G.D.H. Cole 1940s

My Idea of Democracy

First Published: 1940s
Source: The American Socialist, Vol. 5 No. 4, April 1958, pp. 10-14.
Online Version: Marxist Internet Archive 2023
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

This timely essay was written by Britain's foremost labor and socialist historian during World War II, and is reprinted, in slightly abbreviated form, with the permission of the author. — Eds.

To give everyone a fair chance of taking an interest in public affairs, and a fair chance, too, of making his weight felt—that would be democracy. And no society can remain democratic unless a good share of its citizens take an interest in the job of keeping it that way.

SOCIAL institutions have two, and only two, legitimate purposes—to ensure to men the supply of the material means of good living, and to give men the fullest possible scope for creative activity. It is conceivable that these two purposes may clash; for example, if higher production requires from men a subordination to routine processes which leaves no room for the sense of creative freedom. Where such clashes do arise, compromises have to be made. Men have to choose between their desire as consumers for a higher standard of material living and their desire as producers for a less irksome way of life. The best set of social institutions is that which finds the best compromise available under the prevailing conditions.

Who, then, is to settle what is best? Who, but the whole people, who must endure for good or ill the consequences of the decision? If the good life is a blend of satisfactions achieved from consumption and satisfactions achieved from successful creation, the only answer I find tolerable is that men themselves must decide collectively what blending of these elements they like best.

I am thus led to a belief in democracy by two routes. I believe in democracy because I believe that every citizen has a right to play a part in deciding how society can best be organized in the cause of human happiness, and also because democracy is itself one of the fundamental exercises of free creative activity. It follows that I mean by democracy not merely the right of a majority to have its way, but an arrangement of public affairs which is designed to give every man and woman the best possible chance of finding out what they really want, of persuading others to accept their point of view, and of playing an active part in the working of a system thus responsive to their needs. Not that, under any system, most people will take a continuous active interest in public affairs; not at all. But everyone ought to have a fair chance of taking an interest in them and of carrying some weight if he does take an interest. This too I am sure about—that a society, whatever its formal structure, cannot be democratic unless a goodly number of men and women do take an interest in making and keeping it so.

THAT is my idea of democracy. It involves many other things—free speech, freedom of organization, freedom to develop the personality in diverse ways. It cannot mean any of these things without limit—for society in itself implies limits—but it means that the limits must be very wide. My idea of democracy excludes a regimented society, an indoctrinated society, a society in which men are not allowed to organize freely for all sorts of purposes without any interference by the police, a society in which it is supposed to be a virtue for everybody to think like his neighbors. My idea of democracy excludes too much tidiness, too much order, too much having everything taped. I believe every good democrat is a bit of an anarchist when he's scratched.

Furthermore, my notion of democracy is that it involves a sense of comradeship, friendliness, brotherhood—call it what you like. I mean a warm sense—not a mere recognition, cold as a fish. I mean that democracy means loving your neighbors, or at any rate being ready to love them when you do not happen to dislike them too much—and even then, when they are in trouble, and come to you looking for help and sympathy. A democrat is someone who has a physical glow of sympathy and love for anyone who comes to him honestly, looking for help or sympathy: a man is not a democrat, however justly he may try to behave to his fellow-man, unless he feels like that. But—and here is the point—you cannot feel that glow about people—individual people, with capacities for doing and suffering—unless and until you get to know them personally. And you cannot know, personally, more than a quite small number of people.

That is why real democracies have either to be small, or to be broken up into small, human groups in which men and women can know and love one another. If human societies get too big, and are not broken up in that way, the human spirit goes out of them; and the spirit of democracy goes out too. What walks in instead is demagogy—a very different thing. Men feel lonely in a great crowd unless there is someone to hustle them into herd activity. In their loneliness they follow the man with the loudest voice, or in these days, the loudest loudspeaker and the most efficient propagandist technique. They suck in mass-produced ideas as a substitute for having ideas of their own: they all shout in unison because they have no one to talk to quietly—no group to go about with, no little world of a few people in which they can count as individuals and work out lives of their own. You can have various kinds of society under these conditions. You can have Fascism, or you can have what the Fascists call plutodemocracy. You can even have Communism, of a perverted sort. But you cannot have democracy. For democracy means a society in which everyone has a chance to count as an individual, and to do something that is distinctively his own.

