Democracy and its contradictions: Reaction

[The following is the first of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.]

Democracy is caught in a contradiction:  between universal claims of equality and particularist claims about individual freedom.

Equality makes no exceptions.  This principle planed away the categorical differences in status inherited from aristocratic society – noble/bourgeois /peasant, man/woman, etc.  Henceforth all were “citizens.”  All were, in some transcendent way, equal members of the democratic nation in the first instance, but also equal and undifferentiated members of the great movement toward a democratic international order that would impose justice without borders.

Equality, in short, is the necessary foundation for the many-mansioned house of democracy.

Freedom of the individual is more closely associated with liberalism.  In the liberal vision, the individual, shielded by rights and protections against the tyranny of others, must be free to find his way, express his thoughts, and accumulate wealth as he sees fit, within the law.  For Furet, the accumulation of wealth is the chief attribute of bourgeois society.  Even if one finds this characterization too simple (and too French), there can be no question that competition for wealth is one attribute of liberal society.  This activity can never be described in universal terms.  It’s private and particular.  The end result is an enormous disparity in wealth and influence between supposedly equal citizens.  Freedom, in other words, entails indeterminacy and inequality, while democracy demands an unchanging and universal ideal of equality.

The nation stands at the pivot-point of contradiction.  Nationhood can be conceived in universal terms, as it was in the French Revolution and the revolts of 1848.  In those cases, the democratic nation was seen as a beach-head in the overthrow of the Old Regime and the establishment of a rational new international system.  Conceived in particularist terms, however, the nation is a mere aggregate of private ambition and interests, played out in a territorial theater that must be defended, or even expanded, at other nations’ expense.  This was the mindset of manifest destiny and of the men who led Europe into World War I.  The assertion of nationality uber alles is willful and therefore indeterminate:  liberalism can elide into ethnic or racialist thinking, in which the nation stands opposed to the state, or it can fracture even more microscopically along group or personal “identity” lines.

In neither instance is the nation a stable end in itself.  As a source of meaning and an object of loyalty unto death, the nation is always a stage on the way to something greater or something more intimate than itself.


According to Furet, World War I, the first fully democratic war, ripped open the contradiction at the heart of democracy.  Whole societies threw all they had at one another.  The original war aims were particularistic – Alsace-Lorraine, overseas colonies – and entire populations went to battle in a spirit of exalted patriotism.  But four years of fruitless slaughter demanded a reinterpretation commensurate with the sacrifice.  Woodrow Wilson waged war for the “liberation of peoples,” by which he meant some impossible mix of democracy and “national sovereignty.”  Lenin blamed the war on bourgeois greed, even as he reclaimed the mantle of democratic egalitarianism and the glory of revolution.  The historic nations of Europe, which had grown organically around a monarchy and were governed by a muddle of principles and classes, were destroyed in the conflict.  They were replaced by abstractions.  Four great empires were butchered on the altar of national sovereignty.  The smaller inheritor states, Furet comments, were just as mutually hostile and ethnically incoherent:  but they were blessed by a universalist grace.

Whatever the role of the bourgeoisie, the war was in essence a failure of the nation-state system.  The narrow claims of nationality had loosened the red-rimmed tide that nearly drowned European civilization.  By 1918, appeals to particularism had lost all purchase on the political and intellectual classes.  Two universal principles of legitimacy for governments and nations confronted each other over the wreckage of war:  representative democracy, internationalized through the League of Nations, and revolutionary equality, propagated by the Third International.

Almost at once, a powerful reaction set it.  In the context of specific histories and societies, both democracy and revolution could assume the aspect of alien and destructive forces.  In Germany and Italy, the nation was amputated from history and the state, and made to stand for an abstraction:  the volk, the chosen people, with eternally frustrated claims to greatness.  German-ness and Italian-ness had nothing to do with one’s passport.  It was a mystical extract of blood and memory (that is, fictitious history), articulated by the two avatars, Hitler and Mussolini.  The fulfillment of the nation, like the classless society, lay in the far future.  The method of getting there, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, was to be revolution and dictatorship.  It was never clear that the mass of people shared the pacifism and anti-nationalism of the intellectuals.  Then as now, the people craved identity and meaning.  The new particularist movements sought to oblige with cinematic spectacles and a radical conception of the nation as an instrument of war.

The future between the wars was crowded with anti-democratic stakeholders.  The question, for a person of good faith, was whether history belonged to the particular or the universal, embodied in “totalitarian” regimes of the right and the left.  Only armed conflict could settle the matter.  If, as Furet remarks, World War I seemed inexplicable in terms of what preceded it, World War II was inevitable.  Hitler’s program demanded a conflagration, just as it demanded a holocaust of “non-Aryan” peoples under his control.  National Socialism had placed a transcendental burden on the particular.  That burden could be eased only through the conquest and extermination of lesser races.  The Nazis, it should be clear, stood far removed from the simple nationalism of 1914.

The catastrophic defeat and dissolution of these regimes in the cauldron of World War II negated their chief claim to legitimacy:  that of national strength.  With the ignoble deaths of the avatars, the “leadership principle,” last word in particularism, stood refuted.  German chancellors of the postwar period would seek to expiate rather than dominate.  Italian prime ministers would head national governments almost denuded of effective power.  Yet even defeat was not as damning as the visual evidence, broadcast by the victors, showing Hitlerism to have been a death cult that sacrificed millions to the ravenous gods of ideology.  Totalizing the particular had always meant, in principle, the end of any space for social or ethnic difference:  but films of the extermination camps exposed, irrefutably, the moral horror of that principle in action.

The appeal of revolutionary particularism to public opinion and intellectual tastes was in this way extinguished, if not forever (there’s no forever in history) then certainly to the present hour.  Today fascism and Hitler live on strictly as empty labels and boogeymen – the worst kind of political insults.

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