the war depended very much on President Wilson. President Wilson was never thought of as anything but a Democrat; he felt nothing but satisfaction in the name of the party of which he was the head. He associated democracy with his great scheme of moral reform for Europe, so eloquently recommended by America’s financial and military resources. Those who welcomed one welcomed the other. The word became popular; it began to shine in Europe with the cloudy brilliance which had haloed it in America. The war was won to make the world safe for democracy.

But no sooner was that done than another great adventure absorbed the energies of Europe: it was to make democracy safe for the world. A word so vague, and not long ago so menacing, might still contain a latent peril. Would it not be as well to make the world not only safe for but safe from democracy? Gentle meanings were suggested for it, and massive platitudes blunted its sharper edge. ‘The will of the people must prevail’ and ‘Good government is no substitute for self-government ‘ were found not to be its exact principles. It did not really mean that the voice of the people was the voice of God, for now even Tories were democrats.

A clever young Oxford don actually wrote a whole book describing his faith in the words ‘Tory Democracy,’ which, being interpreted by his opponents, were found to mean prayer and tariff reform. Democracy meant for him preferential duties and an Established Church. To this book Lord Birkenhead wrote a preface. Others said that it meant that the ‘ people should choose their own rulers ‘; but in practice it means, at most, that they choose parliamentary representatives — a very different thing. Others said that it meant ‘government by consent of the governed’ — surely a phrase that might be applied to any government not actually overturned by an election or a revolution. Others accepted it in exchange for that wellworn shibboleth, ‘the greatest good of the greatest number.’ It was the triumph of sovereigns to be ‘democratic’; and then it meant smiling amiably at cheering crowds instead of doing what no sovereign ever could either have done or want to do — passing acclamation by in haughty nonchalance. To be simple, tactful, shrewd, amusing, or sympathetic was to be democratic; and there would have been, in fact, an almost perfect example of democracy in the tone of this account of it. Leviathan was no longer the fearsome monster of the deep; it took its pastime innocently in shallow waters. The tiger had become a pet as playful as a kitten. Yet was there not a limerick about a tamed tiger?

There was a young lady of Niger,
Who went for a ride on a tiger;
They came back from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

After that the dear animal was locked up in a cage. The present occupation of Europe is the taming of democracy. Occasionally it roars, and is fed.


Before the war, Europe was controlled by six great nations: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain. Some of these were supposed to be democratic, some were not. Russia, for example, was not. It showed the figure of absolute monarchy; in reality it was a bureaucracy, controlled by a privileged caste. Austria-Hungary and Germany were much the same, but the bureaucracy was perhaps more benevolent and certainly more efficient. It was violently nationalist, and that nationalism overreached itself. But did Germany become democratic because it became republican? The German people were unable to control themselves, and they had found it out. ‘Two things the German people will never understand,’ said Ludendorff, ‘and never long endure: parliamentary government and voluntary service.’ Ludendorff, of course, is an extremist, but he represents a great body of German opinion, which showed remarkable ability to govern. If occasional theorists like Naumann or Thomas Mann are hopeful of democracy, the body of German intellectuals are more than skeptical. ‘Our parliamentarism is a caricature,’ says Oswald Spongier, the author of the most famous and most popular book produced in Germany since the war, Der Untergang des Abendlandes. ‘The parliamentary age,’ he asserts, ‘is irrevocably ended. A people has only one right — to be well governed; and since the mass cannot undertake the task, it must be performed by individuals. The supreme need is the strengthening of the governing power with high responsibility.’

Professor Dibelius is not a politician of the Ludendorff school, but he believes that English parliamentarism is impossible in Germany, and that the German attempt at it is a sham. ‘The German imitation,’ he wrote, in his book, England (published in 1923), ‘drags to the ballot box, every year or two, people with only a fitful interest in politics, and compels the elector to vote for a list of unknown names. The German parliamentarism is a manufactured import, which the mass of the people regards with something like indifference.’

But the last word is spoken by a great English liberal, Dr. Gooch, the editor of the Contemporary Review, in a book which the critics accepted as an absolute authority. ‘There is something overwhelming about Dr. Gooch’s knowledge,’ said Mr. H. W. Massingham. And what is the opinion of this great liberal whose knowledge of Germany is overwhelming? That ‘the cause of reaction has been strengthened by the conviction, not confined to lifelong monarchists, that parliamentary self-government requires a background of historical experience which Germany does not possess. . . . The test of the constitution is to be found, not in its conformity to ideal standards or foreign models, but in its capacity to secure the services of the ablest of its citizens, and to produce stable and efficient government.’ In other words, Germany finds democracy impossible. So much for the great Teutonic nation.

