Democracies and one-party states
Europe’s mediaeval Parliaments were devised as a way of formalising the [European] notion that a King (or very occasionally Queen) must consult with a Council. As far as historians can make out, the King could summon anyone he liked to his Council – but risked rebellion if he left out anyone important. And it was remembered that both Classical Greece and Classical Rome had systems of elected representatives. And there were even elections for bishops, abbots and abbesses, up until the Counter-Reformation when it became a matter of papal appointment. And popes have always been elected, though voters were a tiny oligarchy appointed by previous popes.
This tradition could easily lead on to the creation of a Parliament within a kingdom, to advise the monarch and to advise on taxes,
Parliaments had formal rules as to which men had a right to attend. (I’m pretty sure no woman did before the 20th century.) The more powerful aristocrats were there, along with bishops. And there was usually a House of Commons – not for what we’d call the common people, but for knights and gentry and rich merchants. They were too numerous and had too little power to attend individually, but they counted enough to make it sensible to let them choose representatives. Besides, they often supported the monarch against the nobles.
In most of Europe, parliaments fades as the modern state developed. Monarchs either abolished parliaments and their equivalents, or simply did not summoned them.
In English, the standard set in 1432 was that voters for the House of Commons were men with property worth 40 shillings, at a time when the Pound Sterling had not drifted too far from its original meaning of a pound weight of pure silver. In terms of economic power, 40 shillings was about £800,000 in modern money. A few constituencies gave votes to anyone who owned their own house: they were the extreme of democracy in that era.
This limit in no way contradicted the heritage of ‘democracy’ in Greece or Rome. A majority of city residents were not citizens. Rome had several complex voting systems, all of them intended to give much greater voting power to the rich. The Senate was a job for life, meaning that it was even more biased towards the rich.
Parliaments forming factions or parties was viewed as undesirable in Britain until the 18th century, when it became accepted as normal. This was the result of a series of British Wars extending from the First Bishops’ War 1639 to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. But if the Protestant branch of the Stuart dynasty had not died out in 1714 without close Protestant heirs, Britain’s parliament might also have lapsed or been abolished. Sweden had an Absolute Monarchy from 1680 to 1719 and again from 1772 to 1809. In both cases, it was military defeats that discredited the monarchy. Whereas in Britain, the various wars went well but the monarchs lost control. Kings George 1st and George 2nd, ruing from 1719 to 1760, did not speak English. They saw the British monarchy as a useful boost to their main role as Elector of Hanover. George 3rd recovered considerable power, but only by cultivating supporters in Parliament. And he had to moderate this after Britain’s North American colonies successfully rebelled, having initially asked just for representation in the Westminster Parliament.
Neither George 3rd nor his main enemies were democratic in the modern sense. Only a few extreme radicals wanted a vote for all men. The later Chartist movement did not ask for votes for women, which in France was denied until 1948. Radicals often opposed it, correctly suspecting that a majority of women would vote for conservative candidates. This was certainly true in Britain up until Thatcher: you could argue that Thatcher offended many conservative-minded women by attacking long-standing systems that had been working well.
Why do I include all this history in a magazine of philosophy? [A] To show clearly that most political thinkers formulate theories of democracy that have little relationship to anything that ever happened in the real world.
Multi-party parliamentary democracy is very far from a natural condition for the human race. Britain evolved it slowly, with real democracy the last element to be added. You could claim it existed from 1884, if you think a country can be democratic when 40% of men and all women are denied the vote. And if you are not bothered that it rules a vast Empire through officials not chosen by those they rule.
Only in 1918 did a majority of British adults get the vote. Much larger populations in the British Empire played no part in choosing the Westminster Parliament. If they were white, they would have their own parliament with limited power. The Empire was wound up without ever settling how far these parliaments could defy Westminster. Each had a strong majority for joining in both World Wars, though without conscription. In 1918, the majority of Irish MPs constituted themselves as a separate Parliament (Dail Eireann). There was a War of Independence before they settled for Home Rule and Partition. Under De Valera, they claimed the right to stay neutral in World War Two, establishing functional independence. Churchill contemplated an invasion, but wisely decided against this. It did not become formally independent as the Republic of Ireland until 1948, but it was World War Two that was the key moment.
You need look no further than Ireland to see that democracies can and do go to war with each other, which makes it amazing that ‘Political Scientists’ can believe otherwise. For that matter, each of the countries that started World War One had a multi-party parliament that had to say ‘yes’. Except in Russia, they represented a majority of adult males in the Imperial core, though mostly excluding or marginalising territories outside of Europe.
