January 31, 2017

1934. Will Democracy Survive?

The Struggle Between Fascism and Democracy
Protesters march in New York against fascism, 1934 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy)
This article is part of a series of posts on The New York Times covered the rise of fascism. In this piece, New York Times correspondent Harold Callender asserts that Britain, France, and the United States are the last bastions of democracy and writes about the economic crises each country faces.

From The New York Times, May 6, 1934, pp. 1-2, 17:

An Appraisal of the Course Adopted by the Three Great Democratic Nations to Cope With the Crisis and a Contrast Between Their Way and the Method That Fascism Has Employed


All three of the great nations which still adhere to representative government have lately undergone severe crises: first Great Britain, then the United States, and now France. Though differing somewhat in origin and character, these social shocks have all subjected long-established systems of government to new strains and sharp criticism.

Like tidal waves set up by a sub-oceanic earthquake, the repercussions of the world-wide upheaval—now economic, now financial, now political—have struck one nation after another, and each of the nations has responded after its own fashion and in accordance with its peculiar habits and traditions. The resourceful British political system produced a new government within a few hours and a new Parliament within a few weeks. The more rigid American system, under which governments and Legislatures are created only at fixed intervals, reacted less promptly but in the end more vigorously. The French Republic, only too prolific of ephemeral Cabinets but chary of parliamentary or constitutional changes, was even more difficult to set in motion.

While government in Great Britain is on the whole far more supple than in America, economic activities and methods change more slowly. In France both the political practice and the dominant social philosophy derive from individualistic nineteenth-century traditions which are deeply rooted and difficult to modify. Hence it is that the official leaders of the two great European democracies have striven to meet the economic crisis mostly by cautiously orthodox devices, while in America—where an old and hitherto unyielding political system has lately been animated by new doctrines and bold leadership—the government has undertaken social experiments which have aroused in Europe both enthusiastic admiration and grave misgivings.

•  •  •

Yet in all three countries, widely as their interests and policies may differ, the social and political crisis has set before parliamentary government much the same challenging question: Whether a national authority dependent upon popular suffrage and restricted by a liberal Constitution can adequately plan and organize a community's economic life—whether it is possible under free institutions to develop a type of State which seems to be required to meet the demands of a newly or vastly changed world economy?

Not long ago an elderly resident of Metz, looking out at the new French fortifications which seemed to him to mark a sharp boundary between two irreconcilable types of civilization, remarked: "There are only three great free nations left—France, Britain and America." In the concrete emplacement scattered along the hills before Metz he saw a symbol of the struggle between fascism and democracy, which, whether or not that struggle eventually involves forts and guns, seems to be the outstanding social conflict of the time.

For fascism, contemptuously rejecting the liberal capitalism of the nineteenth century and the culture which accompanied it, though glorifying and intensifying nineteenth-century nationalism, promises to solve the economic enigma—indeed, all our social problems—in return for the sacrifice of political freedom. The democratic alternatives to pre-war capitalism are not yet sufficiently clear, or the success of parliamentary government sufficiently brilliant, to prevent fascism from exerting a potent influence upon the restless masses and the impatient youth of many countries.

•  •  •

In France it has often been said in recent weeks that the political disturbances in Paris, and to a lesser extent in the provinces, were a part of a "Fascist offensive against democratic civilization." In Britain the leading members of the government—Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Sir John Simon—lately joined in a warning of the danger of dictatorship, while numerous distinguished Englishmen have extolled the Briton's heritage of freedom (which until recently seemed to require no special emphasis) and contrasted it with the Continental dictatorships which Sir Norman Angell described as being based upon the "psychology of the lynching party."

There seems little imminent danger of fascism either in France or in Britain, but economic suffering has led to something like despondency in some places, and widespread discontent with democracy as practiced has perhaps reduced the normal resistance even in these experienced parliamentary nations to the lure of "authoritarian" doctrines.

•  •  •

If democratic civilization is endangered either by attacks from without or by incompetence or rigidity within, it is, above all, to Britain, the United States and France that one must look for its rescue. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland are highly developed democracies (and it is perhaps in small countries that democracy works best), while Spain may eventually become one. The British dominions (the largest has a population of about 11,000,000) are among the most democratic of countries. But it is not by these small countries, admirable as their political systems may be, that the revival or decline of democracy will be decided; it is by the great world powers—there are only three of them—which have developed and maintained democratic, or at least representative, forms of government.