The great Slav nation never even attempted parliamentary self-government. The fact is that Bolshevism is only Tsarism under another name, and now with another set of capitalists. Its system of bureaucracy under absolute masters was a paternal despotism, and a paternal despotism the Soviet still remains. In its philosophy it lays perhaps more emphasis on the community, less on the individual; it is hostile to religion, and especially to orthodox Christianity; but in government it is a system of absolute authority, supported by violence. In other words, the paternal hand is heavier. There never was any suggestion of democracy in Russia, and there never will be. It would be too palpable an absurdity. So much for the great Slav nation.

Austria-Hungary united the Teuton and the Slav, and with them the Magyar and the Czech, the Italian and the Turk. When that great Empire, perhaps the best governed and happiest in Europe, attempted democracy, it was — with the help of President Wilson — smashed to smithereens, as French politicians, before a shot was fired, had planned it should be. There is now very little democracy in its constituent parts. They look back with longing to the days before they ever played with that toy. The severest, because the deepest, cut ever made at that system has been made since the war by Professor Spann, the brilliant professor of political economy at the University of Vienna.

Everyone knows what has happened to democracy in Italy. The march on Rome was, in fact, a revolution against parliamentary self-government, and Italy’s attempt at it is now admitted to have been a failure. Is it necessary to recall the origins, the intrigues, the instability, or the final failure of parliamentary government in Italy? Is there any need to point out what carries the Fascist Government through every crisis — the fact that its worst mistakes are better than the successes of the old system? Fascism has indeed chastised with whips, but parliaments chastised with scorpions, the scorpions of fraud and faction, stinging and poisoning the country’s whole administrative, judicial, and financial system. The nation of Italy arose and threw off the yoke of democracy with a sense of exaltation, regardless of consequences. And no matter how little some Italians may like the Mussolini Government, there is one alternative they know it is quite useless to suggest — parliamentary self-government.

What had proved a success in Italy was next tried in Spain, a nation with not much more than half the population of Italy and France, and less than half their wealth or power. But it was a field sufficient to prove the futility of government founded on the vote. There was a law in Spain that voters must vote; the fine for abstention from the polls was considerable. But it could not give the ministers a sense that they were really responsible to the people, who never worried about them, or occupy the administration with effective tasks. The King, who knew that his own position depended on some efficiency in the government, grew desperate. Justice and administration had both failed; the secret societies, with the weapons of strike and murder, had terrified the ministry. At last the King spoke out, in Cordoba, in 1922, the year before the Directorate came into power. ‘The Crown is no longer endowed with responsibility,’ he said, ‘and — it is a very hard thing to say but very true — the parliament is endowed with the capacity of failing to perform its functions, the capacity of so acting that well-devised schemes to improve the condition of the country get no further. There is a lot of talking, but none of it shows any sign of a desire to do better. On the contrary, what is shown is an intention to wreck the schemes at the instance of political leaders. What is the end of it all? The Government that initiates the scheme falls; another comes into power; the same project is submitted anew to the Parliament by the new Government, and is wrecked by the very party that at first approved it.’

But if Spain was incapable of parliamentary government, what of France? France has a high culture, an economic tradition, and a sentiment of order. Napoleon established in France a social system well suited to the people, a system which encouraged also intensive agriculture. To this Napoleon III, after the revolution of 1848, added the franchise, independent of qualification. From a commercial point of view, France is flourishing. The low franc enables her to undersell her neighbors, and she finds employment for nearly three million foreign workmen. But her parliament is unworthy of her national traditions. Her financial system has been undermined by the unwillingness of her people to pay in taxes for the liabilities they have incurred; her ministries have been not infrequently in the hands of rascals; the mixture of parties makes politics a matter of endless accommodation; and so little sense of order rules in the Chamber of Deputies that in May 1925 a series of free fights took place in the big Chamber, between shouting and screaming members. That scene showed whether or not parliamentary government suited the most cultured of nations. But parliament, we are told, is an institution which the Latin nations have never understood. It is, as we have seen, an institution that no one has ever suggested for the great Slav nation; it is an institution intolerable to the temper of the Teutonicnation. In a remarkable interview with the Dane, Bogholm, published in the Matin of Paris, January 7, Prince Charles of Rumania rejects it as a failure there, and says that his contempt for it explains his abdication.