For that matter, the US Civil War was launched by rival US States that had arrived at incompatible views on slavery and secession after open multi-party election open to most white men. (Free blacks even in the North had mostly been excluded from voting.[B]) And during this Civil War there was nearly a war between the Federal USA and the British Empire, though this was 20 years before Britain became even loosely democratic.
Discussions of democracy come bundled with a fixed belief that a political system that lacks rival political parties is not a democracy.[C] That’s just what I want to question.
The failure of many attempts to suddenly introduce multi-party parliamentary democracy is not at all surprising if you know your history. Nor is it amazing that Poland, Hungary, Turkey and now the Czech Republic are electing parties and leaders not to the taste of most Britons. You get the absurdity of people calling these elections ‘undemocratic’, when a clear majority vote in a way they disapprove of. I’d not have voted for anything similar to those parties, if they existed in Britain. I also hold the view, no doubt controversial, that these are authentic conservatives of a sort that has not existed in Britain since Thatcher transformed the Tory Party.
A two-party democracy can work well if most people want much the same things. If none of the parties likely to form a government want anything that many citizens think worth dying for, or worth dying to prevent.
In the USA, Lincoln said that he had no intention of trying to abolish slavery in states within the Union, and also did not think this could be legally done without a Constitutional Amendment. But in the territories, newly settled and not recognised as States, he could and would ban slavery. That was the key issue, and in particular the status of Kansas, which had its own little Civil War over whether it was to be a Slave State. That was the key issue behind secession. And most Northern politicians thought it was worth dying to preserve the Union, even if they had wished to see slavery extended to Kansas and beyond.
Had the US Civil War ended with a quick Northern victory, slavery might have lasted a lot longer. It was only because most of the former Slave States had not yet been re-admitted as valid States that various amendments were passed abolishing slavery and theoretically creating racial equality. (Not done formally till the 1960s, with Civil Rights laws, and in practice not even now.)
Irish Independence was another issue that people thought it worth dying over. Norwegians felt the same about their own claim to independence from Sweden, but in 1905 the Swedes allowed it without a war. This also happened for Slovenia within Former Yugoslavia, but Serbs wanted a right of secession for majority-Serb areas of Croatia and Bosnia. Many died over the issue, with Serb minorities ending up fleeing Croatia and Bosnia still stalemated.
South Sudanese fought for many years to be separate from the Arab majority in the rest of Sudan. Now they fight each other over regional differences that are also considered worth dying for. Likewise Biafra against the rest of Nigeria. Their failure put off many other African separatists, who only thought it worth dying for if they had a decent chance for victory.
Both Pakistan / Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) saw vicious civil wars arise out of electoral politics that exposed differences both sides thought dying for.
Social habits make human life possible. They also get in the way of fully understanding it. Britain learned the habits of multi-party politics for a couple of centuries before it became even loosely democratic. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 established that no monarch could rule without Parliament. But until the 1832 Reform, the House of Commons was dominated by a couple of hundred rich families. Elections from 1832 gave power to [one-fifth or] one-seventh of the male population: a prosperous middle class. The same sort of people who had created chaos when given power in the early stages of the French Revolution. But the French bourgeois and peasants had no existing framework in which to slot their various hopes, fears, and desires. They ended up settling for Napoleon’s popular military autocracy.
Partly in reaction to challenging radical politics, there was a mild democratisation of existing politics in Britain. The ruling class remembered their 17th century Civil War and avoided extremes. This went ahead slowly, with a gradual widening of the franchise. With a majority of adult males in the British Isles getting the vote in the 1880s.[D]
Understanding this process of creating habits would have avoided the frequent failures of Western interventions in societies with alien traditions, as in Iraq. The foolishness of attempts to dump a complex political system on people without the relevant habits created by their own history.
It likewise helps understand the Soviet Union.
Lenin and the other Bolsheviks had started out with Revolutionary Democracy – the Constituent Assembly was 78% socialist and only 7.5% liberal, though without a Bolshevik majority.[E] The Bolsheviks also had an absolute majority in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was arguably a more democratic assembly.[F] The later suppression of opposition parties is regrettable, but may have been unavoidable, given foreign intervention and White forces dominated by the Far Right.
Multi-party systems depend on the government and the major opposition parties having no differences that are seen as worth dying for or worth killing for. Britain’s well-established system broke down in Ireland, where rival parties felt that winning Irish Independence or even Irish Home Rule was worth dying for, or worth dying to prevent. It has been seriously suggested that Britain would have had a Civil War between Liberal and Tory, had not the First World War come along and changed everything. It certainly caused multiple conflicts in Ireland.
