Sidney Hook, "Democracy as a Way of Life," in Tomorrow in the Making, edited by John N. Andrews and Carl A. Marsden (New York: Whittlesey House, 1939), pp. 31-46.

THE greatest tribute to democracy as an ideal of social life is unwittingly paid to it in the apologias of the dictators of the modern world, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. For all of them insist, in the shrillest tones, that the regimes they control are actually, despite appearances, democracies "in a higher sense." For example, Mussolini in a public address delivered at Berlin in September (and reprinted in International Conciliation for December, 1937), claimed that "the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today are Italy and Germany"; while Stalin, after the worst blood purge in history, praises the constitution that bears his name--a constitution that openly provides in Section 126 for the control of all socio-political institutions by the minority Communist party--as the most democratic in all history. And here in America, owing to the needs of the foreign policy of the various dictatorships, their partisans now wrap up their program of blood and steel in the American flag and make a great verbal play about being defenders of American democracy. 1

That the greatest enemies of democracy should feel compelled to render demagogic lip allegiance to it is an eloquent sign of the inherent plausibility of democratic ideals to the modern mind and of their universal appeal. But that its enemies, apparently with some success, should have the audacity to flaunt the principles they have so outrageously betrayed in practice is just as eloquent a sign that these principles are ambiguous. Agreement where there is no clarity merely cloaks differences; it does not settle them. The analysis of the concept of democracy is not merely a theoretical problem for the academician. The ordinary man who says he believes in democracy must clearly understand what he means by it. Otherwise, the genuine issues that divide men will be lost in the welter of emotive words which demagogues skillfully evoke to conceal their true intentions. There is such a thing as the ethics of words. And of all the words in our political vocabulary, none is in greater need of precise analysis and scrupulous use than democracy.


Anyone can use a word as a sign for any idea provided he makes adequately clear what he means by it. For example, if a man says, "By democracy I mean a government in which the name of the ruler begins with a D," we can smile at his peculiar nominal definition and pass on. We have no right to dispute the legitimacy of his use if he always accompanies it with a parenthetical explanation of what he understands by the term. However, if he introduces the term into a political discussion without stating explicitly the special meaning it has for him, we have every scientific and moral right to object. For, where words of a certain kind are already in use, to employ them as signs of new meanings without posting, so to speak, a clear public notice, is to be guilty of a form of counterfeit. New verbal signs can always be found for new meanings.

Democracy is a term which has customarily been associated with certain historical practices and with certain writings in the history of culture. Instead of beginning with arbitrary nominal definitions, it would be preferable to describe and critically evaluate the growth of democracy in Western Europe from its origins in the Greek city (slave) states to the present. But this could only be essayed in a systematic treatise.

The third alternative--one which we shall here follow--is to begin with a definition which formally is acceptable to most people who distinguish democracy from other forms of political organization and which is in consonance with at least traditional American usage. We shall then indicate what it implies as far as the structure of other present-day social institutions is concerned, to what techniques of settling differences it commits us, and what fundamental ethical values are presupposed. In this way we shall combine the advantages of an analytical and "contemporary-historical" treatment.


A democratic society is one in which the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed. Some ambiguity attaches to every term in this preliminary definition. The least ambiguous is the term governed. By the governed is meant those adult participating members of the community, with their dependents, whose way of life is affected by what the government does or leaves undone. By the government is primarily intended the law and policy-making agencies, legislative, executive, and judicial, whose activities control the life of the community. In the first instance, then, government is a political concept, but in certain circumstances it may refer to social and economic organizations whose policies affect the lives of a large number of individuals. In saying that the government rests upon the consent of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods the policies of the government are submitted to the governed for approval or disapproval. By freely given consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that "rests upon" the freely given consent of the governed is one which in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval.


A direct consequence of this definition may be that there is no complete democracy anywhere in the world. This no more prevents our employing the term intelligently and making comparative evaluations than the fact that no one is "perfectly healthy" prevents us from making the concept "health" basic to medical theory and practice. There is no absolutely fat man, but we can easily tell whether one man is fatter than another. So long as our definition enables us to order existing communities in a series of greater or less democracy, our definition is adequate.

