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 What Is Democracy?  (1953)*

By Bertrand Russell


There are, at the present day, two different views as to what is meant by the word “democracy.” West of the Iron Curtain it is generally taken as implying that ultimate power is in the hands of the majority of the adult population. East of the Iron Curtain it means military dictatorship by a certain small minority of people who have chosen to call themselves “democrats.” This difference of meaning, if it could be viewed from a merely linguistic point of view, would be quite interesting, but, unfortunately, it is bound up with the whole tension which is threatening the world with another Great War.

Differences in the meanings of words are, of course, common. Italians who wish to address me politely call me “The Egregious Sir Russell,” which, to English ears, seems unduly accurate. Originally the words “orgy” and “theory” meant the same thing, namely “divine intoxication,” which, when Bacchus was the Divinity, was not very sharply distinguished from ordinary intoxication. But fortunately these linguistic curiosities did not lead to an armed conflict.

It must be said that the present Russian use of the word democracy diverges widely from previous usage, and is merely designed to conceal Russian failure to carry out the provisions of Yalta and Potsdam. There were to be democratic governments in what are known as the “satellite states,” and the Russians decided that they would establish dictatorships and call them democracies. This simple device, being backed by the largest army in the world, proved to be regrettably successful.

It must, however, be confessed that what in the West is called democracy, is not quite what the word originally meant.

How It Began

Democracy, both the word and the thing, was invented by the Greeks. So far as is known, nobody conceived of it before their time. There had been monarchies, theocracies, and aristocracies, but nobody had imagined a system in which all the citizens should have a voice in government. Even the most extreme forms of democracy developed by the Greeks were limited in certain respects; women and slaves had no part in government. As far as women are concerned, Plato thought this limitation unjust, but he had few followers in this matter.

Where democracy prevailed in ancient Greece the individual citizen had, in many ways, more power than he has in a modern democratic state. He could vote on every proposed law, judges were chosen by lot from among the citizens, and there was no powerful bureaucracy to place obstacles in the way of the popular will. Such a system was only technically possible in a city-state, since it presupposed that the citizens could assemble and vote directly on each measure, a thing which, in a large modern state, is not possible.

It cannot be said that the system was very successful. It arose in opposition to aristocracy, which itself had arisen in opposition to monarchy. Aristocracy, in most Greek city-states, was defeated by democracy, but democracy itself, as a rule, gave way to tyranny. A tyrant, as the Greeks understood the word, was not necessarily a bad ruler; he was merely a man who had acquired the powers of monarchy by force or the popular favour, and not by heredity. He generally made himself the champion of the people against aristocrats and plutocrats, and when he acquired sufficient popularity he represented that his enemies were plotting to assassinate him and that he needed a bodyguard if his life was to be preserved. When once he had got the bodyguard, he only had to favour the men who composed it, and the people were forgotten.

The Greeks never discovered any method of making democracy secure against this sort of thing. Democracy, however, lingered until the time of Alexander the Great, who, before embarking upon his Persian war, forced treaties upon the Greek city-states compelling them to keep the democrats in subjection.

Rome, on a larger scale, repeated the Greek experience. There was a long period of strife between the aristocracy and the populace. Julius Caesar won favour as the champion of democracy, which he abolished as soon as he was securely established. After his day, democracy disappeared from the world for a long time. It rose again very slowly and very gradually as a result of the new commercial prosperity that began in Lombardy in the eleventh century, and spread northward to such great centres of trade as the Hanse towns.

Modern Liberalism begins in Milan in the conflicts of that city with its Archbishop and the Emperor. It was a very limited form of democracy, consisting chiefly of independence from feudal magnates and ecclesiastical dignitaries. It had immense historical importance as giving opportunity for revival of political speculation and freedom of thought. Democratic forms of government, it is true, did not last very long. They gave way in Venice to aristocracy, and in Milan and Florence to the rule of plutocratic bosses. But there were always limits to what these men could practise in the way of abominations, since they had no traditional claim to power and were liable to be expelled if they behaved too badly.

Representative Government

Meanwhile, a new institution had been established in various countries north of the Alps—I mean the institution of representative government. To us this seems an essential part of democracy, but the Ancients never thought of it, and, in its earlier forms in the Middle Ages, it was not very democratic. Its immense merit was that it enabled a large constituency to exert indirect power, and thus made possible the distribution of political responsibility throughout the great states of modern times, whereas formerly such distribution had only been possible in single cities.

Although representative government seems to us intimately connected with democracy, it need not be so, since the constituency that elects can be very restricted. Scottish Peers elect representatives to the House of Lords, but this is hardly an example of democracy. It would, however, be quite impossible, apart from representative government, to find a mechanism by which the ordinary citizen could acquire any degree of control over the policy of a geographically large state.

Representative government brings with it certain new dangers to democracy different from those which tyranny brought in ancient times. It is possible for a representative assembly to treat itself as absolute and to forget that it owes its position to popular election. The first thing the Long Parliament did in its contest with Charles I was to decree that it could not be dissolved except with its own consent. It could, therefore, constitutionally remain in power indefinitely, however much it might come to be out of sympathy with those who had elected it. This was one reason why Cromwell was compelled to act unconstitutionally, since there was no constitutional method by which he could get rid of the Long Parliament.