Multi-party political systems often produce weak and corrupt government. Up to a point, this favours the rich. They certainly hate paying taxes and they hate having regulations imposed on them. The general trend from the 1980s has been against regulation and against tax. This has supporters among centrists and left-wingers as well as business interests, but has done no good to overall economic growth. Singapore, highly regulatory and virtually a one-party state, has been a brilliant economic success. China has in essence copied Singapore and other East Asian autocracies, while also retaining the long-term goal of socialism. Both Xi and the previous leader Hu Jintao declared that inequality must be reduced. It has indeed levelled off, contradicting Thomas Piketty’s belief that only massive war and destruction can achieve this.
The Leninist alternative of Democratic Centralism is system of crude democracy that can survive and get things done in harsh conditions. A goat that thrives where more delicate creatures would perish. But it also runs the risk of disintegrating when it tries major reform. And it all depends on which issues people think worth dying for.
Khrushchev, who had been raised by obscurity by Stalin and who had always been viewed as a loyal supporter of Stalin, created chaos when he suddenly criminalised Stalin and claimed to be reaching back to a superior Leninist past. It was Lenin who abolished Russia’s brief attempts at conventional Western politics by dispersing the Constituent Assembly – thought similar attempts had failed everywhere east of Berlin even before Hitler came to power, apart from Czechoslovakia.
Stalin almost certainly saved Lenin’s system from collapse, and made it enormously strong. If you think it would have been better had it collapsed, fair enough – but how then would Hitler have been defeated? And would the progressive reforms of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have happened in the West, without the massive challenge of a Soviet system that was powerful and a serious rival until it started wilting in the 1970s.
Contrary to what most people now think, the Soviet system was a very serious rival, politically and economically, up until the 1970s. Had the radical Leninist politicians in Czechoslovakia been copied rather than crushed by Brezhnev’s 1968 invasion, a very different world might have emerged. And one-party systems would most likely have continued to be seen as a valid option. Much as may be happening now with China’s continuing success.
In China, Deng has never apologised for anything Mao did. What he counted as Mao’s errors were basically his deviations from the system that Chinese Communism had copied from Stalin’s Soviet Union: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. If you look at overall economic growth under Mao – which Western books about China always fail to do – there is a lot of sense in this.[G]
The 1989 Tienanmen Square protests were resolved by the regime being ready to kill, while very few of the protestors were ready to die. In Eastern Europe, and then in the 1991 Soviet collapse, there was a remarkable absence of anyone ready to die for the old order, or ready to kill to preserve it.
Though many intellectuals see a vast gulf between Lenin and Stalin, or sometimes between Marx and Lenin, no effective politics has ever emerged from such views. No effective revolutionary movement, and no radical movement that evolved to effective reformism, as the once-Maoist Socialist Party in the Netherlands has done.[H]
Western democracy did not thrive in the years between the two World Wars. Mussolini and Hitler both received their dictatorial power quite legally from parliament. So did the authoritarian governments of Imperial Japan. Poland, the country that Britain and France started the World War to defend, had been a popular dictatorship since 1926, when Pilsudski made himself boss of the Republic he had helped to create. He may well have saved Poland from immediate collapse, but he also ran a right-wing regime with little of his original socialism implemented. But virtually all Poles continue to regard him as a hero.
Poland’s dictatorship was part of a trend. The same year saw the fall of the First Portuguese Republic, after nine presidents and 44 ministries in its 16-year history.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, parliamentary democracy had perished everywhere east of Berlin, excluding only Czechoslovakia, which was a Czech hegemony over many minorities. He was initially the 13th Chancellor of the short-lived Weimar Republic.
Without the Soviet Union, would the whole world have become fascist? It was heading that way. Two-thirds of the armies of Nazi Germany were fighting on the Eastern Front to the end of the war. While the USA theoretically had the men and the resources to defeat three times as many German troops as they actually faced along with the British and other allies, it is doubtful that they were ready for such sacrifices.
World War Two killed 70 to 85 million,[J] including 9 to 12 million killed for racial reasons by Nazi German at the expense of their own war effort. Exact figures are uncertain, and Jews were not the only target. But six million Jews was the SS’s own estimate.
Total German deaths were 6,900,000 to 7,400,000, according to the Wikipedia, including Germans outside the state as it was in 1933. Only a very small number of these were German or Austrian Jews: neither were large communities and many were driven out by Nazi persecution before the war started.
Since he started an avoidable war, and chose to expand it, Hitler must be held responsible for the deaths of some seven million non-Jewish Germans, and for at least 50 million deaths overall. He did not directly cause 15,000,000 to 20,000,000 Chinese deaths caused by Japan’s attempt to conquer China, nor the 2,500,000 to 3,100,000 Japanese deaths during their wars against first China and then the USA. But Hitler certainly encouraged it.
