How Can Democracy Defend Itself?


By G. A. BORGESE, Professor of Italian Literature, University of Chicago

Delivered at the fifteenth annual meeting of the American Association for Adult Education, Hotel Astor, New York City,May 21, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 537-540.

MEDIEVAL unity or the medieval idea of unity went to pieces some time in the fourteenth century, six centuries ago. It had been the prosecution of the ancient ideal of unity, one mankind on earth under one temporal and one spiritual leadership in a concord of goals, one emperor, one pope, one language, one law. It had been a purpose and a desire rather than a living fact. It was unable to resist the urge of subversive forces driving from the field of intellectual inquiry and from the changes of economic and social attitudes as well. On the ruins of ancient and medieval unity the civilization that we call ours arose. It bore various names. It was Humanism and Renaissance at first, it was Reformation and Rationalism later, it was liberalism at last. But with changing names it was all through six centuries the same inspiration, an inspiration of change and effort. Fragments of the old unity were scattered in contrasting directions, absolute principalities and national states disentangled from any allegiance to a superior authority strove with one another in an arena of unlimited competition. Meanwhile the self-sufficient individual, the hero, the adventurer, the genius who was a law to himself stood up at times overtowering the masses.

Anarchism bloomed, freedom versus discipline. The individual still remained in most cases within reach of somekind of law, but the national states whose sovereignty was absolute and irresponsible finally ran amok. This turning point in history can now be set at the date 1914, although practically no observer at that time was aware of the upheaval. Then or at the latest immediately after the first World War the civilization that had started with the Renaissance and that had celebrated its highest achievements in the liberal era proved inadequate to its promises. Its explosive forces had been magnificent, its capability of organization proved inferior to the tasks of world war and world peace.

This was the official opening of the great reaction. This is the experience of our lives. The tiny movement that gave the start to the new era was born in Italy between 1919 and 1922 and bore, as it still bears, the name of Fascism. What is this name, if it is not an appeal to the principle of unity and authority? The emblem is the Roman fasces, the bundle of sticks as a symbol of collective life surmounted by the sharp ax of authority and punishment. But it is significant that all the other movements that push our epoch toward its invisible goal bear names which indicate a cognate desire. Nazism, National-Socialism points in a combined noun to the compactness of the nation or Volk and to the organicism of society. Socialism had already been a password for five generations at least, and this word, too, pointed to the unity ofsociety against the encroachments or autarchy of the individual. Communism is merely a variant pointing to the communality of effort and result. The Catholic Church itself, risen in the last decades to a political power and a moral influence which she had never displayed so greatly since her heyday in the high Middle Ages, indicates in the universal meaning of the word Catholic and in the totalitarian authority of its chief the presence of the same need for unity and order in most of the human souls today, whatever the difference in historical background and in economic or metaphysical postulates.

What is the place of democracy in this struggle? We wonder, in other terms, what remains and what can be saved of the way of life that we used to call for several centuries modern civilization. We wonder whether it is worth while saving and whether and how it can be saved. It is, or shall we say, it was a world of initiative and progress against the surge that may seem now engulfing of totalitarianism in its various aspects.

Yet on the very threshold of the inquiry we realize that even in that part of the world that still remains faithful to the modern standards of civilization the accent has shifted from the individual to the collectivity. Although doubtful at times of the possibility of strict definitions we must admit that we prefer the use of the word democracy which means government by the people, by the demos, by the collectivity, to the use of the word liberalism which seemed to stress more especially the individual and experimental kind of initiative. We admit that democracy is fighting a heavy fight in circumstances which may become still more adverse than they are today. We don't admit that democracy, the collective ideal of freedom and justice, can ever be defeated; but we don't want to close our eyes to the evidence that liberalism, this winged dream, flies, if it still flies, with much lead in its wings.

Then why do we not give up? Why do we not become totalitarians too? There is no lack of sirens inviting us from all shores to the relaxation of defeat and death.

We do not give up. We still think that our Western and modern way of living is worth while being saved because we don't agree with the too sophisticated sage who said that a bad order is better than a disorder, because we do not think that disorder and freedom are necessarily and inextricably connected—almost by definition—because we think that the order proposed by totalitarianism is bad, as bad as death.

In the carelessness and mental fogginess of the decades that preceded this upheaval I do not know of more than two prophets. Otherwise the poisons working for the disintegration of our age were sheltered in the secrecy of the subconscious and the disease broke out as deadly as it had been unexpected.

One of the prophets was an American, Henry George. As early as sixty years ago and more he envisioned where the course of social injustice and disparity would lead our world:

Where that course leads is clear to whomever will think. As corruption becomes chronic; as public spirit is lost; as traditions of honor, virtue and patriotism are weakened; as law is brought into contempt and reforms become hopeless; then in the festering mass will be generated volcanic forces, which shatter and bend when seeming accident gives them vent. Strong, unscrupulous men, rising up upon occasion will become the exponents of blind popular desires or fierce popular passions, and dash aside forms that have lost their vitality. The sword will again be mightier than the pen, and in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate with the lethargy of a declining civilization.