There remains one European country which has gloried in it — Great Britain. But why has parliamentary government been considered a glory in Great Britain? Because it did not really involve democracy; because, in a word, there never was parliamentary government. Parliament originated in a council of advisers to the king. It became an arrangement by which the owners of property were able to give administration the benefit of their instinct. It was the link between the government and the business man. It was only during the nineteenth century that it even began to represent the owners of really small property, or to be in fact anything other than an accommodation between gentlemen. For in England the successful business man, as long as he does not mention his success, has always been accepted as a gentleman. The elected Parliament was, until 1832, under the absolute control of the representative owners of large property — the House of Lords. It was not until the reign of Victoria that the practical prerogatives of the Crown came to be nothing more than the machinery of arranged elections. It was not until 1911 that the Lords’ veto was abolished; and there is still a property qualification.

But what is it that enables Parliament to work as well as it does in England? The fact that a governing class still survives; that it retains control of the political machines, including the bureaucracy; that the English social system gives an immediate recognition to success in any sphere; and that the whole greatness of England is built up on her trade and finance, which have given the country an enormous reserve of wealth. Until very recently parliaments and governments left this alone.

England exhibits, not the triumph of democracy, but an oblivion of it. Its parliamentary battles were those between two sets of commercial interests, or between a set of commercial interests and a body of soldiers or administrators — between capital in one form and capital invested in another. The glorious British Constitution was the free development of capital and enterprise on the simple principle of comparatively honest trade. Democracy, as one began by saying, was not a word on which Great Britain set much store; and when Great Britain began to use it, it began to face a series of crises.

This hurried glance over the great nations of Europe shows at once that democracy, in the sense of parliamentary self-government, never had any solid existence. It was a bubble, a fabric of fluid, soft soap, and wind. Fluid thought, trying to find a level surface; the soft soap of flattery; the wind of shibboleth and phrase — these were the fabric of the bubble of democracy. Politicians blew it out into a rainbow globe of racing colors, in which, in odd, unnatural broadenings and elongations, their own appearances took on a not unrecognizable reflection. It escaped from them as their cheeks were bursting, and coursed skyward with the breezes. Naïve admirers were delighted by its soarings, and fancied it arriving in the courts of heaven; but, as it began to move more or less idly on or up, it disappeared and dropped on the earth or in their faces, its sunrise glories shrunk to a drop of unsavory dew.


Where did the idea of democracy arise? It got little respect from those two foundations of the philosophia perennis, Plato and Aristotle. In the ninth book of the Republic, Plato refers to it as a want of government, which, like equality, offered great rewards to very unequal work. How many a deed of shame, he said, has man performed, and called it freedom! Aristotle thought likewise that democracy meant that any man could do as he liked if he called it freedom and equality. His Politics gives the first and final criticisms of democracy when he says that its equality is based on proportions of numbers, and not on proportions of worth and good.

That was the attitude of the philosophers. Christianity did not show itself more favorable. The idea of Saint Augustine and of Saint Thomas Aquinas was to restore the Kingdom of God by virtue and moral guidance, by spiritual authority — not by trusting to the instinct of the crowd. The conflict of the Middle Ages was an attempt to adjust the spiritual with the temporal authority. The social system was based on the idea of function — that is to say, on the corporation, not on the vote.

It was the Renaissance that turned back to classical humanism and out of it evolved what the first great age of humanism had never known — the idea of the individual. Hobbes spoke of the individual as a brute. Rousseau, a hundred years later, rhapsodized over him as an angel. ‘Man is born free,’ said Rousseau, at the beginning of his most famous book, ‘ but everywhere he is in chains.’ It was this apotheosis, not of man, but of men, which led to the French Revolution. It based its whole philosophy on the individual, and aimed at making society a contract between individuals. It spoke of liberty, but not in relation to the real foundations of liberty, which are truth and law. It spoke of equality, meaning not ‘la carrière ouverte aux talents,’ as Napoleon afterward defined it, but the refusal of privilege to talents. It spoke of fraternity, meaning not beneficence and social solidarity, but that men, whether or not they perform men’s duties, have rights to the same things. It implies what democracy implies, an hypothesis which is absolutely false: that men, by the mere fact of growing up into men, are competent to decide about their government; that they are all born with judgment and power; and that they have rights, irrespective of their duties.

