E. Belfort Bax

Some Considerations on Democracy

(18 February 1911)

E. Belfort Bax, Some Considerations on Democracy, Justice, 18th February 1911, p.5.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is no doubt about it, the question of democratising political forms is the question of the hour. A further edge to popular discussion on what is known as democratic government has been supplied by the most recent attempt of the Tories “to dish the Whigs” by placing the principle of the Referendum in the forefront of their programme.

An article in a recent number of the New Age on this subject, by Mr. Wordsworth-Donisthorpe, is worth notice. Mr. Donisthorpe, however violently one may disagree with him, is generally interesting and often amusing. The article referred to is noteworthy for the drastic light in which he shows up the utter worthlessness of political democracy within the framework of a class society such as that of the existing capitalist order. He points out very pertinently how the appeal to democracy in our present society means no more than an appeal to an incoherent medley of selfish sectional interests, He pictures the Tariff Reformer as appealing to the wheat-growing farmer iii Southern England with the question: “Do you want foreign wheat to lower the price of your produce?” To the stock farmer or the tanner: “Do you wish to see foreign hides in your markets?” To the Kentish hop-pickers: “Shall foreign hops be dumped on these shores?” On the other hand, the Free Trade canvasser will appeal to the Manchester cotton interest: “Are you willing to pay more for your raw material for the sake of the sheep-farmers on the downs in Lincolnshire?” To the Northampton bootmaker “Do you want cheap leather?” and so on, and so on.

All this is only an illustration of the way in which any question touching class interests and prejudices (and what question of any moment does not do so directly or indirectly) is necessarily judged of, not from the standpoint of the whole community, but of the class to which the individual elector happened to belong – and often not even from than of the class merely, but of the particular section of the class with which his interest, are most closely associated. And the resultant verdict of this medley of conflicting class and sectional interests is supposed to represent the last word of wisdom as concerned with the common well-being. Says Mr. Donisthorpe: “When an organism ceases to think as a whole, and to act as a whole, when its movements are but the result of the wills of the units composing it, that organism is in a state of disorganisation; it is putrescent.” Significant language this, coming from an erstwhile individualist, the founder of the “Liberty and Property Defence League”; Mr. Donisthorpe seems unaware of the fact that in these words he is passing a verdict of condemnation on the whole principle at the root of our present society of capitalistic individualism. One asks oneself the question, Is it possible that an acute thinker, in his way, can have got no further than the average hack-politician? Is it possible he cannot see that the state of things he stigmatises is inseparable from a social system based on private property in the means of production, and, hence, built up on classes and on sectional interests; and that this state of things, of necessity, disappears in a social system having its principle in organic union and built up on the common interest of the whole community?

The inability to see that in a class society, where there is no real ground of common interest, democratic government – if by this its meant the decision of the count-of-heads majority of the population on matters concerning the good of the is whole of society – must necessarily be a farce, is only one instance of the inability of those living, moving and having their being in such a society to see aught beyond the pale of their immediate surroundings. What common interest can there be between the possessor or controller of the land and instruments for the production of wealth and him who has only his labour-power to dispose of in order to live at all? How, comparatively, slender the common interest between rival sections of the possessing class itself! The one point upon which the whole class, as a class, can unite, is a resistance to the demands of Labour. Even the various sections of the working class in their turn often find their only common ground in resistance to the claims of capital to exploit them. Is it not clear as noon-day, then, that democracy in the sense of control by a majority of the community over its destinies can have no meaning or sense until the interests of the community in all essentials are identical – in other words, where there is a common welfare and not merely sectional welfares to be considered, and where each identifies his interest with that of the whole society and not with a mere fraction of society? But to admit this is to admit that democracy in the sense of majority-rule or control can only have any effective significance when it is a social democracy – in a word, after, and not before, the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth.

The notion that there, is some mysterious magic in the view expressed by the majority is defended by a writer in the December number of the Social-Democrat – Mr. H. I. Woods. In Justice of August 20 last the present writer pointed out two possible definitions of democracy: th first being the good of the people as the end of all political action and the second the dictatorship of the majority. Mr. Woods while complaining that the first definition does not involve finality beyond dispute, finds in the second the ultimate bedrock principle he is in search of. In other words, while zealous in urging the difficulties attendant on all other criteria of excellence, he has no doubt whatever that in the verdict of a democratic majority, at any given time, he has discovered the last and only criterion of human wisdom. His reason for this view he does not give. He accepts it as a dogmatic postulate.

