Ivan Ilyin: On Democracy

There are two different understandings of the state and politics: the mechanistic and the organic. The mechanistic asserts instinctive man and his private interests; it measures life quantitatively and formalistically. The organic derives from the human spirit and ascends to national unity and its common interests; it is qualitative, searching out spiritual roots and solutions.

We shall first examine the mechanistic view.

It sees in man first and foremost the instinctive individual with its “desires” and “needs”: every person wishes to work less, enjoy himself more and relax; procreate and accumulate; maintain his irresponsible opinions and express them without hindrance; to find the like-minded and associate with them wherever they may be; to depend upon no-one and wield as much power and influence as possible. After all, men are born “equal”, and hence each of them must be provided equal rights for the assertion of their desires and needs: these are the inalienable rights of liberty which cannot abide restriction. Therefore every person should have an equal voice in affairs of state. For so many people there will be so many equal voices. Whatever a man may fancy is to be affirmed, and let there be no interference in this. Allow like-minded men of all nations to unite freely; let the votes be counted; the majority will decide…

As to the quality of the desires, plans and undertakings of all these men of one mind, and especially the motives and intentions of voters, no-one may concern himself. All of this is protected by inviolable “freedom”, equality and the secret vote. Every citizen as such is considered already reasonable, enlightened, well-intentioned and loyal, incorruptible and honorable; each man is given the opportunity to discover his “valor” and veil all his designs and schemes with words about “the common good”.

Until he is caught, this man is not a thief; until taken red-handed, he demands complete respect. He who has not been implicated at the scene of a crime (for example, treason, foreign espionage, conspiracy, bribes, waste, fraud, call-girl rings, counterfeiting) – is considered a political “gentleman” independent of his profession and a full citizen. Most important are liberty, equality and vote-counting. The state is a mechanical equilibrium of private (personal and group) agendas; the state is built as a compromise of centrifugal forces, played out in the performances of political actors. And politics should move according to the results of mutual distrust and competing intrigues.

Unfortunately this view (as much as I know) is nowhere expressed in such a frank and precise form. It is not a doctrine; it is simply an unspoken political dogma, rooted in the world and taken as the self-evident essence of democracy. All men are formally free; all men are formally equal and contend with each other for power, for the sake of their own interests, yet under the pretense of a common benefit.

Such a formal and quantitative conception of the state renders its fate dependent on whom, how and what shall fill a vacuum of content, as well as that indifferent-drifting quality people afford themselves through formal “liberty”. State and government are but a mirror or arithmetic sum of what is made in the soul of the human mass and its sense of justice. Something stews within this at once opaque and unassailable cauldron: any interference is forbidden as “pressure”, and any constraint or action is denounced as “an infringement upon freedom”. Every citizen is secured the right to crooked and deceptive political paths, to disloyal and treasonous designs, to the sale of his vote, to base motives for voting, to underground plots, unseen treachery and secret dual citizenship- to all those crudities which are so profitable to men and so often tempt them.

The citizen is given the unlimited right to temptation and the corruption of others, as well as the subtle transactions of self-prostitution. He is guaranteed the freedom of disingenuous, lying, and underhanded speech, and the ambiguous, calculated omission of truth; he is granted the liberty to believe liars and scoundrels or at least pretend to believe them (in self-interest simulating one political mood or its complete opposite). And for the free expression of all these spiritual seductions he is handed the ballot. Motivations for voting must be free; the formation of parties tolerates no constraint; to limit political propaganda is to exercise coercion.

To judge and condemn for “political views” is not permitted: this would signify an assault upon another’s “conscience” and persecution of his beliefs (in German, Gessinungsjustiz). Freedom of opinions should be total; government officials will not dare infringe upon this or attempt its curtailment. And the most stupid, most harmful, ruinous and foul “opinion” is sacrosanct, already by virtue of the fact that there is a destructive fool or traitor who has proclaimed it, all the while hiding behind its inviolability. Is it possible to make him only passively hold his beliefs? How are we to keep him from putting these thoughts into action, through whispers, conspiracy, secret organizations, and the covert accumulation of arms?

It is understood that all of this immediately disarms the state before enemies and subversives; at the same time it guarantees these enemies and subversives total liberty and impunity. The government is obliged to secure the people the freedom to be seduced, while revolutionaries and traitors are assured the freedom to seduce. It is natural that another election’s results will show the success of this guaranteed seduction. And so the regime will continue until the seduction undermines the very idea of voting and readiness to submit to the majority (for according to the recently stated revolutionary formula of the Belgian Spaak: “The minority is not required to submit to the majority”). Then voting is replaced by rebellion, and the organized totalitarian minority seizes power.

This means that the formalistic-quantitative concept of the state opens the doors wide open to every political adventure, coup and revolution, as we observe from year to year in South America, for example. And in truth, the scoundrels of the world would have to be complete fools if they did not notice and exploit this excellent opportunity for the seizure of power. Admittedly, American gangsters did not reach this point and kept their atrocities out of politics, and the Sicilian Mafiosi have also been satisfied with private income. But to arrive at such a conclusion is not at all difficult. Nature abhors a vacuum; as noble motives (religious, moral, patriotic, and spiritual) weakened and withered in human souls, into the empty space of formal liberty would inevitably surge ridiculous, evil, perverse and avaricious plans advanced by totalitarian demagogues of the Left and Right.

Formal liberty includes the freedom of secret treason and overt destruction. From the very beginning the mechanistic and arithmetical competition of private desires prepared within people’s hearts the possibility of blind escalation and civil war. As long as centrifugal forces agreed to moderate their demands and find a compromise, the state could maintain balance over the chasm; but the prophets of class struggle rebelled and brought upon us the moment of civil war. How can the formal-mechanistic conception of the state oppose them? By the urging of great persuaders? Cries over our perishing freedom? Or ideas of sentimental humanitarianism, forgotten conscience and trampled honor? But this would mean “interference”, thereby denouncing formal liberty and the mechanistic conception of politics! This would entail a loss of faith in political arithmetic and a fall into pure democratic heresy!

For formal democracy does not allow any doubt as to the good intentions of the free citizen. Jean-Jacques Rousseau once taught that man by his nature is rational and good, and the one thing he lacks is freedom. We need only to not hinder him in drawing from his good-natured heart the guiding “general will”, wise, unerring and salvific…Just don’t bother him, and he shall draw it forth!

People came to believe in this two centuries ago. The French Encyclopedists and revolutionaries believed, and after them anarchists, liberals and proponents of formal democracy around the world. They believed to such a degree that they even forgot about their faith and its dangers: it was decided that this system is the truth most undoubted, and that in politics it demands veneration before liberty, a respectful formalism and an honest count of the votes. And now two centuries of this practice have set contemporary politicians before the greatest political earthquake in world history…

What can they do? Curtail formal liberty? Reject the mechanism of private desire? Abolish the arithmetic of voting? But this would mean to doubt the sacred dogmata of modern democracy! Who shall risk such a feat? Who will disavow himself? And how will he oppose totalitarians from both the Left and the Right?

If this is a dead end, then what next? Assent to the deformations and atrocities of a totalitarian regime?! Impossible!

Text translated by Mark Hackard.