E. Belfort Bax

Democracy and the Word of Command

(May 1898)

E. Belfort Bax, Democracy and The Word of Command, Social Democrat, May, 1898, pp.134-38.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There are some Socialists and Democrats to whom the bare idea of authority in any shape or form – other than that directly emanating from the decree of a majority – is monstrous. The notion of any controlling or initiative power whatever, other than this, is repugnant to them. And yet it is plain that the initiative or referendum of a democracy cannot be taken on details of executive administration, or on any matter requiring immediate decision, on a question of tactics, or with good result on matters involving special knowledge – in short, on anything other than general issues Even an elected assembly cannot deal directly with administration. In addition to this, as I have endeavoured to make clear in an article in the January number of the Social-Democrat, the will of the majority in itself is by no means absolutely so worthy of all acceptation as some assume. At the present time there are many considerations which ought to override it – some of which I pointed out in the article named – and even the will of the majority of an ideal democracy, a social democracy, must, as regards its special expressions, be subordinate to the general moral canon of a Socialist society. But if it is possible to make an idol of the will of the majority and to invest it with a quasi-sanctity and inviolability which it does not deserve, and if this is often done by Democrats, it is no less possible to make a bogey of initiative authority emanating from a dictatorial power, and this no less often happens. That in affairs of management, of tactics, of administration, or in decisions requiring special knowledge, authority, in its nature dictatorial (up to a certain point, at least), and hence, per se, in the current sense of the phrase, non-democratic – and this notwithstanding the original democratic sanction of election – is necessary, all must admit. In the case of a revolutionary army, military or political, on board ship, or in the factory, the workshop, &c., there must be a controlling, an authoritative voice in direction; so much must be clear, one would think, to all practical or reasonable persons when once stated. The real point to determine is the nature and limits of that amount of dictatorial power which we must admit as essential in any organised community of which we can at present conceive.

Now, the type of dictatorial authority of which “the word of command” is final is furnished in the present day in military and in naval life. We all know it is the soldier’s duty, under the direst pains and penalties, sometimes death itself, to obey implicitly the insanest, the most criminal order, of his commanding officer. In most military codes the penalty for disobedience must be inflicted, though the order may be subsequently admitted to have been senseless or disastrous, or even to have emanated from a man who was mad or drunk. Instances of the latter have not been uncommon in the German army. The same with the crew and the ship’s captain. The command of the ship’s captain is final; his power is unlimited over those on board during a voyage, i.e., on the high seas; his orders must be implicitly obeyed, although the doing so will quite obviously result in the sinking of the ship. This power is emphasised in the case of a warship, notably in that of an admiral, and was luridly illustrated by Tryon and the destruction of the Victoria some years ago. The officer in command of the other ironclad was bound to perform the evolution ordered, though knowing it must result in disaster, with the loss of hundreds of lives. Now, most practical or would-be practical persons, and not only Democrats, shake their heads over this class of dictatorial authority and its “word of command”; but the ordinary “practical” person is seldom inclined to condemn it in toto his attitude being to regard it as an evil, but a necessary evil. He cannot see any mean between it and a hopeless, disintegrative “democratic” control. An esteemed friend and comrade, who is strongly sensible of the evils and absurdities of the latter – i.e., of democratic control run mad or out of place – rightly argues that true democracy, Social-Democracy, while it means all for the people, does not mean the impossible absurdity that everything should be directly regulated by the people, i.e., by a direct popular vote. The “people,” he contends truly, should decide on all general issues by means of the ordinary count-of-heads majority; but the carrying out of measures, as well as work of administration generally, must be entrusted to suitably capable persons. In pursuance of this idea, he would not condemn the military and naval principle of passive obedience as above indicated. Anything rather than the dreaded rule of numbers in such matters. So impressed is he with this, that not even the experience he once made on a voyage with a crazy captain, who was intent on running the vessel upon rocks, in spite of the remonstrances of officers and passengers, sufficed to cure him of his devotion to the principle which nearly cost him his life. “E’en though it slay me, yet will I trust in it,” said he. “I would rather, notwithstanding any day, go to sea under the auspices of a single man (a captain) with the customary absolute command than under that of a committee.” Now, few of us, I fancy, will share our friend’s enthusiasm for the “word of command” to this extent. If this military principle of authority were the only alternative, I imagine most persons certainly after such an experience, would decide in favour of the terrors of direct popular control. I contend, however, that it is not the only alternative. But of this more anon.

It will be observed that the special character of the military (and naval) type of dictatorial authority is that it resides in one man and that there is absolutely no appeal from the “word of command.” Now, I do not hesitate to say that this form of authority is unconditionally to be condemned, for the simple reason that it is the most dangerous, and therefore the worst, that the human mind could possibly conceive. To be convinced of the latter fact, we have only to bear in mind the possibility of insanity or drunkenness, leaving out of account the effects of nervous irritation, indigestion, uncontrolled anger, and other pathological or quasi-pathological states. If we look the matter fairly in the face, we can surely come to no other conclusion than that under no circumstances whatever ought one man to be entrusted with absolute authority, that under no circumstances whatever should one man be suffered to have the “word of command” without appeal. Any other principle of regulation, however bad, is better than this, since it is impossible for human perversity to devise one which combines within it more dangers. Every Socialist and every Democrat, I contend, should make an absolute and definite stand against the “word of command” in this sense. The man possessed of it is nothing less than a danger and a nuisance to all concerned; he is, like a “rogue” elephant in an Indian village, or a rattlesnake in a bedroom “out west,” emphatically the “enemy” as such by virtue of the position he holds. But an unqualified and unconditional repudiation of the principle of dictatorial authority in the above sense by no means involves throwing oneself into the arms of the count-of-heads majority of a popular assembly or unwieldy committee.

