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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Churchill on Freedom and Tyranny.

It can all disappear very quickly indeed.

by Prof. J.D. Lyons

 [Carried on from another article]

Churchill's 1937 essay "This Age of Government by Great Dictators" is a meditation on political change. It is an essay of sweeping historical breadth, telling a tale that begins with early European history, where kings were granted a power sufficient to remedy the defects of an earlier, chaotic age and were elevated to an almost godlike status. While this was an improvement on anarchy, the accidents of individual birth and character were unstable foundations on which to risk the fortunes of nations: "At one period Pericles or Augustus, at another Draco or Caligula!"

Once society was set on a firm footing, various kinds of constitutions were invented to restrain the excesses of kings. This idea took special hold in Britain:

[T]his doctrine of averaging risks by means of constitutions, and of keeping kings without returning to anarchy, became deeply ingrained in the people of a small island amid the northern mists who seemed to have a genius for common sense. Out of it arose by many painful processes the famous English Parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy.

Pomp and power were separated, and power underwent division and subdivision, ensuring the rule of law rather than whim. These ideas spread across the globe to the great benefit of mankind; the political forms and institutions to which they gave rise varied, but the fundamental conceptions remained the root from which civilization flourished and spread:

The English conception, wrought by the island nobility from the Magna Charta to the age of Anne, spread over wide portions of the globe. The forms were often varied, but the idea was the same. Sometimes, as in the United States, through historical incidents, an elected functionary replaced the hereditary king, but the idea of the separation of powers between the executive, the assemblies and the courts of law widely spread throughout the world in what we must regard as the great days of the nineteenth century.19

The point of "This Age of Government by Great Dictators" is to convey a warning. The story Churchill tells does not end with the "great days of the nineteenth century" in which the continued progress of the world seemed assured. It was just when the progressive faith was at its greatest, when the illusion of mastery over the fortunes of man had taken on its most vibrant hues, that hopes failed:

"Then came terrible wars shattering great empires, laying nations low, sweeping away old institutions and ideas with a scourge of molten steel."

The 20th century did not live up to the promise of progress. The world now learned (or re-learned what had been forgotten) that political change does not necessarily follow any consistent direction. The 19th century thinkers had pinned their hopes on the spread of democratic institutions and principles, believing that, once built, their temples would stand forever; but their mistake was soon to be revealed. Churchill points out that democratic regimes are as subject to degradation as any other because they, like other political forms, carry their own dangers with them:

Democracy has been defined as "the association of us all in the leadership of the best." In practice it does not always work this way. Vast masses of people were invested with the decisive right to vote, while at the same time they had very little leisure to study the questions upon which they must pronounce; and an enormous apparatus for feeding them with propaganda, catchwords and slogans came simultaneously into existence.

Democratic regimes, because they demand the participation of their citizens, demand responsibility from their citizens. When responsibilities are shirked, either because conditions are not favorable to duty or through laziness, the control of the people will become an illusion and, eventually, not even the illusion will remain. Flatterers will sway the people. Demagogues will convince them to surrender their power for safety or comfort. Propagandists will play on their fears. Tyrants will be born:

Alike in fear of anarchy and in vague hopes of future comforts a very large proportion of Europe have yielded themselves to dictatorship. Nations which had either driven out or confined within constitutional limits the old careful kingships of the past, made haste to rally in the parades and processions of a set of violent, wrathful, resourceful, domineering figures cast up by the bloody surge of war and its cruel lacerating recoil. We have entered the age of the dictators.

Thus, the 20th century witnessed a regression in political terms. Nations were again subject to lords, but their new masters wielded power many times greater than the ancient kings. The reader recognizes the spirit of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, but Churchill's warning is for those who have not yet fallen under the yoke of such men, for those countries which imagine themselves immune from such a transformation, including Britain. He warns that whatever political victories may have been won, the danger of tyranny is never finally removed.