Impediments to Progress

The transition from government by force and superstition to government by reason and consent heralded by the English revolutions has been impeded by conservative resistance. The embryo of government by consent in the ancient world succumbed to the force of tyranny. Against this background, and unlike that of Athenian democracy, modern democracy and modern science emerged coterminously from two thousand years of entrenched aristocracy without the willing or at least consistently willing cooperation of either monarchy or church. As Lincoln observed, conservatism can be characterised essentially as a reluctance to change methods which are tried and tested. Two millennia of aristocracy created a formidable basis for conservative ideology, including a dogmatic version of Christianity.

Conservative resistance to the transition to government by consent creates all the problems associated with the organisation of a revolutionary movement to overthrow tyranny. To begin with, such a movement cannot be a democracy, for it has no alternative but to organise as an aristocracy - of virtue. As Rousseau observed, the average man is something of a coward in respect of the ruling order. This remains the case with freemen and slaves alike: when John Brown attacked the arsenal at Harper's ferry the slaves who failed to rally to this heroic action merely confirmed this truism, as had most freemen in the English revolutions two centuries earlier when the regicide John Cook wrote his last letter before execution: 'we sought the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom.'

Rousseau, following Machiavelli, concluded from such observation that men must be 'forced to be free.' This is an inaccurate and harmful contention, but it well describes the problematic from which extremism has derived its raison d'être. The people cannot be forced to be free, but rather must be led by example and intelligent preparation to consider their allegiances and by degree to support a process of change to that point when it is possible to challenge and overturn the existing state power, and thereafter to hold onto it long enough to ensure the destruction or sincere reform of the old order. By such means a fraudulent aristocracy of virtue (most aristocracies believe themselves to be virtuous, but such a claim exercised by those who oppose democratic development is self evidently fraudulent) may be replaced by a genuinely virtuous aristocracy, which remains steadfast in its commitment to develop democratic government among the people. Jefferson's observation that the whole art of politics consists in being honest with the people is, therefore, both appropriate and correct.

All forms of political organisation require leadership: democracy is that form in which leaders are selected on the most egalitarian grounds subject to functional requirements in regard to specialised skills; aristocracy is that form in which leaders are selected on grounds which are artificially exclusive in some way, whether by birth, property, or an exaggeration of the requirements for special skills. The process of developing democratic leadership in conditions of repression and conservative resistance to change is fraught with difficulties because the task of overcoming these obstacles creates aristocratic requirements in regard to leadership which are contemporaneously necessary but in the long run artificial. Yet these requirements must be met if the democratic movement is to survive and triumph. The revolutionary struggle must be developed on an organisational foundation which incorporates more aristocratic features than will ultimately be required once government by consent has been established, and for very good reason, not least among which is the requirement for secrecy.

That a fully developed form of democracy has yet to be established in the modern world is in part a reflection of the fact that these difficulties have never been fully resolved in the transition to government by consent. As stated this may be explained principally by the fact that modern democracy was not developed with the consistent cooperation of monarchy. A secondary explanatory factor consequent to this has been that rival sections of the aristocracy, understood in its broader, interethnic connotation, have both supported and exploited the struggle against monarchy for selfish purposes, thus complicating the process of transition to government by consent. Marxism and its allies have portrayed this process as determined alone or at least chiefly by economic causes. There is something to this view, but it is nevertheless presupposed by a relativistic, rigidly contrived periodicity in development which fails to take properly into account the relation between government by consent and the stable attributes and self evident truths of common sense, which are universal and transhistorical in application.

The third main reason why a genuine democracy has not yet been established is cognitive difficulties of leadership within radicalism in comprehending the transition to government by consent consequent to monarchic resistance and the negative effects of aristocratic factionalism, most especially if we assume these effects may sometimes have been deliberately designed to create such problems. In the early period of transition low educational levels, poor research and communication facilities in conditions of little or no freedom of speech or assembly comprised formidable obstacles. In later periods, including to the present day, even though these earlier obstacles were overcome new difficulties have emerged. The self-evident truths of common sense need to be understood directly at the centre of socio-political and economic life. Greater complexity in modern conditions can obfuscate cognition, for example due to problems of verbal overshadowing in the social sciences.

The fourth main reason why a genuine democracy has not yet been established is that the process of self clarification within radicalism has been impeded not only by purely cognitive limitations, but also by limitations which can more adequately be explained as opportunism. Opportunism denotes the tendency to evade, ignore or actually frustrate the need to formulate and implement political strategies which accord with the long term general democratic interest for essentially short term, selfish reasons by leaders who claim, hypocritically, to be democrats.

Opportunist behaviour can be best characterised, as Lenin observed, as movement along the line of least resistance. Such tendencies have developed more especially in modern conditions in which well paid Left career structures have been established as a powerful motive for involvement in radical politics by a sycophantic, educated elite. Totalitarianism has strengthened these tendencies since it rests on servile organisational premises, not freedom of criticism. These influences are also systemic to representative democratic politics and its associated party system of competitive elitism, which has always easily lent itself to opportunist practices, though this aspect has been more developed in the era of mass media communications and advertising. Today the most appropriate aptitudes for a British Member of Parliament to possess, as one Tory commentator has observed, are chiefly those of the car salesman. Difficulties generated by opportunist practices which impede democratic progress have become greater due to all the above factors combined.

