In a chapter headed “Harpooning some Word-Whales”, Conquest takes a long look at some of the “biggest” words in human activity. These include the reassuring “democracy”, “liberty” and “progress” – to which, Conquest suggests, we are in a sense addicted: the addiction to general words and concepts “tends to produce mind-blockers or reality distorters.” As a reality distorter, the word “democracy” figures high on the list. Conquest calls it “a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word”. Tracing the origins of the word back to ancient Greece, he shows how its defects are almost as obvious as its virtues: examples of the former include the sentencing of Socrates; the Athenian assembly voting for the death of all the adult males and the enslavement of all the women and children of Mytilene, then changing its mind and intervening to counterman the order only at the last moment; and the ruin of Athens, which was the result of a vote to send an expedition to Syracuse against sensible advice.
When the concept of democracy was revived in Europe in the eighteenth century, the record was not much better: revolutionary regimes claiming to represent the demos, or people, were really much more concerned with repressing the enemies of the people – while the people themselves were usually conscripted into vast armies which were used to defeat more conventional military forces. Thus “democracy” spread, obtaining its support from a huge peasant base which in the 19th century actually supported such imperial figures as Napoleon III. “Democracy” was also the rationale of the large city mobs which engineered the riots in London during the late eighteenth century, and the Paris coup organized by Napoleon in 1799.
Turning his attention to more recent history, Conquest reflects on the obvious fact that democracy is not the sole or inevitable criterion of social progress. Hitler came to power in 1933 by election, with accompanying mass and militant support. In Eastern Europe after the Second World War, the “revolutions” organized by the Communist Party were effected by means of constitutional intrigues backed by “mass demonstrations” which were really just mobilizations of mass force. Nazis and Fascists liked to describe the political structures they created as “organized, centralized state democracy” (Mussolini): “In Germany there is true democracy, in which the whole nation can freely express its will” (Goebbels). In 1940, Hitler was comparing “German democracy” to the British version. Conquest reflects that in retrospect it is clear that if in 1933 a military coup had prevented Hitler’s election as Chancellor, “the German people, and all other peoples, would have benefited.”
Conquest perceives a double standard at work in definitions of democracy: in the West, the word is used as “the essential definition of Western political culture”, while at the same time it is applied to the rest of the world “in a formal and misleading way”. We are led to support the legitimacy of any regime which has won an electoral victory. But
“democracy” did not develop or become viable in the West until quite a time after a law-and-liberty polity had emerged. Habeas corpus, the jury system, the rule of law were not the products of “democracy” but of a long effort, from medieval times, to curb the power of the English executive. And democracy can only be seen in any positive or laudable sense if it emerges from and is an aspect of the law-and-liberty tradition.As Conquest points out, “the problem with ‘democratic socialism’ was always that if the country remained democratic its electorate might reject or dilute or hamstring socialism – and what then?”
He continues by posing three essential characteristics of a country commonly called “democratic”:
1)The state is able to operateIn addition, he suggests, “it seems that the main thing… is not so much the institutions as the habits of mind, which are far more crucial, and above all the acceptance of the traditional rules of the political game.”
2)The plural views in the polity are represented and allowed expression
3)All opinion within the polity accepts the mechanisms, the public rules, over at least a period.
Democracy in the Western sense cannot be easily imposed or artificially constructed. What can be worked for, in Conquest’s view, is
the emergence, in former rogue or ideomaniac states, of a beginning, a minimum. The new orders must be nonmilitant, nonexpansionist, nonfanatical. And that goes with, or tends to go with, some level of internal tolerance, of a plural order, with some real prospect of settling into habit or tradition.And, as an example of how attempts to impose democracy can go disastrously wrong, Conquest gives the instance of the 1917 “February Revolution”, when a liberal, bourgeois government took over from the Tsarist regime:
When the Provisional Government took over in Russia in March 1917, the country had been run by a fairly efficient political and administrative machinery, and the discipline in the army was satisfactory. (It is a myth that “war weariness” was among the major causes of the February Revolution: it was, on the contrary, carried out with the idea that the tsar and his milieu were insufficiently committed to the fight against Germany, and the program of the new government, at first enthusiastically accepted by the soldiery, was designed to make the war a more national one.) But the “liberals” who now took over in the capital and the localities changed all this. In the name of “freedom”, they destroyed the local administrative machinery and replaced it with amateurs; they destroyed the police force and replaced it with nothing; and in the army they permitted “democratic rights” incompatible with discipline.In short, Conquest concludes, for the establishment of democracy “an effectual state power” is essential.
See also: Dragons and Democracy