Notes on Conservatism, Liberalism and Some Other Political Orientations

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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It is to be counted as a blessing that two of our most fundamental political terms, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, wear their meanings on their sleeves, if only because, as George Orwell has observed, confusion in language is typically accompanied by a corresponding disarray in thought. (1)  We must deem it somewhat of a scandal, then, that in spite of our good fortune in possessing a relatively transparent political terminology, our understanding of these two basic political orientations is hopelessly muddled.

It need hardly be pointed out that at the heart of conservatism is the desire to conserve, but the question immediately arises as to the object of that desired conservation.  What, exactly, does the conservative wish to safeguard?  If the Republican party is the current manifestation of American conservatism, as is commonly believed, then one might think that what conservatives wish to preserve is the right to unlimited private property and wealth, unregulated commerce, and the lowest possible prices for goods and services.  Stripped of its economic focus, what this comes down to is the right to do what one likes, unobstructed by either regulation or law.  If we fix our attention on the other great wing of the Republican party, however, we might conclude that conservatism stands for the absolute preservation of the values of the past; that it entails social and cultural rigidity.  On this view, the aim of politics is to render history immobile, as if to suspend it in amber; to “…stand athwart history shouting Stop…,” as William F. Buckley, Jr. so memorably put it, on the occasion of the launching of his magazine, National Review, in 1952.

The mutual inconsistency of these versions of Republicanism is obvious, and it is a testament to the effectiveness of the national Republican political machine and its agents in the talking classes, that they have managed to convince the local partisans of each stripe that they share a common conservatism.  This carefully crafted aura of sympathy is an illusion.  The laissez-faire attitudes of the first wing are hardly conducive to the preservation of the beliefs and practices of the past sought by the second, because the profit-motive, when raised to the level of a fundamental value, is nothing more than hedonism, which assigns no value to permanence, but only to the satisfaction of one’s desires, which, more often than not, are fickle.  Conversely, the social and moral conservation sought by the second wing may require the imposition of traditional values on the unwilling, which tramples upon the individualist prerogatives cherished by the first.  My aim in contrasting these two species of Republicanism, however, is not to uncover their mutual inconsistency, but to point out that neither is conservative.

The laissez-faire attitudes characteristic of the first wing, far from being conservative, are in fact liberal.  More precisely, they represent a deformation of liberalism, sometimes referred to as ‘libertarianism’; a deformation, because it selects just one of the many facets that make up the liberal conception of happiness and raises it to the level of a fundamental, exclusive value.  Where a true liberal like John Stuart Mill believes that the pleasures that comprise happiness are many in number and complex in character, the libertarian holds a simplified, reductive conception of value which, when stripped of the kind of ennobling pretensions bestowed upon it by apologists like Ayn Rand, is unappealingly egoistic. (2) The liberal believes that the aim of politics is to protect the individual’s capacity to pursue happiness, where ‘happiness’ is understood in such a way that it has both breadth and depth, but the libertarian stands on the much thinner idea that the purpose of politics is to facilitate his own quest for gratification.

If the libertarian cares too little about the past, the reactionary cares about it too much and in the wrong way.  While the conservative certainly looks to history and tradition as important authorities, he does not do so to the exclusion of rational criticism.  The conservative is guided by his history and traditions, not ruled by them, and he believes that change is necessary in order to keep civilization not only alive but healthy.  Peter Vierick observed that “the conservative conserves discriminately, the reactionary indiscriminately,” but I would take the point a step further: in the reactionary’s universe, there is nothing to conserve, for histories and traditions are organic, living things and must perish, when cut off from the stream of life. (3)

Contempt for novelty is not inherent to the conservative sensibility.  In fact, some of the most distinguished conservative thinkers of the last hundred years have been modernists, the most prominent example of which, of course, is T.S. Eliot, who in addition to having been one of the twentieth century’s finest conservative political writers, as evinced in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was also its greatest modernist poet and literary critic.  In defining ‘culture’, Eliot wrote that it must have “organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure,” which suggests that devotion to the past and to tradition is only healthy when part of an active engagement with the present and future and never when alienated from them.  (4) As Roger Scruton put it, “to belong to a tradition is also to make that tradition; to be part of history is to have created history,” and I would argue that this kind of willingness to be an active participant in modern life is an important mark of the true conservative; one that effectively serves to distinguish him from the reactionary, whose disposition is essentially parochial and fogeyish. (5)