If a democratic government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed, then it cannot be present where institutional arrangements--whether political or nonpolitical--obviously obstruct the registration or the implementation of the common consent. We do not have to settle any metaphysical questions about the nature of freedom in order to be able to tell when consent is not free. A plebiscite or election which is held at the point of a bayonet or in which one can only vote "Yes," or in which no opposition candidates are permitted, obviously does not express freely given consent. These are only the crudest violations of the democratic ideal, but they are sufficient to make the pretence that the present-day regimes in Italy, Russia, and Germany are democratic sound almost obscene.

There are less obvious, but no less effective, ways of coercively influencing the expression of consent. A threat, for example, to deprive the governed of their jobs or means of livelihood, by a group which has the power to do so, would undermine a democracy even if its name were retained. In fact, every overt form of economic pressure, since it is experienced directly by the individual and since so many other phases of his life are dependent upon economic security, is an overt challenge to democracy. Where the political forms of democracy function within a society in which economic controls are not subject to political control, there is always a standing threat to democracy. For in such a society, the possibility exists that economic pressure may strongly influence the expression of consent. Where it cannot influence the expression of consent, it may subvert or prevent its execution. This is particularly true in modern societies in which social instruments of production, necessary for the livelihood of many, are privately owned by the few. A political democracy cannot function properly where differences in economic power are so great that one group can determine the weal or woe of another by nonpolitical means. Genuine political democracy, therefore, entails the right of the governed, through their representatives, to control economic policy. In this sense, it might be said that where there is no economic democracy- a phrase which will be explained later-there can be no genuine and widespread political democracy. The exact degree of economic control necessary to political democracy will vary with changing conditions. It is clear that today modern economic organization plays such a dominant role in social life that political democracy cannot be implemented if it is unable to control economic policy.

A further consequence of freely given consent is the absence of a monopoly of education where education includes all agencies of cultural transmission, especially the press. As important as the majority principle is for a democracy, the expression of consent by the majority is not free if it is deprived of access to sources of information, if it can read only the official interpretation, if it can hear only one voice in classroom, pulpit, and radio, if, in short, all critical opposition is branded as treason to be extirpated by heresy trials, re-education in concentration camps, and execution squads. The individual has no more freedom of action when his mind is deliberately tied by ignorance than when his hands are tied with rope. The very dependence of modern man upon the printed word, greater than ever before in history, makes the public right to critical dissent all the more necessary if common consent is to be free. Not many years ago this would have been a commonplace. Today apologists have so muddied the waters of truth that its reaffirmation must be stressed. Look at the following item from Pravda, a paper used not only for domestic consumption but for export to Western countries to prove that the Soviet Union is "the freest and most democratic country in the world":

Only patriots of our fatherland and people loyal to communism can work on any of our newspapers in any position, from copy-reader to editor. Only party and non-party Bolsheviki are worthy of working in and guiding the press of the freest and most democratic country in the world--the Soviet Union. (Reprinted in The New York Times, July 26, 1937.)

Similar statements can be culled from the press of other totalitarian countries.


So far we have been considering conditions in the absence of which democracy cannot exist. But the effective functioning of a democracy demands the presence of a number of other conditions. Among these, the active participation of the governed in the processes of government is primary. By active participation is meant not the attempt to do the scientific work of officials but free discussion and consultation on public policies, and voluntary co-operation in the execution of mandates reached through the democratic process. Where the governed feel that they have no stake in the government, indifference results. And political indifference may be called the dryrot of democracy. "The food of feeling," as Mill well says, "is action. . . . Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it." The country or community, however, is never a homogeneous whole. There may be common interests, but the conceptions of the common interest are never common. Nor in this world can all interests ever in fact be common. If they were, government would be a mere administrative detail. The variety of interests that is always to be found necessitates that no interest be excluded from voicing its demands, even though these demands may, in the process of democratic deliberation, be compromised or rejected. The only historical alternative to the participation of the masses in the processes of government is the ancient, artful, and uncertain technique of "bread and circuses." That the modern bread is smeared with oleomargarine and the circuses are cinematic makes no essential difference. Such a technique conceals differences and trouble centers, whereas the methods of participation and consultation uncover them, articulate new social needs, and suggest instrumentalities of handling them. The wisest policy cannot succeed in face of popular indifference or hostility. Even those who believe that the professional wise men or experts must govern exclude, at their own peril, those whom they would govern from their counsels.

