"The report that a dictator had been elected was painful to all honest men." -- Cicero, "Ad Quintum fratrem," III, 8, 4.

FRENCH democracy has two sets of adversaries today: enemies of the Right and enemies of the Left.


Taken by themselves, the enemies of the Right are not very dangerous. They comprise: 1. Members of the old privileged classes who are full of bitterness at a régime that has stripped them of their privileges (the old monarchy itself began the business, but that fact they have forgotten). 2. People of clerical affiliations who cannot forgive democracy for denying to the ecclesiastical authorities any part in the government of the nation (the old monarchy did the very same thing in practice, but never as a matter of principle). 3. The wealthy business class, the upper bourgeoisie, which views the democratic system as a door opened to the proletariat for some day relieving it of its property. 4. Intellectuals and writers in the pay of the wealthy bourgeoisie, who moreover are offended in their aesthetic sensibilities by the spectacle of a society lacking in hierarchical order, without a trace of that subjection of the part to the whole which to an artist is so large a part of the beauty of a Gothic cathedral. 5. Snobs -- people who are naturally full of contempt for an equalitarian system and who imagine that by giving expression to such contempt they somehow or other acquire recognition of their superiority; opposition of this type is characteristic more especially of women.

One individual may of course belong to several of these categories. For example, a nobleman who hates democracy for taking away the privileges that went with his title, may also fear it in his rôle as an uneasy property holder. A business man who hates it as a capitalist may also despise it through snobbery. A writer who is reactionary for reasons of aesthetics may also be reactionary out of snobbery and because he is a capitalist in a small way.

The anti-democratic opposition of the Right is embodied in a doctrine: the doctrine of the Action Française. It consists of four planks. They are: 1. the reëstablishment of absolute monarchy; 2. the reëstablishment of a preponderant Catholicism; 3. the restoration of political inequalities of classes; 4. the restoration of the old heredity laws.

This platform is altogether satisfactory to four of the five groups I have mentioned; it satisfies the old privileged classes, the clericals, the writers, the snobs. But it does not win the adhesion of the other remaining group, the group that politically is the most important. The wealthy bourgeoisie is perfectly willing to slow up the march of democracy, but it wants to do so for its own profit and not for the benefit of the old feudal nobles, as would be the case if it accepted the reëstablishment of political inequalities among classes and the old laws of heredity. We have here a mistrust that is a matter of tradition with our bourgeoisie: one has only to recall its bitter resistance to the revival of primogeniture under the Restoration.

This stubbornness of the bourgeoisie explains a situation which must seem paradoxical to foreigners, namely that while France is apparently so eager for a strong régime, the Royalist Party should have so little chance of success. There is also another reason. The people of France remain almost totally indifferent to the Royalist Party because its platform contains no reference to economic reforms. The French working man has no interest in a party that has nothing to say to him on the social question, except that in the society which it proposes to found there must be some who command and others who obey and that he is forever destined to be barred from the former group. The dogma of a "king who will be the father of all his subjects" and "an impartial arbiter in conflicts between labor and capital" also fails to catch the ear of the shop-worker. The same fate befalls Maurras's slogan [i] that "the soundest guaranties of all the rights of the lowly are inseparably bound up with the advantage and prosperity of the strong."

In a word, the Right opposition can count only on the salons, that is "society," [ii] and on literary circles. By itself it is not dangerous to democracy. It becomes dangerous only through a possible combination with another opposition.


Let us now speak of an enemy that is really dangerous to democracy and that stands not to the Right but -- at least as it claims -- to the Left.

Fascism claims to be of the Left. It challenges democracy, not as the Right does in the name of the past, in the name of tradition, but because, on the contrary, it claims from the standpoint of historical progress to surpass democracy by overstepping it, by making of it an outworn instrument fit only for a place in a museum. It pretends to be replacing democracy much as the railroad replaced the stage-coach, the electric lamp the tallow candle.

