How to Organize the Democracies

All men are created equal. -- Declaration of Independence.

A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles ... (is) absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty, and keep a government free. -- Pennsylvania's Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1776.

How shall world government be organized among the few democracies with which it must begin? Basically there are only two ways of organizing inter-state government -- the league way and the union way -- and we must choose between them.

Every science has its units, though political science seems to neglect them. One rarely finds political organization analyzed according to its unit or hears the term, unit, used in constitutional discussions. Yet government, whether state or inter-state, has to be government of some unit, by some unit, for some unit. Since in all human organization, whether political, economic, or other, men must be taken either singly or plurally, that is, as individuals or as subordinate parts or cells of an organized body, there would seem to be, in the constitutional field that concerns us, only two basic units, Man and the State.

In organizing themselves as a body politic, men raise the problem: What shall be the relation between each of them and the whole of them, between the individual and the collective or "plural man" of which he forms a part and helps create? This question has the importance for political organization that a continental divide has on the course a raindrop will take on reaching earth. However imperceptible it may be, the point where a continent divides into two opposing slopes suffices, though two raindrops fall only an inch apart on either side, to send each inevitably to oceans worlds apart. So it is with our political problem. Just as the divide has only two basic slopes, and these are hidden amid those running every direction in the labyrinth of mountains around it, there are basically only two answers to this question of the relations between man and the state.

Either one must consider man as a cell in the body politic, a means to an end, the state supreme and the individual subordinate to it. Or one must consider man as himself the entity and the state as his tool, a means to his ends, the individual as supreme and the state as subordinate. Compromises between the two extremes are, of course, possible, but in the last analysis men in organizing government must either allow themselves to be taken plurally as parts of something greater and organized with the organization as unit and end or they must take themselves singly and organize on the basis that they themselves constitute the equal units and the equal ends of their organization.

The solution that relegates the individual to the role of cell is a mystic one. Its indivisible unit, the body politic, is, as Hobbes admitted, an imaginary body. Unlike individuals it has no flesh, no blood, and can neither live nor die in the common sense of the words. Men can pretend to endow the state with their own attributes, they can work themselves into believing their own make-believe. They can not change themselves from an organic whole into an organic cell, least of all into the cell of so abstract a body as the body politic. The individual remains indivisible, individual, and the body politic is always dividual.

The solution that would create the state in the image of man out of men tends to carry its false and mystic analogy to the point of reducing men as far as possible to cells with specialized hereditary functions. It leads to governing power over all the people being given to a special class or person as absolutely as power over the body is given to the head. It reaches its ultimate expression when some one man, whether Louis XIV or Adolph Hitler, declares, "I am the State." This is the absolutist conception.

The opposite conception has nothing mystic about it. It centers in the tangible fact that individual man is a living, indivisible, independent entity, that he has blood, not ink, in his veins, that he can enjoy life and suffer death, that he has deep within him a longing to be more independent, to be freer from everything that hems him in and holds him down and to live his own life, and that his most vital interest and dearest possession is himself. This conception gives majesty not to the state but to Man. It treats the state as only an instrument made by man for his own benefit as he has made houses, weapons, tools, -- a great instrument, but still an instrument. It sees nothing intrinsically more sacred in a method of government than in a method of transportation. It judges each according to the service it renders the living individual, -- and that depends on the conditions in which he must live for as the automobile is better for men than the horse where there are roads, the horse is better where no roads exist.

Men of this second conception do not refuse, simply because a mechanism is a political one, to scrap it in favor of a better one. Their attitude toward the existing form of the state is at bottom the attitude of men toward the existing form of any instrument for doing what they want, one determined less by gratitude for past service to them than by their present and future needs and desires. They dismiss as contrary to observed fact and common sense the theory that men of one family or class are born to rule and others to obey. They delegate, but never alienate, their governing power, they carefully safeguard their right to re-delegate it; they employ men to serve them in politics as in anything else. This conception of politics, in short, begins with the plainest facts proceeds by reason, sticks to the ground it keeps its emotion and its awe for Man. It is the democratic conception.

The question, which shall be the unit, man or the state, is then a basic question in political organization. That becomes clearer when we pass from the general to the particular field that concerns us, inter-state government among democracies.

In a union by our definition each man counts for one; it follows that in a union the states with more men count for more than the less populous ones: Union is based on the principle of equality for men rather than for states. In a league each state counts for one; therefore the citizen of the least populated state counts for more than the citizen of the most populated one: There is equality for states but not for men. A union organizes inter-state government of, by and for the people of each state as individual men and women; a league organizes government of, by and for the states as states, as individual bodies politic made up of men and women as cells.

