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 Democracy and Direct Action  (1919)*

By Bertrand Russell

The battle for political democracy has been won: white men everywhere are to live under the régime of parliamentary government. Russia, which for the present is trying a new form of constitution, will probably be led by internal or external pressure to adopt the system favored by the Western powers.

But even before this contest was decided a new one was seen to be beginning. The form of government in the United States, Britain, and France is a capitalistic or plutocratic democracy: the democracy which exists in the political sphere finds no counterpart in the economic world. The struggle for economic democracy seems likely to dominate politics for many years to come. The Russian government, which cares nothing for the forms of political democracy, stands for a very extreme form of economic democracy. A strong and apparently growing party in Germany has similar aims. Of opinion in France I know nothing, but in this country the workers who desire to obtain control of industries subject to state ownership, though not sufficiently strong numerically to have much influence on the personnel of Parliament, are nevertheless able through organization in key industries to exert a powerful pressure on the government and to cause fear of industrial upheavals to become widespread throughout the middle and upper classes. We have thus the spectacle of opposition between a new democratically-elected Parliament and the sections of the nation which consider themselves the most democratic. In such circumstances many friends of democracy become bewildered and grow perplexed as to the aims they ought to pursue or the party with which they ought to sympathize.

The time was when the idea of parliamentary government inspired enthusiasm, but that time is past. Already before the war legislation had come to be more and more determined by contests between interests outside the legislature, bringing pressure to bear directly upon the government. This tendency has been much accelerated. The view which prevails in the ranks of organized labor—and not only there—is that Parliament exists merely to give effect to the decision of the government, while those decisions themselves, so far from representing any settled policy, embody nothing but the momentary balance of forces and the compromise most likely to secure temporary peace. The weapon of labor in these contests is no longer the vote, but the threat of a strike—“direct action.” It was the leaders of the Confédération Générale du Travail during the twenty years preceding the war who first developed this theory of the best tactics for labor. But it is experience rather than theory that has led to its widespread adoption—the experience largely of the untrustworthiness of parliamentary Socialist leaders and of the reactionary social forces to which they are exposed.

To the traditional doctrine of democracy there is something repugnant in this whole method. Put crudely and nakedly the position is this: the organized workers in a key industry can inflict so much hardship upon the community by a strike that the community is willing to yield to their demands things which it would never yield except under the threat of force. This may be represented as the substitution of the private force of a minority in place of law as embodying the will of the majority. On this basis a very formidable indictment of direct action can be built up.

There is no denying that direct action involves grave dangers, and if abused may theoretically lead to very bad results. In this country, when (in 1917) organized labor wished to send delegates to Stockholm, the Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union prevented them from doing so, with the enthusiastic approval of the capitalistic press. Such interferences of minorities with the freedom of action of majorities are possible; it is also possible for majorities to interfere with the legitimate freedom of minorities. Like all use of force, whether inside or outside the law, direct action makes tyranny possible. And if one were anxious to draw a gloomy picture of terrors ahead one might prophesy that certain well-organized vital industries—say the Triple Alliance of Miners, Railwaymen, and Transport Workers—would learn to combine, not only against the employers, but against the community as a whole. We shall be told that this will happen unless a firm stand is made now. We shall be told that, if it does happen, the indignant public will have, sooner or later, to devote itself to the organization of blacklegs, in spite of the danger of civil disturbance and industrial chaos that such a course would involve. No doubt such dangers would be real if it could be assumed that organized labor is wholly destitute of common sense and public spirit. But such an assumption could never be made except to flatter the fears of property-owners. Let us leave nightmares on one side and come to the consideration of the good and harm that are actually likely to result in practice from the increasing resort to direct action as a means of influencing government.

Many people speak and write as though the beginning and end of democracy were the rule of the majority. This, for example, is the view of Professor Hearnshaw in his recent book Democracy at the Cross-Ways. But this is far too mechanical a view. It leaves out of account two questions of great importance, namely: (1) What should be the group of which the majority is to prevail? (2) What are the matters with which the majority has a right to interfere? Right answers to these questions are essential if nominal democracy is not to develop into a new and more stable form of tyranny, for minorities and subordinate groups have the right to live, and must not be internally subject to the malice of hostile masses.