Another requirement for the effective functioning of democracy is the presence of mechanisms which permit prompt action, through delegated authority, in crucial situations. What constitutes a crucial situation and what specific administrative mechanisms are best adapted to meet it cannot be settled in advance. But it is clear that there is nothing incompatible with democracy in freely delegating specific functions to authority provided that at a certain fixed time an accounting is made to the governed who alone have the prerogative of renewing or abrogating the grant of authority. That such grants of authority may be abused goes without saying. It may even be acknowledged that there is no absolute guarantee against the risks of abuse and usurpation. But unless these risks are sometimes taken, democratic government may be destroyed by evils whose urgency will not wait until the close of prolonged debate. Common sense recognizes this in case of flood and plague. Flood and plague have their social analogues. But whatever the crisis may be, the recognition that it is a crisis must come from the governed or their delegated representatives; grants of power must be renewed democratically; and the governed cannot, without destroying their democracy, proclaim that the crisis is permanent.

The fact that the preservation of democracy sometimes demands the delegation of far-reaching authority and the fact that the possession of such authority may corrupt those who wield it reinforce another positive requirement of democracy. To understand this requirement we must take note of the psychological effects of holding power and the historical evidence which indicates that many democratic organizations, sooner or later, become instruments of a minority group which identifies its interests with the interests of the organization as a whole and which keeps power by fraud, myth, and force. Taken literally, Lord Acton's maxim, "power always corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is an exaggeration. But there is sufficient truth in it to give us pause when we are about to invest individuals or groups with great power, even temporarily. Similarly, Robert Michels' "iron law of oligarchy," according to which democrats may be victorious but democracy never, goes beyond the data he has assembled. But no one can read his powerful case studies and the data presented by other writers like Pareto, Machajaski, and Nomad without realizing how plausible Michels' induction is. And when we add to this the degeneration, under our very eyes, of the Russian Revolution which began avowedly as a workers' democracy, developed into the dictatorship of the Communist party over the proletariat, and finally took form as the bloody rule of a camarilla that has piled up more corpses in a few years than the Roman emperors in as many centuries of Christian persecution, the lesson is driven home with sickening force. This lesson is that a positive requirement of a functioning democracy is an intelligent distrust of its leadership, a skepticism, stubborn but not blind, of all demands for the enlargement of power, and an emphasis upon critical method in every phase of education and social life. This skepticism like other forms of vigilance may often seem irritating to leaders who are convinced of their good intentions. The skepticism, however, is not of their intentions but of the objective consequences of their power. Where skepticism is replaced by uncritical enthusiasm and the many-faceted deifications which our complex society makes possible, a fertile emotional soil for dictatorship has been prepared. The most convincing aspect of Plato's analysis of the cycle of political decay in the eighth book of the Republic is the transition from a hero-worshiping democracy to an absolute tyranny.

Another positive requirement of democracy we have already referred to as economic democracy. By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions. There are two generic criteria to decide such questions. One is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization makes possible an abundance of goods and services for the greatest number, without which formal political democracy is necessarily limited in its functions, if not actually endangered. The other is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization preserves and strengthens the conditions of the democratic process already mentioned.

There are certain kinds of economic planning which are so conceived that they may give security-the security of a jail in which in exchange for freedom the inmates are given food, clothing, and shelter of sorts. Closer examination will show that any type of planned society which does not provide for the freest criticism, for diversity, for creative individuality, for catholicity of taste cannot ever guarantee security. Security in such a society is conditional upon accepting arbitrary bureaucratic decree as the law of life. This is conspicuously true wherever the instruments of production are socialized by a nondemocratic state. When Stalin tells us that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is substantially the dictatorship of the [Communist] Party," he is telling us that the Russian worker can purchase a problematic security only insofar as he accepts this party dictatorship. The upshot, then, of our analysis is that just as political democracy is incomplete without some form of economic democracy, so there can be no genuine economic democracy without political democracy. Some may call this socialism. But it is certainly not the "socialism" of Hitler or Stalin. Nor of Roosevelt.


Our discussion would be incomplete if we did not consider the chief objections which have been urged against democracy by some of the outstanding thinkers of the past and present. Most of these objections are variants of two fundamental arguments--practical and theoretical.

The practical argument, from the time of Plato down, stresses the imperfections in the actual functioning of democracy. It draws up a detailed indictment of the blundering inefficiencies of democracies, the influence of demagogy and prejudice in the formulation of their policy, and the operation of certain political mechanisms which actually place the power of selection of the rulers of the community in the hands of a minority. And from this largely accurate description of the way in which democracies do in fact function, it is concluded that democracy must be scrapped for another alternative. Now the description may be granted, and yet the conclusion not be justified, for unless we know the precise nature of the alternative and how it works out in practice, we may legitimately reply that the cure for the evils of democracy is better democracy. This is not a catch phrase, for by better democracy is meant the realization of the conditions and requirements already outlined or, at the very least, the struggle for them.