Let us note at once that the claim that Fascism is basically a democratic movement is not entirely unfounded. Certain essential gains that democracy has wrested from the monarchical systems of old are not called into question by Fascism -- notably secularism, equality, the suppression of privileges and of primogeniture, opportunity for the humble to reach the highest stations in life. This should enable us, incidentally, to measure the bad faith, or else the stupidity, of royalists (especially in France) in representing Fascism, and Italian Fascism in particular, as a triumph for their doctrines.

Suppose we linger on the point for a moment, if only to introduce into our stern meditations a slight touch of gaiety.


One of the favorite tenets of the Action Française is that the Fascist movement is basically royalist, that royalty made Fascism possible, that it is royalty which sustains Fascism and which, since it will outlast the régime, will provide for the continuance of Fascism. Unless we have misunderstood M. Maurras, Mussolini is the modern Richelieu of a modern Louis XIII. This is a laughable notion.

In the first place, Italian Fascism was founded by republicans -- Mussolini has always been a republican. Before he came to power his platforms and his speeches called bluntly for the overthrow of the monarchy. In the second place, it is inexact to say that, at the critical moment in October 1922, it was the King who called the Duce to power and by that act created Fascism. The truth is that the Duce's bands had marched on Rome and had entered the city before the King made up his mind and called upon him to form a ministry. Some will say that that was a royal gesture, that by making it the King legalized Fascism, gave it a status as it were. Even admitting that this were so, it remains true that the King did no more than any democratic president does when from a sense of duty to his country he names a premier whom he personally dislikes but whom events have thrust upon him -- Poincaré, for example, entrusting the premiership to Clemenceau in 1917. As a matter of fact, the truth was far different. As is well known today, the King of Italy, far from calling on Fascism, had signed the decree that would have established a state of siege and outlawed Fascism; but fearful, undecided, he signed it too late. Not royal will but royal weakness gave Fascism its hold.

So much for the past. For the future, one might imagine that if Mussolini were to die the King might regain his prerogatives. Fascism has provided otherwise. When Mussolini goes, his successor will be appointed not by the King but by the leaders of Fascism sitting in the Grand Council to which the King does not belong and over whose meetings he does not even preside. It is not clear how the King could offer the slightest opposition to the Council's choice. He will merely be called upon once again to accept. Familiar to everyone is the cartoon that depicted the King of Italy fumbling for a pocket-handkerchief that he had lost and murmuring sadly: "Too bad! The only thing I could stick my nose into!" That accurately describes the plight of the King of Italy under a régime which M. Maurras views as the creature of the royal will!

But let us return to serious matters.


I have said that there are features of democracy which Fascism accepts. What, then, are the features against which it makes war? They fall into three classes -- political, intellectual, moral.

Politically, one of the basic traits of democracy is that, in so far as the requirements of public peace allow, it respects the individual's freedom, leaving him a truly vast domain within which the State refrains from any interference: the education of his children, his religious beliefs, indeed his political attitudes so long as these do not disturb the public peace. Democracy even allows a man, once he has attended to his civic duties of paying taxes and performing military service, to disinterest himself from public affairs completely. Democracy admits that there are a-political activities -- art, science, philosophy; it is even inclined to regard them as of a higher order.

Fascism revolts against such a conception. For Fascism, the individual belongs body and soul to the State. The State has the right and the duty to interfere in all his activities, to control all his reactions and behavior, his private as well as his public life. Everything the individual does, moreover, must directly or indirectly be in the service of the State. Society is no longer made for the individual; the individual is made for society. Society is an army in which there is room for just one thing: obedience. The ideal society is the beehive, where the very desire for individual freedom has become extinct.

Another trait of democracy, still within the political sphere, is its insistence that, through representative assemblies and the right of interpellation, each individual shall be assured of at least indirect participation in the direction of the government. Against this system Fascism cries aloud. In Fascist concept, once the Head of the State has been approved by the vote of the people he owes them no further accounting. His constituents are to follow him blindly forever after. The dictatorship which democratic régimes recognize as an exceptional measure for times of war is the rule for Fascism. Fascism stands for a permanent dictatorship.