Liberals get baffled by talk of a Democratic Dictatorship. That’s because they can’t imagine anything outside of the systems they know, imperfect though they these are. If you know the wider history, you’d know that England’s Parliamentary system was never intended to be a democracy. That though parties existed, there and in many other parliaments that existed in Western Europe, parties were seen as undesirable.
Until their 19th century democratisation, Parliaments were a way of getting upper-class consent for important matters. For negotiating extra taxes, when the need was urgent. The ‘Commons’ were there to give a voice to those not rich enough or powerful enough to be in the House of Lords. Members of the House of Commons were originally selected by just a small minority. And until the 1870s, voting was public, meaning that ordinary people were under pressure to vote as their landlord or employer wished them to.
The system was expanded in the 1880s to have MPs chosen by 60% of men, and then from 1918 by all men, and women over 30. Which does not make it that great a system. Electors can choose freely between candidates from several rival parties: but parties need not deliver anything like what those voters actually wanted. They often product weak governments that please no one, which helped the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany.
Multi-party politics can also generate bitter conflicts that lead on to Civil War, as happened in 1930s Spain. As has since happened in places as different as Nigeria, Former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). An indecisive election also generated the non-violent split between Czechs and Slovaks. The Republic of India is hopefully too diverse to split upon the clean lines needed for a civil war: this remains a hope rather than a definite fact.
The Founding Fathers of the new USA did not intend their Republic to be a democracy. But property qualifications inherited from England gave a vote to lots of ordinary people, since there was plenty of cheap land taken from Native Americans. And they blundered in having the President chosen by an Electoral College independent of Congress. It was meant to avoid corrupt influences. But since the Electoral College had no other function, it was soon made an instrument of Direct Democracy, with candidates pledged to a particular candidate. This remains an oddity: what would happen if large numbers of pledged electors defected? It could easily become a key decision for their Supreme Court.
Things were tougher in the French Revolution. The American Revolution had succeeded, in part because the British High Command was slow to develop ruthless methods. The British Army’s withdrawal from Boston was a triumph for the American cause: had Boston first been burnt to the ground it would have been seen otherwise. Most of Europe’s Absolute Monarchs would have been that ruthless, but also liked and helped the American cause. It weakened the British hegemony that had been established in the Seven Years War. And they saw it as unthreatening: dominated by gentry with progressive ideas.[K] They had lived for centuries with the Swiss and Venetian Republics without much difficulty.
It was otherwise when the French Revolution failed to stabilise.
French revolutionary extremism began with hard-line aristocrats plotting to bring in foreign armies to reverse the early moderate reforms. King Louis 16th eventually agreed to this, and made a failed bid to flee to these friendly foreigners. When the middle ground collapsed, politics appeared that was extreme by the standards of the time. That was also not very competent in making the compromises necessary to hold power.
Jacobin ‘extremism’ included wanting to abolish slavery in the French colonies. It included giving the vote to all men regardless of property. (Only a few individuals scattered across the factions wanted to give votes or political rights to any women.) The fall of Robespierre ensured another 50 years of legalised slavery in the French Empire. Oddly, it was Britain that abolished and criminalised the slave trade, in 1807. The southern half of the USA got so attached to it that they endured enormous suffering in their Civil War rather than tolerate a President who hoped to see it gradually and peacefully abolished.
For most of human history – up until the middle of the 19th century – it was a Radical Rich who made breakthroughs into new ways of life. Sometimes but not always involving gross exploitation of those weaker than themselves.
Now let’s consider the USA’s 2016 election. The party machines wanted a contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, or someone not too different from Jeb Bush.
The US Democrats successfully stifled the astonishing effort to choose Bernie Saunders. The US Republicans lost control of the voters whose prejudices they had been carefully nurturing since Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972. So we have Trump.
Multi-party systems evolved by accident in Britain, and were re-created in the USA against the wishes of most of the Founding Fathers.
A popular autocrat may be more democratic. The problem however is removing the autocrat if they cease to be popular. But it is foolish to assume that autocrats must be unpopular or that removing them is a good idea.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
[A] This article was written for Think, the philosophical discussion magazine of the Philosophy Special Interest Group of Mensa, the high-intelligence society. It was written in answer to a question asked, ‘Problem 113’, but was so long it was published as the first article in issue number 185, Summer 2018.
[C] This sentence originally reference ‘Problem 113’ – see Note A.
[K] Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval illustrates this, showing parallels and then divergences in America, France and the Russia of Catherine the Great.