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  • Uncertainties of a Democratic Age
  • Leszek Kolakowski (bio)

Leaving aside the historical vicissitudes of the word democracy and all kinds of spurious and fraudulent usages of it ("socialist democracy," "people's democracy," "Islamic democracy"), we may say that this concept, as usually understood, includes three components.

First, we think of a set of institutions aimed at assuring that the power and influence of political elites correspond to the amount of popular support they enjoy.

Second, we have in mind the independence of the legal system from the executive power; the law acts as an autonomous mediating device between individual or corporate interests and the state, and is not an instrument of ruling elites.

Third, we think of enforceable barriers built into the legal system that guarantee both the equality of all citizens before the law and basic personal rights, which (though the list is notoriously contestable) include freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of association, religious freedom, and freedom to acquire property. [End Page 47]

These three components are not necessarily linked; they may exist separately-both conceptually and as a matter of historical experience. The principle of majority rule is insufficient if we are to make a distinction between democracy and ochlocracy, the rule of the mob. The principle of majority rule does not by itself constitute democracy; we know of tyrannical regimes that enjoyed the support of a majority, including Nazi Germany and Iranian theocracy. We do not call democratic a regime in which 51 percent of the population may slaughter the remaining 49 percent with impunity. Neither are the first and second components sufficient without the third, as we can easily imagine a regime in which enforceable and predictable legal rules operate without assuring either equality or personal rights.

Continuing Threats to Democracy

As much as all of us who are committed to liberty welcome the worldwide movement that aims at the establishment or restoration of democratic institutions in communist countries, in military dictatorships, and in other forms of tyranny, we had better not imagine that the cause of freedom is now safe and its victory imminent. For there are a number of factors that now and in the foreseeable future will continue to threaten democratic institutions.

First among them is the enfeebled, but still living, force of Sovietism. We notice, of course, the deep crisis of totalitarian institutions: the increasing reassertion of civil society in communist countries; the economic, social, and cultural bankruptcy of "real socialism"; and the collapse of the ideological legitimacy of Soviet-type systems. But the time is not yet ripe for the last rites. The accelerated changes, indicating that the rulers themselves have lost confidence in the vitality of their regimes (the clearest symptom of decay), have lasted only for a short time, and their outcome is by no means certain. There are rational grounds to expect that perestroika in the Soviet Union will fizzle out, and this might result in a political regression whose character and scope it would be vain to speculate upon. Imperialist expansion has been built into the very ideological foundations of the Soviet regime, and the unambiguous renunciation of this expansion would require an ideological transformation that is difficult to imagine. The only potential rival of Marxism-Leninism-Great Russian chauvinism-would bring a mortal danger to the empire if it were established as the official doctrine, as it would inevitably inflame even more all the nationalisms of the non-Russian population. And we do not know what might happen if the ruling party faced a real threat of being removed from power. It is much too early to write the obituary of communism.

A second source of antidemocratic energy is the growth of malignant nationalism all over the world. Patriotic feelings are not in themselves [End Page 48] incompatible with a democratic outlook, insofar as they mean a preferential solidarity with one's own nation, the attachment to national cultural heritage and language, and the desire to make one's nation better off and more civilized. (Patriotism wants to make the nation clean; nationalism, to whitewash it, as Chesterton says.) Nationalism is malignant and hostile to civilization when it asserts itself through belief in the...


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