Professor Bernard Crick offers an understated but brilliant overview of democracy and despotism in action.
In this classic text, the late Bernard Crick – a professor at the London School of Economics and other noted institutions – offers a galvanizing, thought-provoking overview of politics as the sole functioning antidote to totalitarianism. He happily endorses the messy complexity of politics and argues for that mess over the misleading faux simplicity of dictatorships. An admirer and biographer of 1984 author George Orwell, Crick writes with Orwellian simplicity and directness.
A Bad Rap
Politics has become a dirty word, aided by politicians who exploit people’s discontent with the self-serving use of concepts such as “liberty,” “democracy” and “free government.” Many regard politics as “the art of governing mankind by deceiving them”; in truth, Crick argues, politics enables freedom. Politics exists only in the most highly functioning societies, and it stands as a hallmark of liberty.
Politics, as Aristotle defined it, goes beyond tribal or religious interests to represent a pluralistic society in which competing priorities demand that rival groups give up some of what they want for the benefit of all. Crick cites Aristotle’s belief that society could do without the chaotic arguments of politics only if a “perfectly good man” made decisions on behalf of that society. Aristotle did not believe that such a creature existed.
The Opposite of Ideology
Crick asserts that states ruled by tyrants and dictators are, by definition, not political societies. In totalitarian regimes, despots erase all traces of political freedom and seek to remake society in line with an ideology. In political societies, conciliation holds democracy together. In totalitarian regimes, violence is the driving force. Both the Nazis and Stalinist Soviets, for example, argued that their victims deserved no mercy or dignity because they were enemies of the prevailing ideology.
Totalitarian governments strip the individual of the right to disagree with the regime. The autocrat might embrace politics for a time, but the ultimate goal is to banish any compromise or conciliation. Thus, Crick reveals, totalitarianism focuses on coercion. Totalitarians derive their power by addressing a need, whether real or perceived. In most cases, autocrats promise to protect their subjects from poverty or war, in exchange for which people sacrifice their freedom. The willing sacrifice of freedom is not the same as the expression of free will.
Some Americans regard their system as too beholden to popular opinion and therefore ineffective; others argue it falls short of true democracy. Political will is hemmed in by the checks and balances of the Constitution, the Congress and the Supreme Court. Crick asserts that democracy’s purpose is to provide input and consent; government then translates popular opinion into action and policy. Politicians weigh costs and benefits to arrive at a palatable compromise.
Forms of Nationalism
Nationalism pretends that anyone who fits an easily defined criterion, such as language, faith or geographic proximity, can belong to a nation. “Democratic nationalism” can be harsh on minority groups. “Alien oppression and exploitation” nationalism was common in African states in the post-colonial era. These countries cast out the foreigners who had oppressed them, and their nationalists equated any domestic enemies with the old imperialist foes.
“Racialism” enables states to invade other countries or deny voting rights and full citizenship to certain members of society. Black Americans and German Jews were victims of their nations’ racialism.
“Nationalism of long-established states” is the most benign form of nationalism. The United Kingdom grew from the union of England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland, rather than from a revolution. In the United States, unity emerged from political necessity. The Canadian nation formed out of military and economic necessity, and in spite of linguistic and religious distinctions.
Crick asserts that, in politics, victors must create lasting peace rather than insist that vanquished foes accept their loss. After World War I, the Allies imposed punitive sanctions on Germany, which set the stage for the next world war. By contrast, after the Union’s victory in the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln asserted that the North should honor the South’s constitutional rights.
Lincoln was a great politician, Crick states, but not because he was perfect. He irritated important figures in Washington, DC, with his refusal to speak seriously about grave issues during private meetings, and he wasn’t an especially adept administrator or bureaucrat.
Lincoln did, however, set aside personal biases for the greater good. For example, though Lincoln vehemently opposed slavery, he told the abolitionist Horace Greeley, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Crick regards this statement as illustrating Lincoln’s lack of pride – a trait that all politicians should embrace. A politician must, Crick writes, accept insults in stride. Politicians should not keep catalogs of past affronts or reveal pettiness by indulging in mockery.
Crick’s elegant understatement and his ability to articulate the complex in simple terms combine to produce a wonderfully informative book-length essay that has a voice like none other. High school and college students will benefit from Crick’s informed common sense, as will all members of the electorate, regardless of nation or ideology. Crick’s bone-deep revulsion at any form of despotism and his passionate love for democracy in all its untidiness will inspire you and, in all likelihood, lead you to his other works.
Bernard Crick also wrote George Orwell: A Life; Essays on Politics and Literature; and Democracy: A Very Short Introduction.