And what is the alternative to democracy with all its imperfections? Upon analysis, all alternatives turn out to involve some form of benevolent despotism--whether it be a personal, class, or party despotism. The fatal objection to a benevolent despotism--aside from the fact that people with different interests have different ideas of what constitutes benevolence--is that no one knows how long the despotism will remain benevolent, not even the despot himself. We may appeal from Philip drunk, to Philip sober, but who is to keep Philip sober?

Every benevolent act of a despot recorded in history can be matched with scores of malevolent acts. For every guilty man a dictator spares, there are thousands of innocent men whom he dooms. The ideal benevolent despotism is a figment of the imagination; even as an ideal, it is no more promising than ideal democracy. Moreover, it is logically impermissible to compare the ideal form of benevolent despotism with the actual practice of democracy. If we intelligently compare the practices of both, whether in antiquity or in the modern world, the lovers of democracy need not fear the outcome.

The second type of argument against democracy is theoretical and is really presupposed by the first. It holds that the ltimate end of government is human welfare and that the discovery of the nature of human welfare is a difficult pursuit which the best qualified are those who have the best knowledge and the highest intelligence. Since the problems of government are largely administrative, demanding knowledge and intelligence, and since an effective democracy presupposes the possession of both by the majority of the population, and since even the lover of democracy must admit that this rarely is the case--democracy must be rejected. Plato put the nub of the argument in a metaphor: Who would propose that, setting out on a perilous journey, we should elect the pilot of the ship? And yet the pilot of the ship of state has a task infinitely more difficult, and the course of the vessel is beset by many more perils. What rhyme or reason exists, therefore, for electing him? Or as Santayana, a direct lineal descendant of Plato in political philosophy, puts it: "It is knowledge and knowledge only that may rule by divine right."

Space permits only a brief indication of the Achilles' heel of the argument. There may be experts in knowledge of fact, but there are no experts in wisdom of policy. Ultimate welfare presupposes that there is an ultimate good. But a conclave of philosophers gathered together to determine the nature of the ultimate good would resemble nothing so much as the Tower of Babel. Wisdom of policy depends upon knowledge of one's interests. It is true that some men are not clear as to what their own interests are, but it is arrant presumption for others to pretend to them that they know what their interests really are, or what they should be. A parent dealing with children may sometimes be justified in asserting that he knows better than they what their real interests are; but any ruler who justifies his abrogation of democratic control by proclaiming that he knows what the real interests of the governed are better than they do themselves is therewith telling them that they are no more responsible than children. Besides oppressing them, he is insulting them, for he envisages their childhood as perpetual. It is not accidental that we call dictatorial government paternal. In paternal government, however, there is more evidence of authority than affection. The paternal ruler often mistakes his political children for guinea pigs upon whom he can try peculiar experiments. Their peculiarity lies in this: no matter how the experiments turn out, they are fatal to the generation of guinea pigs which serves as the test.

To be sure, there is no wisdom in electing a pilot or a cobbler. But, in the last analysis, as even Plato was compelled to recognize, it is the user and not the maker who is the best judge of work well done. He who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches. On this homely truth every theoretical attack on democracy founders.


Democracy is more than a pattern of institutional behavior. It is an affirmation of certain attitudes and values which are more important than any particular set of institutions, for they must serve as the sensitive directing controls of institutional change. Every mechanism of democratic government has a critical point at which it may run wild. It may be formally perfect but actually murderous. For example, the principle of majority rule is a necessary condition of a functioning democracy. But so far there is nothing in what has been said which would prevent a majority from oppressing a minority. Numbers, even less than knowledge, give divine right, or immunity from folly. A just government may rest upon the consent of the majority, but it is not therewith good government. The tragic history of the oppression of minorities indicates that. It is a history to whose lessons no one can be indifferent; for every member of the community is part of a minority at some points or on some issue.

It is helpful, but not sufficient, to insist that democratic communities must provide for autonomous self-government by voluntarily organized minorities on all questions which concern the minority rather than the community at large. It is not sufficient because minorities are often in opposition on communal issues and because the very willingness to extend autonomy on other "local" issues is contingent upon acceptance of the values of democracy as a way of life.

