Democracy Today and Tomorrow
ALMOST on the anniversary of Munich and on the eve of a likely Greater War of Nations, Mr. Eduard Benes, former President of Czechoslovakia, publishes his University of Chicago lectures under the title. Democracy Today and Tomorrow. The book is in many ways a moving and important document. With but few and sober references to his own country. Dr. Beneš expounds the general doctrine of democracy.
His thesis is simple: the World War and its aftermath reveal a life-and-death struggle between two great camps, two forms of government, two philosophies of life — democracy and totalitarianism. The apparent decline of democracy has causes, internal and external, which he analyzes and uses to set forth the conditions of our democratic future: a federated Europe and a revivified League of Nations, following upon the defeat of the ‘anti-rationalistic, anti-egalitarian, anti-humanistic philosophies’ of Fascism and Communism. The methods of democracy are compromise and evolution, but the path to a redemocratized Europe will doubtless lie through political crises, revolutions, and general war.
In the course of his discussion, Dr. Benes says many excellent things which American readers will do well to ponder. Unfortunately he also falls into repeated and serious contradictions, both historical and philosophical. For one thing, the theory of two camps morally distinguishable since before the World War will not bear scrutiny. Though he mildly criticizes the ‘democratic’ side in the last war, Dr. Benes tends to whitewash the Treaty of Versailles. He even says that the war solved the problems raised by the overthrow of the German and Austrian empires — to which assertion the sufficient answer is: apparently not. Moreover, Dr. Beneš says not a word about the secret treaties among the Allies, including the anticipated handing over of Poland Poland about which we are now so solicitous to the tender mercies of Czarist Russia. Yet, considering the Peace Treaty ‘a great advance in human civilization,’he naturally predicts, without much warrant in fact, that a federated Europe will be the outcome of ‘the present profound European crisis.’ Why the next peace would not simply give Hitler apartments next to those of the Kaiser at Doorn and leave Europe in its present thoroughly logical chaos is not explained.
Philosophically also, Dr. Beneš wants to have it both ways. He seeks to replace the egotistical absolutism of Fascist doctrine by an ethical absolute applicable to all nations at all times. He therefore attacks all relativisms and opportunisms. But he has just previously shown us that practical polities consist in adapting a principle to an existing situation; he has shown us that the post-war errors of the democracies have been due either to want of principle or to want of skill in making the principle fit actual conditions. By his own admission, then, the democracies are not so pure as he would have them, or have fatally lacked the political art that he blames the Fascists for employing. In either ease, his view of the White Knight Democracy fighting the Black Knight Fascism on purely national lines fails to carry conviction. He confesses as much when he says in passing that there are ‘in post-war society, especially in Europe, two camps in permanent opposition to each other — the Centre, of the bourgeois and liberal democracy . . . and the Right, the Conservatives.’ All of which makes four camps on one and the same issue, the fourfold root of the present calamity.
This criticism of a major split in Dr. Benes’s presentation of this great issue should not, however. obscure the interest of the book. Its sincerity and thoughtfulness carry a conviction of their own, different in kind from historical and philosophic consistency, but not less valuable and this too in spite of numerous slips, verbal and factual, which have crept, into the text and which one would like to see corrected in future editions.