It is a fundamental mistake, as Prince Charles of Rumania said, to try to make anything of a creature devoid of natural talents, or to ignore the real difference between one man and another. A babe owes his existence, in the first place, not to himself, but to his parents; he owes his bringing up to them, to class, to school, to the whole system of education. He owes his importance to the work he does; and it is probably as part of an industry or a profession that he performs his duty to the State. It seems hardly logical that as a voter he should be treated as if he were simply an individual, and yet so treated that, though nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight individuals vote with him, and yet a majority of one in twenty thousand is against them, their voices count for nothing.

But the fact is that, with the possible exception of Switzerland, there is no country in Europe where his parliamentary representative really matters. His parliamentary representative obeys the behest, not of his vote, but of the party leader; indeed the voter also, wherever what is called parliamentary government is really working, does as he is told. He votes at the order of his party. A few, it is true, vote at one election and not at another, or vote first one way and then another, and thus appear to decide the government in power. Yet so inefficient is this system, as far as it concerns the country of the ‘ Mother of Parliaments,’ that at the present moment, when the Conservatives have a majority unusually large, a majority of a hundred over the two other parties taken together, they do not really represent a majority of the electors.

Proportional representation would be juster, according to the principles of democracy, but the most democratic of European countries is still shy of it. A Cabinet Minister, discussing proportional representation with the present writer not long ago, said he thought that if there were a sweeping change of that kind the electoral system would break down. In other words, an elected Parliament dares not grapple with the logical principles of election, so far is the British government from democracy. ‘The parliamentary system,’wrote Mr. Lloyd George last August, discussing the crisis that theory of government was facing in England as in other parts of Europe, ‘in the performance of its arduous task, is imperiled by the complexity of groups that interrupt the continuity of forces necessary to resolve complex problems and impede the choice of competent administrators. This is the supreme weakness of European democracy. In England it has rendered any progressive government almost impossible, compelling those who look for concrete results to consider other methods.'

Professor Spann sees other and deeper weaknesses: first, the appeal to the people makes the more radical leader stronger than the moderate one, and makes the demagogue, appealing to the lower instincts of the people, stronger than the man whose basis is insight and ideas; so that democracy becomes Machiavellianism turned upside down, and, instead of the stronger exploiting the weaker, the lower dominates the higher. Secondly, it means irresponsibility, since no one knows who the wirepullers really are. Thirdly, it is incapable of settling the contrariety in case of an opposition of fundamental principles, and in other cases it renders the State ineffective by breaking it into parties. Fourthly, since the State is not only the organ of administration but also a cultural unity, any choice other than the very best possible is really intolerable. We cannot leave the government to the chance action of natural forces. Reason and morals must rule.

But indeed democracy, apart from these intrinsic weaknesses, found — as Mr. Lloyd George pointed out — a stronger enemy in trades-unions. When it discovers that a majority can compel it to recognize these unions, and the unions can then threaten it or dictate to it, as they have done, then it becomes not only an absurdity but a death trap. From this point of view one cannot do better than quote the great Milanese newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, in a leading article of August 23, 1925, when it was still the protagonist of Italian democracy against Fascism. ‘No liberalism,’ said this leader, ‘is more fatal and leads more swiftly to dictatorship than that which claims and maintains that it should place the freedom and the rights of the tradesunions above the supreme exigencies of national life. No, the better democracy, the more honest defense of the interests of a people and of its humblest classes, consists actually in preventing the excesses of categories which, owing to the delicacy of the task entrusted to them in the social organism, can blackmail the State — that is to say, the rest of the people.’ The existence of trades-unions containing vast numbers of operatives, of which a government dependent on elections is afraid, has given democracy its death blow. As Dean Inge said, the phylactery of democracy is fly-blown; or, to go back to our still better metaphor, the proud, fragile bubble has burst in the politicians’ faces, just while their blowing made its gyrations of soap-water swifter and showier than ever.


But if democracy in Europe is collapsing, as it obviously is, what political economy is to replace it? A merely destructive criticism is a cheap affair. He is indeed a superficial man whose claim to notoriety is that he is a master of invective. The deeper mind not only has a design to put in the place of what it criticizes; it looks into the error it is attacking, to see what truth it was attempting to express. It is to the credit of Europe that it is able to appreciate both of these demands upon its attitude toward democracy. It sees the truth at which the heresy was aiming; it sees the great ideal; and it conceives a sweeping constructive idea, which it is already beginning to put into practice.