In the intellectual sphere, there exists an important democratic trait against which Fascism rebels. Democracy tends to seek its inspiration in abstract, eternal, unchanging principles: Truth, Justice, the Rights of Man. That is a Platonic profession of faith. Fascism makes no effort to conceal its contempt for such bourgeois ideology. It recognizes nothing but "experience," "adaptation to circumstances." Circumstances are no longer to find their guide in the ideal; the ideal is to be supplied by circumstances. Fascism will have nothing that is not "moving," "becoming," "dynamic." That, be it said in passing, is a fundamental repudiation of the Greco-Roman ideal, and a complete triumph of Germanic Hegelianism.

In the moral sphere, finally, Fascism makes a violent assault upon one of the essential attributes of democracy: its love of peace. It may as well be admitted that democracy is not heroic. By this I mean that it will fight when it has to -- it has put up a good fight on more than one occasion -- but it does not like fighting. It prefers peace to war. Fascism has only contempt for such prudence. It wants to live "dangerously." In the same spirit it upbraids democracy for its ambition merely to keep what it has instead of aspiring to growth, expansion, conquest. It glibly proclaims, for example, through the histories of which it approves, that nothing happened in France between 1870 and 1914. And actually, in Fascist eyes, more social justice, better agencies of relief, skilful alliances abroad, amount to just nothing. In a general way, Fascism despises democracy for wanting to be "happy." What Fascism wants is to be "great." Its position is accurately defined in a proclamation of Nietzsche in the "Twilight of the Gods:" "Shame on the ignoble happiness that is the dream of grocery clerks, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and all democrats!"

Some readers may be surprised at not finding on this list of Fascist criticisms of democracy mention of any attack along economic lines. This is because, in France at least, the Fascists seem in attacking the democratic régime to be exploiting a general discontent rather than basing themselves on any particular economic doctrine. I will return to this question later on.


What have the attacks on democracy achieved? What tendencies toward insurrection have they aroused in the French masses?

Having in mind the Fascist attack on the unheroic aspects of democracy, we cannot deny that the onslaught has enjoyed a distinct success with the younger generation, as witness the Solidarité Française, Jeunesses Patriotes, Croix de Feu and other young patriotic organizations. The essential prudence of democracy, its lack of reckless daring, the prominence which it accords to maturer minds, to the "graybeards," have never had much appeal to the youthful imagination, and less than ever since the war. The young people of today are far less cultivated than their elders. They admire only action and feel little respect for a settled life of thought. They thus constitute a ready-made audience for Fascist doctrine. It would be sheer folly to ignore that fact.

The attack on what I have styled the Platonic idealism of democracy is also being taken up in France in so-called intellectual circles. That is due in large part to the shocking lowering of the standards of classical studies noticeable in France for the last twenty years. There is a whole section of so-called intellectual France that accepts the position that Barrès took during the Dreyfus affair, when he declared that people who talk of an immutable justice, unvarying truth, are eternal schoolboys, that any "self-respecting man knows that the most one can do is to determine whether such and such a relationship is just at a given moment under specified conditions" -- in other words, that "eternal" moral principles are just playthings for children, that only contingent moralities are possible. Fascism is benefiting by the triumph of the German doctrine of political pragmatism.[iii] There is no doubt that such doctrines have conquered one large group of French intellectuals.

When, finally, I turn to the purely political attitude of Fascism I have to confess that its resolve to suppress individual freedom, to feed the individual body and spirit to a Moloch-State, is also arousing enthusiasm in a whole section of the rising generation, that is to say, among young mystics whose ardor for self-sacrifice is just one form of their contempt for the intellectual life and of their mad craving for action. Yet I hasten to add that, aside from these youthful mystics, the idea of surrendering individual freedom has little attraction for Frenchmen in the mass. They remain incurable individualists.

As for the second article of Fascist political faith, the suppression of the parliamentary system and the establishment of an uncontrolled power, the idea seems to appeal to a far greater number of Frenchmen than one might have supposed. It is as though, the honeymoon of popular government being over, the French had grown indifferent to the possession of sovereignty. Is there not something rather flattering to the people at large in the idea of a Head of the State directly elected by them? I might add that two historians of note, M. Charles Seignobos and M. André Siegfried, have voiced their impression that for some time past the French as a people have been cooling in their ardor for popular sovereignty.