It is to be noticed that there are two points in the existing military and naval “word of command” which constitute it what it is. The first is the fact of its absoluteness per se, and hence the automatic nature of its carrying out, the lack of any appeal therefrom on the part of the subordinate; and the second is the fact of its residing in one man. Now, it is especially in combination that these two elements constitute a principle than which the human mind can conceive of nothing worse. The absence of either one of them would mitigate the worst of the evils resulting therefrom. For example, the power might still reside even in the one man, but the (so-called) subordinate might at his own risk have the right of refusal to obey. In this case, the matter could be subsequently tried before a competent tribunal. If the “sub,” had no sufficient reason for his insubordination, he would, of course, subject himself to appropriate penalties; if, on the contrary, he could show to the satisfaction of an impartial tribunal that the order given was intrinsically absurd, or that its carrying-out would have involved disastrous consequences, he could be triumphantly acquitted. But in this latter case it would be necessary that his superior should be liable to condign punishment. Had the man Tryon known that he was liable to be tried and shot for giving a bad order, he would probably have been less reckless. This, of course, would be hardly possible under the existing state of public opinion, which regards the higher functionary of the State as a little God Almighty, whom it would be rank blasphemy to punish criminally for any abuse of the powers entrusted to him, however heinous – which excuses every wrong-doing as an “error of judgment.” In the future, however, when the slavish reverence for mere position shall have disappeared, it may be otherwise. But the above modification, though turning the edge of the worst evils of the “word of command” as at present understood, would not satisfactorily get rid of them. It is too cumbrous for this. Their main source lies undoubtedly in the second point referred to – viz., in the fact of the dictatorial authority being vested in one man, and even the suggested quasi-appeal from this authority would leave the root of the mischief untouched. The above-mentioned possibility of insanity or of drunkenness is alone sufficient to show the monstrous folly of entrusting one man with anything even approaching absolute powers where anything like serious issues are involved. And is the alternative thereto necessarily, as my friend supposed, only to be found in an unwieldy council? Surely not. It lies obviously in a committee of three, with equal voice, the casting-vote deciding in case of want of unanimity. But someone may ask how it would be if each member stood by a different opinion. The answer is, the necessity of action would force to agreement, by compromise or otherwise, of some sort. Besides, a nominal precedence might be given to a chairman on his colleagues failing to agree. This in itself would force to an agreement if the proposed order of the chairman were very preposterous. Thus, in the case before referred to, if the first and second mate of the ship had been able to override the decision of the captain, they would certainly, however divergent their views as to the correct course for the ship to take might have been, have come to some agreement to defeat the captain’s suicidal intention of running it upon shoals. Similarly, if two other officers had been able to have overridden Tryon’s order, they would certainly have combined to do so, however divergent their views otherwise on the proper manoeuvre to be executed. It is impossible to say how many vessels and how many lives are lost through the supreme power and responsibility being centred in one man, however capable, who may go mad or get drunk, rather than in a committee of three capable persons, as proposed. In the Social-Democratic society of the future, I am convinced that the absolute military “word of command” will be superseded by an authority carrying within itself its own check, as in that suggested; for two persons, though they might agree on a wrong course (being both fallible), would be not likely, to agree on a preposterous course, the probabilities of their both simultaneously going mad under such method as to be unanimous as to the form their delusions were to take being too remote to be worth while considering.

The case is similar mutatis mutandis in party leadership. The absolute direction of one man is as dangerous as the polling of a big council or assembly on points of immediate tactics might also be under many circumstances. What is wanted is the direction of a small committee of, say, three competent and trusted delegates, to render an account of their stewardship, and be re-elected (or rejected) after serving for a term.

That “a time will come” when the social organism in all its parts will work automatically, when the idea of authority in direction shall, like the State, have worked out its own contradiction, I am fully convinced. But until that time does come, authority in direction will in many departments be necessary. Were our party larger, and were we taking an effective part in politics, it would certainly be essential, to have an executive of a small number, such as that proposed, with powers to initiate such action in the name of the party as should be necessary for the carrying out or furtherance of our aims and of the immediate policy decided on. And so with a Socialist society in its earliest stages in all matters of administration, direction, and organisation, political, social, industrial, it should be recognised that there is a Scylla and Charybdis to be avoided. The first is the idolisation of the mere control of numbers – the tendency to regard the mere forms of democracy as of equal or even greater importance than the democratic end in view; and the second lies in allowing dictatorial powers, without appeal, to be in the hands of any one man – to wit, in the principle of the military officer’s or the naval captain’s uncontrolled “word of command.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 31.3.2005