Rousseau, who professes to be a believer in democracy, considers that this word is only rightly applicable to the ancient form in which every citizen votes on every legislative act. When the power is delegated to elected representatives, Rousseau calls the system “Elective Aristocracy.” He admits what is obvious, that it is impossible to have democracy in the ancient sense in such countries as France or England. Such a system, he says, is too perfect for our imperfect world, except in his own city of Geneva. There alone it is possible to have the sort of government that he thinks really good. In view of this conclusion, it is odd that his books caused such a commotion.

Democratic theory, in the modern sense, was not invented by Rousseau but by the progressive element in Cromwell’s army. These men failed at home, but carried their doctrines across the Atlantic where, after a period of incubation, they at last gave birth to American democracy. The success of America was largely influential in spreading democratic ideas in France and also, though less directly, in England.

American Democracy

The character of a democracy is very largely determined by the forces which it regards as its enemies. American democracy at first was directed mainly against England. French democracy was directed in 1789 mainly against the large landowners. English democracy in the first half of the nineteenth century was engaged in acquiring power for the middle class, but, after that, was seeking power for wage-earners and was regarding large employers as the enemy.

American democracy underwent a great transformation when Andrew Jackson became President. Until his time presidents had been cultivated gentlemen, mostly with a settled position as landowners. Andrew Jackson represented a rebellion against these men on the part of the pioneers and immigrants. He did not like culture and was suspicious of educated men since they understood things that puzzled him. This element of hostility to culture has persisted in American democracy ever since, and has made it difficult for America to make the best use of its experts.

At the present day this trouble is peculiarly acute, but it cannot be said that such hostility is any essential part of democracy. It has never existed in England, and, in France, has been absent except at the height of the terror during the French Revolution. It was, at first, very dominant in modern Russia and is, I suppose, one of the excuses that the Soviet Government offers to itself for thinking itself democratic.

One of the problems which every modern democracy has to face is that of the utilization of experts. There are many matters of the utmost importance which are too difficult for ordinary citizens to understand. Of these, perhaps finance is the most obvious. Jackson abolished the Bank of America, chiefly because he could not understand banking. The problem is to secure that, when expert opinion is necessary, it shall be in accordance with a popularly chosen policy and not covertly such as to favour some minority policy. A good example of this has been trade union legislation in England. Urban working men acquired the vote in 1867, and since then it has been necessary to persuade trade unionists that their interests were being considered. Repeatedly acts have been passed which were thought to have secured the objects of trade unionists, but the House of Lords, in its judicial capacity, has discovered that the acts did not mean what they seemed to mean. This has only somewhat delayed matters, since the working-class vote was sufficient to secure the passage of new amending acts, but it shows what legal experts can do to defeat the popular will.

In America, when people in Jackson’s time became conscious of this danger, they decided that state judges, though not federal judges, should be elected. This remedy, however, proved worse than the disease. It increased the power of the political boss who had secured the election of his favourites to judgeships and could be tolerably certain that his favourites would decide cases as he wished, and not in accordance with the law. In fact, the political boss acquired a position not wholly unlike that of the Greek tyrant. There was, however, an important difference. It was possible to remedy the evil by wholly constitutional methods without the need of revolution or assassination.

In Latin America, which also adopted democratic theory, this has not proved nearly so uniformly possible, and many dictators have risen on the ruins of democracy.

The Role of Police

There is one matter in which many democracies have been unsuccessful, and that is the control of the police. Given a police force which is corrupt and unscrupulous, and judges who are not anxious to discover its crimes, it is possible for ordinary citizens to find themselves at the mercy of a powerful organization which, just because it is supposed to enforce the law, has exceptional facilities for acting illegally. I think this is a danger which is much too little realized in many countries.

Happily it is realized in England, and most English people regard the policeman as a friend. But in many countries he is viewed with terror, as a man who may, at any moment, bring grave trouble upon any person whom he happens to dislike or whom the police, as a whole, consider politically objectionable.

When the Communists were acquiring control of what are now satellite states, they always aimed, first of all, at control of the police. If they acquired that, they could accuse their enemies of plots or other crimes and terrify everybody into subservience.

The State and the Army

A danger which is much more realized is that of military rule. States need armies, and armies can take control of government if individual soldiers are willing to obey their officers when their officers give orders that are illegal.

This danger was so present to the minds of British politicians in the time of William III that they only consented to the creation of a standing army on condition that the penalties for mutiny should be enacted afresh by Parliament every year. This provision continues down to the present day, and, if at any moment Parliament should become suspicious of the armed forces, it might refuse to pass the Mutiny Act, and every soldier would be absolved from obedience to the orders of his officers. In the time of William III it was the experience of Cromwell that inspired caution, but in many countries at many times this caution has been absent.