Such is the reception given to Fascism by the French nation as a whole. If we reflect that in addition it is finding support in the Right opposition, which is forgetting its many points of divergence from Fascism (secularism, equality, the principle of the plebiscite) in order to center on the one point of coincidence (hostility to the parliamentary system), we are forced to agree that French democracy is faced with a fairly imposing array of enemies.


Will French democracy survive this crisis as it survived the crisis of the Sixteenth of May, of Boulangism, of the Dreyfus affair? To survive, it will have to make certain reforms. It might as well be said at once that this will not prove easy.

First of all must come a reform of an economic order. It seems evident that a system under which food products that sell for a few cents in the country cost city consumers thirty times as much, merely because an army of middlemen must get their profits, is so exasperating that it must be changed. However, though it exasperates many people it satisfies others, particularly, of course, the army of middlemen themselves, often very powerful persons whose support the public authorities rightly or wrongly believe indispensable. For my part, I must add that though I regard a reform of this system as highly desirable I do not regard it as the most essential of the reforms necessary for the rescue of democracy, since the evil involved is based, as all informed persons are aware, on something quite other than democracy. The French public seems to have grasped the fact that the power that accrues to the middleman, and in general the bad economic system which they, like other peoples, have to put up with, is a result less of democracy than of capitalism as it is at present practised. It is aware that this situation will not be remedied by replacing democracy with Fascism but by effecting a fundamental reorganization of the whole economic system. This is a much more serious matter; and as the French are a conservative nation they are horrified at the risks involved. Nevertheless, some semblance at least of a modification of the existing economic evils seems to be absolutely required if democracy is not to become the target of the people's rage, however innocent it might be in literal fact.

More closely bound up with the preservation of democracy is a reform of the political system, a strengthening of the executive power (as President Doumergue actually proposed), or at least a lessening of the intrusion of the legislative into the realm of the executive, the abolition of meddling by the deputies with the bureaus of public administration. It is clear that in this instance the mechanism of democracy has been seriously distorted. As M. Seignobos has shown in his "History of Contemporary Europe," the founders of the Third Republic deliberately gave the deputies the right to interfere in the administration because they felt that, even in a republic, governmental ministries must as a matter of principle be organized hierarchically and soon become as independent of public opinion as ever they were under the old monarchies. Their idea, therefore, was to bring the government bureaus under the surveillance of Parliament, thus protecting the people through its chosen representatives from those abuses of power which are always so tempting to bureaucracies. From that standpoint, the power given to the deputies was conceived of as a defense of the governed against their governors. But the way things have worked out, the prerogatives of the deputies have become mere tools of attack. The deputies do not defend their constituents from arbitrary acts by the ministries. They organize them for raids upon the ministries in the quest for jobs and favors. There must be a change in this system, for under it no semblance of efficient government can be maintained.

Here again reform will not be an easy matter. Those who are benefiting by the evil will fight to preserve it. The situation tempts one to think back to 1787 when the nobility of the ancien régime who were profiting by the evils of the system then prevailing rose in all their might against the reforms which the King was himself quite ready to make, and so placed the monarchy in a position where it simply could not govern (for that reason it is the fashion now in France to say that the Revolution began not in 1789, but in 1787). Also serious is the fact that the beneficiaries of the present system are not just the deputies, but the voters who elect them and who have learned to depend on them for influence with the administrative departments of the government. Reform here is not going to be easy.