Henry George had thought of America, his prophecy materialized elsewhere. The picture of demagogic and reactionary totalitarianism which he anticipated is nonetheless true to the reality which we contemplate. It was, it is a disheartening picture.

The second prophecy, although less explicit, is farther reaching. It is contained in Bergson's last book, "The Two Sources of Morals and Religion," published in 1932 when the danger of Fascism and of its expansion did not seem so imminent and overwhelming as they were to appear a short while after the rise of Hitlerism. In a series of enthralling pages the old philosopher outlined the biological and social saga of man. Nature, he supposed, designating by this all-embracing name the Unknown behind the happenings, Nature in early days tried two paths towards a masterpiece of life. She fulfilled this mysterious desire, she created the masterpiece along the evolutionary line of some families of insects, especially the arthropods, especially the bees and ants and others that resemble these two. Animal life is there flawless in a pattern of unfailing organization. Instinctual automatism controls the species and the collectivity of labor and result excludes practically all waste and all defeat But there is no progress, no change conceivable in so static an achievement. Instinctual automatism is a dead end.

Now Bergson goes on insisting on his personification of the unknown. Nature tried to blaze another trail. It led to man, the creature of intelligence and change. This is so far the highest achievement of evolution, yet a perilous one. If intelligence has the asset of experiment and progress, it also includes the liabilities of disintegration and ruin. It can be as destructive as it can be creative. It walks on a razor's edge from which it might soar to flight or tumble to self-annihilation.

There seems to be indeed in this myth a symbol of what was already happening to liberal and democratic civilization, of what is happening today. Many are the causes of this catastrophe, but one of them is in the difficulty of freedom, in the burden of initiative, in the crushing weariness of responsibility. It is as if men after centuries of endeavour were shrinking before the technical and intellectual difficulties amassed by their very endeavour. Behind any kind of totalitarianism there seems to be one inspiration, one battle cry, "free us of freedom." "Abetissez nous"—make beasts of us who were humans, degrade intelligence to instinct, substitute for the harassed individual the blind brutal happy mass.

Hitler, the most powerful of all those who have tried to fulfill this dark desire is not at all in darkness with himself as to the aim. In Rauschning's The Voice of Destruction we read that the pursuit of the random path of intelligence was, in Hitler's opinion, the real deflection of man from his divine mission. "Man's solar period was coming to its end." Just as "the sun's passing of the solstices must be taken as a figure of the rhythm of life, which proceeds not in a straight line of eternal progress, but in a spiral, so must man now, apparently, turn back in order to attain a higher stage" (p. 245).

And how will the higher stage look?

Hitler knows. "In my Ordensburgen a youth will grow up before which the world will shrink back. A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth—that is what I am after. . . . I want to see once more in its eyes the gleam of pride and independence of the beast of prey. . . . I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin to my young men. . . . In this way I shall eradicate the thousands of years of human domestication. Then I shall have in front of methe pure and noble natural material. With that I can create the new order" (p. 252).

This is the new order. To us it is a bad order, as bad as death. There seems to be no doubt that our own order is worth being defended.

But how shall we be able to defend it? How can Western civilization in its great stronghold, America, stand the test, survive it and eventually prevail? To somebody who said America must arm, somebody else answered: "and think."

The first requirement if democracy is to survive is that this order be an order, conscious of itself as such, constantly inspired by the vision of its goal, of its purpose and constantly reliant on the adequacy of its method.

Order, if it is order, must be built on justice. The prophecy of Henry George should be learned by heart. If we sap the foundations of justice, there is no proud building of intelligence and freedom that will not crumble. Justice is the keystone. The individual initiative and experimentation upheld by liberalism cannot be allowed to encroach on the social, i.e., collective, i.e., democratic or popular purpose which was behind the ideal of liberalism in its day of youth and beauty.

Then, if our order must be an order, if it must be strong enough to stand the challenges from within and without, the very concept of freedom must be reanalyzed and restated. This is a crucial problem at this moment in this country. It was indicated years ago by several observers and by this speaker among others. It was recently formulated with poignant eloquency by Lewis Mumford in an essay on "The Corruption of Liberalism."

Goebbels, Hitler, and another personage of Rauschning, Hanfstaengel, agree with Mumford and with us. Hitler agrees in his own way with Bergson. Said Goebbels, "North America is a medley of races. The ferment goes on under a cover of democracy, but it will not lead to a new form of freedom and leadership, but to a process of decay containing all the disintegrating forces of Europe. The American of today will never again be a danger to us" (p. 71). "I guarantee, gentlemen," added Hitler in support of his unholy ghost, "that at the right moment a new America will exist as our strongest supporter when we are ready to take the stride into overseas space" (p. 71). "Democracy," Hanfstaengel proclaimed, "has no convictions. . . . It is on public opinion that democracy depends, and public opinion is our greatest help. We shall always be stronger than the democracies in being able to guide their public opinion according to our wish. . . . The democracies cannot defend themselves against such attacks; that is in the nature of the matter, for otherwise they would have to become authoritarian themselves" (p. 75).

