Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Democracy and confusion

The term democracy means rule of the people, but such a concept has created real
problems for those who believe that political theory should be value-free in
character. It is revealing that Dahl in the 1960s preferred to speak of ‘polyarchies’
rather than democracies, in the hope that the substitute term could appear more
‘scientific’ in character. For whether democracy in the past has been a good thing
or a bad thing, it is difficult to say what democracy is without ‘taking sides’ in some
ongoing debate.
As democracy has become more and more widely praised, it has become more
and more difficult to pin it down. John Dunn has noted that ‘all states today profess
to be democracies because a democracy is what it is virtuous for a state to be’
(1979: 11). A term can only be confusing if it is taken to mean contradictory things:
majority rule or individual rights; limited government or popular sovereignty; private
property as against social ownership. Consider the following: participation versus
representation; the collective versus the individual; socialism versus capitalism. All
have been defended as being essential to democracy!
It has been argued that the term should be abandoned, and Crick has taken the
view that politics needs to be defended against democracy not because he is opposed
(at least not under all circumstances) to the idea, but because he is in favour of clarity
and precision against vagueness and ambiguity. Democracy, he comments, is perhaps
‘the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs’ (1982: 56). George Bernard
Shaw once devoted an entire play to the problem. His play, The Apple Cart, tackled
the ambiguities of democracy with such flair that the play was banned by a nervous
Weimar Republic in the 1920s; in a witty preface, Shaw complains that democracy
seems to be everywhere and nowhere. It is a long word that we are expected to accept
reverently without asking any questions. It seems quite impossible, Shaw protests,
for politicians to make speeches about democracy or for journalists to report them,
without obscuring the concept ‘in a cloud of humbug’ (Hoffman, 1988: 132).
What makes democracy so confusing is that it is a concept subject to almost
universal acclaim: but this was not always the position. In the seventeenth century
nobody who was anybody would have called themselves a democrat. As far as
landowners, merchants, lawyers and clergymen were concerned – people of
‘substance’ – democracy was a term of abuse: a bad thing. Even in the nineteenth
century, social liberals like J.S. Mill felt it necessary to defend liberty against
democracy. It is only after the First World War that democracy becomes a respect-
able term. It is true that Hitler condemned democracy as the political counterpart
to economic communism, but Mussolini, the Italian fascist, could declare in a speech
in Berlin in 1936 that ‘the greatest and most genuine democracies in the world
today, are the German and the Italian’ (Hoffman, 1988: 133).
The left have generally approved of democracy, but it is possible to find the
Russian revolutionary, Trotsky, for example, declaring democracy to be irretrievably
bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. A Communist Party secretary declared in
Hamburg in 1926 that he would rather burn in ‘the fire of revolution than perish
in the dung-heap of democracy’ (Hoffman, 1988: 133). By the twentieth century
attacks on the idea of democracy had become the exception rather than the rule,
and with this growing acclaim, the concept has become increasingly confusing.

Chapter 5 Democracy 101
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