Now, while fully admitting the truism that all reasoning must ultimately anchor in some bed-rock assumption, I, and those who think with me, most emphatically decline to accept the assumption in question as possessing this character. It may be at least arguable to adopt the sceptical attitude of tot homines tot sententie, and to deny that there is any universally valid criterion at all, treating the matter, that is, as a pleasant dialectical exercise. But, while rejecting all other criteria, just to seize upon this one of the verdict of a count-of-heads majority as having special claims to universal allegiance is, I submit, a purely arbitrary proceeding. So much for the question of principle involved.

But, it may be asked, on that grounds, then, do you justify your acceptance of democracy at all in the second of the senses referred to – namely, majority-dictatorship, even though it be with reservations? I answer, in so far as I accept it I do so wholly and solely m the grounds of expediency. it may not be pleasant to the votaries of majority rule to be told so, but it is an undoubted fact that at the basis of their democratic postulate is the principle le force prime le droit. Looked at historically the magical glamour conceited to surround majority rule resolves itself into the prosaic fact of brute force. What was originally decided by fighting – when the, numerically strongest party, other things equal, probably wins – came in the natural course of evolution to be decided by count-of-heads majority without fighting, on the ground that a majority must, in general, inevitably win in the long run it the matter came to a fight. For my own part, so far it this is concerned, I only accept majority rule where I cannot help myself – in so far, of course as the verdict of the majority runs counter to my convictions. In this connection I can only repeat what I said before, that were I the “master of thirty legions” I would see a majority recalcitrant to those convictions – well, I would see them in an “unparliamentary” place first before I would bow to their decision! In this matter it is e question of force an either side. As I said in my previous article, I regard it on the whole, and in most cases, as less dangerous to the common welfare to have force backing the majority than to have it backing a dictatorship or an oligarchy.

But though I cannot accept the verdict of a count-of-heads majority at a given time as any sort of criterion of the good or welfare of the people – or of anything else for that matter – yet I by no means feel myself compelled to accept the sceptical alternative and deny that there are otherwise generally valid tests as to what constitutes the “good of the people.” I can mention a few things which come under the head of the concept “good of the people,” or “general well-being,” which nobody talking seriously, and not “fooling” for the sake of controversy, would deny to be such – e.g., sufficient food, clothing, and shelter for all, healthy and beautiful surroundings, facilities for education in the widest sense of the word! Here are a few obvious bedrock conditions of human happiness as to which we do not need to wait for a majority to tell us they are so. They are ultimate political-economic postulates to the universal validity of which, when once stated, no majority can either add anything or take anything away from by its verdict.

As regards the somewhat stale and obvious gibe that all parties profess to aim at the common good, and that there is no valid test in distinguishing between them, needless to say, on the above grounds, I entirely deny the latter part of the proposition. Taking the simple and plain tests I have given, for instance, it is, I contend, easy to show the principles of which party, if any, answer to them. Mr. Woods seems to confound the abuse of Tariff Reformers by Free Traders, of Free Traders by Tariff Reformers, and Socialists by both of these parties, and the imputation of personal motives in which such abuse largely consists, with an examination of the effect of the measures respectively proposed by them. It is easy enough to show by facts that Free Trade is not the panacea for social ills which many Liberals talk as though they imagined if to be. It is equally easy to show by facts, and also by arguments from the nature of the case, that Tariff Reform, or Protection, while benefitting the landowners and certain sections of the capitalist classes, would not improve the condition of the bulk of the labouring classes; and to show that, at least, it would probably affect adversely large sections of them economically. Be this so or not, neither party, as far as I am aware, ventures to assert seriously that its respective nostrum would permanently solve the social problem as judged by the test of the elementary criteria I have above given. All they claim for it is that it is a measure, of temporary relief. If the community composed of these “warring elements” is unable to judge questions of this kind, such inability, I contend demonstrably has its ground in two causes: class interest and prejudice and mass ignorance and apathy. For the foregoing reasons, until, the advent of the Socialist Commonwealth, I remain a Democrat on principle only in the sense of my first definition and, according to the terms of my second definition, a Democrat by expediency alone – and in so far as I am a Democrat by expediency, my “Democracy” is always conditional.


E. Belfort Bax


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