Perhaps it has not always been a lack of legislative caution that has brought about military dictatorship where it has replaced democracy. Sometimes the cause has been that the armed forces came preponderantly from a minority section of the population, and saw no reason why they should submit to an unarmed majority. It cannot be hoped that democracy will succeed except where, among political opponents of the majority, there is, nevertheless, a profound sense of the importance of legality.


Two opposite forces have caused, in our time, an undue diminution in the respect which people feel for democracy. On the so-called Left, there are admirers of Russia who think that, since dictatorship is adopted by Russian Communists, democracy must be in some way reactionary. On the Right, there are those who fear Socialism and who wish to preserve ancient privileges.

In addition to these two kinds of opinion there are people who are conscious that all is not well, and imagine impatiently that some other system would be better. For my part I think it extremely dangerous, so far, at least, as Western civilized communities are concerned, to imagine that there are better systems than democracy. It is not so much that democracy is positively good as that it makes impossible certain great evils which are apt to exist under other systems. When people imagine some undemocratic system introduced as a reform, they always implicitly or explicitly think of themselves as the holders of power in the new régime, and oneself, of course, is all-wise and perfectly virtuous.

This, however, is not how things work out in practice.

Evils of Power

Holders of power, always and everywhere, are indifferent to the good or evil of those who have no power, except in so far as they are restrained by fear. This may sound too harsh a saying. It may be said that decent people will not inflict torture on others beyond a point. This may be said, but history shows that it is not true. The decent people in question succeed in not knowing, or pretending not to know, what torments are inflicted to make them happy.

Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, was just such a decent person. In private life he was charming. He was cultivated, well read, humane, and liberal. He was also rich. His money came to him from coal-mines where children worked for long hours in darkness for a pittance. It was by the agony of these children that he was enabled to be so urbane. Nor is his case in any way exceptional. Analogous things affect even the origins of Communism. Marx lived on the charity of Engels, and Engels lived by exploiting the proletariat of Manchester during the hungry ’40s. The polished young men in Plato’s dialogues, whom English classicists have held up as models to the British upper-class youth, lived on slave labour and on the exploitation of the short-lived Athenian Empire. Injustices by which we profit can always be justified by some kind of sophistry.

People are horrified, and rightly so, by Mau-Mau atrocities, but how few reflect that these, in their entirety, are not a thousandth part of the atrocities that white men inflicted for centuries upon Negroes by slavery and the slave trade. The City of Bristol contains rich men of the very highest moral integrity, but the wealth of the city was acquired originally chiefly through the slave trade.

When Stalin was introducing collectivization, he encountered the stubborn opposition of the peasants. He met this opposition with a ruthlessness which would have been impossible in a democratic régime. He caused some five million peasants to die of hunger and several millions more he transported to labour camps in the Arctic. All this was done in the name of “scientific agriculture.”

Much the same thing, though on a smaller scale, was done in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Parliament, in which both Houses at that time represented the landed aristocracy, passed Enclosure Acts which took away from the rural poor the rights they had enjoyed on common land. The result in de-populating the countryside is vividly described in Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. The rural population was compelled to migrate to the towns, where they rendered possible the growth of industrialism at the cost of long hours and starvation wages.

Not only adults worked these long hours, but children also. Children worked in the mills for twelve hours a day or even more, and not infrequently fell asleep at work and rolled into the machines where they were mangled.

We do right to be horrified by Stalin’s ruthlessness, but we are wholly mistaken if we think that, given opportunity, we should be any better. It is only democracy that makes us better. While the English upper class had a monopoly of political power, it was just as bad as Stalin. Democracy is to be valued because it prevents such large-scale atrocities. This is its first and greatest merit.

Democratic Freedom

It has, however, others only slightly less important. It makes possible a degree of intellectual freedom which is not at all likely to exist under a despotic régime. In Russia at the present day no literature is permitted which might instill a doubt as to the wisdom and virtue of the Masters. [Written in 1953.] Despotic monarchs have always suppressed, as far as they were able, every suggestion that their power was excessive. Churches have been equally to blame in this respect.

I have no wish to enter upon a theological argument, but anyone who cares to examine the theological innovations introduced by Protestants in the sixteenth century will find that practically every one of them was such as to diminish the income of the clergy, and I think it would be contrary to all that we know of human nature to suppose that this had nothing to do with the opposition offered by the Catholic Church to the heretics.

The clergy caused many thousands to be burnt at the stake, believing, no doubt, that their motive was wholly laudable. In this they resembled Stalin and the British landowners who passed the Enclosure Acts, but in all cases alike, the fury which gave momentum to the movement had a very egotistical source, though one which perhaps remained subconscious.

It is, of course, possible for persecution to occur in a democracy, but it can only be persecution of a rather small minority. Quakers were persecuted in New England, but only for a short time. Mormons were persecuted in the nineteenth century because polygamy shocked the immense majority of the population. But, in this case also, persecution was short-lived. Under an undemocratic régime, persecutions of this sort can continue unabated for centuries. In czarist Russia, the Old Believers suffered persecution of greater or less intensity until the revolution. Since the revolution, until Stalin’s death, every deviation from Communist orthodoxy, however minute, exposed the deviators to death or life-long torture.