There are three related values which are central to democracy as a way of life. The first is found in many variant formulations, but common to them all is the belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity. The social corollary of this recognition is that equal opportunities of development should be provided for the realization of individual talents and capacities. To believe in the equality of opportunities does not mean to believe in the equality of talents. But it does carry with it a recognition that, under conditions of modern technology, marked inequalities in the distribution of wealth or in standards of living are prejudicial to equal opportunities of development. It is absurd to expect that the same technical opportunities of development should be accorded to the artist and the engineer, the machinist and the administrator. It is not absurd to expect that their living conditions be approximately the same. The ideal of equality is not to be mechanically applied, but it must function as a regulative principle of distribution. Otherwise, endemic conflicts, latent in all human associations, take such acute forms that they imperil the very existence of democracy.

The belief in the equal right of all members of the community to develop their personalities must be complemented by a belief in the value of difference, variety, and uniqueness. In a democracy, differences of interest and achievement must not be merely suffered but encouraged. The healthy zest and opposition arising from the conflict and interchange of ideas, tastes, and personality in a free society is a much more fruitful source of new and significant experiences than the peace of dull, dead uniformity. To be sure, there are limits to difference as there are to specialization. However different people are, they live in a common world, they must communicate in a common language, and accept the common constraints which safeguard the species from extinction. In nondemocratic societies the admission that men are always bound in some way by the necessities of living together is a premise for constructing vast techniques of repression to choke off differences in almost every way. In democratic societies, the admission must serve as a condition for enlarging the scope of variation, free play, growth, and experiment.

It is obvious that no matter what the values are to which a democracy is committed, situations will arise in which these values conflict or in which they are challenged by other values. No decision made in one situation necessarily stands for all others. The ultimate commitment of a democracy, then, must be a faith in some method by which these conflicts are resolved. Since the method must be the test of all values, it would not be inaccurate to call it the basic value in the democratic way of life. This method is the method of intelligence, the method of critical scientific inquiry. In a democracy it must be directed to all issues, to all conflicts, if democracy is not to succumb to the dangers which threaten it from within and without. It is not mere chance that the greatest philosopher of experimental empiricism--John Dewey--is also the greatest philosopher of democracy.

To say that the method of intelligence is essential to the democratic process seems like worrying a commonplace. But not when it is realized how revolutionary the impact would be of giving the method of intelligence institutional force in education, law, and politics. Policies would be treated as hypotheses, not as dogmas: customary practices as generalizations, not as God-given truths. A generation trained in schools in which emphasis was placed upon method, method, and still more method, could hardly be swayed by current high-pressured propaganda. The very liberties granted by free institutions in a democracy provide opportunities for special interests to forge powerful instruments to undermine it. There is no protection against this save the critically armed mind. Minorities know that the majority may be tyrannical. The tyranny of the mass flows from its insensitiveness to the consequences of means and methods, not only for the minority but for itself. An insistence upon evidence, relevance, and deliberation is not incompatible with action but only with blind action. The method of intelligence cuts under the fanaticisms which make a fetish of ends, by stressing the conditions and consequences of their use. It both uncovers and enforces responsibilities in social life. It, and it alone, can distinguish between social conflicts which are negotiable and those which are irreconcilable, and the degree of each. Where conflicts are negotiable, it approaches social problems as difficulties to be solved by experiment and analysis, not as battles to be fought out in the heat of blood lust. It is reliable without claiming to be infallible, and its self-critical character permits it to learn from the history of human error.

What other alternative method can be embraced by a society which permits and encourages plural values and plural associations? The more intelligence is liberated in a democratic community, the greater its control of nature and the sources of wealth; the greater its control of nature, the greater the possibility of diversifying interests, values, and associations; the greater diversification, the more necessary the function of intelligence to mediate, integrate, and harmonize.


1. The leader of the American Nazi Bund maintains in a recent letter to The New York Times that many of his members have rallied to the program of his organization because of their loyalty to the democratic institutions of the United States; Stalin's chief American lieutenants have been performing even more humorous contortions in an effort to convince us that their party is the heir to Jeffersonian democracy. Both blithely assume that American citizens either cannot read or have no memories. One need only turn to the literature written in a franker mood, like Hitler's Mein Kampf or William Z. Foster's Towards Soviet America, to refute them.

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