When we treat the beliefs and practices of our ancestors as part of a living inheritance — when they are a part of our present and future, as well as our past — they play an essential role in conservative thought and life, as traditions that are crucial to the development of wisdom.  This is G.K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” which is based upon our refusal, as Chesterton put it, “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”  “Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom,” he wrote, but “tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father,” and it is in this capacity as some of our greatest teachers that our history and traditions are rightly venerated.  (6) But when we enshrine the past, as the reactionary does, it is left dead, like a tree in a petrified forest, and is thereby rendered useless to contemporary thought and life.  In the hands of the reactionary, history is turned from a living thing into a statue, the most terrible consequence of which is that our primary source of wisdom is lost.  To experience one’s life as vitally connected to the lives of one’s predecessors is a necessary condition of wisdom, but ancestor-worship is nothing more than an exercise in blind obedience and an act of idolatry, rather than of piety.

Speaking of the reactionism of what was then a new political Right, Viereck observed that “[t]he main defect of the new conservatism…is its rootless nostalgia for roots…”  It is a philosophy of yearning, “…based on roots either never existent or no longer existent,” and in this sense, political reactionism is very much a sibling to religious fundamentalism, which looks back to an original ur-faith that is ahistorical and therefore, lifeless, but which is nonetheless supposed to be total in its authority.  (7) And though this sort of nostalgia may have, as Viereck indicates, a “high literary value,” expressing itself, as it tends to do, in the form of fiery polemics and heartfelt regrets, it engenders an ugly authoritarianism in politics, for while traditions and customs govern over those who inherit them in a way that is largely habitual and unconscious, the beliefs and practices of a disconnected, enshrined past can only govern when explicitly embraced or forcibly imposed.

One of the reasons that we are confused about conservatism is that we tend to think of it as a mirror-image of liberalism.  Since liberalism has a creed — one  that  can be formulated with some precision — it is tempting to think that conservatism must have a creed too, if only so that it may serve as a counterpart to liberalism.  To think this, however, is a mistake, for while liberalism and conservatism are similar, in the sense that they are both political orientations, they are fundamentally dissimilar, in at least one respect: there is such a thing as a liberal doctrine, but no such thing as a conservative one.  To possess a doctrine means to be loyal to and to advocate principles, which mean the same thing to every adherent.  A truly conservative politics, however, is always bound to the particular context of the adherent and thus, must resist formulation in terms of general principles or doctrines.

The real counterparts to conservatism are progressivism and reactionism, for unlike liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, and reactionism are political modes rather than ideologies.  After all, what counts as progress or intransigence is always going to be particular to one’s circumstances and never will transcend them.  Indeed, one can arrange these political modes along a spectrum, in which the central point of contention is the merit of establishment versus that of newness.  The reactionary believes that all established things are good and that anything new is bad.  The progressive, conversely, is of the opinion that everything new is good and anything that is established is bad.  The conservative, who stands between these two poles, thinks that while the fact of establishment provides a presumption in favor of a particular belief or practice, it is not conclusive evidence that a belief or practice should be retained.  The conservative thinks that the burden of proof lies with the advocate of change, but he also recognizes that there will be times when that burden is successfully met.  If one constructs a parallel spectrum describing substantive political ideologies rather than modes, it will consist of liberalism on one side and collectivism on the other, the relevant point of contention being the extent to which the individual or the social group is taken to be axiologically and politically fundamental, with all that follows from this, with respect to the merits or demerits of limited government and statism.

An indication that conservatism and liberalism occupy different political spectra is that the political ideology that the conservative seeks to safeguard may be, in fact, liberal.  Examples of this kind of conservative liberalism can be found in the political philosophies of, among others, David Hume, Edmund Burke, the already-mentioned Peter Viereck, and Michael Oakeshott.  The widespread sympathy for a number of liberal values that one finds amongst conservatives today, especially those values having to do with the sovereignty of the individual, vis à vis the state, began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century, which saw the start of what would be an increasing domination of the political Left by collectivist ideas. (8)