Democracy and War

Another advantage of democracy is that it is likely to be less warlike than an autocratic government. The advantages of war, such as they are, fall only to the eminent in victor nations. The disadvantages fall upon the common people. I have little doubt that if the will of the Russian people could prevail at the present moment the danger of war between East and West would be at an end.

Consider the motives which make the Russian government such a source of danger to Western countries, and vice versa. These are of various sorts. There is first, on both sides, a fanatical creed which it is thought desirable to spread. There is next a possibility of glory. And, perhaps more powerful than either of these, there is the sheer lust for power. These are not motives which have anything like the same potency in the lives of ordinary men and women as they have in the thoughts of eminent statesmen. For this reason, where ordinary men and women have power there is much less likelihood of a war-like policy than there is under a despotic régime.

Although it cannot be said in any absolute way that democracies are against war, I do think it can be said that they are less apt to be war-like than autocracies are.

It is still a more or less controversial question how the blame for the First World War should be apportioned, but I think almost anybody would agree that the greatest share of blame is to be divided among the three empires, Germany, Austria, and Russia. As to the Second World War, no doubt is possible that the whole blame falls fairly and squarely upon Hitler, whose régime was the very reverse of democratic.

If a third world war should break out—which Heaven forbid —it is clear that the unfriendliness and aggressiveness of Russian policy ever since 1945 will have been a main cause, whatever may be the final spark that brings the explosion. I think, therefore, we may fairly claim that a greater love of peace is one of the advantages of democracy over the other forms of government.

In spite of what is often said to the contrary, a very great merit of democracy has been that it gave increased strength in war. This was not perhaps true in the first months of a war, especially if, during those months, the initial victories could be won by an autocracy. But it was true in the long run. Anyone who will take the trouble to survey the important wars that have occurred during the last 250 years will find that, in every case, they have been won by the side which made the nearer approach to democracy.

The main reasons are, I think, two. The first is that a democratic nation at war feels its own pride and self-respect involved, whereas if it has been led into war by a tyrant or an absolute monarch, it does not feel the same responsibility, and is, therefore, less steadfast. The other reason is that where there is democracy, the government has to submit to criticism, and it is therefore much more difficult to encourage gross incompetence or to discourage wise initiative.

One of the most disturbing views about the undemocratic witch-hunt in which some Americans are indulging is that it is diminishing the capacity for serving the public, both on the part of eminent men of science and on the part of those who have any knowledge that is irritating to the China Lobby. [The name applied to the body of opinion and pressure in American politics which strenuously opposes recognition of the communist régime in China and advocates support of Chiang Kai-shek.] Nevertheless, even at the height of the witch-hunt, experts have a very great deal more freedom of expression and action in America than they have in Russia. We might hope that this would produce a technical supremacy in weapons of war on the side which has the more democratic régime, but it must be confessed that so far there is little evidence of such a result.


A democratic government raises various problems, some of which are sometimes very difficult. Consider first the problem of the right area for a government. In the days when Ireland was united with Great Britain in electing a single Parliament, the Irish felt that they had a grievance, and I think they were justified in this feeling. Although there was democracy so far as definition goes, there was, in fact, a form of government in which the Irish were in a permanent minority. The only way in which they could get Parliament to listen to them was to make themselves a nuisance.

Wherever there is a sharp division, as there was between Great Britain and Southern Ireland, democratic principle demands that each group should be in a position to settle its internal affairs independently of the other group—that is to say, there must be devolution so far as home affairs are concerned. On this ground, I think the Southern Irish were entirely justified in demanding their own Parliament. Oddly enough, they failed entirely to see that the same arguments justified the Protestant Irish of the North in claiming independence of the Southern Irish. This claim has never been recognized by the Southern Irish. I think that psychologically, though of course not explicitly, their argument would be: “From the time of Henry II to the time of Lloyd George, we had to endure oppression by the English. Surely it is only fair that we should have our turn in inflicting oppression, and who are we to oppress unless it be the Northern Irish?” This argument is human, but not, I fear, strictly logical.

But I do not wish to seem to give all my sympathies to Northern Ireland. When it comes to the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, the Northern Irish show exactly the same failure of logic as the Southern Irish show towards them. And if the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone were allowed to join Southern Ireland, they would certainly make few concessions to the Protestant part of the population of those two counties.

The Geographical Problem

It is difficult to arrive at a clear principle in such matters, since it is evident that there must be a limit of size below which the group cannot be admitted to self-government. What this limit of size should be it is quite impossible to settle in the abstract. What can be said generally is that where any large group is basically out of sympathy with the rest of the citizens of the State, democracy is apt to become unworkable, except by a use of force which will produce great discontent in the subordinate group, and a harsh temper in the dominant group.

