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James Burnham

Their Government

(9 September 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 67, 9 September 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most vicious and the most dangerous lie about the war, so far as this country is concerned, is that it is being fought “for democracy” by England and France. I am not going to repeat now the facts about the “democratic” British and French Empires which, for the benefit of a handful of industrialists and bankers in London and Paris, hold in abject slavery six times as many human beings as Hitler rules. I am thinking about a far broader and more startling irony in this lie of a new war for democracy.

Not merely is it absolutely false that this is a war for democracy. The truth, the ironic truth, is that this war which began a week ago is the war to end democracy – as democracy has been known in the modern world – for all time. Not to end it for the period of the war (as the dreamers suppose), but forever.

Bourgeois Democracy: Road’s End

Even under the barrage of minute-by-minute events that swamp our nerves and feelings, it is worth a pause to reflect under a wider perspective on the close of a great political era: the era which witnessed the development of bourgeois democracy, the form of government which for some hundreds of years the most advanced statesmen and philosophers thought to be the ultimate achievement of political man.

For the democracy which has ended is not, of course, democracy “in general” or “in the abstract,” but one particular, concrete form of democracy: namely, parliamentary democracy based upon capitalist property relations.

In 16th century England, bourgeois democracy began its stirring career. There parliament, in alliance with the King, fought the feudal lords; and, later, in the 17th century, breaking from the King, achieved supremacy through Cromwell’s revolution. Parliamentary democracy was transferred to the United States, where it flourished. In France, it was established by the great revolution. In the 19th century it spread for a while until it seemed destined to supplant all other governmental systems; but long before its goal was reached, there could be seen the shadow of its early doom.

Bourgeois democracy was the form of government best suited to the young, vigorous and expanding capitalist nations. It permitted the maximum of freedom for the bourgeoisie: allowing them to throw off the shackles of feudalism, and at the same time to hold the masses in check. As capitalism reached imperialist maturity and old age, however, bourgeois democracy became a luxury that had to be discarded. After the last war, which marked the turning point into the final decline of capitalism, democracy could be afforded only by the rich, fat empires which could feed their democracy at home from the spoils of the colonies. The impoverished, desperate nations had to throw it aside, one after another.

Now, with the new war, it topples from the last remaining pedestals.

Fascism and Democracy Become Twins

The war has already, in a week, bridged the pretended “ultimate gulf” between fascist and democratic imperialism. The political and social regimes of Germany, France and England become identical in all essential aspects, merged into the war dictatorships. “Regimentation,” censorship, abrogation of all civil and democratic rights, wiping out of all opposition ... Where is the meaningful difference?

Exactly the same thing will happen in the United States as it nears and enters the war. Indeed, complete plans for the totalitarian war dictatorship are all in readiness.

But when the war is over, we are told, England and France and the United States will immediately return to their old democratic selves. Vain hope, vain and impossible! There can be no return.

There is no imperialist solution for this war. Whatever its outcome in a military sense, the social and economic chaos which has led to and, far more, will result from the war is of so colossal and profound a character that a recovery of “normal conditions,” stability, security, is unthinkable. The problems and conflicts of the post-war crises will be even more shattering than those of the war itself. To suppose that these could be handled by the old-style bourgeois parliamentary governments is really laughable if it were not so fatal an illusion.

Parliamentary democracy might conceivably linger for a few years in one or two small and unimportant nations, off the beaten track of history – but even this is unlikely. For the decisive sections of the world, its day is over. Let us understand this. It is finished, done.

The Future of Democracy

Bourgeois democracy goes, and will not return. But the fate of democracy, of freedom and self-rule for the masses of the people, is not bound up with bourgeois parliamentary government, indeed, bourgeois democracy was never more than a deception of the masses, the way in which the bourgeoisie enforced its rule over the people.

The end of bourgeois democracy means simply and clearly that the fate and future of democracy is bound up indissolubly with the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie – who can no longer rule by democratic means, of their imperialism, of their war, and with the victory of the masses in the socialist revolution against the war. The only kind of democracy possible in the future is socialist democracy.

A war for democracy is well worth fighting! But it is not the war of Chamberlain, Hitler, Daladier and Roosevelt. The only war for democracy is the struggle against their war. Let this be remembered in the midst of the lies of the days to come!

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