This is the crucial point. How can democracy defend itself, how can this democracy defend itself without sloping toward the suicidal contradiction of a democratic authoritarianism, i.e., without denying the very concept of freedom on which symmetrically and conjointly with justice democratic civilization is founded? The answer must be threefold.

First, unless we want surrender and defeat we are not allowed to overlook empirical circumstances or the needs of the times, whenever we speak of ideologies and ideas. There is a conventional confusion in the ordinary talk about authority and liberty, discipline and freedom with the assumption that whenever authority and discipline become valid, freedom is gone. The inference would be that whenever a nation, a civilization fights for its own existence, i.e., whenever a nation or a civilization accepts the inevitable rule of of the fight which implies organical unity and discipline that nation or civilization becomes a renegade to its own reasonfor existence. If that were true, American and Western civilization would have no choice. It would be hardly relevant if the disaster of the democratic order came from blows outside or from authority and discipline inside.

But daily experience should teach us better. In numerous cases almost every day we the individuals or we the elementary group of the family trust our destinies and lives to temporary dictators. A dictator of some sort is the surgeon, the physician, the attorney, nay, even the taxi driver or the barber. The difference between this kind of authority and the one that we reject is in the amount of responsibility, in the extension of time and in the acceptability of the purpose. The idea that even when the house is afire the members of the democratic family are allowed to quarrel would be the saddest joke. Hitler, Goebbels and Hanfstaengel would be allowed to have America and all that is left of democratic civilization for the asking.

One might propose a different stress for the two words freedom and liberty. Freedom is the conviction of the good and true, it is the collective democratic will in obedience at the same time spontaneous and necessary to the divine plan whose fulfillment is the task of man. Liberty is the individual's relaxation in circumstances of serenity and victory. If a fight of some sort is impending, liberty, which is the right to do as each one pleases, can and must be sacrificed to freedom, which is the duty to do what each one must do.

At a second level the answer is that no one should be stultified by the mere sounds of words. The assumption that freedom and liberty are unlimited in democratic civilizations is obviously a delusion. Limits are visible and palpable in almost every direction.

Is it true as it is generally supposed that there is wholesale freedom of worship in America? Is it true for instance that the religion of the Mormons is free, is it true that a primitive religion with human sacrifices and cannibalistic rituals could be practiced in the United States or that a pagan temple of Priapean or Bacchic cult could be built on Fifth Avenue and 42nd? It is not true. The truth is that the liberal state has its own religion and that it admits freedom only for those confessions that are not in irretrievable contrast with the universal progressive belief altogether of a religious nature which the ruling community stands for.

And why, as it has been already noticed, are so many hindrances opposed to unqualified freedom of speech, of the press, of the stage, in what concerns ethical issues? Why is sexual propaganda of perversion or licentiousness stifled and punished, even with puritanical exaggerations of censorship? Why is it that nobody would be allowed to print or utter apologies for polygamy or for incest or for theft or for murder?

It is quite clear that the democratic state reposes, it too, on a system of dogmas, that it too has taboos, and tables of law. What endangers or soils fundamental ethical beliefs in what concerns the primary social ceil, the family, or in what concerns the relations of man to supreme metaphysical issues is most sternly forbidden by democratic and liberal civilization. But what soils or endangers the very political and social substance of democratic and liberal civilization is considered by this civilization with leniency, nay almost with benevolence, as if the attacks on democracy and liberty were nothing but opportunities for a smiling, easy-going, foregone triumph of democracy and liberty.

It is quite clear that if democratic civilization is to survive, the political and social principle on which it reposes must be lifted to the same dogmatic and authoritarian level to which the principles of the family and sexual behaviour and even of property has been lifted long ago. If liberty mustbe upheld and saved it is quite clear that at least during the transitional period, during the age of fight, the accent must be on democracy, the collective rule of the people for the people, rather than on liberalism with its corollaries of irresponsible initiative of the individual.

Where are, however, the wise and opportune limits between discipline and freedom, authority and liberty?

This is the third level of the answer. The answer at this level can only be given by necessity and taste, good moral taste. Nothing even of the minor liberties should be sacrificed except under the compulsion of the necessity of fight. And there should never be a blackout of the purpose and desire to march again or even to stroll towards all liberties, even towards those that in the present ordeal may seem dangerous luxuries, as soon as peace and victory are safe. When good will be strong, evil will be harmless, but not before.

There are two small stories of storms on the sea.

One, a jocular old story in the spirit, say, of the Decameron, tells that once upon a time there was a ship in danger of sinking. The captain ordered the passengers to throw overboard what was superfluous in their belongings so as to lighten the burden of the ship. There was a friar, not deeply pious, as it seems, among the passengers. The first thing he threw overboard was his bible.

We do not think that in these stormy seas the first thing that America should throw overboard should be the code of her belief in liberties.

The second story is from "Paul et Virginie." In the lovely sentimental eighteenth-century story of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre the girl, Virginia, might have been saved by a sailor who tried to "force her to throw off her clothes; but she repulsed him with modesty," and preferred death in the bitter billow.

We do not think that a superstitious cult of the methods of freedom should prevent America from saving herself and the freedom of the world.