When we take the state as unit we are led into taking the state as sacrosanct. When we organize a government of states we are bound to have its laws bear on them as units, for if they bear directly on the citizen regardless of his state government the state is not the unit and the citizen is. Our government must therefore govern state governments, not individual men. Our choice of the state as unit obliges us also to provide that our inter-state government shall be by these state governments, for if we provide inter-state government directly by the people in the states then the states can not be equals, for the more populous will have more representatives than the less populous. In order to have this government of and by states, we are bound to provide government for the sake of these states, to preserve their integrity, equality, independence, sovereignty. That is precisely what we were led to do in the League of Nations by our choice of unit, and we have not been making the world safer for democracy.

Our choice of unit has led us instead into trying to make it safer for national sovereignty first of all, and we have succeeded only in making it safer for absolutism. Instead of making government for men we have organized men for the sake of government. And so each of the democracies has been driven into strengthening the state against its citizens in order to strengthen it against other states, into centralizing more and more power in each national government. By confusion and frustration we have been led to the rampant nationalism we are suffering and to the dogma of the divine right of the nation which Hitler preaches.

Much of our confusion now roots in our two-faced use of nation to mean both people and state, and in the tendency to use the former to mean race, too. The way democracy has developed has contributed heavily to this ambiguity. Democracy grew first in one existing state and then in another. By replacing royal sovereignty in an existing state with popular or national sovereignty it seemed to make nation and state one. According to democratic theory the nation (in the sense of a people) made the nation (in the sense of a state) to preserve the freedom of the nation (in the sense of a people). The nation seemed thus both means and end, though in reality the nation-state or nation-unit was the means and the nation-people, the individuals in it, was the end.

In his far-sighted essay, Nationality, that great liberator of the mind, Lord Acton, pointed out in 1862 that the theory of nationalism had already come to cover two opposing ideas which he called the theory of unity and the theory of liberty. The latter is our democratic or individualist conception of the nation, the former the Fascist or Nazi or absolutist conception of it. To distinguish between the great good and the great evil that the nation can do us and our individual liberty, and to keep the good while avoiding the evil, we can not do better than re-read what Acton wrote prophetically of nationalism. Here is his conclusion, taken from his illuminating History of Freedom:1

Nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State. Its course will be marked with material as well as moral ruin, in order that a new invention may prevail over the works of God and the interests of mankind. There is no principle of change, no phase of political speculation conceivable, more comprehensive, more subversive, or more arbitrary than this. It is a confutation of democracy, because it sets limits to the exercise of the popular will, and substitutes for it a higher principle. It prevents not only the division, but the extension of the State, and forbids to terminate war by conquest, and to obtain a security for peace. Thus, after surrendering the individual to the collective will, the revolutionary system makes the collective will subject to conditions that are independent of it, and rejects all law, only to be controlled by an accident.

Mussolini and Hitler, by carrying the theory of nationalism to its logical absurdities, have made clearer now how right Acton was and is.

It was not this that Mazzini and Cavour saw in nationalism; they preached national unity in the interest of individual freedom, the rights of nations as a means to the Rights of Man. So, too, did the French, British, and Americans from whom they drew their theory. But, as we have seen so strikingly in Czechoslovakia, -- where the democratic theory of the rights of nations has been used to strengthen the declared foe of democracy -- the liberal fathers of nationalism were unwittingly fathering, too, the absolutism of Hitler and Mussolini. Thinking of domestic affairs, they used nation to mean ten million heads working freely together to make each one freer, and then, thinking of external affairs, they used nation in the next breath as if these individuals had melted or should melt into one composite head ten million times greater, -- and as usual the conception in the greater or supreme field grew supreme. With this tendency to personify, there slipped in the inevitable tendency to glorify, and then deify, this giant champion of individual freedom and complete the myth. Mysticism, too, abhors a vacuum.

Considering how far the most advanced democracies have gone in this direction it is not surprising that the peoples who had no long background of sturdy, rational individualism to brake the centralizing tendency and who had only recently thrown off divine-right rulers, should fall a prey to the mystical absolute nationalism of the Mussolinis and Hitlers.

But the great danger now to our freedom and theirs does not lie in their mistakes, it lies in the confusion among the older democracies. It is only our own nationalism, not theirs, that can prevent our union. Indeed, the nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini is doing much to drive the democracies back to their senses, and to force them to apply to each other their own democratic principles.

It is for us of the older democracies, first of all, to remember that nation and state are bloodless words, and that the millions of us men and women they represent are living individuals -- not mystic symbols, legalistic abstractions, composite photographs. We know our millions form together a unit only in desiring the freedom to have our own individual opinions about everything, be our different selves and live our own lives. We know we made the nation only as a step toward making the world safe for the enjoyment of these individual liberties and individual differences. We know now that the next step we need to make toward this end is to unite ourselves in a world democracy. It is for us who know better to do better, and cease blaming others for our ills.


  1. History of Freedom, p. 288 ff., Macmillan, London.

Contents -- Chapter I -- Chapter VII