E. Belfort Bax


(20 August 1910)

Democracy, Justice, 20th August 1910, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is no word in the current vocabulary, political, ethical, or religious, more adapted to conjure with than the word “Democracy.” For many Democracy is a political end in itself. A perfect Democratic Government is for such synonymous with a perfect society. For such Democracy is the touchstone and ultima ratio of all things.

Now, in discussing the subject of Democracy it is necessary at the outset to distinguish between two senses in which the word is used pretty much indifferently and without any heed to the confusion thereby caused. The term “Democracy” may either mean the good of the people as a whole as the end and aim of all political action, or it may mean the dominance or dictatorship of the majority, i.e., a mechanical or count-of-heads majority of the people at the moment a verdict is taken by representative election, by referendum, etc. Now, every Socialist – nay, every Radical – is bound to accept Democracy without reserve in the sense first mentioned; otherwise he is false to his own principles. He is bound also, under present conditions, in a measure to accept it in the second sense above given, but in this case he is not bound to do so without reserve, since Democracy, as denoting the prevailing of the will of the majority of the population at any given time, is, at best, a means to an end. This latter point is much too often lost sight of. There is no magical virtue in the verdict of a majority any more than in the verdict of a minority. There is no inherent sanctity in the majority and its dictates as against the minority and its dictates. As a matter of fact history shows truth and justice intrinsically to rest quite as often with a minority as with a majority. It is on the face of it absurd that out of a thousand people the opinion of (say) 501 is likely to have more value than that of 499.

The origin of the principle at the basis of the domination of the majority, and hence to the sanctity of the will of the majority, must be sought for in the physical force which a majority can usually bring to bear on a minority. The original idea was that if it came to trial by battle, the majority would defeat the minority, then by a process of evolution the actual physical struggle became obsolete, the minority surrendering to the majority as soon as it made itself evident that it was the majority. The sacredness therefore attaching to the will of the majority, is simply a survival of the worship of power as such. Why, then, it may be asked, do Social-Democrats and Radicals swear by the principle involved in the will of the majority? The answer is they actually do so in many cases by a survival of fetishism. The only rational ground for their doing so is because the acceptance of the will of .the majority means the least of several evils. The chief advantage it has over any other attribution of the collective power of the State or of society is that the will of the majority is less likely to embody the interest of any privileged class than that of a minority, however wise or however “expert” it might be. Not that the will of the majority, as expressed in a Democratic form of government, is by any means proof against telling in favour of the interests of the privileged classes. We see, in fact, the contrary every day. A powerful privileged class is commonly, without much difficulty, able to bamboozle a democratic electorate into the view that its own interests represent those of the community as a whole. This applies not only to the privileged classes generally, but even to more or less small sections of them. It was notably the case with the Boer war, in which the unintelligent bulk of the British Democracy was moulded like clay at the hands of a financial clique in their own interests. But nevertheless, as above said, Democracy, in the sense of majority-rule, does undoubtedly represent a form of government which offers, as a rule, the least danger for the sacrifice of public to private interests.

But the fullest admission of this does not involve the elevation of the principle of Democracy, of majority rule, as some would have it, to the position of a sacrosanct fetich – the ultima ratio of all things, political and social. Notwithstanding that Socialists regard Democracy, given present conditions, as the best available means for attaining their end, yet let us never forget it is but a means after all. The aim of Socialists is not Democracy, but Socialism, and this aim they are prepared to attain, supposing them consistent, through the votes, or, if need be, through the heads of the Democracy. It is indeed remarkable that anyone should be found calling himself a Socialist who, nevertheless, would place Democracy before Socialism, and who would, if it came to the point, rather sacrifice Socialism to Democracy than Democracy to Socialism; in other words, who will talk as though he would only accept Socialism if it came with the sanction of a majority vote. That a conditions of things is conceivable under which the will of the large majority of a given Society would, in the highest probability, represent the supreme will of the community I am fully prepared to admit, but these conditions would be none other than Socialism itself.

As things are at present, Democracy, understanding thereby the governing efficacy of the expressed will of the count-of-heads majority of the population at any given moment, is only better than a dictatorship or an oligarchy, because there is somewhat less danger, as already said, of its abusing its power in preferring private interests to the well-being of the community. Were I certain of finding a man or a group of men whose single aim, without a thought of their own interests or of those of any privileged class, was the establishment of Socialism, I, for one, should hail their advent to power, even if it were over the heads of our present-day democracy. It is because I have no hope nor expectation of finding any such man or men, and still less of their integrity, if found, not being corrupted by the possession of power, that I am and remain a Democrat (though without enthusiasm).

For the rest, Socialists are too often apt to forget that Socialism, the only condition under which the majority rule – in other words, Democracy – would have any transcendent value in itself, would be precisely the condition under which it would cease to have any reason of being or any object. For all “ocracy, “ whether autocracy, ochlocracy, or democracy, implies government – government of persons. Socialism, on the contrary, as regards the functions of Society in its corporate capacity, stands for the administration of things rather than the coercion of persons, Hence government, in the present sense of the word, must cease to be under Socialism. As Friedrich Engels has it, the essential character of Socialism involves the supersession of all forms of government in this sense, of Democracy no less than of any other. Socialism presupposes an organisation of society in which industrial direction and the systematic ordering of social functions will be the salient activities of society in its corporate capacity, and not, as now, the making and enforcement of coercive laws often in spheres where individual freedom ought to reign supreme.

No Socialist would assuredly wish to disparage, in any way whatsoever, Democracy as an instrument, a tool, though a bad one sometimes, for obtaining the highest welfare of the people. But the idolisation of the principle of Democracy – i.e., of majority rule – as though it were an end in itself, above and beyond everything, even Socialism, seems to the present writer a dangerous fallacy, and one under the influence of which Labour men and Socialists of the present day are especially liable to fall. Government by a count-of-heads majority of this – or, indeed, of any – country may be the least of evils, but it is not in itself a panacea for anything. If by Democracy this is meant then is Democracy, as I have repeatedly insisted, a very imperfect means to an end other than itself. If, on the other hand (with questionable accuracy from a philological point of view) by Democracy be meant the raising of the mass of the people to be equal citizens in a Socialist Commonwealth, then is Democracy an end indeed.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 10.8.2004