Another indication that conservatism is a political mode, while liberalism is a political ideology, is that liberalism means the same thing, wherever and whenever one finds oneself, but what it means to be conservative changes entirely, when one turns one’s attention from one place to another or from one point in history to another.  The liberal, Chinese university student shares with the average liberal Englishman a common value system concerning the individual and his happiness, as well as a commitment to a common set of principles, doctrines, and institutional arrangements, all of which, when taken together, constitute political liberalism.  What’s more, neither the Englishman nor the Chinese would find that his liberalism differs substantively from that of his predecessors. Indeed, one of the things that is so remarkable about liberalism, is the extent to which its founding documents, though centuries old, retain their pertinence; how (style aside) works like John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and “A Letter Concerning Toleration” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” read as if they were written not only for a contemporary audience, but for an international one.  But, while it is perfectly coherent to speak of conservatism in China and conservatism in England, one would be hard-pressed to articulate any substantial political doctrines or commitments that these conservatisms hold in common.  To talk about the conservative member of the Chinese government and the conservative English MP is to talk about entirely different sorts of people, and unlike the founding documents of classical liberalism, the political works of Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Benjamin Disraeli — the English-speaking world’s most important modern conservative thinkers — are not easily conveyed, beyond the confines of Western culture and even perhaps, Anglophone culture.

Notes

  1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in George Orwell: Essays, John Carey, ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002 ), p. 954.
  2. Mill, in responding to his critics, says that his is an Epicurean version of hedonism, one that maintains that a plurality of higher pleasures — those associated with the intellect, taste, and the higher sentiments — are constitutive of human happiness. See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 7-8.
  3. Peter Viereck, Conservatism Revisited, Revised Edition (New York: The Free Press, 1962), p. 32.
  4. T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), reprinted in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1976), p. 87.
  5. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (London: Penguin Books, 1980), p.41.
  6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Saint Ignatius Press, 1908), p. 53.
  7. Viereck, Conservatism Revisited, p. 124.
  8. For more on the wholesale adoption by conservatives of many of the ideas of classical liberalism, see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953), 7th Revised Edition (Washington: D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1986), pp. 298-303.

31 Comments »

  1. Excellent essay; I very much like the way that you have broken down and separated these concepts.

    I wonder if distinguishing negative and positive conceptions of liberty complicates the picture along the liberal/communitarian axis. Namely, do disagreements about whether the state should ensure minimum opportunities for its citizens create another split on the liberal/individualist end of the axis?

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    • Daniel: I’m not sure I understand the question. I described libertarianism as a deformation of liberalism, so it will be on the same spectrum as liberalism and collectivism. Presumably communitarians are a variety of collectivist, with the nastier versions of the doctrine being further out on the spectrum.

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  2. Just as you can have a conservative liberalism, which you point out above, a leftwing liberalism is possible, for example, Chomsky’s version of libertarian socialism (or anarchism), in which any collective efforts or actions are freely chosen, not imposed from above. Chomsky himself speaks favorable of Mill and constantly defends individual freedoms, which do not necessarily contradict collective social organization.

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  3. Dan, you discuss some very slippery topics here in a generally clear and sensible way.

    “… in the reactionary’s universe, there is nothing to conserve, for histories and traditions are organic, living things and must perish, when cut off from the stream of life.”

    I take your point.

    But, as I see him, the archetypal reactionary is isolated. He sees himself – rightly, in fact – as being isolated from the broader culture of his time, and responds by saying, “What the heck! *I* still think this, or that.” But there is a paradox here, because he implicitly accepts that what once was shared and common has become an individual commitment. And so in a sense not even political.

    Your concern is not with this kind of reactionary but with reactionary elements within the sphere of political action and political parties. I don’t deny that this form of reaction exists. And I see these elements as having something in common with radical conservatism.

    Unlike the isolated reactionary, the politicized reactionary, like the radical conservative, remains political. He/she recognizes that the valued organic traditions in question are moribund, but attempts to respond politically to this state of affairs.

    For me the main difference between progressives, libertarians and radical conservatives, on the one hand, and conservatives, on the other, is that the former are very optimistic about what political action can achieve. The conservative would typically take the line that they do not take sufficient account of the inevitable unintended consequences of their actions.

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  4. Thank you for an excellent post. It helps me make sense of the political scene.