ROUSSEAU, knowing all this, thought that democracy could exist only in small states. The revolutionary philosophers who followed him thought they had solved the problem of having democracy in large states by the simple device of representation, whereby one man could represent and stand for many men in public affairs. But one man cannot stand for many men, or for anybody except himself. That was where the nineteenth-century democrats went wrong, mistaking parliamentarism and representative local government for adequate instruments of democracy, which they plainly are not. If you think they are, ask the man in the street—any ordinary man who will tell you he is not much of a politician—what he thinks. He does not think Parliament is democratic—even when it is elected by all the people—not a bit of it; and he is right. One man cannot really represent another—that's flat. The odd thing is that anyone should ever have supposed he could.

Of course, knowing your neighbors as real persons is not of itself democracy, any more than a steel ingot is a battleship, or even part of one. But this sort of knowing is part of the material out of which democracy has to be built. You cannot build democracy without it. That is what has gone wrong with our modern democratic societies. All the time we have been broadening the franchise, and increasing educational opportunities, and developing the social services, and all the rest of it, we have been letting the very essence of democracy get squeezed out by the mere growth in the scale of political organization. It is even true that each successive widening of the franchise has made our system less really democratic, by making the relation between electors and elected more and more unreal.

Men, being men, do not lie down quite tamely under this deprivation of democracy. They keep what they can of it by making, within the great societies, little societies of their own. They form little social groups of friends, or of persons drawn together by a common friendliness—clubs des sans-club. They organize for all sorts of purposes—recreative, instructive, reformative, revolutionary, religious, economic, or simply social—in associations and groups or all sizes. But when these groups get big the same nemesis overtakes them as overtakes the political machine. Their natural democracy evaporates and bureaucracy steps into its place. You can see this happening to the trade unions, which are a great deal less democratic when they have grown into huge national associations than they were when they were simply little local trade clubs meeting in an inn or a coffee-house, so that each member knew each other personally.

SUCH little groups exist still—any number of them. But the growth in the scale of living drives them out of public influence. There are fewer and fewer important jobs for them to do, except in the purely social sphere. There they remain immensely important, rescuing countless souls from the torment of loneliness and despair. But they do not, in rescuing these souls, play any part in the more public affairs of society. They do not affect political or economic policies, or give any democratic character to men's behavior in their collective concerns. As a consequence, men's public and private lives slip further and further apart; and not only artists and other exceptional people, but quite ordinary men and women too, get to despising politics in their hearts, and to saying openly that politics are a rotten game, and thinking of politics as something it will not help them to bother their heads about: so they had better not. Politics for the politicians! That is the last corruption of a democracy that has knocked the foundations from under its own feet.

In such a society, politics is apt to be a rotten game. It is bound to be; for it has no roots in the real lives of the people. It easily comes to be either a vast make-believe or, behind its pretenses, largely a sordid squabble of vested interests. In terms of vital ideas, or of common living to the glory of God, or of the City, or of the spirit of man, it loses much of its meaning. That is why, in our own day, so many political structures purporting to rest on democratic foundations have shown neither imagination to create the means to the good life nor power to defend themselves against any vital new force, good or evil, that challenges their supremacy.

Fortunately, there are in the countries which live under parliamentary institutions other elements of democracy which are not so defenseless. The real democracy that does exist in Great Britain, for example, is to be found for the most part not in Parliament or in the institutions of local government, but in the smaller groups, formal or informal, in which men and women join together out of decent fellowship or for the pursuit of a common social purpose—societies, clubs, churches, and not least, informal neighborhood groups. It is in these fellowships, and in the capacity to form them swiftly under the pressure of immediate needs, that the real spirit of democracy resides. It was by virtue of this capacity that the workers in the factories responded so remarkably in 1940 to the urgent need that followed upon the fall of France, and that, a few months later, the whole people of many great cities found courage to resist the impact of intensive air bombardment. The tradition of British democracy, which goes back above all to seventeenth-century Puritanism, reasserted itself strongly in spite of the immensely powerful forces which have been sapping its foundations in recent years.