In all of these great nations, the principal custodians of democracy, the traditional political methods have been subjected in the last few years to perhaps their most severe test. While organizing for war may be difficult for free governments, the tasks it imposes are not entirely novel. But the conduct of a war seems a simple affair compared with the problem faced by political systems which were built up in an era of free and unregulated economic activity and are now called upon to adapt themselves to a time when industry, finance and international trade seem destined to become the chief business of the State.

So different are the special difficulties of Britain, France and America, so divergent and often antagonistic are their interests, that their common task of making parliamentary government work in a changed world is usually overlooked. To an Englishman the record of recent French Parliaments seems to offer little justification for pride in democracy, while the Rooseveltian regime scarcely appears to be one of parliamentary government.

•  •  •

Distinguished Englishmen, like Mr. Baldwin, have spoken as though democracy were suspended in the United States. Frenchmen disgusted with their Chamber of Deputies have referred to President Roosevelt (whom they sometimes compared to Mussolini and Hitler) as an admirable example of dictatorship. This, incidentally, seems to be the prevailing view of him in Germany. Many Europeans, in both Fascist and democratic countries, speak as though they thought Congress had been abolished or bullied into silence, free speech suppressed and the opposition intimidated by armed force and wholesale imprisonment.

They do not regard the Roosevelt administration, as probably most Americans do, as a striking example of the ability of democracy to combine concentration of power—for specific tasks and for limited periods—with parliamentary control. They forgot that it is by virtue not of intimidation but of public confidence that Mr. Roosevelt exerts his power.

This misconception, which is surprisingly general in Europe, and even in England, is perhaps attributable to the persistent habit of considering Europe, including Britain, as possessing a common heritage of civilization and culture and fundamentally different from and immeasurably superior to that of America. Many European writers, particularly since the war, have discussed the peril for Europe of "Americanization," which meant the invasion of an alien and mechanized culture.

They seemed to perceive some profound spiritual affinity between, say Copenhagen and Belgrade, or between Oxford and Warsaw, which could not conceivably exist between New England and old England. The reason for this impassable gulf between European and American civilization was, they explained, that Henry Ford could produce several thousand motorcars, all alike, in a day and American life had become standardized.

This thesis has not received so much attention since a large part of Europe has been subjected to the most extreme form of a social, cultural and political standardization imaginable. If the Nazis, who frankly aspire to make all the Germans think, feel and act with mechanical uniformity, are representative of the priceless heritage of European culture, there are many intelligent Europeans who would welcome "Americanization." In two of the major Continental nations of diversity and originality, which heretofore have been considered the essence of European culture, have been forcibly suppressed in the interest of the State, and the uniformity once condemned as a characteristic American vibe has been imposed by dictators professing exalted national missions.

Meanwhile the shocking prolificity of American mass production has substantially diminished and the machine-made civilization across the Atlantic seems neither so opulent nor so menacing as it seemed a few years ago.

Europe is sharply divided between fascism and democracy, with their antithetical conceptions of the individual, of justice and of culture; and though fascism avowedly embodies precisely the social and cultural qualities which seemed to some Europeans to be distinctive of America, it is with democratic Europe that America—culturally and even politically—has most in common.

Government by castor oil, concentration camps and a State-controlled press are as foreign to American as to French and British traditions. Some democratic institutions in America are, indeed, rather older than those of these great European countries; for the present French Republic is fifty-nine years old, and Britain has had manhood suffrage for half a century, while in America the Republic is 145 years old and manhood suffrage a century old. Now France, Britain and the United States are all struggling, in different ways, to adapt somewhat old-fashioned parliamentary institutions to modern needs.

The necessity for doing so became evident, not from anything Hitler or Mussolini did or said, but from the stress of economic crises in Britain and America and a curious political crisis in France of which economic causes were probably not the only ones, or perhaps even the major ones.

Britain's troubles, in the acute form resulting from the world slump, reached a climax in Autumn of 1931, when foreign distrust caused a drain upon the gold supply of the nation and led to her sudden abandonment of the gold standard and her almost as rapid erection of a protective tariff. The state of confusion into which the country was thrown for a few weeks is well illustrated by the circumstance that the emergency coalition government was formed to "save the pound" and now points with pride to the good results of going off gold.