When the dissident minority is geographically concentrated, the matter can be dealt with by devolution, but when it is distributed throughout the population there is much greater difficulty. This is the situation of Jews in a country where popular sentiment is strongly anti-Semitic. It is the situation of Mohammedans in India, and Hindus in Pakistan. It is the situation of Negroes in America. In all such cases the difficulty cannot be solved by geographical devolution. Democracy in such cases can only be successful if there is a diffused sentiment of tolerance.

Tolerance in Democracy

Tolerance is, in many ways, absolutely essential to the success of democracy. If people hold their principles so strongly that they feel they ought to die or kill for them, every difference of opinion will lead to war or to a coup d’état.

Democracy requires, in fact, a rather difficult combination of individual initiative with submission to the majority. It requires that a man who has strong political convictions should argue for them and do what he can to make them the convictions of the majority, but that if the majority proves adverse, he should submit with a good grace.

There was, some twenty years ago, a small country—I will not say which—in which opposing parties were very nearly evenly balanced. The Members of Parliament of the minority party, in the middle of the session, shot a sufficient number of their opponents to become the majority. This expedient was not adopted by the Conservative Party in England in 1950, nor by the Labour Party in 1951.

Any really fanatical belief tends to be incompatible with democracy. When in 1918 the Russian Constituent Assembly proved to have an anti-Bolshevik majority, the Bolsheviks dissolved it by military force, and ever since then have ruled Russia without regard to popular feeling.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Protestant and Catholic governments acted similarly. Fascist governments in Germany, Italy, and Spain have been indifferent to majority opinion. Wherever any large and important section of a nation has this kind of fanaticism, democracy is hardly likely to survive.

On this ground, believers in democracy ought to do everything in their power to cause a tolerant spirit to be inculcated in education. This is not at all adequately done at present. There are everywhere beliefs favoured by the State, and it is thought proper that the young should be caused to accept these beliefs unquestioningly and dogmatically. The most destructive of these at the present time is nationalism.

The world is divided into a number of areas, and in each area the young are taught that the inhabitants of that area are virtuous, while the inhabitants of other areas are degraded and wicked. This does not make for the peace of the world.

Democracy and Nationalism

Nationalism is one of the matters in which democracy, so far, has proved least satisfactory. In the old days when wars were dynastic and were conducted for the glory of individual rulers, the bulk of the population often regarded them with indifference or hostility.

Throughout the Napoleonic wars, English people of the lower classes took no interest in English victories and were quite ready to believe that the French were as good as the English. This belief did not exist in the upper class. Nelson, for instance, taught his midshipmen that they should hate a Frenchman as they would the Devil. But the upper class had the government. In France, equally, there was no enthusiasm for that war except upon the part of those who were encouraged by Napoleon’s victories. Napoleon acquired power on the 18th Brumaire [The 18th day of Brumaire—the second month in the French Republican calendar. Napoleon’ coup d’état of that date was in 1799.] by promising peace, just as Lenin acquired power in 1917 by the same promise.

The unpopularity of wars in the past set a limit to their intensity. When they became too serious, there was discontent—even mutiny. But in a democratic country, the ordinary voter feels that the war is his war. His ego is involved in it in a way that does not occur under an autocracy. This has the good point that it makes a democracy more likely to win, but it has the bad point that it makes it possible for a democratic government to wage war to the bitter end, and, before war has taken place, to be threatening and bellicose in its policy. But within the compass of democratic government, there is only one cure for this evil, which is that by agreement among the nations, education should dwell more upon the common tasks of mankind than upon rivalries between different states.

In the eighteenth century war could be a profitable business. With the exception of the War of American Independence, England emerged from the wars of that century with a balance of profit from a merely financial point of view. Nowadays, things are different. We have been brought to the verge of ruin by complete and absolute victory in two successive wars, and it is no longer difficult to persuade English people that war is not good business, though in America this lesson has still to be learned.

The Teaching of History

To make democracies peaceable rather than war-like is mainly a matter for the schools. History should be taught as the history of the rise of civilization, and not as the history of this nation or that. It should be taught from the point of view of mankind as a whole, and not with undue emphasis upon one’s own country. Children should learn that every country has committed crimes and that most crimes were blunders. They should learn how mass hysteria can drive a whole nation into folly and into persecution of the few who are not swept away by the prevailing madness.

They should be shown movies of foreign countries in which the children, though aliens, would be enjoying much the same pleasures, and suffering much the same sorrows, as those enjoyed and suffered by children at home. All this could be done by UNESCO if the national governments permitted. All this, if it were done throughout the world, would immensely diminish the war-like proclivities of democracies.


To return to the question of devolution. As we saw, devolution presents difficulties where a group is geographically distributed and not concentrated in one area. I think, however, that it should be possible, and is certainly desirable, to have for certain purposes constituencies which are not geographical but occupational or ideological.

Consider, for example, some country in which practically every geographical constituency contains five percent of Jews. As things stand, these Jews will be everywhere out-voted, and their interests may be quite inadequately represented in Parliament. It might be better if they voted separately, and had in Parliament a number of representatives proportional to their numbers in the general population. I should not advocate this particular measure except where anti-Semitism is strong. What I think more important is an industrial application of the same sort of principle.