OPPOSITION and persecution are great levelers, and therefore great teachers of democracy. Success and recognition, on the other hand, are very apt to kill the democratic spirit. This is not only because, having won something, men grow less enthusiastic for what remains to be won. It is even more because success and recognition enlarge the scale of organization, cause it to become more centralized, and diminish the importance of local leadership, local initiative, and the individual contribution of every member. Every large organization that is able to administer its affairs openly without let or hindrance develops bureaucratic tendencies. It becomes officialized—even official-ridden: its rank and file members come to feel less responsibility for its doings. The spirit of sacrifice and of brotherhood grows weaker in it. Its tasks come to be regarded as falling upon those who are paid for doing them: the duty of the member comes to be regarded as one mainly of acquiescence in the official decisions. In a persecuted body, on the other hand, and to a great extent in one which is prevented by any cause from becoming centralized, each member is under a continual pressure to be up and doing. There must be, in every group, close and constant consultation upon policy, a constant sharing-out of tasks, a constant willingness to help one another—or, in other words, the spirit of democracy must be continually evoked.

Does this mean that democracy is, in sober truth, only a by-product of persecution and intolerance? These evil forces have, there can be no doubt, been vastly important in creating the democratic spirit. It is to be hoped they are at work, re-creating it to-day, all over Europe. But we need not conclude that democracies are always fated to perish in the hour of victory, unless we also conclude that it is beyond men's power to stand out against the forces which impel societies towards bureaucratic centralization. If indeed bureaucracy is the unavoidable accompaniment of all large-scale organization—I mean, bureaucracy as its dominant force and characteristic—the game is up. But need this be?

It will be, unless men are vigilantly on their guard against it. For both increasing population, with its accompaniment of increasing concentration in large groups, and the increasing scale of production make for bureaucracy. These forces destroy remorselessly the natural small units of earlier days—the village or little town, the group of workmates in a workshop or small factory, the personal acquaintance that crosses the barriers of class and calling. They convert the factory into a huge establishment in which it is impossible for everyone to know everyone else, the town into a huge agglomeration of strangers. They compel men to travel long distances to and from work, and therefore to scurry away from the factory as soon as the day's work is done, without building up close social contacts with their fellow-workers. At the other end, they send men scurrying from home, which becomes more and more a dormitory rather than the center of a common life. The city develops its amusement zone, where strangers jostle; and if a man stays in his own place, the wireless ensures that a large part of his recreation shall isolate him from, instead of uniting him with, his neighbors.

THERE are, superficially, many conveniences in the new ways of living. So many that we may take it for granted men will never willingly give them up. Indeed, why should they, when almost every one of them, taken by itself, is a gain? For the disadvantage lies not in the technical changes themselves, but in men's failure to square up to the new problems of successful living which they involve. The disadvantage is intangible, and not easily seen (though it is experienced) by the individual who is unused to taking general views. The man or woman who has less and less intimate knowledge of his neighbors, less and less intense participation in any small social group to which he feels an obligation, a less and less integrated and purposeful life, and less and less sense of responsibility for his fellows, does not, unless he is a bit of a philosopher, inquire why these things have happened. He may indeed be unconscious that they have happened, and conscious merely of a vague and unidentified emptiness in his way of living. But even so, if I am right in believing that the void is there, he will be very ready to respond to anyone who will offer him the means of filling it up.

He will respond, for good or for evil. He will be ready to join an anti-social "gang," if no one offers him anything else. He will respond to any mass propaganda that blares loudly enough at him with a message of comradeship. He will rally to Dr. Buchman, or to Sir Oswald Mosley, rather than not rally at all, when once he has become acutely aware of his own malaise. He wants comrades, even if they be comrades in enmity against something to which he has, at bottom, no real objection. He wants comrades, and the society he lives in offers him only a scurrying loneliness among the scurrying hosts of strangers.