It takes the word ‘democracy’ with the connotation Lincoln gave it — government of the people by the people for the people. It analyzes that famous sentence. Government of the people is a pleonasm, for all governments are governments of the people; we are not talking of governments of wild animals or governments of desert tracts. Government by the people has not yet been attained, and is not thought attainable. If it were attainable, it would mean that capacity and wisdom could be dominated by brute numbers. But there is a third meaning in the word ‘democracy,’ which, when analyzed, is valuable: government for the people, government in the interests of the people. Now such a government need not necessarily have any association with the vote, for even a despotism may be enlightened and benevolent. But a government certainly ought to be benevolent. Now there are two ways of obtaining benevolence; one is by moral influences, and the other is by agreement with those to whom the benevolence is offered.

At last we reach a valid meaning for democracy in Europe: it means that the benevolence of a government is to be attained, not merely by the character of the governors, but by a formal consultation with the governed. The vote gives public opinion an opportunity to express itself. Wherever there is an electoral system, wherever a government is called parliamentary, a courtesy is offered to the voters, a compliment is paid them, and their governors have a valuable opportunity of gauging their feelings. Now it is just that convenience, just this courtesy, which are at stake in democracy. And they are so important that no system will flourish which refuses them. The present problem of Europe is not to rid itself of public opinion, but to use it to the best advantage.

The ventures therefore are, first, to give the voters, once they are enlightened, a real in place of a pretended opportunity to express themselves; secondly, to found the unity of the State, not on the false theory that voters are individuals, but on the true theory that they have rights only in virtue of their function, which is corporate; so that the unified society — the State — may ordain to the common good the heterogeneous forces of production and industry. On the old democratic theory, the State, an absolute entity, suffering from the suicidal tendencies of exaggerated nationalism, everywhere weakened and disfigured by anomalies, put politicians and bureaucracy in the place of the governor, and proved what is always true, that the less government there is, the better. Yet the government must be powerful enough to have an absolute authority over the trades-union as well as over the individual. The requirement of the modern age is to evolve a system of government which, recognizing the great productive organizations out of which the complex and enormous system of our age has been evolved, will give them and their members consideration accordingly, yet reserve the authority to coördinate them with one another and with the functions both of leaders and of minorities.

Three dangers will still threaten such a State, as they threatened democracy. One is the mania of nationalism, which ignores the international complexity and interdependence of modern nations through their commerce; the second is the mania of materialism, which obscures the fact that the governing reason, to be efficient, must be moral, and to be moral is generally religious; and the third is the mania of centralization, which forgets that there are not only corporate but also local interests, and that local self-government is not an absurdity. With the mob absolute, none know where they are. In the householder having a voice in the affairs of his town or district, the idea of selfgovernment has a real validity.

Such is the theory of government which Europe is building into a solid structure, now that she has tired of blowing bubbles. Its peculiarity is its emphasis on duty. Its motto is: First men’s duties, then their dues. It conceives society in terms of function. That principle, said John of Salisbury in the twelfth century, is the principle ‘that a well-ordered constitution consists in the proper apportionment of functions to members, and in the apt condition, strength, and composition of each and every member; that all members must in their functions supplement and support each other.’ And Europe’s task is to coördinate this principle of functions with the authority of government, so that not the will of the people but the good of the people must prevail.

When Americans use the word ‘democracy,’ they think not merely of a theory of politics, but of their own national ideal. They associate it with their grand insistence that class distinction shall not be absolute; that men, as such, have dignity; that all must have an opportunity to express their power to act; and that the only ground for pride is excellence of work. These are the great principles inseparable from the greatness of the United States. All true systems of government must be built upon them. But Europe does not necessarily associate them with any definitions of democracy that have been given her — definitions which in theory and by experience she has in the last two or three years shown to be bubbles, because they burst.

In government the different nations of Europe are in their different ways working out another ideal, which is not founded on individualism, and is therefore neither democratic nor capitalist — an ideal which will not be attained till the State becomes that immortal feature of loveliness and perfection that Milton saw with a young man’s vision. Instead of viewing men as divided, it sees them merged into families and interests. Instead of an abstraction, a man is one among many workers. Instead of a monstrous machine, the world is a verdant garden, waiting to be worked to the fertility man needs in it. Instead of stampeding herds, society is a complex, mobile, and subtle body, in which each constituent whole has a unique and necessary function. Its fabric is not the result of primitive forces of heterogeneous numbers, but of producers, learning their true advantage from the governing genius of wiser minds. Its principles are not the laws of supply and demand, but the dominance of right and reason. Its example and its end are not the play of natural tastes and passions, but the city of God. It realizes that no government can unaided make men perfect, and its heroes are those saints who, though poor, are making many rich. Its theme is not liberty, equality, and fraternity, but learning and justice and mercy. Its privilege is not idleness, but work.