Socialists have always advocated nationalization of railways and mines. The late Labour Government carried out this programme, but the difference to the employees was not quite so great as Socialists had hoped. The place of the capitalists was taken by State officials, and there was almost the same possibility as before of a clash between employees and management.

I should like to see the internal affairs of any great industry, such as railways or mining, determined democratically not by the State, but by the employees of that industry, leaving only the external affairs in the hands of the State. The modern State is so vast, and even in a democracy officials are so remote from voters, that very little sense of personal initiative remains to the employees of a large nationalized industry.

I think lack of opportunity for personal initiative is one of the great dangers of the modern world. It leads to apathy, to a sense of impotence, and thence to pessimism. There should be, for everybody who is energetic and who has strong convictions, some sphere, great or small, where he may hope to be effective, and this is only possible by means of much more devolution than exists at present.

Before the First World War this idea was advocated in somewhat different forms by syndicalists in France and by guild Socialists in England, but the Russian Revolution captured their imaginations and they went helter-skelter for State Socialism, and bureaucratic autocracy. They thought, rather foolishly, that if the bureaucrats were former rebels all would be well. The result was not only Russian autocracy, but also a complete failure of movements of the Left in the West to stand for things that they had formerly valued. It is time to revive the aims which progressive people set before themselves in the days before the Russian Revolution. It is only in so far as this is done that Western democracy can be sure of remaining democratic.

World Government

The question of devolution is vital in considering the problem of world government. It is obvious that if there were a world government there would only be certain limited functions that it would have to perform, and that most of the functions at present performed by national governments would remain in their hands.

It may be thought needlessly Utopian to consider world government, since it remains totally impossible so long as the East–West tension continues. It is, however, an urgent problem, since, unless it is solved within the next generation, it is unlikely that the human race will survive. A statement of this sort is found annoying, because people do not like changing their mental habits, and hating certain foreign nations is one of the most deeply engrained of these habits. They do not like to think that old habits are incompatible with survival, and there are very few people who are more anxious to survive than not to think.

It does not, of course, present itself in this way to their minds. What presents itself consciously is a quick conviction that any unusual thought is absurd. The conviction is so quick and firm that they never look to see whether it has a rational basis. I think, however, that anybody who can resist this unreasoning impulse must perceive that the survival of the human race depends upon the abolition of war, and that war can only be abolished by the establishment of a world government.

What powers would such a government need? Primarily those involving peace and war. It would need a monopoly of all the more important weapons of war. It would need the right to revise treaties between nations, and to refuse to recognize any treaty to which it would not give assent. It would need a firm determination to make war upon any nation which rebelled against its authority or committed a hostile aggression against any other nation. But it would not need to control nations as regards their internal economic development, as regards their education or their religious institutions, or any of the matters that could rightly be regarded as internal.

What, in fact, it should take away from a nation is what has long ago been taken away from an individual—namely, the right to kill. Individual citizens, unless they are gangsters, do not feel their liberty unduly hampered by the fact that they cannot shoot their neighbour whenever he plays the piano too loudly.

Individual nations ought to learn that a similar limitation upon their liberty is equally unobjectionable. They ought to be content with liberty to control their own affairs, and not demand the opportunity to shoot foreigners whenever the whim takes them. It is this opportunity of which a world government would have to deprive them. But it need not deprive them of any liberty that a decent person could desire.

Excess of Government

Within a national state, there are certain matters which should be left free from governmental control. It is now generally recognized that religion is one of these matters. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this was not recognized, and violent persecutions were carried out to ensure theological uniformity.

In the modern world it is not theology, but politics, that rouses the persecuting spirit. In Russia this spirit is in absolute control. In America it is much stronger than it ought to be. The excuse is, of course, that political dissidents are a danger to the State, but this excuse also existed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Queen Elizabeth persecuted Jesuits, but Jesuits maintained that she was not the lawful Sovereign and acted as fifth columnists for the Spaniards.

There is the same excuse in the present day for objecting to Communists in non-Communist countries. But in the one case as in the other, people are subversive because of persecution as well as being persecuted because of subversiveness. Any lessening of the one also lessens the other. No English Jesuit of the present day wants the new Queen Elizabeth dethroned for the benefit of some Jacobite heir. And this is no doubt partly because Jesuits are no longer persecuted.

Democracy and Liberty

The connection of democracy with individual liberty is not as close as is sometimes thought. Theoretically, and as a matter of definition, democracy is compatible with a complete absence of liberty for minorities. There is nothing that can be called strictly undemocratic in outlawing Communists in a country where the majority dislikes them.

In New England colonial communities, there was at first theological uniformity enforced by persecution, and it would not be verbally correct to regard this as an infringement of democracy. Nevertheless, there is an important psychological connection between democracy and individual liberty, for where individual liberty is not respected there will be people inclined to violent rebellion, and where many people are inclined to violent rebellion democratic processes of government become very difficult.