The first question is familiar in one form, namely that of nationality. It is recognized as contrary to the theory of democracy to combine into one State a big nation and a small one, when the small nation desires to be independent. To allow votes to the citizens of the small nation is no remedy, since they can always be outvoted by the citizens of the large nation. The popularly elected legislature, if it is to be genuinely democratic, must represent one nation; or, if more are to be represented, it must be by a federal arrangement which safeguards the smaller units. A legislature should exist for defined purposes, and should cover a larger or smaller area according to the nature of those purposes. At this moment, when an attempt is being made to create a League of Nations for certain objects, this point does not need emphasizing.

But it is not only geographical units, such as nations, that have a right, according to the true theory of democracy, to autonomy for certain purposes. Just the same principle applies to any group which has important internal concerns that affect the members of the group enormously more than they affect outsiders. The coal trade, for example, might legitimately say: “What concerns the community is the quantity and price of the coal that we supply. But our conditions and hours of work, the technical methods of our production, and the share of the produce that we choose to allow to the land-owners and capitalists who at present own and manage the collieries, all these are internal concerns of the coal trade, in which the general public has no right to interfere. For these purposes we demand an internal parliament, in which those who are interested as owners and capitalists may have one vote each, but no more.” If such a demand were put forward it would be as impossible to resist on democratic grounds as the demand for autonomy on the part of a small nation. Yet it is perfectly clear that the coal trade could not induce the community to agree to such a proposal, especially where it infringes the “rights of property,” unless it were sufficiently well organized to be able to do grave injury to the community in the event of its proposal’s being rejected—just as no small nation except Norway, so far as my memory serves me, has ever obtained independence from a large one to which it was subject, except by war or the threat of war.

The fact is that democracies, as soon as they are well established, are just as jealous of power as other forms of government. It is therefore necessary, if subordinate groups are to obtain their rights, that they shall have some means of bringing pressure to bear upon the government. The Benthamite theory, upon which democracy is still defended by some doctrinaires, was that each voter would look after his own interest, and in the resultant each man’s interest would receive its proportionate share of attention. But human nature is neither so rational nor so self-centered as Bentham imagined. In practice it is easier, by arousing hatred and jealousies, to induce men to vote against the interests of others than to persuade them to vote for their own interests. In the recent General Election in this country very few electors remembered their own interests at all. They voted for the man who showed the loudest zeal for hanging the Kaiser, not because they imagined they would be richer if he were hanged but as an expression of disinterested hatred. This is one of the reasons why autonomy is important: in order that, as far as possible, no group shall have its internal concerns determined for it by those who hate it. And this result is not secured by the mere form of democracy; it can only be secured by careful devolution of special powers to special groups, so as to secure, as far as possible, that legislation shall be inspired by the self-interest of those concerned, not by the hostility of those not concerned.

This brings us to the second of the two questions mentioned above—a question which is, in fact, closely bound up with the first. Our second question was: What are the matters with which the democracy has a right to interfere? It is now generally recognized that religion, for example, is a question with which no government should interfere. If a Mahometan comes to live in England we do not think it right to force him to profess Christianity. This is a comparatively recent change; three centuries ago, no state recognized the right of the individual to choose his own religion. (Some other personal rights have been longer recognized: a man may choose his own wife, though in Christian countries he must not choose more than one.) When it ceased to be illegal to hold that the earth goes round the sun, it was not made illegal to believe that the sun goes round the earth. In such matters it has been found, with intense surprise, that personal liberty does not entail anarchy. Even the sternest supporters of the rule of the majority would not hold that the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to turn Buddhist if Parliament ordered him to do so. And Parliament does not, as a rule, issue orders of this kind, largely because it is known that the resistance would be formidable and that it would have support in public opinion.