The Labor government, which had let the budget get into a precarious state, was brought to an end by Mr. MacDonald, its Prime Minister, and a conference of party leaders—an intrigue, the Labor men would say—quickly formed a so-called "national" government. Since it was deemed advisable to get a new mandate from the voters, a national election was held. Every effort was made to arouse the apprehension of the people and to persuade them that only this combination of Ministers could save the country from bankruptcy. The public was persuaded and elected an overwhelmingly Conservative Parliament, which has supported ever since government which grew less and less "national" (since leading Liberals dropped out) and more and more Conservative.

•  •  •

The 1931 election was not a perfect example of democratic deliberation, but circumstances were exceptional. The new government did at least balance the budget and by virtue of a devalued currency and a tariff which helped home producers, prepared the country for a moderate improvement in trade which cheap money greatly aided. But it did not strive to cure unemployment by public works or shorter hours, as in America. Still Britain has weathered the storm, though many unemployed are not overfed and the Ottawa agreements have not greatly improved inter-imperial trade. The British political system has been placed in no real danger by the economic crisis, but the British economic system, which must resign itself to shrunken foreign markets, is undergoing vast changes.

The United States could not, like Great Britain, change its government or its Congress in order to deal with a crisis, though it happened that a national election came just when the crisis, steadily developing through 1931 and 1932, was at its worst. But what it could do was to grant to its new President extraordinary powers to meet the emergency, and the lack of suppleness of the Constitution (which necessitated a delay of four months before the newly chosen President could take office) was to some extent compensated by the speed and courage with which he acted when he did assume control.

•  •  •

Both Britain and America waited for events to drive them into action, the British changing governments much more quickly, the American President acting far more boldly and experimentally when, after the constitutionally imposed period of inaction, he had his opportunity. The policies he adopted shocked the staid and conservative British Government and bitterly offended the French, who had had their monetary second start seven years earlier. But they demonstrated that American democracy, if forced to do so, could achieve a concentration of authority and could resolutely attack the complex economic problems of the day.

France's crisis resembled Britain's superficially in that a Left government in France, like a Labor government in Britain, got into a financial mess and had to give way to a coalition or "national" cabinet whose first duty was to balance the budget. But otherwise France's crisis was very different from either America's or Britain's. France, of course, had economic troubles like the rest of the world, but they were much less severe than those in Britain and America. Her unemployment was small, as unemployment is measured nowadays. There was no serious attack on her currency, which had already been revalued. Her government would hardly have dared abandon gold. Her banks were mostly sound—save a municipal institution in Bayonne, where Stavisky's reckless defiance of the law caused a scandal which helped to bring the downfall of a government.

•  •  •

The French crisis was economic in the sense that investors were frightened and taxpayers incensed, but it came when it did because variegated groups which disliked the Radical government or the republic itself astutely chose the Stavisky scandal as an occasion to march against the Chamber of Deputies. The deeper causes lay in the slipshod government of recent years, the favoritism and financial looseness of the Chamber, the powerlessness of Cabinets and—perhaps one of the principal sources of discontent—the feeling that Germany was becoming more powerful and having her way about armaments while the French government was pushed from one concession to another. Many felt, too, that the republic, based upon extreme individualism, needed rebuilding to insure greater Cabinet authority and greater administrative efficiency. The French crisis revealed the weakness of French democracy and set a test for its recuperative powers.

•  •  •

Whether it is primarily a question of financial and industrial reconstruction, as in Britain and America, or of administrative reform and national defense, as in France, parliamentary government in all three of the great democracies faces the gigantic task of adapting old and in some ways antiquated political methods of rapidly changing economic circumstances. It must insure quicker action, more skillful administration, broader schemes of economic direction.

•  •  •

When one reviews the performances of democracy in Britain, France and America—cumbersome as they have been at times—and observes the record of dictatorial regimes in other countries, it seems clear that it would be at least slightly premature to conclude that fascism, with all its advantage it may derive from colored shirts and censorship and arbitrary banishment, has yet proved itself a superior form of government.