    I’m inclined to say that I am a naturally conservative person. But I cannot stomach the American brand of conservatism, so I more commonly go by “liberal”. In particular, I’m opposed to laissez faire economics. The lesson from history seems to be that it always fails, usually by creating bubbles that eventually burst. And so-called “social conservatism” makes no sense. The social conservatives consider themselves Christian, yet they seem to be opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

    I guess I’m a fiscal conservative. And the Democrats seem far more fiscally conservative than the Republicans. I’m a patriot. And the Democrats seem far more patriotic than the Republicans. I really dislike the Democratic Party, and prefer to call myself “Independent”. But I see the Republicans as unfit to govern, and I’ve been seeing them as unfit to govern for almost 30 years. We badly need a proportional representation voting system (something like the single transferable vote).

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  5. There is also the popular label now (used even internationally): The “pragmatic progressive”. But I don’t know if self-identified pragmatic progressives would want to be called “conservatives”.

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  6. This was an excellent essay. My only thought was about the views of human nature underlying these. The conservative view tends to the pessimistic/fallen, so the existing imperfect arrangements are unlikely to be improvable, and blaming, a la Just World. The progressivist view tends to the Pelagian.and to perfectibility.

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  7. David,
    The conservative view tends to the pessimistic/fallen,

    History is the detailed record of the imperfect nature of humankind.

    The progressivist view tends to the Pelagian.and to perfectibility.

    Humankind is stubbornly resisting its Pelagian nature.

    so the existing imperfect arrangements are unlikely to be improvable

    Not how I see it. Both conservatives and liberals seek improvement but they seek it in different ways. The quest for improvement is basic to humankind. We have different understandings of how to achieve it and pursue different paths to that goal.

    For a beautiful current example of that see this BBC article:
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-42770178
    (Pope Francis ends Latin America tour with giant Mass)

    1.3 million people attended that Mass. This kind of attendance happens regularly with papal visits. No other leader in the world can command anything like that kind of attendance.

    Whatever you might think about religion, this indicates a deep need, indeed a craving, for a better world and the Pope has become a symbol for this. This need will become evident no matter what a person’s political persuasion. We pursue this goal through community structures, political structures, economic structures and religion. But religion is after all just another kind of community structure.

    Conservatives tend to pursue this goal through networks of community structures(social capital) while liberals tend to do this through economic and political means. But the distinction is not clear cut.

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  8. Dan:

    Thanks for this very lucid and thoughtful essay. The terminology of politics seems to be almost irredeemably messy.

    I take your main point to be the distinction between doctrines and modes. On your view, liberalism, libertarianism and statism (and presumably socialism) are doctrines defined by attitudes to the role of the state. Conservatism, reactionism and progressivism are non-doctrinal, and are defined as ways of thinking about change, with conservatism being flexible and the other two being rigidly negative and positive respectively. Conservatism when treated as a doctrine collapses into libertarianism and reactionism; as a doctrinal category it serves no purpose.

    In support of this position you note that some so-called conservatives also see themselves as liberals. They see themselves as conserving the liberal tradition against reactionaries and progressives.

    So far so good. However, I’m not sure it really works, for two sorts of reason. One is that the term “conservative” seems to be covering too much ground. On your account anyone who is neither a reflexive reactionary nor a knee-jerk progressive will be a conservative. Indeed it seems that any reasonable person becomes a conservative.

    The other is that many of those who would reject the label will be made to count as conservatives. That is because the term is popularly used to designate a doctrine of some sort, and many dislike what they take to be that doctrine. Popular usage is hard to escape. Your preferred usage may be a better one but will it catch on? I doubt that it will, because of the stigma widely associated with being conservative.

    Your contention that the popular idea of conservatism is inherently contradictory is certainly an important one. It hinges on your claim that “The laissez-faire attitudes of the first wing are hardly conducive to the preservation of the beliefs and practices of the past sought by the second, because the profit-motive, when raised to the level of a fundamental value, is nothing more than hedonism, which assigns no value to permanence, but only to the satisfaction of one’s desires, which, more often than not, are fickle.” You pack a lot into that sentence — too much, in my opinion. Still, markets are often disruptive of traditional ways of life.

    Alan

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  9. Dan,

    Thanks for your response. I agree with your argument that libertarianism takes an impoverished view of happiness/flourishing, but I am not sure if that is the only difference with other types of liberalism. The section I am working to parse is this:

    “…it will consist of liberalism on one side and collectivism on the other, the relevant point of contention being the extent to which the individual or the social group is taken to be axiologically and politically fundamental, with all that follows from this, with respect to the merits or demerits of limited government and statism.”