This desire for comradeship is the stuff out of which we must build democracy, if we are to build it at all. Build it and preserve it—that is what we must do. And this means that, in this age of hugeness, we must still find means of resting our society on a foundation of small groups, of giving these small groups a functional place in our society, of integrating them with the larger organizations which are indispensable for modern living, of encouraging a continual proliferation of new groups responding to developing needs, and, last but not least, of countering every tendency towards bureaucratization of this quintessential group life.

How can we rest a society as huge as ours on a secure foundation of small, intensively democratic groupings? This society of ours is based of necessity on large-scale production: it involves, at any rate for a long time to come, the existence of huge cities; and it is in need, in many respects, of even huger organization on a supranational scale—for the prevention of war, for example, and for the fuller development of international trade and exchange. We cannot turn our backs on these forces; we have to accept them because they are to-day as much a part of the given environment as sea and land, mountains and river-valleys, heat and cold, and all the other things which form part of our natural environment. The task before us is not analogous to that of draining the ocean; but it is analogous to that great victory of man which turned the ocean, heretofore a barrier, into a means of communication between land and land. We have to turn the very hugeness of the modern world into a means for the higher expression of the human spirit.

We cannot do this by changing man's stature; for man remains little, and is destined so to remain always. The Superman is a vain notion; and "Back to Methuselah" is another. Mark Twain once wrote that if it were possible to educate a flea up to the size of a man, that flea would be President of the United States. It is not possible to inflate humanity up to the size of the organizations it has made. But it is possible so to arrange our affairs that little men are not merely lost in a world too big and directionless for them to find their way.

Men's easiest ways of grouping are 'round the places they live in and the places they work in. These are two bases of natural human relationship which can be used as bases for democracy. Take the factory. It is not enough for factory workers to belong to a trade union, which will represent them in negotiations about wages, hours of labor, and general working conditions throughout their trade. The trade union, under modern conditions, is necessarily much too remote from their working lives. Even if it is broken up into branches, these seldom coincide with the personnel of a particular factory or workshop, and are as a rule much more concerned with matters of national policy than with immediate workshop affairs. Side by side with the trade union, and perhaps largely independent of it, there needs to be a workshop group, consisting of all the workers in a particular shop, irrespective of their trade or degree of skill. This group ought to have a recognized right of meeting on the factory premises, its own chosen leaders, and—here is the main point—a right to discuss and resolve upon anything under the sun, from the conduct of a particular manager or foreman to the policy of the national Cabinet, or anything else about which its members happen to feel strongly.

Observe that I say "workshop group," and not "factory group." In the case of small establishments, the factory may serve as a unit; but the large factory is much too big to function as a primary neighborhood group, or to have in it the essential quality of basic democracy. The shop stewards' movement that grew up between 1915 and 1918 was feeling after just this basic democracy. But it always found the trade union bureaucracy against it, because it seemed to, and did stand for an alternative basis of social organization. It was truly democratic; and accordingly the bureaucrats were eager to knock it on the head. They did not object to shop stewards who kept to their "proper" functions—that is, acted merely as subordinate agents of the trade union machine. They objected strongly to a shop stewards' movement which laid claims to any independent initiative or showed signs of assuming a "political" character.

CONSIDER now the places in which people live. Here in my mind's eye is a street of houses—or rather several streets. This one, a row of nineteenth-century working-class dwellings, all joined on, short of light and air and comfort and even of elementary requirements. This other, a street on a post-war housing estate, immensely superior in lay-out and amenity and capacity to afford the environmental conditions of healthy living. This, again, a street of shops, and this, not exactly a street, but a great block of flats housing more people than many streets.

What is odd about these places? The oddest thing, to my mind, is that the people who live in them, though they are neighbors with a multitude of common problems, hardly ever meet in conclave to consider these problems, and have in hardly any instance any sort of common organization. It is true that the shopkeepers may just possibly have some rudimentary association among themselves—but even that is unlikely. It is true that, here and there, struggles between landlords and householders have brought into being some sort of Tenants' League, for a narrow range of purposes. But in the vast majority of streets there is not even the shadow of a social unity, joining these people together on the basis of their common neighborhood.