The most difficult kind of liberty to preserve in a democracy is the kind which derives its importance from services to the community that are not very obvious to ignorant people. New intellectual work is almost always unpopular because it is subversive of deep-seated prejudices, and appears to the uneducated as wanton wickedness. Luther thought Copernicus a mere paradox monger who wished to be known for his eccentricity. Calvin took the same view, and so did the Catholic Church in the time of Galileo. Democracy would not have saved Galileo from persecution.

In present-day America, while a teacher is not likely to suffer legal penalties for his views, he will probably suffer very severe economic penalties if he teaches history or economics or social science and does not agree with intolerant and ignorant men. It has frequently happened in the past that important men have been protected from popular fury by undemocratic rulers. Aristotle was safe in Athens so long as Alexander was alive to protect him, but when Alexander died Aristotle had to flee. Averroes was protected by Mohammedan rulers from the fury of the mob until near the end of his life, when popular pressure became too great for the government to resist. Hobbes was befriended by Charles II when Parliament decided that Divine anger at his impiety was the cause of the Plague. When Tennessee decided against evolution, the decision was not undemocratic. As these examples show, intellectual liberty is not rendered secure by democracy alone.

But it would be quite unhistorical to conclude that intellectual liberty is, in general, safer under an undemocratic régime. There have been a few examples of enlightened autocrats, but the immense majority of autocrats have been completely unenlightened and completely willing to restrain intellectual liberty even more completely than the worst democracies. At the present day Russia is, of course, the supreme example. Stalin thought he knew more about genetics than any geneticist, and those who ventured to disagree suffered very extreme penalties.

In eighteenth-century France, the government was completely obscurantist. It compelled Buffon, for example, to recant publicly the opinion that not all existing mountains had existed since the beginning of the world.


Where democracy is combined with party government (which is the case wherever it is vigorous) it has one advantage that perhaps outweighs all others, and that is that nearly half the nation believes the government to be composed of scoundrels. This belief is often well founded, but there is no method, except democracy, which will cause it to be held by large numbers of influential people.

It is an essential element in democracy that any member of the public should be able, without too much trouble, to find out the truth when there is a dispute as to facts. It is generally recognized in the West that this demands freedom of the press. The authorities must not be at liberty to suppress information merely because they do not like it.

But freedom of the press, though necessary, is not sufficient. There must be quick methods of correcting gross misstatements. For this purpose the machinery of libel actions is quite inadequate, partly because it is slow, partly because it is expensive, and partly because there are cases when it is inapplicable.

Suppose, for example, that a Right-Wing Republican in the United States were to say that many prominent Democratic statesmen are in the pay of the Kremlin. No action would lie so long as he named no names. There ought to be a judicial body with the right and duty to pronounce on any statement injurious to a man or organization; and, in the event of there being no prima facie case for the statement, the journal making the statement should be under a legal obligation to print this fact with the same prominence as the original statement. This is important, for, while freedom of information is essential, freedom to correct misinformation is equally essential.

Dangerous Idolatry

Worship of government is the modern form of idolatry and is exceedingly dangerous. Far the most effective antidote to it is the two-party system. I lived in America under Roosevelt, and most of the people that I met considered him a dangerous lunatic. I did not agree with them in this, but I thought it thoroughly wholesome that people should have this opinion of the Head of State.

Liberty will only exist where there is an effective division of opinion with influential men of both sides. It began in the West with the conflict between Church and State in the time of St Ambrose. It exists at the present day owing to the conflict between Conservatives and Socialists in England and between Democrats and Republicans in America.

Where democracy prevails, it is hardly possible to have that worship of the State as the Garment of God which Hegel sycophantically inculcated as he drew his pay from the Prussian Exchequer.

Diminution of Liberty

A sentiment in favour of liberty is something rather separate from forms of government, but on the whole I think that it is somewhat more often found where there is democracy than where there is autocracy. Although I believe this to be true, I think, none the less, that individual liberty is insufficiently valued in many modern democratic countries.

This is a matter in which there has been retrogression since the nineteenth century. The retrogression is caused by fear, and I cannot say that the fear is irrational, but I do not think that a diminution of liberty is a method of escaping from the dangers that are feared.

In America, for example, the question as to what foreigners shall be admitted is left in the hands of uneducated policemen, who have a general belief that all European physicists are spies who will sell to the stupid Russians the atomic secrets discovered by clever Americans. The result is that international congresses of scientists have become difficult in America, and that American scientists who are not free to travel get out of touch with valuable work done in Europe. An American will not be encouraged to work at nuclear physics unless his politics are reactionary, and this is almost sure to diminish the technical efficiency of America in the next war if it comes.

This suggests a wider problem connected with democracy. Democracy is based historically upon the maxim that all men are equal. But if this maxim is to be true, it must be carefully interpreted. It is not the case that all men are the equals of Newton in mathematical ability, or of Beethoven in musical genius. To say that all men are equal is only true if it means that justice requires an absence of discrimination between one man and another in political matters. It is not true if it is held to imply that, even in the most complex matters, one man’s judgment is as good as another’s. Yet it is only in this latter untrue form that it can justify the ordinary voter in deciding what shall be taught in a university.