    My question is this: Suppose that we have two people who both believe that the individual is politically fundamental and that health care is a fundamental part of human flourishing. One believes that health care should be guaranteed by the state, while the other believes that health care should be left to private provision and charity. Does that place the advocate for guaranteed health care at the “collectivist” end of the spectrum?

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    • I’m still not sure I’m understanding the issue. Liberals, libertarians, and the various forms of collectivism are all on the same spectrum. Conservatives, reactionaries and progressives are on another. So ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ need not be in tension, whereas ‘liberal’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘collectivist’ do.

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    • Healthcare is basic human right and governments should assure access to healthcare for everyone. There is nothing collectivist about that. Now that would become collectivist (a term which we are using negatively, it seems), if the government obliged everyone to get up at 6AM to jog or to eat a healthy low cholesterol diet or did not allow adults to smoke cigarettes (or marijuana) if they wish.

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  10. Daniel Baker: One believes that health care should be guaranteed by the state, while the other believes that health care should be left to private provision and charity.

    Once have gone to a system of emergency rooms, public ambulances, 911 emergency calling system, etc, you have already left the realm of exclusively private provisioning.

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  11. Dan,

    Let me see if I can communicate this more clearly. I agree that we should separate these two axes as you describe–I think that is a beautiful way to lay it out that I had not considered before.

    Once we are thinking in this way, my question amounts to whether there is a third important axis to add to these two that evaluates views on the role of government. At one end of that spectrum might be the harm principle (understood to require a robust harm) and at the other end of the spectrum might be a robust notion of capabilities or positive rights. At least as I am understanding the two axes you separate, this seems like an additional consideration.

    The goal of the health care example was to point out two individuals that I would categorize as “liberal,” rather than collectivist (as argued by s.wallerstein), but who take importantly different views on the role of government in protecting and providing for those individual values. At least at first reflection, it seems useful to think of the third axis I suggest to separate these individuals.

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    • Daniel Baker: I’m afraid that I see those two people as being on the same axis. The laissez-faire/statism divide splits the same way that the individualism/collectivism does.

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  12. Neil,

    Yes, I certainly agree–very few people have consistently libertarian views on health care. To hold a coherent view of private provision requires biting bullets that are fairly morally offensive to most Americans, myself included.

    That said, it is possible to bite those bullets. For example, consider Milton Friedman’s arguments in Capitalism and Freedom against state licensing and certification of medical doctors. I certainly don’t agree with the reasons he gives for this position or for other reasons for a privatized health care system, but if it were our goal, we could devise a coherent privatized system, it would just have to look very different from the one we have now (and would be horribly unpopular).

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  13. Daniel Baker: I certainly don’t agree with the reasons he gives for this position or for other reasons for a privatized health care system, but if it were our goal, we could devise a coherent privatized system, it would just have to look very different from the one we have now (and would be horribly unpopular).

    It would not be up to us to devise a coherent privatised system. Surely the devising would also have to be privatised.

    What is mostly missing from Dan’s assessment of political positions (and from much political discussion), is pragmatism. If you were to ask my position without listing possibilities, I would probably say that I’m a pragmatic centrist, or perhaps “pragmatic liberal” would also work. We need government involvement in traffic laws for pragmatic reasons. And, I think that applies also to health care.

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  14. Dan:

    The sense of “conservative” that you wish to commend strikes me as similar to the attitude to traditions and practices found in MacIntyre, for example in this passage from “After Virtue”.

    “A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part, and this is true both of those goods which are internal to practices and of the goods of a single life. Once again the narrative phenomenon of embedding is crucial: the history of a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer history of the tradition through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us; the history of each of our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number of traditions. I have to say ‘generally and characteristically’ rather than ‘always’, for traditions decay, disintegrate and disappear. What then sustains and strengthens traditions? What weakens and destroys them?” Etc.

    We are embedded in traditions and practices and we can only be rational agents if we conserve them and work within them, while also sometimes reforming and improving them.

    I think your main aim is to show how this is a qualitatively different kind of thing from any particular sociopolitical doctrine. Is that right?