A second thing, not so odd but well worth noting is that, of these bodies of street-dwellers, those who know one another best are pretty certain to be those who are living under the worst housing conditions. There is a comradeship of the street in a poor working-class quarter: there is usually much less on the model housing estate or in the model block of flats.

I am suggesting that there ought to be for every street, or little group of streets, for every block of flats, and, of course, for every village and hamlet, a regularly meeting, recognized, neighborhood group, with a right to discuss and resolve upon anything under the sun. I am not merely suggesting that this ought to happen: I say it ought to be made to happen. Every new group of streets we build ought to have its little Moot Hall for such assemblies of its people, ought to have its little center for their communal affairs. Personally, I think this Moot Hall should be also a communal restaurant and bakehouse, and a social club. I think it should include a place where children could amuse themselves, and be left in charge of somebody when their parents are away. I think, as we rebuild out cities, there should be open space round these centers—space for games, for sitting about, for children's playing. I think we should make our Community Centers, not merely one to a big housing estate, but one to every street, or group of streets, of, say, a hundred or at most a few hundred households.

BUT to enlarge on all this would take me too far from my immediate purpose. Whether these other things are done or not done, I am sure there must be really active neighborhood groups in every street and village before we can call our country truly a democracy. One reason for this is that there is no other way of bringing the ordinary housewife right into politics without interfering with her duties as housewife and mother. Workshop organization may come first in the minds of the men and young women who work in factories: neighborhood groups are the key to the active citizenship of the wife and mother.

It is of no use to think that we can have these groups and confine their activities to the specific affairs of the little places to which they are directly attached. They must and will deal with these affairs, and they should be given a positive and assured status in dealing with them. But this is not their sole, or even their main, purpose. They are wanted most of all to serve as basic and natural units of democracy in a world ridden by large-scale organization. Their task is one of democratic education and awakening—of ensuring democratic vigilance through the length and breadth of the great society. Therefore they must be free, like the workshop Soviets, to discuss and resolve upon what they will.

But—I hear the bureaucrats and their friends objecting—but it is altogether a fallacy to suppose that the ordinary man wants, either at his workplace or in the neighborhood of his home, to be for ever talking politics. For proof that he does not, go into the pubs and see. Go into the Women's Institutes, the Community Centers, listen in tubes and trains and restaurants. Go where you will, and hear for yourself. It is not politics that interests the ordinary man. The nearest he got to politics even under war conditions was air raids; and that was not politics: it was sheer personal concern plus sporting interest.

Well, I know that. Most men and women are not deeply interested in politics because (a) they could not do anything much about them even if they were, given society as it now is; (b) politics are not interesting usually, until one has already some very strong reason for being interested in them, and a tolerably clear notion of what they ought to be about; (c) the politicians, or most of them, do not want most people to be interested, except at election times, and do not do anything to get them continuously interested; (d) the bureaucrats want most people not to be interested, and will do their best to stamp out any organization likely really to express the ordinary man's point of view; (e) the vested interests do not want to have ordinary people prying too closely into their various concerns; (f) it is simpler to govern a society when most people are not interested in its government, and no politician or bureaucrat quite knows whether the people, if it took to having a mind of its own, would agree with him or not. It is therefore safest to let sleeping dogs lie.

NEED we wonder that ordinary men and women, under these conditions, are interested in politics only at rare moments when politics visibly and unmistakably come and make havoc of their lives? There has never been since the great days of Athens (save perhaps for a very brief while in Calvin's Geneva) a state, or even a city, whose rulers thought it part of every citizen's right and duty to take a continuous and active interest in political affairs.

I do not go so far as that. All I ask is that we should set out so to organize our new societies as to encourage every citizen to become politically conscious, and to believe in democracy as a precious possession of the people. And I assert that, in these days of huge States and huge-scale production, there is no way of doing this except by building upon a foundation of small neighborhood groups, territorial and economic, because such groups alone have in them the essential qualities of unmediated, direct democracy based on personal contact and discussion, and on close mutual knowledge and community of small-scale, immediate problems. That only is democracy's sure foundation: given that, we can, I believe, safely raise upon it what towering skyscrapers we please.