In American state universities the taxes pay the teachers, and the ordinary taxpayer infers that he has a right to object to the teaching of anything that he does not agree with. It does not occur to him that perhaps a man who has devoted his life to a difficult subject knows more about it than a man who has never studied it at all. When democracy is thought to justify such conclusions it becomes absurd.


I do not think it can be said that democracy, always and everywhere, is the best form of government. I do not think that it can be successfully practised among totally uncivilized people. I do not think it is workable where there is a population of mixed groups which fundamentally hate each other. I do not think it can be introduced quite suddenly in countries that have no experience of the give and take that goes with freedom in government. If every compromise is viewed as a surrender of principle, it is impossible for rival groups to make a bargain representing a middle point between their respective interests.

For such reasons I do not think one ought to advocate the introduction of democracy immediately in every part of the world. But having conceded so much to the opponents of democracy, I should wish to state with the utmost emphasis the arguments in its favour wherever it is practicable. In doing this I will repeat more briefly what I have said earlier.

The first and strongest argument for democracy is human selfishness. When a group of men has power over another group, it will almost always ill-treat the subject group. White men have ill-treated Negroes, aristocrats have ill-treated peasants, men have ill-treated women. It is hardly possible to find, except for brief periods in rare circumstances, cases where a dominant group has behaved with tolerable humanity towards one over which it had control.

This was not only true in the past. It is true at least as much in the present. Stalin’s government kept millions of workers in slave conditions, and punished the faintest whisper of opposition in the most savage manner. Hitler’s atrocities are too notorious to need recapitulating. I value democracy, first of all, because where it exists such horrors are scarcely possible.

Redressing Grievances

The second great merit of democracy is that it affords a possible method of settling disagreements. Where there is no democracy, if any large section is discontented, it has no remedy except rebellion. Democracy gives a legal method of redressing grievances, and makes possible a respect for law which can hardly exist in an autocracy.

Consider, for example, the plot to murder Hitler in 1944. The men involved in this plot were some of the best men in Germany, and their motives were wholly laudable. One cannot imagine, at the same time, an English plot to murder Churchill. It is mainly the existence of democracy in England that makes this unimaginable.

Although, as we saw above, there can be democracy without liberty, there can never be secure liberty without democracy. Such liberty as has existed under autocracies has depended upon the whim of the momentary despot, and has been liable to disappear overnight. It is only where there is a recognized orderly process of changing the government, or altering the laws, that liberty can be secure.

If I had to choose between liberty and democracy, I should be hard put to it to know which to prefer, since it is only by means of liberty that progress, whether intellectual or moral, is possible. Fortunately, no such choice is forced upon us.

Democracy and the West

The Western nations are, for the present, the custodians of both democracy and liberty. In neither respect are they perfect, but they are better than any other nations, and it is only by developing what is best in them that mankind can advance.

I think we of the West are sometimes insufficiently conscious of what it is that we have to preserve for the human race. It is not only what we owe to the Graeco-Roman heritage and to Christianity, it is perhaps even more what we have achieved during the last four centuries: the substitution of science for superstition; of a technique capable of abolishing poverty throughout the world; of medical knowledge which, in the West, has put an end to those great plagues that used to devastate whole populations; and, more than any of these, although as yet imperfectly, that respect for the initiative and freedom of individuals whose work is creative and not destructive.

Mankind advanced slowly in the past, largely because all those who suggested advance were persecuted. In modern Western nations this is much less true, and the advance during the last four centuries has been more rapid than at any other period in human history.

Is this advance to be brought to an end by an obscurantist tyranny? I cannot believe it. But I cannot deny that the danger is real. The danger is not only, or chiefly, the danger of military defeat in war; it is even more the danger of spiritual defeat, the danger that in a fierce life-and-death struggle men may forget everything that does not serve for immediate military victory.

For this reason, although no one can deny that war might be forced upon the Western nations, a sane man will feel that war, even successful war [The H-bomb had made successful war impossible.], would involve a great loss and a very serious set-back in all the matters as to which the West is in advance of the rest of mankind. Perhaps if we have sufficient patience, the time will come when the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain will decide to liberalize their régime. [To a considerable extent, this has happened since Stalin’s death.]

It is up to us in the West to behave in such a manner as to make the merits of our system obvious even to those who have the least desire to admit them. This is a slow, patient, and undramatic policy. To some it may seem unheroic. There are those who, when they become aware of an evil, are convinced that it is right to undertake a crusade against it even by military force. They forget that, in the course of a crusade, the crusaders themselves forget the idealistic purposes with which they embarked upon a war, and remember only the desire for victory.

We shall not be wise if we, realizing what is evil in the Communist system, ourselves encourage a war. The chance of gradual improvement east of the Iron Curtain may, for the moment, seem precarious, but it exists, and so long as it exists it is our duty to remember that it is the best of the possibilities offered by our distracted world.

*  Bertrand Russell, What Is Democracy? A Background Book, published by the Batchworth Press, 1953  Reprinted and revised in Fact and Fiction, 1961, pp. 78-110