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  15. Dan – Thanks for the informative and well written essay!

    I am wondering however along the lines of alantapper’s first comment about your characterization of progressives as going for anything new while the traditional conservative takes a nuanced view incorporating innovation with tradition ( if the innovation is warranted). Would it be wrong to say that a progressive would lean more towards innovation asking for warrant with regard to traditions and rituals while the conservative leaned the other way? I don’t know enough about the the origin of progressives to make an argument so I’m asking.

    I have read a good deal of John Dewey and he was a progressive who didn’t disregard tradition. Here is a quote from experience and nature.

    ‘Structure and process, substance and accident, matter and energy, permanence and flux, one and many, continuity and discreteness, order and progress, law and liberty, uniformity and growth, tradition and innovation, rational will and impelling desires, proof and discovery, the actual and the possible, are names given to various phases of their conjunction, and the issue of living depends upon the art with which these things are adjusted to each other.’

    Dewey, John. Experience and Nature (p. 110). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.

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    • seth: Since progressives, conservatives, and reactionaries are on a common scale, I would expect there to be degrees between them. Dewey was somewhere in-between progressivism and conservatism, modally. Ideologically, he was largely liberal.

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  16. Rightly or wrongly, I think of Dewey as a radical democrat. Which for me prompts the question of how democratic values fit into Dan’s schema. My take is that democracy is a mode, not a doctrine. A democratic polity can choose to be communist or socialist or liberal or libertarian or even fascist. Historically, modern democracy has run in tandem with modern liberalism, but the link seems to be contingent rather than conceptual. What do you think, Dan?

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    • A democracy can vote in communism or fascism, but democracy does not last long with either communism or fascism.
      Both are essentially anti-democratic.

      A democracy could be socialist or libertarian. I don’t see why a socialist or a libertarian democracy could not be liberal, perhaps not 100% liberal, but generally liberal. A socialist democracy could guarantee all basic liberal rights, except perhaps certain forms of property rights, perhaps inherited wealth over a certain figure. I don’t have the figures on what percentage of the economy in the Scandinavian countries are state-controlled, but it’s much higher than in the U.S. and I would call them “liberal democracies”.

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  17. s.wallerstein: You may be right, but do you think these are necessary truths (derived from the concepts involved) or contingent facts that might be otherwise? Is it inconceivable that a communist or a fascist regime would be highly popular and get itself regularly re-elected? I ask because I’m interested in whether democracy is a different sort of concept from the standard range of sociopolitical doctrines.

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    • That’s a good question.

      However, do you think that democracy is only elections? What if Hitler held elections every 4 years and was re-elected by huge votes? Putin does it by the way. I’m not saying that Putin is Hitler, but is Russia today a democracy?

      Generally, we associate a democracy with respect for basic human rights, and neither fascism nor communism respects human rights. By communism, I mean a Marxist-Leninist regime, not just a government where the means of production are owned by the state. Marxist-Leninism is anti-democratic, since there is the idea of a vanguard which will “guide” the working class forward and which “knows better” than ordinary working people. I don’t think Marxism in itself is anti-democratic.

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  18. s.wallerstein: Thanks for your comments. I think I agree with much that you say here, except that I was assuming the communism is not confined to the Marxist-Leninist variety. (Marx would agree with me, I’m sure. He detested many forms of communism.) Robert Owen’s New Harmony community, for example, was an attempt at establishing a form of communism, with shared property and a general egalitarianism.

    I certainly agree that democracy is not reducible to regular free-and-fair elections and the right to stand for office. But I would not include a commitment to human rights in the idea of democracy. That seems to idealise the concept too much. Ancient Greek democracy did not involve any idea of human rights. However, I would regard free and open public debate as an essential part of the democratic ideal, as also did the Greeks.

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    • Alantapper1950,

      True, there can be other forms of communism such as that of Robert Owen and they can be democratic.

      Free and open public debate are basic human rights and without them, as you say, democracy is a farce. In Cuba there are elections, but there is only one political party, no independent media and dissent is punished. As to free and open public debate in ancient Greece, if they executed Socrates for speaking his mind, then there was no free and open public debate and hence, not a true democracy. It seems that for democracy to occur, we need to permit almost absolute freedom of speech (no shouting fire in a crowded theater, etc, but otherwise, free speech).

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