I believe, finally, that our democracy must formulate, and in unmistakable terms, certain qualifications of its liberalism. It must tell the schoolteacher that he is not "free," outside the classroom, to work against the nation. It must tell employees of the government that they are not "free" to go on strike whenever they please and thus to halt all the activities of the State. It must tell the press that it is not "free" to publish slanders against public officials and to incite its readers to assassinate them -- as certain papers of the Right have been known to do. Any such reform will encounter stiff resistance. From its very inception, democracy, unlike other forms of government, has made the mistake of posing as a sort of heavenly entity that can afford to give full liberty of action to its enemies, with the result that whenever democracy makes the slightest gesture of self-defense, all those working for its downfall raise a hue and cry -- with many democrats joining in! Clearly, democracy at present believes in proceeding with extreme caution in curtailing the liberties of its employees, even when these liberties appear quite incompatible with the maintenance of a strong and efficient State. It is just as clear that this tolerance must cease if democracy is not to be disavowed by those who think that it should be a system of government and not just a philosophical attitude.


Democracy, to my mind, will be in a serious situation if it fails to make these reforms, and others of a more technical character.

Yet it is only fair to say that there are no reforms conceivable which would win over its enemies in France. There is one thing that people abroad, and especially in England and the United States, have always found hard to grasp: the fact that in France the democratic system, however wisely, however fruitfully it might be administered, would never be accepted by the French nation as a whole the way it was accepted in Switzerland, Great Britain or the United States. A taint of Cæsarism affects one whole section of the French people -- a certain organic hostility to democracy which will yield to no proofs however convincing. Spinoza says somewhere that we do not hate a thing because we deem it evil, but that we deem it evil because we hate it. That is the position of many Frenchmen toward democracy. In view of the existence of such Frenchmen, France may be said to live in a state of perpetual civil war. This is for many foreigners one of the charms of French life. But it is the sort of charm which one prefers to enjoy in someone else's country.


Now I am going to surprise, perhaps scandalize, my readers. A really disinterested observer viewing the French situation seems to me entitled to ask whether, if our democracy fails to carry out these reforms, or perhaps only plays at doing so, it is inevitable that democracy should disappear from the scene. Even hating and despising it, would not the French continue to cling to it? I do not discount that possibility, unæsthetic as it may seem to be, for the following reasons:

1. The opposition parties lack real determination and decision. It is no longer a secret that on the morning of February 7 the French Government was completely disorganized, and that the rioters of the previous day could have seized power had they chosen to do so. They did not even make the attempt. Very apt in this instance is the quotation: "You are clever enough to win, O Hannibal, but not clever enough to use your victories." I have been struck since that time by the number of uprisings noisily advertised and (those of July 8 and October 12, for instance) then postponed "in order to live up to the party truce." I see everywhere bill-boards and lamp-posts covered with posters full of bloodcurdling threats; but I cannot feel that posters will overthrow a government. Somehow I have the impression that the opposition parties are afraid of a victory.

2. The opposition have no men. When Mussolini and Hitler came to power they had been recognized as potential dictators by huge numbers of citizens for months and years. Dictators cannot be produced to order in a few weeks' time.

3. The French are not anxious just now to embark on a great adventure. They, who have taught other peoples to make revolutions, have grown chary of such diversions themselves. Nor are the Fascist examples very encouraging. If the dictatorships across the Rhine and across the Alps had solved the unemployment question, restored international trade, abolished poverty, relieved the plain man's worry as to where his next meal is coming from, the plight of French democracy might be desperate indeed. But nothing of the sort has happened. When one suggests Fascism to the French, many of them think: "Suppose we were to swap a one-eyed horse for a blind one?" There are many homes in which a man sticks to a wife he does not greatly love because he wonders whether he would not be worse off without her; and so they live on to the end of their days, grumbling and quarreling, but still together. So, perhaps, France and democracy.

[i] "Dilemme de Marc Sangnier," p. xiv.

[ii] Some may say that "society" means the bourgeoisie. This is true to the extent that the Right opposition can count on the bourgeoisie as a matter of snobbery, but it is not true as a matter of politics. Society, in other words, has the women of the bourgeoisie, not their husbands. It is within that class that "votes for women" might spell a danger to democracy.

[iii] Commonly and very crudely confused with the philosophical pragmatism of William James.

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  • JULIEN BENDA, French writer on philosophical subjects; author of "Discours à la Nation Européene," "La Trahison des Clercs," and other works
  • More By Julien Benda