In theory, the formula as to legitimate interference is simple. A democracy has a right to interfere with those of the affairs of a group which intimately concern people outside the group, but not with those which have comparatively slight effects outside the group. In practice, this formula may sometimes be difficult to apply, but often its application is clear. If, for example, the Welsh wish to have their elementary education conducted in Welsh, that is a matter which concerns them so much more intimately than anyone else that there can be no good reason why the rest of the United Kingdom should interfere. Thus the theory of democracy demands a good deal more than the mere mechanical supremacy of the majority. It demands: (1) division of the community into more or less autonomous groups; (2) delimitation of the powers of the autonomous groups by determining which of their concerns are so much more important to themselves than to others that others had better have no say in them. Direct action may, in most cases, be judged by these tests. In an ideal democracy industries or groups of industries would be self-governing as regards almost everything except the price and quantity of their product, and their self-government would be democratic. Measures which they would then be able to adopt autonomously they are now justified in extorting from the government by direct action. At present the extreme limit of imaginable official concession is a conference in which the men and the employers are represented equally, but this is very far from democracy, since the men are much more numerous than the employers. This application of majority-rule is abhorrent to those who invoke majority-rule against direct-actionists ; yet it is absolutely in accordance with the principles of democracy. It must at best be a long and difficult process to procure formal self-government for industries. Meanwhile they have the same right that belongs to oppressed national groups, the right of securing the substance of autonomy by making it difficult and painful to go against their wishes in matters primarily concerning themselves. So long as they confine themselves to such matters, their action is justified by the strictest principles of theoretical democracy, and those who decry it have been led by prejudice to mistake the empty form of democracy for its substance.

Certain practical limitations, however, are important to remember. In the first place, it is unwise for a section to set out to extort concessions from the government by force, if in the long run public opinion will be on the side of the government. For a government backed by public opinion will be able, in a prolonged struggle, to defeat any subordinate section. In the second place, it is important to render every struggle of this kind, when it does occur, a means of educating the public opinion by making facts known which would otherwise remain more or less hidden. In a large community most people know very little about the affairs of other groups than their own. The only way in which a group can get its concerns widely known is by affording “copy” for the newspapers, and by showing itself sufficiently strong and determined to command respect. When these conditions are fulfilled, even if it is force that is brought to bear upon the government, it is persuasion that is brought to bear upon the community. And in the long run no victory is secure unless it rests upon persuasion, and employs force at most as a means to persuasion.

The mention of the press and its effect on public opinion suggests a direction in which direct action has sometimes been advocated, namely to counteract the capitalist bias of almost all great newspapers. One can imagine compositors refusing to set up some statement about trade-union action which they know to be directly contrary to the truth. Or they might insist on setting up side by side a statement of the case from the trade-union standpoint. Such a weapon, if it were used sparingly and judiciously, might do much to counteract the influence of the newspapers in misleading public opinion. So long as the capitalist system persists, more newspapers are bound to be capitalist ventures and to present “facts,” in the main, in the way that suits capitalistic interests. A strong case can be made out for the use of direct action to counteract this tendency. But it is obvious that very grave dangers would attend such a practice if it became common. A censorship of the press by trade unionists would, in the long run, be just as harmful as any other censorship. It is improbable, however, that the method could be carried to such extremes, since if it were a special set of blackleg compositors would be trained up, and no others would gain admission to the offices of capitalist newspapers. In this case, as in others, the dangers supposed to belong to the method of direct action are largely illusory, owing to the natural limitations of its effectively

Direct action may be employed: (1) for amelioration of trade conditions within the present economic system; (2) for economic reconstruction, including the partial or complete abolition of the capitalist system; (3) for political ends, such as altering the form of government, extension of the suffrage, or amnesty for political prisoners. Of these three no one nowadays would deny the legitimacy of the first, except in exceptional circumstances. The third, except for purposes of establishing democracy where it does not exist, seems a dubious expedient if democracy, in spite of its faults, is recognized as the best practicable form of government; but in certain cases, for example where there has been infringement of some important right such as free speech, it may be justifiable. The second of the above uses of the strike, for the fundamental change of the economic system, has been made familiar by the French Syndicalists. It seems fairly certain that, for a considerable time to come, the main struggle in Europe will be between capitalism and some form of Socialism, and it is highly probable that in this struggle the strike will play a great part. To introduce democracy into industry by any other method would be very difficult. And the principle of group autonomy justifies this method so long as the rest of the community opposes self-government for industries which desire it. Direct action has its dangers, but so has every vigorous form of activity. And in our recent realization of the importance of law we must not forget that the greatest of all dangers to a civilization is to become stereotyped and stagnant. From this danger, at least, industrial unrest is likely to save us.

*  “Democracy and Direct Action,” Bertrand Russell, The Dial 66: 445-8 (May 3, 1919)  Repr. Daniel Bloomfield (ed.), Selected Articles on Modern Industrial Movements, H.W. Wilson, 1919