The most decisive factor determining the conditions in which progress from government based on force to government based on consent takes place concerns the standpoint adopted by the existing ruling power in relation to such change. Clearly the most optimal conditions will best be achieved if the ruling power adopts a positive approach to this transition. Even in these circumstances however progress will be necessarily to some extent or other gradual in nature. As Jefferson noted, Solon's reputation as the wisest statesman in history sprang not only from his support for democratic reform but also from his deliberate purpose in ensuring such changes kept pace with, and did not exceed, the developing experience and abilities the people had acquired in the exercise of self government. The exceptionally good fortune the Athenians enjoyed in having such a leader help to explain why their democracy developed to be so advanced for its time, and why even over two thousand years later Jefferson and Paine considered it the model towards which political progress should aspire.

Alternately the least favourable conditions for a transition to government based on consent are those in which the ruling power uses force to oppose progress. To some degree or other this will require an aristocratic form of organisation of those persons most concerned and willing to bring about democratic reform. The emergence of revolutionary leadership will be decisively influenced by the vagaries of this problematic in their relation to individual competence, theoretical understanding, and chance. For example the more tolerant the existing power is in relation to such activities the more developed and considered will be the nature and level of popular support for such change, and thus the more stable and assured will be its prospects for success. The less tolerant the existing power is in relation to such activities, the less developed and considered will be the nature and level of popular support for such change, and thus the less stable and assured will be its prospects for success. Similarly the more adequate given conditions of production and consumption are, the more sober and considered will be the nature of popular support for democratic progress, while the less adequate they are, the more volatile and desperate this support can be.

In this way it can be seen that historical, economic and geographic aspects of social existence each also exert some influence on the prospects for development, though not in the orderly, chronological sequence which Marxism proposed. Among the most important in this regard is the proximity of virgin territory: as Locke made clear, the ability of the people to withdraw their consent to be ruled under any given government is determined at its most basic and fundamental level by the existence of some such opportunity to withdraw from the given territory of that regime. In this way it can be seen that the stable attributes and basic standards of common sense have been shaped by the fact that government in most human societies has, irrespective of the particularities of their internal mode of organisation, been based, at this most minimal but also most essential of levels, on consent, since most human societies have been nomadic hunter gatherer in character. Locke was therefore correct to identify these attributes as predominant in his state of nature.

Topography exerted similar influence: as Hegel observed, the indented coastline and mountainous terrain of the Hellenic peninsular created favourable conditions for the emergence of defensible city states based on maritime trade, making conquest by force alone more difficult, unlike in the river plain empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This improved the prospects for democratic development, since the cosmopolitanising impact of trade and commerce tend to break up aristocracies, which generally require relatively insular conditions of hereditary land ownership to maintain their homogeneity. This tendency occurred in both ancient Greece and the modern period.

Among those seeking to bring about change against the will of a ruling power which has set itself against democratic progress there will exist a range of different approaches to the problem at hand. The least radical among them is likely to seek a modest change to the status quo so insignificant as to ultimately be of little or no consequence; the most radical will seek extreme changes so recklessly disregardful for matters of practical experience in relation to the given level of development as to be wholly unrealistic and utopian. There is a case for suggesting these tendencies will broadly correspond to complex, interwoven but nevertheless distinct group traits within the general population on grounds of age, social class, sex, intellectual ability and practical experience. The aristocracy of wealth and birth will tend to favour the status quo more greatly than the poor. The most poverty stricken and desperate groups of the population may tend to vacillate from hopeless servility to violent rebellion in their allegiances.

The most significant, stable correlation of such traits is likely to be found among groups sympathetically acquainted through background and education with the skills, scientific knowledge and expertise of craft industry in their relation to the lives of ordinary people. These groups will be best placed to understand the problems of social development independently of religious belief and of their own immediate needs, that is to say, they will be best able to use their common sense in ways which accord with the most optimal approach to constitutional reform in regard to the general democratic interest. It is this group which is most likely to possess that combination of talent and virtue best able to strike an intelligent balance between the requirements of stability and change in their relation to the given level of understanding and organisation among the population and the practical exigencies of political struggle and conflict which prevail at any given time. These group traits can be discerned as common to the process of transition to government by consent in most countries throughout the modern period. They can be seen in Locke's recognition of such a natural aristocracy, more clearly so in Jefferson, and notwithstanding the influence of European revolutionary extremism, also in Lenin's analysis of the relation between the 'non-party masses' and politically advanced workers.

To this understanding of the relation between group traits, social development and democratic progress may now be added the great complexity of individual strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies of conservative and radical leaders at any given time and place. History is made from the interaction of all these elements combined, and is of course in consequence very complex and largely unpredictable. Nevertheless the transition from government based on force to government based on consent is not merely part of an unending cosmological cycle, as Machiavelli assumed. Rather it comprises a process of adjustment from one relatively abnormal form of social organisation less favourably disposed to meeting the aspirations of common sense to a more normal form in which such standards can be more harmoniously accommodated. For this reason it is of practical importance that democratic leadership should not seek to exploit the truth but rather to uphold it. Upholding honesty in political affairs is also of great importance for self evident reasons in developing the aristocracy of virtue that is necessary to lead the people by example in challenging the old order. This helps explain why Locke, Jefferson and to a great extent Lenin all alike placed a high premium on and upheld the existence of truth in the realm of politics.

Against the background of these general insights the transition to government by consent in Britain, America and Europe can be examined in more detail in their relation to electoral practice. In this way the basic truths of common sense understanding in regard to democracy can be revealed as recurring issues of vital and necessary concern to the radical movement, not merely relativist abstractions. The legitimacy and importance of these principles can be supported by the evidence of historical process in so far as this shows failure to realise them is not the result of any reasonable demonstration of their impracticality or intrinsic deficiency but is rather a consequence of the complex but nevertheless discernible interaction of the factors and difficulties outlined above.

Next: Britain
Previous: Historical Analysis: Common Sense and Democracy
Back to Conference Index